We got away to the seaside for a couple of days last week, which after being in Covid isolation for so long was amazing and nourishing.
My mother cried when she first saw the sea in 1964. She was 21 years old. She says she just couldn't believe how vast it was. For those of us growing up in the UK that's hard to imagine. We all have relatively easy access to the coast. She grew up in land-locked former Czechoslovakia under Communist rule. The news of Russia declaring war on the Ukraine has affected me deeply this week. My Great-Grandmother grew up on a small estate in the Ukraine. Her landowner father had prisoners of war (from WWI) working on his farm. One of the POW who worked with the horses originated from Czechoslovakia. He'd fought for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
He fell in love with my Great-Grandmother and when her parents were arrested as part of a pogrom (a violent riot incited with the aim of massacring or expelling an ethnic group, particularly Jews),
she escaped on foot with her Czech suitor. (Photo: my Great-Grandparents right) She was in her early teens and left siblings and relatives behind. They first travelled to Poland and took refuge with some aunts until eventually he took her "home" to Czechoslovakia, where they settled and started a family. She only discovered 30 years later (after WWII, when she managed to track down one of the siblings she had left behind), that her parents had both been killed in the pogroms shortly after she left.
My Mother's earliest memories, growing up in Czechoslovakia were of Russian soldiers giving her sweets as they came to the house to get my Grandmother to translate for them She was bilingual and pretty (photo: right). My Mother married at 19 and lived with her Mother-In-Law, who had fled East Prussia when the Russians had "cleared" it, with my Mother's first husband, (then an infant) and his sister. They had a nanny, who was really more like a member of the family. She was shot in the head by the Russian soldiers in front of the whole family, accused of being a "collaborator".
The Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, they did not approve of the First-Secretary Dubček's liberal interpretation of Communism as "Socialism with a human face". The regime became more restrictive and following several interrogations and other horrors, my Mother decided that to live any kind of full life she had to get out. She escaped alone, illegally from East Germany without her husband, who wouldn't leave his Mother behind. She had one small suitcase and all her documents sewn into the lining of her jacket. The regime only changed 23 years later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991.
This deep trauma and suffering at the hands of the Russians has been my heritage. It was not easy growing up in its shadow and being reminded that my freedoms were hard-won and not available to so many. Guilt and a complicated relationship with my Mother has been the main result.
The news of the war declared on the Ukraine has left me numb and in disbelief that this is possible. I feel the echo of the suffering from my entire female line. The horror stories, some of which were only alluded to because they were still so raw. How do you heal from this? How can it happen again, but this time with more deadly weaponry?
(Photo: my Grandmother and my Great-Grandmother with my sister as a child). I think of the tenacity of my Mother, my Grandmother and my Great-Grandmother and how they had to re-invent themselves, learn new languages, fit in, start again with only the clothes on their backs and again the old guilt comes back. How can I flounce around in my comfortable studio with my easy life when there is so much suffering?
Then, thank God for Elizabeth Gilbert, and her brilliant book "Big Magic" which I recommend to ALL people who make things. She gives me a great reframe. I imagine doing this FOR my ancestors. Giving voice and expression in a way they never could. Using the freedom they risked so much for, to try and heal some of these wounds in a way that lights up my soul. I don't have to be so hardened and defensive because their survival gifted me that possibility. Would my Great-Grandmother have liked the opportunity to paint in a studio all day? You betcha! She'd have probably done massive, energetic, abstract oils. She was a badass.
My heart weeps for Ukrainians right now. There IS no elsewhere or other. Like all suffering, the ripples will touch all of us in some way.
For now I am putting the final touches to my "Everyday Magic Series". The quiet, mysterious, language of nature that feels primeval and lost. And the beauty of these ordinary and yet extraordinary objects feels like a comforting constant right now.
I'm working on giving subscribers exclusive access to the new collection and 48hrs of first refusal on all original paintings. Each one is a "Spell" and I hope I have unwittingly drawn up powerful magic to help avoid the insanity of warfare.
If you would like this opportunity please subscribe here.