The lights went out last night. Not just in our house, or just on our block, but all over town and out into the county. It was still dusk when the power quit, so there was more than enough time to gather candles and start lighting them. I set out a flashlight as well, but planned on relying on the candles to get me through the evening.
Warren headed off to a downtown meeting; I settled in at the kitchen table to use the last of the evening's light while I wrote up oncology notes and then started in on some letters to friends.
The first thing you notice when all the lights are out is how quiet it is. The house was silent: no refrigerator humming, no dehumidifier kicking on in the basement. The candles sputtered and hissed from time to time, but that was a quiet noise, a little noise. My pen moving across the surface of the note paper was the loudest sound in the kitchen.
After I finished the first letter, I took a flashlight and walked out onto our back deck, turning it off after I got outside. By now it was very dark. There was enough evening light in the sky—a little sliver of a new moon caught in some wispy clouds—that I could just make out the bulk of the house next door. I could see some dim, hulking shapes in the backyard: our large pines and, beyond that, more black mass than anything, what I knew to be the rear of our neighbor's mansard-roofed Italianate house.
But otherwise dark. No ambient light from the downtown, no streetlights. Just dark.
Deep darkness and night—true night—are lost pieces of the past for most of us. Unless we are out in a wilderness or other very remote area or are experiencing a power failure, there is always light somewhere, even out in the country. We gain the security—real or imagined—of artificial light, but we lose something in return. We lose the mysticism of night, seeing the stars and the moon gleaming brighter overhead. We lose the night sounds that we hear more acutely without the visual distractions.
And maybe we lose the sense of our place, accustomed as we are to electric lights and televisions and computers. I noticed that many of our neighbors, arriving home in the dark, immediately left and did not return until later. Maybe they were in search of a hot meal, but maybe they just didn't like being in the dark without the blink of a screen.
Roger Ekirch wrote a history of night, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, in which he explores the relationship of humans to night. Ekirch did an excellent job of charting the mysterious and often ominous roles night and darkness played in European and colonial America. Night was not all evil: Ekirch also wrote of the home and social conventions that grew out of gathering together to share a fire, a game of cards, a festival, a story.
Standing on the deck in the dark, sensing rather than seeing the shapes before me, I had a faint idea of Ekirch's fascination with night.
I had just noted in a second letter that I was writing by candlelight, not because I wanted to play at being Ma Ingalls but because of the power outage when the power came back on with a whoosh of
appliances. Suddenly the house
seemed impossibly bright. I went outside and saw lights dotting the
neighborhood once again, from lamps burning brightly in windows to the
Halloween decorations next door glowing bright
orange. Warren came in shortly afterwards: his meeting was held by flashlight. Our City Council managed to meet in the dark as well. Friends reported children playing in the yards by the light of glow sticks.
After the lights came back on, the night went on without a hitch and our lights stayed on until we turned them off for bed. The dark, the mysterious and impenetrable dark, was gone.