Lights are Off but Everyone’s Home

Last night there was a blackout in my neighbourhood because the council was doing maintenance on the power lines. We had actually received a notification about this a week before but, life being what it is, we forgot. So I was in the middle of putting clothes away when all the lights in the house went off, closely followed by the street-lamps outside. It was pitch dark. We all called out to see where everyone was, then I went looking for the torches. They were, for the one and only time, exactly where I remembered seeing them.

It was already late by this time, so it should have been a matter of brushing our teeth in the dark and going to bed. Except that I had uni in the morning and hadn’t gotten around to making my lunchbox because I’d been out at a family dinner. So I took the little torch (dad had the big one) to the kitchen and dragged a chair to the cupboard to get a candle from the very top shelf. Thankfully I knew exactly where the matches were, and I can now proudly say that I have made peanut-butter sandwiches by candlelight. I then took the candle to the bathroom to brush my teeth, and to my bedroom to find my pyjamas.

I have often imagined what it would be like to live in a time before electricity, going around at night with a candle. After this brief experience I can say that it would have been rather tedious. I quickly realised that walking with an open flame is like walking with a full glass of water: you have to hold it steadily and move slowly or the candle gutters. You also have to make sure it doesn’t get too near anything that might catch light – including yourself. Then after you blow it out there is that smokey, molten-candle-wax smell. I like the smell, but I suspect that it would become unnoticeable fairly quickly if my only portable light-source was a candle. Besides which, everything would probably smell of smoke from the fireplace.

We call it a ‘blackout’ when the power goes down, obviously because all the lights go off and everything is in blackness. But it’s easy to forget just how many things we rely on electricity for. I tried to fill a glass with water from the fridge, and realised that the water filter wouldn’t work without power. Luckily it wasn’t extremely cold that night because I wouldn’t have been able to turn on a heater, or warm up a wheat-pack in the microwave, or even boil a kettle to fill a hot water bottle. I was conscious that any time I took something out of the fridge it would lose a bit of cold, just like the old ice-boxes. I also became acutely aware of how finite the battery charge in phones and laptops is. There was still some power left on everything, including the cordless home phones, but it was strange to think that we were probably less than 12 hours away from losing electronic communication. My inner soldier suddenly felt woefully unprepared, and started wondering how many spare batteries we had, or if they was any firewood still stashed behind the shed.

I consider myself very fortunate to live somewhere that I only rarely have to deal with a power outage. So rarely in fact that we can afford to rely on electric heaters to keep warm and – I just thought of this – an electric oven to cook our food! Using gas heaters and ovens wouldn’t necessarily save us either, given that the gas supply can be lost just as easily. (We used to have gas heaters, ovens and water heaters, but then there was a leak…. outside my bedroom window…) Come to that, how many people don’t have the luxury of reliable running water? Last year I went to a friend’s birthday party at her house in the hills, and we joked about who was or wasn’t on mains water. I guess that growing up in the suburbs (of a relatively wealthy country) it’s easy to forget how many things you simply take for granted.

At 2am the power came back on, and with it the bright light in my bedroom (I had, of course, forgotten to turn the switch.) It’s interesting how much a blackout can enlighten you.

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