Magically Real || What You Learn When the Lights Go Off

Posted in Blogs, Community

Sept 9, 2015

Friends, I’ve experienced blackouts before. I lived in NYC during the big blackout of 1977. I descended 18 flights of stairs from my parents’ apartment, walked 20 or so blocks to the Plaza Hotel where I was working, then, along with a security guy, inspected the entire hotel to make sure everyone was okay.

That was a cool experience.

Urban blackout is very different from rural blackout. When the lights go out and the water goes out and you are alone with your partner and one set of neighbors, that’s a different experience than being in a huge city with jillions of people.

Some people would argue that being in a NYC blackout would be like something out of a science fiction movie. Escape from New York leaps to mind.

When the lights went out here on Whidbey on August 29th, at first we weren’t too worried. But when the lights and the water don’t work for 24 hours, then 48 hours, then 72 hours? That becomes a different story. Because you start to feel actively uncomfortable. Actively cut off from the world.

My one set of neighbors were energized by this experience. I admire that. They were clearing away fallen tree branches by day and popping popcorn by night. They enjoyed the camping out quality of the blackout.

I have to be honest, readers. I was terrified. There was something deeply frightening about being so isolated in the dark amongst nothing but trees.

“This is great practice,” someone down the road said to me, as they raked and picked up pine tree bits.

I smiled at them. But then I went home and sat on the sofa in the dark and shuddered.

Practice for WHAT exactly?

I don’t know and I DON’T want to find out.

That was when J came to the rescue. J and M had moved into a house near us a few months ago, and because they were on a different set of power lines, they retained light and water capability. On day three of the blackout, J got us over to her house—on the pretext that she needed us to keep her and her kids company because M was working in Seattle. Then she basically tricked us into staying for dinner, all the while insisting that we were helping her with her kids. Then—when we went back to our house and saw that once again we were without lights and power—she texted us on our sputtering smartphones to inform us that we HAD to come back and spend the night because she had already put fresh sheets on the bed in the guest room.

My husband demurred, and said I was a wimp.

I insisted on sleeping at J’s. That night, I looked out of the guest room window and saw the moon. I felt safe for the first time in three days. I felt safe at our friends’ house.

Let there be light

Let there be light

What’s the point of this story?

The first point is yes, everyone, it’s official: I AM a wimp.

And the second point is that kindness shines even more brightly in the dark.

We woke up the next day and went back to our house.

“All is well!” shouted our neighbors. They had cleared out the fallen debris from our driveway, and from everyone else’s in our little neighborhood. And they had placed an enormous bottle of water on our doorstep, just in case we had run out.

We walked in and turned the lights on.

Maybe the final point is not which friend is kinder than which, but rather that there is more than one way to be kind in a crisis.

I personally need all the ways that are out there, and I’m going to have to figure out how to develop some crisis-kindness of my own.

But first I have to run the dishwasher, the washing machine, and restock the refrigerator.

Stephanie Barbé Hammer‘s debut novel, “The Puppet Turners of Narrow Interior,” was published this spring by Urban Farmhouse Press. She is also a published poet and authors scholarly studies and creative writing books. A University of California professor emerita, she teaches at writers’ conferences and associations, dividing her time between Coupeville and Los Angeles. Read more about her work at


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  1. Stephanie, what terrific neighbors you have — and I think they are representative of most Whidbey people. Put some candles and matches in an easy-to-reach location, for on Whidbey it is not IF the power goes out, but WHEN. I think there can be a wonderful poem or two in your experience.

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