Sunday Morning ~ Cold Christmas
Chikumbutsa nkhwangwa ndi cisanu. ~ It is the cold that reminds us of the ax.
~ Chewa proverb
December 28, 2022
Living in Malawi we were always prepared for power cuts. It happened nearly every day for at least a few hours. We always kept plastic buckets filled with water in the house along with a large filter for drinking. The climate was tropical and power outages had little to do with weather. It was more of a rationing issue. Candlelight was the norm. We had good solar lights which were easily charged; it was rare the sun didn’t shine for at least part of the day. We went to the market often and didn’t have quantities of food to spoil. Being powerless was woven into daily life. Cooking with charcoal outside was simple. Headlamps were fashionable.
In Maine, it’s a different story. Weather is the predominant factor in power outages, but even then it takes a mighty storm to bring the system down. It’s a rare thing, and affects the area catching the brunt of the storm. In Malawi it’s more like regular overloads of the power network like the one at Niagara Falls we experienced in 1965. (Egad, that is so long ago and I remember it vividly.) It’s an extremely rare event, so we don’t set up our lives to accommodate. We assume this utility will always function and outages are usually resolved quickly, within a few hours. Disruption is profound when it fails for extended periods. The cold outside makes lack of heating more dangerous than inconvenient. Though, I will say, food doesn’t spoil. By Christmas my kitchen was much colder than my fridge. So there’s that.
Our power went out on Friday afternoon (the 23rd) when the wind was blowing trees over in rapid succession and the temperature was an eerie fifty degrees. It was such a strange storm. I had a thought to get in the car and head over to ocean drive to see the surf on the cliffs, but when I went to feed the chickens I could barely stand up against the wind. Looking up, I saw huge trees at forty degree angles and thought, “Nope. I’m going back in my house, which still has a roof on it, and fill a bathtub and bottles with water.” Power outage was a safe bet. The roof stayed in place, but many trees came down, several across the power lines. And that was just on my road. After hours of pouring rain, the temperature dropped thirty degrees in two hours. Everything froze as the rain turned to snow, which, is less romantic when the power is out, the house is getting steadily colder, and I have no backup heat aside from the inefficient fireplace. How on earth did people survive with just these things? No wonder no one bathed and wore every piece of clothing they had. They had no need for closets.
My house is well insulated and I can use the gas on my stove to cook, so am better off than many. It never got below freezing inside my house, so that was good but I was envious of people with wood stoves. I had no plans for the holiday, thank God. I was glad to be alone not worrying about the comfort of guests.
Twenty hours without heat and the house was getting colder on Christmas Eve, so I decided to go into town where I’d heard they had power. I thought perhaps there’d be a festive atmosphere with people gathering to warm up and charge phones, you know, just like a Hallmark movie. Silly me. Many people were getting lunch at the Thirsty Whale but I’d call it more anxious than festive. The damage wasn’t just my road. It was everywhere. And it was snowing making the roads messy and slippery. And my car, having gone a whole two months without a problem, decided to raise my anxiety level further and flash the alternator light, barely making it up the hills on the slippery roads. Ugh. No sweet romance came out of the excursion. Those movies are bullshit. I wasn’t even going to make it to church. At least the fish and chips was comforting before heading home to the increasingly cold house. After a visit to neighbors to toast the situation, I came home, lit a fire and candles, and had a friend here to spend the night. Her apartment was colder than my house. She had a six o’clock flight in the morning and was lending me her car while she was gone for two weeks. Christmas eve dinner was cheese and left-over soup. We drank hot toddies and made the best of it. Cozy is a bit of a stretch, but with the fire and candles, the lighting was nice. She never took her coat off. We went to bed early. Under piles of woolen quilts on top of down comforters it was like luxury winter camping. I was fine with it, but my friend, not so much of a camper, was glad she was leaving in the morning.
When I got up at 4:45 to take her to the airport I saw a light downstairs and thought, wow, she has a really strong flashlight! But it was electricity! The power had come back and I thought, God bless those guys who worked all night to get us this convenience! I ran to the basement to prime the water pump and get that going again, then made tea and quickly did the dishes before dropping her for her flight. The stars were shining and so was my mood. Our tiny little airport is only ten minutes away so the drive was easy, and I felt better knowing I had a reliable car to use while I saw about getting mine repaired AGAIN. I got home to see flashing red lights where the tree was over the wires and thought, great! They are out in the early morning cold taking down that tree. These guys are great. I texted neighbors down the road to tell them the whole road would be restored soon. Turns out, that was premature. I saw the flashing lights and made that all up. Fifteen minutes later I heard a big explosion and the power went off again. When they turned on the power to my end of the road, the live wire still on the ground started a fire, the fire department came, the transformer blew, and boom, all gone.
Just as this harsh reality set in, my friend texted to say her flight had been canceled. So I drove back to pick her up, and in the increasing light could see the tree across the wires had not been touched. She dropped me home then went to her apartment where the power had truly been restored and she could be disappointed about her trip in comfort.
I spent Christmas morning under a quilt in front of my fireplace wearing a hat and several layers of clothing trying to write this blog. I was surprised my laptop actually worked it was so cold. I thought writing would distract me, but the Dr. Zhivago vibe wore thin as my fingers weren’t moving well and I couldn’t think. I gave up, put gloves on, and read a travel magazine by flashlight.
It was not a sunny day as predicted. That forecast was bogus. It snowed. It was grey. It was cold. I bundled up and went for a long walk. I met neighbors out walking; we commiserated and speculated. The trees were still on the wires. We all acknowledged it could have been much worse. The temps, though cold, were not dangerous. It wasn’t below zero like many parts of the country. No one was dropping bombs on us. The power would be restored eventually and we had food. The generosity of the community at large was remarkable; people were offering what they had to others. I walked until the sun was setting then made my way out of the woods back to the road. I stopped to check in on friends and ended up staying for tea before walking back to my house in the dark. I came upon big trucks with big lights and big chain saws and big buckets on the road and they were taking those trees off the wires! I yelled “THANK YOU SO MUCH!! THANK YOU SO MUCH!!” as I scooted underneath. I was going to yell, “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” but it seemed cruel since they’d likely been working the whole time in freezing temperatures. God bless them. It was day three of the clean up and I hoped they’d had some rest. Four hours later there was light. The furnace purred to life and I crawled into bed with a hot water bottle, grateful but humbled at how dependent I am on this utility for comfort and convenience.
The offers of hospitality from warm homes to those without were a testament to the goodness of human spirit. If we can only nourish and promote those virtues, I just imagine what could be.
Merry Christmas and Love to all,