When survival is just another word for heartbreak I will usually make a soup.
There is the act of nourishing, of course, and the comfort of garlic and butter steaming. There’s the wrist swirl required to brown the leeks, and then the bubbling that requires watching. Does the broccoli separate easily when pinned with a wooden spoon? Time is measured by tenderness.
It has been well over a year since Sandy washed me out of my Red Hook home in Brooklyn. The trips to housing court, always in a stiff skirt safety-pinned at the waist, have ceased. The government no longer offers emergency assistance for the costs accrued. Most of the businesses in my old neighborhood are back, their lights twinkling in the winter night, and the tides steadily rise and fall at the shore where they belong. Public housing residents still fight mold and generators prop up their aging infrastructure, but this is the stuff of periodic update in the paper of record, no more than a news item for most people. Many believe the storm has passed.
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And yet the lived experience lingers on. Neural pathways lit with trauma, some might say. Or, in the words of others, an affliction of self-pity and not-enough-gumption. Sandy is part of my biological narrative now, part of the ratio of heartbeat to breath, or the algorithm of guts and ribs exposed to fear that is expressed as synapse x, read in eye contact or mouth shape. It informs my thoughts when I’m awake, and dreams when asleep. The storm that crippled my city is always with me.
Charleston, West Virginia, where a state of emergency and ban on water use has rendered the city nearly silent for six days, is my hometown and only thirty miles southeast from the farm where I was raised. Social media puts me in the bathrooms of family friends with red and fuzzy tap water, of shared press releases that say little but reveal everything. The back-to-the-land strategy of my parents, with their hand-dug wells, protects them in this instance, but only marginally. Their economic and physical well-being is still tied to the capital city, where my mother washes dogs for a living, and where my kid sister attends high school. In the holler they’re safe from the pollution, but not its polluting effects, which will infect every aspect of life in the region in coming weeks.
The chemical that has poisoned the city’s water is used as a solvent for processing coal, washing the fossil fuel from the rock and debris that can’t be burned to power our hungry continental grid. It spilled from a tank along the Elk River, near the park where I used to eat fudgesicles by the pool in summer, not far from where my grandfather once took me fishing. A licorice smell spilled over the valley, alerting neighbors to the leak, which the Department of Environmental Protection then investigated. It took hours for authorities to ban water use, and in the meantime it crept into the pipes, leaving a slick along the narrow river and a sickly sweet odor in the air. Photos of a lone man with a small boom floated over the Internet, brought to my eyes by coal burning not-so-very-far from where I write this in central Brooklyn.
The tears this morning were a surprise. Curled under down and safe from the storm and toxic tapwater, in a quiet New York City apartment, I buried my head embarrassed for my lover to see me cry. A familiar feeling welled up from guts and spread over limbs, a powerlessness, followed by the heat of shame creeping up chest to neck and ears, leaving only a hot and panting guilt. This is the psychological legacy of environmental injustice, which I used to imagine I had escaped. This is what it means to be part of a beloved impacted community.
Before Sandy, and before the Freedom Industries chemical leak, I was a kid in Appalachia. We held shelter in place drills at my elementary school, which is just uphill from railroad tracks that carry chemicals along the spine of the Kanawha River. Teachers were just being prudent in leading us to the library and explaining how we would cover the windows and seal the doors, just as my mother was being prudent the day she halted our morning commute after the pop station reported a toxic cloud from a plant, unidentified but of concern, drifting overhead. I was just being prudent when I left West Virginia, taking my history of immunity-linked health conundrums with me, and packed off for someplace I thought would be healthier for my mind and body. Charleston’s nickname is Chemical Valley, and our life expectancy rates reflect this, even in the diaspora. Environmental injustice and trauma become part of your veins and cells, enamel and marrow, and it permeates the economies which underpin our existence. I have tried, but you can’t outrun a system.
We are all implicated, no matter what wells we dig, or what cities we may call home. There are those who assign blame to a political party, but the power of extractive energy industries knows no ideology but profit. They have successfully sought and maintained control of land, and of decision-making in West Virginia, for generations. Those who have opposed them have been targets for terrorism at the hands of armed thugs, and the victims of industry operations have all but disappeared into underclass status. Our bodies share certain markers, even generations from now, not unlike the rings on a tree which differ in size and shape according to seasonal shifts. Those in power will point to “lifestyle” choices, ignoring the systemic pernicious influence of history, unwilling to accept that the shape of what is physiologically determines the shape of what will be.
The truth is, we shelter in place in Appalachia or Brooklyn and hope for the best, knowing this is no prince-on-a-white-horse dilemma for some charismatic politician. Today it is a chemical leak, yesterday it was Sandy, tomorrow will bring another crisis brought on by privileging the pursuit of profit above the rights of people. And while it is true there will be no single prince, that doesn’t make it any less a love story.
As we carry loss in our bones, in our blood, and in our breath, we are less individually unique than our stories and politics would have us believe. No matter where you are in America today, if you claim space for survival—land, water, air, food, or culture—and that space can be made into profits for a corporation, you will quickly find yourself immersed in conflict. And, where there is conflict there is trauma. Cornel West has said “Justice is what love looks like in public.” What justice can we claim together against these invisible systems? Can you love yourself enough to desire justice for others? It comes down to that, because the chief points of the stories told about us is that we deserve this. It takes a lot of love and compassion to think otherwise.
There are obvious needs I can point towards. Cries for FEMA to adequately respond so that organizers aren’t exhausted taking care of our people, instead of organizing for accountability, come to mind. There’s the need for regulation, and in this instance in Kanawha Valley, for the implementation of the Chemical Safety Board’s recommendations. There’s the ongoing fact that without federal oversight backed by political firepower nothing will change at the local level. All of these are concerns.
The greater need is the long-term, however, in creating a loving culture where the impact of crisis is visible and healed, rather than shamed and mocked, and where exchange is regulated to mitigate just this kind of psychic and physical harm. We must present those who would prefer to see us washed away as the terrorists and criminals they are, rather than as Chief Executive Officers worthy of taxpayer-subsidized bonuses. It was King who said the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice, and on this midwinter night I wonder, how can you bend towards that justice with me, and make your back part of that arc?