In the wake of Irene, we lost power for four days. For days, I collected sticks in the yard to burn as kindling in the wood stove, and hauled buckets of water into the house to flush the toilet and wash the dishes. It was strange, being so cut off in one sense yet feeling so intimately connected with life and with the way much of the rest of the world lives. Instantly, I was aware of how precious clean water is, and how much I usually waste. Suddenly, I became aware that a house grows dark and cold at night without someone to build a fire and tend it. I became the fire builder, the keeper of the hearth. Anthony, my daughter Alex’s boyfriend from England, cooked food on the cast iron stove. We all learned how long it takes to cook over a fire—hours! And yet this was the center of the evening, the light and warmth from the fire, the promise of warm food, the common talk of how it was coming along, and then storieswe told as we ate. We all learned what is elemental and crucial, and that these basic things can be hard work, yet there is something inherently good and right about it. All beings deserve to eat and be warm and safe, and being mindfully engaged in this work can bring wisdom about life. (For starters, a couple of highly educated young people here learned a little something about what it takes to build a good fire).
As the third day dawned to no hot coffee or tea (unless I got up and built a fire and waited for three hours), it began to feel like an ordeal. Alex was sick with a bad cold, our water supply was almost exhausted–and I discovered that those little moments of good humor—that impulse to forget ourselves and help someone else are as crucial fire. On the third night, as I was struggling to light a fire with damp kindling, the neighbors came by with big pales of fresh water: “We wanted to give you the gift of being able to flush the toilet,” they said.
Another neighbor came by and asked from my email address so she could forward updates about the progress of repairs and availability of water to my iPhone. I saw how technology can help in crucial and elemental ways. I also marveled at the way this common humanity–this pulling together–just arose spontaneously. We innately know we can’t go it alone. We neighbors who rarely have the chance to stop and talk stood outside together laughing and talking. We even looked up at the stars that we commented were so clear without ambient lights…and…
And we marveled together at the roar of some of our other neighbors’ gas generators! “It sounds like a carnival!” said one woman. And it did! It sounded like the county fair, with all the motors that power ferris wheels and who-knows-what—and all of that sound and all of the gas that went into it to keep their refrigerators pumping and the ice cream frozen and the laptops charged. “This whole experience would have a different quality without that din,” she said. And I’m not pretending to be Thoreau. I took several long drives (dodging downed power lines and trees!) to charge my laptop and iPhone at a friend’s house and take a shower. And yet, I came away from this experience knowing body, heart, and mind that we don’t need to use as much energy as we think. I glimpsed how life can actually be richer and better with less.
When the power came on (bringing a blessed silence), I took a long hot shower, realizing moment by moment what a pleasure and luxury it is to have such a thing. I wondered how long I would remember to be aware of this. I washed dishes and cleaned for hours, experiencing it as a luxury, aware that by the standards of history and the world today, I am very privileged. Alex and her boyfriend left the house to go shopping for college (street lights! No danger of fallen trees and wires and flooding in the dark!) And when they came home the house was bright and cheerful. Instead of gathering around the fire, they took to their laptops, and I took to my bed for a bit of CNN and a book. Witnessing ravaged areas here and abroad, I felt blessed.
May I remember what I learned about the preciousness of water and warmth and helping our neighbors. May I not use technology to go numb.