a Kind of Refugee / 15.03.2023, Part 2
Thinking about resilience and recovery feels good. Western civilization is confident about overcoming adversity: think positive, pick yourself up by your bootstraps and persevere. Look for the silver lining and make lemonade!
This photo is from the rehabilitation center where I volunteer once a week.
The man at the end of the row will learn to walk again on prosthetic legs. I am sure of it. His movements while lowering himself—unassisted—from his wheelchair to the floor were so elegant I said so out loud. After the Awareness Through Movement class I taught (involving instructions like “turn the outer edge of your left foot toward the floor”) he said, “While I was lying on my back I was imagining that I was walking.”
After class, alone, I paced the room, just feeling. Not crying or imagining losing my legs, nor appreciating being able to walk around on my own two, just feeling the dissonance in my own legged body with that of the bright young man missing his right leg below the knee and his left above it—forever.
It’s wonderful that he imagined himself walking. The ATM lesson was a success. He is clearly resilient. Maybe someday he’ll even participate in the Invictus Games, where wounded servicemen and women from around the world compete in adaptive sports to facilitate their whole-person rehabilitation after life-changing war injuries.
But not every soldier who has been permanently transformed by their participation in Ukraine’s defense has the same strength of spirit. Dealing with loss, especially the loss of pieces of your own body, is a very personal journey. It turns my stomach to think of HOW MANY young men and women (and children! and not-so-young!) are losing limbs from russia’s attack.
The next evening I’m on a train, heading to see my cat in Poland. If home is where the cat is, then where is mine?
I imagine my grandmother—long before she became my Busya—fleeing westward in 1943. She’s with her son Yurko; her husband has either gone ahead or is following some distance behind. It is critical that they blend in with the surrounding Poles and she’s terrified that her three-year old might suddenly start speaking Ukrainian and give them away.
She’s leaving her homeland with its familiar landscapes, her family and friends, the sticky web of language, culture and relationships that has held her life together, because her husband is targeted to be killed by Polish insurgents. What is the center of gravity in her life now that its been uprooted? When faced with making a decision, what does she orient toward or return to? Her son and husband, no doubt—the people with whom she shares both where they came from and wherever they are going. Even if she will be separated from her husband for indefinite periods while he goes off to work somewhere, they’ll stick together. After the war ends this small family unit will grow to include my mother. Later in the US they’ll even reconnect with friends they’d had in Ukraine, now North American immigrants too.
It seems that my life centers on the rupture, on the disconnect, on the memory of the irreversible loss of something precious and vital that accompanied my grandparents to the land where I was later born. I do not know what it feels like to not have this split gap hole sensation of being rent from something very dear, of being incomplete. It speaks of the impossibility of family, of the impossibility of home as something reliable and permanent. Instead I make efforts to perform relationship in real time, as intense and fleeting as an evening at the theater.
The only thing I’ve had a long-term commitment to is Ukraine. Longer than to my cat Telepatia. Much longer than any romantic relationship. Even longer than smoking. I have a permanent residency permit and an apartment in Kyiv. When I come back from visiting Telepatia, the apartment feels particularly empty.
Humans have a remarkable ability to adapt. Still, limbs don’t grow back; children and grandchildren are shaped by what their forebears lived through.
What scares me more these days than russia’s cursed missile strikes is that you and I could get used to this war. Accepting it as the background of everyday life; integrating reading the news and sending money here and there into my daily routine; putting me and how I feel at the top of my concerns—all this threatens to make the war in Ukraine endless. And that is just what russia wants in order to keep the world destabilized and currying to its demands.
Resisting my natural capacity to adapt has become part of my personal war effort. As long as I am not directly under fire, I have to fight my own tendency to stop seeing and feeling the permanent damage that russia is inflicting on Ukraine and Ukrainians every day, a knowledge that demands that I do something to stop it. I have to fight my natural tendency to tune to my social environment when Western people want to talk about mental health and hear how difficult it is to live in a country at war or how they can support me and Ukraine, instead of pausing to really take in the cruel, hideous and chilling facts of what has been done.
russia has launched a massive military invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign nation, which means hundreds of thousands of russian troops on (or in) Ukrainian soil, daily deadly destructive russian shelling and airstrikes of Ukrainian cities, and russian illegal occupation of swathes of Ukraine’s territory. russia has illegally annexed four regions of Ukraine, an independent, sovereign nation, in addition to Crimea which it illegally annexed in 2014, flouting the fundamental principles that undergird international law. Without getting into war crimes, these things are already blatant, intentional violations of the international security order, which you rely on for your own safety.
How can you see this and remain unchanged?
Continuing to pretend (dream, fantasize, hope) that russia’s illegal incursions into Ukrainian territory, which have ALREADY changed the world order and balance of power, are reversible only postpones the day when you realize that the West—not just Ukraine—has to do something to protect itself and its power and its people from russia’s will to domination.
If people spent a fraction of the time they devote to their mental health to making a mental effort toward thinking about what the war in Ukraine means to them, the world would be far more resistant to russia’s violent force and Ukraine’s victory would be certain.
PS Operation Renew Prosthetics is providing prosthetics for Ukrainian soldier amputees in the US (Maryland) and looking to create a prosthetics center in Ukraine. You can read more about the work being done by its founders Bill Endicott and Mike Corcoran and make a donation through the Brother’s Brother Foundation here: https://brothersbrother.org/bbf-supports-operation-renew-prosthetics-for-ukrainian-soldiers/
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I fear the huge profits being made by armaments manufacturers are an incentive for “the West” to support Ukraine just enough to keep Russia busy. Meanwhile Ukrainians are giving their limbs and lives to defend their country against an invader who acknowledges no rules.
My grandmother left Latvia on the last train out in 1944. The Soviets shot her brother in 1938, took grandfather off the street on New Year’s Eve 1940 and sent him to the gulags. Then there was the German occupation, a story in itself. Grandmother knew from experience that women do not fare well in the path of a plundering invader, and that the Russians were worse than the Germans.
She knew that her children’s future lay in getting them away.
I fear a time is coming, though, when there will be no “getting away” for any of us. Not sure how useful all those profits will be when wars have completely poisoned the world.
If home is where the cat is......
the poignancy of this comment really hit home. I’m glad you got to visit Telepatia.