“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Day 38: A Meditation on Power

It was noon and I was writing an essay about Rajasthan, trying to remember what 120 degrees felt like in my body, when the electricity went out.  All across the North Country it had been raining, then sleeting, then snowing for over 24 hours. I only knew we'd lost power because I put an English muffin in the toaster and it just sat there.  I wrote on battery power until 1:30, and then my laptop said good-night.

Back in the house, Zoe was distressed.  Big iced branches were knocking against the kitchen window.  She was panting, and when I got up to check the phone, she ran from room to room.  At 2 I thought maybe if she got outside to see what was going on, if I found a place for her to poke around where we didn't need crash helmets, she would feel more in control of her world.

This kind of storm can transform an ordinary village street of modest homes and small lots into a sublime winterscape of drifts and ice, but our world hadn't crossed over yet to Icelandic fairytale-pretty.  Outside, on the sidewalk, deep dog-high snow gave way to gray slush.  Zoe navigated it all with aplomb.  It wasn't until we crossed our usual bridge, to the campus behind our house, that we saw the full impact of the storm's great power.  So many branches were down that we were navigating an obstacle course.  I like to look at her the whole time we walk these days--my own version of walking meditation--but my eyes flew skyward: would any of these branches come down on our heads?  Was it stupid for us to be here?

We got to the second bridge, heard trees along it groaning, and both stopped in unison.  Zoe had too much sense to go forward, and we retraced our steps and went back to the road.

Further on Riverside Drive, a young woman was shoveling her drive.  "This is the fourth time I've been out here today already,"she said.  "The snow comes back as fast as I can shovel it."  Her husband was working and she was alone in her rented apartment with her cats and her kids, but her mood was upbeat.  A small child came over to see who Mommy was talking to.  "Close that door," the woman said.  "We're going to lose the last of the heat."  She had to keep the driveway clear because her husband drives a bus that he would need to get back in sometime later that day.  She pointed to their yard.  "That tree," she said, "is dead.  I''ve been asking my landlord for ages to take it down, but he won't, and now I'm afraid it's coming to come down anyway.  Good thing that truck next to it is dead.  I keep hoping the wind will blow that way."

The whole time we had this conversation, she was petting Zoe.  Zoe had her plucky, game on face:  snow all over her black fur, the "got milk?" snow mustache, eyes bright.  She loves snow, loves to roll in it and eat it and be chased in it.  She was enjoying herself and she warmed to this woman's affection.  Plus, we so rarely walk on the main roads on the lead that she knew there was something special about the day to relish.

On the corner of Riverside, I surveyed the damage.  A telephone pole was forming a slight left-leaning C.  All the shops were black.  Some had put signs up, but others not.  The traffic was moving steadily, though, despite the darkened stoplights.

We returned at 3 to the sight of some nasty-looking, drenched-to-the-core logs covered with sticky, decomposed leaves that my husband had rescued from our yard.  He tried to build a fire with them and the smell of burning sap was sickening.

I thought back to January of 1998, when an ice storm knocked out power across the Northeast, leaving people in Canada and much of Vermont, Maine, and Upstate New York without power for as long as two weeks.  We had this same wood stove, but like now, we didn't rely on it for our heat, and that year, we didn't have wood.  In desperation, we were about to burn the leftover boards from the deck we'd just built that summer when our friends Cathy and Joel called from Colton and said, "Do you need wood?"  When we told Joel what we were doing he said, "Those boards are treated with arsenic.  You could have died!"  Even though the national guard had rolled into the county to keep order, and travel was restricted, we managed to get all the wood we needed from our dear friends.  And that was how we were able to stay in our home rather than move to a shelter.

Back then, we didn't have a dog.  I don't know what people did with their pets in the Ice Storm of 98.  I think of all those Katrina pets abandoned by owners who had no choice--leave now, or die.  I would have wanted, as I'm sure most people did, to try to stick it out with my dog.  It's a terrible thing to imagine.

I called Cathy and she was happy to share wood with us. But the roads looked bad, the drive would take more than its usual twenty minutes, and soon it would be dark.  So I called our local radio station, our NPR-affiliate, NCPR, to see if they knew if anyone who lived close to us was selling wood.  No one they knew of was, but Shelly took down my cell phone number and a few minutes later, when we were in the car with the dog heading out to Colton, she called back.  Her parents in Canton would give us a wheelbarrow full to get through the night, if we needed it, and Ellen Rocco, the station manager, had found neighbors near her place who were likely to be selling.  All in a matter of five minutes these transactions had taken place at a busy radio station dealing with the big weather news story of the season.

I won't forget their kindness, ever.  In the Ice Storm of 1998 this radio station was the hub of all the community sharing--getting out the word about how to drain pipes, where to get a meal, how to get to the nearest shelter, who was selling wood, where you could buy a generator.  Our radio station saved lives.  This is why we need public radio, friends.

Zoe whined from the back seat all the way to Colton.  She knows this country highway, Route 68, with its horse stables and inns, and the bed-and-breakfast-and sheep farm, but under ice and snow, with all that wind, it looked alien to her, I guess.  Or maybe she sensed that we were driving so slowly because we had to.  Maybe she could feel the seriousness of our mission.  Or maybe a storm with enough power to knock out power lines has a special resonance in a dog's ear.

In Colton, Zoe leapt out the door at the sight of Tupper, Cathy's handsome shepherd/golden mix, and they did their usual loop-de-loops through the snow, running in figure eights while the three of us humans loaded the back of the station wagon, fire brigade style.

At home, I made a nest for the three of us by the wood stove.  Within no time the downstairs was warm, Zoe was curled up beside me close enough for me to scratch her ears, and I was reading a memoir about India by flashlight while Kerry listened to a John Le Carré novel on his I-Pod.

On the way home, we'd seen a few scattered houses all lit up and thought that perhaps the power was coming back.  Then we realized that these people had generators, or alternative sources of energy that freed them from the grid.  In 1998, when we lost power in our home for ten days, we all envied the Amish and the back-to-the-landers who live in our community independent of the vagaries of the national grid.  They still had to contend with fallen trees, but their routines didn't change.

I liked the husband/wife/dog nest we made on the rug, and I liked the smell of last night's dinner of pork tenderloin and collard greens being reheated on the wood stove in its aluminum foil packet.  I liked not thinking about e-mail, and I was looking forward to finishing the writing I had to do on lined paper in pen.  I liked the candlelit room and the shadows we made and the sight of the snow outside the window with flashlight beams shining on it.

I have to confess I was almost disappointed when, a little after 7 in the evening, the power came back on.

But then I thought of that woman I'd seen shoveling her driveway for the fourth time that day, with her cats and her children in the apartment without heat.  She'd been confident that the power would come back that night.  "Sometime around six," she said.  "That's what we're predicting here."  I was glad she was right. 

Later, nest dismantled, everyone upstairs, the lamp on as I read more of my book, I thought again about the word "power."  I had been trying, when we lost ours, to imagine the heat of the Indian desert while I sat watching the snow come down outside, trying to feel that heat on my skin in a room where I needed a sweater and socks to stay warm.  In my writer's solitude I was trying to remember the farm villagers my students and I met: how they told us that their power came from their community, from what they have created together.  Grandmothers in orange saris, men with white turbans, children: they had managed to make mustard and millet and spinach grow in a landscape of sand and scrub.

Later, we met the environmental activist Vandana Shiva, who told us that the way to happiness, and to forming the most inclusive democracy possible is to make the shift from thinking, I am, because I consume, to I am, because I create.  Whether we sew or bake bread or grow millet or dance or make stories, as creators we have more power than as isolated humans in an atomized world.  And by seeing each other as creators, not consumers, we barter and exchange and weave the fabric that is our world.
"The new science is telling us everything is related.  Our experiences are telling us everything is connected.  And yet the ruling ideologies tell us that everything is fragmented, and I think that atomism is the basis of fear, and the basis of loneliness, and of feeling helpless.  But you are not alone, you are in a web of community, and the minute you get this sense, the capacities you can mobilize become much higher."
My husband and I have a tendency to hunker down, to stay at home with our books and our projects. Our dog is shy, but she loves the love she receives from friends and strangers.  Our lifesaver friend in Colton and our neighbors from the local radio station had reminded us that we were only as alone as we wanted to be.

And when I woke up to a world transformed by snow and ice, to weather so cold that Zoe lifted her paws on the morning walk and Kerry had to take her home, I felt again like I could remember what I'd learned in another village on a hot day in the desert on the other side of the world.
the window to what I thought was blackness, but the campus across the way apparently has power generators

opening the cupboards to see if there are more candles

Zoe says, If you people are going to wander around in the dark, I'm going to hide under here so you don't step on me

Kitchen by candelight

community meeting in Rajasthan village
The women had a lot to say, and they sang for us
fields of mustard, spinach, millet, corn, broccoli
every village needs its cattle
What's for dinner?

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