snow eyes for Jim

Freewrite from the morning of Jan 26.

I left the run early and eased to a walk. With each squeaking step on a fresh layer of snow, my eyes adjusted. Jim had challenged me to write less about myself, and more about the world. To focus around instead of within.

Walking helps. Not just because the pace opens the lens to more details, but because it brings me back to childhood. And those memories are not triggered just because I was a child during the last Big Winter, decades ago, but because my eyes were strong and every detail mattered.

On Albany Street last night, an apparition approached, dark clothes blurring into the darkness behind. The whole block seemed to recede into darkness. But the squeak of boots on packed snow, followed by Gareth’s familiar voice, pulled the buildings back to the foreground.

Gareth is always cold. He is strong but thin, a robust and handsome step up from skin and bones, but lacking insulation. He explains that he has been forcing himself to walk daily through the wall of cold that hits him harder than most people. We agree that the snow has helped. He compares it to walking on sand. I think we have all being thinking about beach time of late, as evidenced by last week’s flurry of booking houses for the annual August takeover of Miller Beach.

I praise the waves of snow that keep smoothing out the parkways. I want to compare it to wiping off a white board, but it’s more like burying the mess: the soot, dog pee, and other indignities that usually fade into the background, but are now showcased—a rebuke—against the whiteness. Every dusting tidies things up, just like shoving dirt under a rug.

Now I am thinking about the daily battle between store floors and the dirty snow that hitchhikes on boots. Business as usual, the customers buy mangos and bananas that have traveled so far, that have never seen snow. And their long travels, fueled by more energy than they provide, are likely changing our seasons, giving us these extremes. Chicago now has tropical storms in the summer. Maybe we will be able to grow our own mangos and bananas. In the meantime, the mop is always moving at Armitage Produce, sweeping out the slush at the same rate we carry it in.

Of course I am thinking about waves. Ebbs and flows, texture and erasure. It is hard not to compare snow to both beach and waves. I am thinking how the snow makes our ankles work hard on the run, just like running on the beach. And how snowflakes are like grains of sand. Snow, a soft but solid form of water. Sand, a solid but soft form of rock. Both can fill buckets to build igloo or castle. Funny that water is sturdier than rock.

A few weekends ago, we took our big ole black dog to an untouched field of snow, maybe 18 inches deep. I am not sure there is a purer expression of joy than a dog romping in the snow. His running usually reminds me of a hurdling horse, his spine drawing a wavy line, curving up and down. Here he looked like a dolphin splashing in and out of the water—especially when he buried his nose and flung up a spray, or dove to fetch a stick.

I am thinking about scale and contrast. He looked small, but the black fur popped against the calm white surface. This morning I could see from afar my running friends, or rather their spectrum of jackets, gathered near whitened trees in Palmer Square: Megan’s green, Claire’s red, Julie’s blue, Christine’s aqua, was Karen wearing purple? They too seemed more like specs than people, dotting the white and grey background, returning the third dimension.

As I walk home the last few blocks, having split from the group upon our return to Palmer Square, I am thinking about Jim, and being more observant, and I notice the things you tend to notice when walking in a city after two fresh inches of snow have cleaned up the new topography. Parkways and yards undulate thanks to the snow plows, shoveling, snow men, and igloos. An old mountain range in miniature. A treat in the flatlands.

I see a snowplow and exchange a wave of solidarity. I think it was the same one we ran behind in Humboldt Park—at a safe distance because we think it was replacing snow with salt, but not as much as in years past. Not sure if this is due to budget or concerns for the environment.

There are more hellos and quick smiles on an early morning like this amongst the few people who have ventured out. Probably because it is not terribly cold (because 15 degrees feels warm now, and we know there will be few smiles in the next few days—sub-zero temps predicted for 60 hours.)

But I mostly listen to the snowplow pushing the slush of a busy road to the side—please don’t bury the corner—and the wheels of cars splashing forward—because there are still many streets to be plowed. And they sound likes waves as they always do.

I think of Jim and his poem about a loping (?) dog running along the rails in the snow, I think, and how he uses so few words to bring the world into such clear focus. And I think about his urging for me to observe, and I feel kind of lame for the ye olde winter/summer/snow/water/beach language, but I have also promised to simply write, uncensored, when I get home, the way I used to urge others to do, when I was helping adults or children trust that they have a voice and things to write about, and that in free-writing you almost always find a little pebble and sometimes, if you are lucky, a gem, that you might want to write about, or at least mull over, in the future. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” If you want to revise, you can always slash the ands, buts, and sos.

So I walk down Dickens, and keep my eyes open, and forgive myself for having unoriginal thoughts, including the one that follows. That we are specs as Jim reminds me, but also unique as snowflakes. It almost staggers me to think that there are no other moments in time or universe that are the same as the ones I am moving through. I follow footprints. People have walked before and will walk behind the temporary tracks I am making, but none will have also just left behind their rainbow jacketed friends and looked at the nooks of trees holding cups of snow, as well as straggling Christmas decorations on front porches and fences. And even if they have or will, is their vantage point from five feet?

I am thinking about music, and how people don’t stop writing about love, heartbreak and anger, and how all those same songs have their own opening notes, so that you can recognize them within seconds. This has always astonished me. How can there be so much music, each with its own signature?

I bring my focus back to the street, and the one thought I have, which is probably not original, but is one I like: that snow fall reminds me of rubbings, those art activities where you place paper on something textured, and rub it with a sideways crayon, so the structure pops. Or like invisible ink blooming onto paper after the antidote has been applied. That’s what I am enjoying in addition to the smoothing of mounds  of parkways and yards. The contrast, etching, reliefs—I am not sure the word or phrase I want, that call attention to edges and lines—hard, firm, not like the mounds—like the sides of poles in black fences, or sometimes even the grout of brick buildings, reminding me of the individual bricks that make the whole, and the individuals who placed them there.

And now I have to intercept Michael, Miguel and Meatball, because Miguel is walking home and his feet are too cold. He is seeing the world from 3 and ½ feet, which sounds like less wonder than I had this morning. Of course, I have been in those shoes many times.

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