At 9:21 a.m. on a Tuesday in the middle of February — Fat Tuesday, actually — The Observer took the trash out. That most perfunctory of ventures, a few dozen steps to the south side of the house and back, now required preparation, as a half-foot of feathery snow had blanketed our swath of the state two days earlier, bringing with it record-breaking low temperatures that called for rubber boots, a scarf and The Big Coat. Had we not spent nearly a year going through a meticulous routine before leaving the house for other such mundane ventures — double-masking for a trip to the post office, checking our bag for hand sanitizer before heading to the bank — the wardrobe fuss at the doorstep might have seemed like more of an oddity.
But here we were, by now quite accustomed to the idea of simple household tasks requiring careful forethought. As if, a mere three days into a doubled-down quarantine, we were suddenly hardened to the prospect of inconvenience. Like New Yorkers when they decide to do a load of laundry, or Angelenos when they set out for the gridlocked 90-minute commute to work. Or Alaskans when the sleet falls sideways and soaks a new batch of firewood. Or, for that matter, a fatigued hospital nurse punching the clock at the beginning of another double shift tending to COVID-19 patients.
Truth is, though, we aren’t like any of those people. We aren’t cut out for this at all. We’re spoiled rotten by a work commute that, before the pandemic drove us mostly homeward to do our jobs there, took all of 6 minutes. The Big Coat is pretty much our only big coat, pulled out of the closet for these rare weatherly occasions or for travel to colder climes. We wouldn’t know a tire chain from a tow chain. If we split firewood, it’s for fun, not utility. And, like most of our neighbors, we had committed supreme and sustained hubris by careening through life with uninsulated plumbing.
We’d been spared thus far the rolling power outages our Texan neighbors to the southwest were enduring. But by Fat Tuesday, the novelty of cardboard box sledding and joking about Little Rock’s bread-and-milk stampede had worn off, and less lightsome concerns had set in. We wondered if our mostly elderly neighbors were postponing a trip to the doctor or a vaccination appointment this snowbound week, whether they’d suppress their pride enough to ask us for help if they needed it, and how we might safely transport them out of the neighborhood if they did. We wondered why our fledgling heat-and-air unit wasn’t recovering even after a good solid bop to its metal housing or a push of its “reset” button. We wondered whether, in its absence, our strategic space heater placement would prop up our ancient pipes until they could thaw. We wondered what unholy terrors awaited us in the “Amount Due” box on our next Entergy bill.
Beset by those thoughts and properly bundled (or bundled enough to shuffle to the trash can, anyway), we stepped into the frozen drifts to discover we’d left a most important accessory behind — sunglasses. Bright eastern light beamed down to touch every snow-covered thing in sight — which is to say, everything. The effect was blinding, and as we squinted, we noticed the snow had taken on a different mantle than it wore when it was fresh-fallen and uniformly powdery. Now, individual flakes reflected sunlight in all directions, as if some zaftig, fur-clad goddess had visited overnight, winding up for an underhand pitch and hurling a spray of diamonds across the surface of the snow.
When we stepped back inside to shed the winterwear and trade it for slippers and a sweatshirt, our eyes struggled to adjust to the relative dimness for what seemed like forever. We’d only spent a few moments in the sun and snow, but our pupils, being the resilient wonders they are, had narrowed to the size of a pinhead in an act of swift bio-adaptation. Meanwhile, a few inches behind those tiny pupils, our brain’s synapses were primed for mythological daydreaming by the notion of a diamond-hurling snow goddess, so we were reminded of that tale you learn at the very beginning of a college course in classics or philosophy: Plato’s allegory of the cave. In it, Socrates concocts a thought experiment in which a group of prisoners is kept chained to a wall underground, their backs to a burning fire, so that the only activities the prisoners see are the shadows of what’s happening behind them. Only a few humans ever escape the cave to see real objects instead of mere shadows. When they do, the light hurts their eyes, but they eventually adjust, and are irrevocably changed.
We wondered about what happens to all of us after the snow melts, and after the threat of the pandemic subsides. We wondered how easily we might slip back into life’s default settings once a trip to the bank or the trash bin becomes, again, an errand that calls for no special preparation. We wondered how long the post-pandemic honeymoon of live music and dinner parties and effusive hugging will last. We wondered if the freedom to do mundane tasks without risk or adversity would make us less mindful about doing them. We wondered whether we have learned anything from this last tempestuous year, and whether it’s possible that we could emerge on the other side, irrevocably changed for the better — slightly less prone to road rage or energy-draining grudges, slightly more inclined to tenderness.
The Observer hopes so. We hope there are so many glittering diamonds in view that we need sunglasses to lay eyes on them all without squinting.