My Driveway is My Teacher

One Day

I shoveled in the dark. It was hard work. It was very quiet, all around. The street had not even been plowed yet. I was the only one out there. To amuse myself, I groped for that charming Billy Collins poem about shoveling with Buddha. All I can remember is that he felt awkward because it was so cold. As I scanned my brain for more lines, I looked up, and the headlamp illuminated the tree branches, heavy with snow, making a roof over the driveway. “Now this,” I thought, “this is lovely.”

I cleared the snow and ice from the bottom of the driveway. I cleared a path to the storm drain, even. I came back inside, made a pot of coffee, ate someone’s leftover sweet potato biscuit, got dressed, walked to campus. As I neared the bottom of the driveway I saw that the snow plow had come…and dumped snow over the path I’d just cleared at the bottom of the driveway. I let it go. I walked right over the snow dump and kept letting it go, all the way to campus. School had closed that day, but I attended a lunch with a visiting scholar and got to talk to her about our shared research interests. And there, in the margins, I felt comfortable.

Another Day

A midday thaw meant that I could tackle the ice pool at the end of the driveway. It also meant that runoff poured down the street. I cleared the storm drain of leaves and snow and slush so the water could flow past the driveway instead of pooling up. I cleared a path to the storm drain from the other direction so the street wouldn’t ice up when it got cold again in a few hours. I looked across the street and saw a pool of water forming because that storm drain was blocked. I cleared it, and a waterfall of water rushed into the cleared drain.

As I cleared, I knew that the water would just keep coming. I knew that I was stemming the tide, but I couldn’t stop it. There is all this snow, a seemingly endless source of water to rush past my driveway. I thought of the Buddhist monks who’d visited the first year or two we lived here. They made a mandala of sand, and when they made a mistake, they’d clear it and start over. I remember how amazed people were by that. They’d see it, talk about it. I only now begin to understand it. The water will never stop coming. But I’ve cleared it, for now. I walked past my cleared bottom-of-driveway, up my cleared driveway underneath the tiniest, gentlest hail pellets.

Later That Day

After a few hours of work  in the house, I came back outside in late afternoon. The cold was setting in. All that runoff from the midday thaw just froze into place. The entire driveway was slick. It wasn’t ice, it was more like a sticky film. I tried to wedge a shovel underneath it, but it couldn’t penetrate. I skidded as I maneuvered across it. Slapstick! I began salting the whole driveway and ran out of salt. In texting a friend, I learned that there was no salt to be found in town.

I stood at the top of the driveway, feeling the terror return, the abandonment, the hopelessness. I was up here, and the world was down there, and the slick driveway was an impenetrable barrier.

I was supposed to go out with a group of women for a birthday outing. They all had cabin fever from the kids being out of school so much. I don’t doubt that it’s hard for them, but I can’t commiserate. Then there’s this, this slick driveway. Even if I could get down the driveway, how could I  frolic and sit with them when I all I feel is horror and incapacity?

This is when I’m supposed to reach out for help. I wonder if I should call a friend to ask her to buy some salt and leave it on the bottom of my driveway. But my road is slippery, and where would she get salt? I call a nearby gas station. They’ve got something that sounds eco-hazardous. Daughter and I bundle up, don headlamps and walk the half-mile to the gas station, return with each of us carrying a 12lb. container. We pass someone we know who remarks, “Oh are you the jolly neighborhood salt sprinklers?” We must look adorable. I am terrified. The chasm–it widens.

Daughter and I clear what the salt has melted, and we sprinkle more salt, but judiciously. As I go to sleep, I’m not even sure if I can get down the driveway the next day, by car or by foot. But we have such a good reading to discuss in class.

The salt did decent work overnight. The next morning I take my chances and as slowly as possible, glide the car down the steep driveway with minimal braking. I do not slide into the gully. I do not careen into another car in the street. I show up at big box hardware store at 6:30. They open at 7. Head to the grocery store. Out of salt. I buy a coffee, return to big box, grade papers until they open. No salt. I stop at the gas station and buy the last container of that eco-hazardous stuff. I head to retro grocery store and grade papers in the car until they open. No salt. Head to campus and get a good spot because I’m so early. The class discussion of the reading is great.


The snow has melted, and the driveway is clear, for now. On this blustery day, where the wind carries faint memories of spring, I tend to the driveway, again. All that salt we used to melt the ice has done damage to the top layers. The few days of mad runoff eroded it further. I patch the worst pot holes with a gooey filler. I bought a hoe, which I use to tamp it down. Bam! Bam! Bam!

My driveway taught me so much this year. It made me afraid, and I faced the fears. It made me develop new muscles. It made me buy a new pair of boots with excellent treads, and I wear them all the time because I never know when the driveway will need tending, so now I sit in department meetings next to my well-dressed colleagues, looking like a lumberjack. That’s all to say, the driveway is a hegemon, taking over my life. It taught me that accomplishments are fleeting and will be met with more snow, more ice, more runoff, and sometimes it’ll all clear up.

But when I stood at the top of the driveway the day of the ice storm, and I didn’t know how I would melt it, and wondered if we were stuck up there for days, that’s when something clicked. That’s when I felt isolation in my bones. I am isolated, from just about everyone I know. Grief is to blame for part of it. But really, it’s not that. It’s mental illness.

For six years I lived with a husband with a wretched mental illness. For the last two I’ve been taking care of someone else with a different mental illness. It’s the thing I won’t talk about here, but that day, as the cold set in and the sheet of ice lay between me and my town, I felt the despair and isolation bubble up from inside of me. It wasn’t imposed on me; I always carry that around.  There are barriers that prevent me from knocking back a beer with friends and colleagues, from showing up at the parent meetings at schools, from chatting in the grocery store. Taking care of someone with mental illness is enervating, deflating, soul-sucking, dream-crushing. It is isolating. Few people know, and very few know how bad it gets. I try to keep myself happy and healthy, but that is undermined by….never mind, I won’t spill those details.

Only this–now I know, with perfect clarity, the damage that mental illness has done to the people I love and the years it has stolen from me. Knowledge is no solace here. The clarity of it only shows me how powerless I am to stop it, how imprisoned I am by it, and have been for so long. I have gained wisdom, but it is a terrible wisdom. The ice has melted, but I am trapped like that, with feeling of horror and incapacity, any day, and I have been for a long time.

And what are ya gonna do? Chop wood, carry water, shovel the snow, patch the holes, get some sleep.


3 thoughts on “My Driveway is My Teacher

  1. You are very good at using your every day chores as deeper metaphors, but given your profession, it’s no surprise. I really enjoy your posts.

    This has been such an awful winter! My driveway is not flat and it effects what I can and cannot do in the winter. I bought some ice fisherman’s cleats that I can pull on over my boots and they are a life-saver—literally. When we couldn’t get salt here in town, I figure out that I could get Amazon to deliver me some. I got it before the local stores did. I have a drain, too, that I try to keep open. Right now it’s covered over with an eight foot high pile of snow. I can’t wait until spring!

  2. Oh Jean, your winter is so much worse than mine. But it was hard here, and there was nothing to do but keep shoveling.

    You know, I have a pair of ice cleats…or I did. I slipped them on the night that Daughter and I walked to get salt. On the way back, she pointed to the ground and exclaimed, “There’s your cleat!” Both of them had slipped off as I stepped into and out of the snow. Luckily, my excellent-tread boots (Blundstone Boots, by the way) kept me upright that night. I only fell once, and that was on black ice.

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