“Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops at all.” Emily Dickinson
It’s maybe 30 degrees, but to my Scottish skin it feels like 45. There is no shade. I remember seeing a photo of Igor’s back in March where people were sheltering from the driving rain here under tarpaulin.
We get the giggles about something and I look up and catch eyes with a woman who looks back at me with the saddest question in her eyes, ‘how can you be laughing?’ I glance around the queue. While people are chatting quietly and children entertain themselves, poking sticks through the railings, no-one is laughing. No one is smiling. I am heading home, full of myself, creatively inspired. My cover is blown, my privilege writ large across my happy face...hot shame flushes up my neck. Soldiers are crossing back into Ukraine in an endless stream, heavy bags piled on their backs as they trudge up the hill, each step bringing them closer to the front line. I think, ‘that could be Igor. That could be my brother’. But it isn’t.
Why are there only two people checking passports here? On the Polish side, there is only one. There is no water. It’s frustrating knowing that there is a food kitchen 50m over the other side of the border.
I am wondering how it would feel if Maybee and Cuckoo arrived here.
We finally reach the turnstyle and a Roma family bundle through in front of us - grandma, mother, children, babe in arms. There seems to be an issue with documentation, and I begin the process of accepting that the train back to Rsezow probably won't happen and that maybe I’ll miss my flight home. This seems a certainty when a group of Polish men push their way forward. Huge, shaved heads, each with a bottle of vodka in their hands, shirtless. The change in energy is dramatic. I realise that for the first time since I've been in Ukraine, in this war zone, I feel unsafe. This particular brand of masculinity, entitlement, aggression.
The security guard asks to check my bag, and as I open it, a pink tulle underskirt pops out, mitigating the silent humiliation of him rummaging through my dirty laundry.
Passports checked (mine stamped) we run back across the border, back down the tarmac path, past the Unicef tent, grab a banana, water and a bowl of potatoes from the wonderful World Food Kitchen and race to the train. So sweaty. So tired. So hungry. We arrive and there is no sign of the train, no rumbling of tracks. We check the timetable. We check again. I look at my watch, I look at my phone. I look at my watch…we are in a different time zone, we have an extra hour.
Our journey back to Warsaw becomes a kind of farce, involving cancelled bus, train fines, a taxi, a hotel that we can’t get into and which when we do, well after midnight, has no running water.
But I do get home, and once I am there I know something has shifted in me, but I can't articulate what it is or what it means. And then this month I went to Madrid on holiday and we went to the Museo de Prado and saw Fransisco de Goya paintings in real life and something clicked.
I saw his early ‘cartoons’ of ordinary Madrileños in the countryside, relaxed, off-guard, playing, drinking, eating:
Then I saw the enormous ‘Los Fusilamientos del 2 de Mayo de 1808’. A scene depicting the death by firing squad of civilians who had attempted to defend Madrid from the French in the war for independence:
Then I went to the ‘Black Room’. A series of paintings that Goya did towards the end of his life, having witnessed the atrocities of war. He painted them across the walls of his house. Despair, grief, fear, desperation fills the space, pours off the canvas. The atmosphere is thick with it. It prickled my pores, filled my lungs, squeezed my heart. My body sat down and tears streamed down my face.
At the end of the room, there is one painting that doesn’t quite fit. It has an orangey hue, and two thirds down the canvas, there is the muzzle of a grey dog lifting itself up over a brown wave. The dog is clearly drowning, but it’s face is looking up towards towards a person, maybe, that we can’t see off the edge of the canvas. The look on the dog's face is one of hope.
And this is it, isn’t it? Hope doesn't stop us from drowning, but maybe it makes this moment more bearable.
I am a therapeutic clown and performer. Writing here is part of my wider practice and maybe some of my thoughts will trigger some thoughts of your own and I hope that helps.