Learning by Heart

For days before my departure from London to Kiev, a low-grade but constant stress clung to me, driving me to busy myself with oh-so-important tasks. Anxiety kept building as the journey approached. As the airplane dipped toward this large Ukrainian city on the banks of the Dneiper River, the anxiety turned to barely concealed panic.

At first I chastised myself. Yes, travel in a foreign place where one doesn’t speak the language is stressful, but get over it, Darcy. Think about what it must have been like for your great-grandmother, at 17, aboard a ship to Ellis Island.

Then I remembered: just because I’m feeling it doesn’t mean that it’s mine.

This land contained an unspeakable history for my great-grandmother. Despite only two generations of distance, there is not a single story of The Old Country that has survived in my family. “We are Americans now,” was all that was passed on.

And so I return to this land not feeling her joy, but her terror. And I don’t really know why.

I reassure her. I will be careful, I tell her. I am smart, and resourceful. Not to mention that I have an American passport, a cell phone, and three whole credit cards in my wallet. I trust these things can work magic in this foreign place.

After four days here, I find that I appreciate the language barrier. Throughout my time in England, I was awash in information, way more than I could possibly metabolize. My first few days there, I hungrily devoured it all, wanting to learn everything there was to know about my ancestors and their cultural traditions in one big gulp. As I quickly grew stuffed, I saw how small were the limits to what I could digest. I also began to recognize how often the things that were most significant were not new information, but most often something I already know that clicked for me in a new way, suddenly I was ripe to understand its importance.

Here in Ukraine, I don’t even know the alphabet. I don’t know where my family came from, though I have Ukrainian women across the capitol city trying to help me locate this precious information. No information comes easy for me here. Instead it whispers: how much do you want to know? How hard are you willing to work? I am teased with a crumb here, a small sip there, a lover playing hard to get.

There will be no great buffet of knowledge here, for me to pick and choose from. My mind swims with the Cyrillic alphabet, as I start at the beginning by sounding out words, dancing between sound and symbol like a first grader. While I could and have found short cuts to certain information, by hiring English-speaking translators and doing research in English, even this requires a new thoughtfulness and intention.

The process helps me to move slowly, at the pace of my metabolism. It is easier to avoid the indigestion-causing smorgasbord so present in our world today: too much information, too little wisdom. I try to remember that I am a pilgrim here, not a tourist. As I walk through museums, public squares, gardens, cathedrals, all my senses must be engaged for me to understand even the slightest bit. Without being able to read or to ask questions, I can’t lull myself into a false perception that I truly get it. So instead I find myself awakening to the depth of the mystery of the questions at the heart of this journey. Yet when I learn something, really learn it deep in my bones, I find that it becomes mine.

While I was in Wales, I went to an ancient Celtic village site reconstructed as a wonderful, informative museum. I learned that as a non-literate culture, the druids would spend twenty or so years learning the stories, rites, and ceremonies. This is the time it took “learn them by heart.” Hearing this phrase, which I have heard and said a thousand times at least, I suddenly realized what it is to actually know something by heart: to take it in fully and know it not with my head, but with my heart.

So that is my task: to learn my ancestral story by heart. This means that it stays simple, the details sketchy. Katarzyna Kusniak, from Lipa, Galicia. She left behind her homeland in her teenage years as part of a massive wave of migration of peasants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, following stories of free land in America. Her courage and tenacity saved my family from the Soviet invasion that would follow. As I stood at the Holodomor Memorial, meditating on four million Ukrainians that died in 1932–34, surrounded by fields full of grain that they could not have, I realized: had it not been for my great-grandmother, that would have been us.

Being here, with people who stayed through three more generations of foreign occupiers and shifting nation-states, I am beginning to understand this woman more. I understand why she wanted so desperately to move and, and forget. So as I remember, I go slowly, at the pace of a full and open heart. Staying with grief, making space for terror. Learning by heart.