Thursday, February 4, 2010

Interrupted by Snow

Snow fell again in Maryland and the sky looks laden with more. I love the snow though I understand what an interruption it creates for many people. Typically, interruptions irritate me to the point of frenzy, but the interruption of snow is one I welcome.

Snow is rare here. Some winters might give an inch of snow. These barren seasons repeat like a dull drum beat for five to ten years in a row. We get used to leaving our jackets open and going without socks. And then- welcome and anticipated surprise! the storehouses of heaven open and we have a winter with blizzards, surprise snow storms, little snowfalls with big, lacy flakes, dustings and squalls on until Spring.

This pattern is the intriguing thing about snow in Maryland. Because it happens often enough to be within living memory, it is always a possibility—just as winning the lottery is a possibility if one is given a ticket in your Christmas stocking. When snow happens here, it’s not an every day thing falling without notice and plowed up before morning. It is as dramatic as fireworks, newsworthy and astounding. It is the possibility of this grand gesture of nature that keeps Marylanders’ attention.

If you live anywhere else you will be puzzled by Maryland’s snow culture which is a complicated and secretly treasured way of being. Here’s why: when it snows in Maryland, people go crazy. This is funny and quirky and makes no sense. It’s entertaining. Also, the schools are closed. This inconveniences parents and I’m truly sorry about this, but it makes teachers and students more happy than can adequately be described by a human voice. But because everyone has been a student they remember.
Snow is pretty. Normally this part of the neighborhood looks like nothing at all.

Our response to snow makes Maryland the drama queen of the winter. After one winter’s blizzard, school was cancelled every day for two entire weeks (I'm surprised parents didn't walk to the neighborhood schools and dig out the parking lots with their own shovels). Exams were cancelled, term papers postponed, closets cleaned, progress made on novels and quilts. Students sledded and skated and built snow forts while teachers felt unemployed. Even snow-haters have to admit that this overblown response to a lovely and natural thing like snowfall is so extreme as to be hilarious and therefore, in my mind, delightful.

Snow also brings relief.  Winter here is normally bleak. In James Webb’s novel A Sense of Honor, his description of winter is something like this (I'm paraphrasing) "Winter squatted on Annapolis like a cold, gray, slush breathing monster." This is a true and brilliant description of our drear experience with wet days reaching only 33 degrees while a somber sky sheds tears of gray, dismal not-quite-snow. Anyone must admit that snow is better than that.

I like the way the snow hides the dead stalks.
Many times in Maryland, cold falls on us in a puff of dry, frigid air and stays for a week. Everyone knows this kind of bone-chilling cold and expects nothing more than shivers. But then something changes. There is a scent in the air—slightly metallic, wet like a sidewalk just sprayed with a hose, and the sky is a heavy gray. There’s a feeling of expectation and then we know: it will snow.

We know that a snowfall will be a memorable event, an interruption inexorable and requiring no less than the aligning of certain volatile weather patterns. It will snow near the Chesapeake Bay only if the storm rolls up the coast from the South and hits a cold air mass hovering here. It’s tricky and all conditions have to be just right. It’s like a ballet, a soufflĂ©, a fast break. One friend can smell the snow “three states away” and she’s always right (she’s also been teaching for more than twenty years).

Another quirk about Maryland snow is that people don’t know how to drive in the snow. They go way too fast, tailgate as close as sled dogs and make reckless turns right into your lane as if your tires were wholly incapable of skidding. During a snowstorm is NOT the time to make that risky turn. Wait. You can drive like a maniac in a few days when the snow melts. No one will notice then.
Here, no one seems to know how to pump the brakes, how to start slowly, or how to take a curve. Last weekend, when we were driving home from Baltimore during a snowstorm we saw 15 cars spun off the highway. This is because people were whizzing by us as if it were July 4 and their trunk was full of lit whistling bottle rockets. It’s not a good idea to drive 50 mph during a snowstorm when your state officials missed the scent of snow in the air and instead listened to the weather report thereby neglecting to treat the roads. If a plow has not gone over the road and the visibility is about thirty yards, think twice before you zip across four lanes to get to Dunkin’ Donuts.

But because no one in Maryland can drive in the snow, when it snows, everything stops. By everything, I mean school. Students are capable of getting to the mall. Or the movie theatre, or each other’s houses. It’s weird but true and therefore funny.

We have had school cancelled before a flake fell, just waiting for the storm to start. I remember one teacher, who grew up in Buffalo, NY, driving to school one morning during chilly 35 degree rain only to find the parking lot empty. School had been called off! He never thought to check the TV and thought a more probable cause of the empty parking lot was the end of the world, but no… the snow was to start in a few minutes and rather than bus the kids home early in an inch or two of snow, school was cancelled in a brilliant and pre-emptive strike. Only trouble was, the snow never fell. So school was cancel for a light, cold rain. This is funny, you must admit.

But the logic behind the decision makes sense in Maryland, because if it does start to snow during the school day, parents panic (no offense meant to you if this is you—I love and respect you for it). Snow fell one year during midterm exams. One father, who was worried about his daughter (a new driver) driving all the way over the Bay Bridge in the storm, called to ask she be let out immediately. Parents arrived to retrieve their children before the roads got bad (which means ½ inch of snow) and general panic ensued. So much for the exam—it was snowing! On the way home, It was an irresistible temptation to let the white exam papers flutter out my window one by one and get lost in the snow. Call it The Maryland Snow Grading Method.

But seriously, every teacher knows that students can’t learn when snow is falling. Well, nearly every teacher. One young teacher I know had an important lesson planned for her elementary students when to her dismay, snow began to pour from the gray sky in irresistible swirling torrents. And her classroom’s outer wall was made entirely of windows! Her first impulse was to shut the blinds, but then, the snow inspired her. Instead, she told her students to turn their desks toward the windows. She used the snow as a backdrop, putting her graphics up on the windows, not only teaching her lesson, but delighting her students souls and imaginations. .

When the sky grows heavy with snow, when cold air falls and swirls in gusts around our bare ankles, Marylanders rush to the grocery store. Oh, the crowds and lines of cheerful shoppers complaining about the coming snow with that twinkle of expectation in eyes that gaze over the top of carts piled with enough milk, bread, chocolate and toilet paper to last until the next snow season—which will probably be a few years—at least.

We have interruptions of the other kind every single day. An angry or tearful phone call, an illness, a flat tire, a neighbor’s party escalating past midnight, lost keys, the ancient sump pump catching fire when you’re on the way out the door to the airport, or worse, much worse. But an interruption like snow—where the flakes fall in those delicate, magical swirls, where the light changes to a mysterious and quiet blue and children press their noses to the cold glass to watch the endlessly fascinating fall of star-like flakes of infinite design—this kind of interruption can refresh the soul.

The brown, broken winter landscape is covered with a forgiving and perfect glaze. It looks clean and fresh. Every twig is visible reflecting the light doubled now by the surrounding white and everyone is home together for a few hours to murmur at the beauty, to build a snow cave, to taste the icicles, to lie down in the soft snow and let the flakes touch your eyelashes. So different, such a lark! And then there’s time to bundle under quilts and tackle that difficult reading, that pending assignment, that project that lies unfinished and begging for attention.
Because it interrupts us and brings us a different sort of light, snow gives us the rare and precious opportunity to look at things in a new way, to regroup, to evaluate, to appreciate, to do something we hadn’t planned to do. Maybe every sort of interruption is this same sort of opportunity, but snow makes things bright enough for us to see that possibility.


  1. Oh this is Truth you should here my friends in Mass laugh and rave at the ridiculousness of our state. One Local friend was complaining that he was all set to go out and opened his door to find it snowing and so was stuck at home. To which one Massachusetts native asked how much we had. You should have heard him when he learned we were "snowed in" by two inches.

  2. Your description of snow in Maryland was a wonderful, welcome interruption to my day.

  3. what wonderful observations of our local cultures relationship with snow. I thought four winters in Michigan had cured my mid-atlantic fascination with the stuff, but when I returned to Maryland and it snowed, I felt the magic all over again. I hope you all have a safe and cheerful interruption this weekend.

  4. This was truly captured the essence of snow in MD. And I love it!! Love the hype, the craziness and the beauty.

  5. :) Happy snow day, Mom. Wish I were with you.