When He Sees His Shadow.
Yesterday was Groundhog Day, and the beginning of February often brings fearful storms to the places where the prairies kiss the Ozarks. A long-toothed, soothsaying woodchuck saw his shadow, and winter felt justified in dropping a blizzard on us. Just under a foot of snow fell on the elegant Gregorian date of 2/2/22.
Some people hunker down. Some people revel in being the sort of tough that ignore adversity and scrape a foot of snow off of their car with bluster and bravado and drive on while others cower.
It’s just the way people are, of course.
But around here, I’ve noticed there’s a sun-reddened tan of pride that’s come to cover a thin-skinned pulse of necessity. When my mother woke before dawn to break ice on water troughs for animals in her care—cattle, horses—her comfort and safety was not a consideration. When my father spent long, snowy nights hunting to bring in fur pelts to trade to keep his family through winter lean seasons, he didn’t take snow days.
I watched the kinds of folks who worked and drove in hard weather—not out of braggadocio, but out of necessity. And somehow it has transformed into a cult of tough, rather than an acceptance of the disparities of life. Of class. Of social and physical location. I have seen my father’s suffering become commercials for trucks my parents could never have afforded. It confuses me.
I don’t like driving in the snow.
And yet, I worked a job over seven years where I was required to report under all weather conditions. I suffered through several blizzards—making do a half-dozen different ways to get there. I never felt tough. I always felt the stress and fear of the exposure to the hazards of the weather. I take no pleasure in it. I have stories of the hardships that I share that are almost funny, except for the details. I hope I can hang onto the details, if nothing else, of the white-knuckles as I drive or ride, no matter how confident the driver.
I owe my father that. I owe my mother that. She still drives icy roads to care for people who are vulnerable—through blizzards, tornado warnings… through long seasons of Covid infections.
“I’ll be careful,” she says. “I always am,” she assures me. There’s an always.
There are risks to the cult of toughness. People do what they must, of course. Always have. People like those I have known around here. Farmers breaking water for cattle. Those paid minimum wage or a touch above to care for folks with disabilities. People who process chickens. Those who scrape money together cutting timber and scrapping and roofing and “any kind of work you can think of.” When I lived in Kentucky, I met them as miners, getting as much money as they could until they drowned in thin air with lungs dying of deregulation.
These folks are always at risk, of course. But their vulnerability is now sold back to them, and to the rest of the country, as somehow worth more than the value of their own safety. I know stiff-necked pride. I come from Ozark hillbilly stock.
“Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face,” my mother used to say to me. I grasped at its meaning from an early age.
Here I am, just past Groundhog Day, in a county with Covid flaring—the 12th highest positivity rate in the state. Even our breakthrough rate is over 30%. Unsurprising when only 46% of our county is believed to have started the vaccination series. Tough isn’t enough. Pushing through isn’t enough. Two deaths since last week. Three people on ventilators. Tough isn’t enough.
I don’t like driving when the road conditions are shitty. I don’t like any of this.
I like my friend who calls my writing, “Apocalypse Today.” She keeps my humble and makes me laugh. And she doesn’t shame me for my lack of stoicism. For my unwillingness to tough it out in silence.
She and her family put me up for a few days during this Groundhog Day blizzard, in case I needed to physically report to work in Real Town, instead of being able to telework—in this brave, weird new world. They gave me privacy and French press coffee. She put up with my endless anxiety and complaints about the snow and the ice. It shakes my bones, a certain memory.
My father complained about the pain in his elbow caused by a fall on the ice when I was ten. It injured him—the sort that had to be fixed without doctors, thanks to a lack of health insurance, using veterinary supplies and ingenuity and details that I am numb to. I have discovered most of my city friends are not. There are things I have seen that I wish I could unsee.
There is no glamor in this injury. No glory in a lack of health insurance. There is a horror in some of the truths we tell about the things we do when we must.
My father would have worn a mask to avoid leaving his family without a source of income. To avoid bringing home an illness to his youngest, medically-fragile daughter. He obeyed (and enforced) all of the OSHA regulations on every one of his construction job sites out of love for his children and care for his coworkers. He had a healthy fear of the dangers of his job. To do otherwise was foolish as a construction worker. He had friends killed by other people’s lack of healthy respect for risk. Yet he kept working.
I have inherited my parents’ ability to do what I must, when I must. I have done hard things. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing that I complain, when I hurt or when I feel fear. I don’t think there is dishonor in avoiding unnecessary danger and pain. And I know that when I see Covid spikes and non-unionized labor and speeding on ice. It is foolishness to sell risk to ourselves as glory, and suffering as a badge of honor.
I know we just do what we must, when we must.
We always have.