I don’t know how to write about war.
But I do know how to get up in the morning, after an election, a pandemic and an invasion in Ukraine, wipe the sleep from my eyes, and stumble into the day, angling myself to the promise of hot coffee, music and poetry.
I don’t know how to write about war, but I can tell you about the picture I saw of a row of strollers that Polish mothers had left at a train station for the arriving Ukrainian mothers and their babies. And while I can’t tell you where the human corridors were supposed to be in Kiev, I do know how to cross a busy street in Oakland with my 26-year-old daughter, our elbows interlocked, me looking left and right, protecting my child as we head toward an outdoor cafe for a meal.
I don’t know how to write about war, or how to pack a bag in ten minutes, or what to do the night before a war, how one young man in Kiev said he had planned on making a banana chocolate pie to bring to his work mates, how that same night he was online looking to buy a new game for his PlayStation, but how the next day there was no work, and no pie and he was researching Molotov cocktails instead.
He is the same age as my daughter, who told me that she realized that for two years she has been working for 9 hours a day in her apartment for a large company that she is making rich, and that she is selling things that will end up in landfill. I think I knew that, but I didn’t know that she knew that – not yet anyway – not for a while, because at 26 isn’t she still supposed to be infatuated with her great climb upward and all those plans you make when you’re young, when you don’t live in war time?
I don’t know how to write about war, but sometimes I Google the time in Ukraine so I can imagine what people are doing, whether it’s dark or cold and what has happened in the night. I think about children bundled, and the story about the doctor in the Nic Unit, who had a small 10-minute window to decide whether to stay or go, and how his family said stay, so they did, and how he said he will think about that decision for the rest of his life. And so will I, because I heard him say it on a radio seven time zones away.
And I can imagine what the three-year-old boy felt, who upon learning that his father was leaving to fight, began hitting his father over and over – and what it is not to have the words for a feeling so horrific that you have to use your hands instead.
I don’t know how to write about war, but I do know how to change the laundry and wash the breakfast dishes, how to move this pen, and to change my shirt three times this morning because nothing felt right, and because for two years my central nervous system has been wobbly, and because after I read the headlines yesterday I got online and bought a dress and two sweaters, and it felt emotional, like I was stuffing a cloth into my mouth to suppress a scream.
“You work hard,” my friend tells me.
“It’s alright,” she said.
I don’t know how to write about war, but I remember that every time I asked my father to explain something to me about war, or why a certain group of people were fighting, he would say, “it’s not so simple,” which is why I didn’t know what to think when I heard that Ukrainians were telling brown skinned people to wait, that the white Ukraines, the real Ukrainians would board the busses first, or when I heard that the Ukraines had killed the Jews with their bare hands in WW2. Or how silenced I felt when my one black student, upon hearing me say that I wanted to give a trigger warning before I read a piece about war from a Ukrainian poet, told me, “that’s bullshit. I wish someone had given me a trigger warning before I was born.”
And how little I know about that.
I don’t know how to write about war, but I do know how to listen to my youngest child on FaceTime when they tell me they’ve reached out to another doctor, that they just want to feel better, and how I have learned to nod and say yes, and to trust that for now, that nod is enough.
And how different and not so different I am from the mother in Ukraine who said she was the happiest mother alive because she had finally gotten through to her son.
I can’t tell you about war, but I can tell you how we rode our bikes around the peninsula last weekend with all that water, green grass and pretty homes. There were boats out on the bay, and we split a brownie and a can of sparkling rose for the 45-minute ferry ride home.
And when the ferry master told us to look starboard because there was a whale out in the bay, everyone clamored for the right side – so many of us, I joked we could tip the ferry – but no one saw the whale, so everyone moved to the left side, because we didn’t know starboard from cardboard. We didn’t see the whale, but we were glad to know that one was out there somewhere. That there were still whales alive in the bay, even if we never got to see one.
I don’t know how to write about war, but I will start here, with what I know, talking about whales in the bay, a mother who found a son, a row of strollers in a train station, and me, here, angling toward the music, toward the poetry, toward the day.
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