December 24, 2013

The Ice Storm: A Teachable Moment.

“Try to learn to let what is unfair teach you.”

~ David Foster Wallace

There is an ice storm here, a cruel and lovely visitor wearing white and diamonds. It started at the end of last week, a meeting of falling rain and frozen ground that gave our children a snow day on what should have been a day of holiday parties and teacher gifts. It brought down power lines and turned busy intersections into real-time studies in patience, intelligence and trust.

It left more than 50,000 households without power including my father’s, my brother’s and many friends. My brother’s family is basically camping in their own house; they have two working fireplaces and a generator that lets them charge electronics. We still have power, so my father is living here, and sleeping on our couch. Everyone I know who still has power has taken people in for the duration, or at least provided hot food, hot showers or the use of laundry machines.

A State of Emergency has been declared in the county. All power company employees have been called back from their holiday vacations, and crews have come from other states to help. The order of things is explained in a public statement: downed lines and intersections first, then lines that supply power to an entire neighborhood and then, last of all, lines to individual dwellings.

The power may not be on for another week, and there are predictions of high winds than will probably bring down more of the ice-brittle power lines and leave more people camping in frigid homes with no light. People without power are directed to warming centers, local community centers and churches that have opened their doors and kept them open, some providing simple food and others offering just a place to be warm and charge a phone or a computer.

There is no room at the inn around here; every available hotel and motel space was snapped up within a day of the ice fall. I see pictures on Facebook of families with small children camped out in one room, families on hotel beds with their dogs and cats and caged birds and iguanas and (in one case) a child’s fighting fish in a bowl.

I speak to a friend on the phone; she and her husband have a hotel room for the duration but they were not allowed to bring pets and she is terribly worried about their three cats, left alone in a frigid and dark house. I tell her they are undoubtedly fine, being animals and all, but I know that it would be, for me, like Sophie’s Choice to flee to warmth knowing our dogs and cats were left behind.

Oh, and tomorrow is Christmas. And into the heart of our collective Martha Stewart/Hallmark fantasy falls the single, fatal icicle of reality: it’s just not going to be like anybody planned. Out-of-town guests are being told not to come because their choices are a 32 degree house or a hotel room in the next state.

Gifts left in cold and dark houses are being snatched, unwrapped on a reconnaissance mission or wrapped frantically during the sliver of time that a brave soul has enough grey daylight through the windows and is able to move her hands in the cold.

Stoves and ovens only work if they’re gas-fueled, and refrigerators full of hams, turkeys and standing rib roasts are abandoned.

And, of course, I keep thinking about all of the people who have no money for a hotel room, or to buy restaurant food. They were never going to have a pile of presents and a rib roast anyway, but now they are living in a gym or a church with a blanket, a pillow and a toothbrush. I would like to believe that natural disaster is a great leveler, but it seems likelier that people with money, friends and resources are surviving in much more comfortable ways than those without.

Which brings me home, to my house. My house, where there is light and heat.

We do not, quite frankly, have the money to stay in a hotel for a week or more (and even if we did, we would have to find a room 25 or more miles away and leave all of our animals here alone). We don’t have a fireplace or a generator. It is entirely possible that we will lose power when tomorrow’s predicted winds begin to test the endurance of power lines hung with tiny icicles.

I am trying not to worry about that right now. I am also trying to be flexible, count my blessings and ride every wave of change and inconvenience like a boss. To learn the lesson from this random, frigid blast of unfairness that has brought everyone in these parts to their cold, wet knees.

Still, because I am human, I am chafing at the disruption. My dad is sleeping in the living room and so I have to meditate someplace else. My planned dinner for nine might turn into a picnic for 14, or 17 or however many people I invite because we have power and they don’t. I can’t seem to stop inviting people, and it’s the right thing to do, and I want them all to be warm and safe and fed but then I spin out into this insane anal-retentive panic.

It may be chaos.

We might run out of food.

We might invite them all and lose power ourselves.


Last night, as I went up to bed my father thanked me (again) for putting him up. My head was fairly spinning with plans, plots and subplots.

“You’re welcome,” I said, “and we’re glad to have you, but I’m sure it isn’t as comfortable as being at home.”

“It’s good not to be alone” he said, from under a pile of blankets on the couch.

And that, I’m thinking, was a teachable moment in the midst of this particular, treacherous unfairness.


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 Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Author’s own

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