This morning I was putting away the jam after breakfast and, as I grabbed the refrigerator door handle, I hesitated as I felt a tiny frisson of fear. That hesitation represented the surprisingly thorough adjustments in behavior I had made while our power was out for two days.
In the week between Christmas and the New Year, a winter storm, named Goliath by the Weather Channel, marched slowly across the continent. From blizzards in New Mexico and deadly tornadoes in Texas to icy conditions in the Great Lakes, the storm did a fearful amount of damage and killed more than 50 people. Rivers in Oklahoma and Missouri have flooded and continue to rise. Levees and flood gates along the mighty Mississippi are still straining to hold back flood water. Here in Illinois, winter storm Goliath dumped several inches of rain, iced up trees and power lines, and then, with high winds, blew those trees and power lines to the ground. In our part of the state, tens of thousands of people were without power for anywhere from mere hours to days.
Our power was out for nearly two days. I grew up in Oklahoma and I’ve lived in Illinois for decades, so being without power following storms is far from a new experience. But these two days were different. Perhaps my age is making me feel more vulnerable, or perhaps it is the unusual time of year for such weather that is so unsettling. I’ve never been so long without power in such cold weather—which was actually warmer than December in Illinois usually is. By Thursday morning around 3:30 when the power finally came on, the temperature in the house had fallen twenty degrees. Every surface in the house felt icy cold.
The refrigerator, which we did not open for two days, had gradually warmed inside, reaching a point where the insulation in its walls was probably keeping warm air in and cold air out.
Our old bones had had enough by bedtime on the second day, and we realized, as we piled coats on top of blankets when we got into bed, that we were going to have to look for a hotel to stay in if the power wasn’t restored by bedtime on the third day. Around 4:00 a.m. I woke up feeling too warm. I didn’t recognize the feeling at first. It’s strange how quickly one can accept a new “normal” and doubt the reality of the old normal.
I have often tried to put things into perspective by saying that something is relative. Certainly, what we were experiencing was mere inconvenience compared with what others have suffered in weather crises. But the intensity—and boredom—of those two cold, dark days made me think. After all, the comparison of what is relative is created by the world within the mind.
I am well aware that we live in a world structured by thought and unconscious assumptions. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called this the “educated imagination,” although a more appropriate term might be “trained imagination.” We are trained by parents and others to see the world as they see it, to value what they value, to understand things as they have understood them before us. As we get older, our own experience may alter this to some degree, and, if we’re lucky, our education may offer alternatives that give us choices in how we understand the world.
For example, while the power was out, we chose to see some things as victories. The heavy rain let up by the end of the first day, so my poor husband’s effort to bail water from the rapidly refilling sump well in our basement gradually eased. By the middle of the second day, he could leave the basement for 2 or 3 hours at a time without worrying that the sump well would overflow and flood everything we had stored there. On that first day, when I went out searching for a place to recharge my cell phone, I discovered that, fortunately, the nearby shopping center had power. So, I plugged in my phone and ordered carry-out at Panda Express. It seems small now, but my appreciation at the time was profound. Small victories.
The worst frustration of the whole experience was the power company’s web site, which was supposed to keep us informed about the outage and give us an estimate of when it would be repaired. The idea was that we could enter our address so the web page’s database tool could tell us when the repair crew expected to have our house back online.
First, the web tool told us the repair would happen early in the afternoon of the first day, then later in the afternoon, and then later in the evening. When that deadline also passed, the site merely reported the estimated time of restored service was “not available.” We went through the same hope-building and frustration with the web site on the second day. By that evening, we were thoroughly discouraged.
The web site was intended by the company to keep us informed and give us reassurance, but instead it repeatedly offered false hope—and ultimately a sort of hopelessness. If they had told us it would be two days, we would have complained but prepared ourselves for that length of time, which would have been far better than having hope frustrated over and over again.
Pleasure, difficulty, gratitude, and frustration are all relative. Hot food from Panda Express looked mighty good relative to the cold electric stove and unopen-able refrigerator in our own kitchen four days ago. Today I am grateful for light and warmth, but in a few weeks—or probably a few days—I’ll forget the relative pleasure of something as simple as pulling open the refrigerator door with confidence.