I have become bored with my own philosophy. It tires me out. A fresh start to the New Year looks more like vignettes. Not that these pages will be completely spared my introspection, but a considerable reprieve is in order. (I’m not that tired of hearing myself think.) What strikes me these days is to keep close to something the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell said: ‘We must be willing to let go of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.’
It’s been nearly two weeks since Paul and I’ve had a chance to sleep in. We’re up around 6:30 in the morning drinking coffee, bathing, dressing, and now, in addition, layering up to de-ice the car. It’s snowing outside and has been for a century. At least, that’s how one born to a Caribbean Island regards such weather. From my bedroom window, in bed, covered up, snuggled against a hot water bottle is how I enjoy the snow. Others have their own way; they actually like to go out in it. As my husband says, ‘For those who like that sort of thing, that’s the sort of thing they like.’ (Spoiler: Pinched from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.)
We get up to make doctor’s appointments. But before you judge us harshly, bear in mind that every country has their own shadow, that this is our personal peculiarity, our very own special attraction. One must stand in line before eight o’clock in the morning. Outside the clinic. Sometimes they open the door before eight and let you huddle up in the entryway like cattle, sometimes they don’t. That’s the easy part as you’ve yet to encounter Lady Cerberus, another special attraction. She guards the door with an admirable intensity. After shivering half to death in the snow, gaining entrance is a hospitality one cannot underestimate. As my mother used to say, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.’ By the time you reach your destination, you simply know it’s going to go all wrong. It’s not just that my Polish is abominable, as there are days when I go in alone, heaven help, and must navigate the territory like Hercules, but it’s this way for everyone. There is no discrimination. First, there is the look of surprise at your presence, as if you’ve come to buy shoes instead of to see the doctor. Once established that you are there to make an appointment, then comes the insurmountable affair of finding the patient in the computer. No one is ever in that computer. No one. I think she’s looking at a television screen, watching re-runs of Stawka Większa Niż Życie…never mind. Then there’s the scramble of her assistant as she rummages through filing cabinets dating back to 1960, containing written information on each of us. But it’s never easy. It’s never a situation of opening the drawer and then effortlessly retrieving what’s needed. It’s always a drama and lots of talk as I’m standing there, my body bent sideways at the waist because Cerberus sits behind bullet-proof glass with only about a foot of it open at the bottom.
Then comes the pronouncement. ‘This name is not in the computer.’
Please. This man is very sick and needs to see the doctor.
After a moment’s consideration, a stronger stare, and quick movement of the hand as she slides something toward me under the small opening in the window, the verdict is in.
You will need to take these forms and fill them out before coming back. (Thank you. I didn’t mention that I’ve filled out those forms twice before.)
Success. We have an appointment! It’s been a journey, but someone had to do it.
The clock strikes 9:00.
The good bakery is around the corner, and if I’m not too late, there will still be fresh rolls. Doesn’t that just evoke memories of a sidewalk cafe in Paris? A single croissant and coffee, a baguette held back for later. Lamentably, I’ve acquired a reputation in these villages that’s a far cry from romantic. If you happen to be standing in line behind me, you will have to reconsider your options, as I will buy a variety of forty rolls each, plus an interesting assortment of sliced breads, plus, what Paul and I call ‘Kitty Kat’ bread. Plain white. By the time I load up, the baker is happy, but the customers are frustrated as their choices are reduced to crumbs.
A few nights ago, I was having trouble sleeping. Clearly, Paul was not. It was about ten o’clock and there was a knock at the door. It was Jordan returning my car keys from when he needed them earlier in the day. I went back to bed. Not long later, one dog threw up which woke up the other two. I cleaned up, settled our girl, and then turned off the light again. There was a knock at the door. I turned on the light. It was Jordan who needed the keys again. He must have left something in the car. I turned off the light and went back to bed. Not but minutes later Paul turns on the light, leaps out of bed to announce he’s had a dream and where the hell is a pen. What a racket. Now the dogs are awake, and I’m sure he’s sleep walking. I bought you four new pens today. Well, I can’t find them. They’re on your desk. No they’re not. So, I get out of bed.
Of course, they’re on his desk, but when I hand him one, he says it’s too late; he’s already forgotten the dream. Off goes the light. Finally.
It turns out the dream was about Wójcza, Paul’s mother’s home before the war. He could only remember that much, but not a narrative.
At wine night last night, I told this story with the help of my phone, my broken Polish, and a lot of gesturing, when to my surprise, someone said they’d had a dream too, on that same night, about God, Kharkiv, the war and an empty suitcase. Apparently, God said the suitcase wasn’t important anymore.
There was a silence, as there often is when the war is mentioned. There’s no heat or electricity there. No internet.
One of the little boys came in crying. I have no idea why.
Then we sang Jingle Bells. I sang to the top of my lungs in English and the other women sang in Ukrainian.
The fruit is disappearing at an alarming rate, which seems strange because we’ve not had that problem before. And come to think of it, so are the shopping bags which we keep hanging inside the pantry door. Why is it that every time I reach for them, they’ve disappeared too.
The other night, while I was making eggs or sandwiches or something of the kind, I stepped out of the kitchen and there were the boys. The little boys. A whole gang of them. Each had a hulking shopping bag, and each were shoveling apples, mandarins and pears into the bag as fast as they could to my repressed, but clearly audible, gasp. They looked up, shoveled another scoop before tearing down the hallway like Fagin’s band of thieves.
One the one hand, it was a precious sight and did evoke memories of old English literature and wintery nights sitting in front of the fireplace while Paul would read to me. Yes, we do this. We always spend our winters reading books to each other. He read the entire Lord of the Rings to me before we married.
On the other hand, I felt a sudden loss of control. An instability which was completely irrational but still felt like I was on the border between manageability and outright inner turmoil.
Christmas in a kitchen with about twenty women on the committee to decide what gets cooked and by whom. Three intersecting cultures, one space, of which there is actually no space large enough to hold twenty women with twenty different ideas about what should be laid on the Christmas table.
I think this vignette is worth a later short story. Certainly, there will much more to report as we get through this week. Even as I write, one woman comes with the list. Two others come to ask me not to order the fish too early because of another woman in the house who will take it to her room and put it in the window for herself to cook later. (It’s in minus degrees outside so this is possible.)
At the meeting this morning to decide about the children’s presents and some symbolic gift for the adults to open, our dear Masha came running to her mother to say that her godmother was safe in Kharkiv. She had been on their minds almost constantly these past few weeks when she escaped the occupied territories, as her home had been destroyed and everything in it and was now homeless, moving west without a plan. Masha decided to write to the headmaster of her high school and see if there was any work at all for her godmother and a place for her to stay. He wrote her back and said to tell her godmother to come and they would take care of her.
There is no electricity except what is produced from independent generators. Lessons have been interrupted for the unforeseen future.
This war is ugly, dangerous and destructive. It’s a real war and people are dying. They are starving and they’re going without heat. This is real.
It’s very hard for me to raise a toast to life when just hours away this is happening. It’s irreconcilable.
Christmas is almost here. We always keep an empty chair at the table for a stranger who might come calling.
I think of this chair as a place for me to grow my compassion even greater. What will finally put an end to these hellish wars? Some would argue nothing because we’ve always had war. But I counter argue that greater compassion, deliberate tolerance, and resolve to serve another in need will at least affect a positive change and that change can only happen one by one. One person must make the inner commitment to do this. Not for one’s own personal happiness do we make this resolution. What the hell is that anyway when the world is on fire?
P.S. Dear Diary,
I keep thinking I’ll finish this entry before too much else happens but the mayor of Staszow just called to say there is a Ukrainian teenager without a home over the holidays. He is apparently in a residential situation but with no place to go over the Christmas/New Year’s break. We have absolutely no private rooms left, but we are going to make a place for him in front of the upstairs fireplace. We will hang sheets to give him some privacy. At least he will be warm and there is a downstairs bathroom which is quite accessible.