Just before the new year commenced I spent two hours – two hours – shov-rap-ling the sidewalk at the church, the duties of a church secretary being many and varied.
One might think the mindless task of shoveling/scraping/chopping hard-packed snow and ice with the look and sound of Styrofoam but the density and weight of tungsten would provide an excellent opportunity to wax philosophical, particularly given the emphasis placed on reflection at this time of year.
One would be wrong.
In the first place, even the most mindless of tasks requires a certain spacial awareness. It is best to avoid slamming the ice chopping steel blade down onto one's cold-numbed toes.
In the second place, it is hard to fit in much by the way of deep thinking when an endless loop of swear words is playing in one's head. It is best to keep those words unspoken when working outside a church, I believe.
The deepest philosophical question I wrestled with during the first hour of manual labor was not mans' place in the cosmos, but rather the futility of clearing sidewalks in Iowa in winter. These questions may or may not be related.
What is the point of our existence? What is the point of clearing a sidewalk when the forecast calls for more snow?
How do we leave our mark on this world? Are not my footprints in the snow a mark on this world? Do they not prove my existence?
Would the insurance adjuster and the town's streets department have me erase this humble symbol of my insignificance by threat of higher premiums and fines?
After an hour and a half I was distracted from my duties and wool-gathering by the noisy flyover of a flock of migrating Canadian geese. In my zen-like state I was able to interpret their noisy chatter:
“Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” honked the young geese.
“Don't make me pull this flock over!” replied the father geese.
There may have been an “eh?”, “hoser,” or “take off” thrown in the mix as well, considering these were Canadian geese. I honed my Canadian translation skills by watching Bob and Doug McKenzie hosting “Great White North.”
With swift, sure strokes of their wings the geese left me – and the cold, Iowa winter – in their wake as they continued their journey south to warmer climes and ice-free sidewalks As the last of their chatter drifted away on the wind I was left to ponder my own non-migratory situation.
I am a delicate, hot-house flower, dammit What am I doing here?
To be sure, there are parallels to be made between the progress and setbacks encountered while chip, chip, chipping away at an ice covered sidewalk, and the accomplishments and losses experienced over a year or even a lifetime.
The satisfaction of a well-placed stab of the ice chopper which causes large chunks of sn-ice to scatter is an apt metaphor for goals achieved and concrete evidence (literally) of forward progress.
But hidden beneath the reluctantly yielding sn-ice, are chunks of crystal clear, pure ice -- rock hard and unforgiving. A blind stab of the chopper glances ineffectually off these frozen-water diamonds, causing vibrations to resonate back through the chopper handle, painfully stinging hands and wrists, elbows, shoulders and core.
Perhaps this is the more keenly felt metaphor.
Beneath the ups and downs of everyday existence are hidden empty spots – rock hard and ice cold in their nothingness – left in the heart by loved ones lost. Memories, triggered by a glancing blow, send the pain of their absence resonating through me.
I wish for an easier, faster way to melt the ice on the walk, or to mend the black holes in my heart. But concerns for the long-term effect of chemical ice melt on concrete trump concerns for the short-term effect of shov-rap-ling on my arms and shoulders.
And only time can wear away the sharp edge of loss.
As for the geese, two days later I watched a flock retracing their route north already. I detected a shrill addition to the usual chorus of travel-related calls: “I thought you counted the kids after the last rest stop!”
For now the sidewalk is clear.
For now I find comfort in the happy memories.