The following is a post by my first guest blogger, Lisa Romeo. Lisa is a writer, author, teacher and a mentor to me. I’ve known Lisa since grade school. A few years ago, while browsing at Barnes & Noble, I picked up a copy of Oprah Winfrey’s book “The Big Book of O”. The book opened itself to a page profiling Lisa Romeo. I was mesmerized by her ability to write about subjects we silently think to ourselves. She won my admiration with her writing skills, and rekindled the need for me to begin to write once more. Thank you, Lisa, and thank you for being my first guest blogger! Enjoy, everyone. Happy Thanksgiving to all.
An Empowering Surge, After the Storm by Lisa Romeo
“A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.” ~ Marcel Proust
Empowering yourself by saying no. By saying yes. By ignoring your age. By acting your age. By realizing you’ve had the power all along.
Oh, I had a bunch of ideas for this guest post, including all of the above. Writing that post was on my list of things to do the last week of October. Then, Hurricane Sandy slammed my state, and the idea of power took on a different meaning.
My home and neighborhood were suddenly and utterly and literally powerless – eight days without heat, electricity, phones, internet. It was annoying, of course, to scurry from friends’ houses to cafes to find internet connections to keep my business going, to contend with extra clothing layers and defrosting food — but only annoying, compared to losses others were dealt.
So we didn’t complain (much) and carried on. Things would be back to normal soon, we reasoned, and in the meantime, there were unexpected compensations – playing double solitaire by candlelight (with wine and real cards!), fireplace huddles (hot chocolate and the teenager reading ghost stories aloud), and the deep comfort of creating heat with my husband the old fashioned way.
“Each of us makes his own weather, determines the color of the skies in the emotional universe which he inhabits.” – Bishop Fulton J. Sheen
Then, power was restored — to the grid, the poles, my house; we cheered, of course. And yet, for me, a certain vague sadness visited, and lingered.
Over the next week, when around me everyone getting “back to normal” (the latest catch-phrase around town), I stood a bit still. I didn’t race to the supermarket and overfill a shopping cart, but each day only picked up just enough for that day’s meals.
I didn’t track down and watch missed television episodes online, but finished the novel I’d begun reading by flashlight. I did do every single bit of laundry – a girl has limits.
I’m no Pollyanna, but I have always found it interesting, rather than upsetting, to observe the rippling effects of a difficult situation, study it, and so instead of feeling powerfully back in control in the two weeks since the kitchen light flickered on again, I stood still and tried to figure out what I had learned, about power. It is this: feeling powerless, especially in mid-life, is simultaneously a motivator and a hurdle.
While power was not available, I had two choices at all times, every single cold, dark, miserable day. I could do nothing while shivering in my cold, dark house. Do nothing and moan about the cost of food that perished on warm freezer shelves. Do nothing but cry about my son’s horribly damaged school, my ravaged Jersey Shore (the real one), my husband’s week without income – and show my teenage son that the way you get through a crisis is to feel sorry for yourself.
Or. I could do something. Empty the freezer, mop up the mess, buy ice, fill coolers and toss onto the grill whatever had to be used up first. (And realize I had the power to feed my family.)
I could switch on the boys’ camping lantern, use the fireplace, light some candles, and read my friend’s novel and edit my writing students’ papers with a pencil. (And remember the simple and pure magic of holding the printed word in hand.)
I could accept the invitation of friends and relatives, work at their dining room tables, enjoy a meal together, stay warm. (And realize not every kindness has to be immediately repaid.) I could fill the hot water bottle, put blankets over the drafty windows, wear two layers of pajamas, and sleep more tightly curled next to my husband than since we married 24 years ago. (And realize how profligate we’d been with our heating dollars in the past.)
I could worry about when the trains would run to my son’s school again or call parents I did not know and propose carpools. (And realize that, like I tell my son, most people are okay once you get past hello.)
Post-storm then, I had to ask – if I could find ways to be powerful in the face of an inoperable power grid, what could I learn from the way I had reacted and acted during those eight days?
It is this: Always, we can change – the way we get things done, interact, move through our days and world. I began to ask myself: if I can make changes when forced to, what else might I do?
What changes might I make now that would move me closer to goals, improve my household, embrace my family?
Here’s what: Our refrigerator and freezer are still 90 percent bare, on purpose. Here was an empowering opportunity to enact the sweeping change I had planned for two years but neglected make, in the way I selected and stocked food – including more organic and vegetarian choices.
So I’m taking my time, shopping in short trips that allow for label-reading, trying new stores; taking back some of the power I had unwittingly handed over to lazy habit. Taking back some power, in any area of one’s life I usually find, typically leads to other choices in other areas.
If I could do this, what else? During the power outage, we learned that we could sleep quite comfortably, though the thermostat read 50 degrees; the down comforter simply came out of storage earlier in the season, I wore pajamas instead of a sleeveless nightgown, filled an old fashioned hot water bottle, and we rediscovered the center of our king-sized bed.
When we were resetting the electronic set-back thermostats (which had dipped to 63 degrees at night pre-storm), I suggested we dial them down even lower. I
now knew we could, without distress, swap a few more degrees to free up a few more dollars for our older son’s college tuition bills.
“What it lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do.” – Aristotle
Pre-storm I avoided working in nearby coffee shops because friends or acquaintances who might show up (or the friendly wait staff) would inevitably spark conversations, dampening my productivity.
Yet, I also struggled with the isolation of the freelancer’s life. When the café was one of few sources for connecting to the internet during the power outage, I worked there, for many hours a day over many days.
There were conversations (thankfully), but I learned how to end them politely (I hope), and get work done anyway (table choice and room geography are key).
After I could again inhabit my home office without wearing gloves, I missed the café and the connection it offers, and so now am planning my days differently. I bought a café debit card and loaded it with enough dollars to finance a month’s worth of coffee (and okay, the occasional oversized muffin).
Post-storm I realized that if I could get work done there and feel charged up just being in a room with other people, even when working in sub-optimal conditions – it was crowded, power strips and extension cords crisscrossed the floor, the muffin delivery was unreliable!) – then think of how powered up I may feel there on a perfectly normal day. These are, assuredly, not huge life changes and I admit they are somewhat indulgent: more mindful grocery selection, using less heat to shrink the power bill, claiming a new spot to work – though each has the potential to empower some aspect of life that is huge and not-so-indulgent: better nutritional health, a bit less financial stress, more work-life satisfaction.
The point though is not that these changes in themselves are hugely empowering. The empowerment, it turns out, lies in the recognition that small changes are always possible, even later in life.
The empowerment lies in noticing that each time we are forced to ask, “Is this really the very best way to do X?” is an opportunity for growth.
The empowerment comes from, always, accepting that we have the power to change things up. No matter what the utility company or Mother Nature have to say.
Lisa Romeo lives in northern New Jersey with her family. Her essays appear in a broad range of print and online media, including the New York Times, O-The Oprah Magazine, and many literary journals, essay collections and anthologies. Lisa’s blog is filled with author interviews, writing tips and advice, and information about her online writing classes.