Sunday Morning ~ Budapest

Sunday Morning ~ Budapest

May 15, 2022

Hi Everyone,

I’d been to Budapest in December of 2012 when traveling from Warsaw to Zagreb. I’d taken an overnight train to Budapest then another to Zagreb which left from a station on the other side of the city. I shared the sleeping berth with an older woman from Romania who spoke not a word of English and I spoke no Romanian. Somehow we communicated, though, I can’t pinpoint how. She shared a thermos of warm chocolate with me in the morning. I carried her bag to her connecting train to Bucharest. We hugged goodbye. My train to Croatia left five hours later so I decided to walk from one station to the other a few miles away. That was my only experience of Budapest: an early morning, deserted, cold, and mysterious walk through a strange city. I gaped in awe of the architecture and planned to go back someday and really see the place.

My friend Matt is a geneticist who teaches at a college in Rochester, New York. He’s also a priest and helps out in our parishes in the summer months on MDI. He was doing a Fulbright scholarship in Ukraine, working on agricultural ethics, and last summer we talked about what he hoped to accomplish and I thought I might visit him in Uzhhorod, figuring it would be a great chance to see some of Ukraine. When the war broke out he evacuated to Budapest so a Ukrainian visit will be delayed a bit. Shifting travel plans I boarded an overnight train from Warsaw to Budapest on Tuesday and visited him there. This time I was alone in the berth and though I missed an opportunity to meet someone interesting, I loved the privacy (my own bathroom!) and good night’s sleep. I barely noticed the stop in Prague. An hour before arriving in Budapest, the porter brought breakfast. I didn’t even know that was done anymore. I arrived in Budapest well rested to bright warm sunshine into a gorgeous train station designed by the Gustave Eiffel company. Matt was there waiting with a map marking my guesthouse and other points of interest as well as a public transit pass. A perfect welcome. 

The contrast between Warsaw and Budapest is striking. It’s interesting how these two cities, both devastated by war and communism, emerged so differently. I’m wondering how Budapest got such a party vibe? I saw scads of young people bar hopping, moving in groups as if it were a handsome/beautiful competition. I felt dowdy, like I should go get a nice pair of shoes and a better bra. I don’t know if it was graduation or international bachelor/bachelorette week, but there was some serious fun happening in multiple languages. You’d never know there was a war going on next door.

Hungary was always a mystery to me. As a kid I heard the term “Iron Curtain” and thought of it literally. All that transpired behind that drape was none of my business. I daydreamed in history class so don’t even know if Hungary was mentioned much there, not that I would have remembered anything if it were. I knew Zsa Zsa Gabor was Hungarian and that’s about it. So, I learned a lot this week.

I like to start a stay in a new city by just wandering around and getting my bearings. I had a luxurious five days, a nice amount of time to explore, so wasn’t in a rush to tick off the list I’d made of things to see. The scale! Everything is huge as if they built this city for giants. And I wondered why I always had such a romantic notion of the Danube? Must be from some song somewhere. The second longest river in Europe doesn’t sound particularly romantic, and it’s not  wide or remarkable aside from splitting this city into Buda and Pest. Hills on one side, flatlands on the other. The first afternoon here Matt and I walked along the river bank on the Pest side and came upon the iron-sculpted shoes. It is a haunting memorial to the people persecuted and shot on the banks of this river after being forced to remove their shoes, a valuable commodity. Twenty thousand people. 

It was the last year of the war, 1944, when Hungary fell to the nazis so they worked hard to do as much damage as they could in one year. Horrifying what desperation reaps. I could see so many correlations to current events it’s hard to take it all in. There is a museum I visited called the Terror House on Andrassy Ut, the huge main boulevard here. It is the building where interrogations and executions were held in 1944 and then again during the 1956 revolution. The museum is well done and indeed terrifying and sickening. I felt it was similar to visiting Auschwitz or the Equal Justice Institute which was once a slave market. It’s important to stand on that ground and pay respect to the people who suffered and died. As hard as it is to be present and learn what happened on those premises, I saw how important it is to acknowledge the past crimes against humanity and honor those victims. Whew. It was painful.

The city is full of the most amazing contrasts. The architecture is jaw dropping. Some of it was destroyed in the war but it wasn’t eradicated like Warsaw. Soviet influence is detectable here but it’s obscured by the grandeur. In Warsaw the architecture makes it very clear who occupied whom; here not so much. On Saturday, Matt and I took the metro to the end of the line, then a local bus to Memento Park, an open air museum in the countryside where the statues that were removed from the city after the fall of communism are displayed. It’s a fascinating and well-done display about dictatorship as a means of understanding democracy. The whole thing has a cemetery feel to it and the plaques have the location of the city where they once stood. Stalin’s boots, left from the toppling of his statue in 1956, are there. The grandstand on which they perch, looks obscene. We were the only ones there for a long while. We walked around, read the plaques, then sat and talked about where our lives were in 1989 when so much changed in this country. We talked about how events of such magnitude could occur while so much of the world remains clueless. What was happening back home then? Stock market instability? Kids’ concerts? Little league games?

I am now on my way back to Warsaw where I’ll have a few days of family time before flying back to the states. I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from my constant news consumption but get the drift of the perils women now face in my own country. This has got to end. As if it weren’t hard enough already for women to get health care. It’s clear what we need to do and I believe it’s possible. Only two more senators and maintain the house. Then we can clean up this shit and put these misogynistic mementos in a park somewhere. Deep breath and onward. They will not win this. 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Gdansk

Sunday Morning ~ Gdansk

May 8, 2022

Hi Everyone,

After two weeks in the border town of Ustrzyki Dolne in the Bieszczady Mountains I headed back to Warsaw by local bus to Krakow then train to Warsaw. I loved the landscape in those mountains. They were not massive or steep. They were soft and old, rounded and rolling; perhaps worn down over millennia. The highest of the peaks is in Ukraine. I found them welcoming. I knew nothing about that part of Poland before going there. I didn’t know how many times the borders changed and inhabitants were suddenly of a different county: Poland, Austro-Hungary, Poland, Russia, Germany, Ukraine, Russia, Poland––strangely, like a bargaining chip or piece of clothing being passed around, as if no one lived there. The region is so rich in oil they used buckets to draw it up out of the ground. It bubbled out of the surface. Almost all the jews who did not flee in the 1930’s were exterminated. The camps weren’t far away. Their train ride was short. The whole area is dotted with old wooden orthodox churches sitting singularly in beautiful mountain settings. I wondered why a church would be set in such an isolated place, then learned there were villages surrounding them at one time, all destroyed. The churches were rebuilt. The whole region is now the wildest in Poland. As the forests grew back so did the wildlife. One of the sisters told us of coming face to face with a bear as she walked in the foothills. I’m hoping my next visit there will be as a tourist and the heaviness of the current situation lifted, though the generational trauma is palpable. 

I’m grateful for the wonderful people I met there, giving their time to volunteer in many different capacities. Local restaurant owners routinely brought soup for the volunteers working at the border. College students took shifts covering 24 hours in the fireman’s tent. The firemen transported Ukrainians to the refugee center, and the people at Caritas provided supplies and support. It was a privilege to work with them for this short time. 

Since I arrived in Poland I have been working on ways to get money directly to some who need it and I want to let you all know how that money has been used so far. Many of you gave generously and it has been enormously appreciated. A woman just south of Kyiv organized a system to get food, goods, and support to women who are not able or willing to leave the country; a chunk of money went to her. Some has paid for fuel a man needed to transport people safely to border crossings when trains were full. Some went to a man who lost three limbs in an explosion; he survived and the money will help him and his family. Some went to a woman with young children and no friends or family to rely on in Poland. Some has gone to a woman transporting people into Poland where she buys specifically needed supplies then transports them back into Ukraine. All of them are incredibly grateful and gracious, not only for the financial support, which is a godsend, but for the spirit and solidarity in which it was given. I believe it is making a difference. I stand in awe of the efforts and strength I’ve seen. I wish I could have done more. 

The bus ride to Krakow was long and uncomfortable, and that was with little luggage and a home to return to. I constantly imagined myself fleeing and what that would be like. I was happy to hold my granddaughter again. We took a family trip up to Gdansk for the weekend and here I sit listening to church bells ringing waiting for everyone to get up. Gdansk is a city I’ve wanted to see for a long time.  My interest started in1980 when there was a new Polish pope and a shipyard electrician in this city who inspired me. I had a new baby at the time and was a Peace Corps volunteer living in a remote Malawian village. Time magazines came weekly via diplomatic pouch and, being our only news source, I devoured every story of the solidarity movement. Being a new mother made me look at the world in a different way. Every world event was highlighted as a life or death possibility. Every action we each took could be significant. 

This completely rebuilt city is inspiring to me. It’s location near the Baltic is stunning. It’s blend of old and new design is beautifully done. I can see a weekend here will not be enough as I could roam these streets for hours and days. We visited the World War II museum yesterday and that was sobering, as if we needed more sobering. It is so well done and powerful. It is a lesson in facing history full on and gave me a deeper understanding of the Polish determination to protect itself and it’s neighbors. I found it hopeful, actually. Clarity of purpose and solidarity does that to me. There is always a tipping point.

On Monday night I will take an overnight train (sleeper car!) to Budapest to visit a friend who was doing a Fulbright in Ukraine and is now displaced to Hungary. When I planned this trip last summer my intent was to spend a couple of weeks in Ukraine with him. I thought it would be a great opportunity to see a part of the world I hadn’t experienced. How things change. 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Ustrzyki Dolne

Sunday Morning ~ Ustrzyki Dolne

May 1, 2022

Hi Everyone,

When I was a child I had a recurring nightmare. A sinister man who looked like Brutus on Popeye, forced me to dance with him in my living room. I could see my family happily watching television in the den just a few feet away and I knew if I could cross over into the den I’d be ok. But I could never get there. I’d try to force him in that direction then wake up in terror before reaching the line between living room and den. I’ve thought about that dream a lot this week. I wonder if the people crossing over this imaginary line into the den of Poland finally feel safe. It’s only a few feet away. 

Some days there are hardly any Ukrainians crossing. On Monday, I think there were only three people. Tuesday maybe twelve. Then Wednesday there were large groups of all ages, lots of children, grandparents, and mothers. They waited in the cold for a couple of hours for a bus to take them to Krakow. The medics blew bubbles to entertain the children. Some of the firemen kicked a ball around with them. The older folks ate soup and nibbled on cookies, looking sad and bewildered. We passed out stuffed animals to the littlest who were smiling and laughing as if this was one big fun adventure. 

An older woman was walking around, up and down the compound. She saw me at the opening of the tent and came over, speaking animatedly, nothing I could understand. “I speak English, sorry.” I said, putting my hands together like I was praying for forgiveness for this shortcoming. She went on a long upsetting soliloquy, “Mariupol” was said many times, I did understand that word. I asked, “You are from Mariupol?” She nodded and made motions with her hands to express buildings going down. Then she covered her face crying. I said over and over, “I’m sorry, so sorry.” shaking my head, putting my hands over my heart. She pulled on the sleeve of her sweater then patted her head. I thought she was asking for a hat. I brought her over to the box of hats and held one up. She shook her head no, upset even more. Tomek came in to the tent and I told him I couldn’t understand what this woman needed. He spoke in Polish but she shook her head, like she didn’t understand Polish either. He took out his phone and put in a few of the words she was saying, then said, “Ah ha! She is asking for the pressure of her blood.” and motioned for her to follow him to the medics. Then I got it. She had a headache and wanted her blood pressure checked, which I found out, was sky high. The medics had her in an ambulance for awhile but when the bus came for her group, she exited the ambulance, boarded the bus, and went off with the others. Every time I saw a Ukrainian board transport for someplace heading away from their country, I said to myself, “God go with them.” 

On the quiet days I read. This is in spurts as it’s necessary to get up and walk around for awhile to warm up. I realized that all of the previous humanitarian work I’ve done has been in warm climates where I can sit and read, write, or paint for hours if there is nothing going on. I couldn’t possibly paint here as my fingers are too cold. I can, however, turn the pages of my book with gloves on.

Tomek and I were talking about how an organization decides when to close up. It’s hard to project the use or need for resources provided and difficult to calculate the cost/benefit. On the days when we are just sitting around it seems like the project should close, then one or two people come and share their story and it seems like just bearing witness and listening is reason enough to stay here and wait. Many of the young adult women crossing can speak English very well and I’ve been able to communicate. That feels good as most of the time I feel incredibly inadequate. I can’t translate even on my phone as I can’t read the words when they are spelled out. Polish is difficult (and by difficult I mean impossible) for me, though I can now say: milk, tea, coffee, water, good, and thank you reasonably well, but reading is out of the question. I’m telling you, I didn’t think I could admire Meryl Streep any more than I do but how she learned Polish so perfectly for Sophie’s Choice I now believe was super human. Cookies is ciasteczka in Polish and it’s not pronounced anything like it looks. Thank you is Dziekuje Ci, with a couple of accent marks in there I can’t figure out how to type, and it is pronounced something like Jenkweeay.  Ukrainian? forget it. 

So, when someone leads off in English because they don’t speak Polish, I get very excited. One young woman driving a van sat with us waiting for others to cross. She was able to transport seven people to Germany where she had family. She said her house near Kyiv was destroyed and she couldn’t stay any longer. Tomek asked if it was a small house or big building. She said, “No, not small house, big with many apartments.” Ah, so a big apartment building was destroyed. Hundreds of “houses”. She showed us photos on her phone. I saw the photos and thought it was astonishing she was as put together as she was. She spoke of fear for safety with a matter of fact tone that made me shake my head at what people endure, how they cope. She had stayed this long because her family had pets they did not want to leave. I asked if she thought she would go back when the war was over? “Yes, of course.” she said. “Everyone is saying this will last three months and we are now going into the third month. Then we can go home and start to build again.” The ones she waited for arrived, then she turned to us and said, “We always thought Russia was our brother because we used to be part of Russia. Poland was only our neighbor. But now, our neighbor is our friend and our brother is killing us.” She thanked us and ran off to her van. Tomek looked at me and said, “So you see? We are hearing straight from the people. This is not something made up like Russia says.” I said, “This made sitting here all day worth it, just to bear witness to her story.” I said “God go with her.”

On Thursday many more people were crossing. I spoke with a woman who said she was a driver, transporting  people out of the country. She wasn’t fleeing herself but transporting others then going back bringing supplies back with her. She’d already made several trips to various locations around Europe. She had lived in the states for five years and her family had active visas. When the war started she sent her teenage child to live with a friend in the US. “Now”, she told me, “I know she is safe and I can help others.” I asked if her husband was fighting? She said, “No, not fighting but protecting the city.” So, I’m not sure if he’ll be fighting if the front line gets closer or how that works, I didn’t ask. Is this like football? Defense and offense? I talked with her for a long time while she waited for others to get across the border. She drank coffee, a beautiful middle aged woman who loved her country. I asked what it was like when it all started. She said they just couldn’t believe it. They heard explosions and were all calling each other asking if it could be true? She looked at me and said, “We are not Russian. We will never be Russian. I will never carry a Russian passport.” I asked her if she needed money for petrol or supplies? She said not right now, but I gave her my contact information and told her my friends have given me money to help people like her and if she needed some to contact me. She said she would and thanked me profusely. The others arrived, she got them into her car, and they headed west. God go with her. I haven’t prayed this much in a long time. 

Our days begin at seven with mass at the uniquely designed church built after communism fell. It was designed by local architects and built with local materials. It is set into the hillside  opposite the Caritas House where we sleep. It has a long sharply sloped roof that is a combination of roof, steeple, and belfry; it is stunning. Coming from a place where weekly mass is sparsely attended in the winter, it’s noteworthy to see how many people in this town attend daily mass, which, most days, is concelebrated. For the non-catholics reading this, that means two (or more) priests celebrating mass together. At a weekday mass. I can’t imagine that happening at home unless the bishop was visiting. My first day at mass I looked around the church for the origin of the beautiful voice singing hymns, sure to see a young, gorgeous soprano standing in one of the many eves of the roof line. One of the three sisters living at Caritas House was playing the organ on the narrow balcony and as I watched her more intently I could see it was her singing. She barely opened her mouth, but from it came what sounded like the voice of angels. It’s incredible to behold. I’ve passed her briefly in the hallway at the house and, unlike the other sisters, she neither smiles nor greets me and behaves as if people in this house are a blight. She looks angry, as if her life has been difficult and cruel. To see her one would think nothing but a grunt or scowl could come from her. Yet, at mass, she is the angel singing; nothing but beauty pouring out of her. I wonder what her story is.

I will leave here on Tuesday and head back to Warsaw. I’ll take a local bus to Krakow, then a train to Warsaw. It feels like years ago I left there, though it’s been less than two weeks. I feel welcome here, love the mountain village of Ustryzki Dolne, and have gotten accustomed to the daily routine. It’s remarkable that just five miles from the border of a country at war, life goes on with remarkable normality. The biggest complaint I’ve heard is they have no visitors here now and it is crushing their tourist-based economy. There are two ski areas, empty since the end of February. I’ve hiked on a few of the many hiking trails and they are empty as well. I pray for these generous villagers who have opened their hearts and homes. Hopefully more of the world will find them when this is all over. This area has seen way more than it’s share of war and suffering.

I’m grateful for all the people I’ve met and my faith in humanity is boosted. There are so many good people in this world. It’s been an honor to work with them.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Kroscienko

Sunday Morning ~ Kroscienko

April 24, 2022

Hi Everyone,

First thing Tuesday morning I set out to find the Caritas office, about a three mile walk from my hotel through the city. It wasn’t the most beautiful walk, but interesting, and I got more confidence learning my way around the city. Thanks to Google maps I found the office without having to ask anyone. The office was part of a complex that looked to be all Caritas but not being able to read the signs, I’m not certain of that. The receptionist didn’t speak English, but she called someone who worked for Caritas International who did. I explained I was here for the next month and wanted to volunteer somehow and asked if she knew of any opportunities with the organization. She was not in charge of volunteers but gave me the number of someone who was. That was disappointing. It took me an hour and a half to walk there and I’m not good on the phone with a language barrier. I considered just walking over to the refugee center and asking if I could work there and just stay in Warsaw, but when I went back to my son’s he offered to call and speak with this person in Polish (a big help). She asked if I was willing to travel? I told her I’d go where they needed help the most, so she had a coordinator for the border sites call me, which he did about an hour later while I was out walking again. His English was iffy, and my Polish non-existent so I was unsure of the precise details. He did say the site was cold and I’d be outside all day and needed to be very strong. I got a little worried the work would be something like unloading trucks or something but then realized by “strong” he meant “hearty” and willing to be in the cold. That was not a problem I told him. He was also glad I could stay for two weeks. When I told him I didn’t have a car he sounded disappointed, saying it was difficult to get to these sites without a car. I asked if I could take a train? He said he would text me the information so I could be sure I understood it correctly; it would be possible but difficult to get there by train and bus. Back at the apartment I used my personal interpreter again to call back to confirm all the information. Tomek, the coordinator, said someone could pick me up at the bus as it did not go all the way to the border town of Kroscienko. I’d need a ride the last ten kilometers, but if I called when I arrived, someone could pick me up at the bus. I was ok with that, so got my travel tickets on line and went back to my hotel to pack a knapsack, leaving most of my things in Warsaw. Tomek said there was a place for us to sleep in the village of Ustrzysi Dolne where the bus would drop me off so I didn’t worry about finding a hotel. I had a bunch more questions but figured I’d learn when I arrived. 

While I was packing up my stuff my phone rang showing a Texas number. It was a guy named Arnie, who had just arrived in Warsaw from Florida, via Italy, and was heading to the same site the next day. Tomek had given him my number to coordinate travel as he had a rental car. He asked if I wanted to drive with him. I’d already bought my train ticket and had no idea if this guy was a wacko, but he sounded reasonable and I was leaning toward going with him but told him I’d see if I could get my tickets refunded and call him back. I also wanted to check him out on line. Turns out he’d done the same thing I had: applied on-line with this organization, heard nothing, came anyway, then just showed up at the office. After reading his linked-in profile I  decided he was legit so I called him and said I’d take the ride. It ended up being great and so much more convenient. Getting to the border at Kroscienko is a little like getting to Jackman, Maine. There is no way to do it all the way by public transportation. It’s rural and remote, beautiful, and cold.

When I say the Caritas site is at the border I mean the back of the tent is practically touching the fence. When the GPS told us we were 1.8 kilometers away we were stopped by what we thought was traffic, maybe construction or something, but after awhile it was clear this wasn’t just traffic. Arnie pulled around the line of cars and we saw they were in a cue. Then said, “Oh my God, this is the line to get through the border going back to Ukraine.” I’d heard people were going back, but this was incredible. Nose to tail for 1.8 kilometers. The cars were inhabited by only the drivers and they were either older men or women. It seemed very strange. We were stopped by several policemen as we drove past the stopped cars but they let us pass when we said we were volunteering with Caritas. When we could see the border we were stopped again and that policeman directed us to the tent. 

At the Caritas tent we were greeted by Ilona, a Polish women who’d been working here for her second stint. The tent is a grey structure about 100 feet long, lit with a few dangling bulbs, dank and cold inside, but out of the wind and rain. She oriented us to all the supplies in the tent available for those in need: diapers, infant formula, female hygiene products, toothpaste and toothbrushes, soap, creams, hats, mittens, stuffed animals, toys, hot water bottles, pet food, information printed in Ukrainian, Polish, and English. There was a big urn for hot water and we could prepare tea, coffee, hot chocolate, or instant soup. There were crackers, biscuits, cereal bars, chocolate bars, and some chips we could give as snacks. There were long wooden tables set up the whole length of the tent, the one closest to the food had paper and crayons for kids to draw. The next one down was covered with toys. After that was a charging station for cell phones with several different sized cables. At the end of the tent were three padded lounge chairs and blankets in case someone needed to lie down.

When we arrived no one was in the tent except Ilona. She said it had been very quiet that day. We asked about all the cars going back to Ukraine and she said she thought maybe it was because of the Easter holiday. Today is Orthodox Easter and a big holiday in Ukraine. I was astonished! People would wait in that line to go home during a war for the Easter Holiday? Are you kidding me? She said she wasn’t sure but she thought that was it (her English is really good). 

Our jobs, we learned, would mostly be serving tea and coffee and offering some emotional support. I was a little nervous about that since I wasn’t going to be able to communicate very well. Or at all. Turns out Arnie, with a car, was very useful at transporting people who had come through on foot to the refugee center 10 kilometers away. Once people cross (and it is all women, children, and a few older men) they get taken to a school where they can stay for up to 48 hours. There they have people to help them find a place to stay and arrange transportation. It is magnificently organized. Our tent is only the greeting station and they don’t stay very long. Only to get a warm drink and wait for a ride. There is a mini bus that they use for transport but it takes time for them to go back and forth and Arnie was eager to expedite their process. 

It took us six hours to get here from Warsaw so the first day we only worked from 1 in the afternoon until 7:15 pm when the last people left the tent. Ilona did all the talking but she couldn’t understand a lot of the Ukrainian either. Across from the Caritas tent is another tent set up by Polish firemen and it is manned for 24 hours. Initially the Caritas tent was as well but now there are fewer people crossing to Poland and there aren’t enough volunteers to keep it open all night so we closed it up at 7:15 and drove back to Ustrzyki Dolne to the Caritas house where we would sleep. I was dying to get someplace warm. My feet were frozen. I wish I’d brought my Uggs. I can’t believe how cold it is here but realize we are way further north than I imagined (about the same latitude as northern Quebec) and we are in the mountains. It must have been absolute hell two months ago. By the time we drove away from the tent the line of cars was another kilometer long and it was clear they would be in those cars for days. It just didn’t seem possible they were doing this for Easter.

The Caritas house is a convent where they provide the volunteers a place to sleep and eat. It is very basic, but warm (ish), and there is a hot shower. It is in a gorgeous location on a hill in the mountain village. The sisters are on the third floor and we all share two connected rooms and a small bathroom on the ground floor. I think it’s a library and office. The other rooms on this floor are used for a day care center for seniors. Downstairs is a small kitchen and dining room for us to use. I’m not sure if the sisters use it as well; I’ve not seen any of them there. Four of us are sleeping on a pull-out sofa, chair, and mattress on the floor. Two of the four snore but otherwise I have no complaints about the accommodation. It’s way better than sleeping in that tent. Or in the thousands of cars lining the road.

The following morning the line of cars was even longer–––three kilometers. Some of the drivers of those cars came into the tent for coffee and we learned they are not going back for Easter. They are Ukrainian volunteers, women and men over 60, who are going into Poland to buy cars and bring them back to Ukraine for the military to use, replacing ones that the Russians have destroyed. One woman told us they do this repeatedly; this is her third trip. Going through customs takes time and she said they prepare to wait at least fifty hours in line to cross. Another driver, who spoke excellent English asked where we were from. When we told him the US he said he was so grateful for all the people who come to help. He said knowing the world is supporting them gives them encouragement and strength. I was practically in tears as he spoke. I told him the Ukrainians are inspiring us with their bravery and strength and everyone I know wants to do what they can to help.

Ilona (who left on Friday) had explained to us that a woman would be coming to collect two boxes and one bag full of bandages. It was all in a pile in one corner of the tent. Saturday morning in the rain, I was standing at the opening of the tent and saw a young, beautiful woman approach on foot and ask a policeman where the Caritas tent was. He pointed to us and she came in and asked for the boxes. Wioletta, another volunteer who came when Ilona left, pointed to them. The woman’s face seemed to fall when she saw them and went over to try to pick them up. She was speaking Ukrainian and even Wioletta, who speaks Polish, couldn’t understand her. I asked, “English?” She said, “Little bit.” I said I could help carry them to her car and she said, “No car.” and looked about to cry. We tried to pick them up and, though not very big, they weighed a ton. She opened the bottom box and inside was a military vest and my God, how do they wear these? It had to weigh 40 pounds! We packed it back up and put the box in a bag with handles so it would be easier to carry. I carried the second box with her over to the border where she wanted to walk into Ukraine. I don’t know what was said, but the border guard wouldn’t let her walk through. She put her hands over her face crying. I said, “You need a car to pass? No walking?” She nodded. I pointed to the line of cars waiting to go in and said, “Maybe ask if you can go in one of those cars?” She looked pretty fragile. We walked over to the first car and the guy got out and a policeman came over. There was a lot of talking back and forth and the guy in the front car said to me, “These cars not good. Police will get her car.” What I finally learned via Wioletta translating was she needed to find a car not carrying goods they were importing. Those bringing in cars and supplies took a long time to process. She needed to go with just passengers crossing over. I saw a press car pass through rather quickly but she couldn’t go with them. So she stood on the road and waited, wiping her face, and taking deep breaths. I went to get her a coffee and a granola bar, handed them to her, and she smiled and thanked me. About an hour later I looked out of the tent and saw her getting into a car and going through. God bless her.

The people coming over from Ukraine to Poland are mostly walking across having been dropped off on the Ukrainian side by husbands turning around to go back to fight. I don’t know why they wouldn’t let someone walk the other way. It’s very hard to see people coming this way. The women are carrying small children and older children are dragging small suitcases. The women are usually crying. They look healthy physically and so far the children seem to be holding it together for their mothers. On Friday, while waiting in the tent, one of the small boys, maybe 7 or 8 years old, sat down at the table with the paper and crayons and drew a picture of a tank with a Ukrainian flag flying from it. On the side were the words: “We are strong. We will be victorious”. This was written in Ukrainian but someone here translated it. When the car came to transport them to the refugee center, the child got up from the table and left the drawing. It broke my heart. May his words be the truth.

Ok, I’m going to try to post this, but I want to say I do not feel I’m in any danger here. And I’m not doing anything heroic. But I’m happy to be handing out warm drinks if that can be any comfort at all. There are two medics here but they are standing around without much to do. 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Easter in Warsaw

Sunday Morning ~ Easter in Warsaw

April 17, 2022

Hi Everyone,

It’s Easter Sunday and the Catholic mass is serious business here. Confessionals are actually used, pews are full, and a big exodus and simultaneous entrance occurs every hour on the hour. Baby carriages line the handicap ramp. The crowd is decked out in black and grey, though the forsythia is in bloom and trees I can’t name are about to bud. I see few, if any, people smiling, though I can’t differentiate culture from trauma. No one is wearing a mask so faces are visible. Poland dropped all Covid mandates on April first. The languages being spoken all sound the same to me, though I’m told there is Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian. I detect joy in the gorgeous voice of the woman behind me as she sings the hymns. I see the words projected on a screen above the altar and try to follow along, working to decipher how she pronounces all these consonants. I don’t even open my mouth; joining in is not an option. 

The trip here was smooth as overnight plane rides go, though I’ve clearly got some adjusting to do. The plane was full to the brim; I’d forgotten how close we sit to each other. Crowds never used to bother me but the pandemic and two years of solitude have affected my comfort with personal boundaries. The sardine experience seems all wrong now. It felt like the seating areas shrunk, seats were smaller, crew smaller too. I don’t think I saw a flight attendant three times the whole trip. We had to show proof of vaccination at check-in so I tried to ignore all the people on the flight disregarding the mask policy, especially since there was no one enforcing it. I’d occasionally point to the mask sitting in the lap of the guy next to me and he’d put it on without a word but it was like the crew had given up and masks were optional. Delivering meals seemed optional as well. Only some people got breakfast. I don’t know if they paid more for their flight or what, but I didn’t get one and didn’t have the motivation to go looking for it. 

The complimentary wifi at the airport in Zurich was accessible after scanning your boarding pass into one of the “airport scanners” which I didn’t even try to look for. I found it a relief to read a book, sleep on the Starbucks bench, and people-watch like the old days. It used to be very entertaining to watch people interact but now they are mostly looking at their phones. I saw a few (mostly older) reading books, some were talking to each other, all were very subdued. There wasn’t much for holding my attention. I had five and a half hours to kill there and between taking walks, window-shopping for expensive watches, reading, and napping, the time passed amicably. The flight to Warsaw boarded on time and was full to capacity but was delayed twenty minutes due to “increased military activity” in both Switzerland and Poland. That announcement was the only indication that anything was amiss in this part of the world. Having done customs in Switzerland, arriving in Warsaw was easy. I grabbed my bag off the carousel and exited to find my smiling family holding a bouquet of flowers and my gorgeous new grand daughter. 

After arriving at the family apartment we went on a long walk so I could learn the neighborhood but I was tired and disoriented. Lots of Ukrainian flags are hanging from balconies and all the buildings look similar. Remembering street names was out of the question. Consequently, the following morning I got extremely lost trying to make my way from my hotel back to the apartment. A ten minute walk took me an hour and forty minutes. It was a Good Friday miracle I found the street at all. Then when I finally found the apartment building, I realized I hadn’t gotten instructions about how to contact them to let me in. I stood outside and hoped someone came out soon so I could just grab the door and enter. A few minutes later an old woman made her way outside and, not wanting to appear to be an intruder, I held up my address book with the address on it, pointed to the name, then the address, then me and said, “My son.” Of course this was in English as I haven’t even mastered the greetings in Polish. She smiled and nodded and held the door open. Phew!

Shopping for the Easter here on Friday and Saturday was very European. We pushed the baby carriage through markets, bakeries, and Turkish butcher shops. Though the weather is still quite cold the open air market was bustling. There were mostly root vegetables, cabbages, and massive wooden crates of apples. I have never seen apples this big and in such abundance, even in the autumn at home. I learned apples are a big part of the Polish economy and Russia had been a major importer. In 2014 when the sanctions began after the invasion of Crimea, Russia retaliated against Poland by banning imports of it’s apples. In response to this action, the Polish government funded the production of hard apple cider to avoid wasting the millions of bushels of apples in surplus. Their advertising slogan was “Your patriotic duty never tasted so good”. So this cider is now popular here and it is great. I love hard cider and lent is over. I will be very happy to do my part. I’ve only had one variety so far but will be sure to try them all before I leave. Love the ingenuity.

Monday is a holiday, too, so on Tuesday I will go to the Caritas office downtown and see what help I can offer. I’ve learned they are looking for people to teach English to Ukrainians in some of the eastern villages so that might be an option. 

Love to all and Happy Easter,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Walking Gently

Sunday Morning ~ Walking Gently

Kwa eni uyenda umaweteka. ~ At someone else’s place you walk gently and humbly.

~ Chewa proverb

April 10, 2022

Hi Everyone,

I feel like I have been leaving home for a long time. Not having traveled abroad for more than two years it all feels a bit strange.  Organizing seems more difficult than it used to, especially when straddling seasons. I’m at the point where the house seems to be saying, “Go already!” 

Leaving home has always taken some work. It’s a project to go away, leaving all the daily tasks to dangle. Attending chores to be done before leaving makes me look at this life I’ve filled with endless tasks: plants to water, bills to pay, unfinished projects to stash, mail to arrange for. I stop to imagine when our main form of communication relied on written correspondence stretching over days or weeks. Letters, actual hand written letters, arrived from a long lost someone, delivered by a nice man pushing a cart. This was in my lifetime, though it seems like some strange ritual I should be reading about in a history book or novel. Letters would be answered with a thoughtful process of writing, sealing, stamping, sending–– tasks that seem more like exciting adventures than chores. I wonder how such delay in communicating would change the course of events. I think about this as I place an empty box in the hall, ready to collect requests for donations, advertisements, and magazines I ordered from the girl scouts. It feels hollow. 

Utilities attended to, I think of all that pumps into a home keeping it alive. A last trip out to the compost and I see daffodils poking though and remember I planted hundreds of them to brighten my mood at this time of year. I’d forgotten about them. 

Being stationary for such a spell has created a co-dependency between my home and me. We love each other. I’m possessive. I feel no one else could love it like I do. It’s like my child; I’m the one who raised it. I cleared the trees. I chose the person to dig the foundation. I watched carefully as they did so. I watched the walls be lifted. I prayed for the guys on the roof, sheathing and protecting us. I made this house into a home. I bore the children who lived here while the walls absorbed their voices and spirits. I patched the holes in those walls. I chose the colors, protected the floors, hung the collected pieces that make it whole. I’m like a mother leaving her baby. I leave instructions for all the little idiosyncrasies: the front door, the drain, the furnace. Then think of the cat’s habits and, wow, trying to explain all that makes it sound so complex, these tasks I do automatically, thoughtlessly. Writing it onto a list seems cumbersome and archaic. When did this happen? 

I no longer consider the land where the house rests as a possession. I’ll be it’s steward and tend it with love, sculpted into a living portrait portraying my life. It’s all temporary; it will morph as the world goes on. I planted more fruit trees this week, wondering if I’d be here to pick the fruit. I imagine the shade they’ll give, picturing fruit dangling down and wonder if I’d be able to climb a ladder then? I look at the card hanging from the tiny branch: fifteen to thirty feet. I look up and wonder how high is thirty feet?  

What ifs are not emotionally useful to me and I try not to go down their roads too often. Over the last month, however, many what ifs crept into my thoughts. I’d shake my head as if I could dump them out of my brain. What if I only had ten minutes to leave? What if I couldn’t find my family? What if bombs were falling around here? If I had to leave in ten minutes because it’s the safest option, where would I go? What if the place I built and loved was destroyed? Could I do it all again? 

Since this war started many have told me their ancestors were from Ukraine. They fled during this war or that one. Generations down the line they made new lives, good lives. They’ve never visited the land their ancestors fled in search of safety, food, or love. Do they like their lives here? Are they grateful for this land and this home? 

How do we walk humbly and with gratitude in a new strange place? How do those who welcome us provide air and water, shelter and safety, with dignity? If we had few choices about when and where to go, how would we incorporate the richness of the lives we were forced to flee into the strangeness, fear, sorrow, and hope of the new ones facing us? 

I’ve spent weeks sorting, cleaning, organizing, preparing to leave, so I can do so comfortably with clear head, clear mind, knowing plans might change and my stay extended. Does this house really need me? Of course not. The doors will open and shut. The crocuses will bloom and die. The peepers will serenade until it warms sufficiently for them to move on to their next life with grace. I recognize all this. I acknowledge the times we are in with frustration and sadness, wanting to do my part with as much hope as I can muster, because the what ifs can go either way.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ The Full Spoon

Sunday Morning ~ The Full Spoon

Cipande ca therere cikoma n’kuyenderana. ~ The spoon full of relish gets tasty if it goes around from one to another.

~Chewa proverb

April 3, 2022

Hi Everyone,

I was looking for proverbs about generosity, which, has been on my mind this week. I’m so inspired by the generosity of many who reach out to alleviate suffering. I found this proverb and envisioned a spoon being passed with everyone taking a bite of relish (which is not a condiment as we use the word, but a vegetable or meat dish). My pandemic lens colored it with repulsion. We shouldn’t be eating off the same spoon! But as I typed the words, I realized it was “spoon full” not “spoonful”. There’s a difference. The word “spoon” may actually be a small bowl with a handle that each person takes from. Perhaps they used the word spoon instead of bowl for translation as there is no English word to describe their vessel. As the scarce relish gets passed around and shared there is more joy and value in the dish. Of course! When reading it that way, I went from thinking, “Eww, gross” to “Yes, absolutely.”  What a difference a syllable can make, and how important translation and interpretation is. We all do better when we all do better is how I read that.

When I was training for my job in Congo, we had an amazing week in the northern part of The Netherlands where we did various group exercises. One exercise (life changing for me) began with being assigned to a group of five people from different countries. We were given a list of random things to acquire and instructed to gather at six pm. On the list were: two chairs, three cans of tomatoes, ten books, two gerry cans of water, and a bunch of things I can’t remember. I vividly remember the ones I listed, because they were heavy. None of us knew what the assignment would be but there was speculation during the day as we searched for and assembled the listed items. It was both fun and exciting as we had no idea what we’d do with these unrelated items. When we gathered in a big room with all our stuff, each group was given a folded piece of paper with instructions on it. We were to walk, carrying the things we’d brought, to a specific location about a mile away. We couldn’t go back to our rooms before heading out.

Being a group of strong personalities it was interesting to see how we made decisions about how to carry all we’d brought to walk the mile. The water was cumbersome and we traded off carrying it for short distances. The German doctor put the two chairs together and placed them on his head. I’d brought a bag with the books so slung that over my shoulder, the woman from Belgium had a small backpack and some of the smaller stuff went in there. We carried other items in our arms passing them around as we took our turn with the water. Walking in the grey light and drizzle, we were laughing as we cooperated our way to the designated spot. Victorious in accomplishing this, we were handed another paper that sent us to another destination, the distance of which we did not know. Oh. Okay. Not so funny anymore. We were tired. It was getting dark. But we reorganized and went on our way. The water was getting to be a problem. We’d chosen big gerry cans as we thought it would be good to have a lot of water on this mysterious exercise. Well, when the rain started in earnest and we were soaked, the heavy, slippery cans were impossible to carry. The nurse from Thailand went into the woods and got a strong stick which we placed through the handles of the water cans. Then two of us put the stick over our shoulders. I thought this was amazing multi-cultural teamwork. That thought only lasted a short time, when, recognizing we weren’t Thai field workers who do this every day, we got very sore and exhausted well before getting to the next destination. Our group’s mood was shifting rapidly from cooperation to conflict about the best way to get there. We made it, only to be handed another slip of paper with another destination. It was about eleven pm at that point and I almost started crying. The woman from Belgium did start crying as did the nurse from Thailand who had blisters on her heels. We hadn’t been advised on proper footwear for the occasion and our feet were soaked. It was hours past my bedtime and I wanted to go to sleep. We pushed on to the next destination where I was sure there would be a van with hot cocoa and maybe whiskey. But no, this went on until 2 am when there actually was a van to take us back to the hostel. We were still expected to be at the morning meeting at 8, where I was hoping they would pass out bandaids. 

The morning meeting was a debriefing of all that went on the evening before. We were asked to describe each person’s role in the exercise. There was a lot of interesting discussion, but I was shocked when the woman from Belgium described me as the joker in our group. Totally taken aback, I said, “What? I wasn’t making jokes!”  She explained that in Belgium there is a card game where the joker can be used as any other card. She said she thought I was very adaptable and could function in many different roles within the group. (And believe me, there were lots of them by the time we were done). I was flattered by her words, but struck by how that could be misinterpreted by those who come from a different culture, even when speaking the same language. This recognition was a major point of the whole grueling exercise. Other points included some small understanding of what it’s like to carry belongings when you have no idea where you are going or how long you will be moving, how cooperation dissolves when there is fear and discomfort, who emerge as leaders, and how others react to them. It was incredibly powerful. 

So, along with gratitude for all those who give so generously and how that spirit will multiply exponentially, I’m thinking about the value of diplomacy and understanding. I’m thinking of how committed all sides must be to respect and understand cultural differences, how difficult it is,  how I admire all those who practice it. 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Moving Through Water

Sunday Morning ~ Moving Through Water

Mlirira kwao adamka ndi madzi. ~ The one who wanted to go home at all cost was swept away by the water.

~ Chewa proverb

March 27, 2022

Hi Everyone,

I’m at a retreat, the first indoor, in-person event I’ve attended since the pandemic began. It feels momentous. Retreat. I’ve been thinking about the word. To pull back, go home. Withdraw. As if we haven’t already been doing that for a long time. It seems the opposite of what we planned: to come together again. We planned a healing retreat, the idea being to mend our hearts, address our trauma, support each other. Caretakers often don’t care for themselves and it takes a toll. There has been so much loss. We acknowledged that.  

I decided to start the weekend with a massage, something I rarely treat myself to, but I needed some alignment and thought I’d start off supporting local caregivers with an hour of being cared for myself. This was the weekend theme after all. The massage therapist asked me to fill out a health history form with the usual questions about whether I had any injuries, diseases, complaints, etc. then I came to a surprise question I had to think long about. It asked me to describe myself as water. I stopped writing. In terms of water what was I doing?  I’m not a water person generally. I am not a strong swimmer, don’t like to be in cold water, and am not drawn to boats. If I have any fears, they have to do with water. Yet, I obviously value the life sustaining substance in all sorts of ways. I know we take our water for granted. I took stock of my anxieties and complaints and thought of waterfalls (glorious to look at but deadly to encounter), rapids, crushing waves, or eddies. Do I feel like these? Dangerous and powerful? Not really. I’ve felt stuck not whooshing. I envisioned a stagnant pool with scum forming over the top. I quickly erased that vision as intolerable. But now that I write this, it doesn’t sound so bad. I could have eliminated the scum and thought about water bugs and croaking frogs, a more positive image in my mind. Something alive with better energy than scum. Though, I supposed I could dive deep into the wonders of algae. I was overthinking it and after a four hour drive, wanted to get on to that table, face down, letting someone take the stress out of my muscles. I impulsively wrote “whirlpool” and though that didn’t seem right either, but I was writing in pen and hate to cross things out. So I left it, thinking that’s not accurate as I’m really not feeling as powerful as a whirlpool. It was more the being caught up in one spot I was going for, the rock in there still lodged and trying to escape. Swirling water. I left the word on the page and moved on, wondering how it might affect my treatment or if the water question was for her own interest and something she’d go back and muse over later. I felt unbalanced and wanted her to get things straightened out. As I waited for her to call me, I wondered what actually caused whirlpools and made a mental note to look it up later. Whether it was my longing for human touch or the water question I don’t know, but it was the best massage I’ve ever had and I hovered in a blissful state between consciousness and unconsciousness for over an hour while the world disappeared. 

Whirlpools, I learned, are formed when currents flowing in different directions come together. Hmm, interesting. Lots to think about there. I wish I had looked this up before the healing circle and could have shared some great metaphor and seemed very smart and intuitive. Oh well. I read on…”the water from opposing currents start to swirl around each other.” (Oh wow. So many references. I wonder if she thought about this before my massage? How well did she know water and whirlpools? I didn’t ask her.) “If the currents are very strong they can spiral downward, forming a vortex. If strong enough, this vortex can pull things down into it.” (I’ll just leave that right there.)

I started wondering how strong I felt. Not very at the moment. Actually rather weak, or at least weaker than is comfortable for me. But I’m getting older and may need to rethink my notion of strong. It’s the changing of the season and this time of year does not energize me. I remind myself of that. There is change and flux and conflict. My instinct to fix it all, manage things, run around saving vulnerable plants, people, old socks–– all equally, confounds me at this time of year. When does a whirlpool stop spinning and start to move again? It’s not, I learned, when the rock gets dislodged. It’s when the tide changes, when the currents shift, the waters recede. It’s all much bigger than me or us. Everything in a cycle. If we just wait, the whirlpool becomes less dangerous; it’s easier to move through; the dam does not need to break; we just need to wait until it is safe to go home.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ A Plan

Sunday Morning ~  A Plan

Wa cake sacileka. ~ Someone who behaves like that will never change.

~ Chewa proverb

March 20, 2022

Hi Everyone,

After hearing from many people last week about wanting to help the people of Ukraine, I asked my family in Warsaw if there were some direct way people could contribute, knowing some are skeptical of how much of their money goes to administrative costs in an organization instead of directly to people in need.  

There are many Ukrainians who are internally displaced, meaning they did not cross into another country but have left their homes for safer parts of Ukraine. A refugee staying with my family has contacts who remained in Ukraine and are delivering money directly to mothers and children sheltering without resources while their husbands are fighting. Money can be wired to them from Warsaw. So if anyone wants to trust me with their donation of cash, contact me directly and I will give you instructions on how to get the money to me. I’m setting up a separate bank account for this. I will get the money to women in Ukraine directly. The other use for cash is to buy supplies needed by refugee centers around Poland. They put out lists each day of what they need and supplies can be purchased and dropped off. No one is asking for material donations! These are hard to transport and take labor to sort through. Much of it is wasted. I learned this in Haiti where the donations became a horrendous disposal problem. It is much more efficient for me to check the list and go buy supplies and directly drop them where they are needed. I am not soliciting. My trip is paid for and I am going no matter what. I’m writing this in response to requests I’ve received from generous people who want to help.  

There are many organizations assisting and if you want a tax deductible contribution you should donate to one of those organizations. The two I am going to volunteer with are Caritas (a Catholic Relief Services) and World Central Kitchen. Donations can be made easily on line. 

https://caritas.pl

https://wck.org/volunteer

I am imagining myself in the horrifying situation of Ukrainians. I’m listening to, and reading arguments that we didn’t give diplomacy a good enough chance. This may or may not be true; I wasn’t there. I don’t know what was said in the negotiations or in what tone. I need to go by what I’m hearing second hand, because, I wasn’t there. I listen to arguments on both sides and assess what is said, where the source originates, what their experience is, etc. and I incorporate my own biases based on my own experiences. This is only what I’m doing personally to formulate my thoughts. Everyone else is certainly entitled to their own. 

What strikes me about this argument––if we had only done A, then B wouldn’t have happened–– is how it resounds of domestic abuse. From the abuser: If you’d only not said that; if you’d only come home when you were supposed to; if you’d only made the right dinner; had the right attitude; worn the right clothing… then none of this would have happened. 

Now, again, I wasn’t there for the talks leading up to the invasion. Maybe just the right language would have turned the tanks. But based on the past twenty years, much has been given up in the hopes that things would change. The war industry has it’s beneficiaries for sure. Our lifestyle, which exploits people all over the world, leads to conflicts. I recognize being part of the problem. I use gasoline. I have a cell phone. But a brutal invasion of a country that was expected to roll over and take it?

I’ve listened to women for more hours than I can count telling me he’ll change. They want to believe it so badly. I lived it every day of my childhood and relived it in relationships. It’s easier than leaving. It’s easier than imagining your kids suffering or losing your house. It’s easier than being blamed for everything gone wrong. Just wish and hope and pray he’ll stop being violent, stop lying, stop making empty promises. I get it. I’ve been there and been jaded by my experiences. Change can happen, but it’s rare. Patterns of violence and thirst for power don’t just go away. These patterns are not hard to identify and talk is cheap. “I’m sorry” means nothing when the pattern doesn’t change. In fact, it’s part of the abuse.

It’s embarrassing when you realize you’ve been duped. You think of all the times you’ve defended him to your friends. That alone can make you stay. You think about how you’d have to admit you were wrong. But at some point the damage is too irreparable, the price is too high, and you’ve had enough. Then the real beast is unleashed. Is it better to settle for rape? Or risk being killed? How do you know he won’t kill you next time? How do you feel about the ones who said you should have just accepted the rape, because you know, you shouldn’t have interfered. It’s your own fault. 

We have shelters for women who can’t take it anymore. They fear for their lives and depend on kindnesses of strangers and philanthropic programs. They are counseled on the risks of going back, but they do go back because they believe he will change. He said this time will be different. He doesn’t want to lose you. Many women will die when they go back. Because, he doesn’t change. It’s easier to see if you’ve been there; not so easy if you haven’t. Everyone has their story. Everyone can choose who to believe. 

I’ve heard some say the videos and photos of Ukrainian destruction are fake. I’ve heard abusers accuse victims of faking bruises and injuries, too. As a forensic nurse I learned how to document the injuries so the testimony would hold up in court, because, you know, why should you just believe her? He seemed like such a nice guy.  

Thank you everyone who reached out. I will make sure there is a story attached to your generosity.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Decisions

Sunday Morning ~ Decisions

Khoza lipita ndi mwini dzanja. ~ The ivory bangle goes if the owner of the hand agrees.

~ Chewa proverb

March 13, 2022

Hi Everyone,

My mother’s cousins came to visit me yesterday. It was an old fashioned family visit, like the ones I remember from my childhood when friendly familial faces entered the house amid laughter, hugging, glee. Coats and scarfs were tossed over railings, large bodies moved into the kitchen or living room where there was tea, coffee, and cookies. Their girdles swished against silky skirts, nylon stockings, pearls, perfume all a blur of bustle and happiness. They smiled with funny teeth, so many smiles on old faces, greeting us children with utter delight at how big we were, how smart we were, though, what did they really know? But the delight was genuine. Everyone was so happy. They’d driven maybe an hour? But it seemed like they’d been separated for decades. Had they? There was reminiscing, news, and expressions of awe with gasps of sadness peppering the chatter. I’d sit on the sidelines and watch this display of connection and love, not really understanding who everyone was or how they were related. 

When my mother died twelve years ago, I received a forwarded Christmas card addressed to her with a chatty message from people in Maine I’d never heard of. I wrote back to tell them she’d died and learned they were her first cousins, family I did not know I had. They spent the day here yesterday, and told me they didn’t really know my mother; they’d only seen her once or twice when they were young. Their father (my grandmother’s brother) moved their family of eleven children to Maine when the depression hit and he’d lost all his savings. They squatted in an abandoned farm and made a new life here. We sat by my fire learning about who were were, telling stories of displacement and suffering and how everyone came through it back then. They’d lost siblings from childhood illnesses, went to war, waited at home for the return, started new lives. I listened to them, now in their 80’s and 90’s, with such love and admiration. Such hearty stock I come from, I thought. They can laugh at such stories of hardship. I thanked them for making this trip to visit me for a day. They inspire me; they give me hope.

When my plans to spend a month in Poland this spring got complicated by a war, I spent some time in the uncomfortable state of indecision. For the past two years my travel plans have been disrupted by the pandemic and I’ve spent the time at home, exploring Maine, and broadening my understanding of classics and pop culture. (I’m reading The Odyssey and watching Succession for God’s sake.) I thought we were coming out of a stressful separation and never suspected traveling again would involve factoring in a war. I wondered how to help in this crisis? Unclear about how to be of use, I bought a ticket to Poland and immediately felt better. I’m in a constant  state of anxiety and the news literally gives me heart palpitations, but at least I have a rough plan. I sit shaking, hearing of women in labor fleeing a crumbling building. I wonder how brave I could be?  Decisions. Those women had no luxury of time to ponder what to do as bombs were falling. 

My house is quiet. The clocks leap forward so we can enjoy another hour of light though it’s the same 24 hours. There are no bombs falling here, only branches falling from the wind. I eat breakfast in my sunny kitchen and am warmed by the fire at night while I read any book I choose. I knit something superfluous while I watch something to make me laugh. But I make the decision to leave here, find a job doing something useful, offer anything I can, hoping it may make a difference. When I weighed the two choices: staying here, and going there, the one that brought peace to my heart and calmed me, was going. 

When I told my relatives yesterday I was going to Poland to see if I could be of some help, their reaction was all very matter-of-fact, reminding me of my mother. Oh well, you do what you need to do. 

What should I bring? What should I plant before I go, or should I deal with the garden when I get back? How should I finish up obligations I’ve made here? These decisions are easier to make. I started looking for organizations to work with, and sent in two applications. I’ll figure that out once I get there if nothing comes through before I go. At the very least, I know I can work with World Central Kitchen. I’m happy to make sandwiches, ladle soup, or wash dishes if that’s what they need. But when I think of women delivering babies in a subway, my God, I want to help there if I can. 

The priest at mass last night asked us to pray not only for the Ukrainians and their heroism, but for the Russians as well. “Pray for Putin”, he said. “It may be our prayers that turn his heart. It may be the Russian people who can end this. Both sides need our prayers to bring peace. There are brave Russians protesting this. They need us as well.”  I thought of 2016 when I wanted people to pray for America, too. 

The proverb refers to the inability to force someone to do something against their will. You cannot force a child to go to sleep. You cannot make someone love you. You cannot force someone to stop drinking. I read this proverb and felt both hope and despair. Putin can not be forced to end his madness. The Ukrainians can not be forced to live under Russian rule. It’s only when we agree.

Love to all,

Linda