Kiev’s brittle spring

I’m one of those people who can’t sing by herself. Someone else has to hit the first note for me. Two of my aunts are music instructors  – one disabled, the other partially disabled these days – and they both say that it’s an issue of confidence, of being sure. As if that hidden first note is trying to tell me something.

In another lifetime altogether, when neither one of my aunts was particularly sick, I would take long trolleybus journeys downhill to the best theater in Kiev. That winter, the air was so cold that it literally glittered. I couldn’t afford to be ethically fashionable and bundled myself into an enormous fur coat I had discovered in the back of the closet.

It was only a matter of time before I would return to the States. That was pretty obvious. The States was where the life was. Mine – and everyone else’s. The States had a credit ratings system, good roads, and HBO. I would rent a room in Brooklyn and write a blog complaining about not being able to get laid as often as I liked. Assuming I partied with the right people, it would inspire a television pilot eventually. Or some dorky, deceptively undersexed-looking man/bird-thin woman in a vegan sweater would offer me a book deal. It was how I pictured it, anyway.

The future had been clearly penciled in, but before it came, there was plenty of time to write, party, and stumble out of taxis into blustering sunrises with curly-headed clouds tossed aside by a strong wind that seemed to blow into Kiev both from the East and the West simultaneously.

I started writing plays largely as a means of amusement for myself and the actor friends who rode in taxies with me. “I would SO love to, like, be in a one-act that you wrote, you know? Don’t tell me you can’t write in Russian! You totally can!” they would tell me, never underestimating the power of cheap flattery. But we all loved each other too – in was that were obvious and not obvious.

Then bearded men from Moscow started showing up and giving their pronouncements on these plays. When they poured me vodka, it always overflowed.

I sat next to one of these men at a party in what passed for the theater’s foyer, where chairs were glued to the ceiling and a large tank overflowed with lethargic turtles. My friends sang. My throat opened up on the second note and I joined them – and the man snapped his head in my direction with a surprised look. He told me later that he had never heard women sing like that. They were old, calcified songs, the notes etched on mineral deposits below the dark basements of the city.

After I sung myself out, I kissed him goodbye on the cheek. I was leaving for a road-trip to Poland in the morning. He went back to Moscow in a couple of days and I didn’t think of him, I didn’t think of him at all (maybe once or twice did I think of him. Maybe a little bit more).

I realized recently that I hadn’t seen April in Kiev in years. The April rain here must contain some kind of chemical in it that strip layers off of everything – including people. April is a month of dangerous clarity and what’s increasingly clear right now is that we are all dangling off a precipice and below us are the hard, shining peaks of war.

In the midst of all that, the city fizzes with wind and rain. I no longer drink vodka. My actress cousin, the one who started bringing me to the theater years ago, has painted her bedroom walls white, and we sit up against them with an uncorked bottle of wine and the twilight for company. “I changed your life trajectory,” my cousin says, uncharacteristically solemn. “You never went back to the States – because of me.”

She doesn’t know whether or not she should be sorry. Heavy-handed on the metaphors, thunder rumbles in the East. Russia says it doesn’t want to invade, but is in a “difficult position” due to the many calls to “intervene.” CIA director Brennan flies to Kiev and leaves. Speeches are made. Sanctions are discussed.

People are disappearing in the east, and some are turning up dead and mutilated. And our lives feel interrupted – not by ennui or bad boyfriends who don’t know how to commit – but heavy, clanging geopolitical gears.

power is power

At best, we are emotional hostages to an entire host of interested parties. I don’t think I can think about the worst. Not with the evening spreading like a bruise and the hours feeling so watery and brief.

I tell my cousin that she should never be sorry for anything. Least of all for that winter.

People are fond of hunting “enemies” and “traitors” nowadays. Television crews search for the CIA/GRU/SBU/ETC behind every potted plant. The jokes get darker on Twitter.

At night, I dream that the shadows in this city have lengthened and come alive. I dream I am walking through the old cemetery and the shadows are crouched on the leaning tombstones, watchful and silent. I feel as though I am visiting old pets that have returned to the wild. A part of them longs for me. A part of them wants to eat my heart. I reach out to pet them, and in the dream, they feel like ancient moss and crumpled lace of the veils they used to bury unmarried women in, and underneath all that is hard, beastly muscle. Petting monsters in the moonlight, I feel a happiness so enormous it threatens to collapse my ribs.

Over a year after I drank vodka with him in that theater foyer that looked like a crazy person’s living room, the bearded man from Moscow would joke that back then, I was “a little too thin – but could easily improve with proper feeding.” It was so cold in Moscow then that it made my teeth ache. “You wanted to eat me?” I asked him. “Still do,” he replied.

I was hiding my wedding dress from him in a paper shopping bag. The groom was not supposed to see it, even if it was bought it for the equivalent of sixty bucks at Topshop. Surely that was a nice detail for a possible television pilot? Except we weren’t in Brooklyn. Stalin-era buildings rose majestically all around us. A terror attack killed a fellow playwright and friend at Domodedovo – along with over thirty other victims – and that wasn’t the kind of thing that nice American girls from middle class homes could relate to, right? The glass shivered and froze in the windowpanes. Power stations sent entire continents of steam into the air. We went to the theater and the country and stood on snowy train stations in the Moscow region, watching the stars come out, hand-in-hand.

In Kiev this April everyone wants to know what I’m going to do next, but I am wary of penciling in the future. Every detail of the surrounding present looks fragile – a cat’s whisker, a single petal drifting off a flowering pear tree, a black puddle trying to contain the reflection of an enormous moon, the chattering birds, the faces of people I love. The chestnut trees are blooming with flowers like white candles lit in the dark – in memoriam or in hope – and they are doing so early this year, so that I can pretend they’re a gift just for me.

I can sing as well as I used to, but only starting from the second note – as always. For now, there are those still willing to give me that first note, to throw an arm around me in the interiors of grand, crumbling buildings built by our great-grandparents, and show me the way. It’s so good to be loved.

The churches are bursting at the seams on Easter and the singing and the sounds of bells carry for miles. “Christ is risen!” cries out the priest. “Truly He is risen!” booms the congregation. I’ve never seen such huge Easter crowds before. It’s not just old women crowding into those churches – it’s teenagers, married couples, girls like me, in torn jeans and with Italian silk scarves on their heads, excited children, middle-aged men whose faces hardened into grimaces long ago.

My priest, Father Nikolai, is ex-military, and manages to be both brisk and jocular as he makes the rounds dousing everyone and their Easter bread with holy water. He gets me good – so that my make-up starts running, and I look as if I’ve been crying, but I am laughing, it’s like being hit in the face with a wave, and the light hits the water droplets in my eyelashes, and the droplets shine like jewels, and those are the riches that I have in that moment, and that is good enough for me.

On TV and on the Internet, everyone is calling each other “fascist.” The Euromaidan crowd is “fascist,” the Russians are all “fascists,” the EU is “fascist and gay,” and the States are “fascist and fat and stupid and they get caught saying embarrassing things on the telephone.” Watching the ever-changing skies over Kiev, I wonder if an alien invasion might save us all before destroying us all. At least then human civilization will be extinguished in a moment of pure, rapturous unity – rather in the act of fighting amongst themselves for scraps of land on a little planet orbiting an entirely unremarkable star in an altogether quiet corner of a galaxy we so touchingly refer to as the Milky Way.

so long and thanks

In church, I reflect on the fact that within the parameters of the life I gave up without noticing or thinking, the phrase “praying for peace” sounds like a terrible affectation. Because one is inevitably “praying for peace” somewhere far away. Because saying it makes you sound too sincere and therefore vulnerable. Because saying it like you mean it automatically kills the vibe.

In my real life, the life that happened to me, the life I chose – whether thinkingly or unthinkingly – “praying for peace” feels like an act of transcendence. It’s a magic spell, changing the fabric of the world, rippling outward. I can’t decide if that is the reason why I didn’t buy that ticket to the States a few years ago. Neither can I decide whether or not this means anything for my future, for our future, for anyone’s future.

I miss the illusion of invulnerability of the earlier years. God, do I ever miss it.

Yet neither am I sure that I would trade it for the raining blossoms and the girls taking selfies underneath them, the babies trying to outdo the church choirs, the bursts of laughter on the street in the witching hour, the broad shoulders of men in the dark, the high-heeled clomping of women, the tall windows opening on the illimitable air, the this frail and lovely present, this here, this now.

In an evening traffic jam in the city, a strong wind snatches a paper bag from the hands of a child on an old, crumbling balcony and the bag circles the honking cars like the ghost of a dove. In our car, my father and I watch it float in the sky. We don’t say anything to each other afterward, because some things, I guess, are discussed better without words.

19 thoughts on “Kiev’s brittle spring

  1. Beautifully written, as ever. As you arrive in Vilnius, I’m about to fly out of Tallinn. I’ll wave!


  2. I watch from afar the news on the television never quite knowing what is true …just feel for all those caught up and tossed about sometimes violently. Your writing is illuminating and full of feeling …..there are those that are there with you. ….. in spirit.

  3. this is a stunning piece of writing about a threat that feels at once urgent and very far away. If life and death weren’t at stake, i would claim this as my favorite piece you’ve written thus far.

  4. I have been reading articles on the Ukrainian situation all over the internet, in an attempt to understand what it is all about. Yours is one of the best I’ve seen, if not the very best.

    Thank you very much.

  5. “War is in the air” is the old saying. The tragedy is that war is never in the air; war’s mist lives in human heart and its impending melody is played out by the restless limbs connected to that heart. And so today a sinister synchronicity of conflict is pulsating through Slavic hearts throughout Ukraine, Russia and anyone connected to that part of the world. Your essay brilliantly captures its melancholy and regretful anticipation.

  6. Your language is beautiful, but opting out i opting out. And you’re opting out. “Everyone calls everyone fascist”? Please. YOu know where the Banderists and the neo-nazis are, and what they want to do. You have talent. Try to also have some courage to tell unwelcome truths that might lose your friends.

  7. I’ve seen the praise you get for these essays online, and it strikes me as odd. It’s not real journalism. You come across a lot of ladies in the media complaining about not getting paid enough/not getting taking seriously, but are they doing REAl work?

    I’ve seen reports from people on the front lines in East Ukraine and elsewhere and these reports are exclusively being done by the boys, while pretty girls like you are writing about going to “basement bars” (OK, your PolicyMic piece was not bad, though not necessarily compelling, I do hope your friend Pavel is returned safely to his home). And at the same time there is a debate about equal pay going on?

    Sorry, sister, but I want to see actual reporting from you before I care about you getting paid the same as the men. Drop the pretty essays about butterflies.

    Pick up a camera and go to Sloviansk and do some interviews.

    I know you’re probably worried about personal safety, but risks come with payoffs. I don’t want to be too graphic, but even in the worst case scenario – where you might face rape by the rebels – it might not be a pleasant experience, but it would actually show you are willing to put personal safety on the line, like the boys do. It would prove that you actually care about your home country of Ukraine And these men aren’t Egyptians so I doubt they’d treat you like they treated that blond reporter in Cairo.

    I also doubt they would shoot you. They tend to shoot at the men only, unwanted sex is probably the worst of your worries out there.

    Anyway, I’m sorry if I’m coming off as to critical, but it does annoy me to see you praised as an amazing writer when the boys who don’t get nearly as much recognition are actually risking their lives and limbs.

    You write about a paper bag in the air and I’m supposed to take you seriously? Yea right. Sorry its not how this works.

  8. Natalia, lighten up why don’t you. I’m just telling you the things that no one has the guts to tell you. People fall for pretty things, your writing is no exception to the rule. If you’re willing to put nothing on the line, don’t ask for respect. If you cant face reality, don’t bore us to death with your extrapolations. A male journalist would have to work TWICE as hard to prove himself, not to mention taking TWICE the risk, while you get plum jobs because you’re an expert at the simpering perfected by the women in your profession. Some of us can see past that veneer of feminist righteousness thoughh. If you’re uncomfortable with that, tough luck.

  9. I don’t think you need to get raped to do good journalism, but you do need to do a little homework. Impressionism is a technique, not an end in itself. If you want to see how it’s done right, try reading riverbend’s communiques from Iraq.

  10. Joanna, could you kindly fuck off, please?

    This is a personal blog. Nat does her journalism elsewhere. And some of us have been reading here for years, and appreciating this particular style, precisely because it is personal and poetic and very different.

    There’s no “right” way to write a personal blog and the way that you don’t get it kinda makes you seem like an idiot. Not to mention the notion that apparently people like Nat, whose lives are being TORN APART by a very real conflict you know nothing about, are apparently supposed to be monkeys dancing for your goddamn amusement.

    So take your bullshit advice and go elsewhere.

    As for “Cole” I’m not even gonna respond to that creepy trolling nonsense. Glad he’s banned.

  11. That was a pretty essay and I have to say you’re kind of cute. Heard you on the radio the other day, however, and was shocked by your American accent. Not sure why you speak with such an accent, but you really must get rid. Makes you seem like you are trying too hard to be something you are not.

  12. What an intriguing and fascinating creature you are as viewed through your work. I have just stumbled upon this piece in the labyrinth of the internet and there was a resonance, almost from the first sentence. I love that indefinable element of Russianness. That bitter-sweet melancholy which, I am told, Russians believe to be the natural state of an intelligent mind.
    Do I detect faint echos of Lermontov, or even Paustovsky in his youth, along with layers of the US? Or is it just me?
    This piece is, of course, all the more poignant in today’s reading.

    Dear Natalia, I had an impulse to donate but, sadly, it would be too much like leaving money on the bedside table.

  13. Whoa whoa WHOA. Did you just seriously compare enjoying Nat’s blog to fucking her??? Or, like, are you comparing her Paypal donation button to prostitution? Really hoping I misunderstood ya there…

  14. Sigh! Admirable that you should rise to her defence, Lal, although I’m sure the lady doesn’t need it. I generally try to avoid exchanges with literalists but I will try to explain.
    All writers, for whatever reasons, put themselves out there. The greater the output the greater the exposure and I am writing here about their inner selves, not breasts or other bits. This is especially true of poets who offer glimpses into their souls. My parting reference was, at a figurative level, to my unease with a associating a commercial dimension to that intimacy.

    As has been pointed out elsewhere, this is Natalie’s personal blog. I would be happy to subscribe to her journalism stream as I do with others whose work I admire.

    There is a universe of meaning in the cracks between the words.

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