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a Kind of Refugee / 14.05.2023
Last night I read that Kara was dead. Kara, the Ukrainian word for “punishment,” was his alias. I met him in Mykolaiv, perhaps we exchanged a couple words. But the man was unforgettable—his sure, sturdy form, completely unassuming. You’d never guess from his stance or movements that one of his legs is artificial. Still, he kept serving, working as a driver, yup, manual transmission, taking the drone unit out on assignment and bringing them back to safety. I hate these Facebook posts addressing a dear person, too soon departed, in the past tense…
“You were the answer to everyone with scoliosis of the heel or an inflamed ass, who thinks they’re unfit to defend their country,” wrote Nastya. “I’ve been sharing your legendary story for the past year. Now You are a Legend.”
Wait, no, it’s not the Facebook posts—sincere expressions of love, respect and grief that must be seen—that I hate. Nor is it the fact that yet another bright spirit has been wrested from the fabric of human relationships they enlivened. Let’s be honest: I hate the people who violate Ukraine’s borders and sovereignty to kill Ukrainians living on their own land and those who justify, support and encourage that violation.
Sashko is lying in hospital, recovering from surgery to remove a piece of shrapnel from his knee. He’s lost sensation in the lower part of his leg. I ask, from sunny Kyiv, if Zaporizhzhia is under heavy attack. Yes, every night. Of course nobody moves the patients down to a bomb shelter… Hanging up, I am angry, disgusted. HOW CAN I STOP RUSSIAN MISSILES FROM FIRING ON ZAPORIZHZHIA?! That is the question I keep coming back to.
Moshe Feldenkrais, who created the method of learning in movement that I teach today, reminds us that “We cannot function satisfactorily if our thinking, senses, and feelings do not affect our acts or response.”1 He was born 300 km west of Kyiv in 1904.
On Thursday, May 4, 2023, two days before his birthday, I did something that a year ago I thought was impossible. I taught an Awareness Through Movement class during an air attack on Kyiv.
Three students are lying on the floor in a studio in the city center, tuned into their sensations. We’re barely halfway through the lesson when the air raid alarm goes off. I’m unused to it, since it’s barely audible from my apartment on the other side of the river. In this neighborhood it’s loud.
A siren is not enough to ruin a party, but this past week sirens have usually been followed by the arrival of missiles and drones—by the dozens and in unusually quick succession. The other night I was awoken by the sound of them being neutralized by the air defense (these too are explosions only in the air). It sounded like the finale of a fireworks show, or popcorn.
A siren is a call to ask: Do I stay or do I go? If go, then where? If stay, then where is the safest place in this building? (Even if you don’t go there now, you want to know where you will head the moment you decide to move.) And if we stay put, do we keep going with the Awareness Through Movement lesson?
After February 24, 2022, I decided that it is impossible to practice the Feldenkrais method in a war zone. If my responsibility as a teacher is to create conditions for my students to learn through sensing themselves through movement, which requires feeling safe enough to listen to and process what they are feeling, then I cannot satisfy that requirement when russia is attacking all of Ukraine with the intent to destroy every living thing on this territory.
When you live in a large country at war for a long time, you do find ways to keep living, participating in the war, and attending to matters that have nothing to do with war. As long as the missile explodes somewhere else, at a distance, you are, for the moment, safe. Safety is impermanent, but while it endures you are free to live as you wish. Knowing that it can end at any moment, you must also be ready to move when that moment arrives.
Three people have come to the half-basement of a 5-story apartment building this evening for me to teach them an ATM lesson. Heavy curtains cover the large windows—right behind the students’ heads. It’s not exactly a bomb shelter.
When the siren blares, slightly nervous, we discuss what to do. Nobody wants to leave the building; going outside is more dangerous. There’s a small supply room in the middle of the floor, which would provide the most walls between one’s body and the outdoors. I understand that my students want to keep going with the class.
Here are four adults in an unfamiliar situation and I remember the basic principle for acting in an emergency: you have to think for yourself. Every person responds to danger differently and to subordinate your own sense to somebody else’s is tantamount to making them responsible for your life (or you taking responsibility for theirs).
I continue teaching. We hear something fly past overhead. Sounds are information—about distance, direction, speed and type of threat. It sounds like a plane, strange. “Was that a missile?” I ask. “Probably an air defense rocket,” someone responds.
Unfamiliar sounds put me on high alert because I don’t know what made them. I suppress the urge to run to the windows or outside to see what it is.
The three people lying on the floor remind me that I am responsible for teaching the ATM lesson. Or deciding as the teacher that sorry, I’m cutting it short. They are adults who can make their own decisions but I cannot ignore that what I do and say (just like what they do / say) influences what the others may choose to do. Responsibility for my own safety and for that of the group means alertness to what is going on around us and not ignoring the potential danger we are in.
I ask them to stretch out and rest (while I take a deep breath and accept all of the above).
“Press your left shoulder into the ground. Press both your shoulders into the floor.”
There is a barrage of sounds. “Popcorn” again, only this is much closer than what I heard from my bed last week.
I’ve always understood that in teaching ATM it is my job to remind and affirm to my students that they are in safety. Here I realize that my job is to remind them that even while they are lying on the floor doing small movements with attention to their sensations, we ARE NOT in safety. My job is to keep bringing all of us—myself included—back to the moment of what is really happening.
“Anxiety arises when your body signals danger even when you are in conditions that are safe and peaceful. Well that is not the case here. One really does need to be alert to both the sensory information coming in from outside and your body’s signals.”
I invite them to see where they can make less of an effort while pulling their stomach in and inhaling, then pushing it out while exhaling.
“We are practicing creating space between your conscious control of your movements and your body’s capacity to perform certain functions automatically, allowing it to take care of the things it does well without your interference. So that when you do have to act—and you never know when that will be and what it will require—you are better prepared to meet the challenge.”
A loud sound, like a long continuous whistle of wind, dominates the room. “That sounds like a Shahed,” says one student. I’ve never heard one before. Soon after—an explosion.
Yes, I let a few swear words slip out over the evening. And we finished the lesson, which was a lesson in sensing yourself in apprehension, in a situation that is threatening with no way to know what will actually transpire. It was neither safe nor injurious.
Class ends and we discover that the air raid alarm has too.
Feldenkrais, who left his family home in the Russian Empire at age 14, never returned to Ukraine. He grew up and developed his ideas about learning in various countries and languages, from Israel to France to the USA. Teaching his students, he always insisted that there is no single correct way to do something—only more or less appropriate to the given situation. He was never imprisoned in a concentration camp nor did he visit the Soviet Union.
Outside the air smells of something burnt, slightly metallic. My students chat excitedly while I’m still trying to grasp what just happened.
I had sensed that one student’s determination to keep going was related to distracting from the fear of awaiting attack. But I did not realize how terrified another student was while quietly following the rest of the group. The third remarked on the strange sensation of doing something other than scrolling her phone for news during an air raid alarm.
People carry their fear and regulate their relationship to the world around them so very differently. There are so many ways to distance yourself from danger psychically when it’s beyond your control to do so physically.
An unarmed individual cannot fight a russian missile attack directly. The best you can do is hide. But you can’t spend your life hiding. It’s the only life you’ve got.
PS My friends in the Angry Birds unit of the UAF, using combat drones designed and produced specially for their needs, are continuing to reduce russia’s capacity to inflict damage to Ukrainians. At the same time, they are establishing a precedent for how cooperation between military combatants, the Ministry of Defense, private enterprise, and civilian engineers and aviators can efficiently improve battlefield results.
Their success has been recognized by their higher level commanders but government bureaucracy, access to component parts, and funding remain challenges to mass-producing more drones. You can help with the latter by donating to Hero of Ukraine: https://heroesukraine.org/en/ukraine-backfire-drones/
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Moshe Feldenkrais, The Elusive Obvious, 1981, p. 37