Tag Archives: personal

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.

 

snapshots from the district

It’s a strange way to grow up, belonging everywhere and nowhere at once. I grew up with a Polish mother and Hungarian father. My parents and my sisters are the only family I have in America. During my childhood, my summers were spent in my parents’ small towns. The rest of the year was spent in Chicago, or Mountain Grove, or Columbia, or Springfield.

This means I’m good at adapting. I’m able to feel a kinship and live comfortably in just about any town, city, community. It also means that I never quite feel at home. I simultaneously feel that I belong everywhere, and that I can’t ever build a sense of belonging anywhere. Contradictory, perhaps, but that’s what it means to be human.

In May, I moved to Washington, D.C. to work on my master’s project.

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Besides Chicago, Washington is the closest I’ve ever felt to belonging somewhere in the States — appropriate, perhaps, since it’s the nation’s capital. It’s an international city. There are loads of residents who are similar to me, cultural mutts. When you go to a bar, you’re guaranteed to run into interesting people. Young people move to D.C. because they are passionate, because they are ambitious.

Now, the year is nearly over. I’ll graduate in less than a month. And I’m on the job hunt. I’m looking everywhere, all over the country. I’m looking back in Europe too. I must. Journalism is a tough industry, and there are only a few jobs in Washington. So maybe I’ll move away. Maybe I won’t. I’ve never done well with uncertainty, and it gives me nightmares.

 

Maybe that’s why I feel a sense of belonging in Washington. It’s a city of transience. People come, people leave. It’s dynamic, in flux. Quite like me.

I have no clue where I’ll be in a month. So for now, I’ll try to remember the little things that matter the most, like the view from my back porch in Capitol Hill on a late summer evening.

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one year later

A year ago, a graduate student at the University of Missouri began a hunger strike. He told me about it. I broke the story. Soon it was national news.

Anniversaries are a time when people reflect. I could write that post, reflecting on what it was like to report on a man who stopped eating. What it was like to watch this man physically grow weaker and weaker while I had to maintain a professional distance. What it was like to try and wrap my head around his faith in God, which was so strong, a faith that I still cannot comprehend.

But I’m not ready to write that post. My chest still pinches when I think about it.

So I’ll just say this: My life has changed immensely since then. The city where I live, the office where I work, the people in whom I confide, next to whom I wake. That week, one year ago, was still the most challenging of my professional life. It was the week when I learned that the best reporting can come from a place of empathy. In some cases, it must.

I’m grateful I got to write the first draft of that story. I’m thankful for the people who were in my life. Most importantly — I’m glad that student is still alive.

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

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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d.c., baby

Today, I flew from Kansas City to Washington, D.C. First time here. What a year for firsts.

I walked up a mile-long hill with three heavy bags (while wearing heels!) to get from my metro stop to my hotel.

I met about a gazillion deadlines along the way (typing away in the airport, on the plane, at a coffeeshop, in my hotel room).

I’m here til Friday, for a conference on government and financial data in journalism. Stay tuned for stories.

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