This month I started going to a rehabilitation center for Ukrainian soldiers outside Kyiv to teach Awareness Through Movement on Wednesdays. They lie on the floor while I talk them through a series of movements for an hour, asking questions to direct their attention to sense with greater breadth and finer nuance what they are doing in any given moment. Today I failed to make it.
Until February 24 I was a Feldenkrais practitioner-in-training and taught classes like this a couple times per week. It’s best done in a quiet, warm room, as it’s important to work in comfort and ease. Discomfort distracts your attention from sensing the details of movement and breath.
Last week I managed to teach three classes—two with a group of acting students and one with the soldiers. The cold creates a challenge, but one that is not impossible to overcome. Yesterday while preparing I found I could hardly move, in part due to all the clothing—sweater, hood, scarf—cluttering my neck and torso, in part from the condition my body has taken—tense, gathered, like a bulwark against the cold and unpredictable, constantly changing conditions. The light goes on, the light goes off, it comes back on again (oh, joy!).
On Saturday at home the power went on at 9.30 AM and didn’t go off for the next scheduled blackout. It didn’t go out in the evening and by 11 PM I was wracking my brain: What else should I scramble to do while I have power and Internet? What can I read? Who do I owe a letter? Can I just turn off the lights and go to bed? A sense of normalcy was returning, I could almost relax.
On Sunday I wake up to a stench of sewage in the apartment. It had been coming periodically over the past weeks: I assumed it had something to do with the regular power outages, maybe some pumps in the building weren’t working properly. But I noticed cracks in the ceiling near the sewage pipe in the bathroom, another one in the hall from when I’d been flooded by the upstairs neighbors some years before. The crack continues into the next room ending in a water stain, which appeared during that past accident, but it looks like it’s getting bigger.
Now I’m imagining that the sewage drainpipe is leaking somewhere between our two floors and dirty water is gathering in this space that is neither theirs nor mine and at any minute it will start dripping and then pouring down into my apartment. This is what I tell the building superintendent, a high-strung Soviet woman who does her job but not before telling you off, bemoaning how difficult her job and her life is and how much you’ve put her out by calling about the problems in your apartment…
“Nadia Mykolaivna, are you going to call the emergency plumbing service or should I do it myself?”
“Larissochka, have I ever let you down? Tell me, I’ve always done what you asked, right???”
“Yes. Please call the plumber and ask that he come today.”
The plumber arrives in the late afternoon; it’s getting dark, the power is out, but he’s got his own flashlight. He pokes around the bathroom and asks when was the last time I used the small sink by the toilet. I don’t use it.
“That’s where the smell is coming from! When there’s water in the siphon, the curved bottom of the drainpipe, it blocks odors from coming in from the main sewage pipe; if it dries out, then the smell comes in.” He takes apart the pipe to check — dry as a desert.
“Really?” I gape at him. No sewage collecting above my head to burst through the ceiling at any moment?
“Trust me,” he says.
“I’d be delighted if that’s all! But I want you to take a look at the kitchen.”
He listens to me patiently, as if he were talking to his wife. Let’s me show him all the places in the apartment where I smell something funny. He takes the box of matches from the counter, lights one and holds it up to the kitchen vent. “See that?” The flame is drawn toward the vent. “Nothing coming from there.” I agree.
“But what about the cracks in my ceiling?”
“The cracks in the ceiling are dry. If there were something flooding from above they’d be damp.” That’s logical. I’ve already learned that the crack runs along the “fault line” where two structural panels meet. They form the floor of the apartment upstairs and the ceiling of mine.
“There’s no space in-between?”
“No space in-between,” he assures me.
“How much do I owe you for this visit?” I ask.
“Minimum charge is 350 hryvnias,” he says, almost like he feels bad to charge me. I don’t mind. This is what I needed: to talk to a man, and one who understands the construction of this building better than me and how the water system works between apartments.
It’s all a bit ridiculous, and I haven’t completely let go of my nightmare fantasy. “Could you please leave your name just in case something happens in the next day or two and I have a question?”
When he leaves I’m unnerved. I was convinced—by the evidence of my senses and the story my mind constructed—that I was on the verge of being inundated by sewage from the upstairs apartment. The first thing he did when he entered the bathroom was to feel the sewage drainpipe. Dry. “If there were a leak, it would be dripping down along your pipe continuously. It’s dry: no leak.”
The cracks in the ceiling, the smells, the old wallpaper that’s been peeling from the walls for years but drooped a bit more this morning… I was ready for the worst.
I just tape up the drain in the sink as he advised and really, the smell from there has stopped.
After talking to Dima from the rehabilitation center this morning about how to organize my Feldenkrais classes so that more soldiers come I had a feeling that maybe I should skip today.
The air raid alarm sounded 45 minutes before I planned to leave. When there’s an air raid alarm the metro stops running to my above-ground station. But anything can happen in 45 minutes so I sit down to lunch and stick to my original intentions. I’m getting ready to go and hear a bang when I’m in the bathroom. Was that an explosion? It could have been someone banging the door to the stairwell. Though why would they be in the stairwell if the power is on?
At 1.30 PM the alarm is still on and it’s late to take an alternate route via public transport. How much will a taxi cost? Bearable. And quick. When I get into the car I ask, “Is the air raid still on?” Yup. “Did you hear any explosions?” No. “I heard a sound, but it may have just been someone banging the door.”
By the time we’re driving through the center I’m having misgivings—should I go through with the plan?—when I realize we’re on the right bank. Here the metro is running—safely underground. I ask the driver to drop me off at the nearest station, pay him the full rate and descend. There are people milling about the underground passage, near the turnstiles, sitting scrolling their phones on the extra escalator that’s not moving. While others descend and ascend, continuing their movements through the city.
I’m already behind schedule when the train unexpectedly stops one station before my destination. And stands there. And then announces that all metro service has stopped for the time being. By this point I’ve read that some critical infrastructure has been hit. And I’ve decided to abort my mission to go teach Awareness Through Movement to a handful of soldiers outside of town.
Because all this time I’ve been preoccupied with my movements about the city, with indecision, and not rehearsing my lesson. My attention isn’t tuned. We’re in another missile shower, we’re being hit, mobile service is down, I can’t get through to tell them I won’t make it, and now the metro has stopped and I’m stranded at a station in a part of town I hardly know and I feel the urgency of waning daylight even though it’s barely 3 PM.
Sitting on the toilet in the dark, alone in my cold apartment, everything I’ve failed to do in the past decades comes back tenfold. It’s not just missing a partner, lacking a life purpose, and that I still haven’t insulated my balcony and windows. What did I not write, what questions did I fail to ask, when did I hesitate or chicken out that I should be sitting here with russian missiles raining down on my home while the good people of the world look on and yearn for some benign way to get out of this? Where is the political community of autonomous thinking individuals that I yearn for?
I’m resigned to the fact that the power won’t come back on tonight, nor will the water return. But the sun will rise tomorrow, bestowing daylight upon us, of this I’m sure. And on December 22 the days will start growing longer and next spring it will start getting warmer. Nature is a great comfort with its cyclical rhythms.
I didn’t realize I had such a strong attachment to the future until the lights started going out.
PS My friend Anastassia with Economists for Ukraine has launched a drive to provide generators, power banks, and warm things to people in several areas of Ukraine, including Kyiv and Mykolaiv. You can make a tax deductible donation here: https://ai4good.org/economists-for-ukraine/winterpower/
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Seeing you, hearing you. Wishing you warmth and light. Missing you among us as we finish training xo
Thinking of you from Toronto. The soldiers are lucky to have you there to teach them Awareness Through Movement as part of rehab. Olena Nitefor.