Snow is general

Whenever a significant amount of snow falls, I’m reminded of the last paragraph from James Joyce’s The Dead:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Meaningful and moving, it’s an eloquent series of sentences. Joyce’s description of the snow starts with sound, moves to sight and culminates with feeling before returning to sound once again. The repetition and rhythm are beautiful, even as the words come to represent a grim realization of death’s inevitability. The falling snow moves westward — like the coming journey of the story’s main character Gabriel Conroy — toward a setting sun. Its final resting spot is on the barren thorns of a cemetery.

The metaphor doesn’t end there. Written when Irish nationalism was at its most prominent, The Dead concludes Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners by referring to the necrosis of Ireland’s entire population. The stories assault any sense of virtue in Irish identity by revealing its hypocrisy and the heavily coloured nostalgia of its people. The Dead acts as the final nail in a coffin created by the author for his countrymen.

***

The colour of my hometown is burgundy. It was the colour of my high school, the colour of our junior hockey team and even the colour of the logo on commercials prompting residents to shop in our revitalized downtown. This is the colour you’re supposed to picture when you think of my city.

However, much like Joyce’s Dublin, when I remember my hometown it’s always covered in snow. I remember shovelling it from a driveway to play ball hockey. I remember shuffling my feet in it while looking down during a Remembrance Day ceremony. I remember it covering the streets on my 19th birthday, even though I was born in the summer. Despite how obviously impossible it is, every memory I have growing up involves a cityscape sheathed in snow.

When I was in grade 11, a national newspaper published a feature on my city, and referred to it as the Canadian Berkeley because of the liberal arts university on the outskirts of town. It made the town I hated for its backwards ways, seem progressive, welcoming to a new bohemian lifestyle and above all, tolerant. It was laughable to townies. The piece’s evidence for the city’s social awakening was rooted in a population who spent eight or nine months there a year and probably had no plans to stick around once they graduated.

In my final year of high school, I made friends with a student refugee from Uganda who attended classes at the university. Unsurprisingly, he had never seen snow before leaving his country. I still remember his talking excitedly about the crunch of his foot stepping down and compacting freshly fallen snow.

He was an enormous man, taller than my 6’4” frame and about twice as wide. He would always walk to classes from the cheap student housing where he lived. It was a considerable distance, and every so often we would see him on our way home from school and stop to give him a lift in our clunky family minivan.

To battle the elements on his long walks, he wore a cheap winter coat that didn’t cover enough of his arms and completely unfashionable boots that covered too much of his legs. One day he slipped on some ice that was hidden under a thin layer of snow and severely sprained his ankle.

Because of his injury he had to take the bus to school for a little while. He told me about one time when he was riding our progressive town’s transit and an old man sitting near the front called him a monkey. I was appalled, but he thought it was funny.

I tried to explain the racist intent behind the comment, but it didn’t bother him. He and his family had experienced much worse than name-calling back home. He came to where I lived because a nearby church held a book drive and sent textbooks to his village. “Everyone else,” he said, “sent guns and war.” He never considered snow as a reason to stay or go. It was barely a second thought for him, even after it hurt him.

All he ever wanted to do was leave the place he was born, and he made my similar ambitions seem trite. I didn’t need to flee because of persecution or the threat of violence. I simply felt as though I was being inundated with winter, and I might make more agreeable, less snow covered memories somewhere else. My motivation was metaphoric, his was all too real.

We fell out of touch after I left. I traded the colour of my high school for the colour of the downtown university. I exchanged my junior hockey burgundy for professional hockey blue. It was an even older colour, but it wasn’t yet accented by snow.

If my friend made the most of his escape, I made the least of mine. Fuelled by minimal effort and bullshit, I floated through my university classes like an abandoned blimp still full of gas. I drank, tried drugs and partied with all the people I knew from my small town, just in a different setting.

Instead of grabbing hold of the opportunities a big city affords, I embraced its comforts without actually taking advantage of being comfortable. I derived pleasure from knowing I could order sushi at four in the morning, even though I never did.

Despite my lack of effort, I eventually graduated and landed a job that wasn’t difficult, paid a good salary and was supervised by managers who mistook the slightest bit of competence for talent. The only fight in me was the one I expended in getting out of my hometown, and once I escaped, I did everything I could to recreate the familiarity I left behind.

I kept imagining a sudden realization, like the ones the characters in Dubliners had, would set me free or at least make me aware of the falling snow. An epiphany never came, but over time, I grew up a little bit more, found a better job, fell in love with someone who miraculously reciprocated and had a series of life experiences that felt unique, but are most likely too common to mention.

Last week, before blizzard hyperbole threatened sensibility in the Northeast, before I was reminded of The Dead or before I began reflecting on my own journey West, I traveled back to my hometown to interview for a job at the liberal arts university my old Ugandan friend used to attend.

In a way, even considering a position there felt like a defeat — or worse, a cliché. It would be the full circle return of someone who had lost. If not defeated by life, moving back to the region meant I had lost all that motivated me to leave those years ago.

But there’s another way of looking at it, and perhaps this is nothing more than a literary justification for considering it, but in both my experience and Joyce’s The Dead, we move with the snow.

As much as we might try to avoid it through hypocrisy and nostalgia, the snow is constant. It follows us or we follow it toward the setting sun, but it’s always there and we’re always dying with it.

You don’t have to have grown up with snow, or even to have seen it at all to be affected by it. Reading a newspaper still reveals snow to be general all over the world. However, there remains no general way to deal with it.

What happens when we go back to weather it? Do we finally die, or does Spring eventually come and save us? I’m not sure it’s something I’m ready to discover yet, but I think when or if I do I might read Dubliners and think of snow differently.

In order to write like Joyce does about the hypocrisy and mistaken sentimentality of the Irish, there has to be a love for the people, a desire to see them live authentically. There are too many epiphanies and too much realization in Dubliners for it to merely be a critical commentary on a culture.

There is hope in those pages. It’s a desire that we’ll see the falling snow. Falling. Falling. General. Upon all the living and the dead.

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