Memory is tricky, prone to error and
exaggeration with the relentless passage of time. I’ve not seen this much snow
since 1967. That winter in Montreal, with
cousins visiting from England,
we climbed out my brother’s bedroom window onto the roof of the back porch and
then jumped or dove into the snowdrifts covering the backyard lawn. The close
of 2013 in Edmonton
finds me a bit older than seven, a little taller than four-foot something and a
little heavier than 80 pounds. Time is relative, scale too.
This winter the snow banks in the
neighbourhood are big enough to be hazards – drivers can’t see over them nor
around them. I’m too old to plan, excavate and construct a snow fort but every
property on the street has enough white stuff for at least a decent pillbox. War!
I keep shovelling but am rapidly running out of places to heave the snow with
any ease. The toil’s been on repeat.
My neighbour Forrest is outside with his
trident cane. His hired snow removal crew are Seventh Day Adventist siblings
and they don’t work Saturdays so I’ve done Forrest’s sidewalk, a path to his
door and his front steps. I worry about him getting out and about.
When I first met him 25 years ago he drove
a gleaming maroon Jag, spotless. He said he helped people when they had evolved
enough in their thinking to need it; that’s what he did. He was writing a book
then and may still be scribbling away on it today. He is Buddhist but lapsed,
he says now. Each rock in his Japanese garden has been placed just so, he often
speaks of continuity and flow. I sense the absent presence of a woman, mistakes
maybe and a broken heart. He’s still got Bob Dylan hair and John Lennon glasses
and I like his look.
The morning is still. There’s no
overarching weekday ambient thrum of the distant freeway carried on the cold.
The snow is falling, drifting down, white against the grey sky. Forrest is
angry and upset: The NHL Oilers, despite their young skill up front, have no
depth and desperately need some 20-goal grit on their third and fourth lines.
Why haven’t they made a trade? I venture that the second coming of Bobby Orr
couldn’t hurt either. It takes a moment but he laughs. The club has been
surprisingly dreadful. He waves his cane and then sets off on his eight block
shuffle to the local tea shop. I lean on my shovel and watch his hunched back
for a moment. Forrest likes hockey? Who knew?
And who really knows anything about anyone?
My mother is dwindling away on the fifth floor at St. Mary’s Hospital in Montreal. Her surviving
children are a thousand miles away in either direction. We are strung out in a
limbo of disease, hostages to ignorance as we’ve no way of knowing when or how
things are going to shake down. I wonder if 86 years of Catholic indoctrination
are providing my mother with any comfort even though her early 70s divorce from
my father meant the bell, book and candle – ex-communication. I hope her God doesn’t
give a damn about a bit of paperwork filed in the Quebec court system and I pray her God knows
they must meet very soon. I do know that my mother would really like a
gin-and-soda with a wedge of lemon, maybe a cigarette and for sure a decent egg
The blade of the plastic shovel isn’t so
sharp anymore; especially at the corners which I use to chip away at the snow-pack
which squeaks like Styrofoam when it’s really freaking freezing outside. I keep
adding scoops of powder to the rising banks and ponder St.
Anselm’s a priori proof of God’s existence and how its non-empirical construct
still further requires what Swedish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard described as
‘a leap of faith.’ On a cigarette break to calm an accelerated heart rate I
conclude that if an entity such as God exists, the greatest Good we can conceive
of according to Anselm, It must feel like an exasperated cat owner.
Imagine yourself as a cat owner. You
provide shelter and food. Maybe a bit of loving. You know the future a little
bit; vet trips are scheduled appointments more often than not. You know that
the weather outside the front door is the same as the weather outside the back
door. You train them to use a litter box but you still have to clean up after
them. And yet… they don’t listen. You tell a cat to get off the kitchen counter
or the dining room table but they just look at you. What? The message never
quite gets through. You’re powerful enough to open the door to let them out but
helpless once they’re on the prowl out there. You do your best but it’s pretty
much a one-way street even though the species has been clever enough to
domesticate itself. Cats do what they do. You do what you can.
This is us, the absurdity. My Zen neighbour
breathes hockey. My mother needs an oxygen tube. I’m out on the sidewalk
pushing snow from there to here and contemplating cats, medieval monks and the
strange wonder of it all. There’s no meaning to be made of the way things are,
free will and tumbling Dominoes. Anyway, for a moment, there’s peace up and
down our street, Forrest has turned the corner, and the snow looks much the
same as it did in 1967.