“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 in March where people were sheltering from the driving rain here under tarpaulin. We are in a long queue to cross the border back into Poland.
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 wonder how it would be if Cuckoo and Maybee arrived here. If these people had permission to laugh, would they? I recently heard an interview with Volodymyr Zelensky where he said, 'Humour is part of ones being...it is important, as it helps one not to lose their mind'. Our fits of giggles are just that - a release that brings us back to ourselves. I hope laughter is not lost for long here.
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. The people queueing don't acknowledge them in any way, and the soldiers gaze is fixed straight ahead, until one soldier shouts, 'Slava Ukaraini!' and everyone in the queue responds, 'Slava Ukraini' in one voice and then they return to their own worlds.
5 hours later we reach the turn-style 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 to accept 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 next. 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 is so intimidating. I feel small and snappable.
The security guard asks to check my bag, and as I open it, a pink tulle underskirt bursts out to greet him. Still no smiles, but it does somewhat mitigate my silent humiliation at him rummaging through my dirty laundry.
Passports checked we run back across the border, back down the tarmac path, past the Unicef tent, grab a banana, water and a bowl of cooked potatoes from the wonderful World Food Kitchen and race to the train with minutes to spare. 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 endless repetition of this lurch between despair and hope, involving a cancelled bus, a missed train, a rogue taxi, train fines, information desks with no information, 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, safe and sound.
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 I went to Madrid 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. Blue skies and open, innocent faces:
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.
I realise that the tears are ones of acceptance. These paintings of gaping black mouths twisted in anguish bring an incongruous sense of comfort. He has created an invitation to acknowledge the things that we are otherwise encouraged not to see, or encouraged to minimise, or brush over. They show us the darkness of our shadows, the acuteness of our pain, the inherent violence of life, the violence that resides within all of us. They show us suffering that shouldn’t be shown and in their unremitting honesty remove all sense of shame from that suffering. They are a mirror that is as honest as it is compassionate. Sitting here in front of these images of pain and anguish, letting all of that in, I feel comfort and hope. These works of art are a courageous act of love.
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 its face is looking up towards towards a person, maybe, that we can’t see. To me, the look on the dog's face is one of hope.
And this is it, isn’t it? Hope wont stop us from drowning, wont end the war, wont stop children getting sick and dying, wont cure cancer or Alzheimers, but it can make this moment more bearable...
And I suppose that is why I am a therapeutic clown.
Ira Seidenstein, PhD
1/4/2023 02:29:25 am
Thanks Susie! Wonderful X Ira
1/6/2023 02:10:34 am
This is such a beautiful piece of writing, full of compassion and honesty. Thank you so much for sharing it.
1/10/2023 10:57:44 am
Thank you Suzie for your work, emotions, for being brave to be there and for being strong to tell us your story.
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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.