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When the Lights Go Out
by Andrew L. McFarlane

At about 1:30 AM this morning, the power went out. Winter gave one (we hope) last gasp and either the heavy, wet snow or the high winds took down a power line somewhere.

I awoke around 4 to a dark and quiet house. No red light from the clock, no night light, no sound of the heater.

The winter power failure ritual is fairly familiar: put on some warm clothes, get candles, make sure the kids are tucked in tight, build a fire. It allows plenty of room for thought. As I carried a load of wood in from the garage, I looked across our street. The sight of the darkened house of our neighbor started me thinking.

My mind wandered around the neighborhood, checking in on folks. Schlueters, they have a wood stove, they'd be fine. Beards, they have the constitution of polar bears, they probably wouldn't even notice for a day or two. Buehers were in Florida, they certainly wouldn't have problems. After a tally of the neighbors I know well, I came back to the house across the street.

An old woman lives there and not only do I not know her name, I'm ashamed to say that I probably couldn't even describe her face. I have a vague recollection of seeing her somewhere in town and having her tell me: "Of course I know you, I'm ______, I live right across the street from you."

I promptly forgot.

Now, I live in a town where community is still alive and kicking. I grew up here and I'm on a first name basis with well over half of the people in it.

But not the lady across the street.

I thought about it. Was this the "Death of Community" we've been hearing so much about? As I built the fire, I decided that it wasn't.

She doesn't need me. In bygone days, I might have chopped some wood every so often, carried a message to her grandchildren. Something.

"Morning, Widow. Pump some water for you? The missus baked a cake."

Today (provided the power stays on), all that necessary neighborliness is taken care of. Her water pumps itself, heat comes in through the gas company, the telephone keeps her in touch with distant relatives and, twice a month, the Schwann's truck brings frozen meals and perhaps a cake.

I guess that's my point. Maybe the foundation of community isn't built of shared moral values or anything else that sounds good coming from a politician's lips at election time. Maybe what we knew as "community" in "the good old days" wasn't much more than seeing a need in one of our neighbors and filling it before they had to demean themselves by asking.

Anyway, the power came back on before I could even light the fire. I had a brief and half-hearted wish that it would stay off, taking our taken-care-of-ness away with it for a few days. However, the sound of the furnace kicking in and the glow of the nightlights turning back on look pretty good at 4:30 in the morning.

Taking hammers to the wonders of this age of technology doesn't seem like the right answer.

I wonder what is.
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