The central heating in my house went on the blink five days ago, at the start of the first cold snap of the season. After having a lot more problems than usual with the my heating system this year, plus two power outages in my neighborhood lasting several days each, I’ve become more aware than usual of my dependence on the ‘mod-cons.’
I called my repairman, John, and he promised to come by the next day. When he arrived and checked out the system, it needed a gas valve, so he said he’d return the next morning after going to the parts store. I considered going to a hotel, but thought, no big deal, anyone can comfortably live three days in a well-insulated house, right? The outdoor temperature was only in the fifties and sixties.
The following morning, I called John early to make sure of the time he was coming, as I knew he was working several other jobs. He said between eleven and twelve. I put on my heavy University of Tennessee hooded sweatshirt and headed to my neighborhood cafe for breakfast and lots of hot, hot coffee. By now, I was feeling chilled to the bone, despite having been warm sleeping under my down comforter. I felt somewhat recovered after eating breakfast snuggled in my sweatshirt.
I went home to wait for John, but he was held up on a large installation. Well, I thought, this is a good excuse to stay home and get ahead on the reading for my night theology class. But, on this third day without warm air consistently blowing on me, all I could think of was how cold I felt. I wanted to read, but a low level yet persistent discomfort possessed my body and mind. I hate daytime naps, but before I knew it, I was cocooned on my sofa under layers of blankets and robes, sound asleep.
When I awoke and learned that John wouldn’t arrive for a couple of hours, I cleaned out the fireplace, gathered sticks from the yard and some logs from the few left in the woodpile, and built a small fire, thinking I should have done this earlier. I could sit by the fire and read, curled up next to my dog, Honey, whose thick coat apparently wasn’t doing it for her either.
Yet I found I couldn’t focus on anything but fire tending: I was completely obsessed with the warmth which the small area around the fireplace exuded. I used the fire tongs to pick up and replace every shred of unburned stick which fell out of the grate; I arranged and rearranged the small logs I’d gathered in order to get the maximum flame; I gazed lovingly at the small pile of embers which were forming in the ashes beneath the fire.
I don’t think of myself as a wimp. I was brought up by a loving but military father. We raised horses, and he considered it an essential part of my upbringing to be out in the freezing dawn, feeding the horses and breaking the ice on their water buckets. I used to particularly love going riding in the snow, despite the fact that the fluffy stuff packed up into stilts under the horses’ feet and you had to keep jumping off to remove them. But this low level of ongoing chill was different, even though it only lasted three days; it seeped into my bones and stultified my mind. It sounds ridiculous I know, but, by late afternoon of this third day, I couldn’t focus on anything except the fact that my veins felt as if they were running with ice water.
I thought of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, of how hard it is to engage in higher-order activities, even like reading a textbook on a cushy couch, wrapped in a blanket, in the light of an electric lamp, when other basic needs aren’t met. I thought of the people who live on the streets of Dallas, and of what it must be like to be cold and hungry twenty-four hours a day, or even twelve, if one was in a shelter at night.
I’ve met some of these people, and they’ve told me about middle-class citizens who drive by in their cars, spit at them, curse at them, and shout at them to “get a job.” I’ve never been inclined to offer them this sort of advice, but, if I had, my experience with my central heating would remind me that it might just possibly be easier said than done when you have no place that is safe, warm and dry to garner your resources.