Thursday, 2 January 2014


On Shovelling Snow and the Nature of God

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 salad sandwich.

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.

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