The unglamorous act that brings us together

Guest essayist Chris Cavadini depicts shoveling snow as a neighborhood bonding experience.
Photo Illustration by Tim Burton/Getty

Before the first wink of light peeks through the windows, my feet hit the floor. Groggy, I rub the sandbags free from my eyes as I slip on today’s victim-of-cold-weather gear. I slink down the stairs to the sputters and pops of the coffee pot, taking care not to wake the dog. Stooping to lace up my boots, I am teased by more of the machine’s gurgling, reminding me of the winter warmer to come that will be my reward. It’s that time of the year, that time of the day: snow shoveling beckons.

The garage door rolls upward and I step outside to join the crowd. Sleepy neighbors saunter to their front drives as if reporting for some assigned duty. This is winter in Wisconsin: The snowfall serves as a watering hole of sorts, summoning people of all stripes and creeds to the same meaningless, sweat-laden task.

Yet as quickly as I can be gut-punched by my shovel colliding with a sidewalk crack, I am struck by a deep irony. This meaningless, frigid monotony serves as the foundation for the neighborly, Midwest warmth that so many in Wisconsin get to enjoy. The common gathering place of “the driveway” opens the door to neighborly conversations and catch-ups that might not otherwise happen. The common burden of clearing driveways allows homeowners of all ages, statuses and backgrounds to be — for a morning’s moment — on the same playing field. The shared task of back-bending snow-pushing creates opportunities for younger neighbors to serve older neighbors who could use a hand.

I stand in the crisp, cheek-biting midwinter air and look with new clarity upon my neighbors to my left and right. They are more than “the one whose dog never shuts up” or “the one who always blasts us with yard signs.” They are the smiling friends who, unprovoked, offer to lend a hand. They are the ones who walk over just to check if we caught that last Packers game. They are the ones who take care of the couple up the street’s driveway while they’re out of town, just for goodness’ sake.

I hang up my shovel, kick the snow off my boots and peel off my jacket. My cheeks are chilled to the teeth, but I step into the house with a warmed soul. I have seen kindness in the midst of monotony, utter normalcy. I take my first sip of coffee, eager to do it all over again soon.

Chris Cavadini is a guest essayist to Madison Magazine. He is a Madison baker, a neighbor, and a new dad, always looking for an excuse to write.

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