The Power in Having No Power

Welcome to Format Free Fridays, the one day a week when I break the format of answering your questions and I dispense that which we rarely welcome in life: Unsolicited Information.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and 2012’s first nor'easter, many east coasters found themselves without power for days, or in my case, for weeks.  What did you do with that opportunity? Did you fight against it? Buy a generator? Leave town? Or did you embrace the opportunity to disconnect from technology? There’s no right answer and even if there were, I’m certainly not going to judge.

In hindsight, had I known what I’d be in for, I would have taken my childhood friend up on her offer to flee New York and go to her home in North Caldwell New Jersey before the storm hit.  But I didn’t know that I’d spend 6 days without power, walking up and down 13 flights of stairs in the dark with 2 dogs (1 of which needed to be carried up the stairs because he’s 12 years old) three times a day, twice running out of the building with the dogs and our 2 cats for fear that our building was going to explode from the smell of gas or from the sound of nearby manhole explosions. I didn’t know that I’d finally leave my home only to spend another week living in 2 different hotel rooms, and because I didn’t know that, I surrendered to the power disconnect.  And in that disconnect, I connected very deeply. To humans.

It was a paradox, that power outage.  On the one hand it kicked up many of my basic fears: I couldn’t reach people. There was no power, no cell service, my land line (yes, I’m among the only New Yorkers who has one just in case of an emergency) was dead, none of the stores had food, those that did would only accept cash ~ I only had about $100.00 in cash at home, ATMs were down, there was no mass transit, no cabs, no gas / no rental cars, etc.  It was, to say the least, frightening.

On the other hand, the loss of power provoked my instinct to protect others, and in order to do that, I had to connect with others.  Not through Facebook, not through my blog, not through Skype or via text messaging, but by walking out my front door (with a flashlight) and knocking on my neighbors’ doors to see if they were OK, to invite them over for dinner, to (sometimes) insist on dropping off a hot meal, and by accepting their generosity in sharing what little food they had thawing out in their refrigerators and freezers.

Something changed when the lights went out.  The rules of society changed.  Suddenly it was OK to knock on a neighbor’s door. Just for company. Neighbors who had been afraid of my dogs were offering to help take them out, to relieve me of the burden of the 13 flights of stairs, knowing that I’d just had surgery. In the evenings, my home became a home base of sorts, my dining room table filled with mismatched candles, steaming plates of food, not enough wine, and my neighbors. It was the week before the Presidential election and so of course we couldn’t avoid talking about, and fighting about, politics. Sometimes we played the how’d you meet your spouse game. I enjoyed hearing everyone’s story, getting to know each person, learning which personalities clashed with others at the table.  In that week, we became a family, my neighbors and me.

After the power returned my 16-year old niece asked me what I did for fun without internet. I told her that Steph and I played cards. I couldn’t tell if she was horrified or touched in the way I used to get when someone elderly would reflect on days gone by. The truth is I enjoyed playing cards.  And I enjoyed bonding with my neighbors.  And those are two things I plan to maintain even as life returns to normal, which begins tonight, as we’re moving back home.