This morning my wife, Stephanie, woke me at an unfamiliar hour. It was 6:30 a.m., and it had snowed. "It's our turn to shovel," she said, as I tried to bury my face in the pillow. We alternate shoveling duties with our downstairs neighbors, and up until today we had managed to be out of town during snowstorms. Oh well, we had rationalized, they have teenagers who need to earn their allowance. This morning, however, there was no escape. Stephanie left for work, and I stumbled to the dresser to find my long johns.
Once outside, the frigid air took the warmth right out of my undershirts. Because there are nothing but open fields to the northwest, the arctic winds travel an easy channel to our front door. The drifts on the sidewalk and stairs this morning were more than three feet deep, despite just a couple of inches of actual snowfall.
Yet it was a friendly snow, light and fluffy. I paused to admire the way the early dawn's lavender lingered on its surface, softening its contours, making it appear more natural and familiar to me than the solid slope of earth it covered. It was a new world, born fresh this morning. I was reluctant to disturb it.
The silence was interrupted by my next-door neighbor, Dave, who was zipped into his yellow snowsuit and dragging his snowblower out of his garage. He and his wife, Jane, have been especially friendly to us since we moved to Belle Plaine, Iowa, two years ago, inviting us to join them for car rides in the country, and even dropping by with a gift on our second wedding anniversary. Even so, we rarely see them.
"Hey," Dave called, "don't worry, I'll get that front sidewalk for you after I'm done with this place." Dave, like his father and grandfather before him, runs the business across the street. He was born in this small town, and was raised above the family business. Although he and his family have since moved across the street, Dave seems most himself while setting up Christmas angels or trimming the yew hedges in front of that large and bright building. Steph and I envy his deep sense of belonging.
"Thanks," I replied, "but it looks like you have enough work already." The drifts in their driveway did indeed look twice as high as those that rolled out before me, and, because they now caught the full gold of the rising sun, twice as beautiful.
Two years ago, Steph and I decided to move to Belle Plaine because it was halfway between our two teaching posts. We are part of a larger migration to rural areas by people seeking employment, fed up with urban life, or chasing some fantasy about a white picket fence in the country. As most find out, it is not easy.
Like other commuters I know who are living in rural towns, we have been slow to enter the rhythms of community life. Although local citizens have been welcoming, we haven't quite figured out who we are or who we should be in this community. Our distant jobs leave us little time in town, and, despite our love for this area, it is likely that during the next year our jobs will force us to move once again.
Our current transience often encourages us to view Belle Plaine as a reflective pause rather than a real home. We seek out scenery, not social commitment, and we sleep in on Sundays instead of going to church. We are, as E. Annie Proulx once wrote about urban immigrants to the country, "in the community but not of it."
Our harried schedules normally drown out our feelings of isolation and allow Steph and me to move unconsciously through our daily life in this landscape. But this morning, while Dave dragged his blower toward his familial home, and other neighbors - whose names I don't know - emerged into the morning sun to shovel and chat with one another, I felt lonely.
I stepped my way around the house to the back shed where I keep the shovel. Our shovel is cheap and flimsy, with a blade so bent it looks like aluminum foil. I wondered if it would make it through another work-out. But when I plunged it into the first drift and tossed the light, crystalline flakes into the air, there was no question. I finished the back driveway, the front stairs, and the sidewalk in less than an hour.
I was feeling so good, I shoveled Dave's sidewalk as well. When I finished, I crossed the street to see if Dave wanted to join me for breakfast at the Lincoln Cafe. He was nowhere to be found. Finally, I walked to the back of the business, and saw him nearly two blocks away, pushing his snowblower along the sidewalk, sending the snow into the street in a giant, arcing fountain. An elderly woman watched him from her front porch.
With Dave busy, it looked as though I'd be having breakfast alone, so I started walking the four blocks to the cafe. Along the way I stopped to listen to a man complain about sloppy snow-plow drivers, chased our landlord's playful border collie through the park, and helped a high-schooler push his car out of a slick spot.
Once inside, I slumped into the nearest booth and, while conversations went on around me, I opened the paper to the sports page.
"Decaf, hon?" the waitress asked as she stood over me with the coffee pot.
"Sure, thanks," I replied, surprised that she remembered I drank decaffeinated coffee. Had I eaten there that many times? For her small recognition, I left a big tip.
Later in the evening, just after our supper of boxed macaroni-and-cheese, Dave dropped by with a plate of warm prune kolaches. His Bohemian neighbor, Irene, makes them on snowy days to thank him for clearing her sidewalk, just as she had done for his father. Now, to thank me for clearing his walk, Dave was passing a dozen or so on to Steph and me.
His unexpected gesture startled us, and Steph, wanting to give something in return, shot to the kitchen to get a jar of tomatoes from our summer garden.
"No, no," he said as he was leaving, "just enjoy and I'll see you tomorrow morning. It's supposed to snow again tonight."
We followed him down the stairs to our porch and, waving and babbling thanks, watched him walk home in the dark. For that inexplicable moment we seemed to touch a larger chain of tradition connecting Dave to Irene to his father, and, finally, to the landscape that connects past to present in this place.
Then suddenly, Steph and I were once again alone, and it was silent. We stood outside for awhile, gazing at the window lights scattered along our street. It was snowing, and the falling crystals made the lights flicker like isolated campfires in a prehistoric landscape. Those lights joined with the lights of the next block and the next to create a ragged path of light that led away to the west; the line then elevated and vanished over the crest of the distant and invisible Bohemian Hills.
As we turned to go inside, I longed for tomorrow's dawn when we would all be shoveling, united, once again, by the generosity of the sky.