A few winters ago, I ran into the backyard after the first snow, and kept going until I had left a path of ever-smaller concentric circles. As will happen with snow, the path remained, and I walked back out along the same way. The kids, much younger then, noticed the design and enjoyed walking on it, too.
As much as being made of snow meant that the path wouldn’t disappear immediately, it eventually faded and was replaced by spring grass and flowers. Yet winter returns each year, and I anticipate the moment on the morning of the first snow of the season… Can we make the spiral, Dad?
Most years, subsequent snows pile on top but leave the pattern discernible underneath, and we walk it over and over to freshen the path to the inside. Other winters, the first snow melts away before the second one comes, and we have to remake the spiral several times over the course of a season. The kids will comment as the spiral disappears, You can still see it…but it will probably be gone by tomorrow.
A few years ago the snow was relentless, its crushing weight on the roof creating dams of ice that forced leaks into our nineteenth century windows. Over and over, I spent hours hours on a ladder, dangling precariously twenty-five feet up, spraying steaming hot water from a hose, melting away the damns. I would climb down the slippery ladder, encased in ice and exhausted, knowing the process would only have to be repeated in a few days time. The inner point of the spiral provided a respite at the end of this work; sitting seiza style in the bitter cold became easier than inside on my maple bench by the heater.
A couple of weeks back, my boys were running through this year’s spiral. We had recently gotten nearly three feet of snow in a storm, so it was tough going even though I had made the path smooth with snowshoes. The boys kept tripping and falling, laughing and shouting.
Be careful, I called.
That three feet of snow, of course, meant that I needn’t worry about them getting hurt. That would be impossible, and wasn’t why I had warned them to be careful. Instead, I was concerned about damage to the spiral.
The absurdity struck me before I finished saying it. The spiral comes and goes with the season and with the weather; it is the definition of impermanence.
Standing there, I knew the undisturbed edges and smooth path of the spiral aren’t real. They are simply my preferences, and aren’t likely to change anything, or to survive the transience of a path made out of snow – or survive the transience of this self I have grown attached to.
The spiral is beautiful after a fresh snow, when its lines are smoothed out. Just like my life, though, the spiral changes form, is disturbed, is re-created over and over, and inevitably disappears. Does it matter if it succumbs to a soft April morning or to my boys’ exuberance?
Buddhism and Zen urge us to practice renunciation, but this isn’t all about giving away our property or joining a monastery. It means letting go of preconceived notions and thoughts, of attachments to the ways we wish things were.
Like the spiral.
Letting go of the spiral, in fact, may open space to be more intimate with the path that is here today, right now. The one where my boys are tripping and falling, laughing and shouting. The one I am walking with my wife, with our children, the one with the rough edges and the sunshine, the snow and flowers, the sticks and the mud.