Learning to be grateful while the lights are out
During this week I have had daily—no, hourly—reminders of how much we comfortable Americans take for granted, and how many things we should be grateful for. I hope I remember them all at Thanksgiving.
This week, you see, a freak storm wiped out the electrical power in our region of Massachusetts. Since Saturday night we have been living without many modern conveniences. It’s a healthy thing, occasionally, to be reminded that for most of human history, our ancestors devoted the better part of their days to the essential problems of eating and keeping warm. In many parts of the world, our contemporaries still face those daily challenges.
But for us, ordinarily, life is simple. When the cold sets in we tweak the thermostat. When dinnertime approaches we open the refrigerator and turn on the stove. Then after a good meal, when the dishwasher has been loaded, we might turn on a light and relax with a book, or check our email messages, or watch TV. Ordinarily. Not this week in the Lawler household.
Our little saga began on Friday, when we saw the weather forecasts predicting a very unusual heavy snowfall for Saturday night, October 29. We’re accustomed to snow here in New England, but not to snow in October. The forecasts said that we could be hit by as much as a foot of heavy, wet white stuff. We weren’t ready for that.
So on Saturday we dragged the plow out from the back of the garage, hooked it up to the truck, tested it, fixed the balky connections, and pronounced it fit for duty. Then we took tarps over the deck furniture, bales of straw beside the beehives, and hauled firewood from the shed into the nook in the garage near the back door. In other words, we prepared for winter—a process that usually takes place over the course of a month, now done in hurry-up mode in a day.
As we did these chores, we grumbled cheerfully about the tendency for weather forecasters to be alarmists. There probably wouldn’t be any snow at all, we said; it certainly wouldn’t be as serious as predicted. Still, we couldn’t afford to take a chance. The forecasters might be right.
Those forecasts had included a new twist. Most of the trees in New England still held their leaves. Ordinarily, by the time the heavy snow arrives here, all those beautiful maples and oaks have shed their colorful leaves, and the snow can waft its way to the ground between the bare limbs. Not in October. The snow would cling to the leaves, and since the forecasts called for unusually heavy, wet snow, the leaves would weigh down the branches, causing limbs to snap. Or so said the forecasters. We sneered derisively.
Then the storm came, and the forecasts were proven right. In fact, this time the forecasters had not been alarmist enough. The snow began falling Saturday afternoon, gradually picking up intensity. We began to hear the crack of small limbs snapping off trees. Late Saturday night, simultaneous with a booming noise in the distance, our lights flickered and went out.
When the lights go out, our furnace—with its electric ignition and electric circulating pump—also dies. The electric stove doesn’t work, nor the dishwasher, refrigerator, freezer, or hot-water heater. Things quickly become much more primitive. Fortunately we have a couple of good woodstoves, which we use to complement the heat from the furnace. Now we stoked them up to handle the whole job.
We woke on Sunday to 8 inches of heavy snow. (In some nearby towns it was over a foot, and in the hills west of us, closer to 2 feet.) The plow went through it without difficulty; we had no trouble getting to Mass. Only as we returned did I begin realizing the extent of the storm damage. Our next-door neighbor was marooned at home, with a chestnut tree felled across his driveway. I fetched my chainsaw, and in a while he was free. Then I wandered around our own yard, cutting up some of the limbs that had fallen. One young maple tree had been completely decapitated, so I took down the splintered remains. When the clean-up is complete—which won’t be soon—we’ll have plenty of new logs to cure for next winter’s fires.
In the back of the house I had a stack of dry logs that I had planned to split during the month of November, for use later in the winter. In the shed were more logs, ready to be hauled in for use. Suddenly these tasks took high priority, with the woodstoves going full-bore. My wonderful wife Leila was huddled over the woodstove in the kitchen, somehow fashioning tasty meals by using the top as a burner or wrapping food in aluminum foil and putting it directly into the fire.
It all worked. We weren’t as warm as we usually are, but we were warm enough. The menu was sometimes a bit odd, but we were not hungry. The experience was a bit like camping, except that it was done indoors. In the evening we huddled in the kitchen—having closed off most of the rooms to preserve heat—and read by the light of kerosene lamps. It was fun. For a while.
Driving around the area on errands (charging our cell phones in the car as we drove), we could easily see the reason for the widespread blackouts. The devastation was not as dramatic as that following an ice storm here four years ago, when huge trees were felled across the path of the storm. This time the damage was done mostly by smaller limbs of trees. But thousands of these limbs came down—in many cases, across power lines. The scenic tree-lined country roads of rural Massachusetts were not nearly so pleasant to drive; limbs were scatted across the roads, and branches poked out from the sides.
Sunday passed, and Monday. And Tuesday. Most of the local stores were closed. Our usual grocery store was open, but the lights were dim and the selection of fresh food was paltry. We saw the utility trucks around town, and the men working on poles. Lights began to come on in nearby towns, and even in other sections of our own town. Our street remained dark. The novelty was wearing off.
By Tuesday a friend had regained power, and invited me over to use the internet connection. On Wednesday the local library reopened, with its wifi connection. So I could do my regular work, with some extra effort. But there was still no power at home. The fires still needed to be stoked; the kindling still had to be hauled in on a regular basis.
So on Wednesday, I confess, I began feeling sorry for myself. It was taking so much extra energy to do what I would ordinarily consider the most basic tasks! Then, by the grace of God, I caught myself, and realized that most of the world’s people would very happily trade places with me that very minute. Millions of people would be delighted to have a trusty flashlight—to say nothing of a big house with lights in every room.
Next I recalled that that day, Wednesday, was the feast of All Souls. I thought of the thousands of doughty Christians who have persevered in the faith down through the ages—almost all of them in far rougher conditions than what I had been experiencing. I always think of my grandmother on November 1, because I feel sure she is now one of that “cloud of witnesses,” the uncanonized saints, the faithful Christians whose virtues escaped public notice. A quiet little woman with an intense prayer life, my grandmother grew up on a hardscrabble farm in Quebec. She became a nurse in a logging town on the frontier, and eventually decided, along with a friend, to travel from North Battleford, Saskatchewan (go ahead; look it up) to Boston—on horseback. I think it’s safe to say that in comparison with the living conditions of her early years, my current conditions are luxurious.
So I stopped feeling sorry for myself, and began instead to feel thankful for the many luxuries that I enjoy every day: for abundant food and warmth and health and light, and for the joy of (ordinarily) instant communication with others.
Today, Thursday, the weather is warming up. We don’t need to keep the woodstoves going all day. Good friends whose power has returned have lent us a generator, which we are using to power a refrigerator and freezer, saving some food from spoiling. We still have no power, but the utility company has promised that the lights will be on by tonight. Our internet cable, which I found severed under a fallen tree limb in the woods, will be repaired tomorrow. By the weekend life should be back to normal, and if I am in the woods again (as I hope to be), I will be hunting for deer, not cable lines.
But in the back of my mind, I hope I will retain the realization that what is “normal” for me is not normal for most of the world, nor has it been normal for most of history. We humans are selfish creatures, all too prone to take our blessings for granted. But I hope at least that my current gratitude will keep me in the proper frame of mind for Thanksgiving Day.
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Posted by: -
Nov. 09, 2011 10:57 AM ET USA
Phil, some of us would die for the lifestyle you have adopted. I'm 71, and I always had high hopes of living in a nice house in the woods. But it was not to be. I just weathered bankruptcy, and although out of debt, I am living month-to-month on Social Security, which might not be there anymore after Washington's Super Committee gets through with it. But you know what, despite all that I have found joy - put everything in the Name of Jesus and abandon yourself in Him - He always provides. Fred
Posted by: kmbold -
Nov. 04, 2011 9:39 PM ET USA
Nice post. I like your grandmother.
Posted by: AgnesDay -
Nov. 03, 2011 1:39 PM ET USA
I mourn for your beautiful trees. I was just up in your neighborhood last spring, and I so admire the ruggedness and beauty of New England. You will see the scars for years, just as we did in the South after the Ice Storm of 2000.