Cosmos…

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This morning, I was ready for work with a few extra minutes to spare, so instead of wasting my time on Facebook, I walked over to the Seibels House and Garden, which I wrote about several months ago.  I only had a few minutes, but I wanted to enjoy the coolness of the early morning, before the day’s heat.  At 6:20am, it was still dark because the sun had not yet risen and a layer of clouds covered the sky.

But I still would not have seen many stars.  I read an article the other day about light pollution created by humans and the resulting loss of the night sky.  (I can’t find the link and I cannot remember whether I read it in The New Yorker or The Atlantic.)  It saddened me.

In a modern society, light pollution is unavoidable near heavily populated areas.  Cities produce light and the byproduct will inevitably be the lightening of the dark.  I suppose it is an evolutionary trait we inherited from our forebears, who surely used fire to ward off the predators that lurked just beyond the light.

The article talked, however, about unnecessary light pollution, designed, ironically, to prevent crime.  A security light meant to illuminate the murky areas where a criminal might lurk only creates a haze that blinds us to the danger in the shadows.  Schools and businesses have found that buildings left dark draw far less vandalism than those lit up by security lights because that light is an inviting target–it draws you to it like a moth to a flame.  And most street lamps and other outdoor lights project a glow upwards where it does no good to the area it is meant to light, below, and only drowns out the heavenly lights above.

I’ve started watching Cosmos on Netflix, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 2014 followup to Carl Sagan’s famous 1980s miniseries.  The film is beautifully written–Sagan was so far ahead of his time that little needed to be changed in the decades between his writing and the series’ production, despite monumental achievements like the first discoveries of alien worlds in the mid 1990s–and wonderfully produced, with CGI depictions of the stunning vistas of the universe and astounding displays of the night sky as seen before we ruined our view.  Throughout the episodes, Tyson travels vast distances through time and space abroad a ship of the imagination, for which the laws of physics, the progress of time and the speed of light do not apply.

The Ship of the Imagination...

The Ship of the Imagination…

I am fascinated with space, particularly its incomprehensible scale and the unimaginable beauty that exists way out there and even beyond our sight.  In far off places we’ve begun discovering worlds so similar to Earth that they likely harbor life and in the very least unparalleled landscapes.  There are star nurseries, black holes, spiral galaxies and who knows what else.

A small example of space's gorgeous views...

A small example of space’s gorgeous views…

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A rendering of a black hole…

All of this is too far away for us to visit anytime in the plausible future–we haven’t even gotten to Mars yet–and we do not possess a ship of the imagination.  Human beings, certainly not myself, may never leave our solar system.  But I want to travel to the farthest reaches of the cosmos.

I am not a religious person, but I am also not an atheist.  I do not know what comes after death, but I hope there is something.  I hope that death means the liberation of our souls from the constraints of our home planet.  I hope that in death, I will become ubiquitous and that in my omnipresence, the stars will be within my reach.  I want to witness the merging of Andromeda and the Milky Way several billion years from now, to travel back to the Big Bang and the moment of creation, to witness the next big bang that sends another verse spiraling off into the vast multiverse.

I hope there is more.

***

Last Friday, I set on my porch steps waiting for my friends to pick me up on their way to a bar and I looked up at the night sky.  Only a few, faint stars shown but they were enough.  I tried to imagine the vast distance between us and them, how long it had taken their light to reach us and what it might look like to gaze up at their night sky and see our little star twinkling faintly.  Would we even recognize its light?

A dreary afternoon…

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It’s raining in Columbia this afternoon.  A storm came up just before I left work at 3:30pm.  From the 11th floor of the Strom Thurmond Federal Building, I watched as the wind whipped through the trees outside and battered the United States flag in front of the building.  Flying at full mast, the flag strained so hard against the wind that it looked as though the hooks might rip through the grommets at any moment.  The storm subsided enough for me to walk to my coffee shop where I read for a while but the wind and rain returned intermittently outside.

I am at home now in my enclosed porch and the weather has mostly cleared.  There’s only a light drizzle and the sky has lightened significantly.  I am tired of the oppressive southern summer, as much as I may have wished for it during the subarctic Ukrainian winters.

The joy of walking to work when it is light outside and the long summer evenings have run their course.  I am ready for winter to return and for the days to be so short.  I always loved being in my little kitchen in Donetsk during the winter.  The contrast between the light and warmth of that small room–the only truly warm place in my apartment–and the dark, cold pressing against the window made me feel safe.  I often went there to write at my kitchen table.

Something about this weather inspires me to write.  I feel more motivated by crummy conditions.  Maybe it’s because cold or wet weather gives you little options other than to hole up inside, and the environment is then conducive to writing.  I am reminded of A Moveable Feast and Ernest Hemingway’s descriptions of the small cafes and cramped apartment where he went to write, retreating from the dreary Paris fall and winter, reinforced by a cafe au lait or his stove and tangerines.

I have a sudden desire to be in New York or a European city for the winter.  I think of Kiev and the week in January 2013 before I met up with Will and Kyle to go to Budapest, Barcelona and Amsterdam.  I was mostly alone, so I spent a lot of time riding the metro to the Maidan or walking along the snow-covered streets between the train station, the Peace Corps office and the hostel.  I am sure I was cold and miserable, but I remember it fondly.

It’s strange and remarkable how greatly time can change our memory of a place…

A vapor trail in a deep blue sky…

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I am typing from the sun porch of my apartment in Columbia.  Outside, it is beautiful and I have opened the window, letting in the almost-Spring afternoon.

My preferred writing space...

My preferred writing space at home…

Earlier, I sat outside writing and I have included below my thoughts from just a little while ago:

I am sitting on a bench in the Seibels rose gardens, part of the Seibels historic home.  The site is only five blocks from my apartment and lately I’ve started coming here a good bit.  I found it the first Saturday in February when I was alone, spending the evening wandering along side streets in my neighborhood.

it is so peaceful here–I am almost always by myself and the silence is broken only by the sing-song chatter of birds and the very occasional car passing by.  Although it sits almost in the heart of downtown Columbia, this area is quiet and rarely visited by outsiders.  I doubt most people here even know the Seibels House & Gardens exists.

This place has become my favorite outdoor spot in Columbia, more so than either cemetery I used to frequent (at the Episcopal church across from the Statehouse or the much larger Presbyterian graveyard on Marion St) or the little courtyard on the edge of the university campus.  No one ever comes here and I read and write undisturbed.  How odd to find such an isolated place in the middle of the city.

The Seibels House and Gardens...

The Seibels House and Gardens…

The Seibels House and Gardens...

A perfect Sunday…

Overhead–so high that the airplanes look microscopic and translucent, hardly distinguishable from their vapor trails–I watch people traveling to other places.  I see the nearly invisible jets crossing above the rose garden and I imagine the passengers inside.

Where are they going?

In my mind, I assign them destinations like San Francisco or maybe London, and below I look down again at my books set in Paris, the southeast coast of England or Lima, Peru, and I remember my time in Ukraine when geography made travel easy and cheap.

And I wish I too were on one of those planes, going someplace away from here.

Almost indistinguishable, evidence of someplace else...

Almost indistinguishable, evidence of someplace else…

(The title is a line from a song by the Shoegaze band, Ride.)

Winters of old…

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Columbia has had poor weather this week, although it is representative of what real winter in the Deep South should be.  The temperature has ranged between freezing and the low 40s, with heavy, leaden skies and various forms of precipitation.  We had a winter weather advisory yesterday, but work was not cancelled as we hoped–as I walked to work at 7:15am, snow fell around me in small flakes and did not stick.

With tonight’s inclement weather, there’s a chance Social Security may be closed tomorrow but I doubt I’ll be so lucky.

It seems like I cannot escape winter and days like this remind me of colder ones in Wyoming and Ukraine.  I am grateful I do not have to be always cold, but at times I do miss the white winters, especially those in Wyoming, where, despite the constant and extreme cold, we’d have days of blue skies between the winter storms that dumped their snow and left it there until spring came.  The cold was miserable, but snowshoeing and sledding in the mountains was so much fun and the snow-covered plains were beautiful.

Things went to shit in Donbas this winter.  The fragile September ceasefire collapsed in January with a series of deadly attacks on civilians in Donetsk and Mariupol.  Rockets and shells rained down on populated areas, leaving mangled corpses of commuters and shoppers lying in the streets.  Most likely, Ukrainian forces and separatist fighters both fired upon civilian areas.  After months of fierce resistance by a dedicated group of Ukrainian soldiers, the Donetsk airport fell to separatists, with an unknown number of Ukrainian dead buried beneath the rubble.  And fighting raged around the strategic transportation hub of Debaltseve as rebel forces pounded the Ukrainian defenders with Russian provided artillery.

The violence got so bad that the French and German leaders scrambled to find a diplomatic solution, announcing a new ceasefire deal with Putin and Poroshenko on February 12.  Not surprisingly, the ceasefire wasn’t/isn’t very effective because it did nothing to address the situation in Debaltseve.  Instead of ceasing fire (what the term “ceasefire” would suggest both sides do), the separatists increased the intensity of their attack on the town, forcing the Ukrainians to finally flee, leaving scores dead.  The exact number of Ukrainian fatalities is unknown because Kyiv has lied about it losses, drastically under-reporting the number of soldiers killed in action.  President Poroshenko painted the defeat as a successful and orderly evacuation, but the survivors spoke of a harrowing escape under intense fire and one government source said potentially as many as 200 died in the battle.

All I can do is sit and watch helplessly as Donetsk is lost and Donbas is blown to hell.  I try to think of more happier winters there.

January 2012, Donetsk...

January 2012, Donetsk with Kyle and Zhenya…

February 2013, Donetsk, before a Shakhtar game...

February 2013, Donetsk, before a Shakhtar game…

Ramblings on the first day of winter…

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Less than two weeks remain in the year.  It is strange how fast time goes by.  I wonder, though, what it would be like to live forever, or at least to live a lifespan that far surpasses that of the average human.  And to be aware of your life’s longevity?  Would the years seem so short then?

Maybe even just to be 80 years old and looking back on one’s youth, does that time seem like it just passed or does it feel like the lifetime ago that it is?

I am very interested in time and memory.  The two fascinate me and their interconnectedness is an integral part of their existence.  You cannot have one without the other.

The human mind is so complex and I think that it must be the most incredible thing that exists on Earth.  The things we create, the intricacies of music, art, language, literature; our emotions; our reasonings and logic.

What are these things that set us apart, that make us so unique?  I do not know, but I want more than anything to understand them.

Our remembrance is a beautiful thing.  But it can also deceive us.  This year has been momentous and turbulent for Ukraine, and I wonder if the sadness I feel for what the people and place I knew have suffered colors my nostalgia for the time I spent there.  And what of that 80-year-old from earlier, looking back at her childhood and seeing the false memories created by dementia; our recognition of the faulty reality created by her troubled mind does nothing to diminish its realness to her.

***

It’s also the first day of winter.  At work, I am tracking the sun’s progress across the eastern horizon.  The unimpeded view from the 11th floor of the Strom Thurmond Federal Building provides the perfect vantage point for observing.  I started watching the sun crest the horizon in late summer when training ended and I was allowed to come to work at 6:45am instead of 8:00.  The time change enables me to be there early enough to see sunrise, although some days I forget and others the weather does not allow me to witness the sun’s awakening.

Using one of Columbia’s high rises and a cell tower as a measuring stick, I am able to see how far along the vista the sun has moved and how much later sunrise occurs, though I only started taking photographs and recording the dates and times on October 1st–eventually, I hope to record sunrises for a full revolution around our star.  With today’s solstice, the sun should have reached its southern limit and will begin moving north, until the first day of summer, when it will turn back again and head in the direction from whence it came.

Sunrise, October 1, 2014--07:18am...

Sunrise, October 1, 2014–07:18am…

Sunrise, November 11, 2014--06:44am (07:44 to account for Daylight Savings)...

Sunrise, November 11, 2014–06:44am (07:44 to account for Daylight Savings)…

Sunrise, December 18, 2014--07:23am (08:23 Daylight Savings Time)...

Sunrise, December 18, 2014–07:23am (08:23 Daylight Savings Time)…

I doubt many people would put the time or effort into a project like this.  My coworkers tolerate it as an eccentric hobby, an amusing example of why they like me.  But I find observing the laws of nature fascinating.

I have always believed that God is most evident in the beauty of his creation, like the sunrise or the intricate wiring of our minds that he either created or that allowed us to create him.  That to appreciate its elegance is more pleasing to him than the stale rituals of an outdated institution.  And I am saddened by how few people take the time to stop and witness Earth’s great wonders, like a sunrise.

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Isolation…

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I have been quiet about Ukraine for a long time, but the subject has gained some momentum recently, one, due to relative events in the country–and particularly in the Donbass–but also, two, because Tuesday will mark one year since I left Donetsk.  It is hard for me to grasp how quickly that time has gone.

On Friday, I went to Arts and Draughts, an event hosted by Columbia’s art museum.  Eight dollars got me access to the museum’s exhibits.  Some local bands also played and you could buy alcohol and there were food trucks, too.  I did not stay very long, but it is an example of some of the things that make Columbia a good city.

The timing of Arts and Draughts reminded me of another trip to an art museum, on my last Saturday in Donetsk, November 9, 2013, one year ago today.  The Ukrainian girl I dated in my last days in Ukraine took me to Изоляция (Izolyatsiya), the modern art museum I had heard lots about but never visited, where she and her friends had spent considerable time the previous summer making art.  Depending on the context, “изоляция” can be translated different ways.  Given the museum occupied the territory of an abandoned insulation factory, “Insulation” was the most appropriate English variant for the center’s name.

I remember specifically two exhibits:  a vast, empty room strung with lights that oscillated on and off with the rhythm of your pulse if you grasped the handle connected to the lights and an outdoor display of colored window panes, arranged in a maze of sorts, that reflected the dull fall sunlight in eerily beautiful colors.

A maze of colored glass.

A maze of colored glass.

Beyond the quality of the art, Izolyatsiya was a wonderful place because it was a break from the drab mood of post-Soviet Donbass; Donetsk had some pretty spaces, but I always felt a very depressed, closed mindset characterized most of the population.  There seemed to be little hope for change, most people looked to Russia as a guiding example of what path Ukraine should take and viewed outsiders suspiciously.  In effect, they seemed trapped in the mentality of an empire that collapsed nearly a quarter-century before.

But here was something different, an undercurrent of creativity expressed freely and individuals with fresh ideas, most of them young people who had a brighter vision for Ukraine.  It was a pocket of resistance against the overbearing gray depression of the post-Soviet landscape of a collapsed economy and decaying infrastructure.

The last time I was home in Madison, in early October, The New York Times ran an article about the reviving of Soviet institutions in the Donetsk People’s Republic.  Izolyatsiya featured prominently in the story, but the piece was not a celebration of the center’s uniqueness.  Rather, the context dictated the use of “изоляция’s” other translation, “isolation.”  Under the Donetsk People’s Republic, the abandoned factory had been transformed from a center of free expression to a place of oppression.  Izolyatsiya is now a prison, its buildings used to house, interrogate and torture opponents of the new government–most likely some of the people who the previous year had come to celebrate its artistic beauty.

In my mind, I can see the hall of flickering lights, once pulsating in sync with my heartbeat, now echoing with the wails of the political detainees being beaten by the DPR police.  Outside, the separatists destroyed the maze of colored windows, deeming it offensive to the new regime, a symbol of the freedom they seek to suppress, a glimmer of what Donetsk could have been.

In the few days since my last blog post, Ukrainian officials on Friday accused Russia of sending a column of tanks across the border into Donbass; OSCE observers have witnessed convoys of artillery accompanied by men in green uniforms without insignia; and heavy shelling has resumed across Donetsk.  It seems that full-scale war is returning to the city at a time when some of my friends were just beginning to come home.

Reading these reports, I feel so alone, so isolated.

Three elections…

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Yesterday was the midterm election.  As predicted by most political experts, Democrats got the hell beat out of them across the board.  Republicans gained at least nine seats in the Senate, increased their House majority to levels not seen since the 1940s and made substantial gains in the gubernatorial races.  And in many cases, even some of the Democrats who emerged victorious did so only by the skin of their teeth.  All because of a strong dislike for the president and an idea that the country is heading in the wrong direction, despite some pretty important indicators suggesting otherwise.

Regardless, those who voted expressed their displeasure with Democrats, and when the new year begins, the 114th Congress will replace the 113th, and Americans will accept the transition whether they like it or not, just like every other election in our nation’s history excluding 1860 and 1864.

Ukraine recently had elections too.  On October 26th, Ukrainians, living outside the Crimea and Donbass, voted in snap parliamentary elections, overwhelmingly electing candidates who will push the country towards Europe.  The European Union and the United States proclaimed the referendum a triumph for the forces that want a bright democratic future for Ukraine.

But I wondered at the time where was the great success leaders like President Obama spoke of, where the path Ukrainians had charted deviated from the trajectory that the transitional government had led the country down from the Maidan to this moment.  Kyiv and the people who support the government there had already demonstrated a wish to move Ukraine to the west.  They elected a president who supports integration with Europe.  The government, first under Prime Minister Yatsenyunk and then President Poroshenko, signed the EU association agreement, the very same accord that former President Yanukovich refused to ratify in November, sparking the unrest Ukraine still faces.  And Kyiv prosecuted a bloody war in the Donbass to subdue the Russian-backed separatist movement there.  All before October’s vote.

Maybe some of my friends have more expertise and can add some substances to what I feel were hollow accolades from the West.

Most importantly, my skepticism derives from yet another vote held on November 2nd.  On that day, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics elected presidents and other governmental officials.  From the separatist perspective, the referendum legitimized the statelets formed from my old home.  No one recognizes these “nations,” except Russia, of course.  Kyiv, Brussels, Washington and the United Nations denounced the election as illegal, a farce, an assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and a violation of the September 5th ceasefire.

That’s just the point.  What good is Ukraine’s October election if it has lost two crucial regions?  Ukraine and the West can protest the sham elections all they want, but the Donbass and Crimea are lost.  Ukraine can do nothing to stop the Russian encroachment on its territory.  Its army was crushed in late August by Russian regulars sent across the border to rescue the fledgling separatist movement.  While NATO and western governments verbally support Ukraine, the country simply is not politically important enough for them to do what is necessary to reverse the separatist gains.

Four thousand people have died and cities and infrastructure were destroyed in the fighting.  From either point of view, I cannot see the justification for the war.  What good is fighting to keep or take the region if you decimate everything?  Except that Russia has gotten what it wanted the whole time:  destabilizing Ukraine to disrupt its path to European integration.

Free democratic elections across the remaining parts of Ukraine are wonderful victories for Ukrainians where they occurred.  But until its full territorial borders are restored, Ukraine still loses.

Colors…

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This morning I worked an hour and a half of credit time.  I’m going to DC this coming week for six days and will miss work Tuesday-Friday.  Slowdive is playing a concert on Wednesday and I’m celebrating six months with the Social Security Administration by taking my first vacation.  By working today, I increased my credit hours to 24, which means I can use credit hours instead of annual leave for three of the four days I’ll miss of work.

I’m beyond excited for the show, but I’m also thrilled to see some good friends in Washington.  My good buddy from Wyoming will go with me to see Slowdive, but I’m also going to see some close friends from the Peace Corps, including an original sitemate I have not seen since she left Ukraine in July 2012.  I’m so happy to reconnect with important people who’ve been missing in my life.

Because I’ll miss four days of work, I also went in today to complete some things I’m working on.  I set my alarm for 7:30 am, thinking I’d sleep in and get to work at 8:30.  Instead, by body’s natural rhythm kicked in and by five o’clock, I couldn’t sleep any longer.  So I went in at 7:15.

That sounds early for a Saturday, but getting there so early meant I got to see the sunrise, as I try to do as often as possible.  Some days I miss it, others the clouds obscure it, but every time I do witness the sun rise over the horizon seems like a miracle, and the 11th floor of the Strom Thurmond Federal Building offers an unrivaled view.  Watching, unobstructed, above the treeline and building tops, as the inky black softens into first a pale purple, then lightening to almost lilac before the sun’s imminent crest takes the sky through the range of red and orange, and then as the ball of fire pops above where earth meets sky–it is beautiful.

I love the colors.

As I’ve watched, the sun is moving along the horizon, and every day it comes later.  In just under three weeks, we’ve lost nearly a quarter of an hour to the night.

Sunrise 10/01, 7:18 am.

Sunrise 10/01, 7:18 am…

10/18, at 7:31 and noticeably further south...

10/18, at 7:31 and noticeably further south…

It is true, the morning will soon retake an hour of daylight when daylight savings arrives, and I will probably miss a few sunrises until they get back to 6:45 again, but eventually, I’ll be able to resume my viewing.  Anyway, I feel fortunate to have seen it today, even on a Saturday from work.

The colors the sun produces on rising and setting truly are beautiful.  I love early mornings and the dusk because of the lovely colors that exist in those times.  Driving through farmlands as the sky turns those shades of orange-red, and the softening of the light into hues of purple is one of my favorite things; I am always glad to view landscapes through such lenses.  (One of my fondest memories of Ukraine is a bus trip from Dnepropetrovsk across Ukraine’s flat, open center to Kirovograd as the day passed from afternoon to night.)

But the reflection of the bright midday light of the pink churches in Columbia and the green leaves of the oak trees in their cemeteries where I come to sit and read are also wonderful.

First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC...

First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC…

The play of shadow and sunlight among the tombstones adds to the peaceful atmosphere as I read or journal.  Some of those leaves are progressing through their own paths of color, independent from the sun’s presence, as autumn gently turns them from greed to red.

The play of shadow and light...

The play of shadow and light…

And yet their changing colors are not free of the sun’s light.  Photosynthesis teaches us that plants gain energy through the absorption of light.  Chlorophyll in the leaves most strongly absorbs light in the blue and red spectrum, but is a poor absorber of green light.  That is why leaves are green in the spring and summer, when chlorophyll is most plentiful in leaves.  When autumn arrives and the leaves cease producing chlorophyll, the leaves stop absorbing the other colors of light and the leaves change, liberated from chlorophyll’s grasp.

In the same way, the universe exists, in reality, without color.  Those hues of purple and orange at the dawn are merely our perception of how the world around us appears.  The church in front of me is not pink, my shoes are not black, the grass not green.  We see the colors of these things because those are the spectrums of light that the matter these things consist of cannot absorb.  Over time, humans’ eyes evolved in a manner that allows us to experience color.  Our eyes work with our brains to perceive hues from the light not consumed by matter.  Just think of viewing these things at nighttime without the sun’s illumination.

Where are their vibrant colors, hidden by the night?

Evolution gave other animals the ability to see in the dark.  Ours did not.  Nature is a mysterious and wonderful thing.

We need the sun, and so I am thankful for the beauty it creates and the color in its light.

Welcoming the summer…

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Today is the solstice, the first day of summer, and it is so damned hot.  You cannot move without sweating.  Even walking to work at 7:30 am the last few weeks produces dampened undershirts and a sticky body.

It is the summer in the South, something I have not experienced for five years.  I loved summers in Wyoming, short as they were, because of the nature but also because the temperatures rarely rose above the mid 80s.  In Ukraine, the mid 90s of late June through early August were hot but tolerable because they lacked the humidity that plagues the South.

(I remember visiting home in May 2010, after a six month winter.  I left the snowy Denver International Airport on May 11th, wearing thermals under jeans and a long-sleeved shirt.  When the automatic doors at the Savannah airport opened, the humidity hit me as though someone punched me in the chest, almost making me gasp.)

In several blog posts, I have written about winters and how I’d never known what true cold was before moving to Wyoming and Ukraine.  All those winters wishing for nothing but the South Georgia summer now seem foolish.  I had known summer before, but I had forgotten its true appearance.

Still, it beats numb feet any day.  I welcome summer, accepting all the sweat that comes attached.

Things fall apart…

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Last Monday was half a year since I came home.  It is a long time since I left Ukraine, but the country is an indelible part of my memory; it never leaves my mind.  I knew there would be times I would miss Ukraine, but I did not expect the place to weigh so heavily on me.  It still reaches out to me.  I am happy here, but I do regret I spent so much of my service wanting to be anywhere but there.

Nostalgia brings Ukraine back to my thoughts, but there are more ominous reasons.  In my last blog post on April 10th, I wrote of the unrest in eastern Ukraine, caused by separatists occupying the central government building in Donetsk and holding noisy and often violent counter protests against those rallying for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, with borders that include the Donbass.  The post ended with me thinking of the strollers out on Pushkin’s Boulevard, and with the statement, “For now, at least, no Russian troops accompany them.”

With ironic timing, armed–and masked–militants stormed various government buildings across the oblast only two days later.  Seeing moves reminiscent of the Russian takeover of Crimea a month earlier, the interim authorities in Kyiv launched a “counter-terrorism” operation against the armed separatists, centered around the city of Slovyansk.  The fighting mostly stayed in the north, in that city and nearby Kramatorsk, where I spent much time visiting close PCV friends.  Government forces fought a largely inept campaign for most of April and May, losing helicopters to rebel RPGs on several occasions, as well as engaging in multiple skirmishes that left many soldiers dead.

It goes without saying that everyone not Russian suspected the Kremlin backed and provided for the militants despite the Russian government’s denials.  (For this purpose, “Russian” includes those Ukrainians who speak only Russian and get their news from Russia’s media.)

The violence and armed insurgents largely stayed out of Donetsk.  Then, on May 11th, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics held disputed referendums and declared independence.  In the three weeks since, the situation in Donetsk drastically worsened.

A couple weeks ago, a raucous crowd gave a hero’s welcome to a large group of fighters at Lenin Square, the first time I became aware of their presence in the city.  Not long after, militants attacked an army checkpoint south of Donetsk and killed over a dozen soldiers.  Videos showed their torn bodies lying in open fields.  Just a few days later, a pro-Ukrainian militia unsuccessfully assaulted separatist fighters at a checkpoint a few kilometers outside the city.  The corpse of one dead pro-Ukrainian militant lay bullet-ridden for hours.

And then on Memorial Day, six months after I left Ukraine, the rebels attempted to take over the Donetsk airport.  Ukrainian forces, showing no sign of the ineptitude that plagued them in Slovyansk, used air power and ground troops to retake the airport.  They pushed the insurgents back into the city with fighting coming within a kilometer of the train station.

In the battle, the army killed somewhere near fifty militants (some reports suggest a hundred).  Of the dead, thirty-three were Russian nationals, although Russia still denies its forces operate in the Donbass.  But Russians are there, whether members of the Russian army or not, and so are Chechens and other foreign militants.

Last Friday, the professional fighters raided the Donetsk central administration building and evicted the amateur Ukrainian separatists.  A Russian citizen from Moscow now leads the Donetsk People’s Republic.

I feel so sorry for the Ukrainians I know there.  The vast majority do not support the separatists and yet this is their reality.  To be fair, some eastern Ukrainians back the insurgency and greatly desire to be part of Russia.  Some of them, people I knew very well.  One has this photograph as the profile picture of her VKontakte account.  (The girls’ dresses represent the flags of Russia (on the left) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (on the right).  The American flag hangs burning behind them.)

Sometimes I feel I had no effect on the people...

Sometimes I feel I had no effect on the people…

The Peace Corps can evacuate its volunteers and send them to safety in America.  But my Ukrainian friends have nowhere to go; this is happening to them in their native land.  The people you know are not supposed to experience such horrible things.  I feel so helpless.

My home of the previous two years is now a war zone.

Ukraine's borders are sovereign, they are inerasably inked into my skin.

Ukraine’s sovereignty is sacred, its borders are inerasably inked into my skin.