Warning: This post talks about war, which may be triggering for some people. I acknowledge that this may not be the type of content you would expect from a blog dedicated to camping. However, the war in Ukraine has had a profound impact on a lot of the people I know and love, on millions in my home country who live under constant threats of attacks and those who’ve fled in search of safety. And while my experience of it on the other side of the ocean is in no way comparable to that of people in Ukraine, the war has redefined every aspect of my life and its echo has been heard in every outdoor pursuit, every nature walk, and every camping trip. As I look back at the year filled with sadness and grief, this post is also about searching for light in nature, books, support offered by my friends, and bravery of people in my home country. It is about travelling back to Ukraine, rediscovering the land of my childhood and youth, and learning yet again that hope equals action. If you are looking for ways to help Ukraine and those displaced by the war, links to organizations you can support are provided at the end.
Back in my hometown Chernivtsi
On December 24, as my Facebook feed explodes with Merry Christmas greetings, it suddenly hits me that 2022 is almost over. In the past, it meant some sort of an annual summary – The Best of the Year post about most memorable trips and experiences. And even though my blog has seen no activity since February, I decide, at the very least, to pull together the year-end reflections. I reclaim my “writing” chair, which for the last few months has been buried under a pile of blankets, sweatpants and mismatched socks, and settle in the corner of my bedroom, fingers hovering over the keyboard, stark emptiness of a Word document staring back at me.
As I wait for the words to flow, I watch large, fluffy snowflakes waltz by my window. I am yet again surprised that seasons continue to follow their usual cycle. To me, time seems to have stopped on February 24 when I woke up to the news that Russia had started a full-scale war against my home country. The past ten months feel like a rehash of that first day but with every reiteration bringing more deaths, more destruction, more losses. The news keep pouring in, leaving little room for anything but sadness, anger, incredulity. Many times over the year, I sit down at my computer in hopes to distill my feelings and translate them into words, to make some sense of the senseless, to find order in the chaos. But, lost in the dark nooks of my being, caught in the web of grief and guilt, words don’t come.
Again and again, I turn to nature – my place of calm and wisdom. In the fog of the war, so distant, yet so painfully close, finding inner peace proves to be increasingly challenging. I pace along our neighbourhood brook watching shards of ice melt into oblivion and pointy branches slowly disappear in a shroud of green. Nature’s insistence on rebirth amidst unimaginable suffering and loss seems almost cruel. Eventually, I succumb to the eternal optimism of spring ephemerals and, following the example of people in Ukraine who plant their gardens and sow fields as missiles rain from the sky, I line my windowsills with pots. I push tiny specks that contain future tomatoes, beans and sunflowers into the warm, dark soil, as an ultimate act of hope, a metaphor for even the smallest of actions having the potential to blossom and grow. As I watch timid shoots poke their tiny heads and slowly unfurl their leaves toward the sun, I am reminded that hope, as Rebecca Solnit writes in her book Hope in the Dark, “is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it.” So I look for actions I can take and ways I can support people back home.
Inspired by eternal optimism of spring ephemerals and bravery of people in Ukraine, I plant seeds as an act of hope and look for actions I can take to support my home country.
As my world gets reduced to news, messages and phone calls from Ukraine, I yearn to connect with the land, touch billion-year-old rocks, hug trees and dip my toes into lakes – to be reminded of the universe beyond our human world. We take a few trips over the year. We spend the March break in a small cabin at Mont Megantic. We head to Point Pelee for the Easter weekend. We bracket our canoe season with trips to Algonquin and explore Temagami. As always, I celebrate my birthday with a solo canoe trip to Killarney. We drive up north to partake of Lake Superior’s vigour and do some hiking at Sleeping Giant. In December, we finally return to Killarney to the same yurt where we stayed in February, a few days before the war broke out. Any relief is temporary, closely intertwined with guilt over my safety and desire to disconnect.
Eventually, I realize that my yearning is for the land that nurtured and shaped me. As this land continues to be battered, slowly turning into a kaleidoscope of destruction and suffering on my screen, I know I have to find the country of my childhood and youth. And the only way I can do it is by retracing my roots all the way back to a small village nestled amidst a forest in the west of Ukraine, to a picturesque town in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.
As always, I turn to nature, my source of calm and wisdom, but any relief is temporary, closely intertwined with grief and guilt over my safety.
A few weeks before my trip to Ukraine, on my drive to Killarney for a now annual birthday outing, I listen to an interview with Susan Cain on Brené Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us. The interview focuses on Cain’s most recent book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. In it, she talks about Kabbalah, a branch of Judaism, according to which all of creation was once a vessel filled with holy light. But the vessel shattered, and these shards of divine light are now scattered all around us, amidst the pain and darkness, and it is our job to find and collect them.
As I drive back home three days later, I tune into an old episode of another podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett, where she talks to Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. In her work as a medical professional and her writing, Dr. Remen has strived to redefine our understanding of healing and the importance of learning to deal with losses as key to becoming whole. In her interview, she too brings up the Kabbalah creation story. (She retells it in her book for children published last year The Birthday of the World: A Story about Finding Light in Everyone and Everything.)
I’ve always been a big believer in embracing the transient beauty of our lives and finding light even amidst the darkest moments. But after months of being confronted daily with images of ruined buildings, their insides violently ripped out, people’s dreams leaking through the cracks and shards of their former lives scattered all around, light is getting increasingly faint. It feels like a sign to hear two different people within a span of a few days tell the same story about searching for light as an imperative, right when I am trying to figure out how to stay present and bear witness to terrifying events unfolding in my home country. So I take it as such, and make a more deliberate effort to see light around me. I find it in my family. In my friends, who have reached out, showered me with so much love and helped organize fundraisers over the last few months. In all the support my home country has received from around the world. Most of all, in the people of Ukraine and their unwavering determination to resist the darkness, both figurative and literal as Russian forces continue to target critical infrastructure leaving millions without electricity and heat for hours, sometimes days, weeks or months in a row.
When I return from Killarney, I buy Susan Cain’s Bittersweet. It travels with me to Ukraine. And even though my days there are packed and I don’t make much progress on the reading, it stays with me as a reminder that words like “war” and “joy” can co-exist in the same sentence, that even the faintest of light can part the darkness.
I find light in my family, friends, all the support Ukraine has received from around the world, and, most importantly, unimaginable courage and determination of people in Ukraine.
On the first day of August, I cross the border into Ukraine shortly before dawn. After a flight to Warsaw, a challenging bus ride packed with women and children returning home, and lengthy border checks interspersed with even longer waiting periods, I am exhausted but I can’t sleep. Glued to the window, I take in the surroundings. It is still dark but I can see the telltale signs of dawn spreading along the horizon. Slowly a thin orange line between the sky and land expands, pushing away the darkness and eventually dissolving into the bright blue of a hot summer day. Soft mist rolls in waves across fields and bounces between trees until it finally settles in sparkling drops on every surface. Sunflower fields stretch toward the horizon in yellow carpets. As we drive, these idyllic scenes are violently interrupted by check points, sandbag structures wrapped in a masking net and Czech hedgehogs. Yet despite these incongruent sights that shouldn’t exist outside of a movie set, despite entering the country at war, I finally feel calm. I feel at home.
We cross the border into Ukraine shortly before dawn and I immediately feel at home.
Over the next few weeks as I walk the streets of my hometown, Chernivtsi, I often think life seems to follow its usual flow. The city is just as charming, the food is delicious, people hurry to work and meet with friends for coffee, children’s laughter fills playgrounds. Yet this seemingly normal life is far from it. It is punctuated by the screeching of air-raid sirens. Bomb shelter signs deface centuries-old buildings; cobblestone streets are pounded by the army boots of uniformed and armed territorial defence units. Other signs of war, like laundry lines near a local school that now houses refugees from the east of Ukraine, are more subtle but no less jarring. No matter the topic, conversations with friends and strangers inevitably circle back to the war. Faces of soldiers look back from billboards, dates of their violently interrupted lives scribbled across. “Hero,” it reads underneath. “Someone’s child, spouse, parent, friend who’s never coming back,” I think.
Another air-raid siren. In other parts of the country, they are often harbingers of more destruction and death. In my hometown in the west of Ukraine, which has so far been spared the worst of the war’s fury, people shrug them off and continue with their day. This familiarity with the unimaginable is terrifying at first. By the end of my stay, I learn to sleep right through the sirens. I hear them long after I come back to Toronto.
The seemingly normal life in my hometown is punctuated by air raid sirens. War’s presence is felt everywhere: from bomb shelter signs on buildings to laundry lines near a local school that now houses refugees.
Three weeks into my stay in Ukraine, I find myself in the car with my mother and my uncle heading towards my grandparents’ village. I haven’t been here for more than ten years. Everything looks smaller and bigger at the same time. The potholes are definitely the latter.
As a kid, I used to spend here all of my summer vacations, an occasional Christmas and Easter, and a few memorable months in the winter of 1989 when our hometown was put under quarantine due to some unknown disease. For whatever reason, the time here was three hours behind in the summer, two in the winter, as if the village existed in its own time zone. So during every visit, I had to rewind my watch back. This time, as the car zigzags along the uneven road, I feel like I’d set the clock back decades. When I see the sign with the name Volytsya, the same childlike, unbound excitement rises in the pit of my stomach.
My grandparents’ village where every sight, every sound, every smell fills my heart with joy and longing
I know a lot has changed since my childhood. Many of the houses are empty, oozing sadness, grieving their past residents and former bustling lives. My grandparents’ house, sold after their deaths, now too sits empty and locked, the orchard behind it and the path to the forest overgrown and impassable. Yet, it is still the place where I always felt loved and protected, and as I stand in front of their house, nothing but my own reflection in the window staring back at me, I am once again wrapped in my grandmother’s hug, cheered by my grandfather’s wink, enveloped in the smell of freshly mowed grass and home baked bread right out of the clay oven.
My grandparents’ house is forever ingrained in me; a part of me always lives here.
In the afternoon, my uncle and I go foraging for mushrooms. I rack my brain for any remnants of mushroom knowledge and strain my eyes trying to spot taut brown caps peeking through last year’s leaves. But my uncle always beats me to it and his bag fills up so much faster.
“Hey kiddo,” he calls to me. “Come look at this one. Isn’t it a beauty?!” I feel ten again, the war recedes and nothing else exists except for this place straight out of my childhood dreams, deeply ingrained into every fibre of my being, where every sight, every smell, every sound fills my heart with endless joy and longing, the place that I always carry with me no matter where I go.
Mushroom foraging with my uncle – definitely the highlight of my trip
During my time in Chernivtsi, I visit two volunteer organizations to drop off medications, hygiene products, diapers, water purification tablets, infant cereal and dehydrated meals, all made possible thanks to the generous donations I received in Canada. One of the organizations – Місто Добра or The City of Goodness – offers shelter and care to families who have lost their homes because of the war, orphaned children, those escaping domestic violence, as well as a few cats and dogs. The other one – Charity Fund Freedom Trust – regularly makes dangerous trips to the east and south of Ukraine to deliver humanitarian aid and help evacuate people with mobility challenges. And while Freedom Trust is run out of two small, cramped rooms where they collect supplies, and The City of Goodness features beautiful premises with joyful murals inside and out, both are powered by the love and care of their people, by their courage, dedication and, most importantly, determination to preserve their humanity in the face of the most inhuman thing of all.
I dropped off some supplies at two volunteer organizations: The City of Goodness and Charity Fund Freedom Trust.
My last day in Ukraine falls on Independence Day, which feels like a fitting end for my trip. As the day collides with six months of Ukraine resisting the Russian invasion, the day acquires an even deeper meaning. Due to a heightened risk of attacks, no large events or gatherings are allowed. However, people in my hometown still try to mark the occasion in small ways: by wearing embroidered shirts, raising funds, making food in the street, singing and playing music – all to the accompaniment of incessant air raid sirens.
Even though it was celebrated on a much smaller scale, Independence Day this year acquired a much deeper meaning
On my way back, during a short stopover in Warsaw, I come across an outdoor exhibition “Mom, I Don’t Want War.” Featuring drawings by kids in Poland during World War II and Ukraine today, it shows the horrors of war through children’s eyes. I cry for the first time in four weeks.
Exhibition “Mom, I don’t war!” features drawings by children in Poland during World War II and Ukraine today.
We greet 2023 at Au Diable Vert eco-park. Following our decade-long family tradition to celebrate New Year’s arrival in a cabin in the woods is an attempt to reclaim the usual timeframes and milestones, which seem to have been replaced by a different kind of measurement, one that counts days, weeks and now months since the beginning of the war.
My hopes to find winter in the mountains of Quebec seem to be answered. But whatever snow we find on the ground when we come here quickly reverts to its liquid state over the next few days. 2023 arrives to a steady drumbeat of rain, which continues all the way into January 1. We do a few hikes and watch the trails turn into a network of rivulets and streams right under our feet. The majority of time is spent in our cabin reading. The book I brought with me is called Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May, which seems ironic considering this ambiguous between-seasons weather. Of course, winter in the book’s title refers not so much to a season but rather periods of darkness and grief in our lives.
We mark the arrival of 2023 in a cabin at Au Diable Vert in Quebec where we spend time hiking, reading and watching winter turn into spring.
I think back to the last time we stayed at Au Diable Vert in 2021 as the third wave of the pandemic was starting to rise. I think of a collective winter we have been experiencing over the last three years, of the inescapable compounding sense of loss and grief, now exacerbated by the unimaginable cruelty of war. The feeling of hope for a better year that is a hallmark of the season is hard to master.
As always, I turn to nature for answers. I watch the outlines of the Sutton mountain range and Green Mountains of Vermont, blurry and obscured by clouds and fog, yet spellbinding nonetheless. This sudden onset of spring feels like a reminder that winter, no matter how long and harsh, is always temporary. That light will eventually drive the darkness out. That hope is not an ephemeral feeling that exists on its own. It calls for the determination of a stream, burgeoning with meltwater, to remove all obstacles on its way to the ocean. It requires resolve to keep going even when, especially when, things are uncertain and take longer than expected.
The between-seasons weather creates spellbinding landscapes and reminds that winter is always temporary.
When the clock strikes midnight on December 31, we toast to a quick victory and peace in Ukraine and add a peace sign to our traditional light painting.
One wish for 2023: a quick victory and peace for Ukraine
How You Can Help
After almost a year, the war in Ukraine continues to rage bringing death and destruction. Just a few days ago, a Russian missile hit a residential building in the city of Dnipro, killing at least 40 people and injuring 73, including children (the rubble is still being cleared away at the time of writing so the death toll is likely to rise). Most of the country’s power infrastructure has been damaged in repeated mass attacks leaving millions without electricity and heat in the middle of the winter.
You can support the people in Ukraine and those who have left the country in search of safety by donating to one of the organizations listed below:
Canada-Ukraine Foundation and Ukrainian Canadian Congress – Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal: You can choose to donate to Ukraine or help displaced Ukrainians in Canada: https://www.cufoundation.ca/
United24 initiative launched by the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the main venue for collecting charitable donations in support of Ukraine. You can choose to donate to defence and demining, medical and humanitarian aid, or rebuilding efforts: https://u24.gov.ua/
Razom for Ukraine (razom means together in Ukrainian) provides humanitarian relief in Ukraine and supports Ukrainians abroad: https://www.razomforukraine.org/
The City of Goodness – this organization in my hometown of Chernivtsi, which I visited during my trip, offers shelter and care to families who have lost their homes because of the war, orphaned children, those escaping domestic violence: https://misto-dobra.com.ua/english/
IOUC Fourth Wave – this Toronto-based organization collects and sends medical and humanitarian aid to Ukraine as well as supports displaced Ukrainians in Canada. One of the things they focus on is purchasing ten (10) ambulances for Ukraine, which are in high demand. So far they’ve been able to buy and ship five. https://www.4th-wave.org/ (scroll down to learn how you can donate).
The POST ANGELES Volunteer Center at St. Andrew’s Ukrainian Church in Los Angeles, California, is a grassroots non-profit organization dedicated to fundraising, collecting and delivering humanitarian aid to Ukraine by plane and sea. My brother actively volunteers here so I can attest to their dedication and effectiveness. https://postangeles.org/