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Power outages

Once all the work is done and nothing remains but waiting and biding, one may as well romanticize an unavoidable difficulty. So long as you avoid sentimental attachment, to romanticize lets you force some benefit from an experience that would otherwise only humiliate and exhaust. True, it would seem more honest not to romanticize, to bear difficulty as difficulty without renaming it opportunity or insight; but life is not long enough for such purity.

Long power outages are a good example. They waste time, they subtract days from habit and use. And in Louisiana, where such power outages are usually due to hurricanes, they mean the labor of cleanup and repair and the horror of the radio. After Katrina, without power and thus without TV, I saw none of the sights that, as I read, horrified the nation and the world; but I heard voices. I heard a woman in terror calling from her attic as the water rose around her feet; I heard a radio host, in a soft radio host's voice, tell his caller that the best thing for her to do would be to find something heavy and break a hole through her roof. I don't remember if she called back. By the time I had my own property in order, volunteers were being left idle or turned back.

A long power outage is a kind of experiment in material culture. The result is not the present collapsing into the past, but a barrier giving way so the past and present can mingle—as in the third world. You learn strange things about familiar objects. A paperback book, for example, cannot be read by the light of a single candle. The pages do not lie flat; they shadow one another. Two candles are required, one for each side.

Most interesting is how thin the habits of technological life are. Only a week passed before I was rising with the sun and turning in at nightfall. Food preparation became so difficult that orderly meals reappeared. I found myself afraid of the waning of the moon and the nights of unappealable dark that followed.

That is a genuine connection with the past: old poems have been a little different ever since. It was, I think, more genuine than the recreations of re-enactors and the lives of sects that reject technologies, for we were not leaving technology; technology had left us: we were not withdrawing from society; society withdrew from all of us. No officials came to check, no functionaries offered help. Not for long, but for long enough, we were out of touch and beyond help.

Of course, the same event was much worse for others, who never had the chance to romanticize. But all of us are better prepared now—another Katrina should not rival the first. And as technology miniaturizes and gadgetizes, its empire of propane, lithium batteries, and LEDs does not abdicate when the lights go out.

But which past, and in which parts? Technology requires knowledge, and the limit of knowledge is the limit of technology. Nineteenth century technology with twenty-first century knowledge is twenty-first century technology. And there was always the car for spiritual refuge—the spaceship of the piney void.

But whose past? And how much? Not long ago I stood in a restored sharecropper's cabin (once converted from slave quarters). The last resident had died in the 1940s; his tools were still there (so they said), displayed mounted on his walls. Did a sense of what kind of effort each took give me some special sympathy with the resident? A kind of sympathy, yes, but a trivial one. The horrors of physical labor were the least of the horrors of sharecropping, and the greater ones—hopelessness, shame, fear, defeat—are neither uncommon nor obsolete. But (if the tools were truly his) I had one insight others might not have had: I saw that they were cheap tools, badly made and badly kept. I saw how much they must have hurt to use.

A power outage interrupts habit; and like all interruptions of habit it discovers by contrast. Life is lived mostly by a borrowed pace: observing paths, speed limits, hours, appointments; following, catching up on, awaiting. A power outage, in suspending all these rhythms, shows what is very hard to see when you are swayed by it—shows that these rhythms are not things that you can make part of you, but things that want to make you part of them. Within one life the only mastery possible is mastery in independence: you must measure what you give to each in the knowledge that it can take everything you have to give.

And then, suddenly, the lights come back on; the screens are alive again, the voices have faces again; you stop thinking about the weather; the hours are yours again to use, to waste or apply. Now you can rest, and smile at what strange thoughts there are to think when thinking is all you can do.