a Kind of Refugee / 13.08.2022
Things move too slowly in Kyiv. I move too slowly in Kyiv. It’s not that I’m relaxed, things just take too long.
The other night I went out for drinks on the right bank. Getting back home by curfew would have meant cutting short the time I had with my friend, so I decided to spend the night at her apartment. Really, this was also to satisfy my need to keep moving from place to place. At 4 AM the air raid alarm woke me up, powerful and urgent in this neighborhood. After briefly entertaining the thought to get up and move away from the window, I just lay there listening to its insistent melody. How many times have I chatted with Ukrainians about how the air raid sirens sound in different cities?
Aside from that, I’ve had a week of full, uninterrupted sleep each night. I finished a translation and book-editing project begun two years ago that was disrupted by russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24. I’ve spent an hour social dancing, seen some of my dearest friends, and bought a jean jacket.
It’s a terrible feeling to be living in Ukraine and think — did I not do anything yesterday to help the Ukrainian armed forces?
The power of Ukraine’s defense is in the close and mass cooperation between the armed forces and civilians. As the war grows more concentrated along the front (which stretches over 2000 km), without daily reminders of people in uniform, army vehicles speeding through the streets, barricades, checkpoints, freshly shattered buildings and the unforgettable sounds of explosions, one needs to make a mental effort to maintain contact with the war’s urgent demands.
Still (and we know this from the years following 2014), the separation between citizen and soldier drains energy from the Ukrainian defense. As more time passes and repeating the same generic actions of asking for money and general problem-solving and crisis management gets tiring, the challenge is this: Take stock of the general situation and your position in it and decide what you can do well that most needs doing—quickly.
I’m learning to discern the different qualities and meanings of the sensation “I don’t want to.”
1) Sometimes it’s the body saying, “I’m tired and need to rest. I can’t do THIS any longer.” So you stop and take a break by changing activities. Rest could be lying on your back in the dark, but it could be a run or a walk outside or engaging someone in conversation…
2) Sometimes it’s the brain trying to economize. Nobody (physiologically speaking) wants to think more than necessary. We often prefer automatic tasks, even performing useless labors just to avoid the real work of thinking, decision and action. But sometimes something must be acknowledged (you know this cuz you feel it) and it demands YOUR response. In this case “I don’t want to” is the whispered temptation of Evil. Courage is the antidote.
3) Sometimes it’s you saying, “This is not my thing. It’s not satisfying. The effort required to overcome my own resistance is draining.” Maybe now is not the time, maybe someone else should do it, maybe it’s something that nobody should do. Making an effort to do it anyway is dishonest and possibly dangerous.
I left Mykolaiv because it was no longer clear what I was doing there. Space, time, a change of perspective help get a better view.
War has taught me that success matters. Not success in the sense of feeling good or making money or gaining recognition but: Did your shot hit the target?
War is expensive. It takes tremendous amounts of resources — metal, explosives, human beings — and destroys them. The point of this game is to disable the enemy’s forces to prevent them from harming and destroying you.
It’s primitive. But it is very concrete.
In order to hit your target you need to know:
1) what your target is
2) where it is located (distance from you, is it moving, etc)
3) what are you trying to hit it with
4) how your instrument works (what it can do, what powers it, what conditions it needs)
5) how will you know whether or not you’ve hit your target?
Time matters too. Seasons change. Day ends.
I’ve observed a disturbing tendency among intellectuals, whose material (knowledge, discourse, thought) is immaterial, to not respect the concreteness of words and concepts, to forget that speaking is action. If your question or statement does not hit its mark, then you did not succeed.
If my words have not hit the target—if they don’t express what I want to say—then I need to recalibrate, try a different approach, take a rest and return fresh, ask for help, train, find different equipment, etc. until they do. Of course I will miss. But the point is to keep getting closer and improve my rate of accuracy. Otherwise what are we doing except shooting the shit?
Most of the people I was working with in the army were not previously trained to do whatever they must now do to incapacitate the enemy; it demands putting their entire selves into learning quickly and succeeding in their task. Immersed in this environment, I felt for the first time what a privilege it is to work in culture. People engaged in the sorts of labor that keep societies running, from rescue workers to lawyers to medical specialists to the armed forces, express their culture in HOW : how they do their jobs, how they treat the people they work with, how they communicate and rest and spend their free time. When culture is your job, you observe all these things and think and talk about them.
If you treat your work of thinking and writing with the seriousness and urgency of a sniper or artillery team, it may be just as decisive in defeating russia.