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Ode to a Power Outage

The power went out this weekend. There’s something special about sitting in the warm glow of candlelight with nothing to divert you but the art of conversation. Sure it’s a pain to shelve plans for the day and improvise cooking, but having no idea of when the electricity will come on again lends the experience a rare air of timelessness. It breaks the regularity of day-to-day life, reminding us that we have imagination, that we can always make do. Once freed from the technological cocoon we’ve wrapped ourselves in, life becomes necessarily creative.

You’d think that was a bad thing. Within minutes of the lights going out, gasoline generators rumble to life. I imagine the people in those houses diving for the on-switch, breathing a sigh of relief as the house turns back on and reaching for a cold beer.

Those machines preserve millions of dollars of perishable foods, save countless people from suffocating in heat waves and from freezing in ice storms. Originally intended to see us through real emergencies, they’re now commonly used to shield us from the slightest inconvenience. No need to miss your favourite TV show, change dinner plans or be forced into an uncomfortable silence as we face loved ones without the distractions of a flickering screen. For more and more among us, those awkward days are long gone, as old-fashioned as a hoedown. Our poor ancestors never had TVs, computers and smart phones. They never knew what they were missing.

A house without humming electric lights, vibrating refrigerators or hissing ventilation is eerie. You can actually hear yourself breathe. It’s terrifying to teenagers and busy working couples. You’d think young children and old people would be frightened, but they seem able to stare into the flickering flames of candles and let their imaginations go.
What’s the opposite of ‘restless?’ It’s what you feel a few hours into a power outage. It’s also the contrary to what ails us. Restless is today’s normal. We lament to friends and co-workers that we can’t stop. We worry about what everyday stress is doing to our bodies, our relationships and our lives. When stopping is forced upon us though, we cringe.
The industrial revolution was touted as the key to a new future. Technological advance and labour-saving devices would free us from bondage, providing leisure time in which to improve ourselves and the world. Seems like it was all spin. Instead of giving us breathing room, all that extra time is placing demands upon us that we’re powerless to resist. The opportunity to make more is too precious to pass up. More what? It doesn’t matter; we’ve long forgotten that we have enough.

How many of us are stressed beyond reason to make ends meet, to maintain a lifestyle that we barely have time to appreciate? We’re being done in by industrial disease. Our immune systems are out of whack, our good temper is too easily undermined, our nerves are shattered daily, our judgement too easily clouded. When we try to smell the roses we end up fidgeting. We confuse pleasure with happiness, forgetting that happiness is marked by contentment, not restlessness. When was the last time you wondered whether there was something more to life?
My family thinks I’m weird when I extol the virtues of the power outage, but even they agreed that you could at least get a good night’s sleep — once upon a time. This last weekend, power generators on all sides thrummed through the night. My wife Caroline’s multiple sclerosis is horribly exacerbated by sleeplessness. She could barely function the next day. Lying beside her as she tossed and turned, knowing that this was like driving hot needles into her skin, I occasionally fell into fitful dreams in which I fired rocket-propelled grenades into those generators, and went happily to jail. Then I’d wake up knowing I’d never do it, and my blood boiled helplessly at the thought of such thoughtless, selfish people.

All this happened last Sunday. It was a mild, late-summer night, neither hot nor cold. There was a hurricane a few hundred miles away but no state of emergency in Hudson Quebec, just wind and rain. I thought long and hard about those complacent, power-hungry neighbours, letting their machines spew out noise and air pollution without a care. Only our immediate neighbour had the decency to turn his generator off for the night. The others presumably rationalized their need to protect chests full of frozen meat; perhaps they needed the electricity to keep dialysis machines running. If they can afford a power generator, and really need to run it that badly, why would they not enclose it in a sound-proof enclosure? The only reason I came up with was, they don’t give a damn. “Everyone does it,” and that makes it right.

We’re addicted to a lifestyle that makes us want more. We’re so busy making ends meet, we hardly have time to raise our children. For many, that’s become the government’s job. We’re outraged at the lack of funded daycare but not by the sense of being cornered into a culture of selfishness. Year by year we watch TV, buy the things it tells us to and swallow its increasingly clever spin with ever-fading resistance. Buying into that whole game takes precedence over peace of mind.

We’re being turned into an anti-social society. It’s time to consider where we’re heading and to ask whether we really want to go there. Trouble is, there’s no time. We’re too busy making more.

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5 responses to “Ode to a Power Outage”

  1. Ilona Wille

    Excellent observations! Stillness, quiet, peace are so underrated in the busy world we live in. Noise pollution – my pet peeve- permeates the space around us and within us. Sanctuaries, sought or imposed, are heavenly and vital for mental health.

  2. Martha Bell

    Silence is indeed golden. One time while on a retreat our dog howled mournfully through the night. Even though we had a petsitter, she left the door to the yard open so he could get out at night which happened to be right next to our neighbor’s window and, our neighbor is on dialysis. Returning home early from the retreat due to a call from the petsitter that our dog would not eat, I discovered a scathing note from our neighbor. She was going to call animal control and report us. I felt terrible that she was so upset and that Lucky had completely destroyed her peace and rest. We apologized profusely to her and immediately went out and bought Lucky a collar which would spray orange spray in his face when he barked or howled. The problem was solved and our neighbor is a wonderful neighbor and friend to this day.

    As for power generators during storms and hurricanes, I only know one person who actually has one and it is to preserve her business files which live in her computer in the event of a power outage during a hurricane. Her husband rescued my mother from her flooded apartment after Hurricane Ike, venturing out, dodging trees and fallen debris to get to her. Don’t know what I would have done without such thoughtful and good friends since I live more than a 1,000 miles away. They always think of others. So, maybe what is most important is to let our neighbors and friends know what our needs are. Disasters often bring out the best in people. I am moved by people who are always ready to step in and assist others. That is community.

  3. Falk

    Hello Stephen:

    I totally agree that a day like last Sunday without power can have a real sense of intimacy about it. It was a day to get in touch with something deeper than our ordinary self-centered and socially conditioned minds. It became a day to get in touch with another source of understanding and insight. Let me explain………….

    Our power outage started at 3:00pm. It was pouring outside all day. At six my wife and I decided we would go out for diner rather than open the fridge and let warm air in. Upon our return home we checked the basement where our sump pump had not been working for more than four hours. Yet we had prepared for such an eventuality with a back up pump system that worked on pressure and not electricity that we had installed three years ago. It was its first real test and guess what it failed. The water was starting to overflow. One of us remembered when we had pulled into our drive way right after going out for supper that the lights were on in the houses across the street. We quickly looked for extension cords and knocked on the door of our neighbors who we had rarely spoken to in the past. Out of situations like this it seems there is a common humanity , a pulling together that arises spontaneously. They helped plug us in and we pumped out the water from our basement just in the nick of time averting a small diaster. My wife and I were pooped . We went to the living room where we could hear the pump to make sure it was working. We cranked up our German made emergency radio and had a wonderful evening listening to some music and talk shows and then finally went to bed.

    At 2:00 am in the morning we were jolted out of our sleep when the power came back on. It made me realize by the standards of history and the world we live in today how priviledged a life we lead. Before going back to sleep I decided to do my daily meditation session that somehow had not fit in the routine of this paticular day. It became an interesting opportunity to watch how my mind had worked. How we actually tend to think ahead and control outcomes. We really cannot help it. What story spinning creatures we are ! We seem to always want to be safe and happy. The insight came that however well we plan things they really are out of our control. There really is no safe higher ground. Stephen your secular buddhist teachings are absolutely right that you have to embrace uncertainity. The blessed really are those who have no answers , who have empty hands. And may I remember from this day the preciousness of electricity and about being helped by my neighbor.

    Falk

  4. Patricia MacGeachy

    I too relish the stillness and rendered powerlessness (pardon the unintentional pun). Unplugged, back to nature. Mmmmm. Haven’t had an outage my way for a while (famous last words).Let you know if I do!
    My father hated the phone ringing at meal times.
    “Throw the bloody thing in the harbour.” I now know what you mean dad.

  5. Anne-Claire

    Hello Stephen,

    As Alice Bailey would say in one of her books “noise is poison.”

    I totally agree with you that the Village life situation can sometimes be really tough when noise is involved. We are so many living next to each other. The people are not doing it on purpose, or by negligence. They just go through their day to day life issues, occupations…

    Hudson is probably one of the most wonderful villages we’ve known so far. When we moved here we thought we would have been really happy. But we have discovered that we are those kinds of people, like you, who do not deal really well with noise.

    Whatever situation happens to us, good or bad, we believe that we have attracted it to learn something about it. As long as you resist to that situation, it will keep on coming back to you, again and again until you learn.

    Therefore we have decided to leave Hudson to find a place more in the country side.
    In the meantime we are still living in the village situation. We are still surrounded by any kind of noise. But now we do not resist anymore, we just accept the background noise. This new feeling about the noise of the village situation is actually possible and it transformed our life here. This new attitude has eliminated all my anger, frustration and other negative feelings I use to have toward the people when they were making noise.
    I feel free.

    Big hugs!!!!

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