SNOW is just a four-letter word

      Those four letters that in fact convey the emotions and impact of other popular four letter words, have finally fallen upon those of us who live in the Northeast US. The “atmospheric water vapor frozen into ice crystals and falling in light white flakes or lying on the ground as a white layer,” has inspired many reactions from jubilation to panic. Of course it is in English that snow has four letters. In French snow is les neiges (as in “ou sont les neiges d’antan?”) In Spanish the word is nieve. In Swahili it is theluji. And even if there is only a percentage of the mythical thousands of Inuit words for snow there are purportedly at least 50 ranging from tlapa: powder snow; tlation: small flaked snow; kriplyana: blue snow in the morning; penstla: the idea of snow; taleni: snow angels. I have to say I got a little skeptical myself about the thousands of words when I encountered luantla: snow rolled into a reefer and smoked by wild Inuit youth. (I will leave to you to decide if that is a real word.)

  As the hour of the descent of crystals upon us approached I couldn’t help but wonder about the health effects of snow. I thought about heart attacks of shovelers, car accidents, freezing cold and slip sliding away. There are many inherent dangers in the white flakes falling and lying on the ground. News reports have confirmed several deaths just in New York from this storm: “Two more people have died in New York City Saturday during the mammoth blizzard that tore through the tri-state, bringing the total to five deaths in the area. Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirmed the deaths during a press conference Sunday morning. The five suffered heart attacks while they were shoveling the snow. ‘If you are old like me you want to think twice before you go out there and start shoveling,’” the governor said. (Ummm, old?… Andrew Cuomo is 58.) And emergency departments at hospitals are adrift in people with back injuries. For Andy Cuomo and the rest of you, here are some safe shoveling techniques: Pick the right snow shovel, warm up thoroughly, pace yourself and keep your feet on the ground, i.e., don’t slip. If conditions are really slippery don’t do it. Stop and rest when you need to. Most importantly, lift ergonomically. Whenever possible, push the snow to one side rather than lifting it. When lifting the snow shovel is necessary, make sure to use ergonomic lifting techniques:

  • Always face towards the object you intend to lift – have your shoulders and hips both squarely facing it.
  • Bend at the hips, not the low back, and push the chest out, pointing forward. Then, bend your knees and lift with your leg muscles, keeping your back straight.
  • Keep your loads light and do not lift an object that is too heavy for you.
  • If you must lift a shovel full, grip the shovel with one hand as close to the blade as comfortably possible and the other hand on the handle (handle and arm length will vary the technique).
  • Avoid twisting the back to move the snow to its new location – always pivot your whole body to face the new direction.
  • Keep the heaviest part of the object close to your body at your center of gravity – do not extend your arms to throw the snow.

Walk to the new location to deposit the item rather than reaching or tossing. And if you can’t get to the gym, the Huffington Post has these exercises for a healthy work out, just you, your shovel and the snow:

To prevent car accidents, Mayor Bill deBlasio just said “stay off the roads!” and called a state of emergency in New York City. But as we know some of us have to travel and some people just need to get out. The Daily News offered these safe driving tips.

Don’t get cocky In a severe storm, signs can blow down, traffic lights might be out, or tree limbs could fall. Just because you know the road doesn’t mean you know exactly what’s around the next bend.

All-wheel-drive doesn’t help you Many people assume that having AWD is Mother Nature’s ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card. It’s not, buddy; you still have to brake like the rest of us mere mortals.

SUVs are not immune to snow Sport-utilities and crossovers can do many things, but defying the laws of physics isn’t one of them.

ABS is your friend go ahead, HIT THE BRAKES! Now, did you feel a pulse from the pedal, or hear a ‘thunkathunkathunka’-like sound? That’s good, because you should. My advice is to find an empty parking lot and mash the pedal, to get used to the sound and feel. It’s okay, ABS is here to help, even if it sounds and feels strange.

Turn down the tunes I know you love that new Taylor Swift *song, but turn it off if you’re driving on a mix of snow and ice, you might want to listen to…your tires? (my comment on this: but when you are not driving in snow, listen to Ryan Adam’s cover of 1989…brilliant!)

Steer into a slide – yes, it works Let’s say you turn right, and suddenly the back of your car starts to slide left…so turn in the DIRECTION OF THOSE REAR WHEELS. A slide means your tires have given up; they’ve basically walked out on the job because you’ve asked too much from them.

Get in touch with your inner Boy Scout Pack some extra gear if you’re going to be doing a lot of winter driving. A portable cell phone charger, flash-light, bottled water and snack bars, maybe a road flare or glow-stick…all are good things to have in case you get stuck somewhere

Invest in some snow tires You don’t go jogging in high heels, so why would you drive your car or truck on the wrong kind of wheels?

Be smooth baby, real smooth Don’t punch the gas. Don’t jam on the brakes. Don’t twirl the steering wheel. Keep things slow, smooth, and steady.

 (These are just some highlights. If you want to read the whole article go to :

So we know that snowstorms can be dangerous, but there are also benefits to snow and cold. Agriculturally, one major benefit for our food sources of a good snow cover is that snow functions as an excellent insulator of the soil. Without snow, very cold temperatures can freeze the soil deeper and deeper. This could lead to damage of root systems of trees and shrubs. The insulation effect of snow also helps protect perennials, bulbs, ground covers, and strawberry plantings from alternating freezing and thawing cycles. Without snow, milder temperatures and the sun could warm the soil surface, leading to damage from soil heaving, which can break roots and dry out plant parts. Snow also helps conserve soil moisture over the winter. Snow and freezing temperatures also kill many surface bacteria and viruses, that begin to thrive and happily mutate when the weather is just damp and above freezing.  

Going into some deep biology for those of you who enjoy a little ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny with your cocoa, read on….

The process works like this: Cold air activates a receptor in the worms known as the TRPA1 channel, which is found in nerve and fat cells. This initiates a chain of biochemical signals that ultimately activates a gene known as DAF-16/FOXO, which has been associated with longevity in worms. Since mammals share much of the same genetic programs, it raises the possibility that exposure to cold could also affect longevity in humans. (Environmental Temperature Differentially Modulates C. elegans Longevity through a Thermosensitive TRP Channel.” DOI: ) So get cold, live longer.  

(A quick segue from worms to yummy food)  

One of the benefits of a snowstorm is the opportunity for some guilty pleasure eating. Everyone knows to stock up on healthy foods before a storm. I live alone and yet, Friday morning I went to my local Stop and Shop and bought a roasting chicken, high protein Naked smoothies, a bag of potatoes, onions, carrots, spring salad mix, a package of grass fed beef (why? Because meat just seemed appropriate in a snowstorm.) But I also bought everything I needed to make waffles, including blueberries and maple syrup. In addition to extra calories for shoveling (justifying the maple syrup) my psyche required comfort foods. Comfort foods are one of the great joys of snowstorms

So on to snowstorm mental health. There is the stress of all that snow is going to interfere with our daily routines. Will we be able to get to work? Will the power go out and I’ll lose my internet connection? Will the kids have a snow day? Check out this ad for Channel 7 Eye Witness News produced by PromoHouse:   There is also the emotional stress of not having snow days. In this great video Snow rhymes with and is a substitution for the famous Adele “Hello.”

But the key to staying emotionally well during a snowstorm is simple: accept what you can’t change. An article in Psychology Today (January 23, 2016) states: In his poem, The Snowfall Is So Silent, Miguel de Unamuno intuitively pinpoints the primary scientific reason that snow can create a sense of serenity. He writes, “The snowfall is so silent, so slow, bit by bit, with delicacy it settles down on the earth and covers over the fields. The silent snow comes down white and weightless; snowfall makes no noise, falls as forgetting falls, flake after flake.” There is research indicating that positive mental health and stress reduction are supported by three things: exercise, mindfulness and nature.                                    

A snowstorm can give us all three if we just let it. Shoveling snow, walking in the snow, skiing (if you are so inclined) give us the exercise. The silence of snowfall gives us the quiet of our environment and our minds. And the snow in the air, drifting from the sky falling around us and enveloping us surrounds us with the natural phenomenon of the crystallized vapor.  Tytti Pasanen, from the University of Tampere, Finland, observed in her research studies on stress that “spending time on wooded trails or in other natural outdoor environments—any place away from man-built stuff like streets or buildings—appears to trigger an immediate drop in stress.” Magically, even in the middle of a city, the noise of cars, subways and buses is hushed, lights are dimmed by the airborne crystals, the buildings and roads and even piles of garbage soften and disappear. My friend Elise just called me from New York City and she told me that the streets are empty of cars due to the state of emergency, and people are walking down the streets and avenues, happy and relaxed in the quiet and peace of the nature of snow.

On Saturday, as the snow started in the morning and descended all day and into the night, I went out three times and shoveled my walkway and twenty-five steps up to the street and my driveway. The snow was fluffy and it was delightful to be out in my little terraced yard with views of the Hudson River. I have learned to truly love shoveling snow. Having worked at a hospital for 11 years where there are no snow days, I decided that I could either be angry about having to shovel my driveway, take a shower and drive very carefully to the Bronx, or I could love it. As we learned from Viktor Frankl, in the end (and along the way) the only thing we have complete control over is our own attitude. And so I embraced my shovel, the cold on my face, the spray of flakes as they flew through the air, and the ache of my muscles. When I went out to shovel Saturday afternoon, I actually lay on my back and watched the millions of fluffy crystals dance down onto my face, a few caught in my eyelashes. At night the flakes reflected the lights like tiny mirrors in the darkness. And today as I finished off the last 7 or 8 inches under the brilliant blue sky, I heard the honking of geese against the quiet of the snow. I looked up and marveled at their chevron across the blue. On another day of noisy rushing and busy thoughts, I might have missed them. But in the midst of the exercise and nature I also had the perfect moment of mindfulness, of inner peace and joy, like the revelation in Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese.* 

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

Are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things  


This was a gift of the snow, the quiet snow.


*shared with our class at Yoga House by our generous and kind teacher, Eileen McCabe