Category Archives: stories

a return of sorts

Last year, I wrote a story about a strip club off a highway in rural Missouri. It was dark and grimy, the only building for miles.

As a five-foot-tall woman in her twenties, it probably wasn’t the wisest idea to go alone at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night. But I wanted the story. So I went anyway.

There were two men who did business at the place, and two women who danced. They were suspicious of me. The second time I visited, the bartender asked me if I wanted to strip down and dance for the customers sitting just below the stage, all of them men, gawking at the dancer as if they were a single unit, a single man in his dirty jeans with a collective pair of eyes. But of course, they weren’t one man, but three different individuals, each who had driven to this club on his own, each watching the dancer on his own, and I both resented them and felt sorry for their loneliness.

The bartender’s question — when he asked whether I wanted to go onstage and have my turn at the pole — was a joke. I think. But I was already uncomfortable, and my hands began to sweat after he asked. I tried to hide how scared I was, so I smiled and declined and laughed it off.

When I left, the bartender walked me out to my car.

“It’s not safe for a girl like you to be out in the middle of nowhere,” he told me.

I wanted to tell him that I only felt unsafe around him, but I didn’t say anything.

“I did some research on you,” he said just before I opened my car door, and I think every muscle in my body froze when he did.

“Oh yeah? What did you find?” I said.

“You’ve written about some… pretty controversial stuff,” he said.

“I like writing the tough stories,” I said.

“Your family is from all over the world,” he said, and after a pause: “Your grandmother died last year.”

And that’s when I discovered that he’d found my personal blog. It terrified me to know that this potentially dangerous stranger knew so much about my private life. And I knew the bartender’s words were a subtle threat.

Since then, except for little essays on Instagram, I haven’t shared much of my personal writing online.

The stakes are higher now that I’m working as a professional journalist. I don’t want to give too much of myself away. But I want to write, and I want to share what I write. So I’m going to try to blog this summer, but it’s a struggle to mark a line between my public and private persona — a line that I suspect doesn’t actually exist — and try not to cross it.

The goal is to publish at least seven blog posts this summer. Hold me accountable, internet.

(I drove off after that conversation, by the way, and I wrote the story, which you an read here.)

Until next time, xoxo from South Carolina.

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“objects have lives. they are witness to things.”

There’s an episode of This American Life that I’ve listened to three times now. It originally aired in 2001, but the first time I heard it was as I was driving to meet friends for dinner, probably in 2012. I was so engrossed by the story that I sat in my car in the restaurant’s parking lot to finish listening. I was 20 minutes late to dinner.

The episode is called “The House on Loon Lake,” narrated and reported by Adam Beckman. When Adam was a kid, he broke into an abandoned house in the small town of Freedom, New Hampshire. The house was filled with things, objects, treasures. Somebody had left all of this behind. In the story, Adam returns to Freedom as an adult to find out what happened to the family.

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Photo from This American Life

The story kept me glued for several reasons. I love a good mystery story, for one. I could also relate to Adam’s mischief. When I was a kid, maybe ten years old, I also broke into an abandoned house with a friend at the end of our street. We called it a mansion — it really wasn’t a mansion, but for the town of Mountain Grove, it sure seemed like one. (The median income for a household is $21,131, and 28.2 percent of Mountain Grovians live under the poverty line, which is twice the national average.)

Given its stature — why would the richest family in the town abandon their house like that? — the house was ripe for mystery and rumor, especially for a fourth-grade girl with a wild imagination. There wasn’t much inside the house, except a grand piano. The pool had been emptied of chlorinated water, but standing water from rain had reached maybe a foot. Leaves floated in the water. It was, for lack of a better word, gross.

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Photo from This American Life

But I digress. There’s one passage that causes me to pause the episode so that I can sit in silence and mull over its meaning. I’ll leave you with it, an exchange between Adam and his mother.

Adam Beckman: When my great grandparents fled their home in Czechoslovakia, they’d left furniture, paintings, letters, all very suddenly and never returned. My mother tells me that all those things probably still exist somewhere. With that in mind, she couldn’t bear to see the Nason things rotting away like they had.

Adam’s Mother: And here’s a spoon. It’s all very melancholy, all these little remnants.

Adam Beckman: Why is it melancholy?

Adam’s Mother: The abandonment. The abandonment is melancholy. In a way, it’s worse than throwing away, much worse. I can understand one family being obliged to flee or run or abandon, but that nobody else cared. That it was so overwhelmingly abandoned by everybody, that nobody had cared to solve something, to resolve something. That was very offensive to me. It was like leaving a corpse. You don’t leave a corpse. And that’s a little bit the feeling that I had. That here was a carcass, the carcass of a house, of a life, of a private, and nobody cared to pick it up and give it a proper burial.

I thought that it was important that somebody should care. That somehow, somebody was leaning over these words, reading them, unfolding these letters that somebody had bothered to write. It really didn’t matter that it was an eleven-year-old boy who cared. Objects have lives. They are witness to things. And these objects were like that. So I was, in a way, glad that you were listening.

 

Objects have lives. They are witness to things.

 

a few thoughts on blindness

I had an eye infection this week, and from Wednesday to Friday I couldn’t open my eyes in light. I couldn’t look at screens. Even closing my eyes hurt, because my eyelids would irritate my eyes. All I could do for three days was sit in darkness, or else my eyes would start burning.

  1. I will never, ever take for granted my eyesight, poor as it is, again. I was paralyzed without it.
  2. I like being alone. But my God, there is a difference between being alone and being lonely.
  3. If I’m unproductive, I become unhappy. I find joy and fulfillment in creating things (in my case, writing and reporting). And for three days, unable to do that, I was miserable.
  4. Most circumstances are out of my control. My need for control has become obsessive. I make to-do lists, outlining my days down to the hour and minute. Being in control helps me when I become overwhelmed or anxious. But last week, any illusion of control slipped away, and I was at the mercy of a virus. There’s so much out of my reach — Illness. Time. Other people. I’m afraid that I’ve pushed people away because they haven’t conformed to my expectations. That makes me deeply sad.

Anyway. All I can do now is keep my head down and work, catching up on all of those hours I missed this week. Until next time.

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photo by Justin Stewart

mimicking the masters

You know when you visit an art museum and you see an art student sitting down with her own easel and paintbrush, copying the brushstrokes of Degas or van Gogh or Michelangelo? Mimicking the masters. Imitating the greats. Practicing on others’ paintings before she finds her own voice, so to speak.

In January, my professor recommended that we journalists do this too. Take a great piece of narrative nonfiction. Copy it straight out of the book, magazine, newspaper. Pay attention to diction, syntax, how the writers connect words and use imagery.

When I have writer’s block, as I did last night and, well, still have today; when I’ve got the ideas but the language gets stuck in some cortex of my brain, that’s when I mimic my masters.

Except I copy poetry. Not journalism. Can’t escape my B.A.

It isn’t to be pretentious — I have a genuine, nerdy love for poetry. Some poems I read over and over again, and I cry the good kind of tears, the kind of tears that remind me that I am human and so were Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman and John Keats and e.e. cummings, and feeling defeated or paralyzed by emotions is so normal, so, so normal. Even on the shit days, you exist on this earth, a part of a large and beautiful ecosystem. It’s the type of crying that comforts.

Plus, writers of any sort (journalists included) can learn a whole lot from poets. Relying on their senses. Concise diction. Playing with language. It’s a comfort, sure. But it’s also inspiration.

Since it’s World Poetry Day, I thought I’d share a few poems that I’ve copied down to try and heal my writer’s block. I only took my Derek Walcott and Anne Sexton collections off of my bookshelf, so the poems come from those writers.

Here you are. Have a good cry.

Love after Love (Derek Walcott)

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bead. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Endings (Walcott again)

Things do not explode,
they fail, the fade,

as sunlight fades from the flesh,
as the foam drains quick in the sand,

even love’s lighting flash
has no thunderous end,

it dies with the sound
of flowers fading like the flesh

from sweating pumice stone,
everything shapes this

till we are left
with the silence that surrounds Beethoven’s head.

Anne Sexton’s re-writing of Cinderella (but just the end, as it’s very long)

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.

 

 

 

 

i dropped the photography class

I did. I dropped it.

I’ve only ever dropped on other class in my life, which was my microeconomics class my freshman year of college. I dropped it because I was in a car accident in a freak blizzard, totaled my car, got severe whiplash and couldn’t keep up with my classes.

I dropped out of this one because it was eating up too much of my time. I’m still reporting for the Columbia Missourian on higher education, and this time, I’m taking on an investigative project about race at the University of Missouri. But I’ve made very little progress because, well, the photography class was taking up my time.

So no more blog posts on photography. In fact, I’ll delete those. Breathe a sigh of relief, everyone.

What should I write about now? Should I treat this thing like a diary again? Should I write about my 14-hour days reporting on the Mizzou protests and hunger strike, how I couldn’t sleep for a week? Should I write about the pain  of dating someone who, for reasons neither he nor I can control, can’t commit to a serious relationship?

Nah, that’s too private.

Should I brag? Should I write about my accomplishments?

No, I’m not an asshole.

Should I write more cultural analyses and critiques? Should I write about literature?

Maybe. I really miss that.

Stay tuned.

rambling from my journal in hungary: les jours tristes/szomorú nap/smutne dni

Art museums are some of my favorite places. I like staring at pieces of art that tell a story about a certain time and place in history, and I like filling in the blanks with my own ideas.

In Kansas City, I’m always within twenty minutes of  the Nelson-Atkins. That museum’s gallery of American paintings is something else. So much Thomas Hart Benton and George Caleb Bingham, those capturers of the middle-American spirit. They were Missourians, so it’s appropriate that those paintings of small-town Missouri politicians soliciting local shop owners in suspenders are gathered in the state’s museums. And it’s great! I love those paintings, I love those stories.

But I don’t identify with them. They tell me nothing about my own history or even my own culture. First-generation American, watching other museum-goers muse over their great-great-great grandparents. So what, I’ve lived in the Midwest most of my life? I still don’t recognize Missouri as my Home-with-a-capital-“H.” Those paintings are foreign to me, to my place in time, to my history, to my family.

I prefer going to art museums in Eastern Europe, like the National Hungarian Art Gallery I visited in the Buda hills of Budapest. The photos of those peasants — tending to sheep and picking flowers in the fields — that’s my history. I come from some of world’s the poorest people. When my grandfather was a child, his parents were too destitute to care for him. So, he went to live with his uncle. His uncle gave him chores, and one of them was to let the cows out during freezing morning hours. Nagypapa (Grandfather) couldn’t afford shoes as a little kid. So he’d go out barefoot in the frosted fields. And he’d step in cow shit to keep his feet warm.

My dad told me this story on the car ride back to Izsak from Budapest, and I crinkled my nose in disgust. Visceral reaction: “ew, ew, ew.” But that’s where I come from. The child of immigrants. Poorest of the poor. Half-Hungarian, half-Polish. One hundred percent Eastern European. Adopted, engulfed, eaten up by the States. That’s temporary, I hope.

But the art I saw in that National Hungarian Gallery, of the peasants in the countryside from the turn of the century — sure, maybe that’s the first time I saw those paintings. But that’s my story. Those are my great-great-(great)-grandparents. And I felt a familiarity with those subjects, you know?

“Biro elott” (“Before the Judge”), Bihari Sandor. 1886.


I’ve always been conscious of class struggle, mainly because my family has been desperately poor for the better part of history. People say, “You’re so lucky!” when I tell them that I’m visiting Hungary. “How cool!”
How do I tell them that my savings account is more-or-less depleted? This is not a vacation. I came for my grandmother, because at 84 years old, she’s dying of cancer. The medication is dulling her brain. She thinks she’s 15 years old, and she’s convinced that my dad (her son) is her older brother. She’s helpless. I’m helpless. All I can do is watch her waste away as her brain slows down. The cancer sped up the process, but her anxiety has been killing her for years. It scares me like hell.

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juxtaposition

Kitchen scene in Donetsk, Ukraine, August 2014. // Sergei Ilnitsky

Kitchen scene in Donetsk, Ukraine, August 2014. // Sergei Ilnitsky

“In her 1977 collection of essays, ‘On Photography,’ Susan Sontag identified a feeling of helpless voyeurism that comes over us as we look at photographs of people in the midst of conflict. She also wrote about how repeatedly seeing such images could anesthetize the vision and deaden the conscience. Sontag understood photographs of conflict to be making a utilitarian argument — that they could bring us into a state of productive shock — and showed that they seldom did what they claimed, or hoped, to do. The more photographs shock, the more difficult it is for them to be pinned to their local context, and the more easily they are indexed to our mental library of generic images. What, then, are we to do with a thrilling photograph that is at the same time an image of pain?

In Ilnitsky’s photograph, taken last August in Donetsk, a major city in the eastern part of Ukraine, a length of white lace is swept to the left side. Like a theatrical curtain, it reveals a table with a teapot, a bowl full of tomatoes, a can, two mugs, and two paring knives on a little cutting board. It is a still life, but it is in utter disarray. Broken glass and dust are everywhere, and one of the mugs is shattered; to the right, across the lace curtain, the shards of glass and the table, is a splatter of red color that could only be one thing. Domestic objects imply use, and Ilnitsky’s photograph pulls our minds toward the now lost tranquillity of the people who owned these items. How many cups of coffee were made in that kitchen? Who bought those tomatoes? Were there children in this household who did their homework on this table? Whose blood is that? The absence of people in the photograph makes room for these questions.”

– from Teju Cole’s essay “Object Lesson” in the New York Times Magazine

A lot to learn here, in writing and reporting too, I think.