An aggravating but relatively ordinary event, like a power outage, takes on a different weight when it happens after more than seven months of isolation. Not to mention the last four years of chaos.
Isolation within isolation
by Ruth Neuwald Falcon, Seattle, Washington
At 11:40 Friday night, someone speeding across NE 145th Street lost control of their car and slammed into a power pole. The pole, on its way down, crashed into a tree. The tree, not to be outdone, hit the next power pole, which started a domino effect that took down half a dozen more. Or, maybe, it was only three or four. Or two. I neither saw it happen (no, I wasn’t out a little before midnight) nor did I drive by the scene the next day. The reason I know the time it happened is because my ancient, but silent, electric clock told me. The reason I know what happened is because I had a chat with a friendly Comcast repairman late Saturday afternoon.
I had been half-asleep, but something pulled me out of it. It was the silence. All the noises we generally don’t think about, like the chugging of the refrigerator, were absent. Where I live is usually quiet—hardly any street noise, quiet neighbors, thick walls—but this was a different kind of silence. It felt thick, heavy. I felt suddenly isolated within my isolation. No more than I would be out and about at midnight would I be up and about making contact with my neighbors. But at least, when the power is on, I know I could, should the need arise. But that’s too rational a thought. It doesn’t really get at the feeling. It’s like when the smoke came and kept me indoors for close to two weeks. Isolating is different when you can go outside and take a walk. It’s also different when, in the middle of a long night, you can turn on a light and read, or turn on the TV and escape to wherever. Not that I ever do either. But knowing that I couldn’t filled me with discomfort, dread. It took me a long time to fall asleep.
I awoke into the same silence, the light outside gray, not giving anything away about the time. I’d just been to TJ’s on Thursday but most everything was confined to the still quiet refrigerator. I knew enough not to open the door so what I had to eat were three rice cakes, a tin of sardines, half an avocado, and a banana. It started getting cold in the house. The emergency lanterns from Costco cast enough light for me to shower and make my breakfast but it still felt dismal in here.
Saturday was mail your Vote Forward letters day. I welcomed the excuse to get out of the house. I had a date to talk with a friend at about the same time, so I spent the next hour and a quarter on the phone, parked across from the post office, watching people come and go. More human beings than I’ve seen in months. I became aware of how much my perceptions have changed because the occasional bare face struck me as looking wrong. It made me think about what it’s going to be like, one of these days, for children born into the pandemic who have spent their first years in a world in which everyone outside their home is masked. Are they going to be terrified when they are surrounded by unmasked strangers? Will I?
I drove around until a neighbor texted to tell me the power was back, sixteen hours after that car hit the pole. I just didn’t want to go home to the cold and the silence and the dark. I was alone in my car but that was a different kind of isolation. I thought about my friends in Oregon who dealt with power outages while in danger of having to be evacuated because of fires. I know I am fortunate. But these days, an occurrence I would usually take in stride feels like it’s one thing too many. And then I take a deep breath, square my shoulders, and keep on trucking. I can do this. We can do this.