When the Lights Go Out

I write at a table in Starbucks, my phone and laptop plugged into the wall. Everyone else in town is here. The power is out. BC Hydro says it will stay out for a few more hours. So we flock to this bastion of electricity and wireless internet, tethered to our devices by cords and adapters, Instagram and Twitter feeds streaming with complaints and creatively framed pictures of stormy skies and rainy streets and businesses crowded with pajamas and haggard eyes and ponytails.

The apparatus that we inhabit is an incredibly complex system—so much so that we, as cogs, parts of the mechanism, can only recognize our conditions of existence when the system stutters. And so, mid-stutter, I sit here and watch all the other hapless people who, like me, have had their connection to the machine severed.

Last night, driving home on unlit streets, I felt very small. In just a few hours hundreds of thousands of people were deprived of power—of their fridges and hair dryers and televisions—and left to wait for the lights to come back on, for faceless strangers to do their inscrutable work. The earth exhaled, a whim, an impulse, and we, clinging to its surface, were tossed and lashed, while our houses shook and, outside, the trees splintered.

And this was not the worst. This was a summer storm, a blip in meteorological terms. No Katrina or Sandy, not the Big One, not Tunguska—just some wind and rain. I have witnessed the apocalypse so many times, in books and on TV and in film. I have witnessed natural disasters and epidemics and wars. I am certain you have, as well. The end is always near for us, an ever-present thought experiment, an entertaining extrapolation, and yet, the lights go out and here we find ourselves, sorely unprepared.

A shrug, a shudder, is all it would take at the planetary scale for we tiny creatures to be extinguished. But we live our lives, pursue our dreams and passions, work our jobs, drive our cars, do all those things that people do, ever on the brink of erasure.

“Look on my works,” says the ancient king, and yet, “nothing beside remains.” In the dark, shriven by the storm, we encounter our insignificance.

And then the barista calls “next!” and we order our lattes.

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