It's been a difficult 24 hours, following news from afar, picking and choosing trustworthy sources, verifying information, and feeling so, so helpless in the face of the chaos and trauma being visited on millions of people half a world away from me. I won't give any Ukraine updates because you can find those elsewhere (including in my stories), but I do have thoughts, and I'm processing some of my feelings at the same time.
I've seen footage today of dads saying goodbye to their families because their families are leaving but they're staying behind to fight. I've seen stories about young teens choosing to take to the streets or snipe from a balcony to take down invading soldiers and maybe give their village, their city, their country, their family a little more hope and one fewer person to worry about. I've seen kids bundled down into subway systems for protection from the bombs and missiles, and I read and listened to the audio taking over Snake Island. There's been story after story of Ukrainian citizens stepping into the fray rather than away, giving their life to help others live, and stepping in to take care of children, elderly, or otherwise fragile fellow humans. There have been stories of courage the likes of which I hope I would evidence if I were in the same situation.
Two thoughts keep circling in my head: 1) how much humans can take before we finally decide something is TOO much and worth fighting against, and 2) how simultaneously resilient and yet fragile we are, especially children.
As a child, I moved from the Caribbean and South America to Slovakia immediately after my ninth birthday. We lived in a village outside of the capital city of Bratislava, right on the border of Austria, Hungary, and the Slovak Republic, with the Czech Republic not far off. Some of my earliest memories in Slovakia involve watching enormous tanks roll down the street, shaking our house as they went by. My memory now is fuzzy, fragmented by a child's reality and uncertain understanding, but my impression is they were on their way to aid in the Baltics during the Kosovo conflict. I remember biking home many times from the grocery store and waiting and watching as soldier convoys drove by in a long line of lorries, or waking up to fighter jets overhead. I remember sirens, although I don't remember what they were for or how often they went off; just that they were there in the background in those early months. I remember having a bag packed because the American embassy had an evacuation plan in place for Americans in case we needed to leave the country due to current political happenings in the baltics or in Slovakia itself, including a politician who wanted Slovakia to join back with Russia at the time. It was a scary and uncertain time, and for a couple years, my siblings' and my most common imaginary game we played together was a war game where we'd try to slip out of wherever we were and escape through obstacles, hide from soldiers, and make our way to a designated safe point. We had hiding places for each of us kids around our yard and then neighborhood and village, places we knew we'd head to if something went bad and we had to go. We named our hideaways so if we were in a pinch, we could easily whisper which hideaway we were heading for so we could find each other again. We made plans for going with our parents and plans for if we had to go on our own.
In hindsight I don't know how much of that was warranted and how much of it was the imagination of kids who felt insecure in a new language, culture, and political vista and who knew things weren't settled, but however it started, it became a big part of our early time in Europe: not knowing when we might be evacuated, when feelings might turn against Americans (even though all of us laughed a little at the thought of us being Americans since we'd never lived in America and didn't feel like that's what we were), or what direction the country would go in with a new election. We picked up on the spoken and unspoken tension of the adults around us, and we knew things weren't good for a while.
I look back and see how resilient we were in what I see now was a scary situation but didn't realize the extent of at the time...and I see the little traumas of that time, too. The genuine, real fear of being evacuated in the night. The awareness that we had to be prepared for that. The stories we heard from elderly friends and acquaintances who remembered running from tanks decades before.
In high school I did several research papers on different aspects of Slovakia under Communism, from being a Christian to smuggling materials across the borders to the cultural effects of being under Soviet rule. The interviews I got to conduct with friends and neighbors and strangers who lived through those times when they never knew when the secret police would knock on their door and drag a family member away, or being scared to ask friends how they were doing in case they were arrested and their knowledge was used against their friends, or so many similar situations will stay with me forever.
I'll never forget sitting at a table with a man who choked up as he remembered watching members of his family run over by a tank as they were fleeing-- Nazi Germany? Soviet soldiers? The details are fuzzy for me now, but the horror in that memory as I sat frozen listening to him is clear.
Seeing the tanks roll into the cities in Ukraine today brought back a measure of fears I thought long buried and moved past. Hearing kids crying in different clips as they both understood and didn't understand was heartbreaking. Seeing the bravery and courage of people who should never have had to be in those positions was inspiring and crushing all at once.
Tonight was surreal. Three of my kids had their Slovak class, talking about Slovak culture and language and grammar and food. The meal I planned last week for tonight's dinner was porkchops and red cabbage--a frequent meal around here, and one that takes me back to Europe every time. I ate my dinner painfully conscious of how easily we were able to use our electricity to cook and eat tonight when over 100,000 Ukrainians have been displaced in the last 24 hours and the worst is likely yet to come. When I was putting the boys to bed tonight, Vanya was talking about how he wants to be an ice hockey player for Slovakia when he's a grown up and be known as Ivanko Goggans, the Slovak ice hockey player. And I wondered, will Slovakia as I know and love it be around when he's an adult? What are we looking at for Ukraine in the near future, or for central and eastern Europe in the years to come thanks to these events? And then I tucked my kids safely into their beds, and I went to my room and sobbed for the parents who couldn't do that for their kids tonight, and for the kids trying to make sense of the world with their limited framework for understanding what's happening and why.
Here's remembering the brave Ukrainian individuals who have given their life for their fellow human beings. Here's thinking of the Russian men and women who are just following orders, and/or don't realize what's going on and are operating under false information. Here's to the many Central/Eastern Europeans living elsewhere in the world, anxiously waiting for news and watching their home countries and wondering what's next. Here's to the surrounding countries who are opening their borders and welcoming Ukrainian refugees in, knowing they're next on Putin's list to take over. Here's to the children who will carry the memories of this horror with them for the rest of their lives-- the things they've seen, the things they've heard, the things they've felt and lost. Here's to the men and women who are working hard to share and verify information, pass updates, and to chronicle individual people's stories, because these stories need to be told. Here's thinking of the many, many people who are voluntarily stepping up to defend not just their country, but their fellow countrymen, way of life, and freedom.
Andrew and Melanie fell in love over late night snacks, dozing off in the middle of studying for exams, words, and a shared love for stories. We see stories everywhere: in the little day to day incidents and in the bigger sagas over days, months, and years of our time. We cherish the stories that root us and we rest in the Story that gives our lives meaning. We love seeing the threads of stories come together in gut-busting, belly-laugh-inducing, choke-on-your spit ways, and we love the gentle, quiet, easily missed stories that ultimately can play a bigger part in our lives than many other more obvious stories. We're young, we're old, we're growing, we're learning. We make a lot of mistakes, fall down a lot, struggle with life, sometimes sit in our sadness, but ultimately we pick ourselves back up again and keep on trekking. We're on a journey of parenthood now and have been for over ten years, learning and growing into it right along with our six children.