One of the first things I notice during and after a snowstorm is the silence. Part of it, I suspect, is the dampening effect the blanket of snow has on ambient sounds, but another part of it is the lack of usual frenetic human activity. Here in New Jersey it often feels like being in a perpetual motion machine. People are always going some place. Movement is constant and even if I have to head to the airport at 3 a.m. there is other traffic on the road. We are all too busy. Snow has the power to make one stop and reflect.
We live on a fairly busy street since we’re just a couple blocks from the county hospital. Further along our street in the other direction are the county jail and social services offices. People are going by constantly. When yesterday’s snow began, the traffic died down. For once people seemed to take forecasters seriously—driving would be dangerous, and the snow would keep coming well into the night. By mid-afternoon we had more snow in my town that I’d ever seen at a single time during my decade in New Jersey. It was as if winter came in a single day. But it was quiet. Very occasionally a snow plow would rumble by, but most of the day our busy street was deserted. A few kids ventured out, but not many since this was a blizzard (the definition of which is that wind is strong enough to lift snow off the ground and make it airborne again). The silence was almost disorienting. It was like living at Nashotah House once again.
Silence has long been understood to be a spiritual virtue. Both eastern and western religious traditions recognize the value of listening. The noise may be internal or external, but it is nearly constant. Taking time to try to shut it out, if only for a few minutes a day, can be a spiritual exercise. A snowstorm can help to quiet the constant reminders that we have to do this or that, or that we have to be here or there. During a snowstorm we only have to be where we are, and we only have to do what we’re doing. Soon enough the roads will be cleared and the traffic will begin again. Until it does, however, it is worth exploring what the silence has to offer.
I’m not really the one who should be on oxygen in this situation. It was a routine, scheduled oral surgery for a impacted wisdom tooth. Not mine, but my wife’s. I sat in the recovery room and they wheeled her in on oxygen. When the doctor stopped in to check on her, he looked at me and said, “My God, get that man on oxygen! He’s going to pass out!” So they took the gas from my wife and laid me down instead. My wife had the magnanimity to think it was cute, but I felt embarrassed nevertheless. I couldn’t go into medicine even if I wanted to. I haven’t the stomach for it. So as I write this in the Urgent Care unit, I’m a bit light-headed. We came in for treatment of a snow-shoveling-related injury for my wife, and my mirror neurons are firing overtime. I hear them call a code red, and I think I hear the helicopter coming down and I think I might pass out. I can’t stand the pain-filled groans coming from the next room.
Compassion is one of the most overlooked of human virtues. I haven’t taken a sick day since 1987, but I’ve had companies tell me I hadn’t earned any yet. You have to earn the right to be sick. Even when I threw up on public transit two weeks ago, in one of the most embarrassing moments of half a century, I still got up at 3:30 the next morning to climb aboard again. So I’m sitting here, feeling ill, although I’m fine, and thinking about how people naturally feel for others. Only practiced cynicism can erode that. Or maybe I’m just a wimp.
It is no coincidence that most religions feature healers or healing as one of their central tenets. Life involves suffering, anticipated or not. There is something more than the physical going on here. Pain is the enemy, and I’m the one who’s well. There may be atheists in foxholes and even in hospitals, but they must be aware that the chemicals chasing one another around the neurons upstairs believe something else. Religion is a coping mechanism, perhaps something even more. So the winter takes its toll, and the snow claims another victim. All those instruments on the wall are beginning to creep me out. My mirror neurons suggest that if only those made of ice could melt with a little compassion, this world would be a more humane place. And when you get a moment, could I get a little oxygen over here?
The snow fountain from a fast-moving snow-plow is a thing of beauty. Unless you’re standing in the way. It’s been that way this winter. The sidewalk where I usually stand to wait for the bus is an arctic wasteland of waist-high snow piles shoved higher and higher by weary plow-drivers. So I stand in the road, near a streetlamp in winter, but this is not Narnia. I decided to try out New Jersey Transit’s highly anticipated “real time” bus locator—that way I know when to step out into the blowing wind to wait for the bus. After I’d been sprayed by passing cars and the occasional snow-plow for 20 minutes, I became convinced that “real time” is just academic; it is the time that the bus would arrive, were the bus actually on time, if it ever left the garage. Not that I blame the drivers—theirs is a thankless job that must lead to early retirement, or at least support the state mental hospitals.
Where’s Mr. Tumnus?
Now, I’m not the only one to be standing in the street, a hooker for capitalism, under my lamppost, and some of the stops are completely snowed in. When three passengers ganged up on the driver for nearly missing them because they weren’t at the stop because of all the snow, I began to feel a bit uncomfortable. Springs can be wound too tightly, you know. All of this is an issue because businesses don’t want to close for inclement weather. During last week’s blizzard, I ended up taking the PATH train into New York, not knowing where it was going. A young lady was fretting—she was going to be late for work. An older African American gentleman comforted her. “Don’t worry. They don’t care if you come in late on a day like today. They just want you to show up.” They just want you to show up. His words have haunted me. Businesses want you to show up because that reinforces the power of capitalism. You don’t show and you don’t eat. You lose healthcare. Cobra is aptly named—you pay far more than unemployment’s pittance for monthly coverage. Obamacare is about thirty years too late.
Every time I see the Mayor of New York justifying his decision to keep schools open when literally nine inches of well-predicted snow fall on the city—dressed in his trendy action-figure jacket, just like Christie after Hurricane Sandy—I wonder who is really being cared for. The Mayor claims that of the over 1 million kids in the school system, a substantial proportion go to school so they can get their only hot meal of the day. Is this the purpose of schools? Is it not the humane duty of the largest city in the country to make sure fair opportunity is offered to those who wish to contribute? Their parents, he adds, as an aside, have to go to work. Why aren’t they being paid enough to feed their kids? Oh, there is a blizzard coming, and it’s one of our own making. As for me, it’s time to step back because I think I see another snow-plow coming.
The Internet can be a window into the collective consciousness of a nation. In a world where even the Weather Channel invites comments on its forecast page, the outlook of many Americans is laid bare. This latest shot of winter weather on the northeastern quarter of the country is an excellent example. It is still March, the tempestuous month of the war god, so a little snow in the northern latitudes should come as no surprise. An unnamed dean at a state school here in New Jersey had just sent out an email blast the week before stating, with decanal authority, that there would be no more weather delays this year. Yesterday there was still snow on the ground after the storm. Frustrated citizens cursed – actually cursed – the winter on weather.com.
For years I have maintained that the weather is key to understanding the human perception of the divine. From ancient Sumer’s An and Enlil through classical Greece’s Uranus and Zeus, the gods unquestionably in charge are the sky gods. The guys who control the weather. In Israel Yahweh took that job description from a reluctant Hadad – aka Baal – and many people considered this a serious mistake. Don’t mess with the weather god! As the snow begins to melt once more, even those of us in the enlightened twenty-first century should be reminded that our sense of what the world should be is an illusion. Nature evolved our brains, and now our brains think they have the right to take over.
Once, back in Wisconsin, I stepped outside on a chilly June morning and saw flecks of snow in the air. It wasn’t “snowing” – it doesn’t snow in June – but there was definitely a frozen sort of precipitation hanging tentatively in the air. I was teaching at the most self-righteous of seminaries at the time, and it became clear to me, once again, that we are not in control. Among the scariest books I read in Wisconsin was Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age. I was at work on my book on weather language in the Psalms (still unpublished) and the unsettling truth drifted around me like this winter’s snows: if a new ice age settles in, there is nothing we can do to stop it. Geologists still can’t state what triggers these periodic events, or even what their timetable might be. If earth’s ice caps again begin to grow, however, I am certain that we will also see a dramatic increase in religiosity. For the gods, we all know deep down, are in the skies.
Baal has been on my mind lately, despite the limited time I’m able to dedicate to research. You see, Baal and I share a common interest in weather. One of those people whose moods synchronize with the atmosphere, I have always felt what the sky projects. So when a colleague asked me to lecture his class on the Baal Cycle, I felt it was a kind of catharsis after all the gray skies and snow we’ve had this year. Baal, or properly Hadad, was doyen of the skies. In modern perspective it is often difficult to realize that the seasons and climate of ancient Aram were quite distinct from our own. Whatever came from the sky came from Baal.
In the documentation we have on this god, we find him particularly associated with thunder, lightning, and rain. These were more common in the Mediterranean basin than the snows of the higher elevations. It stands to reason, however, that Baal meted out the weather to the denizens of Ugarit, no matter how wet or cold. Even his daughters’ names reflect their meteorological roles. Thunder and lightning may be the most dramatic expressions of divine power, but nothing makes you shiver like a good snow.
It is difficult not to take the weather personally when my long commute days are permeated with ice and snow. Continuing a pattern initiated last spring semester, my lengthy drive to Montclair has been accompanied by snow each class session I’ve been assigned so far this semester. Even the students have begun to notice. One co-ed asked why it always snows when I’m teaching. Meteorologists may have their naturalistic explanations, but somewhere deep down, I’m afraid that Baal has it in for me. It’s time to go and shovel the front steps again.
“Snow weariness” is no strange phenomenon even to those of us who were reared in the legendary snow belt of Lake Erie. Although Buffalo consistently topped our records, months of deep snow burying all the familiar features of our landscape in northwestern Pennsylvania were regular expectations of winter. Snow weariness generally settled in around March when we longed for green pastures and unstill waters. As an adult in generally snow-deprived New Jersey, the weariness sets in much quicker. Attempting to drive on highways with sneophytes is a challenge; before I had my license I had driven in plenty of snow, otherwise I’d have had to hibernate from December through April of each year. Digging out from New Jersey’s third major snow-plop of January, however, the magic seems to have vanished.
Baal was a god who controlled the weather. Some years back I finished a book (still unpublished) on weather terminology in the Psalms. Many psalms are notable for containing archaic imagery and phrasing, leading some scholars to suggest they might have been new, revised “Canaanite” versions of songs originally dedicated to Baal. Perhaps so. The Psalms frequently note the wonder of weather, even occasionally of the snow. Psalm 147 contains the lines:
16 The one giving snow like the wool,
he scatters hoarfrost like the ashes,
17 throwing his rime like crumbs,
before his cold who will stand?
Originally a paean to Baal? Who knows? It’s just that we’re all shivering down here. And Israelites didn’t have to shovel a path to their cars to turn over reluctant engines to get a modicum of warm air circulating before they actually arrived at work.
Once Israel’s monotheism set in, Yahweh took control of the weather, thank you. Even a glance at the Psalms demonstrates the superiority of Israel’s divine weather-maker. From the view down here, however, it looks like maybe Baal has a few tricks still to play. Would Yahweh ever cause a Bible class to be cancelled because of inclement weather?