A story for when there are no words

I’ve been thinking about my high school a lot over these last several days. I’m not Ukrainian, but my school was; it was founded and run by the Sisters of Saint Basil, a Ukrainian order of nuns, to serve their local community starting in the 1930s. By the time I got there in the 90s the school’s reach had grown and expanded, and many of the girls who were students there came from different ethnic backgrounds, like me.

But the Ukie-ness of the place remained as important to the women running it as ever. We were taught some words and phrases of Ukrainian that I can still summon as easily now as I did then; I imagine they’re with me for life. I learned that Ukraine, with its blue-sky golden wheat fields, was “the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union.” On holidays I ate pierogies with the other girls in the cafeteria, and in art class I learned how to make pysanky, eggs that we pierced with a sewing needle, blew into carefully to hollow them out, then drew on with wax and painted with traditional designs in a clumsy attempt to copy the photos in our art books. It was a precious experience to be allowed in on someone else’s culture in this way, to be invited to participate, but it was also totally ordinary, the way things are when you’re a kid. Adults tell you to do stuff and you do it. Your friend’s mom speaks a different language when she talks to her dad, and you don’t think much about it. It was just the way it was.

Like the Catholic grade school I’d attended—like all Catholic schools—Basil’s was oriented around the religion. It was run by the nuns who lived just across the way in a convent that was on a farm. They kept horses on the farm, which I could sometimes see from the car as we drove past, and I knew because a Ukrainian friend told me that in the back of the property somewhere was a small, private cemetery. All around the school and the convent were pizza joints and farting city buses and streets with heavy traffic, but there were these spots of loveliness too. It was kind of a mixed bag, but that’s a city neighborhood for you.

Basil’s also had a small chapel in the school itself. It was an eye-opener to me the first time I saw it, and every other time after that, too. I only went in there a handful of times over those four years because it was small, and when the whole school was required to attend Mass we went to the auditorium instead. The chapel felt special, in part, for that reason. But really it was special because it was so beautiful. I’d grown up in the western tradition of Catholicism, where the art was quite different—my parish church was all stained glass and grey stone and echoes, with a huge crucifix hanging over the altar in front. By contrast, this Ukrainian church was a revelation of color. There were bright paintings (called icons) on the walls instead of the creepier statues I was used to, and the most wonderful piece of all was the dome shaped ceiling, which was painted a deep blue and studded with golden stars. It was so pretty and so different from what I thought church could be. Painting a ceiling seemed like something a parent would do in a child’s room to make it feel cheerful, magical, and safe. There were more touches of gold paint like the gold of the stars throughout the entire chapel, and somehow the effect was arresting, suggesting not the material wealth of actual gold, but something transcendent, heart-lifting. Walking in there I always felt stunned into silence, as if there was a deep quiet already inside me that I didn’t know was there.

Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t like going to church on Sundays, and the minute I left my parents’ house I stopped going altogether. I also had a deep distaste and resentment toward the girls at school who seemed to believe that the stuff we’d been taught in religion class was all true. Some of them even palled around with the nuns before and after class in a way that grossed me out but also never felt accessible to me, even though we were all invited. The door was always open. I just rarely walked through it. My experience of Catholicism had made me feel so rejected that I was left to sort out spirituality for myself, though I see now that that’s something everyone has to do. I guess the only thing adults can offer kids is what they know, plus—ideally—the confidence to leave and make their own way. And a few of those adults must have given me some of that, because that is what I did.

I don’t know what I’m trying to say here. I can’t seem to find my way into what I’m attempting to do, which is express how hurt and disturbed I am by what’s happening in Ukraine, how I keep remembering the families I knew and hoping they’re okay, how I keep picturing it happening here, how helpless and even hopeless, at times, I’ve been feeling. I know my personal, emotional connection to the place doesn’t matter to anyone but me, but I wanted to share it with you anyway because it’s all I really have. The only thing I can think to say: Thank you, and I love you, and I’m sorry.