The Big Ice Storm

Was it possible that their positive experiences had a lot less to do with attitude, and a lot more to do with just plain luck?

Some years ago I was part of an online New Age chat group. Most of our discussions centered on matters relating to our spiritual growth and understanding, interspersed with light chatter.

The group fostered some very real friendships, but there also arose spats and quarrels and misunderstandings. No emoji can really convey the intent and tone of written words, and misinterpretations occurred. Moderators did their best, but harsh words were sometimes exchanged while the spectators took sides. The group eventually dissolved due to these problems, but I had left it months previously. My departure was triggered by The Big Ice Storm.

Heavy sleet had begun to fall mid-afternoon on a weekday. In no time at all, roads, sidewalks, trees, shrubs—everything was encased in a thick glaze of ice. Office workers who could do so began heading out early, piling into their cars in a futile attempt to evade the worst of the storm. But the ice outran every effort people made to escape its freezing grasp.

My supervisor bailed hastily, and advised me to do so, also. Sadly, this meant only that I spent more time huddled in the glass-sided shelter house at my bus stop. Clustered together with other public transit sufferers, I stood for nearly three hours waiting for a delayed bus in plummeting temperatures, as frigid winds snaked about my ankles and froze my feet to pain.

After a terrifying journey on ice shrouded roads, I arrived home nearly four hours later than usual to an apartment that was dark and cold. I’d left no lights on, since most days I got in well before darkfall; I always thriftily turned the thermostat down for the hours when I wasn’t at home.  Power lines had collapsed all over the city, but I gratefully found that my electricity was working, and switched on the lights and furnace. When I’d finally stopped shivering, I checked on family members, discovering to my relief that everyone had arrived home safely. Finally, I sat down at my computer to read e-mail messages.

There, to my horror, I learned that the sister of a friend had been among those who died in a pileup on the icy interstate highway. Tears sliding down my cheeks, I dashed off a sober response expressing shock and sympathy; then turned to messages from the chat group, hoping to hear they were all safe.

They were. And their descriptions of their own journeys home bore, I found, very little resemblance to my experience. Some had not even needed to travel; the storm had fortunately coincided with their days off. One mentioned that, as a manager, she’d been able to leave her office before the first pellets of sleet cascaded from the sky. Her route home unencumbered by the traffic that would flood the streets only a short time later, she’d stopped at the grocery for a few items and enjoyed a warm chocolate chip cookie fresh from the bakery. Then she’d pulled into her driveway, where her teenage children had bounded out to schlep in her shopping bags.

She and other chat group members prattled on about how minimally they’d been affected by the storm, attributing their experiences to their positive attitudes. It was all in one’s expectation and mindset, they asserted. It was all about gratitude and belief.

I considered the differences of my own experience to theirs. I remembered, shaking with cold, yet grateful that I’d been able to claim a space huddled within the crowded bus shelter. I recalled my thankfulness as my bus evaded the accidents plaguing the roads. I thought about my relief and appreciation that the electricity had remained on at my apartment. I reflected on the tragedy of my friend’s sister, and a journey home that didn’t include warm chocolate chip cookies and happy children, but arriving to a lonely apartment that was both frigid and dark.

Then I put my fingers on the keyboard and called bullshit on their remarks.

My mindset had been, I pointed out, positive throughout. I was both grateful and appreciative; thankful for my own and others’ safety. But my experience was miserable nevertheless: freezing, fear, loneliness, and the terrible news of a death. Perhaps, I suggested, perhaps they could tell me how I could have effected any difference in these events by my attitude? Was it possible that their positive experiences had a lot less to do with mindset, and a lot more to do with just plain luck?

It wasn’t a popular position to take, as evidenced by the onslaught of shaming replies I received to my statements. Still, I refused to back down, despite reprimands from nearly every group member.

Shortly thereafter I quit the chat group, although I’d quite enjoyed it up to then.

Sometimes still, especially in on bad winter days, I think about that chat group and the Big Ice Storm. I think about the fact that, if I’d been angry and resentful, the misery I endured that day might well have been, at least emotionally, far worse. But all the positive attitude in the century would not have changed the actual outcome of the nasty events of that storm.

It’s not always only about one’s attitude. Truly, it isn’t. Often, it’s just the simple luck of the draw—or not.

If this essay appealed to you, you might also enjoy “My Be-Attitude”,
which can be found in the Archives dated April 17, 2019,
or “The Wrong Road”, from March 4, 2020.

The Wrong Road

§  “…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken  §

Hmmm. Well, I didn’t take the road less traveled by. I took the one with a traffic jam.

I went to an afternoon party at a friend’s home (oh, heavens—now the first stanza of Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party” is going to be an earworm, running in my brain for hours!) No, I went not to a garden party but to a girls’ afternoon out–a tea party, followed by a movie. It was a friendly and delightful excursion; one of those lovely afternoons which make me ever so glad that I lived long enough to retire and therefore enjoy such innocent pastimes. It was a brilliant afternoon, too—soft and warm, with just the tiniest chill in the air hinting at the beginning of fall, while sunshine still sparkled.

Now, as happens all too often in Indiana, I couldn’t drive my accustomed route to my friend’s home, since most of the roads around her neighborhood were under repair. (As we who live here often joke, the barrier horse is the Indiana state animal!) But I was prepared for this situation, knowing that half the roads in the city had been under construction during the summer. So I found an alternate route, arriving at her home without any problem.

However, after the movie concluded and I had made my goodbyes, I realized that I was leaving right in the middle of rush hour. Again, not a problem. Although driving an unfamiliar route in heavy traffic can, and sometimes does, spark one of my anxiety attacks, in this instance I had nowhere to be at any particular time. I could saunter along toward home without hurrying, driving defensively. If worse came to worst, I decided, I’d just pull over at one of the stores along the way and shop for a bit until the traffic thinned.

As I approached one intersection, though, I had a choice to make: turn left, and continue the quicker route down the busy highway until reaching the cross street I needed, or saunter straight ahead for a distance down a road that crossed a lovely area called Banta Woods. The Banta Woods neighborhood had once had been a minature, heavily forested woodland. When housing was later constructed on the parcel of land, the building company saved and incorporated into the landscape dozens of the tall, old trees, as many as possible. Banta Road was was usually a very pretty drive, with sunlight dappling the pavement through the nodding leaves of the trees.

I chose woodland over highway.

It was possibly not one of my brighter decisions.

With so many of the east/west roads under construction and detoured, Banta was one of the few streets still available to the rush hour traffic. Within just a few seconds, all traffic had come to a virtual standstill.

I started to fume. Wasted time, wasted gas… But then, amazing even myself, I recalled the reason why I had decided to cruise down Banta Road in the first place. I reminded myself that I had no need to hurry. Lifting my eyes, I began to admire the lovely foliage: leaves shining under the soft afternoon sunlight, some just beginning to show a hint of fall color. I admired the landscaping of the yards surrounding the large, lovely homes of this luxurious housing edition. When the line of cars ground to a complete halt, I shifted the car into park and took a few moments to safely text my daughter. I watched as cars ahead of me whipped into neighborhood cross streets, their drivers’ faces set in grim lines as they made U-turns and charged back the way they’d come, thereby allowing the rest of us to slide ahead a few car lengths.

Eventually, finally, I came to the end of Banta Road and turned left onto the wide avenue that would take me to the cross street I needed. But what could have been an exercise in frustration had, instead, been almost a meditation. I arrived at the busy avenue refreshed and relaxed, and wended my way home.

I am still astonished at how a simple change of attitude turned a frustrating and irritating circumstance into a pleasant afternoon’s drive.

I did not take the road less traveled; I took the one with the traffic jam. And it did, indeed, make all the difference.

My Be-Attitude

When I am doing housework, I usually wear my glasses, not my contacts. This is a self-defense measure: I’m a lot less likely to end up with stirred-up dust or other particles irritating my eyes if I’m wearing eyeglasses.

However, due to those very eyeglasses, for a number of years I found myself regularly fussing—essentially, throwing a mini-tantrum—each time I opened the dishwasher. This despite the fact that I rarely run the dishwasher more than once weekly, since, living alone, it takes me days to fill it. But it’s also my habit to open the dishwasher the very minute it stops running, in order to check that none of the dishes (especially the small bowls I used for serving canned cat food to my pets, or the concave bottoms of some of my cups) have been positioned so that they are holding water.  I know from sad experience that the drying cycle won’t remove water from a pet food bowl that’s flipped upright during the washing.

Unfortunately, opening the dishwasher at this point sends clouds of steam rising. And that, inevitably, means that my eyeglasses completely fog up, making vision impossible.  I couldn’t see a water-filled bowl unless it jumped up and slapped me in the face.

And so, for perhaps three years, I struggled to remember to pull my glasses off my face before I opened that dishwasher door.  Struggled, and inevitably forgot, resulting in stream of (Bad Word Deleted) language, followed by roughly yanking the glasses from my eyes and scrabbling for a tissue to wipe them.

As I say, this unfortunate behavior continued for almost three years, before one day it occurred to me that, after encountering the rising steam and being thoroughly wiped, my eyeglasses were much cleaner–the lenses, of course, but I also wiped the hot steam from the frames and earpieces, cleansing them, as well. And with this realization was coupled the sudden understanding that my repeated irritation was totally unnecessary.  In fact, it was contrary to good sense.

The following week when I opened the steaming dishwasher, I was prepared. I took off my eyeglasses and carefully held them into the rising steam, making sure that it coated and heated every part of the frame and lenses.  Then I carefully and slowly polished them stem to stern before placing the glasses back on my face.  By that time, the dishwasher had stopped emitting steam, and I could see and empty any dishes which were holding water before closing the door and allowing the drying cycle to run.

Instead of a rumpled spirit, I had sparkling clean eyeglasses. Instead of fussing and irritation, I was relaxed.

And all it took was a change of attitude and perspective.

It’s strange, sometimes, the small and mundane ways that major lessons arrive in this life. Something as simple as opening a hot dishwasher door can inform us of just how often we view things askew, making our lives much more difficult and uncomfortable than they need to be.

I sometimes now stop, when I am irritated beyond measure by some minor event, and attempt to apply the lesson I learned from my steamed-up eyeglasses and the dishwasher door. And instead of steaming up within my spirit, I often find a way through to peace and courtesy and calm.

It might not be on par with sitting on that hillside listening to a master teacher speak the beatitudes, but I’ll take my lessons where I can find them. I am teachable; I can learn to be the master of my own attitude.