a Kind of Refugee / 29.01.2023
Don’t be fooled by the increase in hours with electricity in Kyiv. It’s tempting to think this is an opportunity to live “as before” but everything has changed. Too many people have been killed.
I am not the only one who was finally stirred to action by russia’s unilateral genocidal invasion of Ukraine. Only the threat to my existence as a Ukrainian at home released me from a compulsion toward security and comfort to work for something that matters more than my individual life. It’s an age-old human tragedy that you never really learn anything without genuine loss.
War is a state of mind, which never loses sight of mortality. My ability to not do something and then spend more time regretting and making excuses is something I’ve cultivated and battled since my sheltered childhood in the US.
Ptashka (Ukrainian for “little bird”), the 21-year-old volunteer medic who spent 3 months in hell (Mariupol) and then several more as a russian prisoner of war has no regrets nor self-pity. “I did the maximum,” she says in a recent interview. “But this is not super-human; it’s something that everybody can do.” Going all out is not something you learn: you either do it or you don’t.
Ptashka stayed in the hell the russians made of Mariupol; she stayed in an open truck with 30 immobile wounded soldiers as a russian plane flew overhead and dropped a bomb behind the nearest building; she stayed with her brother-in-arms who was dying in the hospital as it was being shelled, defying and cursing the commanders who urged her to seek shelter in the basement. She—a volunteer, a young woman, injured—could have left a number of times, but she never would have forgiven herself for abandoning her brothers-in-arms. Instead she kept working to save them. But she also watched many die, sure that she would end there too.
In a way, she did. Kateryna Polishchuk, youthfully self-centered, cracked and crumbled under the pressure of war, giving way to the steel-nerved, open-hearted, life-loving warrior Ptashka.
The stories my grandparents told about the war they wished I would never have to see were about hardship. When finding a pail of lime-covered potatoes for a group of young hungry travelers was a joy. The blessing of coming upon an empty lice-ridden barracks that once housed prisoners of war and the day-long effort it took to scrub it before spending the night.
They never talked about personal loss. Even those people in the DP camps who committed suicide rather than face repatriation to the USSR—this was a fact, not that so-and-so is now missed. My grandmother only saw her mother once after being taken from her village home at age 15. It was 30 years later. My parents grew up without grandparents.
Last spring in Lviv, Marta and I were having lunch in the modern cafeteria at Ukrainian Catholic University. This deep-rooted Lvivyanka and patriotic Ukrainian told me she used to be mad at the Ukrainian diaspora. How could they have left us behind to suffer life (and exile and early death) in the USSR?
Maybe my grandparents wished I would never be put in the position of having to choose. Between staying to face suffering and premature death and going and breaking the ties to your people and your land. And then living with the consequences of what I chose and lost in order to survive.
I was born into a tradition of abandoning and then yearning for what’s gone. To come back I had to leave something. I never learned intimacy at close range.
The large studio on the fourth floor of the Les Kurbas Center in Kyiv is flooded with light. It’s around 2011. My friends from the performance group TanzLaboratorium and I are working with the Real Time Composition Method (a structure for time-based improvised composition developed by Portuguese choreographer Joao Fiadeiro).
The rules are simple. An area of the floor is outlined with masking tape. Everything that takes place in this zone is considered part of the composition. The movement, thinking, preparation that happens outside is not. Anyone can place an object or themselves into the square to contribute. Each participant watches the common situation unfolding over time, identifying its center, and thinking before acting to change it. The main rule is that before entering the composition space, you think of at least three possibilities for action and choose the one that best fits the situation. In other words, you and your mind are there to serve the situation and not that the situation is there to serve you and your needs / desires.
That afternoon I kept getting tangled in my own deliberations and doubts and hardly stepped into the square. Afterward when I complained, “I can never think of something to do fast enough,” my friend replied tersely, “When you’re in a common situation and you don’t do anything, then everybody else has to do the work for you.”
We practiced the RTCM a lot over the years. How many times did I witness how the common situation—moving and alive—can die before your eyes if nobody steps in to do something to keep it going?
The comforts of civilization—including order and reliability—are dangerous. You find yourself in the center—your individual needs, your individual projects, your idea of yourself—and it becomes easy to betray the people around you. I’d rather be an intentional killer, learning to shoot or man a piece of artillery, than to let things (whether my friends, countryfolk or the vibrant world we share) die from neglect, because I’m focused on my own feelings, safety, well-being.
It is work to not lose track of the war. I’m not talking about prescribing concrete actions (though feel free to make a habit of donating every day or week) but rather about a state of mind. Every time I forget about the war, about my duty to fight those demons that keep me from seeing what is right in front of me and my connection to it, evil wreaks havoc through my doing. Every time you turn away and say, “This war is not my problem,” someone in Ukraine dies.*
PS We’re preparing for the next stage of battle, while the fighting in the east and south has not let up. You can help my friends in Kyiv buy three thermal vision devices (AGM PVS-7 NW2 – Night Vision Goggle, Gen 2+ Photonis P45-White Phosphor "Level 2") for a National Guard Unit defending Bakhmut.
Credit card: https://send.monobank.ua/jar/AWXjfsbrPx
The US’s announcement to send 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, while Germany releases dozens of Leopards from captivity across Europe is encouraging. Your continuous advocacy is working! Please show your support for these recent efforts and urge your government to continue providing military aid. Precision long-range missiles and fighter jets will be a vital contribution to Ukraine’s defeat of russian invading forces.
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Praying for your strength ❤️
I've revised this post (structural rearrangement) since it was emailed.