After Irene, candlelight and solitude

Four-plus days without power, and yet the world didn't end

August 31, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

For a couple of days, between the time Irene roared through and someone on our street decided to fire up a noisy generator, my neighborhood had been as quiet as when our houses were new and occupied by large families of long-gone Baltimoreans who had few electrical amenities.

That's an assumption, of course, but an informed one.

Most of these houses were built early in the 20th century, long before television or computers, before electric dryers, even before the expansion of commercial radio. There were no stereo systems; people might have listened to music from a player piano or hand-cranked Victrola in those days. The occasional automobile or delivery truck — bringing ice to homeowners who could not yet afford a refrigerator — might have rattled and backfired. If an airplane or blimp went overhead, adults and children probably were startled and excited, and they likely ran outside and looked to the skies when something man-made motored through it.

I am not being nostalgic; I am just doing what I've done frequently from time to time over the years: I try to imagine what life sounded like, felt like, looked like or smelled like back in the time of my grandparents and other ancestors. It's a way of mentally squinting to see the past.

I've only had this experience a few times:

•During prolonged power outages, such as the one after Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003.

•After the attacks of Sept. 11, when all nonmilitary flights were grounded for a time, and the skies were empty and quiet.

•In 1984, when I covered the bicentennial of Cornwallis' surrender to Washington at Yorktown, and the night before the ceremony thousands of British and colonial re-enactors camped out in the national park, fires ablaze, not an artificial light or electric sound within miles.

•Nights by a big fire during a fishing trip to Western Maryland.

This week after Irene, living without power for four or five days, I think I've gotten a good sense of what my house and the neighborhood would have been like way back when, and it pleases me.

Other people are moaning and groaning about being without power for so long, and the gripes about our favorite utility company grow louder by the minute. Some people have critical needs, and they deserve empathy. As for the rest — annoyed by life without light, without television, without the Internet — I have little sympathy, expect to say that, in their impatience to have full power restored, they don't know what they're missing.

In this week after Irene, I've become reacquainted with the smell of burning candles, the serenity they instill, and the way they cast shadows across a room. My eyes have adjusted to the darkness. I've read books and newspapers through dusk, then read more by lamplight. I've walked across rooms by relying on memory of where the tables and chairs are, and, aside from a couple of stubbed toes, generally succeeded. I've had conversations that, with the distractions of television and computers, otherwise would not have taken place. I wrote some letters by hand. I caught up on sleep, getting eight hours of night for the first time in a long time.

This is not for everyone, as I've acknowledged. A coworker, for instance, has been mostly awake since Irene knocked down power lines; he has sleep apnea and needs his continuous positive airway pressure machine to achieve deep sleep.

So, of course, electricity and all the machines and gadgets powered by it have made life for humans easier, more comfortable and, in some obvious ways, healthier. And I'm ready to get it back — as soon as possible.

But I've taken a couple of things from the way Irene ripped through our lives, leaving hundreds of thousands of us powerless:

That we should appreciate what we have — electricity at our fingertips — and be all the more vigilant about conserving it, using less, being more conscious of its value.

That we should purposely take quiet time, welcome the night and enjoy candlelight now and then.

That we should turn off the things that make noise and distract our brains from contemplation and from seeing the beauty in simplicity. That kind of solitude, carved out of your day, is precious. Things will get fast and noisy again before you know it.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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