Hurricane Irene Was A Lesson In Loneliness

For one writer, the aftermath of Hurricane Irene provided "a kind of high school reunion with boredom." For me, it was a brush with isolation.

Poet Charles Simic writes in the New York Review of Books (via the Guardian) of the three post-Irene days when his neighborhood was without power, and he was without technology. He muses,

Being temporarily unable to use the technology we've grown dependent on to inform ourselves about the rest of the world, communicate with others, and pass the time, is a reminder of our alarming dependence on them. "Nights are so boring!" my neighbours kept repeating. Our days were not much better, with overcast skies that made it even difficult to read indoors. All of this reminded me of the days of my youth when my family, like so many others, lived in a monastic solitude when the weather was bad, since we had no television. It wasn't in church but on dark autumn days and winter nights that I had an inkling of what they meant when they spoke about eternity. Everyone read in order to escape boredom. I had friends so addicted to books, their parents were convinced they were going crazy with so many strange stories and ideas running like fever through their brains, not to mention becoming hard of hearing, after failing to perform the simplest household chores like letting the cat out.

Bemoaning our dependence on computers and smartphones is nothing new, but it is true that natural disasters, aside from their obvious danger to life and limb, also pose a threat to all the various ways we try to bolster ourselves against emptiness. Before the hurricane hit New York, and after I bought necessities like food and water, I spent a lot of time loading my laptop up with Doctor Who episodes so I could watch if the Internet went down, at least until the battery ran out. It wasn't exactly boredom I was worried about, though — it was loneliness.

I ordinarily don't have to think much about the fact that my family lives far away. I miss them, certainly, but we can talk on the phone, we can e-mail, and a few times a year I can fly to see them. Similarly, while it's nice to have friends in my neighborhood, it doesn't usually matter much to me if someone lives a few miles away — I can always hop on the subway to visit. And the fact that my best friend and I haven't lived in the same city in four years makes me sad sometimes, but it's fine as long as we can IM each other. Last weekend, however, I was facing the prospect of no subway and no electricity, which would have meant, potentially, no way of seeing or communicating with anybody I cared about. Stuck in my apartment without technology, I was going to be really, totally alone.

And then I wasn't. The power didn't go out. The storm wasn't as bad as we'd feared. I caught up on phone calls and checked my email. An old friend and I wandered around the neighborhood and took pictures of trees. Ultimately, I didn't have to confront what I feared most, the loss of the electrical threads that connect me to the people I love.

Many people weren't so lucky. Some, like Simic, lost power, while others lost homes, property, loved ones. All I really lost was a bit of innocence. It's asy to pretend that technology has made distance obsolete, that the miles that separate us from the people we care about don't really matter. But just like the structures we've set up to keep us entertained, those we've made to keep us close are fragile, and a strong wind can break them apart. Simic writes about Hurricane Irene "telling us what little regard she has for us personally and everything we've done over the years to make our home more attractive" — but she also has no regard for the things we've done to make a long-distance life possible, and it's sobering to realize that it can become impossible within an instant.

My Reunion With Boredom Courtesy Of Hurricane Irene [New York Review Of Books, via Guardian]