Snow Days and Slack

Leah Libresco Sargeant
Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option.

Every snowfall brings two kinds of hush. First, the individual flakes fall, each delicate star small enough to land silently, melting away to nothing on your outstretched fingers. But as the infinitesimal crystals accumulate, they pile up in heaps (offering a quick tutorial in calculus for the attentive) and the second, expectant silence begins—Is it a snow day?

When I was little, the announcement came from the local news, which rolled a ticker of closure notices across the bottom of the screen. We watched on mute, waiting to see our school’s name. We imagined the superintendent drawing aside his curtains, perhaps poking a ruler into the drifts outside the door, and then making the call for Carnival.

But, in the middle of coronatide, eighteen inches of snow fell in Central Park, and Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced that class was still in session. With school conducted over Zoom, the snow was irrelevant. He delivered a pronouncement that could have been lifted from Burgermeister Meisterburger: “It ends the snow day as we know it. [Snow days] are a thing of the past.”

A snow day, though, is meant not just for sledding and snowmen, but as a rebuke of the belief that the world answers to our commands. New York needs snow days more than most cities, as citizens are batted about in Mayor de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s continued struggle to undermine each other.

A snow day is meant not just for sledding and snowmen, but as a rebuke of the belief that the world answers to our commands.

A snow day is an interruption of our plans. It forces us to hold our own expectations and designs loosely. Snow days are an invitation to “reckon with the infallible judgment of reality,” as Matthew Crawford puts it in Shop Class as Soulcraft. The intrusions of the physical world have an urgency and an undeniability our increasingly digital lives lack.

When our lives go according to plan, we can live in a comfortable rut. We might address our problems by working the refs—finding ways to justify ourselves to bosses, family, friends, and God. But you can’t argue your sidewalk clear. The snow must be lifted, shovelful by shovelful.

Not every disruption is joyful. As the plows creep through the city, ambulances wait with trembling engines in their bays, hoping they won’t be too late for the people in distress. Hourly workers have their shifts and their pay canceled. The interruption is the most painful wherever there is the least slack.

In an essay for LessWrong, Zvi Mowshowitz defined “slack” as margin for error or breathing room. But, in our present culture, Mowshowitz argues, we compete to prove that we’ve given up our slack and are panting with effort. In a culture of total work, Mowshowitz argues, “Slack means insufficient dedication and loyalty.”

The intrusions of the physical world have an urgency and an undeniability our increasingly digital lives lack.

Little by little, our slack has been classified as “inefficiency” and done away with. Manufacturers use Just-in-Time supply chains, so they never have a backlog of parts, but neither do they have any extra to cover disruptions. Employers schedule their workers’ shifts with as little as seventy-two hours’ notice, allowing the employer to cut costs while the workers scramble to find rides or child care. Asset limits for recipients of welfare cut people off abruptly if they manage to put aside money to better their situation. Even at the high end of the socioeconomic scale, slack is nibbled away by, well, Slack, the communications tool that blurs the boundary between work and home.

But slack is a necessary part of life, both for the individual and for the community. In Prayer as a Political Problem, Fr. Jean Daniélou observes that prayer and silence are becoming luxury goods. He writes, “There is a speeding up of tempo which makes it more difficult to find the minimum of freedom on which a minimum life of prayer depends. . . . Shall we say that the life of prayer can be possible only for those who are able to take advantage of [the shelter of monastic life] and thus restrict it to only a small part of humanity?”

Daniélou wrote in 1967, when he saw people flee to the movie theaters as the only refuge a person might find from the “never-ending barrage of demands from outside himself.” Today, they remain one of the only spaces we can expect the requirement (and thus permission) to turn off our phones. A storm can make the same demand: a power outage, a snowed-in driveway, that requires us, and thus allows us, to say no to outside obligations.

Unlike a weekend, a snow day arrives as an unexpected windfall—a blank day in the calendar that we haven’t had time to fill up with appointments. As a child, I spent one snow day covering my bedroom ceiling with constellations of glow-in-the-dark stars. Another was spent sculpting tiny Quidditch figures, with rings pressed into the players’ backs, so I could suspend the whole team on fishing wire. A game, frozen in time, in the space given to me by the frost outside.

I felt extravagant with my time, as though the snow were fairy gold, only able to be spent before sunset before it melted away into mush—and soot-stained crags where the plows had passed. Even before I spotted the first, industrious shovelers coming out, soft and cartoonish in their coats, the day felt like a gift held in common. I expected that each quiet house held a carnival of cocoa, pillow forts, and blankets.

The enforced pause of a snow day is celebratory, but it’s also a stress test of our ability to weather the interruptions that are not shared. If our society can’t handle a snow day, then how will employers be prepared to be compassionate to the worker who has a burst pipe or a child with the flu? If the loss of a day’s wages sends a family spiraling into poverty, we have already left them too close to the brink. Their lack of breathing room was already suffocating them.

The snow disguises the world around us, softening sharp edges. Our public policy and private charity should work a similar transformation, cushioning the suffering of our neighbors. We cannot sit on the sidelines until the need becomes acute—the chronic aching precarity is need enough. In the mounded heaps of snow, we see our calling: we must help make the rough places plain. A snow day is training for the mercy we must be prepared to extend in ordinary times.