I live with my family on a sailboat, so when we’re off the dock we’re off-grid: generating our own electricity, relying on a technologically advanced installation of solar panels, charging regulators, batteries and the entire electrical system in the boat just to turn on a light at night—all of which can be temperamental. So it wasn’t that big of a surprise when we arrived home on the last Saturday night before Advent began and noticed that the batteries were low. Could be a low sun day, who knew. We went into power conservation mode hoping for sunnier skies the next day: delaying device charging and reducing the number of cabin lights we turned on.
By the end of a windy, overcast Sunday it was clear that there was a serious problem with the panels, and the batteries were critically low. So we turned off all power in the boat. Daylight slipped out of a steel-gray sky like milk out of a cup knocked over by a toddler. Suddenly, it was dark in the boat. So I pulled out our little oil lamp, struck a match, and set it on the table. And, just as suddenly, everything changed.
I remember camping once at a state park with a lake in southern Illinois, and on a Friday night a half-dozen different groups of people rolled into the campsite, each of them broadcasting their music into the night. So we sat and listened to six different soundtracks instead of the croaking frogs or locusts, and wondered at these strange creatures who carried their music with them in electronic boxes.
What was fascinating about them all was just how neatly each group embodied the stereotypes embedded into their chosen genre of music. This one country, that one house dance music. Hip-hop over there right next to the classic rock crew. My wife and I marveled at the revelers, wondering why they brought their music with them to this quiet spot by the lake.
We wondered if they needed it to feel like themselves. To inhabit the personas they had constructed for themselves. We thought: could they really be that delicate? Could their senses of who they are be so sensitive that they couldn’t even leave their music at home for a single night? And are we that delicate, too?
The oil lamp illuminated a small circle on our fold-down salon table, so the children brought their sketchbooks together in to the circle, and made drawings all night. We didn’t listen to recorded music that evening—with no power and dead devices, we couldn’t. But the children played their own music, improvising on their ukuleles and singing made-up tunes about the ocean and broken solar panels. Even I, tone-impaired Papa, ventured to hum something.
Because I shuffle three different jobs in addition to managing freelance gigs, most of them online, I usually jump on the computer on Sunday evenings to catch up for Monday and tune out to the rest of the family. But I couldn’t that night—the computer was dead and I actually got to spend the night with my family. My eldest son wandered in from the forward cabin, where he’s normally curled up with a book under his own light. And we were all together. All of us—present—in the darkness surrounding that small light.
Our technology is so powerful, so advanced, that in my boat there’s a light in every cabin, above every berth. And that means that every person in the boat can go to their own spot, flip a switch, and live in their own, personally illuminated world. But at the beginning of Advent 2020, that system gave out on us, and so we had to spend our nights around a single, living flame. And that source of light, too dim even to notice if the other lights were on, built around itself a wholly different logic of the evening. There we all were, seeing each other. Not as productive in the world’s eyes, to be sure, but together. Growing, emboldened by the lamplight, in the knowledge of each other. It was a good night, and as we blew out the lamp and turned in for the night, we decided that we would spend our evenings by lamplight for the remainder of Advent.
I think, sometimes, we feel more delicate than we are. That we lean on pleasures and conveniences, on “the usual way” that Things Are Done, because we feel too weak to give them up. But sitting in the lamplight, I found myself wondering: are we too weak to live without all of our technologies? Or have they become the source and cause of our weakness?
Are we too delicate to live without our electric lights, or our recorded music? Or are the lights, the music, these “advanced” ways of doing thing acting like poisons or spells, incantations bent on stopping us, just long enough, from getting a taste of our own strength?
The failure of our electric lights last weekend gave us something like direction: while we’re not going to disentangle ourselves from the solar panels in one fell swoop, it was humbling to find an alternative to silicone wafers and wires, AGM batteries and MPPT solar controllers, in a glass jar with a little olive oil in it and a wire wrapped around a bit of cloth. Astounding, really, to find ourselves drawn closer together by a light that all of our technology would blind us to. It’s easy to forget that technological advances aren’t just all gain—that something, always, is lost, too. It’s a not-so-subtle metaphor for the light of Christ, a light easy to ignore under the hum of electric light, but that more authentically illuminates the darkness when those lights go out. I’m glad to have had it surprise me on a cold, windy night in Advent.
Tom Break lives with his wife and four children on an engineless 28-foot sailboat. The family Vlogs about their adventures on their YouTube Channel, Sailing Blowin’ in the Wind.