Truth and Trauma in Texas

I seem to be on a 2-3 year schedule of writing blogs for this site, so it seems about time for a new one. It’s long, but I can’t help myself–there’s some stuff on my mind. If you want to read a bit more about why I’m writing now, check out the brief “About” section here on Veninga’s Smuler. XO

“Do his lips look blue to you?” my partner, Jack, asked me as our two-and-a-half-year-old toddler reached for a package of crayons. My adrenaline spiked as I moved the flashlight closer to Elliott and we both leaned in to take a better look. “No, I don’t think so. It’s just the lighting,” I responded. We looked at each other with momentary relief and I handed Elliott another sheet of paper as I googled “hypothermia” on my phone—just to be sure. He was fine, but it turns out that we were right to be concerned; tragically, multiple people died of hypothermia in Texas last week, including an 11-year-old boy.

Cemetery of used hand, toe, and foot warmers

When we were inspecting Elliott’s lips, we were about 36 hours into a blackout at our home in Austin, Texas, and at that point, we had no idea when we might get our electricity back. With no source of heat, the inside temperature in our house had dropped into the 40s amidst record-low temperatures for Texas (outside temps hovered around 9-10 degrees F for hours). We put blankets over the windows, dressed Elliott in three layers of clothes, put quilts around our water turtle’s aquarium, and nestled with our dogs to keep them warm. I was utterly grateful for the hand and foot warmers that I’d recently bought for what was supposed to be a cold marathon two Saturdays ago.

We used precious battery power on our phones to watch press conferences with city officials and representatives from the energy companies. We were grateful for the essential workers trying to fix the mess. But no one could tell us when our power might be restored. I know that others around the country dealt with weather challenges this past week, including my family and friends in the Pacific Northwest. I also know that people thrive in very, very cold places and live through very extreme weather. But Texas and Texans are not equipped for this extremity, and for many here it really did become a situation of survival.

In the face of uncertainty, my partner and I faced those critical decisions—the kinds that disasters often call for—that all involved risk. Should we accept a friend’s generous invitation for her to try to pick us up in her four-wheel drive vehicle and take us to her house an hour away? If we did, we’d have heat. But what if we get stranded with a toddler in tow, or my friend gets stranded alone? On the other hand, what if we stay and don’t have heat or water for another three or four days?  Should we try to leave for my mother’s house only 13 minutes away, where she has intermittent blackouts with short periods of electricity? But how will my 2005 Mini Cooper possibly travel the icy roads, and what if the power goes off at her house entirely? We finally decided that we would stick with the risks that we knew rather than the ones we didn’t, and just stayed put.

Mrs. Duck’s Lovely Day by Vivienne Blake

It turns out that we were relatively lucky—our power came back on 48 hours after it had gone off, and we had water all week. And still, those 48 hours and a few that followed, were scary. I love adventure and have certainly chosen the riskier option more than a few times during my solo travels and justice work at home and abroad (and probably will again one day). But with my young child’s wellbeing on the line right in our own home, this felt different. Jack and I took turns doing all the usual toddler activities with him (reading, coloring, playdoh, repeat), and Elliott and I made an outpost “nook” in the closet of his room where we could snuggle, read, and keep warm. We found a box of my old children’s books and read the slim Mrs. Duck’s Lovely Day again and again (which, with a bit of translation for gender inclusivity, is not a bad read).   

But if we were lucky, so many more, including our family and friends were not. Some struggled without heat for days after we warmed back up. Even after electricity has returned for most Austinites, water is still unavailable for many and a boil-water order remains in effect for some parts of the city. Food shortages have resulted from stores closing or not receiving deliveries. Reports are starting to come in about how many deaths resulted from this storm, but the grim reality is that we won’t know that number for a while. And though this crisis almost caused me to forget, we are still in a global pandemic.  

On Thursday, the day after the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) gods allowed our power to come back on, I ventured out on foot in search of some milk for Elliott. I was surprised to find that our nearby Target was open. I trudged in, unshowered for days, wearing my partner’s enormous ski jacket and a backpack for transporting whatever I could find.

I was taken aback by my own feelings as I walked into Target. Box-store lights blazing, people casually looking at clothes, the corporate capitalist wheels spinning—it all felt surreal after holing up in our living room all week trying to meet our basic needs and keep our family safe. As I stood there looking at the barren shelves, I tried to resist any comparison to the experiences of deep suffering that I study in my research on trauma as a theologian and scholar of religion. But I couldn’t and still can’t let the thought go: we Texans have experienced collective and individual trauma this past week.

Empty shelves at Target

Ignoring the reality or the effects of trauma, as psychologists and so many survivors have long told us, doesn’t actually help anyone, and can instead harm survivors and the larger collective. As a white, middle-class woman with a home and a deep network of support, I do not intend to suggest that I somehow know what it feels like to be in a constant state of survival, under long-term immanent threat, or to have personally experienced traumatic violence that cannot be integrated into my understanding of the world. At the same time, I do believe it is possible to use the language of trauma to describe an experience and also place that experience in perspective. Doing the latter can help to ward off slipping into harmful appropriation of others’ deep suffering or exercising hollow empathy that falsely claims to know the pain of another.

My Grandmother’s Hands by
Resmaa Menakem (2017)

The word “trauma” was originally associated with a physical wound caused by an external source, a kind of violent attack upon a vulnerable body. We know now that trauma is not just a physical phenomenon; it can and does affect our emotional, rational, and spiritual selves. The old model of the human being as a composite of disparate, separate parts, furthermore, is inaccurate and has itself blinded us from the real ways that trauma persists through generations, especially through the body. (I’m learning more and more about this lately, especially in relationship to whiteness and racism, as I am reading My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem.) An understanding of trauma as an external force can also be problematic as it can limit us from considering the systems that enable and foster trauma, particularly among those who have historically been marginalized or have been made invisible altogether.  

Where Is God? by Jon Sobrino

Indeed the wounds—the trauma—in my home state this week reveal larger systems, values, and attitudes at play before the temperature even began to drop last weekend. In his book, Where Is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope, Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino describes the devastating 2001 earthquake in El Salvador and other similar disasters as “bearers of truth,” and “x-rays” of a society, which bring to light inequities and injustices that were present long before these particular events ever occurred.

In the last year, the Covid-19 pandemic has of course been such an x-ray, revealing with bright, clear light, the undeniable fact that just about all of our institutions and systems rely upon the vicious lie that some lives matter more than others. We needn’t look further than the statistics on how the pandemic has disproportionately affected black and brown people, not only in terms of contracting and dying from the disease, but now also in terms of getting a vaccine.

The x-ray taken while over 4 million Texans huddled in the dark this past week has reminded us of truths that aren’t new, but have appear in new forms. They will continue to reveal themselves in every crisis and every disaster until we can learn to do things differently and to realize the ways in which our priorities are malformed under the influence of white, hetero-normative, patriarchal hyper-capitalism. We should have learned these lessons one year into a global pandemic (if not way sooner), but here we are again. So, here are just a few of the obvious truths that I can think of. There are many more, but this is a start:

The most vulnerable among us are the those most susceptible to trauma. Wounding can and does happen to anyone (my own post-crisis collapse these past days is a case in point). But it is also true that disaster disproportionately affects those who have fewer resources to prepare, respond, and recover. The hardest hit this week are those without home, are housing insecure, or have limited access to stable electricity or clean water to begin with. Every single time there is a “natural” disaster—a fire, an earthquake, a hurricane, a storm, not to mention a pandemic—those who have the fewest resources suffer the most. Shouldn’t we be asking why particular individuals and communities are vulnerable to begin with? We know that racist economic, housing, and health care policies have over time mean that people of color disproportionately experience these realities. But we have to keep asking the questions, and then, act as if the answers actually matter to us.

Climate change is already happening and horrible things will keep happening to us unless we make some really radical changes. Now. While it may not be clear that climate change was “directly” responsible for this particular “extreme weather event,” we know that human-induced climate change has caused unprecedented heat waves, floods, and droughts in recent decades. The first full summer after I moved back to Texas after living in California, we had over 100 days above 100 degrees F. Summers were hot growing up in Central Texas in the 1980s and 90s, but they weren’t like that. And the massive and devastating fires in California and the Western U.S. in recent years can be linked to drought conditions and unseasonably warm temperatures.

As is old news now, my Republican Governor, Greg Abbott, at first blamed this week’s blackouts on frozen wind turbines, though they only comprised a fraction of the energy that Texas had planned to use this winter, and accounted for a small percentage of the power loss. The state typically relies on gas, coal, and nuclear energy for the majority of its winter energy, and none of these sources provided enough resources to keep us warm. And nevermind that wind turbines can operate smoothly in cold climates. I’ve seen them.

Inter-dependence, not independence, is the only way to ensure that this kind of trauma does not happen again. I’m a fifth-generation Texan and I love my state. But the go-it-alone mindset of the Lone Star State is part of what went wrong this past week, as of course it has been for the United States especially under the Trump regime. As I learned last week, our main electric grid basically operates separately from the rest of the country and thus has no oversight from the federal entities.

Elliott and me reading in our closet nook while Senator Cruz was flying to Cancun

On Wednesday, when millions of Texans were shut out, former governor Rick Perry said that “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” I need not wonder if Governor Perry sat in the cold for three days to be able to make that statement. We now know Senator Ted Cruz certainly did not; he was on his way to vacation in Cancun when I was sitting in a closet with Elliott reading Mrs. Duck’s Lovely Day and patients were being evacuated from Austin’s St. David’s Hospital because they lost water and heat. What we need are systems of mutuality, solidarity, and collaboration locally and nationally–and we need to reject those which operate on isolation and corporate greed. But again, I am stating the obvious.

Austin Mutual Aid exchange center in downtown Austin

The real success in this story is the ways in which neighborhoods came together to care for their own needs in the height of crisis. I was absolutely amazed by the creativity, compassion, and generosity extended between neighbors over the course of this week. The Buy Nothing Facebook group in my neighborhood transformed into a vibrant source of mutual aid, starting with the sharing of vital information and developing into a way for individuals and families to voice needs and offer the resources that they could. Diapers, food, tools for turning water meters off, breastmilk, and so much more were offered and received, and others with reliable transportation enabled the sharing of resources. Austin Mutual Aid is doing the incredible and complex work of getting resources to the people who need it most.  If our state officials refused the need for, and value of, inter-dependence, the hyper-local has not.

Power is now restored to the majority of Texans and water is slowly starting to drip through faucets again. I’m utterly grateful to have power and running water, and I give thanks for the support of friends and for the tirelessness of all those essential workers who got us back to this place.

The snow has melted, and today the high is 70 degrees (it’s Texas after all). Yesterday I took down the blankets from the windows, hung up my pug’s winter jacket, and put all of our well-worn layers of clothes in piles to be washed (not now, though). It’s easy to collectively forget an experience that no one wants to remember. But the truths revealed by the storms in Texas remain, even when the power is restored and we are back to wearing shorts. We cannot let this happen again.

My street on Tuesday, February 16 (left) and on Sunday, February 21 (right)