March 10: Of Salamanders and the Moral War

Monument in Kharkiv, before the invasion

“…and every day is like your last chance / and every night as though for the last time…” -from “Hotel Central” by Natalka Biloserkevets

Mariupol was bombed; overnight, an estimated 1,300 killed

I can’t seem to climb out of the gloomy mood that descends. I go to my online meditation class, which I cried all the way through, last week. This week, I’m determined to be professional, to meditate hard and leave the war behind for an hour. But K, the kindly Buddhist nun who leads us, suggests we do a meditation that will allow feelings about war to emerge. I’m totally fine with being numb I say, almost insolently, and I mean it. It’s such a relief to have those blank, unfeeling moments. Undeterred, K gives us this mantra: Om (in breath) ah (pause) hum (out breath). The breathing leads to feeling, and the feeling leads to an anxiety attack. I’m glad my camera and sound are turned off.

I have a conversation over Zoom with a Ukrainian scholar who fled Kyiv only a week ago.  I would not have been good with a gun, she says. I’m more useful as a writer. She tells me her parents are in Kherson, now under Russian control. I think they will be OK because the Russians want this to be a model city of occupation, she says. She says of Mariupol: They are burning their own furniture for heat. They are melting snow for water.

But Ukraine has won the moral war, she says.

There’s Anna S again, on Facebook Story, speaking to the camera from Kharkiv, talking about self-care: Remember to take a 5 minute a break, every hour.

I write a despairing post on Facebook. So many of us are processing our feelings in real time, over social media. A new friend responds with blue and yellow hearts, and a fragment from the Ukrainian poet Natalka Bilotserkivets: “Maybe a new humanity will rise out of this – after us – as we ourselves rose out of the ravaged cells of old salamanders.”-  May 1987.

1987 was four years before independence. Ukraine is in an endless cycle of rising and falling and rising again.

I become briefly obsessed with salamanders. I learn that they are extremely resilient. They are capable of regenerating lost limbs, allowing them to survive attacks from predators. They have been a symbolic image in European folklore for many centuries.

To break the gloom, I invite my friend M, a middle aged gay Ukrainian academic, for perekusky (appetizers) and wine. It’s comforting to be around Ukrainians these days. I insist we do shots of the Belurussian vodka I have chilling in my freezer, that V, also Ukrainian,  gave me for Christmas. We toast to Ukraine, and to our people. 

M has brought kubasa (garlic sausage)  from Alberta, the good stuff. I’ve laid out Manchego cheese, hummous, baguette, and some shrimps I’ve sauteed with olive oil, paprika and lemon. I haven’t cooked in over a week, so this feels hopeful. We talk about the war, obsessively, as Ukrainians do, and we eat as though we haven’t eaten for days.

Among other things, M says, Once the worst is over, we have to talk about Palestine.