Seeing in the Dark: A Blackout Leads to an Epiphany
Photo: Ryan Dorsett
Never mind the frozen computers and the rapidly thawing food. When the lights go out, you can find wonder, unexpected clarity, even joy.Blackouts have their uses. During the New York City blackout of 2003, on the 8.2-mile walk from my midtown Manhattan office to my Brooklyn brownstone (a trek that included two Mister Softee ice cream stops and the crossing of one immense bridge), I had four unmapped hours to take stock of where I stood at 44 and spontaneously consider how my life needed changing.
When I was in my 20s and single, I'd had similar moments in airplanes flying coast-to-coast. On either end of the journey, life flowed in all its chaos and complexity, its conflicting desires and demands. But airborne, in the pause between departure and destination, strapped in beside strangers, I often found myself contemplating my life as a whole and reaching big decisions about it.
After the lights went out in New York, as I headed south in velvet slippers I'd bought months earlier in Chinatown, my high heels tucked into a bag slung over my shoulder, I walked the same streets I'd come to, as a young woman, from California. I passed the Strand bookstore, the Little Italy apartment where a friend had shared a bathroom wall with the gangster John Gotti, the bar where my husband, Ranald, and I floated the brilliant autumn day we declared our love for each other. I passed Beth Israel Medical Center, where I'd delivered Elizabeth (Trevor, arriving early during the blizzard of 1996, hadn't made it out of Brooklyn).
That sweltering August afternoon, people crammed the sidewalks in moods that ranged from joy to apocalyptic panic. Among the panicked, the communal worry was that this was not simply a power outage but a repeat of the terrorist attacks of 9/11—the beginning of the end, again.
Something snapped in me that day, although I didn't hear it for the noise in the street. Darkness fell while I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge; I was tired, and the soles of my slippers were wearing thin. I wondered if I would make it home, if my family was all right, if the surprising peace of the afternoon would be preserved until I crossed my threshold.
Nearly 20 years had passed since I first came to the city. I was the mother of two small children. When I wasn't working—writing a (still unpublished) novel and reviewing movies—I walked the streets with an overpacked stroller, dreading the subways for their steep, stroller-hostile stairs. And Ranald, who had moved to New York for me, had debilitating asthma, which had worsened to the point where he was allergic to the city itself: the mold in the subway, the cockroaches in the basement, the dust.
The hike to Brooklyn offered an unexpected moment of clarity that led me to question where I was, and where I was headed. A year later, inspired by what I saw in my heart that dark night, I changed direction: We moved to a hunting lodge on 14.5 acres in upstate New York. But this is not a story of regrets or middle-class flight or terrorist fears; it's a story of sidling into grace. If I had misgivings at leaving behind hard-won friends and perfect pizza slices, they vanished in the wonder that is country life.
In the country, blackouts are a more common, less public occurrence. A tree falls. Lightning strikes. A stream floods its banks. The computer crashes midsentence. The washer halts midcycle. The electric lights dim and then go out entirely. We leave the refrigerator-freezer doors shut in hopes that the power outage won't last too long and we can keep that terrific lamb curry Ranald cooked, and all those Celeste pizzas bought on special at Stop & Shop.