This week, six years ago, I discovered that a person’s reaction to an impending snowstorm is more predictive of old age than liver-spots, or a receding hairline. On that Sunday, my kids and I were listening to the same weather program. What they heard was a special report from the North Pole. For them, the predicted storm represented Santa Clause coming out of retirement to provide a special encore performance. Despite the fact that we were listening to the same radio station, processing the same sound waves, I heard something altogether different. What I heard was Orson Wells broadcasting from beyond the grave, beginning his updated version of “The War of the Worlds.” In tones designed to send adults like me rushing to the grocery store, the Orson-Wellian meteorologist predicted an “Epic Storm,” that would include, “Thunder Snow,” and “Blizzard Conditions.” Was it his words, or my panic that had me imagining telephone poles snapping like twigs beneath the weight of iced-leadened powerlines, heating systems taken out of commission just in time for single-digit temperatures, and winds of forty miles an hour?
The night before this impending snow-storm six years ago, my kids behaved like Israelites joyfully painting their doorposts with lamb’s blood in anticipation of their impending freedom. With humor, they performed their ancient snow-day-inducing superstitions passed down through the generations from one schoolchild to the next: upside down spoons were placed under pillows, PJ’s were worn backwards, and inside-out, a juicy orange was carefully placed in the freezer.
That same night, I behaved like all the other old codgers in my township. I ran to the grocery store for bread, milk, and eggs. I picked up batteries, and extra candles for good measure. I salted the driveway. I located the flashlights and lanterns. I made sure I knew where the stash of long undies could be found.
I remember the next morning, sitting at my word processor attempting to construct another essay for my blog. The tapping on my keyboard was accompanied by the gentle, persistent sound of tiny ice pebbles tapping on my window, accumulating on top of the prophylactic salt sowed on my driveway. I kept trying to remember this Sunday’s scripture about “Salt for the Earth,” and “Light for the world,” but in Morse Code, the ice pellets tapping on my window were spelling out the words, “Thunder Snow,” and “Epic Storm.” Tucked within the folds of thick blankets, my kids were peacefully enjoying the extra winks provided by Old Man Winter, while I stared out the window in anticipation of the snowy Armageddon to come.
As I reflected upon the variance between our respective reactions to the impending storm, it occurred to me that I had seen so much more cold weather than my kids. I knew that nature can be capricious. The same storm that locks the school doors, and transforms hills into sled runs, can also permanently change the life of a commuter on the highway, or a grandparent negotiating slippery steps.
The week before this snow storm was to hit, I was invited to a seventy-fifth birthday party for a man who provided a father figure for me during a stormy part of my adolescence. Three hundred of us were gathered in a grade-school gymnasium to honor a remarkable man. Just after the crowd had their fill of the buffet-style supper, the formal part of the evening was to commence. Jim, the guest of honor, invited us to our seats, informing us that we would soon enjoy a presentation hosted by his niece, a professional comedienne. But just before she was to take the stage, he thought he might try his hand at a little stand up comedy himself. After a moderately funny joke, he turned to place the mic. back into its stand. The next thing that the audience saw, was Jim falling to the floor…dead.
While three hundred guests clutched one another, looked on, and fervently prayed, an old college friend/physician, performed CPR, while another childhood friend, Father Tom, administered the Last Sacraments. Fortunately, a defibrulator was located, and Jim was shocked back into life and consciousness. Three days later, a heart surgeon performed a triple bypass. In the words of Redd Fox, Jim barely missed the “Big One.”
Just after the guest of honor left in the ambulance, I felt a tug on my pant leg. I looked down to see my seven-year-old reaching up for me to hold her. As I gathered her into my arms, I felt tears dropping onto my shoulder. “Daddy, she whispered, “A seven year old shouldn’t have to see things like that.” “Honey,” I replied, “I know. I’m fifty-years old, and I feel like I shouldn’t have to see things like that either.”
A week later, on the morning after the dire weather reports, I was to find out that, just like Jim, we missed “The Big One” too. In the wake of events that reveal the cold, wintery side of life, people, whether seven or seventy, tend to pause and reflect. Everything that seems solid and secure can get whisked away like snowflakes on the winter wind. Like my seven-year-old, none of us likes it when the veil gets pulled back to reveal such cold-wintery realities. But every-so-often a brisk wind can rudely pull us by the face, and force us to acknowledge that we all share a little more in common with Percy Shelley’s, Ozymandias,* than we normally care to admit.
Six years ago, I reflected on the same scriptures that accompany this Sunday’s liturgy (Mt 5: 13-16; Isaiah 58: 7-10). I looked out my window to see my son scraping the ice off of our neighbor’s walk and driveway. It occurred to me that he may have intuited an important approach to the wintery side of our existence. In a world that can be so cold, we are not to wait for God to warm things up. We are to channel divine warmth into the spaces we inhabit. We are to be his Light for the world. With our humor, with our kindness, with an intentional optimism, with a fierce passion for justice and charity, we are to carve out a place of light and warmth. We are to be the Salt that melts the icy grip of every manner of hunger and injustice that we encounter.
“Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose forwn,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sand stretch far away.”
1 Corinthians 13:13
“In the end, these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
“You are salt of the earth.” (vs 13)
“You are light for the world.” (vs. 14)