we are waking up to a terrifying morning, reports of ukraine’s nuclear plant seized by the russians, after they spent the night shelling it, setting parts of it on fire, while every nuclear emergency team in the world huddled, prayed, awaited reports of radioactivity. word comes that the diabolical plot is not merely to cut the power grid to turn out the lights, but to freeze out the people.
our lungs are left breathless, our limbs are trembling. what hell has been wrought?
while the morning leaves room only for prayer, for collective mind-meld to beg to stop putin and his evil conspirators, my work of the week––keeping count, compiling a list of break-through moments of radiant light amid the gathering darkness––feels lame. but, because gathering each and any spark of hope and indefatigable humanity just might keep us from teetering, i will leave it here anyway.
i began the week drawn to pray in one of chicago’s breathtakingly ornate ukrainian churches. not a word was in english (though i did recognize “alleluia,” and “kyiv,” and “kharkhiv,” among the many slavic syllables). but no words were needed to read the faces of the deeply devout, hands clasped, making the byzantine sign of the cross over and over and over (tracing the shape of a cross in the air, but touching the right shoulder first before the left; thumb, index, and middle fingers pressed together, an invocation of the holy trinity).
the faithful came in traditional garb, vyshyvanka, the glorious embroidered shirts worn by men and women alike. and they came americanized, in black leather pants and skiwear. fur, in pelts or jackets, was abundant. but it was the faces i’ll never forget: etched in despair, fervent in prayer. the queue to light candles on the side of the altar never let up, each petitioner clutching crumpled dollar bills in his or her fist, clear through the hour-long mass, a choreography of mystery and reverence, faith and fortitude, i’ll not soon forget.
as the week wore on, the reports more and more dire, i began making a list, because otherwise we might be engulfed by sorrows. these are the moments i am holding onto with all my heart, when the resilience of human kindness and hope refuses to die:
did you see the ukrainian grandma who walked up to an armed russian soldier, asked him what the (heck) he was doing there, told him he was an invader, an occupier, a fascist, and then handed him a fistful of sunflower seeds, and told him to put them in his pocket so that when he dies sunflowers (the ukrainian national flower) will grow from his corpse? and before she turned away, she let him know that from that moment on, he was cursed?
did you see the ukrainian woman with the purple streaks in her hair who gave tea and cakes to a captured russian soldier, a young man with nothing but peach fuzz on his reddened cheeks, and when the purple-haired woman used her phone to call the soldier’s mother, natasha, the soldier broke into tears and blew a kiss to the phone?
did you see the little 8-year-old girl who spent her days in the underground subway station crocheting a tiny pink heart, and then she tapped a stranger on the shoulder, and gave it to him?
did you hear the UN translator’s voice crack as he echoed in english the words of ukraine’s president volodymyr zelenskyy, who called out to the world: “Nobody is going to break us. We’re strong. We’re Ukrainians. We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it’s a fair one.”
did you see the ukrainian grandma cradling a cat, giving a very emphatic middle finger to the passing-by russian brigade?
did you see the thousands of romanians, lined up in their cars, waiting at the ukrainian border to welcome the tired, the hungry, the cold, the women and children and babies fleeing for their lives?
did you see the baby born in the subway shelter in kyiv?
or the ukrainian woman who crossed the border into hungary with the phone number of a woman she’d never met and two children who’d been entrusted to her––along with their passports––by a man not allowed to leave, who thrust his children into her arms, and instructed her to call the number once they crossed into safety. and not long after she placed the call, the mother of the two children approached; mission accomplished. mother and children, reunited. (the children’s mother had left ukraine earlier, with two younger children, but once it was clear the older children needed to leave, and the father was not allowed to cross the border, he turned to a stranger, and begged, please get my children to safety; if you call this number you will find their mother. and she did.)
or the holocaust survivors huddled in a bomb shelter in ukraine, with the flags of israel and ukraine limp behind them, voices cracking as they cursed putin and asked for peace?
have you seen the thousands of germans who crowded into the central train station in berlin to offer fleeing ukrainians a place to stay? and they came with hand-penned placards in german, english, and ukrainian, offering welcome. “i was very scared, i had to get out from this hell,” said one ukrainian woman as she stepped off the evacuation train, and fell into the arms of a berliner she had never before seen or known.
the images keep coming, moving us to tears upon tears, bringing flickers of something that every once in a rare while feels like the faintest outline of hope. but they fade away, and we are haunted once again by this horror we cannot stop.
Lord, have mercy.
what images from ukraine are etched in your heart this terrible morning?
For me, the most wrenching image was that of the mothers and their babies with cancer huddled in a basement of a hospital. It just tore at me.
But the resilience and courage of people offering help has been a huge salve.Praying, praying, praying…
oh, God, that too. and the NICU moved into a basement shelter, with the nurses manually operating the respirator. oh my god. praying, praying, praying with you…..
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Thank you for these stories, which finally brought the tears that have been shoved down.
Jesus, God, have mercy
amen, amen. the words of that litany mean everything in this moment. may your tears bring fertile ground for something beautiful to grow…..
sending love in our brokenness. xoxox
Thank you for these images of proud, brave, defiant everyday Ukrainians, especially those grandmothers with long memories and deep wisdom.
love those long-memoried, deeply wise grandmas. especially.
The image of the Ukrainian people huddled in the subway station earlier this week will never leave my brain. I cannot imagine how people survive such conditions, the constant fear, the hunger, and the anger. I’m praying constantly but also marveling at the strength and detrmination of the people of Ukraine. May God show them abundant mercy!
i couldn’t stop thinking of them once i saw it too. as i put on a kettle for tea, i thought how is it that i get to boil water when there are terrified masses sitting on cold concrete in the damp underground of a subway, bombs thudding overhead. and on and on. i felt guilty for every soft pillow, plate of hot food, and on and on and on……the helplessness is overwhelming. and we can’t make it stop.
The image of a father grieving over the body of his teenage son in a hospital made my heart sick. The bloodied sheet, a shroud, covering his son’s lifeless body. God, have mercy. God give us a miracle – soften the heart of a tyrant.
i didn’t see that. i saw a mother and her 8-year-old daughter, after a whole team tried to save her. they didn’t. God, have mercy indeed. we are all here praying for that miracle……
Antidotes… I am going out to buy two rolls of weatherproof “flagging tape” aka “barricade tape” (Ace Hardware) – one blue, the other yellow – to make bows with long streamers to put on my tree out front. I will leave the extra out in case my neighbors want to join me. I will write “peace” and “courage” on the streamers. Also at my church we have a “peace pole” with “May peace prevail on earth” written on each side in six different languages. I am going to suggest that we add a sign with the saying in both the Ukrainian and Russian languages. A meaningful focal point for our prayers.
amen. i especially love the peace pole. and adding both countries. bless you.
That’s a very inspiring idea, one that I will copy. Thank you.
my husband just called me out from my writing room, calling, “you need to see this!” i hadn’t a clue. he was watching a report on CNN from onboard a medical evacuation train filled with children from a Kharkiv hospital, a train taking them to safety in Poland, all of it organized by a Polish pediatrician who said she was filled with a storm of emotion. it was wrenching and inspiring at once, as so much has been this long long week. i will try to find the clip, and add it here. it will bring some oxygen back to your lungs.
It is soul wrenching and I don’t watch too much because sometimes it almost feels paralyzing, I let my soul take what it can and go from there. I have a Lithuanian friend and a Polish friend here. Both in anguish, they know invasions, infrastructure decimated, loss of life in family, loss of livelihood, they know the unreasonableness of it all, the insanity. I just pray. I pray that Putin be paralyzed. I say, “it is not up to me how this is done- but please, paralyze him forever. Once he is paralyzed, please send in a tattoo artist to mark his eyes forever with sunflowers- bright, gay, dazzling, so that all may know the Ukrainians glorious everlasting spirit of following the sun, no matter the storm. Amen.”
I am terrified in a way of all our survival should those who truly have no respect for human life- decide to go ahead with their insane threats. But they have always had that ability, and should things go that way- there is nothing to be done. It does no good for me to wrench my heart and hands with the what ifs. It is as you say- look at the what is. People being beautiful, whole countries being selfless, this country, this whiney- bellowing about not-enough-of this-for-me-me-me is uniting, is acknowledging that leader’s of the past whose favorite charity was his own grandiose self, they’re seeing the possible end result of such a madman’s selfish, soul-less way…they’re comparing the two and seeing an orange for an orange. I did not know I felt all this until you pushed my button. I lost my favorite Uncle lately, I’ll tell you what he would say- “Steady.”
oh, terry, you say it spot on — your second paragraph captures in words so so much of how things have looked to me these past years. and your first paragraph, i was just this minute thinking — i don’t know if i can look, because it’s paralyzing. to watch, to even try to absorb. your tattoo image almost made me smile. it’s rather brilliant. i’ll try to go with your beloved uncle and stay steady. i wake up, though, with thoughts swirling through my head that i shouldn’t even write here. there’s a madman on the loose. and magnificence is being erased from this planet.
i am squeezing your steady hand across this old maple table. and i am sending love. always, love. xoxo
I love you back dear. I am so lucky, so blessed- for I have woods all around me to absorb what I cannot stomach. Be well, yes write- we all must take up our tattered ends any way and do what we came here for. We all must be in our own ways, determined souls. I much prefer that vision over determined humans, for we have seen too often what a human who detaches from his own soul- looks like. “If you give up the time, your soul will play the song.” I hope you get into a wild way and soak up what you need to carry on. Your book may be the very thing to lead the weary towards the woods, for the love of them, for their safekeeping, for our own humanity to reflect back to us- grow, sustain, survive, flourish. The Big Fish is getting impatient, a Granddaughter’s birthday. She is 14 today amongst a world of others just turning 14 today- for them- we carry on. We must.
BAM, I so appreciate the images you share here at our table as well as the images in your Stillness of Winter. Both swell my heart a wee bit with hope! xox
thank you, beautiful…..