The other night, while at a barn sale/estate sale of old things left behind by examples of Western Civilization’s last purely self-contained generation, the lights went out. An electrical substation blew a mile or so away, and right there in the middle of the bidding on a box of blue and white English-made transfer-ware darkness descended.
There were tables of antiques spread out all around the huge barn. There were over a hundred people in the building. There was no theft, mobbing, looting, or panic-stricken stampeding. Everyone there—far-flung European descendants to the last of us—stood there for a moment, then took our cell phones or iPhones and used the screens for light. Old ladies were helped to seats along the wall, my own children’s welfare was asked about by more than one person there, and . . . when the lights didn’t come back on . . . we all lined up by the temporary barn checkout and waited to see how the staff would deal with their crashed computer info regarding what we had bid on, won, and not yet paid for. We waited in an ersatz line and chatted. No one made a break for it. No one grabbed anyone else’s things. People laughed a little about the weirdness, but it was good-natured and serene.
We waited, some people helped the staff look for flashlights (there weren’t any to be found), others went to help get the ancient barn generator working (it didn’t work, ultimately), and we waited. No one complained, no one made the staff feel bad, no one hurt anyone, no one inappropriately groped anyone under cover of the darkness, no one walked around like a fool and hurt him- or herself. No, we all just stayed put and waited politely, knowing that it was the best thing we could do, given the circumstances.
In the end, the manager had to close up early and let everyone go home. The generator never came on, the computers never came on, the lights never came on, and the cash register never came on. By the lights of our cell phone screens, we were told that we should gather the things we had won and take them home—our accounts unpaid. We were asked to call in the morning and make arrangements to pay. And everyone smiled, the old ladies were helped out (why does everything nice that we do sound corny these days?), and we made our way from the dark building to the dark gravel side-of-the-old-barn parking lot—in the pouring windy rain. Goodbyes and “drive safe” wishes echoed across the blackness, car headlights came on and pierced the needles of rain, and we all left.
There was no sense of danger, dread, fear, or larceny — ever. There was no momentary panic to overcome, no need to size up the situation defensively — there was only us, being us, taking care and acting like we always act: with socially aware, intelligent, considerate behavior toward each other. Sure, some of us knew each other—a little—from seeing each other around other barn sales, but . . . none of the people there were friends in the classic sense. We all were strangers at an auction.
But these days, the term stranger might have to be re-thought. Because we might not have been friends with each other, but we shared something that made us more than strangers. It made an old building full of people who didn’t know each other’s names into a cohesive group that would not have occurred with any other mixed grouping. We were all one folk, with instinctual folkways that created unspoken agreements as to social ethics, ways of behavior, modes of expression, and expectations of each other.
I don’t know if I was the only person there who truly appreciated all of this and who felt a little sad that I had to consciously notice it at all (instead of just accepting it like the air I breathe or the ground under my feet: a constant unchanging fact) . . . but, I did appreciate it, and I did notice it. It doesn’t happen much these days, cohesive group behavior that reflects our values, because we as a cohesive folk don’t get to align ourselves with just ourselves very often. There is almost always somebody from a different culture, a different place, a different orientation around . . . almost always that friction, that sense of “other,” that feeling of not being quite at home anymore wherever we go. It almost seems as if this is how life is supposed to be, this constant rubbing of shoulders with differences, with distinctions, with discordantness . . . but, the truth of it is — it isn’t how life is supposed to be. Not at all.
Life is, perhaps, never going to be easy and smooth . . . but life isn’t supposed to be a forever jarring clash of ourselves against stranger selves without respite, without resolve, without lessening. No one should have to be without a place to call home, where strangers may not enter. No one should have to constantly adjust to different ways and different views and different tolerances and different ethics without end. No one should have to always be in the position to have to put up with strangers dictating the ways that life—in all aspects—is going to be. That’s just not right. Not for anyone—and certainly not for me and my folk.
My folk are not strangers to me. I may not know their names, or what part of Europe their family last hailed from, but they are not strange to me. I know what to expect from my folk. I know how they will behave, how they think, what instinctive mannerisms they have, what innate codes of ethics and sensibilities they possess, and I know how they look at the world. They look at it from the same eyes as I do. And they behave like I do. And they act like I do. (Even when I come across folk who follow paths that are diametrically opposed to the path I follow, we know each other’s tolerances, each other’s strong points, each other’s passions and deeply-held need to correct what we consider are the wrongs of the world, for we are not strangers even if we are enemies.)
I called at 9 am the next morning to pay my bill – the line was already busy. I called back at 10. Still busy. I got through eventually, and paid what I owed. The clerk sounded happy but busy. Another call came through while I was winding up my business. Everyone was paying up, just like I knew they would, because they are my people, and I knew they’d act like I did, just like I knew we would all wait patiently and safely when the lights went out. We were all in it together, there in the rainy darkness, not friends, but not complete strangers either.
It led me to do a lot of musing about things like hope and unity and who we are and what we are going to be . . . and it made me reflect that we are—in the face of what needs doing—a resourceful, responsible, and respectful bunch of folk; we can be relied on to do our best and to try our hardest to make things work smoothly, if not well. We are our own best friends and our own downfall—we are nice, and we are decent, and we are given to thinking that everyone is like that. Used to be, everyone we’d run into would be like that—give or take a few bad seeds.
So perhaps it’s for the best that everyone we run into now is not like that. Perhaps we need to have our shoulders rubbed a little raw, our shins kicked a little, and our belief in the universal good dashed a bit. Not enough to kill us—but enough to make us value the times when we, as a group, all act like we do. Enough to make us want to not lose that common ground we share among ourselves so much, to not lose our sense of belonging, of knowing, of security of manner and behavior and ethic. Enough to make us realize what we could lose if we completely lose ourselves.