a Kind of Refugee / 15.03.2023, Part 1
Anka sighs and says, “I wish I could get an injection of energy.” She’s tired, the intensity of last year has given way to a different, more sluggish pace of activity.
“I’m tired too,” I say, slowly, “and deeply sad.”
We are sitting at the kitchen table, looking at the trees outside the window of her house in a suburb of Warsaw. I’ve come to Wolomin to visit Telepatia, my cat, who Anka and her mother were kind to take in last March. I needed to be free to move at a moment’s notice, free of responsibility for a living creature who depends on me. She’s been there a year now.
Really I’m happy to indulge in the soft joy of sharing a home with other living beings. Alone in my room I hear Anka enter the house, followed by her familiar sigh; dog steps running up to greet her; her mother walking through the corridor, then opening the kitchen door; Telepatia meowing to be let out, then climbing upstairs. There is a visceral pleasure in taking meals in the company of others and in social intercourse that has no purpose besides expressing and acknowledging and appreciating that we are here together in this same place.
“Normal” life feels utterly decadent in wartime.
I’m living in a fairy tale, I think. My cat is sitting on my lap, purring. Petting her takes time and I remember how we used to live, when every morning began with her climbing onto my lap for some affection.
A trip to Ikea takes me back to childhood, when I would delight in visiting furniture stores with my parents or in deliberating over which carpet to choose for our living room—sometimes we’d get squares to take back home with us. My sister and I collected paint samples gathered in long aisles of home improvement stores. Lighting fixtures, sink faucets, tiles! Our imaginations danced among the countless ways to design your home—though nothing as exquisite as the room setups in Ikea in Poland in 2023. Every design, its texture, color palette, shape and lighting, sparked fantasies of a different life. You could be a modern businesswoman or an earthy mom or a sophisticated party hostess or an artsy fashion designer or a princess if you just got the style right. My parents actually redid the living room, kitchen and bathrooms periodically, changing carpets and couches and curtains. But I spent my childhood dreaming up as many versions of myself as there were spreads in a JCPenney catalog.
Spending time in a home where I feel at home, even if I don’t actually live there, stirs something deeper, more fundamental in me. But I can’t settle here: staying would require committing to the fairy tale.
In February a journalist from Connecticut public radio* asked me, “How have you been able to manage your mental health and anxiety? Do you ever feel helpless as to how much you can actually help?” It’s a question I’ve received (in some form or other) from many people from outside Ukraine in recent months.
One’s mental state is a private matter: it fluctuates in relation to who you’re with, how much you’ve slept, what you’ve eaten, what you’re doing and whether it’s familiar or new, comfortable or threatening, etc. An attentive observer, even if they don’t know me, will find signs of my mental state in my bearing, intonation, in the speed, grace or awkwardness of my movements and speech.
Your concern with my mental health is a digression from the matter at hand, from what is patently visible: russia’s ongoing military assault of Ukraine. Why do you not want to talk about how to stop it?
Unless it’s just a polite way of asking, “How do you keep from losing your mind?” To which I could readily reply: Just barely.
Do I feel awful? Oh yes, most of the time. Do I feel helpless? No. Do I feel like I’m not helping enough? This is not a matter of feeling: as long as Ukraine lacks a significant battlefield advantage and you are talking to me about my mental health, then surely I’m not. And you are not either.
How you feel can only be a guide for your action in the world. That is what is visible, subject to judgment and response from others. Your concern with my mental health stands on an assumption that being in a good mood or productive or motivated as individuals is our primary common aim. As if everything else were okay and accomplished. When something so utterly personal and immaterial is the subject of public discourse, it signals great confusion in how people understand politics.
This puts the greatest strain on my mental health.
Thursday morning in Wolomin we learn of russian missile strikes on Kyiv. My phone shows a friend wrote at 5.19 am: “How are you? Something’s burning over in your area.”
“I’m in Poland,” I write back, recalling the feeling (which quickly prompted a fantasy) I had while packing for this trip. What if my building were to be struck in my absence? What if something were to happen that I could not return home as planned?
I packed the usual: documents, cash, computer, phone, necessary charging cables, headlamp. The weather-versatile set of clothes (layers, all black), 6 pairs of underwear, рускій воєнний корабль іді НАХ*Й T-shirt, notebook and Orwell that I packed for the week could last me a month, or three, if necessary. I even took lipstick.
Is there anything I would salvage from my ruined home, I wondered from Poland, if I were in Kyiv? Would I mourn my dictionaries—these cumbersome relics that I refer to nearly every day? My plants that have traveled from place to place for over a decade? This is all environment and environments are variable. I’ve never been able to gather everyone and everything I’d like to have around me together in one place at the same time for longer than the duration of an event.
I could part with the things in my apartment pretty easily. I’d miss the place and the light and its proximity to the river more deeply. But the FACT of not being able to return—and of whatever event that could prevent that from happening—that would be incredibly hard to endure.
Then it hits me: this HAS happened, countless times over the past year, for other people (like the ones who’ve relocated from other regions to my neighborhood) right here in Ukraine. This is what is hard to endure. This is why I stay. This is why I must keep fighting.
Can you have these thoughts about your own things and loved ones without direct personal experience of war? Try the following thought exercise: Imagine that you lose your home—not through an accidental explosion or severe weather event—but from an enemy missile sent intentionally by russia to destroy you (or your neighbor or compatriot, you are all the same to them). (If you have trouble imagining russia, try China or North Korea or whatever you find most believable and draw a parallel.) Imagine you’ve lost your home—unexpectedly, in an instant. What do you feel? You may be surprised to discover what you care little about. But what stays with you? What piques your emotions?
Continued in the following letter…
*You can listen to the full episode of Where We Live, hosted by Catherine Shen, reflecting on Ukraine a year after russia’s full-scale invasion here (I’m on at 24:00): https://www.ctpublic.org/show/where-we-live/2023-02-27/one-year-in-cts-ukrainian-community-reflect-on-the-war-in-ukraine
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