Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Seeing the Light about Darkness

The Jewish morning service opens, each day, with a set of 14 blessings. The first of these blessings praises God for enabling his creatures—us people and everything else that lives—to distinguish between night and day. There are numerous other prayers that deal with light and darkness, some of which thank God not only for creating light but also for creating darkness (which is more than just absence of light, it would seem).

Classical poets and playwrights also focus a whole lot of their imagery on the interplay between light and darkness. I have read scores of these images and probably wrote more than one pedantic college paper on the “organic” interplay between light and dark in some poet’s work. But I never really understood any of this until a few weeks ago when “Superstorm” Sandy blew through New Jersey and literally blew out the lights in our house and in most of the houses in and near our town. For eight and a half days, we were in the dark. We were luckier than most, however, because our neighbors had power and generously ran an extension cord from their outdoor outlet to our house. I could plug in a refrigerator and save our food from spoiling and smelling and even charge my iPad and cell phone. We also had hot water and could light our stove burners with matches. So we could take warm showers, use our drinking water, and heat up food on the stove. All in all, we were doing pretty well.

What we didn’t have was light—from dusk to dawn every day.

Not surprisingly, the powerful storm had struck when the moon was full. What was remarkable, however, was that the cloud cover was so complete for over a week afterwards, that no moon or stars shown through at night. The sky was dark. The streets were dark. There was no residual light from street lamps or storefronts. It felt like a blanket had been laid over our neighborhood. Most movement and even car traffic came to a halt after dusk each day. This became even more evident within a few days when gasoline shortages led to even less mobility.

And our house was dark. We had four flashlights ready and put them to use. We had a series of candles that gave off a soft glow. We had a battery-operated FM radio for entertainment and news. So we weren’t really literally or metaphorically in the dark, but we were certainly disoriented.

No, this is not us huddled in the dark.
We just felt this way.

And the house got a little colder every day though we were never in any danger of freezing. But even our dog started huddling in closer and closer each night, trying to cadge a little of our body warmth, despite her having a fur coat that we envied. The three of us became very tightly bonded during the nine-day period. And we went to sleep earlier and earlier each night after the darkness became almost total. I joked with my children, saying that now I understood why farmers of old always went to bed by 8:30. Then I added that the early bedtimes might also explain why they had very large families. (I probably should have omitted the last part of my joke, which seemed to embarrass them, for some reason.)

And morning light was very welcome. It really did feel a little like the earth was being reborn when we could see without artificial light each day.

(Remember that blessing I mentioned above about separating light from darkness? Traditionally, religious Jewish males had a special blue thread included among the fringes on their prayer shawls. When it was light enough to distinguish the blue thread from the white ones, which is surprisingly impossible in darkness or even near darkness, it was time to chant the morning prayers, starting with that blessing I mentioned. After experiencing eight pitch-black nights, I understand that tradition and the blessing better.)

Our lives were disrupted somewhat but not really harmed in the aftermath of the storm. We didn’t even lose a tree this year, as many of our neighbors did. Of course, we had lost four large trees in the snowstorm that struck on Halloween last year, so there weren't many left to fall. We didn’t have flooding either or any of the other types of terrible destruction that we have seen on the news. So I have no real reason to complain. And, I’m really not complaining. I am just describing what it felt like to be blanketed in darkness for eight nights, starting at around 5:30 p.m. until around 6:30 the next morning. Vampires may be comfortable with darkness—and raccoons too—but not us.

When the power suddenly snapped on around 3:30 p.m. on Election Day, we felt literally (and punningly) light-headed. We watched the election returns. We reset our clocks. We reset our lives. Then, around 1 p.m. the following day, the lights went out again. Was this a cruel joke? I assured myself and shared my belief that the utility company was just making a temporary adjustment to bring more of the town online, which proved to be accurate. By 5 p.m., we had light and heat and cable—all the comforts of modern life.

Sometimes it takes a “superstorm” to really see the light when it comes to the power of darkness. We have put away the flashlights and the candles. We’re now trying to guess how changing weather patterns may be “clouding” our future. We’re even talking about generators and space heaters to keep our lives lit and warm in case those clouds do roll in.

Rubens' Prometheus gets his liver pecked out
each day by an eagle at the gods' command.
It is clearer to me now why the Greeks honored Prometheus for his gift of fire—a gift that helped bring light and warmth to people, especially in that scary period between dusk and dawn. But what I don't understand is why the gods made him suffer so much for sharing their fire with us. Should we be worried?

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