Living Her Truth
Story by Holly Tarson
Photographed by dKol Photography
Surrounded by stacks of magazines and piles of photographs, Laurie Szostak is in her element. The front office of her home is the heart center of Organic Hudson Valley magazine. One vibrant wall covered in purple chalkboard paint is scrawled with ideas and inspirations. Laurie holds up favorite issues, reveling in the cover art she adores. Her titles are Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director, but most simply put, Organic Hudson Valley is her baby.
She came to it by way of graphic design and years of working in layout and publishing for Reader’s Digest. She always dreamed of having her own magazine, but OHV is much more to her than print on a page and her name on a masthead. “I’m a voice for the farmers, the agriculture community…the artisans, the not-for-profits, the people who are working their butts off. If I can help them with this magazine—to help promote the local, made-in-America, Fair Trade—that’s what I want to do.” This blissful intersection of purpose and passion has been a long time coming. Laurie’s manifestation of her vision has been hard earned.
She was born in Yonkers, but spent most of her childhood in the Hudson Valley. Her family moved to Beacon and then Pleasant Valley, where they lived across the road from a farm. In many ways, it was an idyllic youth. Laurie learned about farming from her best friend. They milked cows together after school. “We’d race our horses up and down the cornfield,” she remembers with delight. It’s clearly a touchstone for her, and one she’s stayed connected to, like a beacon, or even a lifeline, in the face of life’s dark twists and turns.
Her pastoral childhood had one glaring exception. And now Laurie is speaking her truth to offer hope to others who might be walking a similar path. “To find this voice on a personal level is huge,” she says. With a deep breath and a quiet but steady voice she says, “I was sexually assaulted when I was a young girl.”
Laurie was one of five children, and her home was a hub for frequent extended family gatherings. Amid all the cousins, aunts and uncles, it’s not hard to imagine that she was just one of many, and a closed door went unnoticed, a confused and upset girl remained unseen. The abuse, at the hands of her teenage cousin, was ongoing. “I was seven years old. I think you are too young at that age to even know what to do. I didn’t know what to do.”
She carried the burden, the guilt, the shame for a long time, thinking it was her fault. And she traces back much of what followed to those formative experiences of abuse, that, as a child, she never had help understanding. “That’s where it all started…thinking I needed a man in my life and thinking I needed to do everything for them.” For years, her life was marked by rocky relationships and (in her words) bad choices.
She met her first husband in a bar, a detail that became ironically clear in hindsight. Their relationship was a stew of dysfunction and control. “I was a doormat,” she says. Eventually Laurie ended the marriage, only to bounce into another relationship, this time with an alcoholic. She lent him money, bailed him out of jail—saved him. As often happens in life, the names were different, but the story remained the same.
Yet just as patterns repeat, opportunities for change arise. One night her boyfriend was arrested for DWI while driving her car. Laurie was home with her young daughter when the phone rang. It was the police. “These nice officers drove to my apartment,” she explained. “They gave me my keys and they said, ‘You don’t want this in your life.’” And that is when Laurie took the first arduous steps toward a different future. She found her way to a support group and went to her first meeting.
“My life changed that day.”
The meeting felt like a stadium to her—it was full of people. “I sat down and just listened. It was a lot. A lot of tears. A lot of pain. Seeing what I was doing with my life. Where I was. What I allowed.”
Her transformation was both sudden and incremental. The process of creating a different life and changing the patterns that had become so familiar took tremendous courage and effort. Laurie battled some sizeable demons and struggled with depression. One night she smashed her daughter’s doll house and attempted to use the shards to cut her wrists. Somehow, her daughter called Laurie’s mom (a fact that still amazes Laurie because she’s sure her daughter didn’t know the phone number). Laurie’s mom and a friend came to help her through the night. Looking back, Laurie says she feels a higher power intervened on her behalf that evening. She knew she needed help, and the gift of her support group proved beyond measure. “When I step foot in that room, something magical happens.”
With the help of the group, she discovered she had choices, which is when the real work began. She’d spent most of her childhood as a caretaker—caring for siblings and relatives and internalizing the message that she needed to take care of men. She embarked on the process of rewiring those messages, sorting out “whose shit was whose,” as she puts it, and learning to prioritize her own needs. “It taught me how to love myself, respect myself. It taught me to stop being a victim and be a survivor.”
Laurie tried to focus on whatever was good. “I became the sponge [for] anything that worked to change myself for the better.” Topping that list were her beautiful daughter from her first marriage and a career she came to love.
She worked for Automatic Systems Developers and found her way into the graphics division. At that time, everything was done on drafting boards and typewriters. She lights up as she describes the process of cutting text out of sticky paper and pasting it on blueprint. “[That] was so cool!”
Years later she went to work for Reader’s Digest, where her talent and passion converged with good timing and opportunity. Apple came in to train people on the (groundbreaking!) Macintosh computers and Laurie said, “Please—me, me, me! I want to do that.” She learned fast and became a key person in the transition to desktop publishing for the magazine. She so impressed the art director that he asked to have her transferred to his department, “Which is really kinda cool,” she says amid a cascade of endearing giggles.
Navigating a challenging career as a single mom was sometimes overwhelming, sometimes lonely. But Laurie was beginning to chart a new course for her life. “I try to take whatever’s thrown my way and make the best of it.”
Bit by bit, the pieces of a beautiful life, a life she was choosing, started to fall into place. Laurie met the love of her life. They got married. He adopted her daughter.
But deep change rarely follows a linear trajectory. And moments of crisis can unearth emotional tendrils we thought were long ago healed. Laurie’s crisis came in the form of a tractor-trailer. “BOOM! [I was] literally rear-ended while delivering Girl Scout cookies.” It was a devastating accident. Three discs had to be removed from her neck, which was rebuilt with a metal plate and a bone fused from her hip; her shoulder bone was shaved as part of rotator cuff surgery. Learning to walk with a walker post-op was incredibly painful. Instead of sweetly nesting in her new home with her husband, Laurie had to navigate a brutal road of rehabilitation, which cut her to the core. “It’s very hard now seeing this and going through this…” She pauses here to take a breath and wipe her tears. “I used food to help me to deal when all these things happened, and that’s why I got so large.” Two steps forward, one step back.
It’s been years since the accident and light-years of personal growth. Laurie has healed her body and her soul. She and her husband have a wonderful son, and she has amazing grandchildren. In this past year and a half, she lost weight and continues to work at managing emotions without using food. “In order to move on in life with different situations, you’ve got to forgive. That’s very hard to do.” This is the big work of living, and Laurie is the champion of transformation.
The icing on the cake is the manifestation of this magazine—the harmonic convergence of her voice as an editor and a person. It began as a partnership with promise that quickly deteriorated. Too many pages, too many issues, too many bills to pay, much of the money coming from Laurie’s personal pension account. It wasn’t what she envisioned when she came up with the title Organic Hudson Valley. To her, “organic” means sustainable, small. Things had gotten out of control. So Laurie stepped up to say, “I’m stopping production of this magazine because I don’t like what’s going on.” The partnership dissolved, and Laurie took responsibility for the crumbled remnants of the publication. In her communications to the staff, she asked for patience as she charted a new course. She committed to paying everyone what they were owed, and is still making those amends. “I think that was one of the most humiliating things I’ve ever had to do.”
This is metamorphosis. Because this time, when life crashed down, Laurie took the reins without hesitation. She knew who she was, what she wanted and the steps required to get there.
Organic Hudson Valley has been growing slowly and organically ever since, in line with the principles dear to Laurie’s heart. She prints locally because that’s her mission, even though out-of-state publishing would be cheaper. She strives for authenticity, aiming to fill the pages with substance, reflecting her values. She’s rebuilt the relationships with vendors, writers, photographers because “it’s about these core relationships and trust…I had to build trust again.”
Laurie sees this journey as a test of her faith. She prays for guidance and feels the people in her life were placed there for a reason—all of which makes OHV what it is today.
The magazine is the manifestation of Laurie’s truth: “Staying true to who you are. [And] the roots. The roots of this Hudson Valley.” She’s an alchemist of her own life, and she strives to do the same for others. “I want to inspire others to shine.”
In her yard, a scraggly tree is covered with yellow walnut-sized fruit. Laurie picks one and tastes it. “Ooh, they are like little Golden Delicious! I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to make something out of it.” Of that, there is no doubt.