Ukraine—Days 2-18

I sit at my desk, head swirling and bubbling like a pot of water on the flame that’s just started to simmer. What should I do first? Order the bone screws, drills and other orthopedic surgery equipment that reads like a Home Depot shopping list? Write the “urgent” donor update about our activities that I keep getting emails about? Finish writing the itinerary for the upcoming visit from the ambassador? I’m stressed, distracted, and not thinking well.

I have to remove the pot from the fire before it boils over. I step outside on the triangular-shaped 4th-floor balcony that is just big enough for one person. I close the door behind me, sit down, set a timer for ten minutes and close my eyes, hoping that no one will find me here and give me something else to work on. I try to stop the conveyer belt of activity in my mind, but it’s no use. Instead, I release control and begin observing my thoughts instead of trying to wrangle them. 

After a few minutes, my internal state is beginning to stabilize. No longer shallow and short, my breaths are now slower, with much longer exhales. My stress is dissipating, but I know it’s temporary. The moment I step back into that office, the cortisol will return. I’m learning to identify the feelings of the stress chemical in my body, and I feel it a lot lately. But I’m proud of what I’m doing here, so I accept the physical toll it puts on my body and try to manage it as best I can.

The timer begins to buzz. Ten minutes of meditation has temporarily done the trick, and I feel much better. With my newfound calm, I look down at the ground four floors below and see an old Ukrainian woman attempting to cross the street. I observe in silence as each premeditated step takes her no more than six inches. Finally, she reaches the curb, stares at it, and makes some mental calculations before attempting to lift her right foot up to the sidewalk.

I wonder why she has no one to help her? Why doesn’t she have a cane?  A walker? Should I run down the stairs and help her? Even if I do, how many more streets does she need to cross today? And how many more tomorrow? This struggle I’m witnessing is one upon thousands that she has endured and will continue to endure. I’m anguished as I realize this, and then, suddenly,  I’m flooded with admiration. How determined must she be to survive under circumstances where walking to the market is an exercise in courage? I’m astounded by what people can adapt to. 

I begin to wonder what I can learn from this woman? What wisdom have I witnessed with a simple journey across a small street? Can I learn to be as brave as she is?

I think back to my first night in Ukraine when my own courage had left me for a moment. Just two weeks ago, hearing the air raid siren for the first time had frozen me with fear. Looking back, I realize that I had been afraid of the unknown, the idea of what I thought Ukraine was like, but now I know what I’m actually dealing with. It’s like I’ve been birthed into a new world; the journey was frightening for a moment, but now that I’m here, I actually quite like it. 

I’ve been here more than two weeks now, and I’ve seen a good portion of the country—Lviv in the west, Kyiv in the north-central, Chernihiv on the northern border with Russia and Belarus, and Odesa in the far south. Ukraine is green, lush and rather pretty. By most people’s standards, it’s a somewhat large country—roughly the size of Texas but with about 50% more people. The capital city of Kyiv—where I’ve spent most of my time so far— was surrounded by Russian troops not long ago. The inner city survived mostly unscathed, but the suburbs were severely damaged—with some areas completely destroyed. 

A few communities I’ve visited near Kyiv—Irpin, Bucha, Chernihiv—are devastated. Homes, apartment buildings, hospitals and stores were ripped apart by missiles, artillery and high-caliber machine gun rounds. By now, the government has removed most of the burned-out tanks, but occasionally you can still spot one by the road. The people have suffered greatly but are trying to return to their lives. The adaptability of humans once again leaves me in awe. 

If you stay in Kyiv, the war seems distant, almost like something of the past. There was a time when the capital appeared ready to fall, but now, the fighting has shifted to the far east and the south—at least 300 miles from the city. We seem to be in an odd bubble of near-normalcy here. 

There are air raid sirens nearly every day—which everyone ignores, a strict curfew at 11 pm, a significant presence of armed men dressed in military uniforms, and lots of steel and concrete road blocks piled on the sides of roads and sidewalks—a memento of when the Russians were only a few miles away. It sounds weird, but other than these oddities, life is pretty nice here. I stay in a decent hotel, frequent quality coffee shops and restaurants, and play tennis on the weekends. 

Yes, there was a missile attack in the east of the city last weekend, but I slept through it. I woke up after the explosion, grabbed breakfast, walked to a store to buy a few T-shirts and socks, and went to a pub to watch the Ukrainian national soccer team play a match. To the people living here, it’s as if the bombing didn’t happen. They have adjusted to their reality.

As I think about this, I realize the little old lady crossing the street is not so different than the nation she lives in. Both are courageously taking one tiny, pained step at a time toward where they need to go. I hope they make it.

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