Main Street, Buffalo. 12-15-2016. My photo
A foot a snow. That’s what the water gave me.
Scene: a nightmare. The roads suddenly turned to ice and my car careened into a yard. I walked home, walked into the house, looked through a kitchen window that does not exist in real life to see a thunder-snow-induced tornado in the distance. No, no, no. I thought to myself. How will I convince my small children to stay still under a rug in the basement? I scurry them down, try, fail, but the house doesn’t blow away. I run upstairs to the window. The tornado appears to be moving in a direction that isn’t my home. I tell my family that I’ll be back, lace-up my work boots and run downtown to see. I see the damage in the buildings that the tornadoes caused, fire and electricity shooting into the sky. I notice the tornado is heading into the East Side of Buffalo (a very worn and poor part of the city). I cannot see the damage it’s doing to the East Side with the buildings in the way, but I know it is. I lace my boots back up to run home, “I think we’re going to be safe” is what I want to tell the kids, but I’m so afraid that is not actually true. It is still too close. I woke before I arrived.
The fear stayed with me through the day. I feel like I am witnessing terrifying things happening mostly to other people.
Buffalo has a reputation for being snowy, but I am going to let you in on a less-known fact: the south and eastern parts of the city get most of the snow. The suburbs south of Buffalo get a lot. Thanks to a quirk of the city’s orientation to Lake Erie, downtown and neighborhoods of Buffalo that are north, where I work and live, tend to be above the severest parts of the snow band. Not always. I have a foot of snow outside, none of it plowed. So the news tells tales of dramatic accumulation and not infrequently I’ll see blue sky above me and green grass below me, with a dark gray band of doom in the sky to the south. You’ll see the errant car in the Wegmans lot that clearly had the snow brushed off but everything else is dry. Living in the northern part of Buffalo is thus this experience in being a bystander to another area’s weather troubles. It’s not to say we never get snow. We had a blizzard just today. Northern, Western Buffalo infrequently get the dramatic accumulation Buffalo is known for.
There was a famous storm two years ago, our county executive calls it “Winter Storm Knife” and everyone else calls it Snovember. Some of the region got seven feet. In Northwest Buffalo, we got hardly anything. I remember standing in the sun on the corner of Military Road and Hertel Avenue, staring south into a wall of black. The sky above me was blue. It’s surreal. I feel that way most of the time.
I am heartbroken over the indiscriminate killing in Aleppo and I feel powerless. I am angry over how the election did not represent most American’s ideals and Trump’s fascism and I feel impotent. Professionally, my work makes some inroads, and some people’s lives safer and healthier in regards to a serious social problem in my area, but my labors do not reach much farther. I see many more problems than I can fix. Society is a long game, and its duration exceeds generations. I dream of a better world for my kids discouraged by the one I see, aware of humanity’s tendency to do the same human things. Human history is a long list of people treating each other badly. So far, I’ve been spared.
Of course I could run into the fire. Of course I could go swimming into the undertow trying to save those already there. I could do something for the sake of being able to say I did it, to tell my grandchildren I did the “right” thing, that I was not the bystander to an atrocity. Sometimes it feels as if I these efforts are attempting to move a lake-effect cloud. I am smaller than the wind. I could run into it, but it simply diverts around my body and continues on its present course. Windbreaks must be larger than just me. I could run over to assist with the snow removal, but all I have is a shovel. There’s people with snowblowers. Heck, even plows, like whole automobiles whose only purpose is snow removal. I know if I coordinate with them, in this case, they’ll say stay away. But don’t forget to pay my taxes.
I loathe when people act as if performing concern is some sort of moral obligation. “Why aren’t you saying anything about THIS THING THAT MATTERS MOST TO ME?!” strangers yell at each other across social media, as if what gets banged out in 140 is the entirety of another’s soul. Quiet gets confused for indifference. Don’t get me wrong – the two often co-exist. Policing people’s performance of concern will always result in the target being condemned. The world has yet to run out of incidences of life-or-death concerns, injustices, or suffering. The fact is that, in most cases, me sitting in my living room being sad will do exactly nothing to solve most of the far-off problems, though sadness is a reasonable response. When I was younger, I understood happiness as the absence of sorrow. Slowly, I’d learn more about how enduring awful the world has been and it would stay with me, poisoning all my moments until I learned to compartmentalize. Thank God I learned to compartmentalize. I could not do my current work if I had not. I also learned to reduce the amount of ownership I took of the problems that were literally too big for me, or in another’s responsibility, and to let it be. I’m told these are called “boundaries”. There is utility in being aware and calm in being able to surrender to your limits.
Most of the time we’ll be staring at the metaphoric Lake Effect Cloud dumping snow somewhere else.
Sometimes it’ll be in our own yard.
Know where the snow is.
Know when you’re the person to pull 0ut the shovel.
Know when you’re the person to pay the taxes.