Years ago, I sat for a couple of Vipassana meditations. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re 10-day silent retreats. You go off to someplace quiet with a few dozen strangers, don’t talk to any of them, and meditate for 8-odd hours a day. It is…challenging.
What happened there—or didn’t happen there—is a story in and of itself. But one detail stuck out after I’d returned: A couple of friends said that in the messages I had left them, the tone of my voice suggested I was heading to my own execution.
Maybe I was. Though it would be years till I experienced anything approaching an “awakening,” something inside me was telling me it was time to let go: Of old stories about myself, of my sense of being separate from the world. That process would eventually begin to unfold at its own pace, and at times it can feel very much like a kind of death. It is…challenging.
In a few days, I leave for Hungary. And while I very much hope I’m not heading to the gallows, once again I can’t help but feel a touch of foreboding.
This trip came together surprisingly quickly. As I drilled deeper into the family history I’ve been writing for the last two and a half years, I had always held out the possibility that I would go to Hungary, to where the story begins. But a few weeks ago, I began to get the very specific—and very insistent—message that I was to go there. Like, right now.
As a creative person, this kind of direct order is only what I dream of, and so rarely receive. It’s a challenge to exercise my trust and faith: In myself, in the story I’m chasing down, and in my ability to bring it to heel and to do it justice.
Simultaneously, a potent and poignant symbol popped up a couple of times this week. I wonder if it has something to tell me. It’s the sign of the crossed arrows you see in green at the bottom of the (rather amateurish and poorly laid out) poster above. I imagine it signifies many things, although I know of only one. I never learned what it meant to the young woman who set a wooden disc emblazoned with it directly in front of me at a meditation last weekend. I don’t know why the brewery whose placard I saw it on a few days later chose it. But in Hungary, where I’m about to be for a month, it’s the symbol of the Arrow Cross party, very roughly Hungary’s version of the Nazis. It’s their version of the swastika.
As the swastika is in Germany, the symbol of the crossed arrows is illegal in Hungary. But banning a symbol is far easier than banning the sentiments it represents. Today, nearly 75 years after the Arrow Cross regime was toppled by the Red Army, Hungary has perhaps the most solidly far-right government in Europe. Freedom of the press has all but vanished, and anecdotally, conditions for Jews, Muslims, and many other minorities are far worse now than they were even a few years ago.
I’m not particularly superstitious, but the appearance of this symbol twice in one week gives me pause. What am I heading into? When I was young, the stories of the World Wars and the hatred that fueled them seemed like an ancient and impossible history, consigned to grainy black and white. But I sense that these stories will take on a very different dimension in Hungary, a nation that has made it very clear it does not welcome my kind of people.
I wonder if what I’ll find there is a taste of the future more than the past. Is the darkness embedded in this place—and thus in my family, and in me—where we Americans are headed?
I want to see for myself. I want to know the weight of the air in this place, the weight of these stories. I know that I cannot live anyone else’s story there but my own, and that what has happened is not necessarily what will happen again. But in a time in which so many of us feel ambient fear—around politics, around our withering and gasping climate, around the question of what kind of a future, if any, we will have—I’m compelled to approach the source of that fear, not shrink from it. I cannot make the world the safe place my parents labored to pretend it was; I cannot change anyone’s mind but my own. But that will have to be enough.
A strange little phrase keeps bubbling up inside me: Don’t write the ending before it happens. I’m not sure when and how it entered my consciousness, but what it signifies to me is a reminder: That real answers—the only ones that matter—will not reveal themselves of their own accord. I have to go looking for them myself, and I have to accept that I do not control when and how they make themselves known.
I’ll admit it: I’m intimidated. Writing this story is…challenging. But I’m carrying with me the words of an old family friend—one I’ll soon be reunited with—and right now they give me some comfort:
“If you are trying to imagine what your family once felt, how they thought, it’s impossible; if you wrote this story five years ago, or five years from now, you would write something completely different. But if you reach back in your own memory—and in your heart—to these people you once knew and loved, you cannot fail.”