By Tom Robotham
On the morning of September 30, when hurricane Ian started to make its presence felt in Norfolk, I was watching CNN’s coverage of the devastation in Florida. Since my oldest friend lives in Fort Myers—ground zero, as it turned out—I was worried about him. The coverage made it look as if the entire city had been leveled.
“We’re fine,” he said when I finally reached him by phone. “Cell service is spotty, but we have our power back. No damage to the house.”
Meanwhile, I didn’t give much thought to what was happening in Norfolk. Sure, there was drenching rain and roaring wind, but my little corner of West Ghent never floods—a remarkable fact in this city—and rarely loses power.
As I watched TV, I was grateful that my friend was safe and still had a roof over his head, and that I felt safe as well.
Then, BOOM! An explosion that sounded like an amplified gun shot—and instantly, the power went out. It came back about two hours later, but an hour after that, I heard another boom, and my apartment went dark again. I was getting frustrated but reminded myself that the inconvenience was minor, all things considered. After all, I’d just been watching interviews with Florida residents who’d lost everything. Moreover, I assumed the power would be restored within the hour. And so it was. But shortly before 6, I heard yet another boom and lost power for a third time.
Fortunately, I have a little clip-on reading light that was fully charged, so I was able to pass some time, after the sun set, with Huckleberry Finn, which I’d just assigned to my American literature class. To my additional satisfaction, I discovered that I had a nearly full bottle of Jim Beam in my cupboard. It was pleasant enough, kicking back in my easy chair with Huck and the two Jims. But when I looked at the time and realized it was 7:30, I got really upset. The Mets were playing a crucial game against the Braves, as each team vied for the division title—and here I was in the dark. By 8 o’clock, still without power, I went to bed but left the light switch in the on position so I’d wake up when the power came back. Maybe I’d at least catch the last few innings. No such luck.
As I began to write these words, late in the morning on Oct. 1, I still had no power. Earlier, I’d ventured out to the 7-11 across the street, in hopes of at least getting a cup of coffee. But since it’s on the same power grid, it was closed. I thought about getting in my car and going in search of coffee elsewhere, but I figured the power surely had to come back soon. Finally, shortly before noon, I heard a slight hum. I couldn’t immediately detect where it coming from but quickly realized it sounded like my refrigerator. Then I looked up and saw that the little red standby light on my stereo receiver. I felt jubilant.
A minute later, though, I felt silly for feeling that way—all the more so because when I turned on CNN, I found myself looking at coverage of more devastation, not in Florida but in Ukraine.
Chastened, I began thinking about how utterly dependent I’ve become on modern conveniences—the ability to flip a switch and illuminate any room in my apartment; the assumption that if I put something in the refrigerator, it will stay cold; the ability to hear Bach or the Beatles on my stereo, whenever I have the desire; the ease with which I can look things up on the Internet—and most of all, the ability to watch TV at will. I know many people who rarely watch television—and some who don’t even own one. But for me, living alone, it’s often a decent substitute for human companionship.
And yet, I wonder whether I’ve lost something—a part of myself—as my dependency on all of these things has grown.
During my meditations in the darkness, I recalled that some of the most blissful moments of my life have occurred when I’ve been completely cut off from all technology—notably, at the Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club cabin, which has no electricity or running water, never mind cell service and Internet access. I haven’t been there in years, but there was a time when I used to go quite frequently, often alone. I had a similar experience some years ago at a lakeside cottage in Vermont—although I was in the company of friends. Still, I distinctly remember one morning when I was sitting by the lake with a cup of coffee, while everyone else was still asleep, and feeling utterly liberated by the knowledge that there was no cell or Internet service. Deprived of all modern distractions, I felt that the loons secluded in the morning mist were more than adequate company.
Those memories of the TATC cabin and the lakeside cottage got me thinking that while I spend a lot of time alone, I rarely dwell in solitude anymore.
What’s the difference?
“To go into solitude,” Emerson says in his first book, Nature, “a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me.”
Were Emerson to drop by my apartment on any given night, I think he would tell me that I’m certainly not solitary while scrolling through Facebook or listening to CNN panelists chatter about Donald Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican party. I’m not sure I agree, on the other hand, that I’m not solitary while I read and write. But I get his point.
“If a man would be alone, let him look at the stars,” Emerson adds.
When we’re reading, after all, we’re communing with the minds of others. Less so, perhaps, when writing, but still—when I’m putting words on a page, others are with me—in this case, Huck and Jim, Emerson, and other influences.
There were no stars to be seen during the storm. But I wonder: Why, instead of going to bed super-early, in frustration at being denied access to my electronic devices, did I not venture outside to watch the storm and listen to what it had to say. When we do such things—or look at the stars, as Emerson advises—it seems to me that we lose a sense of ourselves; the notion that the self is the center of the universe. We become, instead, as Emerson says in the same essay, “part and particle of God.”
The realization that I’ve become so dependent upon my electronic devices makes me feel like a bit of a hypocrite. When I stand in front of a classroom full of students, it drives me crazy that some of them can’t take their eyes off their cell phones. Most put them down when I ask them to, but pick them up again as soon as they are able. Since I rarely look at my phone unless I’m texting or calling someone, this addiction baffles me. (I did have cell service throughout the storm, but it’s a testament to my lack of interest in my phone, as a toy, that it offered absolutely no consolation.)
But are my addictions to my laptop and television all that different? By degree, perhaps. I don’t open my laptop to look at Facebook while I’m in class. Nevertheless, the addiction is there.
With this in mind, I suppose I can think of the power outage as a kind of gift. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I have electricity again—and you can be sure I’ll be watching every remaining Mets game. (Much as it pains me to say this, they may be out of it by the time you’re reading this—but if so, that just means I’m counting the days till spring training.) No doubt, I’ll continue as well to watch CNN or shows on Netflix, entertain myself with Rick Beato videos on YouTube, and scroll through Facebook on my laptop, relying on the Internet to make me feel connected to the world when flesh-and-blood companionship is not at hand. But in some small way, I think, the power outage raised my awareness of the extent to which I’ve been living at odds with myself—resisting that old, inner gravitational pull toward true solitude and seeking, instead, distractions from my own, often-troubled soul.