I gave the below speech in Budapest, 2019, October.
I wrote the speech during the summer of 2019, which happened to be a summer of great nightmares. I've been battling fear as long as I can remember and committed crazy, courageous things to conquer it from cross swimming Lake Balaton (5.2km - 3.2 mi) to live in New York City (7 years), to have a free birth (this latter was not fully intentional so it might not count) - with no avail. Fear is not going anywhere from my heart but I do conquer it from time to time. Tedx was such time.
If you are like me, a lover of words: I wrote my speech down for you below the video.
" Every great story can be summarized in two sentences. I learned this from John Atkinson, the Canadian cartoonist. Atkinson drew mini portraits of great novels with sarcastic captions summarizing their plots. He called the series "Abridged Classics".
"War veteran takes forever to get home. Then kills everyone."
This one you might know:
"Everyone is sad. It snows."
War and Peace. By Leo Tolstoy.
"Girl spends seven years living the American dream. Then...goes back to Hungary."
Now this last one was not summarized by Atkison. This is my own story, abridged by the Hungarian media. This is what happens when you make a point by publishing your own story in the form of a book. You are going to get abridged. But the point of my book, that I called "Dreams of Others", was about the power of our roots. And so when I was thinking about what idea I should bring to this talk I thought: Let's follow our roots! Follow your roots and you might just find your perfect compass for the future.
"Girl spends seven years living the American dream. Then...goes back to Hungary."
So why did I do that? Not the "going for the American dream" part, the going back part. Why did I abandon the dream?
It started before I was born.
My grandmother spent a considerable amount of her life in water, swimming. She wouldn't even leave her home without two items: her toothbrush and her swimsuit. Not because she was a sportswoman; she was actually a journalist, she sat every day and through many long nights bending over a typewriter, typing, her scarlet nailpolish chipping. But she swam because swimming was the only constant thing in her life she could cling to even in Romania where she had been deported as a prisoner with her two sons, a 6-year-old and a 1-year-old. She was also nine-months-pregnant with her third son.
If every great story could be abridged, the story of my grandparents would go like this:
Devout Lutheran daughter of a military officer marries a Communist atheist Jew devoted to democracy. They spend most of their marriage in prison.
And yet, my grandparents would never leave their land.
That land, Hungary, is, of course, this tiny country in Central Europe that operates like a village. Its story might even sound familiar to you, if you share my four-year-old daughter's taste in movies: She loves Moana -- the movie about the fate of a Polynesian village whose people have no memory of their adventurous ancestors' identity.
Similarly, the story of Hungary starts with wild warriors who occupied the Carpathian Mountains in bloody raids firing off arrows sitting backwards on their horses eating raw meat from under their saddles and continues on us turning into sad defeatists conquered by every powerful nation and their mother.
One of these oppressors were the Soviets and when they crushed Hungary's freedom fight in 1956 the top politicians of the Hungarian revolutionary government and their families were kidnapped and deported to Romania. Among these top politicians was my grandfather; these men were later brought back to Hungary for a show trial, many of them were executed.
When my grandmother learned that my grandfather hadn't been killed but sentenced to 12 years in prison, she ran to the nearby river and, in the water, she cried in relief. She swam and swam, and it was only later that she saw her guards pacing up and down on the shore like nervous seagulls not daring to lose sight of the wife of a prestigious political prisoner.
My grandmother always used to say:
"Swimming keeps your mind straight, your body strong and your soul free." She would take me to her 150-year-old peasant cottage at Lake Balaton every summer. There she taught me to read and to swim.
I was happy when I was with her. I was so happy at that old summer house, in that village by the lake, which brings me to my first point about roots: Don't let go of people who filled your heart when you were young. They will always be your reference point. Even if they weren't perfect. Even if they left you. Especially after they are gone. The experiences you loved doing with them are the memories that will make you happy for the rest of your life. Remember those activities. Remember those thoughts. Remember those people.
Now the people of Moana and the people of Hungary have one thing in common: they have absolutely no memory of their ancestors' identity. We, Hungarians, don't think of ourselves as warriors but as so-called ROOTED people for whom "there is no other place in the great world outside of here" as our famous anthem states.
Now, this might be the only thing I share with a Disney heroine but Moana and I, we both sailed away from home when we lost our grandmothers.
In was in my early twenties, I had a dream to be boundless. What is happiness if not freedom? Free of the fears, traumas and achievements of my ancestors?
So I pursued happiness but when your pursuit goes against the anthem of your people -- to be emotionally and physically bound to the homeland from the cradle to the grave -- your pursuit of happiness causes conflicts.
As a matter of fact the late French novelist Michel Tournier thought that all human conflicts originate in the tension between rooted and rootless people.
"Human history began with a fratricidal murder," he writes. "One of the brothers was Cain, who cultivated the earth. The other was Abel, who raised animals. Cain surrounded his buildings with walls, his fields with fences. Abel and his children drove before them immense flocks of sheep and goats over prairies without borders. The conflict was inevitable, a conflict that, in diverse forms, marks all human history."
So are you a farmer or are you a shepherd?
Are you rooted? Are you rootless?
Does it matter?
I used to think I was a shepherd.
"Girl spends seven years living the American dream."
New York was NOT my first adventure abroad. But it was New York that offered me a brand new home. I was awarded scholarships among them the Fulbright grant, which made it possible to graduate from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which made it possible to graduate from NYU with a special degree in Business and Economic Reporting, which made it possible to join Reuters, the news agency. I married a gorgeous, smart, American citizen from Brazil. Our baby girl was born in the heart of Manhattan.
A dream was coming true. The American dream.
But you know how this story ends. "Girl goes back to Hungary."
What happened was that while New Yorkers around me suffered from FOMO, the fear of missing out, I did some real missing out.
I missed out on the TIME I could have spent with my loved ones back at home.
I missed the first steps of my goddaughter.
I missed the last steps of my godmother.
And I was no Moana because the spirit of her grandmother appears in the middle of the ocean to support her, but the spirit of my grandmother went silent in New York City. Or I might have not heard her among all that noise… Either way the part of me that was shaped by my grandmother's influence was getting buried under the new me, under the New York-me.
The part I'm talking about? In the morning my grandmother would wake me, a six-year-old first grader who had trouble with waking up early (actually, I had trouble with waking up early in all grades, to be honest), she would wake me by leaning over my pillow, citing the Hungarian National Song by Sandor Petofi into my ears:
"On your feet now, Hungary calls you!
Now is the moment, nothing stalls you"
Because of my grandmother I cannot pick up a plum from under a plum tree without starting to sing a Hungarian folk song about falling plums and disloyal lovers. For me, sharing poems in everyday conversations shows that I am the granddaughter of Eva Bozoky. That I am Mirjam Donath.
In New York I stopped thinking in terms of poetry. The poems were in Hungarian in my head. And they would be lost in translation. So part of my identity like the culturally empowered woman who used language as her instrument for creating art, was slowly disappearing.
No biggy. Just the core of myself.
I missed who I used to be.
Those long-haul flights from Hungary back to the States at the end of every vacation gave me the kind of heartbreak doctors in the 17th century diagnosed as "the potentially fatal disease of nostalgia". There, in the space in between spaces, I had to face putting my "other life" irreversibly on hold. And so I was grieving it.
So much so that I refused to move on, because burying my past was making me less of myself. For me embracing my roots meant to head back to where I had learned how to swim.
Now I don't need to go far to face my critics. My husband says I basically lost my mind and my ambition when I left New York City and returned to that old cottage filled with spiders at the far end of nowhere to write a book...in Hungarian.
You see, my husband, who left Brazil as a young student and started a new life in the States, is a true American. He doesn't need to look back any further than his parents to see his roots in adventurers: they were among those who left their old lives to build a new capital for Brazil in the late 1950s.
He is correct that being rooted to a village is also clinging to my comfort zone. He is correct that abandoning my journey meant giving up my dream and giving up a dream is failure in many ways.
But I also know that he has to say these things to get me on the road again because if I am in a village cottage with our children, he has to be in that cottage too. And he can't do that for long because my husband is a shepherd. Married to a farmer.
Miracle, we haven't killed each other yet.
Do you know how God punished the biblical Cain for killing his brother Abel whose flocks had devastated his crops?
God forced Cain to leave his vegetable gardens behind. God forced Cain to become himself a nomad, as his brother had been. But Cain did not go far. He soon stopped and built Enoch, the first city. Thus the uprooted farmer had become an architect: a new kind of sedentary lifestyle.
Cain didn't "give up" his adventure. He just couldn't change his nature. Which brings me to my second point: One can live far from his roots -- not without his roots. Know your roots to know yourself. Know yourself to know what truly matters to you. Because there is no bigger dream out there than doing what truly matters.
So my husband and I made a pact. Our children, Mariska and Abraham, Hungarian-Brazilian-Americans, spend their early ages both in Hungary and in Brazil to get to know their roots. We believe that once they know where they come from, they will never be lost. Imagine dark, deep woods. Or just any place you got lost once that scared you. You got scared because you had no idea where you were. But knowing where you came from will give you the necessary courage and tools to continue your journey. Ahead. To the future. Or backwards. To where you came from. To a different future, if that feels right.
We don't fail by making choices, I plan to tell my children. We don't fail by leaving our island or by abandoning an adventure, even if that adventure is the dream of many others.
We fail, when we don't find out who we truly are.
"Girl spends seven years living the American dream. Then goes back to Hungary with her family to show her children who they are."