we can’t get away from it, nor should we. as bombs rain from the sky, as hospital wings are mortared, and women in labor carried away, who are we to wonder which can of soup we might open? or which load of laundry to do?
as bodies in masses lie bloodied and dead in the road, escape made folly, how dare we flip through the page of a magazine, looking for words to carry us off?
as old people, too frail to leave home, are shivering in their now windowless houses, neighbors cutting down trees, building fires for heat and for cooking, boiling snow for buckets of water, who am i to complain about all the times in a week i have to run to the grocery?
those are the questions, some of the questions, that plague us in this war time. war a word that now shrieks from the page. it should have shrieked sooner, shrieked louder, i fear. or maybe i just wasn’t listening, quite closely enough. wars until now have mostly not woken me in the night. but now the war does.
i’m barely awake in the the murky hours of darkness, and the gnawing dread and the weight of this war are close enough to the thin icy edge of my consciousness that one little stirring brings it all back to mind, to heart. i’m fully awake then, startlingly so.
i know, because the math now comes without pause, the eight-hour time calculation, i know that in the deep of my night it’s morning in kyiv, and bombs must be pelting again, so how can i go back to the business of sleeping? what if, while i keep my eyes closed, a child is lying cold and afraid––in a half-frozen field, at the back of a church, in a house ripped to shreds along with everyone else who’d been under its roof? except for that one lone child now trapped in the cold grip of terror.
i might sit in an armchair not long after dinner, and it might seem like i’m looking ahead, at the screen where a show rolls along, but i’m not paying attention. i’m wondering what it must feel like to count yourself blessed for crossing a border and leaving all else far, far behind.
there is no peace on the planet.
the very words war and peace now carry a weight that expands far beyond what had become almost a throwaway sense. i don’t think i realized before just how much volume they hold. i think i mostly dismissed them. considered them words mostly just holding a place. words with a hint of amnesia. words stripped of their grip on us.
prayers for peace now hold a meaning that used to escape me. i imagine the day when the bulletin breaks, and we might hear the words, war ends. i pray for that day. i pray mightily. but i am wondering now how prayers in the holocaust felt?
what prayer do you pray as you count the last seconds you breathe? i pray it’s a good one. and i pray even more that it’s heard on the other end.
i imagine God is distraught. i know i am. i know nearly every last someone i know is. if they’re paying attention. paying attention to me is a prayer, so i pray it day after day. there are days when i want to turn off my attention. slink off to a safe little cove, wake up when it’s over. when the bulletin comes.
in the times when my prayers are dried up, when my heart has run out of gas, i try to find someones stronger than me. someones who know how to keep going, how to stare fear in the face, how to not cover their eyes and their ears. i poke around looking for words to sturdy me, to steady my wobbly ways.
there is, so often, no better someone than the gentle-souled farmer who plows his own fields with draft horses and oxen down kentucky way. wendell is his name, wendell berry. and this poem of his––the last poem i read to a friend who was dying––is, like all the best prayers, a quiet wisp of a poem that slips in through the smallest chance it can find. i know this poem by heart, or pretty close anyway. but now, more than in a very long time, it reaches out from the dark and brings a most holy communion.
i pray that some little child far off in ukraine might be wrapped in the whisper of wing that comes from a wild thing stirring.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
from New Collected Poems (Counterpoint, 2012)
what brings you strength when you’re feeling wobbly, or weak in the knees?
lynsey addario, whose photo is above, is considered one of the greatest war photographers of the 21st century. she’s a fearless photojournalist, who focuses her work on conflict, human rights, and the role of women in traditional societies. she’s unflinching, she runs toward the scene, whatever it is, so we can all see. she was in the news this week because she took the picture of a family––a mother, her two children, and a church volunteer helping them run––dead in the road trying to escape kyiv. the new york times made the brave and important decision to run the photo–big–across its front page. addario, who is 48 and who was named a macarthur “genius” in 2009 , talked this week about making that photo; here’s what she said:
“I’m a mother, and I when I’m working, I try to stay very focused. I try to keep, sort of, the camera to my eye,” she said. “But of course, it was very emotional. First of all, I had just been sprayed with gravel from a mortar round that could have killed us very easily. So I was shaken up, and when we were told that we could run across the street by our security adviser, I ran and I saw this family splayed out and I saw these little moon boots and puffy coat.”
Addario added that, even though she felt it was disrespectful to take the photo, she thought that she had to.
“This is a war crime,” she said.
and the world needs to see.
a note: i understand that for some it’s too painful to keep too close a watch. and i understand that our words can’t make a dent in the evil. but against the backdrop of suffering of this magnitude, i can’t imagine turning away.