There’s a story by Jhumpa Lahiri called “A Temporary Matter” where the power goes out for a few days in Boston and a newly married couple tells each other, ritualistically, as they light candles each evening, something they have never told each other before. By the end of the power outage they have split up — the truths they have unleashed are too brutal and honest for the thin structure of their marriage.
I thought of this story last week when the power was out for two days, our kitchen piled with dishes from the weekend, our fridge almost bare, and our cupboard stocked with only a few odds and ends. We needed to go shopping, but where would we put everything? Plus, as always seemed to be the case in my childhood, this power outage was timed perfectly to a between-checks dip where we had so little in our bank account that we couldn’t just jet down to Flatbread for some pizza.
When I was growing up in the small house my parents built in the woods, it seemed that a crisis like running out of water, or long stretches of no power from a violent storm, also was always coupled with financial strain. But if nothing more, my parents taught me a sense of survival, a sense of “making do with what you got,” an earthy fundamentalist belief that we could grow and forage for much of what we needed.
And so, when the storm came and left a huge gaping hole in our fence exposing our dining room to the street and destroying our privacy, robbing our dog Hopper of his beloved yard and the freedom of going out on his own to sniff around and bark at the moon, there was a moment where the crush of what felt like minor disaster all around me and the tightness of no money felt like too much. I was anxious and overwhelmed, almost angry. But then, coming up the hill from the gym, the lights dark in all the houses, nary a street light in sight, the sky pumping its own dark stormy light, I felt an inner peace come over me, almost a complete relief at the silence. Later, before dinner, as Cowboy heated up on our gas range some odds and ends soup I’d made the day before from everything in the freezer, I remembered my father making chapati, Indian whole grain unleavened bread, in the gas light of our homestead, the fire flickering under the spitting oil in the pan.
And so, with candlelight as my guide, I pulled the last bits of flour and salt and oil out of our cupboard, mixed them up in a bowl, kneaded them until smooth and silken, rolled out the small orbs, and drooped them in a heated a pan. When dinner was ready, we sat down to candlelight and freshly made unleavened bread, soup, and one of the most romantic dinners ever. And not because it was sexy, but because we felt we could survive.
In this world of competing energies and lights and e-mail and computers and phones and BlackBerries and everything else designed to make our lives easier, we can forget that the easiest, most rewarding things are the simplest, when the most basic of needs are fulfilled: warm food, hugs, candlelight, something made from scratch.