Nine Lessons from an Electricity Fast

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SAN RAFAEL, CA - JULY 17:  Packages of General Electric light bulbs are displayed on a hardware store shelf July 17, 2009 in San Rafael, California. General Electric reported a 49 percent drop in second quarter profits with a net income of $2.6 billion, or 24 cents per share compared to $5 billion or 51 cents per share one year ago.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For 40 days, we limited our use of electricity. We only made exceptions for food preparation and clothes washing. We (the kids and I) were 100% successful with no dishwasher, TV, or computer. I hung my laundry to dry every time except once when I ran four batches through the dryer after recovering from bronchitis. The thing about drying laundry is that you can't fall behind because it takes 12+ hours for each batch to dry, even in arid Utah. The other thing is that it's a little romantic (rhythmic, soothing, productive) to hang damp, clean clothing; I wouldn't mind continuing, except the stiffness of the towels and the lint and wrinkles on the clothes are a little irritating.

For half of the fast, we used no air-conditioning.  It was cool most of June, so this wasn't a hardship, except for the day it was 92 degrees. A week later, Tom's allergies (probably the cottonwood trees) were so bad that he took a sick day and ponied up for prescription Allegra. We shut our windows and installed a high-tech air filter. I'm ashamed to admit just how happy I was to have that excuse for using the a/c. I said at first that we'd set the thermostat at 80, so we'd still be doing something, but that cool air is seductive (especially in the third trimester of pregnancy). Soon I had it set on 78, then 76, and finally 74. I can now say that I would rather do without Internet than air-conditioning. (Obviously) I am weak, but physical discomfort is utterly disruptive to any sort of thought process.

Our fast was initially prompted by a high electricity bill that led us to lower our thermostat in winter to 60 degrees and cancel our TV. It was astonishing how easily and quickly we adapted to those two changes -- and how much I liked it (especially how the kids act when there's no TV; though Tom and I continued to spend too much time online and watching hulu). We wanted more of that. I also especially wanted to re-set our expectations and habits to a more "natural" standard, waking with the sun, sleeping with the sun, paying attention to each other and the world around us, instead of all the wonderful things available electronically. Summer time was perfect for this, with school out and everyone eager to be outside anyway, and with the solstice (longest day of the year) falling right in the middle.

Here are some of the things I learned (see 1. Old-fashioned sorrows are (maybe) easier to bear in old-fashioned settings.):

2. Kids (and husbands) are impressionable; make rules wisely (and sparingly). A few days into the fast, Callie (5 1/2) walked up the bare basement stairs towards the kitchen for a glass of water. Near the top, she stumbled and hurt herself. Her cries pierced the darkness and Tom told her to turn on the light. She wailed that she couldn't because we were doing our electricity fast. I said she could make an exception because she was hurt (and I was too lazy to get out of bed). She insisted that no, she could not.

A few weeks later, Tom was home alone for one night while I slept over at my mom's house with the girls (Grandma has a swimming pool, and a dog). He told me later that, in addition to missing us, he had the strongest feeling of guilt over even thinking of turning the lights on. Even though it was my fast, and it was a completely subjective thing, not a sin or an objectively "wrong" thing to do, the guilt was a real thing.

3. Exceptions are a slippery slope. A couple Sundays ago as we walked to church, Callie shouted, "Mommy, you're wearing flip-flops." I don't let the girls wear flip-flops to church; it's one of my very few clothing rules. Lucy (3 1/2) wears sparkle jeans under her dress because she is a little obsessed with layering, even in summer. Callie and Avery (9) are sometimes ball-gown fancy, sometimes playground pinafore casual. But there are no flip-flops. Except, I told Callie, when you're eight months pregnant. When you are eight months pregnant, I told her, you can wear flip-flops to church too. Callie thought about that for several moments and then proclaimed, "Mommy has a lot of exceptions."  The same idea applied to our electricity fast.

4. Maybe you’re a night owl, or maybe you’ve just never gotten a good night’s sleep. Tom has never woken up on his own (without an alarm or serious nagging) before 9 am in our twelve years of marriage. He’s always been a stay-up-until-this-one-last-bug-is-worked-out kind of guy. During our electricity fast, he still used his laptop to do freelance projects, but there was no TV or hulu, and I was asleep by 10:30 every night (except the few nights I stayed up to finish a book).  So even though he often was up later than the rest of us, within a week, he started waking up around 6:30 every morning. The habit (what he thought was his natural rhythm) of his entire adult life was broken in a matter of days. And? Now that we’ve been catching up on Friday Night Lights? It’s 9 am less than a week later, and he’s sound asleep.

5. There’s more light outside even if you think your house has good windows. The sun goes down around 9 pm before and after the summer solstice in Mountain Daylight Time. Twilight lasts another half an hour. Before it got really hot, I resented nightfall. It meant I couldn’t see to read anymore. I was quickly resigned to not being able to finsh the dishes or hang the laundry if I waited too long, though some nights I did both by candlelight if I was in the mood. Other times I could shrug and say, I’ll do it tomorrow. Now it’s time to do something else.

Most nights I go walking with Chrysanthemum at the beginning of twilight. It’s simply gorgeous. The silhouette of the mountains, the perfume of the relieved grasses and trees sighing into the dark, the silvery fountains of the powerful sprinklers on the golf course. If we’re not walking, I usually end up angling my book towards our south-facing windows for the last smudge of light, or join Avery outside on the porch swing, because it is always surprisingly lighter outside.

6. Kids will take all the time you give them. I thought I’d have tons of free time once my computer was off. I knew I wasted time online. I knew it was bizarre (unhealthy, robotic, unnatural) how I’d head straight for the computer upon waking or returning home, during breakfast and lunch, hypnotizing myself out of hearing anything said around me until I’d gotten a hit from the Internet. I was a little worried that I’d be bored. I read several books, books I might not have picked up or stuck through if I’d had easier entertainment options available, but I tried not to become lost in them as a substitute for the Internet, but to instead really experiment with being more present (if you can forgive the phrase).

I trained my kids early to be self-entertaining (actually, I just selectively-neglected them into it). They play together or alone, they had already adjusted to no TV, and they coped with no movies and no computer games easily. How they ever had time for TV before is a mystery. They are busy from waking to sleeping playing, playing, playing. But I found myself suggesting card games (Uno, Skipbo), and reading more books to Callie and Lucy. Avery has her Saxon math to complain about, and Callie is more confident reading, looking to me for confirmation of a word less and less often. Lucy wants to read her books to us at naptime, and she is adorable. We all agree she is adorable, and when she smothers the baby in my tummy with kisses, I’m even more impatient for August.

But I need, and deserve, time of my own. I love to wake up before everyone else and read or write, or water the garden or even weed when it’s still deliciously cool. My kids won’t be harmed if they know there are times I can’t help them right now or even play with them all afternoon, but it was nice to not hear, not once in six weeks, dimly, outside my bubble, “Mommy’s on her computer.” It’s about balance, of course (all these buzzwords; sorry), and about not doing anything simply because it’s habit (unless you’re sure it’s a great habit), but because it’s something you’ve conciously, recently, decided to do.

7. It’s really frustrating to write longhand. It’s freeing to write where no one will ever see it, to record the day without thought of elegant structure or narrative meaning. But after awhile, it’s a little unrewarding to write only for yourself. Perhaps I have lost all my readers (it appears so from the dearth of comments on my last posts), and I don’t plan to do any of the things you’ll learn to do at blogging conferences to attract readers (besides try to write better), but somehow the act of making something public is enough, in itself, to lend significance. Perhaps if the fast had gone on longer, I would’ve learned the opposite.

8. It's just as easy to lose your temper with the lights off. I've written a lot about my anger problem. For the first little bit of the fast, the novelty was enough to temper my impatience. That, and I read the fabulous book Soft-Spoken Parenting: 50 Ways Not to Lose Your Temper With Your Kids. A few days after finishing it, I realized I need to read it again, and again. The point is -- no change of scenery or circumstance lets us escape ourselves, our habits and vices. I noticed when the kids spent an afternoon watching movies this week (I was the first one down with a nasty stomach virus) that they then fought for two hours afterwards. Of course, an occasional movie isn't bad, but something happens in their brains when they're plugged in like that for long periods of time.

I had hoped that the same sort of purging of aggression would happen with me when I unplugged. But somehow little things still bugged me (though I reacted a lot better to interruption). It helped when I was fully rested (almost impossible at this point in pregnancy, no matter how much I sleep, but something I have to work on as we head into the newborn months), and when I took the time to write in my journal, to record the good things that happen.

9. Sometimes it's easier to see in the dark. When you know it's going to get dark soon, or hot soon or cold soon, you think about how you really want to spend your waking hours, your "good" hours, your daylight hours. I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by flickering candlelight and had some inkling of what it would mean to be rationed 1 candle per family per week. I know the majority (?) of the world's population lives daily without electricity (or even worse, plumbing). An electricity fast is a first-world luxury, a probably unthinkably arrogant gimmick if you've ever experienced the real lack. I haven't talked to Tom or the kids about this, but we need to donate our savings from this fast to Heifer International or something, in order to make it good for something real.

Summer is more than half over. Our electricity fast is definitely over, but I plan to do a month-long TV/movie/computer fast at the beginning of every summer. It's so easy to go back to turning on lights, to putting off important things because you know you can extend the day as long as you like. It makes me wonder what else we could give up (could I give up the kinds of foods I like to eat?), how much we could do without, how our lives would be different if we thought in terms of "what don't I need?" instead of "how can I get that one thing I want?" (I should confess here, maybe, that I love the fancy Belgian waffle maker Tom got me for my birthday in June, and that I now want a breadmaker, oh, and a new vacuum.)

This reminded me a little of our first month in Egypt, when Avery was 18 months old. The power went out the first night we were there (and many subsequent nights). Avery and I were cooling off in the tub at an odd jet-lag-induced hour. We were pretty insulated from real life there, in our nice ex-pat neighborhood. But it was still jarring and exotic and reflection-causing. I'm not saying I want to impose bizarre lifestyle restrictions on myself and my family in order to be different or just to switch up our otherwise-mundane lives, but neither do I want to keep doing what we've always done if there's a good reason to experiment deliberately.

Shannon writes at Seagull Fountain, where she's eagerly awaiting the birth of her fourth daughter


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