“Unpainted Door” by Louise Glück and My State of Texas

Finally, in middle age,
I was tempted to return to childhood.

The house was the same, but
the door was different.
Not red anymore— unpainted wood.
The trees were the same: the oak, the copper beech.
But the people— all the inhabitants of the past—
were gone: lost, dead, moved away.
The children from across the street
old men and women.

The sun was the same, the lawns
parched brown in summer.
But the present was full of strangers.

And in some way it was all exactly right,
exactly as I remembered: the house, the street,
the prosperous village—

Not to be reclaimed or re-entered
but to legitimize
silence and distance,
distance of place, of time,
bewildering accuracy of imagination and dream—

I remember my childhood as a long wish to be elsewhere.
This is the house; this must be
the childhood I had in mind.

For a large portion of the week, my family and friends were without power. Now the question of potable water has surfaced, a result of the water main breaks and failures of the surrounding treatment plants.

It is in times like these, such a calamity that affects rich and poor alike (though not equally in weight), in which I begin to look back on growing up in Texas.

Like Glück, most of my returns to and from my hometown in Houston have proven themselves murderously similar. The things that have changed have turned out to be continuations of making things the same. Each stop, beginning in Conroe and proceeding South through the metroplex, has a Waffle House advertised on the exit. Looking on I-45 on either side, one finds car dealerships of all the usual names, Best Buys (living on borrowed time), Home Depots, Applebees, chain Tex-Mex restaurants that have the same color scheme and have specials on fajitas for two. The spaces we Texans have interacted in are so similar, it calls to mind the squareness of our state in length and width: 801 miles by 773 miles respectively.

At some point, people in Texas came to understand that efficiency was more important than originality. We can all talk about the rugged individuality that the name of Texas provides, as far out as Great Britain, a country for whom the concept of wide open spaces is always alluring, but truth be told the state of Texas has had no regard for the space it takes up for a long long time. For example, the city of Houston has exploded in population, and has been a growing city for so long that part of the blame for such bad flooding from Hurricane Harvey came from the sheer amount of cement laid down since tropical storm Allison two decades ago. With little regard for a functioning and livable city, the traffic and congestion in Houston feels as though it is crumbling from within. The “gumbo” of the clay underneath can swell in wet times so badly that there is not one family down South who has not had foundation troubles. But this reality evades any and all people “in charge” it seems. The city still grows. Every time I visit, I still describe it as “an armpit”.

My parents – who have lived in my hometown for all of their married lives – were without power the longest out of everyone I knew, in the old part. The newer parts, on the outskirts, given over to these fast food establishments and 24-Hour Fitness, had power on hand. Texas sees no qualms about giving up on places that do not pay up. A gross state product of over a trillion dollars, yet Ted Cruz flees for warmer water (and whiter sand). I thought back to my time living in that town, and I came to realize that, sure, to some extent it was a bubble. But the bubble had little to do with geographic space and more to do with a kind of safe misery. These suburban places manufacture itself, repeatedly. It is so disinterested in change that it would rather kill people than create newness. Hence the diatribe from Governor Greg Abbott, literally during the winter storm, before the icicles had finished falling, complaining about windmills as the problem in this crisis. Texas was built on oil, therefore we should pursue non-renewable resources to the end of all things. Rather than own up to responsibility, rhetoric took over. Regardless of whether windmills exist in colder places (like Antarctica, which they do), his take was to reject reality.

Denial. Glück’s final stanza clings to an idyllic past we have to remember, else we acknowledge (as we really should), that our childhoods were tedious and boring. They were dull, prone to Frito pie and football, cancers crawling near Texas City, and dead seaweed clogging the shores. When we escaped, it was to the Sonic Drive-In. The lukewarm verisimilitude of Texas was so claustrophobic, a paradox when you consider how big our skies are, how wide the plains extend. Big and terrible storms have always been around, a when and not an if. I think of Didion’s writing on fires and California and chuckle here. It is ironic that red and blue states both are victims of such ceaseless travesty. The problems transcend politics, and are therefore more in need of action. Yet our responses to it are simply representations, holding out against the darkest point to be made, which is that the only thing left for Texas is acquiescing to its wildness in the interest of making money.

What is the point of all these ideas of individualism when you cannot get fresh water, when you do not have power? Our great state of Texas once again relied on FEMA to provide fresh water. We’re less a door losing paint than we are a revolving one, or (perhaps more in keeping with our Romantic history) one of those saloons with the swinging ones.

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