We filled our tubs with water, so we can wash our hands and flush toilets. Our 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son have lost interest in playing in the snow, and the novelty of sheet tents is fading fast. We are fortunate that our power has been on and off, but on at night to keep us warm. So many others across Texas can’t say the same.
Like the first moments of jumping on a bike after years of not riding, my wife and I are starting to get the hang of this, even though we never expected to need this muscle memory in the United States. As Peace Corps volunteers in Armenia, we’ve made it through rough winters, filling bathtubs when there’s water, hanging rugs over doorways and consolidating living space into one room, huddling around wood stoves or trying not to inhale fumes from gas heaters. As humanitarian aid workers in South Sudan, we’ve arranged our lives according to the strict dictates of generators and spent plenty of nights sleeping in tents. We’ve washed our clothes by hand and bathed by buckets. We just never thought that we’d use these skills while living in rural Texas.
Now, we’re sitting in the cold with no water, disoriented and exhausted. There is a peculiar dissonance when all these problems come home, wave after wave since March of last year.
The pandemic came, and through a toxic cocktail of incompetence and indifference, our government failed. Hundreds of thousands of us died. Families have survived through previously unfathomable losses and unimaginable changes to our day to day lives. Covid-19 has been more than enough.
Then the 2020 election aftermath upended our sense of identity, who we are and what we stand for as Americans. It seems irresponsible now, but I had never questioned whether it was possible in my country to repeat an obvious lie enough times to enough people that it becomes their truth. A friend told me that they were in an airport on January 6th and came to a bar packed with people watching a lone television. She caught a glimpse of the crowds attacking the capital and asked everyone, “Where is that happening? What country is that?” The same questions keep running through my head unanswered.
Now us proud Texans, the ones who haven’t frozen to death, are humbled. In 2021, for days now, we have lacked the fundamental services of the 20th century. Right now, family, friends, and colleagues have busted water pipes, are sheltering in their cars for warmth, and can’t get to safety because the roads are frozen. We’re boiling water and breaking ice for our animals. Things are bad, and they’re likely much worse than we know. I don’t want to reckon with the stories that will inevitably emerge in the coming days and weeks, particularly for our elderly and most vulnerable communities.
We’re still stumbling through the pandemic, trying to navigate a post-insurrection reality, and now this collapse of basic services feels like a knock-out punch. We’re left dazed and staggering, trying to find our footing.
Our comfortable illusions have been taken away. The pursuit of happiness is not on some unswerving path forward. Somewhere along the way, things have swerved. Like the cars and trucks sliding down the interstate on ice, problems are crashing together and piling up.
Life without water and electricity gets simple. For the past few days, I haven’t spent much time pondering the things that divide us. It’s hard to hate your neighbor when he’s sharing water with you. Who can indulge social media debates when it’s so cold you can’t feel your fingers?
The roads are starting to thaw, so the neighbors are headed to church to serve hot meals. The store shelves are bare, no meat, no bread, no water. I’m focused on necessities. We all need enough to eat, heat when it’s cold, and running water. It’s more than we have now, and it’s a place to start.
Jerry Kenney lives outside Hudson, Texas, in Angelina County, in Deep East Texas. Born and raised in East Texas, Kenney recently returned and does nonprofit and philanthropic work in education and economic opportunity.