Saturday, March 17, 2007

In Gratitude to a Snowblower.

Wayfarer House is replete with a variety of sounds and effects that give visitors the impression that it is a living entity, with its own spirit. Some of them are obvious, like the radiators that hiss and whisper when the heat is on. Others are more subtle, such as the quiet creaks, clicks and rasps the house makes when the wind blows, or as it heats up in the morning or cools down at night. Some of them are man-made, like the computer that hums quietly under the desk or the dishwasher that makes the light in the kitchen dim when it kicks on. This essence can be found in all parts of the house, from the standing freezer that can be heard to purr softly in the basement to the cuckoo clock used that to tick and tock discreetly in the living room (although it has been silent for most of the last couple of years because the little ones have a tendency to pull on the chains). All these are the sounds of home and I am grateful for their presence because they are pleasant, quiet reminders for me to take time to be thankful for them and the comforts they provide.

This feeling of sentience is part of the essence of Wayfarer House, and the house is not the only thing around here that gives this impression. Today’s story, for example, involves our snowblower.

Our snowblower came to us as a result of some stellar yard sale hunting on the part of Wifeness. It cost us $30. I took it to a shop for a tune-up and some love after it came home, and the guy who worked on it said that it would move snow just fine, but that one of the parts in the carbeurator was out of kilter just enough to give it the impression that it breathes like a person does. He started it to demonstrate and, sure enough, it sat there and breathed.

brrrrrrr (inhale), BRRRRRR (exhale), brrrrrrr (inhale), BRRRRRR (exhale)…

I discovered when I put it to use the first time that it breathes harder when it’s working than when it’s idling, and that there is a rhythm that makes it work effeciently, just like a person working at VO2 max. It exhales hard when it pushes heavy snow, to get extra power, just like you or I might. It can push like this for quite a bit, too, but eventually it will run out of breath and, if you try to get it to push snow while it’s inhaling, it will choke and stall. Nothing worse than breathing in your food, right?

I’ve worked with this machine for three winters now, and we have come to understand each other. I keep it fed with gas and oil and help it do its job well, and it throws waaaay more snow for me than it’s designed for.

Just as I do with the house, I try to take time to be thankful for all the machines that I use. This includes the snowblower. It has done very well for us these last three years, and is deserving of regular thoughts of gratitude and appreciation. I must admit, however, that I have been lax in this recently and, as such things happen in my world, it came back to haunt me. During our big 12”+ snowstorm in February, the snowblower shut down about ¼ of the way into clearing out the driveway and refused to start again. It was snowing too hard at the time to rip it apart and find out what the problem was, so I was forced to shovel the rest of the way (many thanks go out to Caleb, who lent his body to the cause that night). The next day, back stiff and shoulders sore, I apologized to the snowblower. I promised to take it in for another tune-up when the winter was over, and I wheeled it to an out-of-the-way corner of the yard to sit out the rest of the season.

I considered it a blessing that we received only one other real snowstorm in February, and it was one that I could shovel without a lot of fanfare. When March arrived, I harbored the faint hope that we would be done with snow for the winter. The gods of winter in New England, however, would not be denied their traditional parting shot before giving way to spring. They sent a Nor’easter to us, laughing as they did so that we should know better than to get our shorts out in March.

Yesterday, the snow fell hard, fast and grainy. It was heavy, like sand, and just as difficult to move. Wifeness wanted to go out after dark and throw some of it around, and came back inside an hour or so later having cleared out about a third of the driveway. Maeve and Caleb, apparently itching for some back-breaking exercise as well, shovelled half of the back parking area. I decided just to wait until the storm finished before I went out. I fully expected that I would be shovelling for four hours or more, and felt no need to draw the pain out into two separate sessions. I went upstairs and rode my bike instead.

The next morning, I got up, tugged on my tall L.L. Bean boots and headed out to take stock of things. In those parts of the driveway where the others had worked the evening before, there was about 6” of snow, but there was a sizeable amount of terrain that sported a full 14” of newly fallen sand, and my body immediately began to protest that shovelling it constituted an abuse which would not go unrecognized--or unavenged.

I stood in the parking lot for several minutes, talking to my body and strategizing about just how I was going to move all that snow, when my eyes found the snowblower. It was nearly covered by snow, and looked pitiful, though unrepentant about its decision a month ago. I knew what I needed to do. Like an insensitive teenager seeking reconciliation with an insulted prom date, I trudged over to the snowblower and again apologized. I talked to it a minute about how it deserved better from me than it got this year, and that I appreciated that it needed to stop that time in February. I wondered, though, if it wasn’t somehow missing out on fulfilling its purpose by simply sitting there. I said there was no pressure, but if it wanted a real workout, this was the perfect opportunity.

(At this point, you are either thinking I’ve completely gone over the edge and you need to take me off your list of blogs to read, or you are smiling because you have had such conversations with supposedly inanimate objects yourself and totally know what this feels like. If you are in the latter group, please read on…)

“OK,” I said with a sigh, “the choice is yours.” I reached down and turned the key to ON. I pulled the choke and primed the engine--three pumps, the way it always likes. I put my hands on the cord and tugged tentatively. It was stiff at first, but yielded after a moment. I pulled again, and got good smooth action. It usually takes three pulls, though, so I braced my feet and pulled hard. There was a cough, a sputter, black exhaust, then nothing. My shoulders slumped, but I decided to give it one more try. I braced my feet and pulled. It coughed. There was more black exhaust, but this time, it roared to life, spitting out the gunk that had settled in the engine from its period of inactivity. Finally, it began to breathe.


I could not help but smile, lift my arms to the heavens and mouth words of thanks. I had no way to know how long this would last, but I committed myself to offering similar gestures of gratitude for however long that was. I turned it toward the parking lot, and we got to work. We bit into the deepest, heaviest snow and steadily threw it toward the edges of the parking lot, doing most of it in stages that helped us to make a HUGE pile on top of the small vegetable garden for the kids to sled down later. We stopped to refuel after. The snowblower got gas; I got coffee. Then, we set to the driveway. This, too, required a staged attack, but we took our time and the snow offered little sustained resistance.

We made continuous progress until we got to the end of the driveway where the town’s plows had thrown up a wall of packed snow and ice nearly 3’ high. Normally, this would have made the snowblower sweat, but not this time. We carved a hole through it, then slowly widened the opening by chewing off slice after slice, until we were through it. I decided to pay this blessing forward and dig out our next door neighbor, too, clearing their driveway and beating a path to their porch, so they could reach their cars.

The snowblower and I worked for three solid hours. When we were done, I patted it on the body and, for the umpteenth time today, said thank you. Then I turned the key and it sighed itself to a stop. Seriously. It said, “Ahhhhh!”. Apparently, it had enjoyed itself. I’m glad. I did, too.

I would have shovelled my house out by hand if it had come to that. I would have worked for 4, 5 or even 6 hours, beating the muscles in my back, shoulders and legs to a pulp in the process. I would have gone to bed at 6pm with 1,000mg of ibuprofen in my system to put me to sleep, and offered appreciation for being healthy enough to shovel all that snow. I would have done this without complaining because it would have been my karma, the consequence for my ignoring the importance of being thankful. However, I am grateful to the universe, and to my snowblower, for giving me a chance to remember the lesson without having to go through all that.

1 comment:

mrschili said...

What IS it with touchy snowblowers?! Mr. Chili has had two since we've lived here - both Arens and both essentially of the same vintage (that may be our problem) - and neither has been what I would call reliable, despite the care and gratitude they receive. The first one (who I nicknamed Christine) tried regularly to kill my husband and managed to burn holes through TWO of his winter coats one year (and I'm talking "holy shit! My coat's on fire!" not some wussy little contact burns..)

I'm thinking I might spring for a brandy-new one at Sears this summer (because everyone in New England knows that you buy BBQ grills in February and snowblowers in July). We have a long, sloping driveway, and though we may only use a snowblower three or four times a year, we need a reliable one when we need one...