Abiding in Exile 3/3/2022

Abiding in Exile 3/3/2022

March 02, 2022

Unimaginable Days 

By: Lee Roorda Schott

 

I never had a reason to give much thought to what it would be like to live through the first days of a war. 

How fortunate I have been.

Some of you reading this may remember the first days of what we now call World War II. “First days” being an uncertain designation, depending on where you lived and when war was declared. In those days, the memory of the “Great War” (now known as World War I) was achingly fresh. Those early days were unthinkable enough; who could conceive of the worldwide conflagration that would ensue?

And now we’ve watched the first days of war in our time. Last Thursday, Russia invaded Ukraine unprovoked, disturbing a balance of power in Europe that has held mostly firm for decades. I heard a Ukrainian describe the end of Wednesday, “the last calm day,” and waking up to find that “war had come to Ukraine. Not conflict. Not disturbance. War. Conventional war.” The bitterness and unbelief in his voice will stay with me for a long, long time.

On that very day, just by chance, I read the start of a mystery novel that begins at Britain’s declaration of war against Germany in 1939—Britain’s start of World War II. I read the opening chapters of this historical novel, Jacqueline Winspear’s In This Grave Hour, with a sense of then-is-now. Those early days unfolded swiftly, with the people of London adjusting to gas masks and blackout curtains, the relocation of children away from the city, men conscripted for service, the threat of rationing, and more.

An account like this reads differently when you’re literally surrounded by news reports and social media posts that repeat in our time this too-familiar story, happening today. 

Like these words, this week, from Eugene, a 27-year-old IT marketing worker who lives in Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine. “Last weekend I cannot decide should I buy games to play on my Playstation and today I have to decide should I help to fight the Russian army ‘til my death.”

The suddenness of it all, the juxtaposition of ordinary and unthinkable, reminded me just a bit of the start of the pandemic. Everything changed in a moment then, too. What seemed normal and unchanging in the days and weeks before proved to be, well, not. I don’t equate this with the start of a war. But having lived through March of 2020, wherever we were in the world, it’s harder to say that such thoroughgoing, instantaneous changes are unthinkable.

In the book I was reading, Sandra, a woman in London, begins to weep upon telling her coworkers she is pregnant. When pressed about her tears, she says, “How can I feel joy, bringing a child into a world like this?” She went on to describe something she had seen just that morning, walking to her tram stop:

A woman was coming towards me with a pram [a stroller]. I’d never seen one like it—it was like a metal box on wheels, with a little window so she could see her baby inside. It was as if the baby was in its own special chamber to protect it from gas. 

What kind of world will I bring my baby into? What kind of world, when the poor little mite has to have a pram like a metal box to stop it being gassed to death?

What kind of world, indeed?

The podcast The Daily interviewed several people still in Ukraine the day after the Russian invasion. A man described his family’s decision not to leave, before the attack came. It was clear they hoped things would be resolved, making it unnecessary to flee. But that decision was tender, the day after Russia made its move. “My main question, for myself,” he says, “is if I make a very very big mistake, not to move from Ukraine when I had an opportunity to do this.” He went on, though, “I can ask you, do you want to wake up in the morning and understand you should go, for ever, not for one day, not for two days, forever? Can you make such a decision in, I don’t know, ten minutes? …To bring just a bit of water, just a bit of food, a suit of clothes, documents, money, and go outside your home, forever. Can you make such a decision? Just imagine.” 

I admit, I cannot imagine. 

I’ve been lighting a candle for Ukraine, whenever I’m with others, all week. On Sunday morning, I lit a candle on the altar table, saying, “We gather in a world that holds the hurting of Ukraine.” It occurred to me afterward that I might be lighting that candle for a very, very long time.

This reminds me of how, one day in the fall of 2016, I rather impulsively invited my church to “take a knee” at the start of worship during a week when yet another black man had been shot by white police officers. The example of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, protesting racial violence, was fresh in our minds, and around the room, people knelt or bowed in a moment of silence and prayer. When we gathered the following week, there had been a school shooting, and we took a knee again. The next week, there had been violence in connection with the Dakota Access Pipeline. We took a knee. And the next, two police officers fatally shot in Des Moines. Week after week, there was reason to take a knee. Months later, we decided to end this practice. Our knees were tired.

Our world, too. So tired.

In my mystery novel, Maisie Dobbs is the investigator and psychologist at the center of this series, and she is no stranger to loss through wartime, in more ways than one. As this second war of her lifetime breaks into daily life, she reflects on how she and those around her will cope:

Maisie knew that each day had to be taken as it came, and to do her work she must be flexible, to move the fabric of time as one might if sewing a difficult seam, perhaps stretching the linen to accommodate a stitch. She had learned…that to endure the most troubling times she had to break down time itself---one carefully crafted stitch after the other. If consideration of what the next hour might hold had been too difficult, then she thought only of another half an hour. 

She had explained this to [her friend] once, and her friend had asked, “What’s the longest time you could bear, Maisie?” And she had whispered, “Two minutes.” But at some point the two minutes became five, and the five became ten, and as time marched on she was able to imagine a day ahead and then a week, until one day, almost without realizing it, she could plan her life, could look forward to time laying out the tablecloth as if to say “Come, take what you will, be nourished and know that you can bear what might be on your horizon, the good and the ill.”

Breaking down time like that, and eventually sewing it back together, seems like something we all had to learn during the pandemic. Pain made us granular. We couldn’t take it all in, so we got specific. I hear something like that in these reports coming out of Ukraine. The time horizon has grown very short. As it must, for now.

But it doesn’t stay there. It didn’t in the pandemic, and it won’t for those who survive this war. Somehow, in the inscrutable flow of healing and resurrection and perspective and wonder, our siblings clear across this frustrating, beautiful world will find themselves—as we will—looking up, looking forward, looking inward. And one day they (and we) will realized there’s a feast right there at hand, laid out by God’s own hand, offering nourishment and delight that is real, and surprising, even through tears.

May it be so. Lord, have mercy.

___________________________

 

If you are experiencing anxiety in the midst of all this news that can feel overwhelming, consider the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique that is intended to keep our thoughts from going too quickly in too many directions:

 

Connect to your breathing, then go through the following steps to help ground yourself:

  1. 5: Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. ...
  2. 4: Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you. ...
  3. 3: Acknowledge THREE things you hear. ...
  4. 2: Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. ...
  5. 1: Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste.

 

Learn more at this link and at this one, or consult a mental health professional. Be well.

 

1 “Ukrainians’ Choice: Fight or Flee?” The Daily podcast (New York Times, February 24, 2022), around 22:25 into the episode.

2 “In Ukraine, the Men Who Must Stay and Fight,” The Daily podcast (New York Times, March 1, 2022), around 10:44 into the episode.

3 Jacqueline Winspear, In This Grave Hour, a Maisie Dobbs Novel (New York: HarperLuxe, 2017), 196-97.

The Daily, 2/24/2022, starting around 20:32.

5 Winspear, 29-30.

 

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