November 6, 2011
Last Saturday night the lights went out. It was early evening, I was nestled on the couch, taking refuge and pleasure in working on a baby quilt (this week that baby made her way into the world, the quilt still not finished but soon, soon I hope). Dirty dishes filled the dishwasher but there was plenty of time to run the machine, plenty of time for everything in the coming week, a week at home. I’m on the road so much with a full life that makes me feel so very blessed, but the hard part is being away from home. I literally had been fantasizing the week before, working in NY, “Next week I’m home, I will plug myself into my house and recharge, replenish my body and spirit in this week at home.” It wasn’t meant to be.
All afternoon a heavy snow had been falling, falling on trees still full of green leaves, heavy on limbs that strained and twisted and cracked under the unexpected unnatural weight. I sat on the couch looking out the window with a deep feeling of dread, horror, sorrow – how we have broken this beautiful world that still in October, a blizzard. I’m not ready for winter my heart groaned, not nearly ready for the dying of the light. And then the lights went out. All the lights - in the house, my neighbor’s lights, the street lights; a new moon, so no help there even. The most complete darkest dark I had ever seen. Carefully shuffling along the floor with one hand held in front to avoid collision with furniture, I made my way to the basement door where a flashlight hung. And so we began coping.
Over the next four days the temperature inside the house went down to 38 – getting up in the morning I could see my breath – that is, when the sun finally slowly came up. We were back somewhere in the 19th century, the day beginning with sunrise and ending with sunset – what do I want to do with my precious daylight hours today – though as power was restored incrementally around town we made use of some of the amenities civilization provided – Eddie put in full days in the warm library, I spent an afternoon taking refuge at the gym recharging laptop, cell phone and drinking tea; one evening we went to a poetry reading with John Ashberry on campus. Breakfast was a yogurt with some slowly defrosting berries from the freezer, but then a race out the door to flee the horrible cold (I became resourceful finding odd places with heat to go brush my teeth and wash in the morning). We could light a match and boil water or even cook on the gas stovetop but the cold in every room that got into my bones offered no place to eat.
A routine ensued featuring protein bars, apples and endless mugs of tea, punctuated by a succession of restaurants for dinner, though comfort food failed to comfort; curiously and uncharacteristically I lost my appetite. What did comfort was a down comforter I acquired 15 years ago cleaning out my brother’s house after he died, it became a cherished lifesaver. We discovered the first night that the fireplace set a beautiful scene but gave off no heat, down on the other hand was exquisite, magically toasty. Though we had offers from Boston – please come stay with us – I couldn’t bring myself to sleep two hours away and leave this hundred-year old house, and so a nightly vigil with water dripping from all faucets to prevent our pipes freezing and bursting. I was able to keep my appointments for phone sessions (there also, needing to be inventive about where and how to make and receive long private phone calls) and felt that working provided a cheery boost to my spirits – normalcy, meaning, an assertion of some small control over my life.
At the heart of what was hard was the loss of home. It’s no accident that I’ve written a lot about home – much in A Spiritual Life reflects on the need for home, the ways I’ve created and recreated home, how I’ve welcomed so many people into my home; poems in Finding Words - “Dreaming of home,” “Still dreaming of home,” and other poems as well. You don’t lose the somatic memory of a childhood spent waking to a cold apartment, and when you wake in the morning to real cold, all the old feelings flood back, the safety you had built in your adult life dissolves. How vulnerable we are, what makes us safe and comfortable can be gone in a moment. Ironic to have this lesson so close to Sukkot when we build little playhouses, “temporary dwellings,” supposedly to remind us of just this. And yes, the world is full of those suffering in the cold, deprived of the safety and comfort of home, and National Grid will not be sending trucks down their streets or alleyways anytime soon to restore power. And yes, we all share the ultimate vulnerability that the house we live in is slowly aging and eventually will not be able to sustain us...
My daughter made a new acquaintance this summer, an observant Muslim who got to talking to her about Ramadan. The first week or so of the fast he said he’s just plain hungry during the day and focused on that. But then as the days pass he becomes more mindful of those in the world who suffer hunger, hunger which will not be alleviated when the sun sets, and as his compassion deepens he remembers that that is the true purpose and meaning of the fast. By the end of this week, having had a few days to thaw out the house and struggle to regain my equilibrium, I see that it’s time to turn my attention to those who are still cold and without power.