It is called pysanky, and it is beautiful and delicate. And, apparently, it is something at which I have some skill. Who knew? Growing up, I certainly didn’t, as it was not a tradition passed down from my elders to me, as one might expect. Instead, it was a Newfoundlander who taught me “to write” upon eggs with beeswax. Because they are beautiful and colourful and part of our daughters’ heritage, my Irish wife joined classes and learned how to create Ukrainian Easter Eggs. She then brought this craft into our home and taught us to make these fragile treasures of design, detail, symmetry, and colour. Up until that point in my life, Ukrainian culture for me revolved entirely around a very few traditional foods, all made by my бабуся, my Baba.
Baba travelled to Canada as a very young girl, only eleven years old when her aunt put her on the ship bound for Canada. Once here, she travelled across the country by train to arrive in Alberta, where her father was establishing a life as an uninvited settler to the land. She was married young and raised a family in a small home on the eastern edges of Edmonton. My Baba still lived in this house when I came along. I have memories of saying my prayers at her side and then climbing under her deep pile of quilts to sleep. I remember her enormous gardens, and stealing both stalks of rhubarb and the sugar bowl. I remember her thick accent and the stories she told but could never read to me. I remember the scent of Dove soap that she carried with her. And I remember the borscht, the holubtsi, and the pedaheh. Try as I might, my own never taste the same.
My father and his siblings are first generation Canadians, who themselves speak little of their parents’ language; my own vocabulary was exhausted in the two paragraphs above. In fact, as a child, my heritage was more a source of embarrassment than it was of pride. Although I am not Polish, ‘Archie Bunker’ style derision and prejudice was familiar to me… and certainly to my father’s generation, too. Is that why I feel distant from the events unfolding in Ukraine at February’s end?
This is not to say I am unmoved by the loss of life and the trauma suffered by Ukrainians as their home is invaded. Watching the news is hard. Hard, too, is watching the lighter media reports of the war in Ukraine, as late-night hosts like Stephen Colbert open with a monologue that highlights the heroes and spotlights the villains – and somehow draws laughter from a gathered audience. I think I am missing the joke. Too clearly, I still recall the days when my generation feared an American president who banned an Academy Award winning Canadian documentary, calling it propaganda. I recall dread, not laughs. The events of the last two weeks have unfolded quickly. All forms of media share sounds and images in real time, and I cannot help but feel moved by what I see and hear. I guess what I’m trying to express is that I don’t feel related to it. While Ukraine is part of my family history, it would not be my answer to the question “Where are you from?” A recent debate I had with family members revolved around just this question.
It was asked innocently, or at least the intent was innocent, by a relative seeking to learn the ancestry of a co-worker. The co-worker – a person of colour – answered that she was from Canada and would unpack the subject no further. The situation left my relative puzzled and struggling to understand the offense. After the retelling of this story, we had a conversation about microaggressions… their first. A short video produced by Fusion Comedy helps communicate microaggressions clearly by likening them to mosquito bites. While not funny, the video does use humour to disarm an audience and make visible the microaggressions which may be invisible to those of the dominant culture.
All non-Indigenous Canadians have roots reaching back across land or oceans: we are all from somewhere else. My daughters have Irish history, but you would have to reach back many generations to touch the soil of the emerald isle. They also have French ancestry, again well back in time. As shared, they have relatively recent connection to pysanka and traditions of Ukraine. It is unlikely that any offense is intended should somebody ask me or my children where we are from. But the thing is, it is unlikely for someone who looks and sounds like me and my daughters to be asked this question. It is assumed we are from ‘here’. And therein lies the learning my relatives and I face. What are the messages that we communicate with our questions that are shadowed by implicit assumptions? Might we be saying “You are not from here,” and therefore, “you do not belong.”
There is much to read and understand concerning the debate of ‘intent’ and ‘impact’, and Melanie Tannenbaum offers these thoughts in her contribution to Scientific American in 2013 (emphasis below is mine):
We must all focus on how actions that harm others – regardless of intent – need to be addressed, not pushed under the rug because the agent "didn't mean" to do anything wrong. Yet at the same time, we must learn to understand our own cognitive biases, and how we can't continue to treat intent and impact as if they are cognitively separate, orthogonal factors.
It is heart work to seek understanding of our own biases, so that we may act with intention to do no harm. Only in knowing better can we do better; only in looking inward can we see beyond ourselves. In a time where we are experiencing global upheaval, and where we are seeing international communities both coming together and tearing apart, it is especially critical to bring our awareness to what we can control, and where we can respectfully join with and understand our own neighbours.
To give pysanka was to give a symbolic gift of life. My own ancestors adorned these orbs with images of the sun and stars to signify good fortune and growth, with images of deer and horses to signify wealth and prosperity, and with waves and ribbons to signify everlasting life. Although they have created a beautiful artform, egg painting does not belong to Ukrainians. It is a tradition practiced by ancient cultures from around the globe; it comes from everywhere.
There is beauty and gravity in a simple egg: the contrasting strength and fragility of the shell; the affirming circle of its shape; and the symbolism of fertility, potential, and hope – fitting contemplations for all in these early days of March.