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Power Outages

Once all the work is done and nothing remains but waiting and biding, you may as well romanticize an unavoidable difficulty. So long as you avoid forming a 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. We work with what we get.

Long power outages are a good example. They waste time, they subtract days from habit and use. And here 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 have read, horrified the nation and the world; but I heard the 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. (I was in the audience; by the time my own property was accessible, 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. You learn strange things about familiar objects. A paperback book, for example, cannot be read by the light of a single candle. The pages will not lie flat; they shadow one another. Two candles are required, one for each page.

More 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 dreading 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 technology, for we were not leaving technology; technology had left us: we were not withdrawing from society; society forgot 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.

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.

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 would not rival the first. And as technology miniaturizes and gadgetizes, its empire of propane, lithium batteries, and LEDs does not abdicate when the wires go cold.

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 among the lights – shows that these rhythms are not things that you have made part of you, but things that have made you part of them. And 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 apply or to waste. Now you can rest; now you can smile at what strange thoughts there are to think when thinking is all you can do.