Here I am half way through my current volunteer contract in Ukraine. For me it’s been six months of travel, interaction and learning. Yet, at this stage there is so much I don’t understand much less appreciate and language is only a minimal component as even the people whom I have met that have been here longer and speak the language have only a peripheral understanding of the culture and the psyche that is unique to Ukraine. After these past months I feel much at home, much more comfortable with my place (both living and within this project) and more importantly within myself. Perhaps it’s my expectations and aspirations that still need adjustment as work patterns are so much different here.
This summer in particular was certainly unlike most of my summers since I was much younger as holidays usually were scheduled around work. As summer weather and July unfolded you could feel the environment shifting. Work slowed as people appeared to move into relax mode. With the advent of August activities progressively lessened – you could see it in the markets and the dwindling number of “mashrukas” on the roads and feel it in the ether as people moved from relax mode into that of vacation. The project itself was similar as most people had scheduled holidays for August.
Unlike other years for me vacation was mostly a full time activity for the better part of three weeks. This happening was partially the result of a visit by my friend Nancy from Montreal and travel plans that had been made. We toured through Hungary into Slovakia and on to Poland then made a circuitous tour through Ukraine back to Uzhgorod through Lviv and Kiev. This two week odyssey allowed at least a glimpse of the shifts that had occurred within these former Eastern Bloc countries. It was too small a window to make a critical analysis but it did provide images, views and insights to a percolating mind. A week alone in Scotland subsequently afforded me an opportunity to step outside my new world to one with which there was more familiarity.
The cities that were visited in these countries, Budapest, Kosice and Krakow were wonders in themselves. Beautiful historic buildings and history that is vividly evident with modern flavours intertwined, demonstrating that you don’t have to obliterate the past to show progress and advancement. In Lviv and Kiev I had opportunity to explore with the only pressure of the next train with no work schedule or meetings to intervene and see a similar transition in progress.
Each of the places was special in themselves the spectacular churches, cathedrals and synagogues were a testament to belief. The long lineup at a religious shrine in Kiev (at least one half kilometer) for a special ceremony or mass was evidence that here at least this belief and faith is alive and well. How these structures have survived the wars, conflicts and declines of the past century is a mystery in itself. Perhaps these constructs are a testimony to human ingenuity while their survival is a testimony to a greater power that not only exists but remains an even a greater mystery.
As I struggle to adapt to a different culture, language and style of work that values relaxation as much as drudgery there is much for me to contemplate, savour and experience. Eclipsing the half way point of my sojourn, the “what next” issue will undoubtedly become more prominent. Will there be a place for me here after, as my work has only just begun, if so, how will it be accommodated. Feelings emerge that my mission, adopted many years ago, may be redundant in a world where the quest for money and materialism is rampant and appears to be spreading more quickly than the concepts of humanness and community. This quest is evident in the proliferation of American fast food outlets and the ensuing monoculture that follows them. These operations are eclipsing in numbers the religious and monumental historic buildings and are becoming the new places of worship for so many, even if they are meant to sell rather than last. These feelings are not new as I have experienced them on many occasions over the past twenty five or more years since this mission became rooted in my being and I have often faltered and seconded guessed my own wisdom of choice of this mission and work.
That’s where faith comes in, the mysterious belief that there is something greater than ourselves, perhaps even a guiding hand that maintains some modicum of balance of life. Maybe a force that ensures humans doesn’t exceed their place, that collapses political powers that exceed their abilities and that life will endure even if it requires the use of destructive force. Much of this is evident in the historic collapse of so many empires and the stories of people who were where they were supposed to be at some pivotal moment. The most recent Tsunami and the tragedy of New Orleans demonstrate the ability of nature to catch people by surprise and change the very landscape that is our world.
Each event, happening and crisis only demonstrates the resilience of humanity, our ability to endure but also our talent for adaptation. But each also reminds us of the fine line between humanness and primeval instincts that exists in all our psyches. This primalism has been evident even in the most educated and sophisticated societies. It is exacerbated with those who are less fortunate and deprived – and we wonder why.
Perhaps at this juncture of human and societal development what is required is much deeper contemplation of where we are, who we have become and more importantly how we correct the imbalances in wealth, education and faith that are so evident and vivid. Maybe my own current “laissez-faire” feelings are a symptom of a much larger process that is happening among many. Possibly many others are contemplating similar feelings driven by an aging process but also by an invisible energy force that is pushing everyone to reflect on the current absence of faith, belief and caring. One thing is certain, that my move to Ukraine was fortuitous. It has put me in a place where my understanding is being tested each day, my values constantly considered and my sense of belief is requiring reflection on a continual basis. The urgency that I have felt to write these reflections seems less than during other similar periods of my life. I attest this to my lack of understanding of the lives being led around me and my inability to clarify what I feel.
This has been an easy summer in terms of most others that have been my experience. But it hasn’t been without its challenges, contemplations or reflective experiences. It certainly hasn’t been without personal events that gives pause for meditation and emotional deliberation.