Tag Archives: Ukraine

Spring and a Prayer

This time last year I had herbs in the ground, Gerber daisies riding shotgun along the edge of my porch, geraniums in gigantic and hopeful pots siting by the door, promising to be gigantic themselves. Spring arrived sometime in early March and that was fine with me. 

I gave up on one more snow storm and gave over to garden catalogs, plastic pots of English thyme and I dug in the dirt to my heart’s content. I circled tools and garden clogs in catalogs, drove out in the countryside for bags of my favorite potting soil. 

This year I watch the Weather Channel and wonder when I can plant the delicate herbs and poppies I purchased just before Easter. They are still on the porch and they complain like a toddler whose shoes are too tight.  Their roots are binding a little more each day and they droop and pout.  

The geraniums are still in the nursery, nestled with their siblings.  The season is so wonky they hadn’t made an appearance when I visited the weekend before Easter. I will go get them today if it warms up and I venture out. 

It is an odd spring, weather-wise, world-wise.  The time of all hope and promise, whether looking at the Christian calendar or the greening of the fields, yet a sadness creeps just at the edges, an unease, and I find myself blinking in the light on some days, wishing, in an ashamed way, for a little more rain, more clouds, so I can stay inside and crawl under a blanket, watch mindless TV, or do nothing at all.  

It isn’t like me, really. 

I spent the week before Easter cleaning and cooking and bringing up serving pieces from the basement.  I watched the news hardly at all.  My tribe ascended, lovely and loud, with babies crawling around, and I spun like a dervish between kitchen and dining room, replenishing plates and glasses all Easter Day long.  

I didn’t have a single cogent conversation with anyone, but I heard the sisters-in-law remarking how difficult it is to be happy or joyful this Easter with Ukraine…

The speaker trailed off, not knowing how to finish the sentence.  How to see the images, how to think about the invasion and have adequate words. 

There are none. 

As a child who spent her bedtimes waiting for the Russians to come snatch her from her bed,  who hid under a desk with her tiny classmates, whose father worked on digging a bomb shelter after dinner each night, I can’t seem to grasp now the threat that Putin might use nuclear weapons.  

The immediate concern is Ukraine of course, and maybe Central Europe.  My friends in the Czech Republic are certainly on edge. But here? I can’t think so, but then, there is an unreality to what is going on over there, even as we see with our own eyes, even as dots are connected for us by retired generals, diplomats, experts. 

I am in incessant prayer, although I am not certain it is prayer, because prayer has always felt like this wispy and vague endeavor, lacking a firm beginning with a rush to the amen. Now, I have dispensed with even the amen, adding three dots of my own…which I mean to be a stand in for “more to follow.”
This circular prayer suits me these days as I watch the news and even for the poppies still on my porch, as they grow more pale and wan each day.

I dig in the dirt and plant my basil, because the earth is there to receive and the basil of full of potential, desirous of only a soft place to land.  The sun in this part of my yard obliges, every day, all day.  

I fear I sound morose or depressed, and I am not.  But I am more sober and thoughtful, I will give you that.  I wear the uncertainty of things a little differently now, a coat I feel the weight of, but not so buttoned up I cannot breathe. I stand with the world that suffers great pain. In my own small way I bear witness.  I tend the little piece of ground I’ve been given, and I am grateful for it. 

And the sun and the rain, the just and unjust, lessons I try to understand.  The childhood civil defense drills and sunflowers waiting to grow in a torn land beyond our reach, but familiar now, nonetheless.

The Boys of Ukraine

I was traveling with my friend and colleague, Kveta, heading to an orphanage for boys somewhere in western Ukraine.  We traveled over pock-marked roads, sometimes driving on the right side, sometimes the left, dodging the largest potholes with varying success. 

This part of Ukraine is beautiful but remote, everything in sight churned up and lumpen from the thawing winter:  the fields, the forest floor, and especially the roads. 

Kveta and her school, Caritas College of Social Work, have deep roots in Ukraine, sending students to complete internships, students like Marketa, who travels with us.  We arrive in mid-afternoon, with Roystia, our driver and guide.  He is a priest and a great friend to the orphanage and the boys. 

We round a corner carrying our bags and a dozen or more boys hang out the upstairs windows, shouting down to Roystia. 

“Where will the girls stay?”

“Will they stay in our rooms with us?”

We are the girls, of course, old enough to be their mothers, grandmothers, maybe, and Marketa the beautiful and mysterious older cousin.

Roystia laughs and translates for us. 

“No, they have their own room, and you must leave them alone,” he shouts back, but already they boys are clattering down the wide stone steps and they clang out the door to get a better look. 

It is a place bereft of women, of motherly tenderness and care.  There is a cranky cook and a kind housekeeper, but she is busy and overworked, and the boys rarely see her as she swirls between her tasks. The headmaster, too, is kind, and the teachers.  They admit it is a problem for the boys, but can only shrug and look off in the middle distance.  There is no solution to this delimma.

The boys kick soccer balls and grab whatever is at hand to hold above their heads and wave at us, vying for attention and appreciation. One boy brings me an American football, surprised I know how to throw it, but good-natured and laughing when he throws it much farther.  

One boy, maybe twelve,  runs into a small out building and stands just outside the doorway with a chainsaw as big as he is.  It is running and he revs it, or I think he does, until he is satified we have all seen him.

Alexei, the youngest child here, is only five, too young to be here, but his older brother is here and looks out for him. Alexei is everywhere, follows us like our shadow, weaseling his way between us and the the railings of the winding staircase, managing to sneak into our room unseen as soon as we unlook the door.  He rummages then, looking in drawers, bouncing on each of our beds, saying something in Ukrainian I don’t understand. 

The older boys know his tricks, and come to remove him, embarrassed and apologizing in English.  Alexei will knock on our door at 5:00 a.m.each morning. Any time we head to the large room we share, there he is, tiny and fast, grinning and bouncing and repeating the same phrase, again and again.

On our last day I learn what he has said all week.  

“You will take me with you.  You will take me with you.”

Demetri wants us to stay.  He has made a space for our shoes in the hall closet where thirty sets of shoes sit, waiting for their owners to go outside.  He comes to get us, points to the place for our shoes, holds out the soft slippers for us, the ones the Ukrainians wear indoors.  You see? He seems to say.  We will make room for all of you.  Stay.

The little boys pose with their buddies for photos, seem to have endless energy for it. The older boys, the adolescents, watch in an amused way, always on the edges, not as frisky as the smaller boys, but not far away from us, either.  

They agree to a photo finally, when no one is looking. They go shy and awkward, these handsome boys, perhaps a little embarrassed that they want their picture taken as much as the younger ones do. 

I think of these sweet boys, the ones who spoke English like little scholars.  The one who had a way with the chainsaw, and the graceful athlete in the broken-down shoes, his arm instinctively finding the arc of a thrown football.

Demetri holding out slippers.

Alexei, and how he broke my heart, in the same moment we broke his.

How even he is fighting age now.

Where are they, the boys, as bombs fall on Ukraine?  And the boys who came after them, and how many more boys made orphans, this very night, by sheer evil.  And what are we to do?

Ukrainian Forest, with Cuckoo

It was decided we should go to the forest and grill meat. Our social work conference had come to an end earlier in the day and the afternoon was given over to dancing and celebrating and music, as these things do in small Ukrainian villages. “Mama” had a boyfriend who lived on the edge of the forest and she insisted we go. He would start the fire and wait for us.

We loaded the small van with onions, jars of pickles, thick bread and raw sausages, bottles of the local vintage, benches from the small community hall upon which we would sit for our thirty minute ride. First in the van was an electronic keyboard. I know, I didn’t get it, either.

We arrived just as the last vestiges of day fled the skies, the small clearing where Mama’s boyfriend’s cabin stood shrouded in mist and that other, eerie thing you can’t see exactly, but the hair on the back of your neck knows is there. The forest lay just beyond the clearing, deep greens and black, a small fire blazing orange and crackling in the dark, a blue haze around the cabin, Mama’s man standing outside the door and playing the trumpet, something mournful, to greet us.

What transpires next is a bit confused, but the electronic keyboard was set up close to the fire, spirits flowed, meat was grilled, the keyboard player cranked out endless refrains of “Černy Glahse” or something that translates roughly “black eyes.” This is what I was told, or worked out for myself.

We sat in a circle on fallen logs as bottles of spirits and plates of grilled sausages were passed in swift rotation.

It was dark, thank goodness, so I could pass the bottles of sliivoice and wine with barely a sip. More worrisome were the sausages, so I took small pieces of meat, nibbled around on the charred bit, tossing the rest over my shoulder and into the woods, and thus avoided the three-day bout of debilitating food poisoning that brought down my travel mates.

While my friends were busy honing their singing skills and incubating listeria, I closed my eyes and tried to isolate the night sounds that made their way through all the glad revelry. It was in these woods, during a lull, that I heard it. Thought I must have it wrong, listened harder. There it was again.

A cuckoo.
In the forest.
In Ukraine.
With sausages.

It turns out the cuckoo is a horrible creature, kicking eggs out of nests to lay their own, so some other, better mother might hatch them, never suspecting her own babies are somewhere down below, not to be.

Just then, though, I didn’t know this about the cuckoo, and the cuckoo’s call at evenfall was mysterious and mythical and somehow made sense of the events unfolding around me and explained my presence there, too. This bird in a tree helped me feel grounded and present–and amused and filled with love for the forest, that bird and my sweet companions.

It was earlier this summer when I was awakened, every morning at 4:30 a.m., by a cuckoo, or a bird sounding very much like one. This went on for weeks, disrupting my sleep and puzzling me. The voice was similar to the mourning dove, that odd, mechanical and hollow hoot of summer mornings. But it wasn’t a mourning dove.

A friend asked what the bird looked like, and it never occurred to me I might see it in a tree, attach the call to a particular bird. I did some research, and we do have cuckoos in North America, but their call is different from their European cousins. I studied the plumage, vowed to get up early the next morning and go outside, see this bird.

The next morning 4:30 came and went and no cuckoo’s call. Nor the next morning, nor the next.

A younger version of myself might haven been bothered by this, strident to prove to others and herself, she really did hear a cuckoo, bringing it up in conversations no one could possibly care about, just to prove herself right. That old insistence to be taken seriously.

I don’t care quite so much about that anymore. But I wonder. Was it a sign, a gift, a secret message for me to decode? So much to put on a thing so fleeting and flimsy as a bird’s call. Or maybe, it was just this. A memory of the forest, and faces lit up by fire and drink and friendship, all smiling, all singing, all together. And somewhere an electric keyboard, and somewhere, a cuckoo.