Perfect Whole, Superstorm Sandy Edition

We are grateful to have come through the storm safe and well, with no property damage, though I did not at all like the threatening looks one old, majestic oak was casting in the direction of my dining room. It was only bluffing, as was the tall thin pine tree that could have crushed my Civic even by missing it with the main trunk. Many neighbors were not so lucky, losing cars and roofs to the wind.

My children and I watched gigantic flashes from the window on Monday night, thinking they were lightning, wondering why some flashes were white and others were green, blue, or orange. I learned later that the colored lightning was not lightning at all, but electrical transformers exploding all over the county.  Not having the Internet, we looked “transformer” up in the dictionary, but remained mystified.  So much of the underpinnings of our lives are a mystery we only question when its smooth workings are disrupted. Where does the electricity come from? How do they get the gas from the underground tank into your car? Where does one start to rebuild when entire square miles of shoreline have been destroyed? How do you evacuate 370,000 people in New York City, and where do you put them? How do you feed them? A colleague’s vacation home in Breezy Point, where she had spent every summer since the early 1960s, burned to the ground, along with one hundred other houses.  Why do homes burn during a flood? Why doesn’t the water from the storm surge just drain out of the subway stations once the flood is over? Is this storm a part of global climate change? I so rarely wonder anything anymore, with Google close at hand, but, lacking power, I had days to wonder without answers this week. It reminded me of what life used to be like before.

My home has been without electricity since Monday, which in our area means that we have hot water and a gas stove to light with a match, but no heat, electricity, television, Internet, and, until we bought the right battery, no radio.  The lack of the radio was the only thing making me really crazy. WNYC, the public radio station for New York City and environs, provides the counterpoint to life in our home. Having it back, knowing whether to boil the water or not, hearing updates from Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo, Governor Christie (I NEVER thought I could be reassured to hear anything that man might say, but I was), and President Obama, and hearing people all over the region calling the Brian Lehrer Show with questions and updates from their neighborhoods was calming. It reminded me how much we are in this together, and by “this,” I mean civilization.

Civilization is the thing we are in together every day, but only notice during a crisis. At the Suffern Library on Wednesday, hundreds of people had come to charge their devices and use the Internet. The library was understaffed and out of outlets, and their wifi was so overloaded that I could not get online in the two hours I was there. People were sitting in every chair and on the floor, but the place was almost completely silent, with occasional shushing. In spite of their discomfort and disappointment, people respected the idea of a library enough to stay quiet so that others could read or study. That’s a civilization at work. It moved me almost to tears.

When I first learned that school had been cancelled, and would likely be cancelled for a few days, I looked forward to getting a lot of writing done.  With roads too dangerous to travel, lots of food cooked ahead of time to enjoy by candlelight, and no sane reason to leave the house, I thought I could write all day in the light from the windows and skylights, and later, by candlelight. As it turned out, there were a few problems with this romantic fantasy. During the storm, I was too nervous to think about anything but the prospect of a tree inviting itself to dinner, and how best to keep a teacher from Japan we were hosting comfortable in a blackout. (The eight students he’d brought for their big trip to New York arrived on the Saturday before Sandy and flew home, if they were lucky, on the Thursday after it. Poor kids.) After the power went out, all creative energy in the house went into figuring out how to keep everyone warm, safe, and well-fed.  I learned, too, that I’ve become so accustomed to writing on the computer that writing longhand feels laborious and stifling. It is still great for problem-solving, though, and I think that my brain-handwriting connection may be quite different from my brain-keyboarding one, but that falls under the category of things I’ll have to wonder about until I have proper Internet access again. So, I worked out some problems in my novel, getting closer to the heart of two characters’ emotional needs, something that has eluded me for a long time.  Once the problem was solved through journaling, though, I found I couldn’t draft. I wanted to write at the speed of thought, and I can no longer do that with a pen.  It is also cold sitting still in a house without heat. My hand and wrist got stiff and painful. Cooking, cleaning, and building fires keep the blood moving. No wonder our foremothers were such excellent housekeepers and produced so few novels.

Realizing that November 1st approached, though, I started to sketch out a plan for a Perfect Whole essay, a methodical takedown of one of my least favorite Zombie Lies of Education That Refuse to Die. I had the whole concept map (including supporting details!), the beginnings of an outline, and two paragraphs, but my heart was not in the rhetoric.  My mind has grown discursive and reflective in the dark and cold, and anyway, I’m not angry enough to write a proper rant now.  I’m filled with softer emotions—sadness, worry, love, admiration for human kindness—that blunt the sword. Everyone is just trying their best to survive, to help each other, to rebuild what is recoverable, to mourn what cannot be saved, even people who believe a whole lot of crazy zombie lies about education. They’re not trying to hurt anyone. No one needs my rants.

We are running out of candles, and I don’t imagine there is any point in navigating dangerous roads in order to find some. I’m sure they’re no more readily available than the ice we went in search of yesterday.  Someone on the radio said that you could extend the life of candles by floating them in vegetable oil, making sure the wicks are saturated with it. I started experimenting, and came up with some very passable oil candles made with the leftover foil container of a tea light, some canola oil, and cotton beef twine for a wick. I’ve got two balls of the twine, sixteen little Pyrex custard cups, and a liter of oil, so these candles will provide light for as long as we need it. My husband and son chopped firewood for hours today, and we cleaned up the yard by gathering storm-fallen sticks for kindling. It’s getting very Little on the Prairie around here, but we’re getting used to it, and as long as the hot showers and limitless supply of hot tea continue to flow, I think we could live like this for some time. We will have to, whether we like it or not: power is predicted to stay out for at least another week, if not more, here in the wilds of the Lower Hudson Valley.

I hope you all have light and safety and warmth.

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon. You can email her at and follow her on Twitter @juliegoldberg.
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8 Responses to Perfect Whole, Superstorm Sandy Edition

  1. DM says:

    I can’t imagine what it would be like in the dead of winter. Really, really appreciate this update Julie and glad your family is OK. DM

  2. Thank you. We’ve been lucky with the temperature, but our luck is about to change, as temperatures drop into the 30’s at night.

  3. Brian Hanson-Harding says:

    Keyboarding aside, I can’t think of another family better able to survive and appreciate off-the-grid time.

  4. Pingback: Improvised Emergency Oil Candles | Perfect Whole

  5. shoreacres says:

    I’m so glad you came through it fine. I’m really concerned about people still suffering in areas like Coney Island. I was in NYC in 1977, that July night when the lights went out, and the first thing you learn, fast, is that highrises need electricity to really function well! The next morning, it was quite astonishing to be queued up with the rest of the neighborhood at the fireplug 23 floors down, toothbrush and toothpaste in hand!

  6. Pingback: Prompted to Write | Magnificent Nose

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