I’m sitting here on a Sunday thinking about the light side of no power and feeling frustrated by the dark side. I hunt for a narrative that feels good. So many thoughts demand the floor, as it’s been awhile since I’ve let them flow out in this way. Constructed (constricted?) writing, as in the two novels I’ve had published in the past two years, is such a distant step-cousin of this flow. It’s valuable in its own process, of course, but my heart is here in this flow, in the dance of words that go left and then right, then leave a lingering kiss on a bare shoulder. The power lies here.
Oh Cali. She’s my home, and I love her, but she’s got issues. Recently, these issues are mindboggling. Most present, she’s run by a series of power companies, one of which is PG&E. That happens to be ours. This company, of which a number of people have a number of feelings about right now, is on their third wave of preventative power outages in one week to millions of people in California. Unlucky for us, we fall in those millions. There are a number of theories, thinkers who purport to be experts on the corporation’s reasoning for these outages, and people so angry at the whole collective group we call PG&E that they can’t see straight. Today’s local paper headline was actually “Sheriff investigates shooters at PG&E trucks.” It’s a cluster of massive proportions.
In this space on this page, these thoughts are not about that corporation, though I certainly have them as they continue to cause massive problems for so many. Instead, they are more observations to the swirl around the whole thing. It’s one thing to have a thing happen. Let’s call this the event. It’s quite another, the story we tell ourselves about the event. The event itself is just that. A happening. As we respond, though, that event becomes charged either positively, negatively or neutrally by our emotions we attach to it. Annoying, I know. I feel that, too. But right after annoyance, I feel empowerment because I know I have a choice as to what my next response will be. Always.
As I ponder this idea, the foundation of mindfulness therapy, I recall Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of atrocities inside the walls of the Holocaust. How does a person survive such a time? In Frankel’s thoughts we see how what we tell ourselves about the event often holds more power than the event itself. Even in the saddest and most unthinkable moments, we construe a narrative that can help or hurt us and those we love. A man’s efforts to find meaning and self-empowerment amidst a tragic framework is a narrative of the deepest love.
Now let’s take something millions of miles away both physically and emotionally from Frankel’s Nazi Germany. The current power outages represent change, a taking away of things we’re used to like running water and WiFi. Like light. They represent a ruining of sustenance like food which goes bad in the refrigerator. Like small businesses, barely hanging on, suffering setbacks they can’t bounce back from. They represent a frenzied restlessness as even the most un-prepper of the preppers hurries to Safeway to find the water aisle empty and the batteries completely gone. They put older people with a need to be connected to medical services at risk. Surgeries, in the waiting for months, are canceled and rescheduled. Common commodities like gas are at issue (to run generators, to get the hell out of town) even after 24 hours as seen by the long lines at the one gas station still open. They create a supply and demand on generators, those hunted and secured, which can be heard loudly humming throughout small forgotten towns in the rural North State and their wine country cousins alike. (They break a lot and are a hot robbery item according to my small town’s report.) Each human finds their comfort, either in storing nuts in the form of “a plan,” or surfing it out on “the non-plan.” Nobody really knows how long it will extend, this power event, and it’s pretty much a wait-and-see unless you want to drive 30 minutes away to find “connection” so devices will connect to the internet and you may find the latest news. (This news part is the funniest piece to me as nobody who really could benefit from this news can actually see it which does not keep the media from reporting it.) Meanwhile, those unaffected carry on with their regular lives, giving this a cursory “that’s too bad,” and don’t fully grasp the moment to moment of those in this space because honestly, unless you’re in it, you don’t really get it.
This brings me to “The Joker,” which probably seems off task and probably is, but this style allows for that so hang with me. Last week I spent some magical time at 1440 Multiversity with my son Abe celebrating his 32ndbirthday. This 1440—Sharon, THANK YOU!—was such a special series of connective moments for Abe and I. It was packed with funny stories and belly laughs, both experienced there and stored up to share in moments spread over forest walks, meals, fire pits, and steamy infinity pool soaks and spa treatments in the forest of the Santa Cruz mountains. Abe had asked me if I’d seen this movie because we are a big movie family. I hadn’t, but it was on the list.
There were different pieces that stuck out. As I am a mental health advocate, super passionate about and sensitive to stigma surrounding media and mental illness, we talked about the line in The Joker’s journal which read something like (Gee, I’d Google it, but I can’t cuz the no-power thing): The problem with having a mental illness is people always want you to behave as if you don’t have one.
Whoa! What a powerful (a) statement and (b) way to convey that statement. I fear the movie in itself will continue to draw stigma, but this insight was priceless, and really gave me pause to think.
Now for the tie-in: if you don’t have a mental illness or know someone who does (I have yet to meet that person by the way), you don’t really get why it’s a thing about which I would feel so passionate. Honestly, though, I’m most suspicious about the person who claims that they are that person. It is most ironic that we do not discuss this topic more commonly as everyone is affected in one way or another. This I have learned from hundreds of conversations over the years. It’s worth thinking about in a very deep way. At least then we can breed compassion and empathy even if we aren’t experiencing the immediacy of a moment.
Back to lights off. Where I go in this power outage is to the inner-net. In the first power outage, I enjoyed the peace of the stillness, the brightness of the stars against the very black night. I went to bed with the cycles of light. I added in an extra daily meditation. I listened deeply to the deafening silence and fell in love. I pulled out fairy lights for every room and lit cinnamon candles. I read by candlelight and fell asleep, my 110-pound lab snuggled up against me as if we were camping.
In the second event, my husband’s influence (he missed the first one because he was out of town) showed up in much different ways than mine. He ran out and got a generator while I was taking my last shower. Extension cords, gasoline cans abound. Several trips out for various supplies. His fix-it skills saved gates crashed over by hurricane-like winds. He fixed latches that had detached from the planks leaving gates slapping in the wind. He stored water bottles in the freezer (genius move). Put motion lights in the closets. Aced every boy scout test there is to take while consistently scouring PG&E outage maps to see what was happening next. I’m thankful for all of this because none of that falls within my skill set. It was interesting how different each of our approaches was to the event.
The story I tell myself about the event is this: I take power for granted. I do not show enough appreciation each time I step in the shower for the running water, each time I turn on “our stories” on the television, each time I flush the toilet. These are powerful creature comforts and I need to consciously remember this. In the dark, magic happens. I see someone differently, their heart shines brighter somehow. The fairy lights bring magic and whimsy as I wrap them around our angels. Enjoy that, I remind myself. The power off makes life simpler if you let it. It gives you uninterrupted writing time to dance with words while listening to Deuter’s Buddha Nature. You have been craving this, I tell myself. It slows you down and sends you over to a long, uninterrupted morning playing catchup with your mom, couch to couch, and then walking through the garden talking about tomorrows. Beautiful tomorrows, sunrises and sunsets. It gives you time to write a poem. To watch the rose out the window.
The story I tell myself, then, is there is power in no power.
And yet, when my husband knocks on my office door and says, “Do you want to drive up to Oregon and go to Lithia?” I leap up and hug him, relieved at the idea of running water, mineral springs, our stories, and breakfast!
“Oh hell yes. I’ll be ready in 5!”