Snowy Ash Wednesday Musings to a Friend

by Contributing Author, John Boyce

Photo by John Boyce

My cat SLADE is not bored at all with the beautiful snow falling heavily on this late February day outside our cold living room window. But he seems unnaturally calm even for him. He will remain at peace until hunger pangs come in a few hours’ time. Then in a flash of milliseconds he will demand his suddenly ravenous appetite be fed. At this moment, however, he is snuggled warmly against his blue blanket. As for me – I am in a meditative mood, transfixed by the swirling winter scene magically unfolding before my eyes, appreciating it all as an ephemeral scene in the cycle of life.

In front of SLADE, is the drawer of an old bureau a soulful friend had given to me a while back. She had mercifully rescued it from someone’s curbside trash pile one day. She kept it in her cozy boutique shop for several years, using it to display sale items, eliciting many customer compliments before kindly giving it to me as a housewarming gift when I moved into my new place. I would like her to know it is getting a minor fix. Overall, it is in fine condition, but its legs became unstable so the handyman who lives upstairs drove in a few strong screws to stabilize them. Now the bureau should last for many, many more years if cared for properly – its atom configurations intact long after SLADE and I have left this world.

But our brief organic lives are much more interesting – definitely. Though admittedly the inanimate bureau does give us both pleasure and utility. I admire its dark wood and ornate features. Inside its three ample-sized drawers and side cabinets, I can store things that otherwise would be scattered around the room. For SLADE, the bureau is part of his territory – a higher elevation to explore when he is bored roaming the lower reaches of his indoor living space.

The mildness of recent winters has changed the winter experience. But at least, for now, we still have snow. The cycle persists. The year is moving inexorably forward. In a month’s time spring will arrive. Temperatures will warm – daylight hours lengthen. I will return to my seasonal job at the Secret Garden, an outdoor garden center in Roxborough, after a long winter hiatus. The vernal equinox arrives March 20th as always. Easter, a moveable celebration, occurs according to the lunar calendar and moon phases, not the solar calendar so ingrained in our lives. Bright orange, red, purple, and yellow flowers will come splashing across the verdant landscape supplanting the drab browns of winter. The predictability of the seasons gives order and energy to the natural world.

Turn, Turn, Turn. To Every Season. Turn, Turn, Turn.

That is a line from a song popularized in the sixties, written by the singer/songwriter Pete Seeger – the words taken from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament of the Bible. There is an inevitability to the cycle of the seasons it suggests – a purpose to everything under heaven.

But – it is still winter, though that is not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. I used to love snow days in elementary school. There was nothing like hearing the great news “no school today” from my mother or grandmother. For one whole day, I would be free from trudging the steep hill to and from school that a few decades later came to be known to bicyclists far and wide as the grueling Manayunk Wall.

A 156-mile international summer bike race took place in Philadelphia over a 30-year period near the end of the 20th century into the 21st with riders participating from around the world. The challenging course included pedaling a few flat areas of the city – circling the Eakins Oval in downtown Philadelphia, moving swiftly past the high steps of the Art Museum, then negotiating curving Kelly Drive on a scenic stretch of the Schuylkill River. Next came a straight away neighborhood route through Main Street in old, hilly historic Manayunk in the Northwest part of Philadelphia where I still live. The house I grew up in was right smack on the Manayunk Wall.

The gravest challenge for cyclists was ascending the Wall immediately after leaving Main Street for ten tortuous climbs, testing themselves to the edge of their endurance capacity and beyond. I learned about the steep hill firsthand in the 1960’s and 70’s, descending and ascending it every school day for eight straight years in winter, spring and fall when I attended St. John the Baptist elementary school in Manayunk, located a short block from Main Street.

My total miles tallied on the Wall exceeded that of the bikers I am sure over time. No disrespect to them for their superhuman efforts, but I scaled the wall for a much longer period than they did. The daily physical exertion made me stronger, naturally building my endurance. That was an era when kids could still venture into the street. There were also open lots around the neighborhood where children could expend their energy – before overdevelopment, computers, smart phones, and the digital world brought about a much more sedentary existence. Today outdoor children’s play, which was the norm throughout human history, seems almost obsolete. Seemingly gone forever … or is it only yet another cycle?

It is disheartening that cars have come to dominate our living space. Even when parked, today’s vehicles are often oversized, dwarfing children. Once they are moving, drivers habitually avert their eyes from the road, burying their heads in laps, texting away endlessly on personal cell phones. Children’s safety and welfare on the streets are an afterthought to them. They are going places. Exercising responsibility while powering heavy autos, which outweigh humans by thousands of pounds, is not in their mental manual.

Personally, I am not opposed to modern technology, but when we become addicted to things like so-called smart phones and permit motor vehicles to overwhelm human spaces, we put ourselves in peril. When we do not allow outdoor space for children in our neighborhoods to play so they can grow and develop- physically, spiritually, soulfully – society loses balance. Things become unhinged. By no longer prioritizing essential things – which in the past have been so beneficial to the health of the human condition, we sacrifice what it is to be truly human. Self- centered consumerism undermines social cohesion and concern for others. Spending excessive amounts of time in isolation in a digital world removes us from spending quality time with real people in stimulating social milieus.

On the Catholic calendar soon is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, concluding on Easter Sunday when Christians celebrate Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. On that day it is believed by the faithful he saves souls from permanent damnation, delivering all the living into eternal life.

Ashes placed on foreheads in the shape of a cross is an annual Catholic ritual. I remember one particularly cold February Ash Wednesday morning at the conclusion of a sleepy 8AM Mass at St. John the Baptist Church – the beautiful late 19th century parish of Manayunk. All the grade school kids (Enrollment was more than 1,000 then. Sadly, the school is closed today.) were directed to rouse themselves from their pews and line into single file to face the imposing priest at the front of the altar. There he dabbed ashes on each of our foreheads, intoning the ominous words “You are from Dust, and to Dust you shall return.” At that time, I only thought about this cycle pertaining to me … the older I grew, the more I realized everything is subject to this cycle.

Every Catholic who attended services on Ash Wednesday conspicuously wore the ash cross around town during the course of the day – at the library, inside the five and dime store, in the dress shops and Army/Navy stores, the hair salons and barber shops, the delis and corner stores, at the banks and in the bakeries. At night, the ashes would be surreptitiously washed away before bedtime as the first of the Lenten days drew to a close.

As a child, I welcomed those amazing snow days, with white flakes falling earthward from the sky. In the early grades, I could not wait to be bundled in my winter coat, scarf, hat, and gloves – have my black, rubber boots buckled securely and rush outside to join my parents and brothers and sisters, building a giant snowman in the safety of the side yard. Situated high above the big street below, the yard was only reachable by the jagged gray slate steps at the front of the house, or through the snow-packed back alley. It was a safe zone high above the icy road where a dangerous car might be skidding below.

The snow man emerged close to the spot where my grandfather, once an excellent gardener, had put a short cherub statue in the 1920’s. He had placed in her freshly painted upright arms, a colorful bouquet of cut flowers in summertime for the family’s pleasure. But they were gone by the sixties. My grandfather died in 1962 in his late 70’s. But the statue had already begun to lose its sheen years before when he became afflicted with diabetes in middle age. On this day I wondered if the naked, exposed form might disappear forever, buried under the heavy shivering snow.

When I was a few years older, I would escape the gated yard entirely, bypassing the snowman my younger siblings were making – grabbing my sled, storming through the alley, leaping off the back steps onto the sidewalk. From there I crossed the street to sled the hill on the corner of Fleming Street at the abandoned lot. A large house had once occupied the space, but had been completely destroyed by Hurricane Hazel in the 1950’s. The sleek, steel rudders under my sled’s hardwood frame made for easy navigation through the snow. Minor adjustments on the steering prevented me from careening out into the icy, black street where a moving car might suddenly spin out of control at the precipice of the Manayunk Wall.

Other kids were already there sledding. It was a thrill to be among them, free from a boring classroom, liberated from classes. In those days there were few breaks between New Year’s Day and Easter. Balmy June, when school finally ended – ice cream trucks arrived, boys batted wiffle balls through the soft summer air, and girls jumped rope on the hard city sidewalks – seemed very far away indeed.  But February snow days truly felt heaven sent in the moment.

The pleasures of late winter come rushing back, giving me a shot of adrenaline and a sudden desire to jump on my living room stationary exercise bike – attempting to somehow relive that time again decades ago when my young heart pumped eagerly on those breathtakingly exciting snow days.

Oh, to somehow rediscover that intrepid courage I had possessed – to trek bravely to the top of the Fleming Street hill just one more time – heart pounding. Pulling and dragging my heavy sled behind me by its slack rope, step by dogged step, to the very top of the hill. Then – upon reaching the summit, hurl myself onto the sled once more, steering sharply through the treacherous twisting paths, racing through the slippery banks of packed silvery snow – faster and faster and faster…

It is a mystery how memory commingles with life’s experiences at different times of year, reawakening the past, illuminating the present. Experiences are often fleeting, but may suddenly resurface, crystallizing years later after having retreated into the neural networks of our brains. After lying dormant for so long, they are jolted back to consciousness by something like a dazzling February snowstorm.

Memories may be disingenuous and not always trustworthy. Sometimes we ought to separate what is authentic from what seems fake. Ersatz Christmas lights in July do not evoke genuine emotions like bright seasonal strings of colored lights do when long dark December nights prevail. You should not always get what you want. But if you can adapt to the present and keep a healthy perspective on things past, your needs may be satisfied. You may discover moments of contentment and even joy. Excessive exposure to light over summer solstice days when the sun is overpowering is really not advised.  A relaxing respite under a soothing, waxing moon on a lazy lawn chair in the yard is what is required at summer’s climax to restore waning energy.

A snow day in February evokes in me feelings and memories that seem true. Of course, after a brief visit into the past, it is necessary to return to the present, between the ashes, where life’s trials and travails continue to unfold. But with spirits rekindled and souls renewed, it may be time to share past recollections with others as we manage another snowy winter day.

Wake up SLADE. The snow is over. Birds are darting through the winter air outside our living room window. Seize the moment before it is gone … and we return.

Inspired by a snowy winter’s day, and a friend, just before Ash Wednesday in 2021.

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