On Feb. 3, 2011, New Mexico ran out of gas.
This was the last thing I would have imagined, but it happened like this:
In the morning I went to the bank for an ordinary errand. Within a minute I was walking out with my cell phone pressed to my ear, urgently calling my husband wondering where the nearest shelter was. Things went from upright to upside down in less than 30 seconds. That's all it took. The sky was still blue. There was no notice. No voice from above. It just flipped. And a state of emergency was declared.
When I stepped up to the teller stand, I noticed that the cashiers were all wearing gloves.
"Chilly?" I asked, making what I thought was idle conversation. I had prejudged the situation. There is a drive-by service window behind them and we were in the middle of a cold snap that rivaled some of my coldest moments in Montana. I thought perhaps it was leaking air.
"Didn't you hear?" the young woman said, rubbing her hands together. "New Mexico is without natural gas."
That's when I called my husband. I don't know when you'll actually read this, but I am writing this as he's running around looking for wood and electric heaters so our pipes don't freeze. As soon as I'm done writing, I'll be turning the faucets on for a slow drip through the next few days.
Ironically, even though New Mexico is one of the states with the biggest reserves of this precious commodity, the forces in command somehow managed to "miscalculate" what it needed and Texas had massive power outages that stopped the flow altogether. Don't ask me how Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire all manage to get it right the way they've been blasted this year and a state with only 2 million people, many of whom have wood stoves (particularly in the outlying areas), couldn't anticipate what a massive cold front would require. Not to mention provide it.
Which brings me to the point I have been debating with my husband and the rest of my family for the last two years: the need to take care of ourselves. This is not emotional frenzy or conspiracy fright. This is not just about going "green" or being close to the earth, although both of those are good. This is about the way we see ourselves not just the way we manage resources. It is about the way we have become dependent, entitled and deluded.
This psychological state is not only manifest in our management of crucial resources, but throughout our personal relationships, our politics and our economy. What we expect -- that someone (or some entity) will guarantee our security, our happiness or our well being -- is not only unrealistic. It's unrealizable.
"It happens just like this!" I told him animatedly, trying to drive home the point. "The system goes from on to off in a second." He did not appear moved.
I tried to explain it to other family members. They responded with the same ennui. "Oh, you're over-reacting. They'll fix it." So, I replied, "It's not the fixin' I'm worried about. It's the 'they.'"
I am the only one in my family who has had this need to be more independent, this desire to homestead since my grandfather had a chicken farm in the early 1920s.
For me a homestead is not a commercial venture. It's a personal one. It means having a few good hens, a couple of sheep or goats, a diversified garden, canning knowledge and supplies, a good well, some electric generating equipment (wind, solar), passive solar windows, and a really good wood stove that is capable of heating a large area. It means emotional and physical self-reliance. Mind you, I'm fully cognizant of the fact that being self-reliant doesn't preclude some other disaster befalling us or that mortality is the inevitable conclusion of the whole ride.
Even knowing that, I still want to be able to provide for myself in some way. Towards this end, I've been lobbying to buy a small farm (a few acres) in the Hudson Valley of New York.
In the process, I've been called a few names: hysterical, glum, grumpy, doomy and gloomy. Also, my husband likes "chicken little."
I like to think of myself more like the little pig with the brick house. I like brick houses. I don't feel hysterical or gloomy. I don't think the sky is falling. I do feel the need to prepare and be smart. And I'm a homebody who's always loved animals and gardening anyway. For me, it would be the ideal lifestyle.
What's happening here right now is the result of being totally unprepared and relying on "them" -- either the government, the utilities or good luck -- to take care of things: The gas is off, the temperature is dropping every hour in the house, the water is dripping in the kitchen and bath, and I had to double check my homeowner's policy to make sure we were covered in the event of a burst pipe. I have a $20 electric heater coughing right next to me. This is not smart at all.
So, as I see it, it's time to start buying the bricks, no matter what people think or what names they call me.
Besides, there's more to it, as I said. It's not just about the garden, though it is a part of it. It's not just about the hens or the water, though they count, too. It's about a state of mind I want to cultivate in myself.
There was a man on the news tonight. He lived in one of the southern towns of New Mexico in an old trailer home. He had no fireplace, no wood stove, and only 30 amp service. He was cold and scared. You could see it in his face. I don't blame him. I would've been scared in his place, too.
He spoke to the camera, pleading. To whom, I'm not sure. But he said, "What am I supposed to do? There's no heat. There's nothin'! What am I supposed to do?"
Why are we asking other people, especially corporate or governmental entities what we're supposed to do? What are we thinking? What was I thinking? Why didn't I spend the money to put in the wood stove when I had the time?
Because I, like that cold, sorry man on television, thought everything would just be fine if I let the big boys do their jobs. This is not an excuse to blame the poor for their poverty or to give up trying to provide for others; but even when we do make provisions for the poor, the system itself doesn't work the way we'd like to think it does. It never has. Not even in highly evolved, socialist countries. When there is a crisis and the government can no longer provide, it will still come back to us as individuals, to what we have in our hands, our root cellars, and our minds. In point of fact, I have more than a few friends and acquaintances whose incomes technically qualify them as below poverty level, but are far more capable of dealing with gas-outs, blackouts, or food runs than I've been. They have small gardens, generators, hand-made windmills. They know how to fix almost anything. They know how to build. Their poverty has not prevented their ingenuity or readiness. If anything it's made them more savvy then most of my more comfortable middle-class colleagues.
The upshot: My (and my family's) well-being is my job. It's not up to the government to till my garden or bring the food to my door. It's not up to Monsanto to plant my garden. It's up to me. Whether that is to my liking or not. Whether that is convenient or not. Whether that is politically correct or not. That is simply the way it is.
This is not about pointless, media-induced fear. This is about plain, ol' fashioned common sense. The kind of common sense that makes you run indoors when there's a flash thunderstorm and a torrential downpour. The kind of common sense that makes you look both ways before you cross a busy intersection. The kind of common sense that keeps you warm when other people are cold and pleading "What am I supposed to do?" This is not fear. This is smart.
But I had to learn a lesson. Disasters are a part of life. They happen without warning. The Lesson? Fear is useless. Preparation is not.
And there was no better way to learn it than by living in New Mexico where it's supposed to be warm and sunny almost all the time and finding yourself in sub-zero temperatures without heat. Who's problem is that? It ain't the government's, I can tell you that. I'm here in the cold and they're in the west wing.