Remembering to Breathe Out

There is grief in the air here, in the land. It is palpable. You can see it in the smiles that hold a tinge of frown in them. You can see it in the eyes of the people. Eyes that are big, bright, and beautiful, and appear to be holding something back, like a dam. Holding back a flood that if you peer through the eyes long and deep enough can be seen. Can be felt. Sometimes just looking long enough brings the tears the out. It is grief from old, ancestral trauma of Soviet-era oppression, of pre-Soviet era oppression, of the unimaginable horrors of war and Holocaust that took place here. It is new grief and despair from the recent trauma of a revolution being stolen by power hungry bandits – replacing one extremely corrupt government for another extremely corrupt government. It is the grief of the current and continually unfolding trauma of war in the east, where the sons of Ukraine go to die for a government and a notion that the people have less and less faith in everyday.

I’ve met veterans of the war, younger than me, who lost their brothers in arms within feet of them. I’ve met refugees from the Donetsk region who left families behind. Almost every Ukrainian I’ve met knows someone or they know someone who knows someone who had to fight in the war. They rarely talk about it, but everyone feels the impact of it.

It is hard not to breathe in the air of grief and take in into your lungs. The longer you’re here, the deeper you breathe it in and the deeper it seeps into your system. It’s difficult to not feel the weight of despair that seems to me to be the unspoken and unaddressed baseline here. If I’m transparent and honest, I’ve felt the weight of it and haven’t always been so skillful at releasing it and letting it pour through me, rather than fill me up like a stopped sink. The deep freeze and overcast skies of winter compounded the emotional sludge I found myself trudging through. There were some days I hardly left my hostel, save to buy groceries. Reading the news of all that has been happening back in the U.S. (Trump, Standing Rock, the spike in hate crimes, the erosion of so much that actually protects what and who make America great) added to the piles of grief. Now with the coming of spring and the thawing of the land around, the sludge is loosening. The grief and emotions are moving. I’m finding the ability to release again. And to move into action on this journey with intention again. It feels good to be transparent and share honestly my inner state.

This isn’t to say the last few months have been all emotional sludge with no progress or joy. I made more breakthroughs in my genealogical research, found the apartment a couple great-grandparents lived in, and I connected with long lost relatives in Novosibirsk! I made progress on learning and improving my Russian, one of my big goals of this journey. I led Jewish Renewal style Kabbalat Shabbat services for communities that had either never experienced this style of Shabbat, or simply never experienced Shabbat before. I experienced love and connection.

There has been joy through the winter. But this isn’t to gloss over the grief. I came to understand a few years ago that grief is not something that can simply be glossed over or simply transformed by positive thinking. It needs to be processed. I needs to be given channels to move, to be expressed, to be released. Then it can be composted and transmuted into something else. One of my takes on the culture here is that it is very good at memorializing tragedy, but very poor at actually grieving it (I see parallels with modern mainstream Jewish culture). Thus the grief stagnates, and builds with each new tragedy. This is actually something most of the world needs to get better at: Grieving. I’m still learning the art of it myself.

I’m sharing openly now these reflections and my inner emotional journey as part of my process, giving myself an additional channel for release (though ritual is the best channel I’ve found – perhaps more on that another time). I thank you for reading and listening.

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