Sunday, January 10, 2010

Slowly in the Snow

My mindfulness practice has been suffering of late.  I haven't made it to my evening meditation group in quite a while, and I wasn't able to attend my sangha's day of mindfulness yesterday because the buses were canceled due to 'heavy' snowfall (heavy for Lyon that is, not for a Northerner such as myself!).

Just to give you an idea, here's a picture of the snow in front of my house.  We haven't moved the car all week since our driveway hasn't been and likely won't be plowed, so that's all the snow we've accumulated so far.  And it's still coming down!  You can just make out my hardy winter cat fraying a path towards the garage:

What's funny about snow in places that usually don't get any is that they just don't have the capacity to deal with it - either in terms of equipment or attitude.  I'm sure the public works folks are doing all they can, but the roads are still far from clear after less than 6 inches of snowfall.  What's even stranger is that they keep canceling the city's bus service.  In fact, Friday night ALL the buses were canceled, leaving only the metro and tramway, which obviously don't go everywhere.  And yesterday  morning, when I wanted to go meditate, only about 6 bus lines were running normally, and the ones I needed not at all.

But the weirdest part is that they outright canceled the school buses a few times - though they didn't close the schools.  So either parents had to bring their kids on roads the buses didn't want to take, or the kids stayed home.  Kevin explained that when that happens your absence doesn't really count, but with my memories of hoping for snow days and checking the radio to see if my school was on the list, I can't help wonder why they just don't cancel school outright.  What's the fun of a snow day for only some of the kids?

And if the buses are a bit shy in the snow, then car drivers seem to fall into two basic categories:  anxious or oblivious.  People either drive comically slow at 10 miles an hour because they're completely freaked out, or they roar along as if nothing has changed - not because they're confident winter drivers, but because nothing slows them down:  they try to take off gunning at a green light, wheels spinning; or start skidding and sliding when they turn too quickly. 

It's because of those people that I haven't been riding my bike all week - I think I can handle the roads, but I don't trust the oblivious folks not to come slamming into me because they haven't given themselves enough time to brake.  And if the roads are barely clear, then the bicycle paths are completely unnavigable.  They're either dangerously slick in sub-zero temps or a slow trudge in slush or powder when it heats up a bit (according to kevin's report, since he's actually been braving the snow-covered city on his bike). 

I've been taking the metro and tram, which is frustrating because it's so much slower than my bike, and it's been really packed because of bus cancellations and anxious drivers who've left their cars at home.  But the biggest problem is that sidewalks are downright treacherous and salt or sand seem to be in short supply. Homeowners/residents and shopkeepers are ostensibly responsible for clearing the sidewalks on their turf, but in the big anonymous city in a country of people who often pride themselves on getting around the rules, it just doesn't happen.  I remember that one winter when I lived in Western Massachusetts, my roommates and I hadn't gotten around to clearing the sidewalk after a heavy snowfall, and the police actually came to our house (following a neighbor's complaint) and informed us that we would be fined if we didn't shovel the walk immediately!  I can't imagine the police here lifting a finger to respond to that kind of complaint...

So all week I've been picking my way slowly and gingerly over the ice and slush to and from the metro stop, annoyed at Lyon's alternately insufficient or exaggerated response to a bit of snow, and regretting the mild, snowless winters I'd grown accustomed to here.

Given my frustrating week and lack of practice recently, I could have really used that day of mindfulness with my sangha yesterday.  But after cursing the bus service for a while, I finally decided to practice mindfulness on my own.  I had some errands to run, so I decided to go forth into town mindfully, which for me meant slowly, fully aware of what I was doing and where I was.  One of the nice thing about French cities is that they're typically organized into 'arrondissements,' or administratively distinct neighborhoods with their own city hall and mayor, and all the shops and services you need (bank/post office, bakery, grocery store, pharmacy, etc).  I live in the 9th arrondissement, so all I had to do yesterday was just put on my warmest clothes (including my little-used Northern girl super-thick long underwear), my big boots, and hit the snow-covered trail.

With each step I tried to pay attention to my breathing and to where I was going, noticing what was around me - the softness imparted by the snow; the quiet, the calm.  I tried especially (and this was more difficult) to avoid annoyance at the condition of the sidewalk, instead just being as careful as I could, placing my feet mindfully in front of me.  I reminded myself I wasn't in a hurry, thinking of one of the gathas (a little poem to help with meditation) from Plum Village:  'Nowhere to go, Nothing to do.'  Even though I had a clear destination and a list, the point of mindfulness is to be focused on where we are rather than where we are going.

So I walked slowly and mostly mindfully into town, appreciating that I could walk and didn't have to brave the roads or the crowded metro.  I first returned my books to the library, then spent some leisurely time perusing the shelves and picking out a few  books and DVDs.  On my way to the restroom before leaving I had the strange experience (in my state of mindfulness, anyway) of having a woman come up behind me so quickly that I thought she was going to push me aside.  She didn't actually touch me, but she did rush past me into the bathroom, and when she came out of the stall she was in such a hurry that she didn't dry her hands completely under the hand dryer, shaking her hands and wiping them on her pants instead.  As I took the time to thoroughly dry my own hands, breathing mindfully all the while, I laughed to think that I'm usually that impatient myself:  rushing from one thing to the next, hating those hand-dryers, annoyed with slower people than myself, overtaking them on sidewalks or wherever they happen to be in my way.  But at that moment, I was the slow one annoying others!

I continued my errands even more mindful of taking my time, relishing the slowness, all the more so because the slippery sidewalks required it.  Instead of fighting the snow, I embraced it, enjoying the crunch under my feet, the sparkly beauty of my neighborhood transformed, the laughter of children gleefully throwing powdery snowballs.  I took my time in the shops, browsing, happy to be supporting small local businesses and to live in a neighborhood where I can do almost everything I need to on foot. 

As I finally meandered home, back bent under the weight of my overfilled backpack (the consequence of so much browsing!) I felt lighter somehow, even happy despite my heavy load and the thick, roiling snowflakes blowing in my face.  I'm not sure how long I took to run my errands - surely much longer then usual, but time didn't matter - I had nowhere to go, nothing to do.  And while I was intitally disappointed that I wasn't able to join my sangha for a day of practice, in the end I was with them in spirit, praticing mindfulness in my own slow way.

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