Friday 11 March 2022

Yellow and Blue

This past Saturday we had the privilege of attending an event I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. It was AJ and Dani’s first dance performance, at a celebration called Malanka, a Ukrainian (and Canadian) tradition honouring the new year. The year is already well under way, but the original January date was cancelled because of, well, Covid. (Surprise.)

We don’t have any holidays or trips planned, and I can’t say I have a great desire to make any plans. Holidays tend to be framed as an escape from reality, and reality is just too real these days: I don’t believe there is anywhere you can go to escape it. But I had been anticipating Malanka in the same way I might have anticipated a holiday at one time. It would be an evening to enjoy the best things in life: eating at a big table, beautiful clothes and costumes, conversation, live music, and of course dancing.

One of the things that appealed to me about the dance organization where I enrolled AJ and Dani are the celebrations around seasons and holidays. I want that kind of ritual marking time. Without it, time becomes amorphous and slips away. I don’t know anyone who does not feel dislocated in time right now. Days feel like weeks, weeks like months, memories sink to the bottom of consciousness like soggy blankets in a swamp. It takes physical effort to dredge them up, to explain coherently what I think I was doing last week. But when I can look forward to a New Year’s celebration, a spring festival or two, a year end show….well, somehow the future becomes something I can grasp, and the present fills up with interesting details.

Friendship, celebration, a little exploration of the Ukrainian half of the girls’ cultural identities, which we hadn’t really introduced them to previously: that’s what I had in mind when I registered them for classes in August. It sounded delightful, and it has been. They are both loving their classes. As February went by and Covid was waning (or something) Malanka looked like it would really finally happen. The girls’ first ever chance to perform, the first event in two years for the organization. Amazing! Then February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine.

I had been almost totally oblivious, not going to lie. When I started paying attention to the news, I realized my daughters, and by extension me and Mr Turtle, were in the middle of a community that was intensely, personally affected. We don’t know anyone in Ukraine, ourselves (people sometimes ask now). But many in the dance organization do. The board of directors struggled with the question of whether to carry on with Malanka. They decided they would. It would be a show of solidarity, of hope.  And of course a fundraiser. I was glad they decided to go ahead with it. If my children are to develop a connection with the people around them, some understanding of what they are going through, it has to be through experience.

Plus, I still wanted the joy and celebration. For the girls. For the family members I’d invited. For myself.  For the children who had been working so hard on their dances. I love that they hold hands and dance together in formation. In the era of Covid that is (was?) considered a risk: if so, it’s one that’s completely worth it, in my view.

A few days before their performance I thought I should discuss with AJ some things she might hear talked about at the event. “Oh, I know about the war,” she responded to me. Of course, that was what her teacher had been telling her group about when they were sitting solemnly in a circle at the beginning of class. She told me one of her classmates knew someone who had died in Ukraine. AJ is still very gentle in how she expresses herself. Anyone doing something unpleasant through to violent is “rude.” So Russia is being “very rude.” We talked some more. I remembered the time AJ was quite a bit younger and had found models of battlefields at the local museum. She had asked why so many of the toy soldiers were lying on the ground. Certainly we have talked about war since then, but this time was much more immediate. And of all things, it is her dance class that has made it personal.

At long last, the first weekend of March was here. The girls had picked up costumes; I had learned how to put them on; they had posed for studio pictures in them. I had bought and distributed tickets to grandparents and uncles, sold my allotment of raffle tickets, been assigned a volunteer job, mostly read and remembered all the instructions. I got there and was still overwhelmed with a feeling of “How do we do this exactly?!”

Between taking tickets and getting the girls ready, I didn’t get to our table till the program was almost starting. With a celebration like this (and I had almost forgotten the feeling) it is like being inside of a story. What was going to happen? What part would I play? How would my children feel? How would they be changed? Because of course they will be. This is something they will remember their whole lives, whatever happens.

The first item on the program was playing the Ukrainian national anthem. I am not even used to hearing the Canadian national anthem any more. (Where do you hear it except at events with lots of people? There haven’t been many of those lately.) Now here I was with a whole lot of people listening to a foreign anthem.

The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished
Luck will still smile on us brother-Ukrainians.
Our enemies will die, as the dew does in the sunshine,
and we, too, brothers, we'll live happily in our land.
We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom
and we’ll prove that we brothers are of Kozak kin.

Well, that puts the news into context, I thought as I listened. All the people, including me, who had been shocked by news of war really shouldn’t have been. Clearly, this is a conflict that has been going on for a long time. Also I wondered what exactly I had gotten my family involved in. Was I going to hear a recruiting plea for foreign soldiers next? That would be a bit much. My mom is descended from Russian pacifists  (you can imagine how popular they were in their homeland) and my dad was deeply disturbed by his experience of war and strongly disliked nationalism. Also, the most assertive line in the Canadian national anthem is “O Canada we stand on guard for thee.” Canada must have one of the mildest, least rude national anthems ever composed.

But though the tone was set, the program moved on. There were a few short speeches, and children and youth representing the dancers were given the last word: “We don’t have money to give, but we can dance with joy and lift your spirits” (words to that effect). And talking with AJ afterwards, I found myself reinforcing this point: yes war is terrible and suffering is real, yes Malanka had the goal of supporting Ukraine in the conflict.  But the thrill and kinship AJ and Dani feel with their fellow dancers as they move in synchrony, the affection and respect they begin to feel for the dances and their teachers: this is something older, stronger, and more transformative than any present conflict or problem. (So I want to believe.) Such power can temporarily be harnessed in service to a cause, but treated with appropriate respect, it tells a story that encompasses and transcends the events of the moment.

AJ and Dani were beautiful. I don't think Dani really understood that she was going to dance in front of everyone, before it happened. But she went out on the floor with her group of preschoolers, beaming, and they did their dance. AJ has a lot of poise already. Her eyes shine and her smile reaches out to everyone. After their part in the program was finished, both girls watched the rest of the dancers, entranced. When the band started, they didn't stop moving until we left. Dance, tag, hide and seek, chatter, laughter, mystery. It was a bigger party than they've ever experienced, they were among friends and deeply safe, and they made the most of every minute of it.

So what does this all mean? I don't know. Right now, I am reluctant to say of these experiences: "This is what it is truly about." All I can say for sure is that is whatever is going on, I am doing my best to show up for life.   What do you pay attention to when there is too much information? I live in a kind of enhanced sensory alertness, which can be exhausting and confusing at times. But it is infinitely better than being saturated in cortisol and anxiety. There are a lot of problems in the world, and I am not going to think my way out of any of them. Nothing is going to change because I am "informed," because I have the "right" opinions, because I take some kind of "action." I am not the middle manager of reality. But I am part of the story.

Sharing Malanka with my girls and all our family was a precious experience. I would do it all again, and I think we all grew, in one way or another.