Upon writing this piece originally, the date was yet July and the people of Ukraine were roiling under the recent increase in deaths to their own countrymen and military, causing newly elected President Petro Poroshenko to end the cease-fire aimed at creating a spirit and setting for peace negotiation. What has remained an internal conflict between Ukrainians and revolutionaries of the People’s Republic of Donetsk and pro-Russian terrorists, has now taken a horrific turn.
The inexplicable tragedy that occurred to the souls on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has wrenched my heart, and the pain goes deeper now than I ever thought possible. Justice is no longer being sought solely for the Ukrainian people. It is being sought for the entire world that must know we shall not live in fear and must feel safe in this humanity that is ours to create and to maintain in peace.
This article, once dedicated to my Ukrainian family and the people of Ukraine, is now additionally dedicated to all the people who feel themselves a part of this global solution of rebuilding through compassion and love at all times, and to the families and loved ones who have lost in the past days and months, now from all across the world. We take a collective deep breath together, and feel, more than ever, how connected we are in this great heartbeat.
Ukraine. What images do you see? How does this make you feel? Let the blue sky and golden fields of grain that wave so proudly from the earth of this country, her flag sturdy and staid in colors of the same, reassure you that we need not shy away from these feelings. Embrace them and meet the countenances of the people themselves, saddened but joyful for the gifts of their garden and a table to gather round. In this sometimes quiet, but often radiantly boisterous setting of the table, conviviality and hospitality define themselves and the perseverant people of Ukraine power on through yet another trial with courage and faith, another testament to the resilience in the very veins of their being.
Imagine yourself at this table if you will. Scarcely will you have space to sensate, and yet there is hardly a greater sensory experience in the country. Chairs are packed tightly like the sardines Uncle Dima will soon be slurping down. Dishes of mayonnaise-induced salads, fresh sausage accompanied by cheddar cheese, potatoes that are diced and spliced and mashed and hashed and wasted in no ways, and cucumber and tomato hors d’oeuvres stack on top of one another with as much room as you’d find on a crowded mashrutka (the local bus, lacking all amenities but full of sights and smells and shouts from babushkas for days). A glass for juice and a more important glass for samahon (homemade vodka), and it’s filled and emptied and refilled before you can say “Za zdrovya!”
Hostess hurries happily about serving and pouring and laughing and dancing to the rhythm of her own hospitality, rarely taking a breath to enjoy her own food. No matter if there’s two or twenty, there is still food for twenty, and nothing short of an entire calendar season contributed to the presentation before you today (the seeds planted in the soil and harvested and stored and enjoyed). And Lord knows she’ll do the same tomorrow.
Ya zhyvu na skrayu, nichoho ne znayu. I live on the edge, I don’t know anything. Once considered a maxim of apathy, it clearly has transformed to represent a ready antidote to the poison that the politics and derision inject into their lives. The Ukrainian people are surely affected by the tragedies of their Russian-inspired troubles, but nevertheless they stand no time to pity themselves, but carry forth in their boundless generosity and hospitality to ensure that those who find them that day can also find happiness. I found them that day, and I found happiness with it.
As a Peace Corps volunteer from 2010-2012, teaching English in a small town, the most beautiful part of life in Ukraine that I was able to discover was how people become a part of one another so naturally.
Mama Nina: Here was a woman whose husband had died a year ago, still in mourning, who took the risk to take in a boy from the other side of the world. A prodigious transformation in her lifestyle, a huge risk, everything about the way she saw her role in this world would change.
Yet when it was clear that I was going to call her “mama,” she so naturally called me “son” and we became one another’s solace in so many powerful ways. That speaks the greatest volumes about the love and compassion of the people of Ukraine, of humanity in general when you let yourself open and then, arms around each other, never let go.
The table you just imagined for yourself was the table that she set for me, every day, for two years. Upon waking in the morning the soup would be bubbling and the frying pan would be on the stove, eggs being brought in from the coop as she slammed the door quickly and hustled into the warmth of the kitchen from the subzero wintry morning winds. After preparing food in a 10-foot by 20-foot kitchen for 400 hungry school children, she would scurry on her little motorbike to do the same for her American son (who took a year to graduate from “little boy” to “strong man” in her eyes, one finally ready to prepare his own meals).
Bread broken and simple conversations scattered across her weary eyes, such a heavy load upon her shoulders, yet she nevertheless smiled and felt genuine joy at creating this life for us to lead together. A man in the home, a mouth to feed, a heart to share. This was all she wanted. This is all she needs.
This is truly all that any Ukrainian wants: security, someone to care for, and someone to feel love with (and perhaps a great deal of what any of us wants when we dig right down to the root of it). And that’s just what the Ukrainian people do: they find the roots and nurture them and care for them, and quite diligently so, for their spirits depend upon it. Oh, how those spirits are strong. This collective soil where family and friends, brothers and fathers, mothers and grandmothers have been buried, is rich and fertile with gentle hope. The hope to continue on the road that was set before them, to carry forth with head held high and seek the path to peace with their soul leaning forward.
Ukraine. What images do you see? How does this make you feel? Good, I’m smiling too.
This story is dedicated to Mama Nina and Sister Olha, Lyuda, and Nephew Maxim. Also to the dear people of Nemyriv, especially those at School No.1, who welcomed me and cherished me for two years of my life, two years that have turned me from the “little boy” into the “strong man” I am today. I am forever in gratitude and endlessly in love with you and your country. Slava Ukrayeeni! (Glory to Ukraine!)
*Featured/top image: Mama Nina (far back right) prepared the spread for my family as they visited Ukraine from the States. Photo courtesy of Adam Tutor.