Power Failures

On a wintry late afternoon in the early 1960s, I was driving from Providence, Rhode Island, where I studied at Brown University, to my apartment in Waltham, Massachusetts. I did this three days a week – a ride of anywhere from one-and-a-half to two hours, depending on weather and traffic conditions. Sometimes I took the train in the morning and my husband Darryl would come to pick me up in the afternoon. This seemed a reasonable accommodation to the fact that the one job he’d been offered was in Boston, while my one fellowship was in Providence. On this particular day, Darryl was driving our robin’s egg blue Volkswagen bug. My impression is that a blue evening was descending, along with an increasingly heavy snow, and that Darryl and I were in our own worlds, he, perhaps, lost in the elementary particle zoo, I, no doubt, wondering – as I did constantly in those days – was I doing the right thing with my life? The radio was playing softly. As we drove, I remarked, with characteristic vagueness, that “something looked different.” “The traffic lights are out,” said Darryl, as indeed they were. As were the lights in the stores and restaurants, office buildings and houses we were passing. Darryl began twisting the radio knob and soon we learned that we were in the midst of a major nor’easter and that blackouts were legion.

About that famous blackout perhaps the most quoted statistic was the number of babies conceived that night. But my most striking memory was that no one  in our six-family apartment unit owned a plain old manual can opener. This struck me with the force of revelation. We were all young marrieds, ambitious cooks and dinner party throwers. But that night none of us could open a can of peas. What kind of people were we? How could we be so unprepared, so helpless? What kind of foundation had we built upon? Though the logic of it eludes me now, I have no doubt that my failure – and my neighbors’ – to own a manual can opener was a major factor in my decision to drop out of my master’s program in comp lit and throw myself into social activism. Never again! I resolved. I would remake myself into someone who had control over her life.

[frame align=”right”][/frame]Nearly fifty years later, the power went out again. This time it was summer, June 29, and I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the temperature had passed 100. That evening – we were hit with a “derecho,” a fast-moving, long-lived, large violent thunderstorm complex, racing along at more than 60 mph and leaving a massive trail of destruction in its wake. To me, it had sounded and looked like just one more of the electrical storms that regularly blew out the power every summer. Unperturbed, I sat in the dark for a while and then descended the stairs by the light of my cell phone. Somewhere in my kitchen was a manual can opener, but it was late and I was not thinking of eating. I found the battery-powered lantern in my bedroom, switched it on and placed it on the flat headboard above my pillow. I balanced my Kindle on a pillow on my belly and read myself contentedly to sleep, certain that normalcy would return by dawn. But it did not. The place was cool enough, but with another 100 degree day ahead, it would not remain so for long. I could not make coffee. The bread could not be toasted. Neighbors were mumbling darkly about another 24-hours –  if not more — of powerlessness.

I was stunned. A widow now, and dependent on my creature comforts and homely routines to keep my world in balance, I felt the panic rising.

Fortunately, I’d invited a friend over for breakfast. We laughed and decided to go to Starbucks. The traffic lights were out but the streams of cars, obeying the commands of an invisible choreographer, executed a civilized dance of starts, stops and turns. This was reassuring. Yet when we reached the shopping center Starbucks was closed, as was everything but Target, from whose half-darkened interior families emerged with styrofoam coolers and huge bags of ice. My friend and I looked at one another. “This is weird,” she said. She did not say “apocalypse.” We did say “global warming”, but in the way people say “death and taxes,” something we all dread but can’t do anything about. It was clear to both of us that humanity was not going to fix that little problem with any alacrity.

Eventually, we found shelter at my daughter’s, whose house had been spared. We drank her Keurig’s and polished off the mushroom brie and horseradish cheddar I’d rescued from my warming frig. We messed around with our smart phones, pulling in whatever data from our vast and data-rich world we could find. By four that afternoon my power was back on.

No sweat.

This time, the blackout did not awaken a desire to change my life. I was not appalled at my dependence on the miracles of science. I wanted them – not gone – but better, more miraculous.

Today is July 2. The summer is just beginning.


-Sharon Leiter, co-poetry editor

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