The Gift of Snow and Stillness

I love snow days.  I love that we just got about two feet of snow at our house.  I realize I wouldn’t love this nearly as much without our big red snowblower, a dependable furnace, a value pack of chocolate croissants on hand, and the magic that is sustained electricity in 65 mph wind gusts.  But, being in fortunate possession of all of the above, along with fleece pants and shearling slippers, I do love snow days.  

The best part of a snow day isn’t that real pants are optional though, it’s that nature gives us the gift of time.  Forces completely outside of our control blow into the city with sensational news coverage and mountains of fluffy white stuff.  There’s the mania of storm preparation: filling gas cans, stocking the pantry, throwing elbows for the last bag of ice-melt, bringing in firewood to stay dry by the hearth.  Then as darkness falls, the calm settles in. The flakes start to fall in earnest.  You can hear the wind swirling around the eaves.  And there you are, snug inside with no choice but to amuse yourself as you best see fit for the next day or so.  It’s time to let go and be still.

This is a precious thing: a day to spend as you please without the discomfort of illness, the pressure to have fun of vacation, or the guilt of just taking it easy.  No excuses, no blame, just the gift of a day.  The only thing that’s required to enjoy it is to be comfortable in your own company.

So why do we make such a fuss?  Why is complaining about a storm practically de rigueur? Why is it more acceptable to talk about how much your back is going to hurt after shoveling out than it is to share how nice it was to make pancakes and putter about the house?  Why do we feel so much pressure to dig out and get back to it?  (Of course there are many folks that lose hourly wages when they don’t work, some who lose power or suffer damage or injury, and I feel for them.  But I’m talking about salaried workers that really do get the day off with little to no lasting consequences.)  

Maybe we just don’t like our own company.  Maybe we don’t like the company of whoever we share our home with.  Maybe it’s internalized societal pressure that we have to be visibly, publicly productive to be valuable.  Maybe it’s the pride of being able to overcome Mother Nature.  I think it’s all that and more: we’ve forgotten how to sit still.  We’ve forgotten how to rest, how to just be. Snow days give us the opportunity to practice stillness.  The whole world is still save for the wind and the occasional snow plow. It’s a nondenominational sabbath presented guilt free by gubernatorial decree.

Of course, this externally imposed respite is short.  The next day the plows have done their work, the snowblowers have purred to life, boots are donned, the sun glints off the drifts, and businesses are open.  Life goes on at the same breakneck pace as before.  Perhaps it shouldn’t, at least not quite, not always.  Perhaps we can learn from the blizzard, hold on to that sense of a stillness that is bigger than ourselves.

If we can incorporate stillness into our lives, stress levels drop.  If we add some self-awareness to our stillness, it becomes mindfulness.  Mindfulness is trendy right now, and for good reason.  Lists of its benefits are strewn about the web (one is here).  It’s an antidote to the craziness that surrounds us - shoveling not required.  Stillness gives us the resilience to deal productively with unpleasantness.  It can help us be more compassionate and effective leaders.  Most important for me recently, stillness creates space in our lives - space which is necessary for us to find our passion and follow our bliss.

I was asked once by a very earnest MIT student during a lecture in which I was talking about co-founding Terrafugia how she could tell what her passions were, how she could know that an idea was something she would be happy and effective pursuing.  My answer was simple: if she was still and listened to the quiet voice that’s inside each of us, it would tell her. Maybe not right away, but with patience and encouragement, it would point the way.  As an aside, I think this is even more important for women: we’re so conditioned to see and take care of everyone else’s needs that it can feel indulgent and inappropriate to be still and listen to ourselves.  But it’s critically important for everyone that we develop our inward gaze.

I hope everyone in New England enjoyed this most recent storm and the stillness that it accorded us.  Most importantly, as the snow is cleared, I encourage all of us to create moments of stillness in life, with or without a blizzard to force the issue.  I hope we use that stillness to get to know ourselves and become people that we like to hang out with.  I hope we use that stillness to find our desires and passions, to create the space to follow them.  And, of course, I hope we all remembered to lift those snow shovels with our knees!