January 29, 2023
Approaching the War Diaries from a distance, I’m always so sure about what I’m going to say until I get right up to the typewriter (so to speak). And then it changes. Remember those days? As my husband will tell you, before computers there were fewer who dared the undertaking of such a craft. Carbon paper had to be considered. Onion skin paper. Pencils, erasers, white out. Messy ribbons, red and black. The slow pace of the craft itself, producing the best we had to offer; then the swell and agony of the submission/rejection process, the hope and the fall which left us in tears. If you were lucky, an editor would scratch some directional notes on the enclosed letter of refusal leaving you in a state of watchful euphoria as you bragged to all your friends: “They didn’t accept my work but at least they told me the reasons why.” It wasn’t read by a robot or a twenty-two-year-old who’d never known anything but hyper-abundance and indulgence. Of course at the time, we didn’t realise how precious were our blessings.
Henry Miller lived off Beverly Glen Blvd. in Los Angeles toward the end of his life. I can’t remember the exact address anymore, but I do remember sitting in my car, trying to summon the courage to knock at the door and ask if he could give me some advice about my writing. The world was smaller then, and it felt less complicated though I’m sure it wasn’t actually so. Thankfully, I never did manage the chutzpah to knock. Why am I thinking about distant memories which seem to have no relevance to my present situation? Especially those dreams of a twenty-six-year-old who wanted nothing more than to abandon the well-reasoned life, move to Paris, write pages upon pages of poetry, get lost in the Latin Quarter, devour the daring lives of Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes, Colette, Henry Miller and Larry Durrell without the slightest notion to money or dentists or taxes or anything else remotely practical. Maybe I’m thinking about her because she once attempted at bravery.
It’s been a month of tears for all of us at The Cross Border House, itself at a crossroads. The property we lease is being sold. We are closing our doors on July 1, 2023, unless we can find another place to live and continue our work. The residents here have been offered an opportunity to stay at their own expense, and some will do this. Others might be in a better position to find accommodation in the neighboring town. But there are still those who don’t have enough money to stay or to relocate without additional help, so of course this is our main concern.
If the Foundation is not able to secure a property, then we will divest the remaining funds at the end of June and do the best we can to help those who have no place to go figure out a solution.
This was not the war any of us expected.
On top of all this, the whole house is suffering from colds and flu, stomach viruses and now a chicken pox outbreak as of Friday night. I’d beckon the spring in my thoughts if it weren’t for fear of stronger offensives, more deadly ones, more tanks, more missile strikes.
I cry without warning. The tears overcome me and before I know it, I must excuse myself. There is a code of decorum here among us and it’s unspoken. We don’t usually cry at the table. Tears well up; the eyes are watery but rarely does a drop fall. If that is about to happen, we depart. Yesterday I woke up hopeful, but by noon was in the car sobbing uncontrollably.
Yevgenia’s husband, who came to see us over Christmas, Yana’s daddy, is in the military. He was on the road this week with three other soldiers. He stopped the car so he could get out to smoke. The moment he was clear of the car, a missile hit the car and killed the three comrades left inside.
During this last offensive, Luba’s daughter Marina and her husband, also in the military, have lost many, and yet they still stand. Luba is Stepan’s grandmother. They live in Room Nine.
Across the hall is Oxana and her daughter Varvara, who decided to return to Ukraine yesterday despite the dangers; she was homesick and could never find her way here. Jordan packed her off with a goodly sum of travel money and the foundation bought her a sketchbook, a box of pencils and a soft toy. More tears shed as she drove away.
It takes the hard shell of steel to get through these days with a smile. Last week I started a diary entry I didn’t finish:
Igir bursts forth from the school bus very hungry. His mother can hardly contain him at the table as she quickly runs through to the kitchen to prepare his plate. He’s not crying or demanding, just hungry. He’s happy. He’s full of energy and if he could tell you, I’m sure he would tell you what a wonderful day he had. I. has special needs. I don’t know what they are but quite frankly that’s not what’s important. What is important though is to know that when he first came, he didn’t smile much nor did he engage with anyone, but now I get the biggest hugs from him. So does Paul. He makes eye contact. He’s in school and playing and has a consistent and predictable routine.
The children who were killed in the apartment building in Dnipro had lives too. They were maliciously murdered. Not by a stray missile, but by an intended one. A very powerful one.
When you strip the uniform off a murderer, does he bear a soul? Is there a man or woman beneath this mask? Whomever those were who participated in this last missile strike didn’t know the names of the children in that building in Dnipro. It could have been Igir coming home from school, hungry and happy and passing out hugs with his generous heart.
It could have been Natalia who comes home sometimes not so happy and cranky until she gets her lunch but soon brightens and can always be counted on for a big hug.
It could have been any of the children here at The Cross Border House.
Bogdan. Paulina. Margo. Matvey. Olesia. Misha. Daniel. Wolva. Yana. Swietek. Igir.
They have names and birthdays and stuffed toys and games they like to play. They are silly and mischievous, unreasonable and adorable. They are the children who deserve a chance to tell their story. They deserve to live. They all deserve to live their lives. Those who conspired to drop that bomb on the apartment building in Dnipro have not been denied their lives, and if they have children, nor have their children. Each of these murderers has a name.
The work we are doing is essential. Grounding lives in continuity and a sense of daily certainty, allowing space for the psychological well-being of all, creating an environment of optimism and hope is and has been invaluable to each resident in this house.
My brother fought in the Vietnam War. He could tell you what war is like, but he doesn’t talk about it and his family doesn’t press. I don’t think you’re ever the same again. I am not in Ukraine, but the psyche of the house is there. Last night I dreamed I was on a bus going in and out of the country, crossing the border, picking up more people and bringing them here to safety. I know I will never be the same again.
I don’t think it’s always about acceptance. In fact, I think it’s about resistance and resilience.
Halyna, Jordan’s fiancée, asked me to wait where I stood a few days ago. She went to her room and returned with the most beautiful painting. A painting? She felt like painting? Her brother is in the reserve military in Kyiv. She painted? Yes, she painted a lovely piece of art. One must resist. It’s our only hope. We are doomed if we accept this war as “just the way it is.”
This morning we woke to sunshine. It didn’t last but it did improve my mood somewhat. We must at least try to resist the temptation to darkness even when the sun vanishes. It will come out again. It always does.
Meanwhile, the residents, Paul and I are all preparing to meet our future in the spirit of resilience and hope, in whatever form that takes. We must make art. We must be creative.
The residents in this house are among 103 other million displaced persons, according to the UNHCR, forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events which seriously disturb public order.
I will never be the same again because my worldview has forever been impacted by the reality that there are those left homeless because of acts of war so egregious, so foolish, and so without merit, worth or reason and that these very demonstrations of stupidity disrupt generations to come which in turn will affect each and every one of us in some way or other throughout the course of time.
We do not need to know them personally to know that they have a name and a story. And the best we can do is to not demonize them but to open ourselves to their story, if lucky enough to come that close.
My husband’s favourite uncle, Jan Rostworowski, was in the Polish army during WWII, stationed in St. Andrews, Scotland, when he received news that Paul’s grandmother had died at the age of 42 in Wójcza. Wójcza is only about 20 minutes from here, the childhood home of Paul’s mother. He wrote about what had been taken from him on the day the Nazis marched into Poland, followed not long after by the Russians.
I run to greet the house, in every room
A different story lurks, different echoes of
well known melodies, of changing moods.
The dining room is brown, a long table of walnut
With sturdy curved legs.
The sheen of the tabletop smiles back at us,
With the smell of coffee and fresh bread. Breakfast
a bouquet of dahlias in their silver basket
Creates a splash of colour against the tabletop.
By the wall richly carved sideboards, cupboards, stools. It appears
Our mother, in her youth, drew the designs
For the carvings. They both frighten and delight us children.
Each head, column, side is carved in rich baroque….
…. A typical Polish country drawing room
Pastel coloured, straight out of ‘Warszawianka’
You can still hear the musical notes quivering in the lace curtains.
(Excerpt from The Letter, Jan Rostworowski)
Were the deaths of approximately 70-85 million people and the loss of home, story, table and sweet memory worth WWII? What do we have to show? And now, more war. More disruption, more death.
You are the world as Krishnamurti said. You have to change before you can expect the world to change.
Knock, knock, Mr. Miller. Thank you for living in Big Sur for eighteen years with hardly enough money for much of anything but a crust of bread to feed you and your family. Despite what one might think of your work, or whatever they call you, painter, writer, raconteur or libertine, you made art your priority. You pursued the path of resistance. You resisted the status quo, the mundane, the banal. Your children tell us in interviews and newspaper articles that you told stories, every night. Made up ones. And you always had a glass of wine with dinner. The shop owner at the bottom of the hill accepted your drawings in exchange for supplies. You slipped away onto a high mountain cove and lived a peaceful life caring for your wife and two children. You lived your truth. You made art without the expectation of acknowledgment. You lived your life without interference. I stopped by today to say that your courage inspires me to live my truth, my life; especially when no one is watching.