By Elizabeth White-Olsen, Executive Director of Writespace
One of the aspects of working for Writespace I love most is getting to see people’s beauty, over and over. For instance, the beauty of a man named David C. Lowy, who joined the Processing Harvey through Writing workshop I led at Writespace in September. David wrote about sloshing through two feet of water and watching family pictures float by as the Meyerland home he had lived in for fifty-five years filled with water. His son Orion, luckily, had a high bed. Orion was perched on it, looking up to his dad, wondering what they should do. David’s wife, Jane, was looking to him, too.
As he read to us about that moment, David’s voice got high, as if it were being twisted, and then he would stop. Take a deep breath. Clear his throat. And start again. He could have just skipped ahead to an easier part, but he didn’t give up.
After five tries, David was able to finish the entire sentence: “Here I was again in the position of protector of my wife and my son.” The word “protector” had been hard to say, because he always protected his family, but in this case, he wasn’t sure what to do. To my mind, David got to the real danger of Harvey. Yes, that its winds and floods destroyed homes, but also that it ravaged our even deeper abodes—our identities and our relationships.
As David read, Writespace was silent. The moment felt stretched thin, as if it to let in the holy. As we listened, silently inspired by David’s courage and love for his family, I thought of the time a couple years ago David came to support his wife at a Writespace Open Mic. Jane had just published her second book. That night, the two of them stood side-by-side, her opened book before them, and each read the lines of two different characters. David was so excited to help share his wife’s story, he seemed to dance before the microphone. His pride in her work was like a song that filled the room. They’re such good people, I thought as David read his own words. They should not have had to go through Harvey.
A few weeks after our workshop, David brought Orion and Jane to Writespace’s Healing from Harvey Reading and Open Mic. They looked up at him as he read, as they had the day of the flood. He was their brave father and husband, as he had been when he led them through the water to a neighbor’s. This time, David read all the way through without hesitating. I was proud of him. Awed by him. David sets a great example for what a writer can be: someone who perseveres, despite difficulty, to speak the truth.
After the reading, David and I struck up a correspondence. David shared that his parents had lived in his home before him, and he also wrote:
David hadn’t mentioned his mother before, or her autobiography. This seemed to come out of left field, but then, in life and in art, sometimes left field brings the best gifts. In a later email, David shared more about his family:
I took a deep breath and sat back to try to take this in: David had a half brother who, when barely a toddler, had either directly or indirectly been killed by Nazis.
We like to catalogue the Holocaust as history, but it is not. David’s half brother could be alive with us today, had the evil that can overtake humans not interfered. Knowing David’s family history, I wondered if in the moment when David stood knee-deep in water in his and his father’s home during Harvey, if somewhere in David’s spirit, there might have been a deep echo of the son and wife his father could not protect? And I wondered if some of David’s love for family might have come from a sense of responsibility, given in sorrow and in gratitude, towards the brother who did not live, yet whose loss allowed for David’s very existence? Perhaps the injustice of the floods of Harvey could have washed up a more ancient and evil injustice, as well as revealed the courage and persistence that David’s parents must have taught him? And perhaps all this subterranean terror and beauty was a part of what made David’s reading so powerful?
My husband and I were evacuated by canoe during Harvey. I remember thinking soon after, There’s nothing more painful than going through a natural disaster. And then I realized this wasn’t true: Oh, yes, there is. If humans had caused this to harm us, that would hurt worse. I can’t even fathom – And I thought of Syria, of Haiti, of so many countless places where people have been traumatized. And, of course, I thought of the Holocaust, the largest genocidal massacre in human history. From the safety of America, 2018, it’s impossible to imagine an uprooting not just from a home, but from a country and a continent. And, then, to lose not just your home, possessions, community, and career, but family members—brothers and sisters, parents and children, grandparents and grandbabies. Neighbors. Your grocer. Your mayor. Your rabbi. Nearly every single person you knew. And, then, to have these endless losses caused by fellow human beings.
My mind couldn’t comprehend this depth of pain. This was the first time in my life I realized there is suffering beyond my comprehension—and injustice beyond my comprehension. As someone who comes from a race with no history of unjust suffering, and in fact with a history of even causing unjust suffering, I felt like I was being shown something I have needed to know for a long time. I could never have “thought” my way there, it took Harvey knocking me down. I realize it could be seen as arrogant to compare the tiny amount of suffering I endured to the grand scale of human suffering endured by millions during the Holocaust. There is no comparison. I know this, but I was grateful to have an entry, the cracking open of a door, and I do not discount it.
David is going to come by Writespace to give me his mother’s autobiography soon. I am looking forward to reading it, because perhaps her words will build a bridge over time and teach me. At the same time, I am afraid to receive it. Having witnessed David’s courage at telling his story, I am going to try to follow David’s lead by reading even the difficult parts without looking away.