The Shared Work of Snow

*Post originally published at the wonderful Humane Pursuits. 

Snow’s all right on a fine morning, but I like to be in bed when it’s falling.  —Sam Gamgee

Sam Gamgee’s words resonated with me as I looked out over the six inches of snow I had to clear from the driveway. It was morning, but only barely light underneath a German sky that promised more snow to come. I clutched my coffee mug with chilled fingers, and inhaled the warm fragrance—steeling myself for the job ahead. Even though it created a daunting morning task, I could not deny the snow was lovely. It had transformed the stark German countryside into a landscape as soft as a lullaby. The sharp edges of the slate mine down in the valley were covered with a blanket of white, and the bare branches of the trees were shelves, each holding a dusting of powdery flakes.


As beautiful as the snow was, it could not be allowed to stay in my driveway. Just that morning I had rushed out into the snow to help my husband get the car out of a drift in the drive so he could get to work. We had cleared just enough to get his car out, and mine still needed to be released from its wintry captivity.

Across the street I saw the bowed back of our neighbor, Herr Schroeder, and heard the scrape, scrape, of his shovel. I had scarcely ever talked with him in our year of living here—a cheerful nod was the limit of most of our interactions, a greeting that fortunately transcended language barriers. Even so, as my husband and I wrestled with the car in the darkness of that morning, he had appeared out of the snow to lend a hand, and afterward showed me how to sprinkle salt on the drive to gain traction for the cars and melt the ice our shovels had left behind. Now he stopped for a moment to exchange a cheery word with another neighbor, similarly engaged in scraping down their portion of the sidewalk.


Here in Germany, every person has a responsibility to shovel off the section of sidewalk in front of their house, a distribution of labor that keeps the sidewalks of the entire village clear. Like most forms of personal responsibility in Germany, it seems to be something that the Germans do not just because it is the law, but because they feel it is their duty, perhaps even a way that they can care for their neighbors. This principle largely guides life here: from the rules regulating recycling to those rules (which do exist) regulating the autobahn. The Germans really seem to understand that hackneyed saying of Donne’s: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent…”

We were warned when we first arrived that Germans are strict rule followers, and they expected others to follow those rules as well. If you did not obey the rules, you could expect a German, whether a neighbor or a stranger, to shortly arrive on your doorstep, tell you what you were doing wrong, and expect you to fix it post-haste. For example, a friend who has lived here for several years told me that she asked her German neighbor once if she could put her bulk trash out in front of the house early, because they would be leaving for vacation on the collection date. The neighbor frowned, and replied that she supposed so, but was afraid the gypsies might take the trash. My friend shrugged: “They can have it, and welcome!” Her neighbor looked aghast. “No they cannot!” She said. “They don’t pay taxes!”

This strict observation of the rules made me nervous at first. In a society governed by such standards, how would a stranger survive? The answer was obvious I suppose, but did not come to me fully until that day as I watched the snow gently falling in my village; no man is an island, and when you join a village, the village also joins you regardless of whether they chose you or not. The people here were as ready to welcome my husband and me as they were to welcome the family of refugees that arrived two summers ago. The thought of the refugees always reminds me of one of the most poignantly beautiful things I’ve ever seen. During our last village festival, I remember watching one of the girls from the family of refugees dancing gleefully with a German girl about her own age. The two twirled to the music of the band  in the middle of the community hall, golden and ebony hair flying, shrieking with laughter and completely unaware that they were the perfect picture of a community coming together to love, share, and take care of insiders who had all at some point been outsiders.

Putting down my cup of coffee, I zipped on my heavy winter coat and slipped into my boots, hefting the huge snow shovel over my shoulder and trooping out into the cold to clear away the snow. Thirty minutes later I was working on salting down the last bit of the sidewalk. My arms burned from the exercise, my face was cold, and the hair peeking out beneath my hood was windblown. I looked up during a moment of rest to see the neighbors for yards down the street doing as I was: the scraping of snow shovels interspersed with a shared word or a laugh, while the shrieks of delight coming from a group of children pelting each other with snow punctuated the sounds made by the adults. With a smile I noticed the black hair of one of the refugee children and the fair skin of a village child as they played together in the snow, bonding in the cold in their own way, while the adults did the same through their common work.

As I was spreading the salt, my hands bare because I did not have any work gloves, I heard a loud “Hallo” from the next yard. My neighbor, Joanna, appeared with a bundle of pink rubber gloves. “For your hands mit the salz,” she said in her usual mix of German and English. I was touched by the kind act, and went back to the cold, hard, but incredibly rewarding work with renewed vigor, know that in a small way I was caring for the village that had, tacitly perhaps but nevertheless truly, welcomed me into its heart. I had been allowed to take up residence here: an outsider who now felt on the inside. As I walked back inside to fix myself a fresh cup of coffee, I smiled at the sound of the dull rasp of the shovels echoing through the village—the sound of others in my home participating in the same communal duty that bonded us all together on a snowy day in Germany.

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Athens – Running the Race Set Before Us

The last few months have been full. Full of fun travels, visits from friends and family, cold, snow, sunshine, work, and rest. Sadly, they’ve not been terribly full of updating this blog. When I’ve been writing, I’ve been putting my time into sending works off for Stripes Europe,  Humane Pursuits, and an interview for Ivy&Branch.

But now I am putting fingers to keys to write about our wonderful trip to Athens, the race we ran, and the incredible friends we spent time with.


It was my birthday in November when we left for a weekend in Athens. It was the first of my birthdays that Aaron and I’d spent together in many years, and boy did we make up for lost time! Our ostensible reason for traveling to Athens was the Marathon that Aaron was going to run, and the 10k I was training for. However, I was just excited about an excuse to see the historical city with my own eyes.

We met up with so many good friends in the airport – some pushing strollers, others already wearing their racing shoes, all with nervous and excited smiles. We all piled aboard the plane and lifted off, leaving Northern Europe and headed south to a warmer clime.

We arrived after nightfall, so Athens was just a bunch of soft lights as we taxied from the airport into the city. Aaron and I were sharing an AirBnB with Mel (a friend we’d bonded with over a shared love of South Carolina and strange Russian films) and the McNaughtons – a family of four who had been some of the first to welcome us here, and involve us in their faith community.

The McNaughtons stayed home that first night – their one and three-year-old littles ready for bed after their travels. Mel, Aaron and I headed out into the dusk to meet up with some friends at a small restaurant near the acropolis. The mass of ruins gleamed with light on the hilltop, and lit our way with a mystic glow as we threaded our way through the graffiti-laden ruins of Byzantine churches, statuary, and old stone houses.

That was a magical meal – eating souvlaki and olives, drinking sangria while small cats zipped beneath the table looking for scraps, friends laughing beneath the stars, and the whole dinner backlit by the gleaming acropolis.

The next day the McNaughtons joined the three of us for an expedition to the acropolis and Mars Hill. Aaron was our guide and historian, and explained many of the marvels hidden in the seemingly mundane pieces of statuary that littered the olive-shadowed field below the temple of Hephaestus. As he pointed out the area where Paul had preached to the Athenians in Acts, MJ McNaughton and I exchanged a quick look of giddy exultation: how incredible was it to be standing on the same dusty patch of ground that once held up the sandled feet of the Apostle Paul?

 

Climbing the hill of the acropolis was a near-mythic experience for me. Ever since I had picked up D’aulaires Book of Greek Myths at age 7, I had dreamed of walking through the colonnades of the Temple of Athena, and now I was doing it.

The rest of that day was spent walking around Athens before we headed down to the port to sign in to the race to get our t-shirts and race numbers. I was already getting nervous and excited about the race on the following day. I had only run the 6.2 miles all the way through once, and that had been some months before. However, I was fairly certain that I had trained enough to at least give a good account of myself on the morrow.

The marathoners were more nervous – and for good reason! I could not imagine running the equivalent of my own race, and then going for 20 more miles!

We woke early on the following day, and the marathoners left for the buses that would take them to the outskirts of the city. I joined two of the other gals running the 10k, and we lined up for the start. I’d been warned not to let the excitement of the race force me into running too fast too soon, but it was more difficult than I had imagined to pace myself as the gun went off and hundreds of runners around me began to pick up speed!

The race was long (and somewhat painful), but extremely rewarding. After six miles, my feet pounding against the hard tarmac and my breath coming in gasps, I saw the gleaming marble Panathenaic stadium ahead of me, and my eyes filled with unexpected tears. I had signed up for the race back in the spring when living abroad had been such a hard and frightening trial, and every day was filled with anxiety. I was finishing it now, surrounded by friends, comfortable with myself, and resting in my Faith. As the marble arch soared above me and the finish line loomed ahead, I knew I was finishing an emotional, as well as a physical race.

If you run a race and don’t take a selfie, did you actually run the race?

 

We who had run the 10k joined the families of those in the marathon as we waited for the rest of our party to finish. It was several more hours before the marathoners loped tiredly into the stadium, faces exhausted but triumphant. We embraced them, made sure they drank their orange juice and ate their bananas, then took taxis back to our rooms for a wash and a rest before dinner.

That was another magical evening. We were more tired than we had been the first night, but it was the exhaustion of triumph, and the relaxation of success. Our restaurant had a glass wall facing the acropolis, and the warm glow of the soft stone seemed to smile down at us as we clinked glasses and toasted each other.

We parted ways that night to meet back up in the cold snows of Germany, but the trip will remain as clear in my memory as it was on that soft night in Athens.

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Down to (Small) Business 


Going small and local has been something I’ve been researching a lot recently. I am in the middle of Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons, which has strengthened and informed my love for the small, local, organic, and counter-consumerist. 

Because of my recent foray into this subject, I thought it timely that my friend Maris messaged me about being featured on her new website Ivy&Branch – a website built with the vision of fostering, supporting, and connecting small businesses! I got to FaceTime Maris the other day and hear about her goals for the website, as well as giving input for her first article.


If you have a moment, do head to her website and look around, bookmark it for future reading, and check out her Facebook page for more updates. It’ll be a great venture, and I am so grateful to be in on the ground floor!

Check out the link below if the hyperlinks above aren’t working for you. https://ivyandbranch.com/2017/02/07/i-say-grace-the-charm-of-custom-watercolor-paintings