Last night my sister’s husband and I stared at a stack of white paper, trying to figure out how to turn it into snowflakes. I had folded one sheet into squares, and my very handy brother-in-law was probably a minute away from making an origami buffalo. Fortunately his mother called. In June she’d retired from a long career as an elementary schoolteacher, and on a day when elementary schools were on everyone’s mind, she’d wanted to hear her son’s voice. “Mom, I’ve got a question for you….” And so began fifteen minutes of snowflake tech support.
First off, paper snowflakes are made from circles, and not squares or triangles, which would have been my next guess. Second, they’re a pain in the ass, and the children who succeed in making attractive ones in these weeks leading up to Christmas have my boundless respect. Third, don’t eat from a gift barrel of popcorn while you’re making these snowflakes because orange fingerprints devalue the product. Fourth, find something that you’re good at, like tracing circles around a greasy bowl, and then let someone else, like maybe your brother-in-law, do the creative scissor-work.
No two snowflakes are the same, right? In last night’s case, that’s not because they were all so beautiful, but because they were all butchered in their own unique fashion. The project reminded me of the holiday season three years ago, when my siblings and their future spouses took turns chopping wood for my mom’s fireplace, one of my dad’s old jobs. (My job, of course, was and remains sitting quietly and staying well-hydrated amidst a flurry of manual labor.) And forget about snowflakes for a second: when you chop firewood, when you really hack into it, the logs are never severed in the same way. Each one splits down a different axis and forms a new carnival of splinters. It’s both random and devastatingly specific how things fall apart.
I guess it’s okay to have metaphors for things like grief and loss. But pictures and stories are also a method of being passive, which is a personal characteristic I’m ashamed of, especially when the world is in such dire need of action. When you see a fire, and it’s devouring paper and wood alike, it’s hard to think that anything you say or do is going to alter the course of the flames. You keep trying to create beauty that might be redemptive somehow, but your scissors are dull and there are three delicious kinds of popcorn in the barrel and screw snowflakes anyway because they don’t burn as long as all the dead trees.
I would’ve liked to have left the arts and crafts meditation to the little kids tonight, but I sort of know what they would say. “Keep cutting until there’s almost nothing left. Cut on all sides. Cut everywhere, until you can barely see the paper, until the snowflake is a window. When I grow up I’m going to change the world.”