Listen To This Story
The old song kept going round and round in my head. “Don’t it always seem to go,” sang my inner Joni Mitchell, “that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Nothing makes you realize just how much of a “have” you are quite like spending a week as a “have not” — well, not even really a have not, more like a have a little less.
In my experience, this holds true for both health and wealth. For those of us who spend the vast majority of the days of our life in the pink, it may take a serious illness or disability to remind us that our health is not something to take for granted. And for those who live in a world of flick-a-switch light and heat, instant news and entertainment, and the other ordinary first-world creature comforts, a downed power line and a washed-out road can do the trick.
But, for better or worse, the realization seems to be fleeting.
When, at just about 2 a.m. last Tuesday, the power suddenly blinked out here in our home in the Santa Cruz mountains on California’s central coast, we got out our flashlights and lanterns and hunkered down (the official term, I think) while the unseen “atmospheric river” tattooed our roof and the wind blew whole limbs off surrounding firs and redwoods. We listened to their dull thuds and sharp reports as they struck soil, road, and structure and thought briefly of the artillery barrages of a war halfway across the globe.
But, living where we do, we had been through this before so we left a lamp on to let us know when the electricity was back, presumably sometime before dawn. When the lamp was still dark at dawn, we gave it a few more hours, then reluctantly hauled out our small generator, enough to keep our refrigerator going or run the microwave (but, we remembered, not both). We put pots and buckets under the various leaks and settled in for what we thought would be a day without the internet — our biggest issue, since we both work primarily from home.
It turned into a full week, though it felt much longer. No Wi-Fi, no heat, no hot water (for one day no water at all), no stove, and, of course, no artificial light. The access road to our little hillside cluster of homes was officially closed where three trees had fallen across and snapped the power lines, which were hanging a little lower than a basketball hoop and drooping ominously a little more each day.
But some of us worked our way around that (carefully), pushing the barriers aside to get out to the world for food, fuel, and, in my case, also to referee high school soccer, which soldiered on unperturbed through the various “bomb cyclones” that blew through. Three days I came home from distant matches drenched and shivering uncontrollably, unable to dry my clothes or shoes or get in a hot shower.
It was, to be sure, no fun. But, within a few days, it was, strangely enough, our new normal. What do I mean by that? Well, for the first day or two, when I entered a room I’d flick on the lights, wholly oblivious to the fact that there were no lights. But by the time the ordeal was over, when I entered a room I’d forget that there was a light I could flick on. That’s how quickly we adapt! We are truly creatures, if not slaves, of habit.
But there is something else, something sadder, that we also forget. We forget what we didn’t have — and so we forget what we do have. We forget that we are “haves” — and so we forget the have-nots. It takes only a couple of days — after an illness or a deluge is over — to forget. It is, I suppose, a kind of mind-protection mechanism. And there is something to be said for being what you are and doing what you do — looking neither up nor down — wherever you find yourself on Maslow’s Triangle.
But it is, I feel in my bones, a cruel world that deals out such gross inequalities, and perpetuates them with such little daily notice or protest. Our week in the dark? It’s over now and we’re back to (our) normal. To our hot meals and showers, our internet, our news cycle, our usual stresses, and our “switch on” light.
I’m writing this in what I think will likely be a futile attempt not to forget. Poverty is worlds away, with its cold, hunger, leaks, and daily life demands that go far beyond unplugging the fridge and plugging in the microwave; so, for the moment at least, is tyranny; and Ukraine and Gaza and the inner-cities. We are “well” now — we barely had the sniffles.
And gratitude, it turns out, is hard work. “Don’t it always seem to go,” we might sing, “that we don’t know what we’ve got — once it’s back.”
Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Rains
- Bombogenesis is an actual word.
- Two slugs took refuge on our porch.
- We’d have to leave home to hear the news.
- All the roads to anywhere are blocked.
- The generator drowns out the piano.
- Our street is a babbling brook.
- This is not Ukraine.
- Firs and oaks fall, the redwoods look on.
- Six days without a word from Trump.
- Six hours of reading by candlelight, uninterrupted.
- Paradoxically, the drought persists.
- Will I ever stop feeling that I should be producing?
- This is not Ukraine.
Jonathan Simon is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy.