Snow’s spiritual smackdown

On the fifth day home with five young kids five miles down an unplowed gravel road, something broke.

Gratefully, it wasn't my psyche. Or my back from shoveling. We did enjoy some Norman Rockwellian family moments, but in the escalating number of school cancellations, kid-versus-kid skirmishes, garbage bags stacked near the back door, angstyness, etc., I glimpsed a crack in the edifice. A pattern.

This was the "blizzard beneath the blizzard." In fact, there were three, and each led me to the same place.

The "ideal parent"

My earliest memory is "helping" my dad shovel out of the Chicago blizzard of '78. Memories like this set the parental bar high, and 120 hours home with our kids suddenly place before us a wide blank canvas as vast as a snowdrift. I'm not good with math, but 5 times 5 equals 25 days of life.

So, I stoked fires and led several shoveling and sledding expeditions. The kids pummeled me in snowball fights. My wife did a marathon reading of C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew by the fireplace, and we were all transported. We feasted on her Chinese rice, a family favorite going back three generations.

Yet in the fatigue, we glimpsed the parenting "beneath" our parenting. We were reminded that there is always more we can imagine giving to each child, and the blizzard kept holding this "more" ("Another snow day - what are we going to do?") up to us on an epic scale. We had to make peace with our limitations.

"Ahead" at work

120 consecutive hours at home with a laptop can hatch the idea of "getting ahead." One friend made his way into the office despite the snow and claimed to do just that: He cleared his desk. I had moments when I wanted to be that guy.

But whenever I fired up my laptop, I saw endless threads. Each sent e-mail triggered a sense of accomplishment, but of course that elicited a reply, ad infinitum, until it became a self-automating juggernaut. In the few moments when my wife and I were able to turn to work, either a 4-year-old boy clung to us or a daughter held her hot chocolate over the keyboard.

"All of us are haunted by the work under the work," writes Tim Keller, "that need to prove and save ourselves, to gain a sense of worth and identity." "Haunted" is exactly the right word to describe that vast forlorn world, a place without rest, without the Sabbath. Sometimes it takes a blizzard to reconnect with this truth, an admission of our limits.

"Control"

As the blizzard rolled in, I woke in the middle of the night and went room to room. The wind gusted. Our dead-end road was already impassable. The only thing separating us from the 19th century was a slender powerline (we don't have a generator).

Because we didn't lose power, we could cling to an illusion of control. But we knew better. Our Outlook calendars - showing cancellation upon cancellation - were becoming a farce. It seemed herculean to plan out even one morning with the kids - let alone an entire day.

A friend of ours is fond of saying that encountering God first requires the "gift of desperation." Desperation for Dominion Power and Wi-Fi, after all, is very different from desperation for God. If this friend is right, then the blizzard of 2016 just might be the spiritual smackdown - and gift - we need.

For if we accept this unlikely gift of desperation, we find not a haunted place, but peace: the antidote to our blizzards beneath the blizzard. Our parenting, work and calendars fall - rightly ordered - into place.

Cut off from our parish, we convened the family that Sunday for a televised Mass. Together we couldn't help kneeling during the words of consecration. "Save us, Savior of the world," we said in our snow-locked living room, "for by your cross and Resurrection, you have set us free."

Looking up at the screen, we glimpsed with new longing the gift of our true and only source.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's delegate for evangelization and media.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016