MY MARBLEHEAD FIRST TIME: Learning to shovel water

I learned about Snow Country when I lived in Japan. Westerly winds roar out of Siberia to drop as much as 100 inches of snow at a time out there in Snow Country. In places, people have entrances to their homes built into the second story so they can climb in and out over the snowdrifts.

I never lived in Snow Country myself during my time working in the country. However, I did visit the region in the wintertime, including some time spent learning (poorly) to meditate in Zen Buddhist fashion in a monastery on the Sea of Japan. As snow piled up outside the temple, my “meditating mind” wondered how long it would take to shovel my car out of a Snow Country snowdrift — thoughts counterproductive to the goal of reaching enlightenment.

The master stalking the prayer hall noticed my lack of concentration and stood before me wielding a keisaku. You could translate this instrument as “stick of awakening;” but a more accurate rendering would be “paddle.” At the master’s command, you lean forward to be administered three sharp whacks to your shoulder blades with the keisaku. When it’s cold, as it was in that prayer hall, you are immediately enlightened to the fact that this stings like crazy.

Now, I can’t exactly blame the snow for my poor concentration. Actually, I can’t blame the snow at all — I was a poor student of Zen. My thoughts are like quicksilver, and no amount of meditation ever allowed me to corral them. Like trying to hold water in your hand, I just … can’t. Paddle or no paddle. What can I say? I like action. It’s why years later I remember getting whacked by the paddle, not the meditation. And to me, snow denotes action. Then and now.

This is because I recently encountered my first true snowstorm here in Marblehead. We have a very long driveway and it is our winter responsibility to keep it clear for both ourselves and our neighbors. My partner and I are of pragmatic Midwestern stock, trained from birth to find meaning and pleasure in hard work. We decided back in the warm fall that we could handle the job ourselves.
Fun fact about my partner (who prefers to remain anonymous, at least as far as this column goes!): she took up a newspaper delivery route at age 9. Rain, snow, shine or wind, while most kids were still dreaming about oatmeal, she was up at 5 a.m.  delivering the Omaha World-Herald. Meanwhile, I grew up on a farm about 10 miles from her paper route. I was up and out to the barn to chore at a similar hour from a similar age. In other words, the two of us understand one another on the most fundamental levels. To wit, when the snow falls, you pick up a shovel and get to work.
So as the snow came drifted down in enormous flakes that day, we trooped out to our very long driveway. And this is how I learned to shovel water.

Back in Wyoming, it also snows a good deal. The liquid content of Wyoming snow, however, stands at about one-third to one-quarter of what I have experienced thus far in Marblehead. But as on a 5 a.m. paper route or out on a farm, it all needs done, regardless of how you feel about it.

Shoveling water, as it turns out, is only slightly easier than attempting to hold water in your hand. Anyone who’s ever picked up a shovel here understands how you become a human snowplow. The snow quickly assumes a gravitational mass of approximately 3.7 tons per shovelful as it mysteriously transforms to slush and as you keep moving, to water. So you just keep pushing forward until you can’t. Then you start scooping. We’ve all been there.

For me, this work was way more Zen than meditating in a monastery on the far side of the world. Snow removal in the driveway was part of our shared responsibility to our neighbors and the community at large, from the postman to passersby on the sidewalk. Doing our part to keep the community safe and well-kept. In Marblehead, people look out for one another and we all look out for our town. This town doesn’t stay postcard-lovely on accident. The snowfall was just an everyday opportunity to demonstrate how we all keep it that way.

When we finished, the two of us stood in our yard, muscles aching, hungry for breakfast. I put my arm around her shoulder. Just a moment together looking at our freshly hand-plowed driveway. No need to talk. We understand each other quite well, the two of us, as all that wet Marblehead snow reminded us.

I’ll be back soon with another Marblehead First Time. As always, shoot me an email at if you’ve got any suggestions for me.

Court Merrigan
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Wyoming transplant Court Merrigan is a new Marblehead resident. His column “My Marblehead First Time” appears regularly in the Current.

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