I feel a little guilty saying this, given the drought that much of the country is suffering from, but it’s been a hot and rainy summer here. We’ve had fairly regular storms, and most of them have been thunderstorms. They are often short and isolated; sometimes there will be a violent 20-minute storm in one town but a town 5 miles away will be completely dry.

This is what normally prompts a blackout. It’s been years since anyone crashed into the side yard.

Still, the storms have been regular enough that we’ve already had our power out several times, the longest outage lasting for several hours into the night. A few hours may be better than the 3-day outages we get with a winter blizzard, but it’s still disruptive, especially on a hot, muggy day. The air gets heavy and still, sitting on your skin like moss, and there’s no hope for relief at home until the company trucks rumble by on their way to finally fix the power lines that feed us.

Whenever the power goes out, time immediately slows down. We don’t necessarily want it to slow down, because we are all praying in our heads for restoration of power to come quickly, and so we will the clock an hour, two hours, two days forward to the moment when the television suddenly blares to life, or the lights burst on and wake us up in the middle of the night. As jarring as this sudden reanimation can be, it is also a sweet moment, knowing that life can now go on as usual.

I share everyone’s frustration with candles and flashlights, with forgetting that the Internet doesn’t work or that flipping the light switch is a futile activity. It’s difficult to not default into the easy entertainment of television or Web surfing. Even now, I choose to rely on a fully charged laptop battery to keep me occupied rather than taking pen to paper and writing this same essay by candlelight rather than screen light.

Part of that reason is practical. It’s summertime and no power means no air conditioning. It’s thankfully cooled off as the storm passes through and night falls, but I’ll need light to see the paper as I write. That means candles. However, I don’t want to disturb the delicate balance I’ve attained with the current temperature by starting small but numerous fires.

Another part, however, is simply habit. I’ve lost the habit of writing by hand. I still have a paper journal, and I like to write cards and letters. Occasionally, if I’m out somewhere without my computer, I’ll start an essay on paper. But I haven’t seen a finished composition in my own handwriting in more years than I can count. Even if I draft a rough start in a notebook, I always bring it to the computer to shape it, edit and refine. I wonder if I would be able to write without a computer now, but I’m not yet willing to test that out unless I’m forced. And as long as my battery lasts, I don’t have try.

The candles offer lots of cozy light and a surprising amount of heat. Great during a blizzard. Terrible during a summer thunderstorm.

At some point, if the outage continues, I’ll have to shift gears to maintain some sort of peace of mind. In the past, after the initial frustration and adjustment, I find that it can be quite comforting to embrace the sudden slowness of the power outage: to take advantage of that to catch up on sleep; to relearn how to entertain or educate ourselves with books or conversation or card games; to test if we are still able to accomplish tasks in ways that have become easier with technology.

I know that if the power comes back on overnight, I won’t have reached that point. I’ll still go to bed hoping, fingers tightly crossed, that the power will come back on as I sleep. But I’ll also go to bed much earlier than I usually do and hopefully wake up well-rested for the first time in a week. Knowing that I don’t have to work tomorrow certainly helps me be more sanguine about the possibility that the lights won’t come back on, and so I won’t be anxiously waiting and waking up every other hour.

Essentially, if we are willing to take it, we are given the opportunity to face ourselves and how we live our lives. Are we really ‘lost’ without our toys and distractions? Have we become slaves to our devices? Have we forgotten how to talk to people or use our imaginations? Have we become so intolerant of stillness and quiet because we walk through the rest of our lives with as much external stimulation as we can afford?

Sure, I may get annoyed at first with all the extra steps that are now involved in doing simple daily tasks. To make coffee isn’t a simple matter of flipping a switch to boil some water. Now a grill is involved. Brushing my teeth or bathing requires careful budgeting and apportioning water, not forgetting to leave a bit extra for wiping down the sink or the tub. Those of us on well water also need to designate jugs of water for flushing the toilet, and so we fill our bathtubs before a big storm and hope we don’t go without power for so long that the tub water runs out.

This is not, after all, what a blackout looks like.

But the truth is, I don’t really mind that much. I know how to deal with these issues and I get into a rhythm. In fact, in many ways, I become more productive than I do when everything is so easily managed with switches and power. I have to plan better because things take longer, but this makes me more aware of my time and how I have to spend it. I am not distracted by the millions of things I ‘need to catch up on’ in cyberspace, so I can focus, crank out 800+ words in half an hour or so, read and organize my workspace, and then get to bed before midnight.

Shockingly, it’s not the end of the world!

I doubt I will stop obsessively checking the update message on the power company’s automated phone line, and I would be overstating my position if I say that I “welcome” this power outage. However, I know when I’m licked: sometimes we have to face ourselves and our lives, and once in a while, this takes the form of disabling all the tricks we normally use to avoid doing so. These days, when the power goes out, I know what to expect, and once I’m at peace with it, the lack of power becomes not only easier to bear, but it becomes a valuable opportunity for introspection.

What do you miss the most in a power outage?

3 comments on “Blackout.

  1. Lenore says:

    “The air gets heavy and still, sitting on your skin like moss, …” Great writing. “Sitting on your skin like moss.” I really like that part.
    This was a peaceful post to read, Leonore. I don’t know if I had that feeling due to the blackout topic or due to the picture of the candles. Either way, the post left me feeling quiet.
    Except, there was the laugh I had when you mentioned flipping a light switch and futility. Yes, I’ve done that – several times – during the same power outage.

    • limr says:

      Y’know, I’m really glad that you like that particular line because I stayed with it for a while, trying to find the words that would be descriptive without being overwrought. It went through several versions before I was happy 🙂

      I remember a blackout a few years ago in the summer that affected a huge area. There were so many stories of impromptu gatherings or street music concerts down in Manhattan and they made me wish I’d been down there to experience that sense of community. But I think that happens – to a lesser degree just because of distance and population density – in the suburbs. Do we communicate better when all of our fancy modern communication technology breaks down?

  2. […] in case of a power outage, it’s not so bad. We’ve got a wood-burning stove, a gas grill, plenty of stored water for consuming and for […]

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