How I Learned to Live in the Dark

For thirteen years, my family had the privilege of living in an antebellum carriage house on the 10 acre campus of a large suburban Philadelphia parish. The carriage house sat adjacent to a spacious old fieldstone home that the parish purchased in the late 1940’s to serve as a parish house. The house itself was begun in the late 1600’s and grew through the decades to be mansion-sized. As far as we could determine, the carriage house was added to the property just before the outbreak of the Civil War and remained unchanged until the church decided to refit the building as a residence and use it as a Rectory.

The building’s original use as stable, carriage storage, and utility building (with a small apartment on the second floor for servants’ quarters) determined the layout of the interior, and while no self-respecting architect would have designed the lower floor for human habitation in the way it was laid out, it nonetheless provided a fascinating labyrinth of spaces. The largest of those spaces was an “L” shaped space originally designed to hold at least four carriages/buckboards/sleighs that we used as a combination living room and dining room. The living room portion was 40 feet by 60 feet with the adjacent dining space an additional 20 feet by 20 feet.

The first difficulty we encountered upon moving in was how to furnish so large a space without the necessity of having to shout over vast distances to the person sitting nearest you. In the thirteen years we lived in that house the room never looked fully furnished despite the presence of an entire furniture store’s worth of chairs, sofas, end and coffee tables.

The second problem was light. Since barns don’t require a great deal of illumination, the original stone walls had only a handful of very small window spaces, none of which benefited from a southern exposure. The answer that the folks who refit the building came up with was the installation of a dozen “high hat” recessed lighting fixtures in the ceiling. When we first moved into the house, we found that they provided sufficient light to ward off the darkness. However, within three months of moving in, one of the floodlights in a ceiling light blew out, and I headed to the local hardware store for a replacement. Better buy two or three, I thought, since it’s bound to happen again. I took the old bulb with me since it was a size and sported a bayonet mount I hadn’t seen before and wanted to be able to match it. The pleasant hardware-store-guy asked if he could help me find something as soon as I walked in the door. I showed him the bulb. “Right this way,” he said and led me through all the electrical stuff to a shelf that should have been marked “Breathtakingly Expensive Light Bulbs,” placed a bulb in a corrugated paper sleeve in my hand and said, “$18.95.”

$18.95? Seriously? For a light bulb? “Don’t see many of these around,” he said, no doubt feeling some pride that their inventory was so comprehensive that it even included Bulbs Designed for Royal Estates. I decided one bulb was plenty, paid for it at the register (“6% sales tax? Really? Aren’t light bulbs considered a non-taxable necessity?”), and carried the item home as gently as if it contained nitroglycerin.

The sting of the expense faded with the passage of time, but months later, when another bulb blew out, I was thrown into internal conflict. On average, I rarely had more than three or four dollars in my pocket (my wife and I decided to have children rather than money). The acquisition of another Bulb of the Rich and Famous would consume two to three weeks of discretionary spending money.

Necessity being the mother of invention, I chanced upon another, far more economical, solution: simply unscrew the bulb in the recessed light in the furthest corner of the room (the one nearest the standing lamp beside the westernmost sofa) and use it to replace the bulb in the center of the room that had just blown. Voila! A minimal loss of light barely noticeable and it didn’t cost a dime!

Two months later another bulb blew and, ever resourceful, I simply switched the bulb out with another from an opposite corner. Not much light lost, money in my pocket.

By the time the third and fourth lights went out, I had a significant problem: not only was it getting darker in the house (the onset of winter didn’t help), but now it was financially impossible to replace the burned out bulbs. What would have been a $20 hit a few months before was now a $80 impossibility. Within nine months only two of the original twelve bulbs were still casting light and the only illumination in the house was from a handful of table and standing lamps placed around the perimeter of the room.

I’m told that if you drop a frog in a pan of boiling water it will hop right out, but that if you place a frog in a pan of tepid water and turn on the heat, it won’t sense the gradual change in the water temperature and will stay in the pan until it boils. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to test such a hypothesis, but I found that my response to blown bulbs so many years ago was remarkably frog-like. Little by little, darkness became normal and the diminished energy and increased irritability that came with it seemed ordinary.

Since that time I have realized that the events and experiences that are my greatest undoing are not the dramatic, cataclysmic moments in personal, national or world history. Rather, they are the barely imperceptible shifts that strive to be overlooked or excused as insignificant. As I grow older, I have come to believe that the most dangerous words are not the ones followed by exclamation points (“Fire!” “Earthquake!” “Terror!”), but the seductive suggestions of complacency that usually begin, “Hey – it’s only ______________ (fill in the blank).”

Whenever I’m tempted to let it slide, a voice inside whispers, “Rib-it.”