An Act of Rebellion: Traveling Alone

 

“The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone.”

-Goethe 

By Anna Brüner

All kids, I imagine, have been warned by their parents at some point about the dangers of walking alone. If you’re a girl, you’ve especially been warned. “Don’t go by yourself,” “Make sure so-and-so goes with you!” “Call me when you get there,” “Make sure you’re back by this time,” “Who’s all going to be there?” This has been the chorus of my childhood. 

What I am about to tell you will no doubt give my mother a panic attack, and believe me, I’m expecting the angry phone call promptly. But, all fear of maternal instinct aside, you should know that for the past five years I have been wandering cities alone. And not just American cities. New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, D.C., San Francisco, Asbury Park, Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Nice, Amsterdam, Dresden, New Orleans, Savannah…maybe I should stop there. I’ve been going through them alone, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for days, and while I have plenty of stories and photographs as evidence, I have kept most of it private. 

As an only child I am used to being alone, and, having nothing else to draw comparisons from, learned very early on to enjoy my time alone. To say that I was “independent” from a young age is an understatement; I much more prefer the term “self-sufficient.” I have always been able to entertain myself. By age nine or so I could cook and clean for myself, and by twelve I was allowed to stay alone while my parents were at work or out with friends. It was during this time that I first started leaving the house to walk around town by myself, having always been allowed to explore and play in my neighborhood unattended since starting grade school. My parents were far from the overly protective yuppies whose sheltered children I babysit today. Soon I was walking all the way across town after school, sometimes sneaking out at night to do so, always in search of some yet-to-be-investigated patch of my small corner of the world.

My parents also travelled a lot, and were cool enough to forego all intimacy in order to bring their one and only progeny along. My mother made it her personal crusade that I would see all 50 states, no matter how long she had to sit in a car with me, and by the time I was a junior in high school I had been to six different countries (nine by the time I graduated). My attraction to cities especially, coupled with my comfort of roaming around unaccompanied, spurred a need to break away and explore by myself. I haven’t stopped since. 

 

It started innocently enough. I would be permitted by my parents to wander off for a short window of time, always meeting back with them at some pre-determined location. It soon turned into me sneaking out of hotel rooms, running off from class trips, sneaking away during the tour group’s lunch, or flat out lying about my weekend plans to drive four states away. In Europe, I developed a particularly dark gift for convincing teachers and tour guides that I knew where I was going and that someone would be with me at all times, before jumping on public transportation and delving deep into the heart of a foreign metropolis….my comrades always too frightened to even step foot on the train platform. I wanted to stroll museums, party in gay clubs, hang out in red-light districts, peruse casinos. I was in search of something real. Something authentic. Something that would make me feel like I could maybe fit in there. 

I would have taxi drivers take me to their favorite restaurants and shops, would have strangers order off menus for me, and would almost always come away with a story, a phone number, or a token of some sort that some kind local was willing to pass on. I’ve had a drag queen teach me how to roll a perfect cigarette, have had a Czech emigre tell me about how he didn’t hear about the Beatles until 1983 because he lived behind the Iron Curtain, have had a Russian cabbie offer me relationship advice, and went to the Love Parade in Berlin. I’ve exchanged screenplay ideas with old Italian men playing bocci ball in the park, drank absinthe on a rooftop overlooking a port in the south of France, and had my fortunes told by countless boardwalk psychics. I was invited to a Belgian artist’s BBQ where we argued over James Cameron’s Avatar in three different languages, had street vendors give me chili pepper covered mangoes the size of my skull after trading them German playing cards, discussed philosophy and the afterlife with heroin addicts in west Philly, and have tasted the best Trinidadian food in all of the Midwest. Had I done what I had been told all my life — to stay close, stay with somebody, don’t go out alone — I would have experienced none of it. I would have seen nothing beyond a hotel room balcony and a bus window. 

Keep in mind, there was always somebody waiting for me after all of this, somebody who would care enough to report me missing. I wasn’t totally ignorant to the dangers of going off for a few days to rummage through abandoned warehouses, or kick it in Oakland soup kitchens, or creep through the alleyways during the London riots. I always had someone who would notice if I was gone for too long. I was always in the daylight or in the bustling public, always knew twelve ways back to a safe place, always took note of every possible exit…and even while being cautious, while being careful, I never felt scared. I was never harassed or assaulted. Was never made uncomfortable. Was never isolated. While going through cities alone, I always felt fully immersed and accepted within my environment. I felt like I belonged there. 

Why do I do it? Besides being, in my opinion, the one true way to get an authentic experience from a place, exploring a city alone is also an act of rebellion. All my life, I have been told to never go anywhere alone — mostly because I am a woman. But countless men I know travel the world alone, or travel their own cities alone. They photograph graffitied warehouses and empty high rises, strike up conversations with strangers on trains, cruise an isolated Chinatown or Little Italy block alone at night. No one ever discourages them. No one ever tells them they’re being reckless. No one ever warns them about what might happen if they don’t “take so-and-so along.” All very real dangers of the world aside, I have never let my sex be enough of a reason to be treated any differently. 

Yes, something bad might happen to me. But something bad could happen to anyone in these circumstances. Something bad could happen in a group, in a hotel, in your own neighborhood. The world we live in, let’s face it, is chaotic, cruel, and above all: random. But it is also beautiful and diverse if you embrace it. I’ve seen things and met people and had experiences and conversations I wouldn’t trade for anything, and it has always been worth every risk. I might give my mother a panic attack for doing this, but my mother didn’t just raise me to be defiant and independent. She raised me to take care of myself, and to go after what I want, and to enjoy life. And what I want is to walk through cities alone, and see them for what they are: beautiful, dangerous, strange, and welcoming. 

To be a Jew On Christmas

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By Allie Shyer

Chicagoans are obsessed with Christmas.

As a Jew from New York, Christmas was never really a thing for me until I moved here. Last winter my boss would continuously refer to himself as a “gay Christmas elf” throughout the month of December, and all the customers at the second hand store where I worked seemed to share this opinion that Christmas was a significant holiday that needed to be celebrated (we sold out of novelty Christmas sweaters the last week of November). Having taken paid time off for Thanksgiving I had none left to spare for a holiday my family did not even celebrate. I played it off like being alone on Christmas was not a big deal to me, but in reality being a Jew in the Midwest during the holiday season is a pretty strange experience. One by one my friends and co-workers scurried away for sentimental reunions with great aunts, grandmas and second cousins. All of my art school friends went out of town to visit their families and I felt very alone in a big cold city. The week before Christmas was a strange time for me, with almost everyone I knew in the city gone. Admittedly, I am a very social person and don’t do well on my own for extended periods of time. I countered the unease that this caused me by spending a lot of time planning outfits to wear that would make me feel less lonely. I attended my weekly therapists appointment with cheeks covered in silver glitter and a navy blue jumpsuit, “I feel so strange” I told her.


My big plans for Christmas were to clean my apartment thoroughly and avoid going outside.  I skyped with my family around 5pm in my now very clean apartment. Hearing my mom’s voice made me want to cry. We tried to watch a movie together over Skype, our favorite Christmas movie called Bell Book and Candle. Bell Book and Candle is a movie from the early sixties in which Kim Novak plays a sexy independent witch who has to choose if she wants to succeed her powers for the love of a hapless Jimmy Stuart, coincidentally all of this is happening around Christmas time in a snowy New York. I promise you it is the best Christmas and witch themed movie you will see, although Kim Novak’s choice to give up for her powers for the love of the ferret-like Stuart is perpetually disappointing to me. Ultimately my mom and I couldn’t get Skype to work for an extended period of time and my dad, who never understood the cult appeal of Bell Book and Candle, decided to go finish the newspaper. My mom and I watched Bell Book and Candle separately on little screens 791 miles away from each other. It was sad but also comforting to know that we had this intangible connection. It is one of the moments that stands out to me as conveying the weight of adulthood; being able to handle long periods of separation and finding new ways to make connections. I survived that holiday season, and eventually my friends returned from their far-flung homes. My life returned to an order I was used to and my apartment got less clean (a sure-fire sign that things were returning to normal.)

Being alone taught me that I am strong, that I can weather the storms of my own emotions, and that I can develop coping mechanisms to help me beat depression when I get lonely, so in many ways, my first ever Midwestern Christmas was a time of growth.



This Isn't An Article About Following Your Heart

Girls from the south are named after great-grandmothers and the months they were born in, scraped knees and calloused hands, with honeysuckle straight from the vine.

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By Kat Freydl

My name is Katelyn, and that’s only because my father rejected my mother’s desire to name me Jade, which he deemed “too new age” for any respectable daughter of his (or so the story goes). Unfortunately for both of them, I go by Kat and I am in no way respectable; also unfortunately for them (or perhaps more so for me), their divorce was finalized several months after my birth--as it turned out, baby names weren’t the only things they couldn’t agree on. I digress: while I enjoy sweet tea, barefootedness, and banjo ditties, sweeping landscapes and tobacco fields and kudzu dominating any half-living thing, the South and I have always had a relationship that precludes complete satisfaction. It is doubtful that this would be any different if I was named August or Pearl or Elspeth, but you get the idea: I’ve never been to a debutante ball in my life, I don’t even particularly like fried chicken, the idea of “going mudding” sort of makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry, printed wikipedia articles about ringworms clutched in my tiny fists, and my drawl peters out when I cross the Mason-Dixon. I am not, for all intents and purposes, properly Southern.

As aware of this as present Kat is, past Kat was even more aware, and found the discrepancy between who I was and who I felt I should be staggering. To me, it felt like I was well and truly the only outlier on the east coast. I went to a small school, a Christian one, and was exposed to a small sliver of my peers--an exceedingly wealthy sliver that often represented each and every stereotypically Southern trait you can imagine. At the all-boys lunch table I was always relegated to, the jokes were racist, the stenches were foul, and more than a few jibes were thrown towards both my gender and my weight. It was a fairly standard middle school experience, looking back, but as a fairly pretentious child, I felt duty-bound to find something better for myself. I didn’t feel academically challenged in the least by the school, and my mother forbid me from going to public school; I was in eighth grade when I mustered all of my 13-year-old defiance and decided that I was going to move to Michigan to live with my father.

I very specifically remember the heat waves, because they made the blacktop look excited to see me go. It was August. My life, packed into two boxes (just two) rattled in the trunk of my mother’s minivan, one of my best school friends at the time pressed against my side, the two of us crammed into the back seat, my little sister in the row in front of us watching The Incredibles on the portable DVD player. Over the crackling speakers of the minivan, my mother was playing a book on tape about the Iraq War, a whiskey-roughened narrator’s lilt interspersed with gunshots and grenade detonations. We were driving from North Carolina to Michigan. Somehow, eight consecutive hours of war sounds seemed an appropriate soundtrack for the drive.

I don’t know what girls from the North are named after, and there’s very little to romanticize about suburbia, particularly because my freshman year was spent largely in solitude. Suffice to say, moving from a tiny private school with a 30-person class to a gargantuan public one with a 700-person class was quite the experience. Being steeped in liberalism and academia? That part was nice. Being pulled aside after an English class and handed a sticky note with information about submitting writing to the school’s literary magazine? That part was nicer, especially since I spent all of my seminars huddled in the library, stacks of that very literary magazine at my feet, enraptured by the notion that student writing could be published and valued in any capacity. I was enraptured further still when I finally worked up the courage to submit a poem and found it nestled in the selective “editor’s choice” section.

What followed was a poetry slam hosted by the literary magazine that I attended, face-to-face compliments from staff members of it, and pleas to apply to be on the literary magazine’s staff my sophomore year. I landed a position as secretary. Consequently, I met several of the people that I hold as my dearest friends, caught wind of philosophy club and discovered a passion I never would have suspected in myself, developed my voice as a writer, and ultimately found a love for poetry that I’d ignored for years, dismissing it by thinking I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t good enough, I couldn’t possibly be good enough, how could I ever be good enough. As it  happened, I was, and I am. I’ll be eternally grateful for those people, for that sticky note, for the poem that got me editor’s choice. For poetry slams and Panera meetings and people that gave me second looks when I couldn’t stomach first ones.

I wish this was an article about how following your heart will always lead you in the right direction, or that success is just around the corner if you push for it. It won’t, and it isn’t. While sophomore year held some of the most formative incidents of my adolescence thus far, it was also the year my depression became excruciating. It is the year that I tried to end my own life. This is the flip side of going solo: with staggering success can come staggering loneliness so brutal it can crush you if you let it. I did.

This is how it came to pass that I was sent back to the South, back to the land of dirt roads and camouflage prom dresses. It felt like my life was ending. This is the novelty of being 15--at the time, it was quite literally the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I would not be returning to my old Christian school, but would instead be attending my district public school. The thing was, I missed my friends. I missed the literary magazine and the curious feeling of finally belonging.

It was the week school started that I had the idea.

After a bit of research, I found that my new school did not have a literary magazine. This was all that I needed to hear before I was emailing a former editor-in-chief of my old school’s lit mag, asking for advice on how to start one up. The email was daunting and had about ten steps, eight of which I had no idea if I could ever do, but I set out with grim determination on my first day. Even if I had to do it all on my own, I was going to start a literary magazine.

My first day was fairly standard for a first day, no one to eat with at lunch and asking for directions from the least scary-looking teachers and a series of awkward interactions with my peers. There was one that stood out; I had several buttons pinned to my backpack, sayings such as “feminist killjoy” and “trans misogyny is still misogyny” among them, and a boy behind me called out to compliment me on them. There’s really no interesting way to tell this story. I could tell you about how my English teacher became my first friend at this new school, and she helped me start getting the word out about this idea I had; I could tell you about how that boy invited me to stand with him in the mornings before the bell rang and to sit with him in the one class we shared; I could tell you that he and his friend (and later, mine) became the first two staff members of the literary magazine. I could tell you about how months later, after bonfires and picnics in cemeteries and musicals and sleepovers and bookstore rendezvous, this boy had become my best friend, and it was he who stood next to me as I cut open the first box of the first ever print edition of the school literary magazine that I had created. I could tell you about how soon after, I published my first book of poetry and cried for days. I could tell you all of this, but as revolutionary as the experience was for me, it would make quite a dull read.

My point here is this. I am not named after great grandmothers or the month I was born in. I’m more parsley than honeysuckle, and the only callouses I have come from holding a pen and knitting a tad too vigorously. And it was in the South that I carved a niche for myself. Sometimes it felt less like carving and more like brutally forcing with a hacksaw, but it happened, and I’m here, and this is my life. That boy graduated last year, and I stand by myself in the mornings. In June, I will graduate with a class full of acquaintances. I am both happy and sad. Most of all, I have a literary magazine to run.

So no, this article isn’t about following your heart or success directly around the corner. The success is buried underneath a haunted house infected with necrotizing fasciitis built on a field of landmines. This is about using your heart like a sword, and when the sword breaks, using it like a walking stick. This is about being the bullet and the gun that shoots it.

This is about being very, very brave.

Independence

By Annie Zidek

My mom has been through a lot: at 30 she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. And eight years later she was diagnosed with another brain tumor. And in December of 2013 she was diagnosed with brain cancer.

Surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy beat her up and keep her bed ridden. For sixteen years, it's felt like I've been going solo since she hasn't always been able to be there for me.

I don't blame my mom at all; being independent has allowed me to grow into my strength and helped me come to terms with the idea that it's okay to be alone at times.

Being alone let me analyze my ideals and myself. I took pieces from my circumstances and built them into who I am. While doing so, I learned to fend for myself and what I stand for.

I grew into myself. Confidence sprouted from my sense of independence, and I became self-assured and felt slight empowerment. I (kind of) know what I’m doing now, and I’m aware of what I want.

Going solo helped me internalized relationships and appreciate individuals. Human connection is pivotal: we can’t live without it. Cherish the “human noises” as Raymond Carver calls it because those are the sweetest sounds.

Being “on my own” in a way pushed me to explore ideas different from when I was raised with. I came to love art and poetry and feminism, all of which gave me a voice I felt I didn’t have before.

Basically my mom is badass, and she helped me become badass. THANKS, MOM.

 

Why It's Okay To Go To Shows Alone

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By Rivka Yeker

Mitski recently tweeted about going to shows alone and the importance of removing the negative connotation latched onto the idea. Mitski’s post went viral and people were sharing it via all different kinds of social media platforms. After featuring Mitski on Issue #9 of Hooligan, I am more than aware of Mitski’s integral impact on her following, so this was just another mini powerful Mitski rant that resonated with me a great deal.

Being active in various music scenes from the age of 14, I was attending all the shows I could beg my parents to pay for. Luckily, having an older brother with the same taste came in handy when needing to drive downtown from the suburbs of Chicago. While we all come from different musical paths, Freshman and Sophomore years of high school were my pop punk and hardcore phases, both genres with terrible scenes. As soon as I turned 16, I was driving to shows on my own with money I made from working at a restaurant.  It started out with local shows at pubs in the suburbs where I would spend time hanging out with metalcore bands that grew to get more recognition than expected. Being a girl actively trying to be apart of male-dominated scenes, going to these shows alone took a lot of courage. Feeling the need to dress in black band merch to prove my punk cred, I would go to shows desperately trying to mask any sort of femininity just so I would avoid questions like, “Is your boyfriend in one of the bands?” 

This point in my life was filled with creepy older men hitting on me, an underage girl just trying to mosh to terrible bands, misogynistic dude-friends, and constantly trying to prove myself and my knowledge on music I didn’t even like all that much. Finally, I had decided to throw all the sexist metalcore/hardcore garbage behind me and celebrate the whiny chaos of what is known to be screamo and the emo revival, a very popular and exciting time in 2012/2013 (?).  I started going to shows alone in Chicago, driving 45 minutes to see bands that yelled about ex-girlfriends (but on a more existential level, somehow this was more justifiable than pop punk) and began making friends with the members of the Chicago “DIY” scene. Barely knowing anyone, people slowly began becoming familiar faces whom I would wave and reintroduce myself to five times before establishing friendship. 

Now, it is never easy to bring yourself to do anything alone, whether it’s sit at a packed restaurant and eat dinner by yourself or go to the movie theatre solo but I have learned that I am much more comfortable doing things on my own because I am worried about my own safety, my own timeliness, my own happiness, and in this case, whether or not I liked the bands. As someone who is easily impacted by others’ energies and emotions, if someone didn’t enjoy something as much as I did, my mood can be brought from high to low in seconds. I would much rather focus on myself and my personal approval than feel terrible about someone else’s discontentment. 

There’s also the side of going to shows alone that makes everything worthwhile: the feeling of fully absorbing the performance. I have this uncontrollable desire to move any time I am listening to any kind of music. Whether it’s tapping my feet, aggressively thumping my fingers against my thighs, or bobbing my head, music sways me. The most recent show I went to alone was more of a concert than anything else. I bought tickets for Death Cab for Cutie and The Antlers as soon as they were posted, for both bands mean a great deal to me and I couldn’t miss it, regardless of price. After buying the tickets, I had realized that it was at the Chicago Theatre, which was all seating and not general admission. I didn’t think much about it since I was used to going to shows alone, but at same time, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect since I rarely ever go to large concerts like this one. As soon as I got there, I found my spot and couples began pouring in through the doors like a dam had just broke. Me being alone suddenly became very heightened and well, sad. Eventually, a girl sat down next to me and said that she was by herself, too. Both of us prepared for a night of intense emotions, alone together. 

The crowd itself was filled with a lot of middle aged people and randoms that didn’t seem like they belonged. For instance, the two drunk moms in front of me who couldn’t stop yelling throughout the first half of Death Cab. As stated prior, people impact my mood very easily. I physically couldn’t enjoy Death Cab because of how obnoxiously loud and stupid they were being, but eventually, they had left and I was back at ease. I had forgotten that this concert cost 60 dollars and not many people my age were willing to spend that much money on new Death Cab. While the entire night was somewhat unsettling, due to The Antlers (one of my favorite bands) only playing 5 songs and the crowd not really caring, plus the idiot moms, I think someone had answered my prayers and made everyone seal their lips from the middle of Death Cab’s set to the end. This was when my loneliness was heightened, but in a positive way. While they were playing a lot of stuff from their new album, they made sure to throw the best tracks off their old albums, the ones that had sentimental value. I found myself crying during the encore of  “What Sarah Said” as Ben Gibbard graciously sang,

Love is watching someone die, so who’s going to watch you die?

 

My thoughts and feelings started falling back in to place and my mind was slowly becoming at ease. I think about this concert a lot, for I had felt a lot of emotions in the span of a few hours. I rarely ever cry at concerts, since my tears are saved for poetry, film, and when I listen to records alone, but I found myself sobbing into the empty air that my loneliness created and it was sad, but relieving and very much needed.

Go to shows alone.

Experience something that means a lot to you without the stress of worrying about someone else liking it as much as you. Everyone has their own favorite band and everyone reacts to music differently. Your best friend may not tap his fingers against his thighs like you do, he may not even like the band you love. Life is already full of appointments, stressors, responsibilities, and complications; treating yourself to something you care about is vital and you should never let anyone negate you from feeling something the way you want to feel it.

Firsts

By Allison Shyer

 

I quit my comfy straight-laced retail job in Wicker Park to work at an upscale sex shop; new beginnings here I come. What does one wear upon their first day working at a sex shop? Black, I decided, all black with a sheer button-up over-top and eyebrows fluffed and darkened so that I would appear serious and knowledgeable about sex (obviously!) I set my alarm a half hour early, listened to Devon by grimes on repeat and made my way to the brown line, trying to talk down my nerves in my head. When I got to my new workplace, my manager was sweeping the front, “everyone’s gathering in back” they told me. The Pleasure Chest is well lit, neatly organized and approachable. The front window hosts a display of bachelorette party favors including the classic penis shaped pasta, as you go further into the store the wares become more serious, organized by function and technique. The toys are enticing, many of them have shimmering plastic exteriors that you could easily mistake for apple products; some of them are even app operated. I turned a corner to find the employees only backroom. There my boss Sarah and my new co-workers awaited me. After reviewing some HR details, we went out on to the floor for an extensive round of introductions. I was starting to feel less nervous. My co-workers seemed like clever, competent twenty-somethings like me. “ I decided to work here because I am a feminist and I want to learn.” Said my co-worker Izzy. I started to think about my reasons for wanting to work at the Pleasure Chest.

Growing up, sex was a subject that was shrouded in mystery and fear. At my fairly liberal Quaker high school we were taught sex education through slides that showed genitals ravaged by disease, and there was no information about how queer people had sex. The messages I got about sex were pretty much that no matter what happened it was going to be wrong and embarrassing the first few times I tried it, but I was given little information on what “it” was, besides highly dangerous if done incorrectly or without protection. I tried my best at being heterosexual for a while, masturbating to a floating picture in my head of Brad Pitt’s face isolated from a body; (looking back this was a pretty funny attempt to achieve normative desire) there was something that just wasn’t clicking for me. My friends would moan and complain about their relationship problems or their one night stands, while I was much more interested in making collages alone and listening to Joanna Newsom. When I was 14, my mom sat me down in her bedroom and asked me if I was gay. Flustered and caught off guard I just muttered “no, I mean I don’t think so” and got out of there as quickly as I could. How I wish I could stand in for my fourteen year old self as the self I am today and say to my mother “as it stands, there is no model of sexuality that has presented itself that is relatable to me.” because that was my reality at the time. I discovered my sexuality in my early twenties after having a wild sex dream about another co-worker at a creative writing summer camp where I was a councilor. It was definitely an aha! moment, experiencing very raw and authentic sexual desire for the first time, but the fact that it was for another woman made me feel confused and unsure. “What is my life going to be?” I had to ask myself, because being queer was not part of my original plan. That question has lead me along the path that I am following today, one that is guided by my inner passions and curiosities and desire to achieve an authentic feeling of community and acceptance, as apposed to skewed perceptions of what is “right” or “expected” of me. This is what has lead me to the Pleasure Chest. I am so excited to talk to sex with people in an environment that is safe and de-stigmatized. I am excited to make people feel like their desires are valid and normal, probably because I needed that when I was young and I had to figure it out on my own. To some extent we all do.

 

Feel Everything Change

By Annie Zidek

One hour from Vienna and my dad and I drive through the Slovakian countryside, hugged on either side by withering sunflower fields. Eventually we snake through the small blue collar towns of what used to be Czechoslovakia, each looking like the other with yellow weeds growing like hair out of the sidewalks, small houses with faded window panes and peeling paint, and the occassional shirtless, wrinkly old man on a bike. The only thing setting the towns apart are dinky, worn out road signs.

 "VYSOKÁ PRI MORAVE." The village where my great-grandfather was from, the town name that's been thrown around the family for years is finally tangible, and a white sign memorializes it.

My eleven year old great-grandfather left Vysoká Pri Morave with his family and immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. Following Ellis Island, his family stayed in New York City for awhile where he and his older brother John sold wire brushes on street corners; later in his teens, Stephan and his family moved to Chicago, where eventually Stephan and John started their own business, Midland Metal, on the south side of Chicago. The business flourished, and Stephan grew into a happy and successful family with a wife and two children. His life in Czechoslovakia was in the past.

We scour the town for our family. We start at the church—St. Andrews—which serves as a divine fortress with its three foot wall encompassing the building and the gates barred with a twisted wire serving as a lock. Without finding a "Zidek" enscripted on the monument in front of the church for Vysoká soldiers who died in World War I, we drive six blocks to the cemetery—marble graves graced with flowers and a profound respect for the dead. We pace through headstones and relay names. "Cermak." "Wonzova." "Višvaderovi." But we can't find any "Zideks." Considering the town doesn't have a town hall and with over 100 years since our family has been there, it's safe to assume we won't find anything of our family in Vysoká.

 This scattered Bohemian ghost town offers no remnants of the Zidek family, and the only signs of life are dark haired boys in alleyways and children playing in an abandoned, rusty car by the river. There's a stark contrast between our origins and how far our family has come: the small Czech town watches the world pass by and she ages, and Stephan left and started a life wherein he chased down opportunities a small town encased in fields could not give him.

born with eyes of moonstone,

the whole village comes from their Mothers

eyes wide open—soft and watery.

nursing from the morava

and riddled with doubt,

they suckle on bygones.

as children they pick at their palms

and rip off the end of life lines.

 

they build houses out of gnashing teeth

and paint them the colors of wine.

their skin fades to brown

from the sun's and soil's kisses

and promises of new tomorrows.

they have nervous habits—

peeling the skin off poplar trees

and eating bohemian wildflowers—

as they wait to be bailed out.

 

under marble slabs and their lovers' remorse,

with stripped throats and calloused knuckles,

they plunder cities they haven't seen

because they never made it past

the sunflowers.