Look for the helpers #SOL22 4/31

This week has been the kind of week that sometimes leaves me unable to write: one of those weeks where the truth is so outrageous that teachers would be unable to read the whole thing and non-teachers would be so gobsmacked that their mind would rebel and they would declare that this must be an exaggeration; one of those weeks where if I wrote even half the truth, I’d be out of a job; one of those weeks where it’s a lot easier to focus on the crazy than the good.

Andre and I talked about this wild ride of a week as he accompanied me on my daily walk. The weather was much milder than it had been earlier in the week (see yesterday’s complaint), and we chatted companionably as we walked along the almost-thawing sidewalks of our downtown neighbourhood. We stopped at a store and were on our way home when we saw it: a delivery van stuck in the heavy slushy snow, its wheels spinning. Three young men surrounded the van; another was behind the wheel. They were well and truly stuck. As we watched, the driver hopped out and went around back to join one of his companions. They stared forlornly at the wheel.

As Andre and I got closer, one of the men near the front came around to join the two in the back. They conversed briefly, then everyone went back to their original positions: one driving, two in front pushing, and one in back calling directions. Andre was already putting our shopping bag on a dryish patch of driveway as he looked over at me and said, “Wanna help them?”

Of course I wanted to help. This moment – the car stuck, the people pushing – this is part of winter. This is what we do. The wheels spin; the passengers get out; everyone pushes. If that’s not enough, passerby or neighbours pitch in. As people arrive they call out something banal like, ‘Wanna hand?” but they don’t wait for the answer: they are already pitching in, already pushing. So it was with us.

One of the three outside guys said, “Pushing didn’t help much before, but maybe with more of us…” He trailed off because, of course, we were already there. Someone counted, the driver reversed, we all pushed. The van resisted – “rock it!” – rocked forward and slid a little back and sideways. We paused to regroup. The was a brief conversation, but the result was inevitable: we did it again.

There isn’t really space for five people to push the front of a van, but that didn’t stop another passerby from leaving his well-dressed partner to wait on the sidewalk as he joined us. “One, two, three!” We pushed again. More progress.

The girlfriend watched, bemused. The guys gathered and looked at the new situation. “Ok, come forward a little, straighten the wheels, then reverse. We’ll let it rock forward, then push.” We all returned to our positions. The countdown, the forward motion, a giant heave-ho and… free! The van was on the street!

The driver waved out the window to thank everyone. I waited for the other three men to hop into the van, but they didn’t. Two picked up their own packages – I hadn’t noticed them before – from various dry-ish spaces nearby. One loped off on his own, empty-handed. The man who’d joined after us, went back to his partner. He laughed, “She’s not from here. She’s never seen this.” We laughed, too: “You haven’t really made it through winter if you haven’t rescued a car.” They continued on their way. One man turned down a walkway nearby. Another crossed the street in front of us.

It turned out, none of us knew each other. Six strangers (well, I guess I know Andre, so four strangers and a couple) had all stopped on their way from somewhere to somewhere to push a seventh stranger out of the snow on a Friday evening because, despite the pandemic and war, despite nuclear reactors and shooting threats, no matter how crazy the week or the world is, helping someone out is just something we do.

Surprised by Winter #SOL22 3/31

I have lived in Ottawa for 15 years now, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life, but somehow I’m still coming to terms with winter. I’m regularly annoyed when it snows before the end of November. I make jokes like “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a… lion.” As someone raised largely in the South, I mutter “April is the cruellest month” year after year when Ottawa April shows its capricious nature: freeze thaw freeze thaw; few things bloom and I often wonder if Spring will ever arrive.

I should know better. I should.

Despite all of this, I managed to be shocked this morning when I walked out to my car covered in a light layer of snow, and, underneath, the windshield slick with ice. For once, I was leaving vaguely on time, determined to get to school early enough to write this slice before students arrived. But winter had different ideas.

Why replace this scraper? After all, winter’s nearly over, right?

I swept my gloved hand along the seam of the top of the car door before I opened it so that none of the snow would fall on my seat. I half-sat on the front seat and turned the car on, followed by the front windshield heater, the back windshield heater and the seat heater. I groped on the floor for the now-broken scraper that I had decided didn’t need to be replaced this season because “it’s already March.”

Then, I spent the requisite three or four minutes brushing and scraping the car – not quite enough to make me late, really, but just enough to remind me that I should not be surprised by winter. The broken scraper meant that I couldn’t quite reach everything, so I drove to work with the mom minivan mohawk: the narrow strip of snow that not-quite-tall enough moms end up leaving in the middle of the roof of their minivans.

Pretty sure I still won’t buy a new scraper this season. After all, it’s nearly Spring.

Ice, Ice, Baby: Slice of life 16/31 #SOL20

I grew up in southern climes. My father was in the Air Force and we lived in Panama, Texas and California before we settled in South Carolina. Even my “far away” university was below the Mason-Dixon line. As a result, until I moved to Ottawa, I had little experience with seriously cold weather. I refused to agree to move here until I had visited in the winter. My then-boyfriend now-husband was so anxious about this that, when I arrived in mid-February, he met me at the airport, bundled me into a taxi, looked at me and asked, with absolute sincerity, “So, do you think you can handle the cold?” I said yes. This is what love will do to you – even if you’re a Southern Girl.

Ice ripples

I didn’t see snow fall until I was in the 5th grade. That summer, we had moved from California to South Carolina, not exactly a bastion of cold weather, but colder than what I knew. One day in February, someone yelled, “SNOW!” and we all ran to the window to see it until Mrs. Rish called us back in her quavering voice: “Sit down! Sit down, children! It’s not like you’ve never seen snow before.” I turned to her, eyes wide with wonder and said, “I haven’t.” Bless her for saying, “Well then, Mandy, you can stay there.” I pressed my face to the cold glass and watched in amazement for long minutes before I returned to my seat.

Ice near yoga class

You can imagine my first few winters in Ottawa. I had to learn everything anew, not least of which was how to dress myself – and then babies – for cold weather. None of the coats I owned were even close to warm enough. I did not have winter boots. I was pretty sure that no gloves in the world could keep my fingers warm in February. Sometimes I tried to stay inside for days, despite Andre’s gentle insistence that going outside at least once a day was healthy.

parking lot ice


Eventually, time and the kids got me outside. After all, I didn’t want to miss the fun of building snowmen or turning the back porch into an epic sledding ramp. When the boys started parent-child skating lessons, I went to the rink and tried to pretend that, like the other parents, I was mostly there to hold the kids up when, in fact, I was learning, too. Now I can lace skates – theirs and mine – stand up from a fall, and even race my kids down the frozen canal in February. I’ve come to love snowshoeing and have taken a ski lesson to get over my fear of downhill skiing. I still don’t love it, but I can get down a hill.

This icy dragon is breathing fire

The more I played outside in the winter, the more I got used to the cold. Sure, I wear hats and gloves starting in October and straight through to April, making “real” Canadians laugh, but in last year or two I’ve caught myself “just running to the car” in slippers & a bathrobe even when the temperature is well below zero (Celsius – think maybe in the 20s Fahrenheit). Yet none of this prepared me for my recent fascination with ice.

ice from below
Ice stalactites from a roof

Canadian kids have some built-in knowledge about ice. They know which patches are likely to be slippery and which ones they can careen across without a second thought. My children tear down the sidewalk, sure-footed, running ahead while I slide my feet tentatively across every potentially slick patch, always unsure of what is safe. I am not ice-savvy; I’m not sure I ever will be. Perhaps this is why I started examining the ice all around me as I walked. It was as if my brain concluded “If I can’t intuit things about ice, maybe I can observe my way into this important knowledge.”

Much to my children’s disgust, instead of becoming a savvy winter walker, I’ve slowed down even further. The more I look at the ice, the more I fall in love. These days, I stop on the sidewalk, pause in parking lots and wander through parks, looking at the ice the way I once looked at the falling snow, in absolute wonder at the unexpected beauty of winter.