a Kind of Refugee / 13.11.2022
The 7th floor is quiet after climbing the stairs. No children screaming across the hall. No cat face—eyes flashing green in the dark—to greet me when I open the apartment door.
Now my life is structured by the schedule of rolling blackouts: 4 hours off, 5 hours on, 4 hours off… The schedule varies from day to day. Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays are the worst: the power is off from 9 AM—1 PM and again from 6—10 PM. If I have to go out and meet somebody in the afternoon, I have practically no chance to work at the computer with Internet. Scrambling to finish my shower or an email that can’t wait till tomorrow, I anticipate the impending power cut. But the abrupt change to total darkness is always a shock.
Sometimes it goes off off-schedule. It’s confusing too when the power is on when I expect it to be off. Should I take it as a gift? Or a sign that they’re repairing the power lines and soon these regular blackouts will stop (until the next missile barrage)? Maybe I don’t have to think of a cafe or friend’s place to go for my next zoom appearance?
The other day found me in a dimly lit cafe (conserving electricity) translating an American psychiatrist consulting Ukrainian psychosocial support providers who work with people who’ve had to flee their homes. “When you’re in survival mode,” she says, “you don’t have attention and energy available for planning ahead.” I’m surviving alright, but in a mode with a similar effect: scrambled mode? scrambled eggs mode?? scrambled eggs a la mode???
It’s taken a toll on my health and psyche. My friends’ too: each is a bit disoriented, more anxious, deeply tired. We reach for one another for support and yet each one of us is depleted, with nothing extra to give. My friend Larisa shares a piece of wisdom from her Japanese butoh teacher: when your mind is tired, enliven your body with spirit.
The morning light draws me outside. Walking along the river I look into the faces of people I pass. Hardship opens me to seek companionship and sharing a kind word with a stranger might elicit one in return. Most of the faces are closed; some acknowledge my shy smile; others transmit an anguish that stops me from blurting out “Good day!”
Civilian life in the midst of war is an uncomfortable exercise in contradiction. If being a warrior demands complete acceptance of the circumstances you are in to focus on how you can best perform your task right now, then the very actions and patterns of civilian life include a memory or residue of those peacetime conditions that are now missing. You may have no guarantee that the power or Internet will be available in the next moment, no assurance that the store or water fountain you’ve set out for will be working when you get there, but your life still consists of obligations that depend on these things.
And when you’re working in a civilian framework with people around the world who do have electricity 24 / 7 and do not live under constant threat of missile strikes then you too are supposed to be reliable. That’s part of the unspoken agreement that underlies any commitment to work together: that you will do your part to overcome your unreliable conditions to show up in zoom at the agreed-upon time and find in yourself the strength and clarity of mind to perform.
“Kyiv is functioning,” I said to a roomful of Americans at a university in Connecticut (and some invisible viewers online) on Tuesday. Afterward I regretted that I chose to highlight Ukrainians’ fortitude and resourcefulness in the face of adversity instead of giving them a more visceral picture of what it’s like to live mostly in the dark.
One listener asked, “How can we help Ukrainians with electricity?” While the panelists from the Dnipro city council talked about generators, I wondered why this question made me mad. “Look, Ukrainians are coping and will continue to persevere,” I added, “But the issue is not in the number of generators we have. The issue we need your help with is making it impossible for russia to keep hitting our critical infrastructure with missiles.”
For all their genuine care and commitment, most Americans still treat what is happening in Ukraine as a misfortune.
When you’re watching the war from a safe distance it’s tempting to fall into spectator mode. You’re uplifted with every gain, with every brilliant maneuver. And when your guys lose, you go home disappointed. But your home is still there, just as you left it. And you can turn the lights on or choose to leave them off.
Walking along the dark streets of Kyiv one evening it hits me: the world that we’ve built—globally interconnected and interdependent—depends on us getting along to function. And this interdependence has reached a scale where compromise between nations (or corporations) threatens the freedom of people to take care of themselves and organize their life together in contact with one another at the scale of local communities (and sovereign nations).
The news that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have entered Kherson is amazing. Watching the crowd in the city center cry “Kherson is Ukraine!” I have flashbacks to watching videos in March of the residents of that city newly occupied by russian forces shouting “Kherson is Ukraine!” while the latter shot and sprayed gas at them. I am happy for the residents of Kherson that they are in Ukraine now. What does their return to freedom look like? People driving through the city honking their horns; leaving their houses to shout “Slava Ukrayini!” and “God bless you!” to the Ukrainian soldiers walking by; holding hands and dancing in a circle in the dark in the middle of the city square. Freedom means being able to act and speak according to how you are moved.
When the war is happening onscreen, it’s easy to exercise your logical reasoning in the privacy of your own mind and favor abstract solutions of a global scale or imagine ways to help alleviate suffering in the most effective way possible. It’s only when you take a step to get involved do you hit up against physical realities—size and weight, distance and time, cost and mortality. Every logistical operation involves dealing with people and the systems they’ve created, varied and specific to every culture.
Kyiv, like many Ukrainian cities, still has city-wide centralized heating. This is but one holdover from the Soviet Union’s policy of centralized control over all aspects of life. Today Ukrainians are thinking about localizing energy production and consumption at the scale of building or neighborhood. While we fight to secure and protect the freedom to practice our own political culture, we in Ukraine face a no less daunting challenge: noticing our own deep-seated Soviet attitudes toward power, control and cooperation and refusing to perpetuate them.
One morning I hear a loud whistling as I walk through the park; it’s intermingled with bird sounds, but distinctly human. On the way back home I pass the culprit and can’t help but grin. He responds with traditional Soviet brusqueness: Whistling fortifies the spirit.
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