Here’s to the snow angels

The snow angel's motto: “Good deeds should be done with intention, not for attention.” Photo by Jim Walsh

Heroes penguin-walk among us.

They also shovel, plow, jump-start and push-push-pushhhhh the rest of us out of the ditches, driveways, alleys and snowbound streets of this God-forsaken frozen tundra we call home.

Call ’em snow angels. Or snow blower angels.

Like the arrival of those dusk-descending late-winter murders of crows at sunset these days, I’ve been visited by these fantastic beasts several times already this long winter, and I’m here to say that the experience of waking up to a freshly plowed sidewalk is nothing short of life-affirming. So before the big melt hits, I want to express my profound gratitude to all snow angels past and present, but especially present, because this winter has been especially oppressive, what with all the Darkness and Claustrophobia and Freezing Horror and Fake Everything and Horrible “Me-Me-Me” People everywhere.

God knows we’ve needed you, snow angels, and Lord knows we want to be more like you. Your ego-free and mostly anonymous helping hand is the polar (ahem) opposite of the modern world’s rampant cynicism and serves as the very definition of civic-mindedness and good neighborliness: In doing a good deed for a stranger, every last snow angel gives every last one of us frigid fools a shot in the arm and inspires the rest of the tribe to shovel it forward.

I speak from experience (shout-out to the snow angels of Blaisdell and Bryant avenues) when I say that the sight of a cleared path or driveway, a gift from a complete stranger or a just-a-few-extra-front-walk-squares-shoveling neighbor, goes a long way towards restoring faith in humanity.

Because it forced us to slow down and damn near literally froze us in our tracks, February’s record-setting snowfall and cold has given we the weary plenty to chew on. Namely, why on earth do we live here? I don’t care how the Dayton Bros. or “Game of Thrones” apologists spin it, 40 inches of snow in one month in one of the snowiest winters on record is too much, as is the cabin-fevered stir-craziness that comes with it.

The deepest snow cover in five years has turned this burg into Ice Station Zebra and Siberia during the day, dark side of the moon at night. The roads are a maze of toboggan runs, the freeways ski jumps. The cumulative human effect of three blizzards, 12-foot snowdrifts, barricades of snow and wicked icicles that kill has required some drastic hunkering down. The hardiest among us, of course, went out — bars, theaters, gyms, museums, lakes, woods, green houses — in order to stay warm and keep busy.

Others came to the rescue. But good luck catching a glimpse of any of them in action.

As it should be, and as it works in all sorts of spiritual practices. “Is the reward for good anything but good?” asks the Quran. “A good deed dies when it is spoken about,” goes the Arab proverb. Which is probably why we see the snow angels’ work, if not the snow angels themselves, all over social media. A notoriously shy bunch, their faces remain covered and identities withheld in keeping with their code of altruism and self-sacrifice. They’re not in it for the good karma or the thanks they’re getting here, and there’s a Zen-like philosophy to that, which means their small acts of grace can’t be championed enough.

When duty calls, the snow angels get up and at ’em, valiantly putting on their long underwear and revving up their trucks and snow blowers with no self-pep talk to guide them, other than maybe the words of Aragorn from “Lord of the Rings”: “Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.” Then out they go into the wild blue cold yonder, clearing snow and making paths for the rest of us to go on our merry way, content in the knowledge that they’re doing something tangible for their fellow humans. “Good deeds should be done with intention, not for attention,” goes the old proverb, and the snow angels have likewise embraced Oscar Wilde’s assertion that, “The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.”

All this incognito do-gooding got a name in 1982, when a woman named Anne Herbert wrote on a Sausalito, California restaurant placemat, “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” Since then, variations on the scrawl have become a saying, a bumper sticker, a foundation, a day (Feb. 17 is National Random Acts of Kindness Day) and a movement of so-called Random Acts of Kindness activists (RAKtivists).

Which describes our snow angels, and we could use a few more. At the moment, we’re inundated daily with headlines about haters, politics, racism, hubris, sexism, war and the self-destructive nature of the human ego and people’s own bitter hearts. But the little things matter most, and there’s all sorts of evidence to confirm that big changes in the world come in small but meaningful increments and that the unsung good deeds that happen all the time and all around us provide the very fabric of a healthy hometown and world.

To wit: The late, great television reporter Charles Kuralt spent much of his 30 years talking to ordinary people for his CBS News series “On the Road.” Kuralt traveled from town to town in a motorhome in search of stories that no one else took the time to notice. His beat wasn’t one of press conferences and wagging-the-dog mass media but of people and their places. Near the end of his career, Kuralt concluded, “You can’t travel the back roads very long without discovering a multitude of gentle people doing good for others with no expectation of gain or recognition. The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines. Some people out there spend their whole lives selflessly.”

That’s our snow angels. They give the rest of us pause, hope and proof positive that there is good, love and selflessness in the world. So thanks again, and again, and again. I don’t know you, snow angels, but in lieu of hot chocolate and a neighborly chat, this will have to do.

Also, March is historically the snowiest month in this frozen meat locker we call home, and we’re going to need you.


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]