When I came to the States over 20 years ago, a big part of the attraction was the hope of political, social and economic stability. But living in New York would also mean no more floods when it rained hard or rotating power outages, right?
During the recent record-breaking October snowstorm I spent four days in the dark. And when I say ‘in the dark’ I don’t just mean with no electricity, heat, hot water or functioning stove. The power outage that affected over 3 million people in the Northeast reminded me of the fragility of the human mind when people lack basic infrastructure.
The first day, Saturday, was fun. I visited with my neighbor Claire and we caught up after months of never finding time to get together. We managed to heat water for tea with a candle and we spent a few hours chatting away. Our homes were still warm and by the time I returned to mine, I was ready for bed.
On Sunday, I realized there were files on my desktop computer which I needed for work. So when I went to get my nails done, I brought my heavy 27 inch iMac along with my laptop and Blackberry. I figured I could charge all my equipment and transfer my files from the iMac to a flash drive for the price of a manicure. I had lunch at the local diner along with dozens of other people who walked in with empty thermostat bottles for hot water and with all their battery-operated gadgets that needed a charge. At that point, although I was inconvenienced, I thought it was all a little entertaining. The outage was forcing us to be more sociable and charitable.
But when I found out that our power wouldn’t be restored until Wednesday at 11:59 PM, my optimism took a nosedive. The thought of spending three more days as a nomad was depressing. Still, I tried to keep my spirits up thinking that I was lucky, that a lot of people had it much worse.
I spent all day Monday at my local Starbucks, which had become everyone’s office, but the simplest things such as printing and faxing a document seemed like an insurmountable complication. With no access to a fax or scanner in the area, it took half an hour to figure out the logistics to accomplish something that would normally take 10 seconds to do.
By Monday evening, the temperature in my house was around 55 degrees. So I decided to take a shower and do my hair at my friend Marjorie’s house and then return home to spend the night. I reasoned that sleeping in my own bed would provide me with a sense of stability that I was losing fast. But despite bundling up in bed with a hot water bottle I filled at Marjorie’s, I was so cold that I barely slept.
By Tuesday, when I went into the city for several meetings, I was frazzled. I hadn’t been sleeping well for several days, and the effort that it took to think through the most basic things such as where I was going to get my next meal, where I was going to shower, sleep, and work took a huge amount of mental and physical energy.
That night, I accepted my friend Susan’s offer to stay with her family. They didn’t have power either but they had a fireplace, hot water and a gas stove. I belatedly realized that in large part, my distress stemmed not only from the normal inconveniences that are to be expected in a power outage, but also from trying to face the cold alone. I was drained and cozying up in front of the fireplace with my dear friends and a hot cup of tea had an immediate calming effect. We talked until late and by the time we woke up the lights were back.
It took me a full day to regain my center. The experience substantially increased my awareness of how little it takes to become destabilized. It made me wonder how people who lack the social support network and the financial means that I’m lucky to have deal with stressing situations like the loss of a home or long-term job loss. And it doubled my commitment to be on the lookout for signs of distress in those around me so I can lend a hand.
Mariela Dabbah is the CEO of www.Latinosincollege.com, a renown speaker, media contributor and award-winning author. Her new book: El Poder de la Mujer (Women Power) http://www.marieladabbah.com/books.htm will be released March, 2012 by Penguin.