This morning I am waiting for a hurricane. I've been checking the New York Times hurricane tracker and a few weather websites, and I should easily have a few hours before we lose power, if we lose it at all. Waiting here in the darkness of an early storm morning is like opening the blinds on memories long dormant. The hurricane is blowing them around, too. I have not lived through many natural disasters; in fact, I have lived through nothing I could call a "disaster" at all. I've never been in a car accident, never had surgery, never had major property to get damaged. Most times I have that disaster-feeling, I can quickly recast it as an adventure, like a time my sister and I missed a once-a-week-only train to Mongolia, or when I was caught on the back of a bolting horse without a helment, or another where a friend lost her passport days before going to meet her birth family in Korea, or when I was absolutely and completely convinced that my small Thai ferry was going to sink. Those were, of course, not true disasters, but there is no discounting that awful feeling when you realize what exactly has happened. In my case, usually with a crowd of Chinese men shaking their heads at you in disdain.
Our ability to get through a disaster lies in how deeply we are convinced that everything will be fine soon. I was ten years old when that horse bolted underneath me, and in my abject fear I knew that there was no way I was fucking falling off that thing. I knew how to ride, I knew that horse had bad, skittish news all over its face before I even got on it; I knew that any stable that would put a bunch of girl scouts on horseback, un-helmeted on a paved trail, was not to be trusted. I knew from falling off gentler horses in softer paddocks that falling off hurt, and would hurt ten times more now. But above all, I knew from hundeds and hundreds of horse books that horses don't have any nerve endings in their manes, so I dropped the reins, wove my tiny fingers into the coarse hair of that miserable animal, leaned forward as if to become an un-buckable growth on the horse's neck, and held on. My position indicated to the horse that I wanted to go as fast as possible, but I decided I would rather be going unbelievably fast on a horse I hated than stock-still crumpled on the ground. We flew through the forest, that horse and me, uncatchable. We were one huge, dangerous mass of terror. I rode into the stable a few miles later, sat up, untangled my fingers, and dismounted properly. It seemed very important to get off correctly, to maintain complete control, and not to cry. I went to my regular riding lessons a few days later. I had made myself know that it would be alright and so it was.
Sometimes, though, no matter how many horse books you've read, there is simply nothing you can do except retreat into your mind and wait. My friend Abby and I had decided to take a ferry from mainland Thailand to Ko Toa to swim and play around on mopeds. It was an overnight ferry, during which we were supposed to sleep on the floor with approximately 200 Thai people and 4 other backpackers, but as I lay there I remembered that we had actually known someone on a boat just like this whose boat had sank in the middle of the night. He had survived by swimming like hell, but others had drowned, including the friend he was with. When our boat began to rock hard, I stuffed my passport in my underwear, reviewed my swimming strokes in my head, and gripped Abby's hand. Nothing happened except in my imagination, but that was terrible enough for me to remember it always.
When Hurricane Bob hit, I was eight and spending the summer at my grandparents' home in Cape Cod. Their house had one side entirely lined with sliding glass doors and my family sat in the living room and watched the light pine trees come down. The trees were very tall and wispy and had no hope of making it through the storm unscathed. I loved watching them topple, and after the storm my parents let me play in this new wonderland. I promptly got stung by some wasps whose nest had been destroyed, and recused a chocolate lab who was wandering around far from his home on the other side of the lake. It was one of the most exciting summers of my life.
I loved digging cars out of the blizzard of '96, and I loved watching a lightning storm roll over the Hudson River when Greg and I were staying overnight in a lighthouse. Because weather has never brought me harm, I also love losing power. My parents were always very calm about it; we usually just sat in the living room and read books by candlelight.
But for one month of my life I had no power at all. I was living in Ghana. I had walked into the study abroad offices of Skidmore College and said, "I want to be challenged." They handed me a booklet of offerings from the School for International Training. A few months later, I was in Ghana, studying arts and culture. In practice that meant I wandered around markets, learned to say "I like orange Fanta" in Twi, danced every day, and lived in the homes of four different families. It was the greatest half-year of my life and there and I have far too many stories to put in this post.
Ghana loses power all the time, and for no apparent reason. This condition is referred to as "No lights," and Ghanaians are so accustomed to it that it is often barely noticeable. Having lunch and you'd like a cold soda? Sorry, no lights. Have it warm. Finally dragged yourself to an internet cafe to check your college email for the first time in a month? No lights: return tomorrow. Reading in bed? No lights! Switch to a flashlight.
For the final month of our program (I was with twenty-one other college students), we had to choose a final project and strike out on our own for a full four weeks. All we had to do was call our leader, Yemi, in Accra once a week to check in. One boy decided to shadow a garbage collector for the month. Another girl decided to apprentice a bead-maker who used recycled bottles. Yet another played in a drumming circle.
My friend Jessica and I decided to move to a remote village on the border of Togo and study dance and elementary education, respectively. Krache-Nkwanta had no electricity or running water. No lights. Ever. We could not wait to go.
When I say it was remote, here's what I mean: one van would pass through the town at an undetermined time. Once a week, Jess and I would sit by the side of the road eating oranges all day until it came. We would flag it down. The van drove three hours. We would get out in the nearest town with power. We would make a phone call at a pay phone. "Yemi," one of us would say, "we're alive." "How are your projects?" "They're fine." "Need anything?" "Nope." "Enjoy your life!" Then we'd hang up, get a cold soda, and get immediately back on the parked van and wait (sometimes hours) for it to drive back in the direction of our compound. Once a week, that was our entire day.
No lights did not feel difficult. It felt slow, and sometimes hot, but more than anything it felt simply like living in a long summer. During the day we would wander around talking to people in the town, or rode bikes up and down the road, or sat in school listening to the kids learn about the planets. (Because of No Lights, the setup was basic: kids, teacher, desks, chalkboard, books.)
At night, though, the darkness would come in stern and strict. There was one good lantern on the compound and we would leave it with the kids, who stayed up late huddled around it reading aloud to each other. We had flashlights if, heaven forbid, we had to get up and use the Spider Bathroom (an outhouse a few hundred feet away that had all four walls absolutely covered in spiders, I swear right here on my life), but since the only thing worse than using Spider Bathroom was using Spider Bathroom with endless pitch black darkness around you, I tried to avoid it.
Every night I zipped myself into my mosquito net and lay on the ground, staring into the dark. It was maybe eight o'clock, but really I had no idea. Jess and I would sometimes talk but we had settled into a long stretch of quiet that lasted most of the month. I could hear the kids outside reading to each other from a book I brought them about American Indians. Once in a while there was some kind of animal sound and I felt afraid. Before I went to sleep, I would try to find all the little biting ants that had made it into my mosquito net and smash them one by one in the dark. But mostly, Jess and I would lie there and think or talk about ourselves, what we've left and where we'd come from and who we loved and how this experience would change our lives. We wanted our lives changed. That's why we were there. It was the smallest and largest thing I have ever sought out.
We took the van out to the pay phone four times, and the third time, there were no lights in the town. We had a warm bottle of coke together instead. The next week, there were still no lights-- the greater area had been without power for over a week and we hadn't even known. A few days later, our project ended and we took a bus back to Accra. On our way home the bus caught on fire-- a story for another day. I survived. We made it back to Accra. We wrote our final term papers in an internet cafe whose power kept going off, so we kept having to start over. No lights, no lights, no lights, no lights.
All of that seems a very long time ago. When I returned from Ghana I bought my first cell phone and moved into my first apartment. Greg saved my handwritten letters on their airmail paper and they are somewhere in this apartment, unlikely to be blown around by this hurricane. Even if the power goes out I will feel safe. Jessica got married on Martha's Vineyard last night, no doubt scoffing at the weather.
My mosquito net is much bigger now. It is this whole apartment, this whole building, this whole city, this whole country. It is all designed to keep me safe and comfortable. I feel-- sitting here with my coffee, my books, my pets, my refrigerator full of beer and ice cream, my computer, my two couches, my six lamps-- incredibly, shamefully rich. I feel very far from and very close to the girl who lay in the dark. The girl who loved no lights. I wish I could tell myself that everything was ending there: that when I came back I would get a cell phone, and facebook would have just come out, and I would get an internship at a publishing company, and my life would be changed. Just as I wanted.
Disasters will happen. They will happen to me, and despite me. Sitting in my apartment with no lights will not count. Things will get worse. But I hope that, when the time comes, I can find a horse's mane and hang on.