This February we experienced the deepest snows and coldest temps since moving into our little yellow bungalow. I was beginning to think we lived in a southern climate until the negative windchills rattled our windows and deep drifts muffled my garden dreams. But as is the course of all extreme weather events, the pendulum has swung back to a lovely week of balmy breezes and the recent polar vortex fades into memory but for a few scraps of white clinging to the edges of driveways. 

Once again we count ourselves fortunate as we watch the aftermath of grid failure in warmer lands completely unprepared for such arctic extremes. No doubt lives have been totally disrupted and altered by conditions that they couldn’t control. In a heartbeat all that you’ve counted on can disappear along with power, food and water, violently shoving your life in a very different direction. I was reminded of the polar vortex in January 2014, when our house in the suburbs suddenly lost electricity after a heavy snow along with one other house right before the temperatures dropped forty degrees overnight to -11 Fahrenheit. By the next day, 100,000 households were out all over the city with restricted travel, but we were the only ones in our neighborhood.

Luckily, my family could stay with our generous neighbors across the street while waiting three days for the electric company to get around to restoring power for only two houses (which consisted of flipping a switch at an electrical box by the street). In the meantime our house temperature dropped to below freezing and every liquid froze (even the shampoo) as my husband kept a fire going in the fireplace during the day. We made the wise decision to drain the water pipes which saved our plumbing. Our neighbors in the same boat were not so fortunate, sustaining $20,000 in water damage. 

Afterward, many suggested we get a generator or a wood stove to prevent a repeat of a supposedly rare occurrence (which seems to be occurring more often now). The street-side power station that malfunctioned was later replaced. But I couldn’t seem to get warm again even after the house eventually thawed out and the frozen bottles returned to liquid. Our illusion of safety was gone, and we were tired of maintaining a home that was too big for us as we’d outgrown the suburban lifestyle. Over the years we’d dismissed the nudges of change as merely annoying little snowballs that finally grew in size until reaching avalanche proportions on the heels of an arctic clipper. I feared an iceberg was next.

And so four months later we put our house on the market and sold it in a day. We gave away most of our furnishings and settled into a two-bedroom apartment with the assurance that the complex had backup generators. Snow removal was included in the rent, and we could walk to stores for food and supplies. But the appliances were all electric and there was no fireplace. In extreme cold the fire sprinklers in our ceilings would have burst and we couldn’t turn off our water and drain the pipes if we wanted to. In three years, we would move on as part of the five-year odyssey to find community and sustainability in an increasingly isolated world where you barely know your neighbor.

I will never forget the family who lived right next door to us in the suburbs who knew of our plight but never even offered to run an extension cord over to power our portable heater for an hour or so. To add insult to injury, our house sat dark and frozen while their house was luridly aglow from the extravagant Christmas decorations that were still up and running. As I watch the same selfish and negligent acts unfold on the news while Texans struggle to survive, I wonder if we will ever find a way to get along and work together in community with such a sense of distrust and entitlement rampant in our culture while the lack of foresight and preparedness continues to undermine our very existence as a species.

These days we still don’t have a fireplace or generator but our wishlist for power backup includes solar and a wood-burning stove. For now our gas stovetop will have to do. 

On the Rebound


The first Sunday of 2014 saw us knocking heavy snow off the bowing birches in our front yard, while wishing we’d flown south with the sandhill cranes heard above us on Christmas Eve. They had known what was coming, you see. In a few hours, those trees would lose their fight with winter’s version of gravity while the power snuffed out at our house, only to return three days later.

My family soon realized there were just two households affected in our neighborhood, and the grim waiting game began as we sat forgotten among the thousands without furnaces in subzero temperatures. I had always pictured an ice storm for this scenario, not the burden of wet snow chased by a polar vortex, so we had stocked up on food rather than firewood. Our neglected wood pile lay under a foot of white in our backyard tree line while my husband dug out what he could for a fitful night sleeping next to the smoky fireplace.

By the time a weak sun rose the next morning, arctic winds were howling and the house had reached an uncomfortable 50 degrees. Our plans shifted into survival mode. We moved refrigerated food into plastic tubs outside, drained the water pipes, and camped out in our kind neighbors’ family room for two more nights, while listening for a fleet of utility trucks that never came. During the day, we kept a fire going to keep the interior temps above freezing. At night we visited with flashlights to check the dark rooms for signs of distress, burglars in our own home while the Christmas lights next door mocked our misfortune.

On the fourth day, after the other powerless neighbor had successfully navigated the voicemail maze and filed a formal complaint, a lone utility vehicle appeared at the end of our street. My husband and I stood and waved in knee-deep snow like shipwreck survivors flagging down the rescue vessel.

It was a ten-minute fix at an electrical box. No storm damage, no sizzling power lines down, no underperforming transformers. Just a bad circuit and indifference.

Without life’s usual distractions (you know — like heat and water), I had a lot of time to sit around thinking about the irony of living in a civilized suburb where you give up your survival independence for assurances of a speedy recovery. The well-stocked woodshed and potbellied stove are traded in for that quick drive to the grocery store and treated roads. Isn’t infallible big city infrastructure supposed to trump those off-grid nonconformists?

And my old childhood issues of being different and singled out reared their ugly new year heads as I searched the foggy mists from burning wet wood. Instead of reading that long deferred book club choice, or knitting on my never-ending sock, I could only obsess over why this had happened to us and how we could have prevented our predicament, as if playing the role of model citizens who always pay utility bills on time and follow the suburban rules held any guarantees. We have become very good at minding our own business, beholden to no one.

Often the lessons I don’t want to learn are the ones I need the most.

If for no other reason, the tyranny of fate forced us to ask for help, a strange position for us, and neighbors across the street immediately responded. They took us in and shared their lives with people who live feet away and yet worlds apart. There were histories shared with food at dinner and fires stoked to warm relationships. They provided us with flashlights and guidance, outlets to recharge our batteries and spirits. The cleared path between our houses became comfortably worn.

And now with the usual expectations restored when we flip on a switch, our sense of importance is thawing while our complacency may not come back until spring. But that suburban isolation has fallen away as the snow melts and the unbreakable birches pick themselves up off the ground to freely wave their branches in the breeze once again, giving us back our view of the neighborhood, and our connection to community.