It’s strange how much modern people secretly crave weather-related disasters—the blizzard that shuts down a city, bringing travel and commerce to a halt, the tropical storm that knocks out power, leaving millions in the dark. People of earlier centuries rightly feared such events and earnestly prayed to be delivered from them. Now there’s an excitement that begins building the moment we hear of such a storm.
That the larger storms sometimes turn deadly does little to chasten our feelings of anticipation. Part of it is the knowledge, gleaned from a century of experience, that things will soon go back to normal. Another is the paradox of media reports, which transform terrible events into a form of nightly entertainment while pretending to inform. In the meantime, provided no one we know has suffered harm, there’s some comfort in having nature force our hands. It feels good to release our death grip on the steering wheel, and take up the snow shovel instead.
There’s a tension between the part of us that wants to move along at speed, infatuated with our ever-proliferating array of screens and gadgets, and the part of us that deeply hates them, too. There’s the part that doesn’t want to be bothered with other people’s lives and is therefore comfortable with the false proximity that social media affords. But there’s also the part that is heartbroken at the loneliness and isolation of the life we are living—the part that requires medication and constant distraction just to endure it. If we can’t stop ourselves from embracing the things we secretly hate and know to be bad for us, the question becomes what will stop us? Climate change is one answer. The end of oil would be another. In the meantime we have our storms.
It’s a relief to have life placed on a real footing again, when it becomes about water and food, warmth and companionship. It’s a relief, even if we can’t do it for ourselves. Even if it lasts only for an evening or a day.
A few summers ago, as we were nearing the end of our yearly vacation, we heard that a hurricane was headed straight for Cape Cod. With only a day left on the rental house, we decided to make a dash for it rather than take the brunt of the storm. As it turns out, we’d have been better off staying where we were. Because instead of hitting the Cape, the storm struck a hundred miles inland, wiping out parts of the Catskill town just to the north of us and shutting off the power in our community for over a week.
Not only was the whole neighborhood plunged into utter darkness, the whole town was, too. A few people powered up generators, but the pinpricks of light they provided were powerless over that much darkness. There was no way they could prevail against the night.
People grumbled, but you could tell they were secretly delighted. They just didn’t have the vocabulary to express it. Few of us know how saturated our minds and bodies are with light. Even fewer realize how profoundly modern media poisons the soul.
The storm brought down huge trees all up and down the road where we live. At night I’d have to climb over them just to complete my walk. I was sad to lose them, but there was something peaceful about the solid bulk of their bodies lying full across the road. The storm had been violent, but it wasn’t a human violence. There was no callousness in it. Whatever is born will die, and those trees understood death better than a Buddha. Later they were removed piecemeal with a chainsaw by cutting them into manageable lengths and loading them into the backs of pickups that groaned audibly with the weight.
It was surprising how fast most people adjusted to the longer nights and earlier bedtimes. It was harder to make coffee without electricity, but most people had less need of it anyway. For the first time in months—in some cases, years—they were finally getting enough rest.
Friends who knew of my habit of waking up in the dark for a solitary ramble were suddenly interested in talking with me about it. Some reported strange dreams. A man I barely knew told me, “When the grid goes down, the mythical creatures return.” He said it twice, like an incantation. The lit part of my mind dismissed what he was saying, but the dark part knew that it was true.
Our small town drifted together during those weeks, as neighbors who hadn’t spoken in years shared meals and news with one another, helping with repairs and errands, and catching up on the hundred details of daily life that people share who live on the same road—or would share if they talked more often. Without phones there was no way to communicate without speaking face to face. But just as quickly the town drifted apart again, as people went back to the larger business of the world. The Internet was up, the interstate was open, and the TV came back on.
People’s lives went back to normal after the hurricane was over and its devastation had been repaired or removed. But my own life never went back.
I would ask myself why later on. What about the hurricane left me unplugged from the worst, most addictive aspects of the culture, the hurricane that for most people was only a temporary glitch in the relentless technological advance of human life? In a word, it was darkness.
Our lives begin in the womb and end it in the tomb. Whatever light there is in the middle (and there’s more of it now than ever before) doesn’t change that basic fact. It’s dark on either side. And the billion-watt culture that passes for American life doesn’t change that. Occasionally, when the right storm comes along, we can still find ourselves at home in the dark.
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