snowed in

thoughts on juno

Is it wrong that, whenever I hear on the news a man vs. wild story, I find myself rooting, almost always, for nature? Squirrel hoards nuts in man’s pickup, busts car—excellent. River dolphin breaks into “unbreachable dam,” costing Myanmar thousands of USD—three cheers. I guess a lot of regular people smile at these headlines, but then, how far can I go in secretly supporting nature? Is it cool, for instance, if I side with a wildfire? A hurricane?

No, probably not. I know the toll of disasters—on humans and otherwise—is heavy; that certain things are best left unjoked about. But still, guilt and horror given, part of me still thrills at the thought of a dangerous storm; maybe it’s my CGI-bred millennial’s death wish, an apocalyptic longing to one day wake up and see the city shattered, smoke drifting from a Starbucks. A storm like that would shock me, yes, and scare me, undoubtedly, but my wish is it would wake me from this weird modern life, a thing that has chosen me somehow to live it, making me call it—though I feel it is not quite, always—“the usual.”

So on Monday night, there I was, feeling guilty for being thrilled that a “major storm” would be hitting Rhode Island within hours. There were three other students with me, all northerners, talking about past storms like New Yorkers talking dive bars—“Oh, that one—I remember—not a fan.” An upper-classman was giving advice: “When I was a freshman, there was a storm, it was huge … and my friends and I built an igloo … and we went inside … and blazed.”

Laughter. The wind was getting on. People leaving the Ratty put their hoods up with cocksure trepidation, as if planning to take fire. They were provided with emergency snack packs. The Ratty was warm and peopled. It felt like a very safe place to be.

There were last minutes ascramble at East Side Mini-Mart, buying frozen food, bread, tea, milk, and candy, clearing the flashlight rack.

Outside, a quicker snow fell.

And the wind, unseen, had risen in speed and sound and power until passerby, few now, had to take it full down the neck and in the lungs and sharp on the earlobes—chittering, they fled—until later there were no more passerby and only snow, blowing barbarically, lashed in the streets like a naked thing caged too long and gone crazy at finding herself loose, alone on the earth’s surface, pale and starved but at last, free.

Like this all night the storm blew. And we, sleepers, let nature do her worst as we casually survived against her.

Morning. At least, I assume this is morning though there is no sun and no rush hour trucks in the sunk streets. Snow lies sheer against the windowpane. White mist clams up on skin, on pavement, on the other side of quiet wallpaper. The city is asleep in it.

Hospital patients, after near-death experiences, sometimes describe waking up in a “white room”—their various accounts eerily similar—“bright lights,” no sound, a sense of stillness. I wonder particularly about that stillness, sometimes, and that morning, when I turned over and looked out on a snow day. Somewhere, I have lived a life.

I have walked down these streets, only days ago, before they lay thick and white and plushy. I have waited on sidewalks which used to go there, and there, in the days when what we called cars drove down these blanketed corridors we once used as streets. Up and down, we used to drive in automobiles, grinding through a paved grid of lived-in adjacencies. Is it quite over? Waterman, Thayer, Angell and Hope Street, automobiles and civilization and fatigue. Words for better weather. Let it snow.

Freed from a whole day’s work, what did Brown students do? No doubt, there were people who, like backup power generators, switched without a bump to self-assigned work—God bless you, and may you get what you deserve—but others put boots on and went outside, talking a notch louder and walking a bit slow.

People with sleds went sledding. I saw people on skis, and people with snowboards. Where did they ski? Hilly streets, I guess, past cars parallel parked in the snow. Snowmen were built, some to last and some not to, and snowball fights honorably attempted—through at noon the new snow still felt like powder, feathery, as fit for throwing as warm soap bubbles.

Amidst the riot one yellow Caterpillar snow plow drove all morning up Waterman street, past the mailroom, through the Faunce Arch and onto the Main Green, where it continued working, bent on removing the cold stuff that blocked the walkways.

And all day, the bulk of the undergraduate student body falling indoors, trodding snow in a wide slush up the stairs of the Ratty, coming in from the cold to join other bodies, seated and warm, or warm and standing in line, gazing around with a dumb rusticity. Plates go quickly. Fruit disappears. Word spreads of free meals for upper-classmen, and seniors come in for the first time in two semesters. Chocolate milk runs out, then chairs, then table room. Something is spilled on someone. Conversation interrupts conversation. In the breakneck kitchen, a panic is subdued and another panic springs up, seamlessly.

But clean cups kept appearing, and spills were wiped, and the Sausage Soup was refilled. For a major storm, it appeared we hadn’t suffered very much. Maybe I would be remembering it more solemnly if survival didn’t already feel like a daily rite, and the modern day too short to count its interruptions. But still, I will be exaggerating to freshman, someday ages and ages hence, about the snow day we had from Winter Storm Juno, and how the campus built millions of igloos and crept inside them, and blazed, knowing that natural disasters were nothing for people like us to be afraid of.