In the meadow we will build a . . .

Stephen Vicchio

February 14, 1992|By Stephen Vicchio

SNOWMAN construction:

There is no real sense in trying unless you have genuine packing snow -- the kind that falls as silently as dandruff -- light, delicate flakes that drift to earth and lie together in a kind of fluffy mystical union. The snow must be slightly wet and clingy, not dry like the soap-powder snow spread on the plywood of Christmas gardens and creches.

There are two basic techniques for making the snowman's round bottom layers.

My wife is a packer -- decisive, fast-acting, making it up as she goes.

But I come from a long line of rollers -- robust, patient types who begin with a fist-sized snowball. The rollers roll it this way and that, like the persistent dung beetle and his scatological prize, until the snowfall has grown to something Sisyphus might proudly have pushed.

This morning, while the snow is still fresh, my 4-year-old son and I roll and shape and roll some more. It's many weeks since Christmas, but the boy still has nutcrackers on his mind. After a few hours, we are finished. Our sculpture looks as though it has a thyroid problem.

The boy makes a nutcracker hat out of construction paper, complete with a purple feather. There are no carrots to be found in the house, so the salvaged stem of a rotted pumpkin is placed between the black button eyes. As we step back to admire our creation, it looks like the Michelin Man in a sagging party hat. But in the boy's mind, it is Herr Drosselmeyer's gift to Clara.

While we roll and shape, my mind drifts to other things. In activities such as these, the mind is like a relay race -- one idea rapidly passes the baton on to the next until, just a short time later, one discovers he has traveled great psychic distances.

One thought that has been handed the baton this morning is that I have some sense now of what it is like to be a spider -- those strange, long-legged little creatures who spend their lives creating ephemera. One strong turn of the wind, or an animal invading the high grass, can ruin several hours' work. For a snowman contractor, so can a warm wind.

As we roll and shape, I spend far more time watching the boy than I do watching our creation. He seems not to fret about the violence he sees on television, or even about the inevitability of the thermometer on the back porch rising above 32 degrees.

All these thoughts pass the baton around until I am given over to the idea of just how fitting it is that the color of snow -- the stuff responsible for today's liberation from pre-school and the philosophers -- is white: snow white, the color of innocence.

A moment later, I begin thinking that innocence surely is more fragile than our snowman. For little boys, it begins to leave, I think, when snow becomes something that is balled into a weapon.

When we return to the house and have snuggled up to read "The Nutcracker," I begin thinking that there is a profound paradox in simplicity: that of all things, it is the most difficult to copy.

This thought causes me to wonder where my ability to live entirely in the moment has gone. And that thought passes to a final musing, just as we are closing the book:

I wonder why it does not snow more often.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His latest collection of essays is "Ordinary Mysteries."

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