Late last week, I woke up to a dark, cold, silent house. When you live with a wife, two kids, and three cats, you might have moments of darkness. And you might have moments of cold.
But you rarely get complete silence, even at 5:00 am.
Before getting out of bed, I knew that the power had gone out.
I pulled on my robe, grabbed a flashlight and explored the house. Walking into the dining room, I stood before the window overlooking my front yard. That’s when I first heard a tinkling sound against the glass. Pointing my light outside, I saw that my world had been covered with a half-inch of ice. Wherever I shined my torch, I saw bushes and trees hugging the ground under the weight of the ice. Worse yet, ice still fell from the sky where it bounced off the window, and it clung to absolutely everything else it touched.
I plopped on the family room couch and buried myself under a mound of blankets.
Phase 1: Annoyance
A feeling of irritation washed over me. Just the night before, my wife and I had been talking about how busy we were, how much work we had to get done.
Ain’t nobody got time for this.
As I shivered under the covers, my mind created a list of reasons why I was not OKAY with the power being out:
- I can’t watch the news because the TV won’t work!
- I won’t be able to get any work done because the kids will be home from school all day!
- I can’t make coffee because…!
Wait! WHAT?! I can’t make coffee!
With down-turned lips and a hardened look in my eyes, I picked up my flashlight and dragged my blankets into the bathroom so I could…think. Once I was done thinking, I flushed the toilet. It sounded normal at first, but then it made a glug glug glug sound, and the water level did not return to normal.
I can’t flush the &#%!@?! toilet because I have a well and an electric pump.
Phase 2: Bitterness
Back on the couch, I heard noises. Instead of the gentle hum of the refrigerator, loud, snapping sounds came from outside, sounds like gunfire. Then after a barrage of shots, I felt a THUMP land next to the house.
I woke up my wife and suggested that she move to a back room so as not to be flattened by a falling pine tree. She said thickly, “Just as many big trees in the back of the house” and fell back asleep. Either she was stoic, or too lazy to get up.
Finally, daylight pierced the storm. I could tell from the earliest light that I had lost some trees. My favorite trees. The biggest selling point of this house had been the mature landscape with large, ornamental trees interspersed with rugged pines and mixed hardwoods on the wooded side.
No power. No TV news. No heat. No coffee. No flushing toilets. And no more trees.
My neighbor and I went on a supply run. I felt like we were part of a movie script where the would-be heroes head off in search of the Holy Grail, a Ring, the Ark of the Covenant, Nemo, etc. Instead, we found endless blocked roads from fallen trees and power lines. We returned empty-handed.
Double &#%!@?! it!
I spent the entire day trying to believe that what was happening wasn’t happening. And the weather spent the rest of the day raining, freezing again, raining, freezing again. And the trees spent the rest of the day cracking, falling, and narrowly missing the house.
Triple &#%!@?! it!
Phase 3: Comfort
Once we accepted that the power would not be coming back on anytime soon, my wife and I gathered rain water. Some of it we left for toilet flushing, and some of it she boiled on the grill. We now had drinking water and half of the ingredients needed for coffee!
My wife cooked up some foods from a category we called better-eat-this-bef0re-it-goes-bad. We ate a hot, edible dinner by candlelight that night.
Our 10-year old Sascha added to our growing list of small comforts by finding a container of hand sanitizer.
We might all smell like Billy Goats, but our hands will be germ–free, I thought to myself.
While I still confronted my existential crisis, my resourceful wife fixed our propane fireplace. By the end of the night, the temperature in our house went from 56 degrees to a balmy 62 degrees. After piling 10-pounds of blankets on our beds, we slept snugly and soundly.
Thank God for small comforts.
Phase 4: Delight
The next morning before daylight, I made a beer run. But instead of beer, I went looking for water, propane, and hot coffee. I found a gas station open just 10 minutes away where I found water and COFFEE! We were still without power, but things were looking up!
Once home, I fueled up my chainsaw and set out to clearing my yard.
As the ice started to melt and drop from the trees in the morning Sun, a mist rose up from the ground. Through this haze I saw the figure of two men walking down the hill towards my house, one of them carrying a chainsaw.
Do you know how women react when they see David Beckham in an underwear commercial? That’s how I reacted at the sight of these two hairy, smelly friends of mine as they stopped in front of me and said those magical words: Let’s get started.
Over the next few days, our community came together in delightful ways:
1. Private property disappeared…in a good way! The charity that started in my yard continued to the next yard. And the next. And the next. Woman and children got involved. We looked out for one another as if we were a family. And we’re still not done. In an hour, my wife and I head back up the hill to help another neighbor. When you mandate charity, it feels awful, like paying taxes. But when you willingly help each other out, you feel awesome, like you’re connected to something beyond yourself.
2. I met neighbors that I’d never talked to before. Dave and Barb, a couple who live kitty-corner from me, are no longer strangers. I offered to take down their mangled birch tree with my saw.
“Hi, I’m Scott, Jocelyn’s husband. Want me to bring that tree down for you?”
We started as strangers, but now we know each other. And now we know that we got each others’ backs.
3. Unlikely heroes to the rescue. My family has a gym membership, and we were grateful to have a place to shower. As I left the Sportsplex, I asked at the counter:
“Several of my neighbors still have no power. What’s the shower charge for non-members?”
She told me, “You just tell them to come! No charge.”
Electrical crews came from as far away as Indiana to help restore power to our area. We paused in our clean up work to cheer and applaud as a caravan of workers drove down our road to give us assistance. They became our rock stars and our celebrities!
4. Little joys felt like HUGE joys. You don’t have to be eating lobster at The Palm to feel pampered. My daily gourmet coffee, for example, could not compare to the delicious sensation of that gas station coffee reaching my lips and entering my soul!
A couple of days in, we invited the neighbors over for dinner via our grill. Everyone brought things from their home, and we cooked up an assortment of meats like salmon, turkey burgers, hamburgers, etc. The meal seemed like a feast. We ate off our best china (paper plates by Dixie), our heirloom glasses (by Solo), and used our top-of-the-line linens (by Scott tissue).
When the power goes out for an hour, you get annoyed. All you can think about is that you’re going to have to reset a boatload of clocks when it comes back on. But if the power stays out for a while, you end up…oddly happy.
Did you know that on any given day in America that a tornado, flood, fire, freak accident, hurricane, ice storm, or sinkhole knocks out the power to thousands of people? Even more disturbing, did you know that 1/4 of the Earth doesn’t know the annoyance or bitterness of losing power, because they’ve never had power or running water?
First world problems. I suffered this last week from first world problems like hauling water to flush the toilet, and having to sit in my car to recharge my cell phone. I’ve never known real suffering from doing without, like having no food or water or shelter.
My wife and I plan to have a weekly “power outage” with our kids so that we can take time to be grateful and live simply.
And I hate to admit this, but I’ve felt more powered up when the power was out than when it returned. I aim to focus on the comforts and delights in my life instead of the petty annoyances and times of bitterness.