It’s happened again. Outside my window, even as I write.
I remember, when I first came to New York City, sitting with my desk side-on to the Hudson river in my Hell’s Kitchen apartment (I have a feng shui obsession about not having my back to the door), when I was suddenly aware of the flurry of their presence. Snowflakes. Last December, it was a snowstorm called called Gail which, inside my warm apartment looked a little more benign than it was (and sounded it, with the name Gail).
Today, it is Orlena. I am sitting in a different warm apartment in Beacon in New York State (where we are allowed indoor dining, hence my decamping from the city) and it has snowed mightily all day. It is now gone 11pm and it’s still coming down. It’s a foot deep out there; I know, because when I went to put the garbage out, a fifth of me was submerged in ice.
But it’s glorious.
It has always been to me a wondrous sight: the world as we know it, coming to an end temporarily, as the movie of white moves in, emptying the grey and darkness of reality.
That is why I have always loved snow. As a kid, I loved the arbitrariness of snowfall: going to bed at night, my head packed with the images and emotions of the day, and then, waking, to the white of transformation. Everything gone. The clean slate. Everything new. The opportunity to start again.
My greatest heartbreak was if I was ill when snow fell. My mother would never risk my catching cold, and however much I said I was feeling fine, there was always that damned thermometer being stuck in my mouth, telling a different story. So, I would watch from my bedroom window, sadly observing the other kids playing on the street and, yes, weeping about the cruelty of nature that had deprived me from one of life’s greatest pleasures.
I was, and remain, mystified, when people say that no single snowflake is the same as any other. Okay, but come on: a lot of them have to be pretty damned similar, don’t they? I’m all for the sentimentality of beauty, but let’s not over-egg the pudding or, in this case, over-ice the (snow) cake.
The inherent sadness of snow is that it doesn’t last, but then nothing does (except death, but that’s another morbid story altogether). No sooner do you wake to perfect, still white, than the first footprints appear – the human trek through nature that immediately puts a stain on the landscape.
Then there’s the thaw – the knowledge that nothing remains the same, and that the passing of everything is inevitable.
Then there’s the mess as the solidity of ice turns to brown mush, and the horror of what lies beneath shows through again.
Before you know it, you’re back to reality, just as if it never went away – which, of course, it didn’t; but, for a brief time, we basked in the white of perfection.
It’s what makes snow the perfect metaphor for life, and it’s why I love it. So many flakes, so little time. Some are rushing, some are falling slowly, others are coming up to my window as if hoping for refuge; but, in the end, they’ll be gone. Whoosh! Life is short. It evaporates before you know it.
When I was seven, I went to ballet school, and, at for the end of term concert, the 32 strong company was to do a snowflake routine. I was so excited. Being a snowflake meant donning a tutu in addition to our pink satin pumps. Unfortunately, after a term, my pink satin pumps had taken on the appearance of a couple of pigs’ tongues after a heavy day’s hogging at a dirty trough, and I saw my snowflake dream evaporate like… well, snow.
Of the 32 girls in the company, 26 were to play snowflakes; the remaining six were cast as fishermen. The snowflakes were to wear their white tutus and tights, and trail their arms delicately through the frosty air. They had to tread gently on tiptoe and raise their eyes heavenward in the hope of joining forces with their snowflake cousins. The fishermen were to chuck nets and wear brown gingham.
I was a fisherman. There wasn’t even a discussion about it, and no amount of reassurance regarding the exclusivity of the fisherman’s role could convince me that being a snowflake wasn’t the better deal. My brown shorts were a generous fit and provided plenty of space for my flesh to work up a healthy sweat on the impending march. The gingham top had an elastic waist and elastic puffed sleeves, which pinched my skin. My rod was a piece of bamboo with a pocket of green net on the end. And my feet boasted a hideous pair of brown sandals that could have passed for calipers.
I have no recollection of my fellow anglers, but guess that our combined body weights equaled that of the rest of the company put together. I can still, however, recall the perfect features, figures and hairdos, of every girl in a tutu. It’s not true when they say that no two snowflakes are alike; I recall 26 of the damned things, indistinguishable from one another.
Our routine – or “dance,” as they rather generously called it – was a kind of march that had all the grace of an out-of-control political rally. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, it wasn’t; a dance, it wasn’t. The whole thing had clearly been concocted to make use of six plump seven -year-olds, who didn’t have what it took to be snowflakes. And we knew it. Our performance lasted all of a minute; the snowflakes were on stage for what felt like three winters.
It was small comfort that I walked away with a costume I would be able to wear all summer (as my mother excitedly told me, in one of her many “value for money” speeches), while the snowflakes knew that a tutu would look very silly on the beach. This was humiliation, and I wanted to die.
So, yes, when I see snow, I am excited. I see all of life flash before me, including my own: the one I could have had as a snowflake. But still. Life hasn’t been all that bad as a fisherman. There are always plenty more fish in the sea.
Just as there are snowflakes in the sky.