A Thin Veil……

At the back of the house, squirrels have spent the last month repairing their nests high in the treetops, ready for the long winter. It’s part of their routine of life.

Just as for the squirrels, life for most of us progresses normally and relatively smoothly, until some catastrophic event throws our perspectives into disarray. It may be a very personal event such as the death of someone we love, or maybe a divorce. Occasionally, we are upended into a maelstrom of cataclysmic proportions – a flood; the hurricane that hit New Orleans last year, or the devastating tsunami that shattered the lives of millions in and around the Pacific Basin.

On each and every occasion, we are swept from our complacency by events over which we have little or no control. How we react in such circumstances varies from person to person, but the common denominator is a stark realization that our civilization is a veneer, a veil to be rent apart at any moment, exposing us to powerful demons who would whisk us to oblivion in an instant.

The ice storm that hit Illinois on the last night of November 2006 would not stand comparison with previously mentioned catastrophes, but was nonetheless one of those occasions when, for many, life and death hung in the balance. The rapid build up of ice on tree branches throughout the State caused numerous limbs to crack and fall. Lying in bed, listening to the explosions of snapping branches from the many mature trees surrounding our property, it was impossible not to wonder would the next one come hurtling through the roof and flatten us where we lay.

The power went out at exactly 10.38 pm.

Now it was pitch dark; silent, but for the gunshot-cracks that marked another great limb crashing earthwards. It proved a long, sleepless, night.

By 3am, incipient arctic tentacles encroached beneath the meager blankets normally adequate in our steady-state, thermostatically-controlled, environment. Outside, frigid air entombed roof and walls, impatient to be let in. The furnace, our stalwart knight against the elements, sat impotent and lifeless on the garage floor. Another gunshot; the rustle and clatter of timber falling in a hail of ice-shards to the frozen earth beneath. We piled blanket upon blanket, and waited for the dawn.

We, and the house, survived the night. Next day, we boiled water and made oatmeal on the single burner camping stove purchased from Wal-Mart for just such an emergency. I braved the ice and snow to fetch a wheelbarrow full of logs from the woodshed, for the fireplace that would be our only source of heat until the power company restored the fallen cables. For two days we huddled, pitiful, close by the hearth; only leaving that radial arc of warmth to procure more logs, or brew more coffee, or finally to crawl into icy sheets beneath a heaving mountain of bedding burgled from guest room and closets.

Suddenly, more rapidly than it had begun, it was over. The lights flared into brilliance; the furnace groaned, whined, then whirred into life. Digital clocks that had disappeared from useless electronic boxes – once video, hi-fi, or microwave oven – magically sprang back to existence, flashing their urgent need for correction so they might serve us with accuracy once more.

Within ten minutes, the camping stove was returned to its garage shelf; redundant blankets re-covered the guest room bed; logs were allowed to burn low in the grate – it was, after all, getting too hot for a fire. Outside, the yard was a mess of fallen tree limbs and twisted branches, a reminder – if one cared to look out the window – of the drama that had passed so close; inside, could not be more normal. Civilization had returned with the flick of a power company switch.

Later, when TV dinner cartons had been consigned to the trashcan, and the microwave was again idle, save for the comforting green glow of its digital display, I sat back on our warm, comfortable, sofa and reflected on the fragility of that veil between normality and catastrophe. How all our lives hang suspended from those fragile threads called power cables. Unlike the squirrels, we cannot survive the ravages of an ice storm outside, in a nest of twigs high in the branches of an Illinois cottonwood. We are, all of us, totally dependent on the incoming power that molds and forms our artificial environment. Take it away, and the result is catastrophe.

A thin veil, so easily rent.

I walk to the window; remind myself of the devastation. Outside the squirrels are hard at work, rebuilding nests battered by the storm.

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