This month has been especially difficult and for no apparent reason; at least nothing I can identify in plain terms as the cause. No one is sick. No one is making unreasonable demands. Apart from a few emotional outbursts among us, the atmosphere seems amiable enough. So why am I flat? What is this weight upon me that disturbs my joy? If it is no one occurrence that I can point to, then perhaps it is a sequence of endless ones that I must bring together in order to understand this despondency.
War, shelter, home, at home, children, estranged, fathers, brothers, soldiers, killers, rape: despair. All part of war.
The End and the Beginning
by Wisława Szymborska
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
and bloody rags.
Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
The definition of the word shelter: something beneath, behind or within which a person, animal or thing is protected from storms, missiles or adverse conditions; refuge.
The definition of ‘at home’: in one’s own house or place of residence, in one’s own town or country, prepared or willing to receive social visits, in a situation familiar to one at ease.
Factory work in the dining area. Lunch prepared by the community. Delicious, sometimes even more than delicious; superb. Children playing, bickering, playing, crying, laughing. Dogs barking. Grown-ups at the table talking about the future in hopeless terms. “I see no hope in the future,” they say, then slip back into their quarters. We are a shelter. From time to time a mother loses her patience. The glass cover on my phone is all cracked up, splitting apart. I have resisted having it repaired because it seems the perfect metaphor.
Anxiety: Winter is coming. We are depending on blankets and firewood; saving the gas for colder weather. Much colder.
I am only a witness to war, not a victim. My choice has been a choice of solidarity, nothing more. Otherwise, I am spoiled and privileged but for the presence of war.
I went to a wedding mid-October and sat with our first cousin Janek, who lived at Ruszcza (Paul’s parents’ house) during THE WAR. Jan was only four but he remembers those days. He made a speech over the bride and groom, and it reminded me of the one that his grandfather Antoni Kieniewicz made in June, 1939, above the heads of Rose and Henry. I told him about this speech and that I have it…someplace. As the son of Poland’s national historian, he would like to include it in the family archives. I promised to send it to him. It was a speech full of hope and promise. And then there was war. The newlyweds compelled to be apart for six years. Split apart.
Two weeks later he called to say his wife of sixty-plus years had died. Paul went to the funeral and said that Janek managed to stand before the attendees though didn’t say much except a resounding, ‘Do Zobaczenia, Grazyna!’ which means, ‘See you soon, Grazyna.’
Looking for joy at a wedding and a funeral. War.
Our cousin, Basia, came to stay with me while Paul was away in London visiting family. Basia is more like a sister to me than a cousin. She brought with her the letters her mother and father had written to her grandmother back in Poland after the war.
Jan Rostworowski married Teresa Horodynska in Edinburgh in 1945 after their lives, restricted by war, obliged them to settle in Great Britain. To return to a Russian-occupied country, after having lived abroad would have increased the risk of imprisonment, even a possible exile to Siberia. Her mother had already spent over two years of the war in a Soviet labour camp and had no desire to return.
We sat down at the computer together, and Basia translated the letters from Polish into English as she read. She explained that the letters were in code. For example, instead of writing Dear Mama, it was Dear Aunt so as not to bring to the attention of the communist authorities the fact that his mother had a son in the UK. The communists wouldn’t have been as interested in interrogating her over a distant relative.
The aftermath of war and the artful ways in which one must change their lives to fit in.
The longing they felt, filtered through the lines in each letter. They were lonely. They had a hard time with the language and with making friends in Britain. It was cold and damp. But they worked and they worked hard. Jan had to delay his dreams of poetry, of writing, for another ten years. Teresa managed the children and worked eight to ten hours a day at a desk job. They missed being at home.
There is a certain sound, a kind of music that the landscape of one’s own home imparts. There is a fragrance there too. Attached to this is a visual image of the colors and the light and the shadows. There is all of this in the origin of one’s own home. Everything else is merely a shelter. A substitute.
As Basia read the letters, I wept. The tears are so close to the surface these days. Though how can one not weep at the unnatural and aggressive force used to divide a citizen from his country of origin?
War and After the War. The glass is cracked.
The letters go on to describe their lives, sometimes communicating quite joyful moments with the children but always aware they cannot return to Poland. They are political exiles with refugee papers. Under such circumstances, their only means of communication were their letters to Jan’s mama.
After a decade, Jan did finally find the time and creative space to write. He joined the Polish expatriate community of artists and writers and was celebrated for his work. But it was not to last. He was rejected by them, his name and his work smeared when in the mid-sixties he made the decision to take a Polish passport (his application for British citizenship was rejected) and return to Poland for the first time to see his mother. He was vilified as a traitor to the cause by accepting the document from the government of the Polish People’s Republic.
Jung said that ‘…when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as Fate.’ But how much control do we have as individuals over the collective and what it does not make conscious? I say our destinies are restricted at best, shattered at worst, and left forever stunted, unable to reclaim the strength it would take to redefine an individual plan secure enough to support a destiny. This is the reality of circumstance of which none of us are exempt.
I tire of trying to make sense of war, either spiritually, rationally, theoretically, or otherwise; I must carry the burden of when my faith fails. I don’t expect to understand the mystery of God. I don’t even look for certainty. Not all the time, anyway. So when I say faith, it’s not faith in my relationship with God that I doubt or that is called into question. It is this discontent within with which I struggle. My greatest joy is to be in service, but I feel no joy. My enthusiasm has leeched out of me.
My son, Zack, wrote to me today, referencing the photographs of Paul’s ancestors hanging here at Sichów and at Kurozwęki.
He writes: ‘All the pictures are amazing, but do you actually think for one second that those ancestors had it easy? They are pretty and restored and in black and white…you can’t see them in color. You don’t see the typhoid and cholera, dysentery and rheumatic fever. You don’t see the three children out of eight that didn’t make it or live long enough for a photograph. There wasn’t any EU or ERCC to offer any assistance in a drought or pandemic, flu or famine. Fall off a horse and break your leg 20 miles from civilization with no back up, you still have to climb back on and get home. You don’t see this in the photographs, but it’s there in living color. They had hard lives yet celebrated the fine moments of happiness in between because they were strong…’.
I must add to his observations our own family heritage from West Texas during the late ninetenth and early twentieth century when his great grandparents settled a cattle ranch along with their eleven children. I remember my aunts talking about the Native Americans and the challenges they faced in building their lives alongside them. The droughts which pressed them to drive the cattle up to the Dakotas, the Great Depression, the loss of money, the suicides, the return of money.
It would be unnatural to feel joy while partnering those whose lives have been forever changed by war. What joy is there in that? I must draw from the ancestors their strength and their endurance.
One should not expect joy from service. I am learning this. Service is a neutral activity. It must have no name to be authentic. When service is bound up and identified with the one in attendance to the other, then it becomes more about the individual than it does about the service.
I am finding my way back again after many weeks of melancholy. And why shouldn’t my heart break? What else is the heart supposed to do? The Ukrainians are not the only ones on the run. There are the Venezuelans in America. There are the Libyans stuck on a boat in the port of Catania. Mothers and children are separated. The old are sick and frail, and all most people want is a better life. This is who we are. We are this. I can no longer blame the politicians. It is me who is responsible to do what can be done. I listen to all these talking heads, and yet has any one of them offered to take in a family and help them get their paperwork, help them get established? This crisis will not go away. It is here, and we — we individuals — must not wait to make a difference in another’s life for the better.
My heart breaks. Jordan says it breaks so that it can grow again even stronger. What is the logic of a mother separated from her son.
War. The nameless, the faceless.
The next time there is a national holiday with flags flying and parks full of patriotic exuberance, just remember that scattered all around the world is a population of displaced people who suffer until the end of their days the impact of war. Not in the least the soldiers who fought them. Many shot in the back. More men lost to senselessness. War does not make us free. Waving flags and proclaiming our dominance does not make us free. There is always another one approaching, lying in wait to kill our loved ones. What makes us free is within us.
The Cross Border House is the name we have chosen to call this community of refugees. I didn’t like calling anyone a refugee at the beginning; it felt so cold and removed from the ordinary and the sacred in our day. It felt that way because indeed it was so.
We are hopeful the new website will be launched this week. On these pages, you will see our commitment to those who are far away from their ‘at home’ place and see how we all do our part in restoring the ordinary and the sacred to our day through painting, play, cooking, sewing, walking and dreaming.