After Four Days in the Dark, I Saw the Light

A major power outage inconvenienced my family, but I’d do it all again for the togetherness.

“Oh, my God. You’ve got to be kidding me!” my husband Bill sprung out of bed at 5:30 a.m.

He fled downstairs to find the new solarium he and our 14-year-old daughter had recently installed lying on the grass in a sad heap of metal and plexiglass, along with several branches and other debris.

Bill had just built a beautiful deck for mounting the solarium, and he and our 14-year-old daughter had spent most of the previous weekend putting it up as a surprise for me. Now it was in pieces on our lawn.

Winds over 100 km/hr ripped our new solarium off our newly-built deck and felled the neighbor’s tree onto wires.

November came in like a cunning thief this year, stealing our light, our heat, and, oh, the horror! our beloved Wi-Fi. Early on Friday November 1st, winds exceeding 100 km/hour felled trees and hydro poles, wiping out the power from one million Québec homes at the peak of the storm. Over the course of three days, 1000 Hydro-Québec workers toiled in rain and darkness, managing to restore power to most Québeckers by Sunday evening. A crew of 40 workers from Detroit flew in on Sunday to assist them, and workers from New Brunswick also helped.

About 294,000 Hydro-Québec customers including a little more than 6,000 clients in Montréal were still without electricity late Saturday afternoon. Montérégie, the Laurentians, and Chaudière-Appalaches remained the hardest-hit regions. We’re in the Montérégie area and our outage lasted until late Monday morning — 72 hours.

“We are in a situation that is the worst since the infamous 1998 Ice Storm,” Québec Premier Francois Legault said on Saturday.

“I guess we didn’t learn enough the first time, we need a refresher course,” I said, not realizing how right I was.

My husband Bill and I fell in love during the 1998 Ice Storm. I remember being impressed when I asked how he was managing without power and he said he was spending every day volunteering at a rescue center for those without it. My home hadn’t been affected, so I’d been lazing around my warm house drinking red wine with a friend’s Dad who needed a place to stay. Though we were not expected to work for a few days, my future husband’s altruism prompted me to get off my lazy butt, bundle up, go take one-of-a-kind Ice Storm photos and write relatable human-interest stories for our local paper. Everywhere I went, I found a renewed sense of community. Neighbors were coming together to support one another, in NDG where I lived, and across southern Québec and eastern Ontario.

Now here we were again 21 years later, in a similar situation but married, with a cellphone-loving teenager and three Netflix addicts in the house.Let’s be honest, aside from those few people who’ve discovered minimalism and maintained the lifestyle, we in the western world love our technological gadgets more than we like some people. Or maybe most people. I said let’s be honest.

By late Friday night, hour ten without power, the initial shock of the windswept solarium had worn off. A tree fell into our yard, sparking precariously on our backyard wires, but the rain put those sparks out. When we learned Hydro wasn’t going to be coming until at least Sunday afternoon, we sat together in our living room eating Subway sandwiches and staring at the fire. What were we going to do in the cold and the dark for days on end? It was too difficult to find my daughter’s Netflix And Don’t Touch Me pajama shirt, or my Charge My Phone And Feed Me shirt, but those would have been the perfect irony to wear during the outage. Instead, our daughter put on her pink unicorn onesie and hung battery-operated twinkle lights around her room. I took a photo. She wore a peaceful expression on her face, one I hadn’t seen in a while. It warmed my heart and my slightly frozen toes. Then I remembered: with my cell phone dying and little data left, I couldn’t “share” it with anyone. What was it going to be like, living without lights, heat or access to Wi-Fi for what could be days?

It ended up being a cold, inconvenient, beautiful time.

The kindness of neighbors: those who didn’t lose power this time gave us hot water for tea and an extension cord reaching across the street to their outdoor plug. Fridge saved!

We were forced to spend hours together in our living room, trying to stay warm by the fire. That was also where I’d lit most of our candles, so we huddled on one sofa under blankets. Even though, thanks to an extension cord and a generous neighbor, we managed to get our Wi-Fi back up by Saturday, we still gathered every morning in that fire-lit room and spent our days there together. We played Scrabble by candlelight and our daughter won by using “Exuded” for 60 points. She lay on the floor in her unicorn onesie as we ate leftover Halloween candies and chatted about nothing and everything that matters. Meanwhile, Bill tried to glue our broken solarium back together by flashlight. At one point, I looked at him, working away in the darkness as we sat wrapped in blankets by the fire, and thought with a chuckle: all he needs is to pick up the fiddle and start playing like Michael Landon and we’ve become the Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie.

Morning of day four without heat or lights. I tried to retain my sense of humor.

I had a lot of time — 72 hours in the damp, cold dark, in fact — to think about being alone, being together, and being alone-together. It’s become second nature for us to share private bits of our lives with near-strangers online every single day. But what, if anything, are we sharing with our family members?

It turns out alone-together isn’t a term I coined in the dark during a power outage: Killian Mullan from Oxford University and Stella Chatzitheochari from the University of Warwick used it in 2015 when they looked at time-use data from a nationally representative UK sample of around 5,000 children and their parents.

While they found the time that parents and children 8–16 spent together had increased by nine percent since 2000, alone-together time, which is time spent in the same house but not in the presence of one another, rose by 43% over the period of study, to 136 minutes per day in 2015.

Guess what most of us are doing in that alone-together time? We’re watching Netflix or YouTube or we’re scrolling our phones or tapping away on our tablets, sharing little bits our lives with the people we don’t live with. All while the people who’ve had our backs and hearts for decades are sitting beside or across from us.

I’m not saying it’s wrong or evil or that we’re bringing about the Apocalypse, I’m just saying we should at least pay attention to how often we’re alone with someone we haven’t even met as opposed to fully engaged with the people who love us.

Sometimes, sharing our lives with people outside of our family is good for the spirit. My daughter has an online pal in Holland and when I’m cooking dinner, she’s often up in her room Skyping with this friend. She’s learned lots about the country, the people, and they love encouraging one another in their pursuit of art.

Over the years, my readers have become my friends. I share a lot about my life with them because it feels like a give-and-get-back scenario. But I try not to let the time I spend on Instagram and Facebook interfere with family time. By 7 p.m., our usual suppertime, we all log off our devices, put our phones in the charger in the kitchen, and try to leave them there for the rest of the night. You’d think that four hours of family togetherness every night would be adequate but with television, homework and Skype or phone calls often interrupting those hours, it passes quickly and too often becomes alone-together time.

So I’ve decided to instigate a Family Game Night every Friday or Saturday night. Devices and television will be off for several hours. My family likes the idea, probably because they think I’m easy to beat. I’m studying the Scrabble Dictionary cover to cover, and I’m going to prove them wrong!

Devices set aside and Game On.

Michael J. Fox once said that, “Family isn’t an important thing. Family is everything.”It took no electricity for days, hanging out with my best friends by the fire for me to realize that, in this era where it seems we’re walking around with devices glued to our hands, family technology-free time is everything.

Oh, and my husband isn’t buying a fiddle, but he is working on fixing our solarium and getting it back up so we can soak in Spring’s early days there as a family. Close enough.

2 comments

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    • Heather Grace Stewart

      I often think about whether I’d still be a novelist and poet if there were no digital reading, audiobooks, books-to-film…just me and the pen and ink in a lantern lit room? Would I still create? Of course. But it’s a heck of a lot easier to get it out there now! So many of my friendships have happened thanks to technology. I’m glad I was born in this era, but it’s all about balance, right?

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