When the Lights Go Out

This past week many Michiganders (and others) endured yet another big power outage this winter. A friend who lives in the country had power out for 5 days straight and subsisted on canned food heated on a one-burner propane camp stove. He didn’t dare go anywhere because he had to keep stoking his fire so the pipes wouldn’t freeze. Area schools were closed—one system for 11 days straight!  Alan and I missed the first two rounds of blizzards and ice storms while on our Southern Caribbean cruise, but we experienced this last one in all its unglory! 😦  Living in the country on well water and a septic tank has its advantages (mostly good well water), but it’s distinkyly a disadvantage when there’s no electricity! We bundled up, hunkered down, and praised God for workplaces that had showers and were gracious about taking in refugees (like me) during the day. Since most of us can’t just fly down to the tropics to avoid cold weather, I asked several of my friends what they’d learned from their experiences and if they had tips to share about how to prepare for the likely event of another outage. One friend, Connie Sikma, wrote such a charming response that I want to share it:

                           “When the Lights Went Out in West Michigan. . .” When I think about the electricity going out, I get a tingle of excitement. I can actually try to live like Laura Ingalls Wilder. The videos won’t work, so we can read, have conversations, and even play games by lantern. It is all sounds so cozy and nostalgic.

The week of February 7 of 2019, I got to experience that reality. It will be long remembered by the people of West Michigan when over 150,000 people were without power. Some lost power for a few hours and others for several days.  For us—my husband, teenage son and myself—the three days were not so difficult because we are healthy, have city water, a wood stove, and an ample supply of wood. However, we discovered our limits and learned a few lessons.

When the power went out Thursday morning, it was just before breakfast. School and various other things had been cancelled because of the bad weather. Power outages were predicted because of the ice, but we knew we would keep warm because of our wood stove. We thought we were ready. Lots of wood. I had the lanterns, flashlights, batteries, and matches placed in a central, easy-to-find place. I had candles in the dark bathrooms ready to go. As I mentioned, we have a small wood stove in the walkout basement. We initially installed it as a romantic, “just-for-fun” alternative, but we have since come to treasure it as one of sweetest assets in our home! It warms the basement whenever our gas heater fails, lowers our gas bill, and provides us all with some therapeutic activity while we keep it going. When the power went out, it also became our cook stove.

I did not realize how a warm breakfast and coffee on a cold day adds to the ambiance. I did not take into account that one cannot cook eggs on an electric stove when the power is out, nor did I consider how my drip coffee maker might respond. It simply stood silent, empty and cold before me. This is when my husband’s incredible skills of resourcefulness kicked in. While I stood there immobilized by my caffeine-starved brain, he went to work with more cheer than was necessary. He became a surgeon ordering the tools he would need, while I ran up and down the stairs delivering them, meanwhile bemoaning the fact that it was going to take another hour to taste the coffee I needed.

He put a pot of water to boil on the top of the wood stove. We got out a Melita filter and ran the coffee through like the pour-over one gets in a fancy coffee shop. We did find out though: One still needs filtered water or the coffee tastes excessively salty.

As for the eggs, we just took our usual pan and fried a few eggs on the stove. It really worked and was fun. For dinner, we got some hamburgers to grill on the outdoor grill with coals from our wood stove.

The first day the power was out, I decided to run errands. The bank was open but would only dispense up to $50. My usual grocery store was closed, but I found another franchise that was open a few miles away. Many restaurants were closed and so was the library. I noticed a few gas stations were closed too. Our car still ran and a bookstore was open, so my son and I spent the second day there. That was fun, although the drive through the bad weather was scary. But, we had all day, and we got there and home safely. One night we took the cold ham I’d prepared for dinner over to my mother-in-law, who lives a half an hour away. We spent a little extra time with her, and she had power so that was a nice break for all of us. We didn’t stay overnight, though, because my husband was concerned about our pipes freezing if we didn’t keep the fire going at home.

The sun sets at six, and nights can get so long and dark. By the second night it was very cold. Our son slept downstairs to keep the fire going. We went upstairs, but I did not sleep very well even though I had layers on. By morning on the third day (after a sleepless night), the cold and dark were beginning to wear us down. We had used up the hot water in the water tank, so no hot showers. The scented candles were starting to get to be too much; the house was getting messy and needed a good vacuuming.  We went out to eat for breakfast but even that was not as comfortable as being in a warm house cooking over an electric stove. Everything took a little extra effort because it was not part of our routine.

It was a good experience. I learned that we should be a little more prepared. I went out and bought some unscented candles. I also got some cash from the bank and will save it for real emergencies – when it is not possible to get money.  I thought an extra lantern would be handy as well. I realized that my world got very small in survival mode. It was an effort to think of others. I hope that this experience will teach me to be more empathetic to those in need.

I was reminded not to take all my blessings for granted. We have so much in this country, with its strong infrastructure, but all the good things I enjoy are really gifts of God’s goodness. I see that much more of my discretionary time and energy could be used to serve Him, and I don’t want to become complacent in my comfort.  If I practice using my time, talent and treasure well in the good times, I hope that I can be more useful in the hard times. To be prepared in the full times enables us to be equipped to share with others in the lean times.

Connie’s story made me think of what Joseph did in Genesis: “And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went throughout all the land of Egypt.47 And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls.48 And he gathered up all the food of the seven years, which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities . . .53 And the seven years of plenteousness, that was in the land of Egypt, were ended.54 And the seven years of dearth began to come, according as Joseph had said: and the dearth was in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. (Genesis 41:47-48 and 53-54). May we prepare in good times so we can provide for ourselves and others in bad times!

Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-8).

(P.S.—Some years ago, our family invested in a battery-started, propane fireplace because my husband is asthmatic and can’t handle wood smoke. It was a real lifesaver for us and kept our pipes from freezing.)