What I saw when all the lights went out

Do you know quiet? I mean REAL quiet? I’m not talking about the low murmur of your house late at night. No matter how many lights you turn off, there’s always a subtle hum in the background — your refrigerator, the alarm clock on your bedside table, or even the hushed purr of the air conditioner unit alongside your house. No, I’m talking a far more primitive quiet, the silence found when not even the power lines near your house are carrying precious wattage. The sound of being truly “off the grid.” I experienced this Monday night.

It started with a distant rumble, just a few delicate raindrops, but it ended with a shift in perspective that caused me to reexamine a few things about the way I live. Not bad for an ordinary Monday night in rural Rusk County.

As the storm blew through our area, just up the road from me a tree branch came crashing down on a pole-mounted distribution transformer. The lights flickered — tried to regain itself as the air was filled with the acrid odor of ozone — then my house fell dark and silent for the next 18 hours.

My children, of course, thought this was all quite hilarious. I figure it’s something about the anarchic nature of children’s minds that makes a blackout particularly exhilarating. Either way, they took this as an opportunity to chase each other around the house making spooky noises, as the grownups went searching for candles. Once the pale yellow glow of illumination started to return, I busied myself with the task of of switching off lights and electronic devices around the house. I’m to understand this helps the process of getting electricity restored by preventing a power surge.

Eventually the children’s fervor was tamped down by the inevitable boredom that comes when children are suddenly deprived of media distractions. They read books and colored pictures, the elder two played checkers and chess. We sat out on the big front porch and watched the storm roll across our town. We talked. I told them a few “true” ghost stories I knew, including the time I was accosted by a man with a hook instead of a hand.

As the hour grew late and they all settled down to bed, I sat out on my porch reading an old book by candlelight. There was something about the way the flickering amber colors played upon the page, wholly unlike reading by the various electric lamps around my house or the long array of white fluorescent bulbs that plague my workplace. I could hear the author’s “voice” better, I could remain in the flow of the story longer. It was both soothing and rousing. Beat the pants off just about any television show out there.

It may seem epicurean, or even a little silly, but there’s something unique about being removed from typical creature comforts. It forces you to listen to yourself — to your own thoughts — which might be uncomfortable for some and even downright impossible for others.

Once the rain tapered off, I saw neighbors appraising damage from their own porches. Our eyes acclimated to the darkness, we hailed each other as fellow “survivors” of the wreckage. We remarked on the emergency crews working up the road, shared our own determination on how long the outage would last, and whether the storm was tornadic or not.
It was probably the longest conversations I’d had with some of them since I moved to that neighborhood. Why is that? People, I think, use drugs — drugs both legal and illegal — because their lives are intolerably painful or dull. They hate work and find no rest in leisure. They are disconnected from their own families as well as neighbors. We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.

A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing the place is shared, and the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It’s the knowledge people have of each other, their concern, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.

Don’t get me wrong — once the power came back on, I was right back to checking email and watching Netflix. But the “clarity” I achieved Monday remains with me. I’ve resolved henceforth to make time to “unplug” and kick it old school (like 19th Century old school) once in a while. Not only for my benefit but those I love. In all the hustle and bustle of our enlightened modern era, we can too easy let our connections to each other where thin.

Sometimes it takes losing all light to realize what illuminates our lives. It’s not the things we have to distract us or to earn a living, but the people we share our lives with. I just feel foolish that it took a thunderstorm wreaking havoc to get the message across.

But sometimes the only way we can listen to that “still small voice” is remove ourselves from the louder ones that drown out our conscience.

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