A Writer’s Life Meditation-Writing Prompt

Lina Mike, photographer – @linamikah

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”

—Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum

Writing Grandmother’s Revine

Russian military forces bombed the Babyi Yar Memorial Park site in Kiev, Ukraine on March 1, 2022. I saw footage of a man climbing up on a tank and then kneeling before it. I imagined what that man might be thinking and feeling. I imagined that I was that man, that child killed in the bomb blast, that dead young soldier left behind on the side of the road by the Russian military that was being reported in coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

On March 1, 2022, I remembered into feeling my own heart cracked open in the summer of 1962 when I was eleven-years old. That summer the goings on in my worlds had me trying to understand why Black people were hated and hunted and killed in my homes of Houma and New Orleans, Louisiana and Ocean Springs and Natchez, Mississippi. It was in Natchez, where my uncle was the editor of a local Black newspaper, that I greedily read the newspapers, journals and books that arrived for  him. It was in Natchez during the summer of 1962 that I began to read in horror about the holocaust documented in The Wall by Jon Hersey and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. 

During the summer of 1962 I became completely terrified of all white people. Since all of the Jews I had ever known looked white to me, I assumed Jews had all of the same power and privileges of all white-looking people. Yet Hitler had sought to exterminate all Jews no matter how German they were or how white they looked or behaved. In my mind, heart, body and soul I came to appalling comprehensions. If white people interdicted look–like–white people, Jews and others, forced them to register their wealth, appropriated that wealth, evicted them, imprisoned them, enslaved them, and murdered them en masse based on the white superiority of only certain kinds of white- looking people, even in my eleven year old capacity, I understood the devastating truths of black peoples’ capture, enslavement, and our constant attempted subjugation, exploitation, terror, internment and murder. 

While reading these books I understood the futility of Black people attempting  to achieve full citizenship and agency in white people’s courts, governments, religions, science, education etc. I also understood our stubborn faith, purpose and determination to live free. I understood we had no choice since we could not change or hide our skin color, but we did have choices about how we lived, and lasted, and died, and left ourselves behind to carry on. 

It was that summer, as I read those books, that I came across the documentation of the genocide at Babi Yar. It was also that summer that I read about the Red Summer of 1919 in the U.S., the mass killing of Black people, Black towns and communities, the theft of Black wealth, and the forced migrations of tens of thousands of Black people by white individuals, groups and communities that were supported by and sanctioned by white cultural, economic, religious and political institutions with white supremacist norms, along with city, state and federal laws and policies. 

The invasion, bombing, forced migration, and attempted annihilation of Ukraine’s peoples, lands, and cultures has stirred in me in incandescent  fear, rage, grief, and memories of other invasions, bombings, genocides, and attempted annihilations and erasures based on imperialism, hatred, fear, and profit in our current, recent, and not so distant  histories. Since that summer of 1962 my rational fears are now accompanied by my steadfast persistence that all of us to be and be becoming self-determined, free, and in creative, purposeful, and joyous struggle for our precious lives, for our peoples’ precious lives.

I am angry, rageful really, that these histories are constantly repeating themselves. I am soul deep sad that I recognize them at home and abroad, and I am not surprised. 

Andrea R. Canaan, MSW, MFA

March 21, 2022

Grandmother’s Ravine

He was Disabled. He walked with crutches. He was older but not old. He was balding but not yet bald. He was not tall, but he was not short. He had the softening of middle age, just barely overweight. He was sad, soul deep sad, whole lifetimes of sad compressing to make room for more sad. He was angry, rageful really. His rage countered the bone cracking cold. The words of a poem tolled in his mind.

“…I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails…”

The ghosts of the deaths eighty-one years ago still crushed him, just as much as when he stood  before the bloodied sidewalk where his neighbor’s daughter had been killed by the blast of a cruise missile while shopping with her mother; just as much as the dead remains of a young abandoned Russian soldier, not warm, still cooling, no more than a boy, lying dead on the side of the road, abandoned as columns of Russian trucks and tanks were turned around by Ukrainian resistance. 

“…I see myself a boy in Belostok 
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded…”

When Ukrainian military forces stopped a Russian tank, he climbed aboard. As Russian soldiers’ faces and then bodies emerged from the top of the tank he clamored down. He knelt down in front of the tank. His neighbors tried to pull him away. He refused to move. As he knelt, he recited out loud the poem ringing within him, memorized from his boyhood: 

“No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself….”

            His neighbors finally moved him from in front of the tanks. They shepherded him away and sat him on a street curb safely away from the tanks. He continued reciting silently. They believed he had been and was still praying. He could not stop. He kept reciting the poem to himself  over and over again until his neighbors took him home and laid him down on his bed.

“…And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here….”

  • Embedded poem stanzas from: Babi Yar by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. 

Yevtushenko was a Russian poet born in 1933. He wrote this poem in 1961 in part to protest the Soviet Union’s refusal to identify Babi Yar, a ravine in the suburbs of Kiev, as a site of the mass murder of 33,000 Jews on September 29–30, 1941. Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Thirteenth Symphony” is based, in part, on this poem. From: The Collected Poems 1952–1990 by Yevgeny Yectushenko. Edited by Albert C. Todd with the author and James Ragan (Henry Holt and Company, 1991), pp. 102-104. 

A view of the ravine at Babi Yar circa 1944. On September 29-30, 

1941, more than 33,000 Jewish residents of Kiev were marched

to this site and systematically gunned down over the edge of the 

ravine by members of the Sonderkommando 4a of Einstazgruppen C. 

Tens of thousands of Gypsies and Soviet POWs were also executed at this site between 1941 and 1943.