Dancing in the snow

The day is cold and already growing dark even though it’s not that late.

I’m wandering through Kyiv in the winter, and I’m alone. I keep my hands in my pockets and my breath is freezing in my beard.

I walk down Khreshchatyk. Snow on the ground has turned to ice and I tread lightly and carefully. Where am I going? I don’t know. I’ve walked here before but I feel lost and unsure where to go.

The Christmas lights are up and the sidewalks aren’t as full as in the summer and spring, but it’s still beautiful and I try to enjoy it. Another year over, a new one just begun, as Lennon, not Lenin, said.

What has changed? She’s gone, but the war is still there. It never left. Even though I’ve tried to leave it again and again. Now I’m broken in the places that may or may not get stronger, I don’t know yet.

I take a coffee and sit on a bench and watch the huddled bundled waddle by in that funny way one walks across the ice so not to slip. I change hands holding the cup when one gets too cold and hide the other in my coat pocket. The coffee is good and keeps me warm. The steam rising from the cup melts the ice in my beard between sips, and I wipe away the drops with the sleeve of my coat. When the coffee is through I get up and start walking again.

I take a right and climb up through the arched portal that leads to Liuteranskaya Street. The way is steep and my legs ache at first with the climbing, but they get used to the work. The gravity pulls me back making it hard to keep going, but I do anyway. My apartment is at the top of the hill. It’s worth the effort to get home. I have to.

The blue–purple sky clouds over and the cold air turns still and the world is silent. It starts to snow.

My boots crunch on the growing layer of snow on the sidewalk. I enjoy the sound and the way my boots grip the ground as I keep climbing. There’s no one else around me and I feel, just for a moment, like I have all of Kyiv to myself in this first minute of snowfall that is the best and I have always cherished the most.

I see her.

Up and ahead. A lady, who knows how old. She wears a long black coat and her long gray hair shows beneath her fur cap.

She walks to the edge of the road and stops. As I draw closer she starts to pirouette and spin to music only she can hear. Her hands are up, holding an invisible partner, a secret in her heart where I cannot see.

Her feet move light and she twirls, silently gliding, leaving lines in the snow like a compass needle. On her wrinkled face she wears a smile as warm as the rays of the hidden sun.

I walk past trying not to stare but she wouldn’t have noticed anyway.

A little farther on, a little higher up, and I stop and I look back through the falling snow and she’s still dancing. A memory leads her round and round. I wonder what music she hears and if I’ll ever know that tune, the one that never ends.

I watch her for a moment. And then the stillness breaks and a cold wind laps at my neck. I hear it moving through the leafless branches of the trees. I turn and keep climbing. The hard beat of my boots in the snow takes me home.

Last night in a war that isn’t mine

It’s time to leave. I know that, but I don’t know how to do it.

Those who never fell in love laugh at those who have, thinking they would be too strong for such a thing. Until it happens to them, of course. And then you think the thing that has happened to so many others is only yours, and no one else has ever felt this way before.

Falling in love with a country in a war that isn’t yours is like that first blinded embrace against which all others pale.

And I don’t know how to leave.

How do I look her in the eyes and say I’ll never see you again?

How do I walk down her streets and away from something that drew me harder and truer than anything ever has?

It isn’t my war to fight, I know, and that’s what they say to me. They say it’s time to come home and that my life is back in the other place and that I don’t see things clearly. But what could be clearer than this?

They say things like I care too much and I’m too attached and I’ve stayed too long and they talk about responsibility and real life and living the way I’m supposed to.

They say these things and in the thinking part of me I understand. But thinking isn’t how true things happen.

Truth happens walking back in the middle of the night, high on wine, after dropping her off at her doorstep and kissing her good-bye and feeling the weight of everything gone and the before and the after mixed in the now as you walk through squares and along streets that are full in the day but empty in the night and it is only you and you have the whole world all for yourself. And the world inside of you, too.

Anything seems possible then. You dream bigger and walk lighter and feel happy and fearless and wish that you could stay forever in this moment.

Maybe that’s why love and war twist and tangle the way they do.

Those two things have the power to erase yesterday and tomorrow and make you want today more.

To find a person, or a cause, that is more important than you is the highest thing a soul can do, after all. And once you have done the one you can do the other with ease.

And when you find a reason to live that’s stronger than the fear of dying, well, that also makes the leaving harder to do. That’s why warriors fight harder and love harder than anyone else.

And that’s why I fell in love with Ukraine, and her. And that’s why it breaks my heart to leave. If I had forever left to give, it would be for her and here and this.

So one more drink, just a little longer. Time to walk back soon, but not right now. I’ll say good-bye and cross back over, but not quite yet. It’s still tonight, and her and here and this is still all mine.

This is, and forever will be, my war.

Dangerous Places

             I spent one more day in Mariupol before deciding it was time to leave. The Poseidon Hotel, which for a week had been a beehive of foreign journalists, had emptied and the place seemed oddly abandoned. I felt that same sense of abandonment as I walked through town and along the Sea of Azov’s beaches the day after the cease-fire. I slowly realized that abandoned is probably how this place usually felt.

        The train left at six and I had the day. I had lunch at a café by the water, and it was only about two by the time I finished eating. With nothing left to do I started to order beers and write.

        I slowly felt the inner tension of the past few days unwinding within me. But the coils would tighten again at the slightest imagined muffled thud. Even the rising sound of the wind blowing through the leaves piqued my senses.

        Was that a rocket, a mortar, a tank firing? Was it happening again?

        I was still very much in that state of mind.

Continue reading

The Night Before the Nangpa La

(unedited from my journal)

Nov. 11, 2015.

Lumde, Nepal. 14,400 feet.

So here I am, once again plodding up into the Himalayas, straining against the weight of my pack, the incline of the trail, the diminishing power of my legs and lungs with the altitude and the gravitational pull of the life I left below.

I once wrote that the mountains do not solve any problems, they only create new, simpler ones. It is a chance, for a moment, to pretend like the burdens of everything left behind don’t matter. And truly, nothing does matter up here except for the simple chores necessary to survival.

You focus on the trail, food, water, blisters, the aches and pains of the miles, where to sleep, what clothes to put on to stay warm, what things to stuff in your sleeping bag at night to have warm in the morning. These myriad decisions, which require no more complexity of thought than a caveman’s, relieve you from more complicated distractions.

This simple existence gives you such a spiritual and intellectual reprieve that it launches your creative and introspective capacities into an orbit impossible to achieve in normal life.

That is the attraction and the addiction to this place and this existence. And as a writer, it is a place where I feel most capable of achieving something bordering on proficiency with my craft.

There is typically a singular goal on these trips into the mountains, which stays fixed in place over your thoughts like you’re chasing the moon.

Last time I was here it was climbing Island Peak. Now it is the Nangpa La.

Those challenges, and the unknown ability of my body to meet them, funnel my thoughts, focusing them like light in a lens. They are a grand goal, which seems to somehow justify the hard work, giving the trip a sense of meaning that I search for in my life down below.

It is also, of course, tragic when the goal is achieved and you realize that your worries were unfounded. Your physical and mental limits had not been reached, and you become aware of the untapped potential still within you, locked away by your fears.

You only hope that there is enough time left in this life to find out where that horizon truly lies.

On this trip, that shifting horizon exists on the Nangpa La. After tonight, I walk off the edge of the world. And I truly have no idea what to expect.

I wonder if the trail will be passable—did the earthquake wash away the fragile slopes I need to cross and climb?

Will the nights be too cold? Will I stay healthy in the altitude? What if I get hurt? Will I be strong enough to reach the pass?

I also wonder if this journey will produce a story worthy of justifying the time spent away from Helga and the life I left behind.

I’ll know the answers to those questions weeks, months, and years later as I reread these words. The only evidence of the anxiety and the uncertainty I now feel will be these penstrokes. Emotions eroded by time and new worries and new joys.

But for now, my mind and soul live here in this stone hut high on a Himalayan ridge. The sun is setting, the clouds have moved in as they so often do in the late afternoon. The evening wind is shifting the timbers of the roof. The air inside the lodge smells of smoke from the stove. My thoughts are pointed up toward the Nangpa La, where the answers to my questions and the closing pages of this chapter of my life are waiting for me.

I go to find
What has, I fear,
Only existed in my mind.

I toil and work, suffer and strain
Pushing on to a height
Where one cannot live,
Nor life itself
Can remain.

All for what?
I cry for explanation.

For glory, fame, respect or even admiration?
Or, is it to close an end…
for which the journey
Is my one true and only friend.

This isn’t my war

The war is always there, but it isn’t mine. Stepping off the train in Kyiv, walking into the crowd, everyone seems to swirl around me at a half-beat faster rhythm than my own. Beautiful young Ukrainian women stroll by indifferently; young men bump into my shoulder on a hurry somewhere. I’m stuck in another place, at another speed, living within. My mind is locked to Semyonovka.

I was there yesterday, near the war’s front lines. Whole neighborhoods flattened by artillery. Trees stripped bare of leaves and branches by the blasts. An old woman with her arms folded stands on a street corner, framed by the ruined leftovers of her hometown.

“I have nowhere else to go,” she says, shrugging her shoulders.

An old man with leather-skinned hands sits on a bench down the street; the wall behind him speckle-scarred by shrapnel. He looks at me suspiciously.

“Nothing you write will change anything here,” he says, pointing down the cratered road with an upturned leather-skinned hand.

At a street corner a few blocks away a woman and child wait for a bus to take them away from this wasteland. Behind them workers rebuild the destroyed bus station.

The fighting has stopped in Semyonovka, but the war is always there. It could come back, but no one knows.

A few hours by train and I’m back in Kyiv. Far enough from the war to make it feel like fiction, but there are subtle signs of it here.

Blue and yellow ribbons on women’s purses. Soldiers with Kalashnikovs standing around the Maidan. Ukrainian flags hanging out windows and trailing from the radio antennas of cars. Posters on Khreshchatyk Avenue ask Ukrainians to support their troops. I go to dinner and the restaurant is giving a portion of its revenue to support wounded soldiers. But the war here is a cause, not a real war. It’s a rallying cry, not a real war. It’s a reason to be proud and wave the flag and debate politics and somberly shake one’s head at the sad news coming from the front everyday. But it’s not a real war here, even though it’s always there. Just like back home. People take a minute to thank the troops, and then life goes on. The troops, though, are never done. They can’t move on because wars never end for those who fight them.

The real war touches Kyiv lightly, like a feather. It’s easy to miss if you don’t look for it or don’t want to.

There, at the entrance to the train station, a young man in uniform with his military rucksack is kissing his girlfriend goodbye. He holds her face with both his hands, controlling for a second longer the only thing he can. Bullet holes are still in trees and street signs at the top of Institutskaya Street near the Maidan, where Berkut thugs and snipers gunned down protestors in February. Now the place is covered in flowers and tourists march past.

In the metro a young woman listens to music on her iPhone, and students laugh and talk. An old woman sits on the bench, a cane in one hand and a plastic bag full of something down between her feet. What her life must have been like—at least six million dead in Ukraine during the famine of 1932 to 1933, hundreds of thousands killed during Stalin’s purges from 1934 to 1940, about seven million Ukrainians killed during World War II, and then a half-century of Soviet rule. She stares forward, emotionless. Maybe she’s thinking about her wars, maybe she’s thinking about what to make for dinner.

After Semyonovka I stay in Kyiv for a few weeks. I keep writing. I want to go back to the front, but there’s talk now of the separatists kidnapping and murdering foreigners. I think about James Foley, and I remember the news that Chechens are fighting with the separatists. A friend offers me a ride to Donetsk. I say no.

And then Russia and the separatists invade southeastern Ukraine and there’s talk of a siege on Mariupol. I reflexively buy a train ticket for tomorrow and make a hotel reservation.

It’s time to go now, and I’m scared. What if I go and it spirals out of control? What if it ends up like Semyonovka?

The train leaves at five, and I have some time. I think of a lot of reasons not to go. I leave myself a way out, and it doesn’t seem so real.

I lie down on my bed and read a book. I get comfortable and decide I’m not going. Then I wonder why I’m here, and what it’s all worth if I don’t go. I decide I’m going. Not much time left now, so I pack my bag in a hurry. Everything ready and I open the door to leave, I stop. I flash forward to flashing back to this moment as a memory. I wonder if I’ll regret this decision, this one right now, to go to Mariupol. What if the separatists break through the lines? What if I can’t get out and I’m kidnapped? I think about James.

I close the door and put my bag down. I’m staying.

The war is still there, but this isn’t my war. It can’t be worth it to leave Kyiv and go to the fighting. I think about what I’ve seen in Afghanistan and Iraq and Semyonovka. What’s the point? Not enough people read my stories for them to make a difference, and even if they did, what do I owe Ukraine anyway?

It’s a sunny, late summer day in Kyiv and there are cafes where I can work and write, streets to wander and explore, and bars to visit at night to drink beer and talk politics with friends.

But then, without thinking, I pick up my bag and I’m out the door. Walking to the metro station like I’m skiing down a hill, willfully giving myself to gravity, constantly gathering momentum. It’s easier to keep going this way than to turn back around. I’m off the metro, back into the train station. I’m moving at the right speed now. I’ve been cured of the war by the few weeks in Kyiv.

Soon I’m on the train and pulling away. The train picks up speed, the world blurs by but I’m slowing down inside. That familiar feeling of sliding into a warzone returns. My senses pick up. There’s a constant, inescapable sense of dread. My stomach rumbles, but I’m not hungry. I wanted to write on the train ride, but that hunger is gone too.

The train goes into the night and south toward the war.

The girl in Kyiv sends me a text, “Be careful,” she wrote. “Remember, this isn’t your war.”

She’s right, this isn’t my war. But I’m still drawn to it like it’s my own. Is it just because it’s there? Is it because I want it to be mine? I already have my own war, after all. But maybe when you have one war you have them all.

No matter now. I’m on a train heading back to war, and I can’t get off. And when I’m back in it, the war won’t care whether it’s mine or not. And neither will I.

This isn’t my war: An excerpt

Note: I’m currently writing a non-fiction account of my time in Ukraine as a war correspondent. Following is an excerpt, detailing a battle in Mariupol last September in the days leading up to the first cease-fire, which was signed Sept. 5.

I sat on the terrace of the Georgian restaurant, one hand wrapped around my beer, which I sipped often. I was going through the beer quickly, and had quite a few as the night went on.

Out in the distance, toward the black void in the direction of Donetsk, there was a storm. It had arrived. I could hear the thunder and see the flashes of light. Yet, unlike the squalls of my youth in Florida, these phenomena were not evidence of an accident of nature, but testaments to the choices of men. The flashes and thunder were made by the clash of soldiers and their weapons.

Continue reading

Why soldiers miss war

Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Martin parked the truck outside the tall concrete slabs arranged in a defensive perimeter around the U.S. tactical operations center at FOB Shank, Afghanistan. A layer of fine brown dust hung in the air. Out in the distance, high snow-capped mountains ringed the combined U.S./Afghan base. C-130 transport planes and Apache helicopter gunships roared overhead at regular intervals.

“You wanna see where the rocket landed?” he asked me.

“Yeah, of course,” I replied.

“How you doing?” he asked, knowing what was in store for me later.

“I’m fine,” I replied automatically, not knowing if it was a lie. “I’m sure it’ll sink in later.”

He didn’t reply.

Due to the frequency of Taliban attacks, FOB Shank is jokingly referred to as “rocket city” by the U.S. soldiers stationed there. Nearby hills and sprawling urban areas dot the enormous bowl valley within which the base sits in Logar Province, offering plenty of places for Taliban militants to hide and lob one-off rocket and mortar shots.

Consequently, the place is constructed like a medieval castle. Reinforced concrete and rebar bunkers lined with sandbags and stocked with first-aid kits are never more than sprinting distance away. When the air raid alarm goes off, as it does several times a day, you have two choices.

Continue reading

Coming home

The war is still there, and so am I. I’m in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s. I can’t perfectly remember the conversation between the cashier and the guy in front of me. But it goes something like this:

Cashier: (holding a can of pumpkin puree) “Oh my God, this pumpkin is the best. Have you tried it?”

Man: “Of course! (Takes wallet out of his man purse that has a diagonal strap across his chest) I love everything pumpkin in the fall. Have you tried the new pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks? Amazing.”

Cashier: “Oh, I know. When you find something you like, you just have to get as much as you can before it runs out.”

In the checkout lane next to me, a middle-aged woman in Lululemon yoga pants holds a Louis Vuitton purse in the crook of her elbow with a BMW car key in that hand. In her other hand is an iPhone 6 in a pink protective case. She’s talking to the cashier about a gluten-free diet.

I’m gone, watching everything from a perch 5,000 miles away in Kyiv, where I really am. Am I back in reality, or have I left it?

Continue reading

A Ukrainian city on the brink of disaster breathes a skeptical sigh of relief

MARIUPOL — The sounds of war began yesterday afternoon as a whisper. Today the concussions of artillery and rocket fire rattled windows in Mariupol.

It seemed for a while that all was lost, and the pro-Russia rebels were poised to break through the Ukrainian lines and overrun the city. People were packing as much as they could into their cars and fleeing. Restaurants were shut down. The streets grew empty.

And then, as if ripped straight from the pages of All Quiet on the Western Front, the sounds of war went silent. A cease-fire had been signed.

Passing drivers honked their horns. People cheered in celebration and strangers hugged each other. It was like New Year’s times a million.

In Minsk, Belarus — more than 700 miles north of Mariupol — Ukrainian and Russian politicians reached a deal to stop the fighting. And then, in an instant, armies of young men stopped shooting at each other.

The absurdity of war.

Tonight I’m back in that same seaside bar from a few nights ago. It’s another beautiful night with an easy breeze. I’m drinking beer again, and the same awful techno covers of American songs are on the radio. It’s as if the last few days are imagined.

But I can’t stop thinking about what tonight could have been like.

Continue reading

Forget nukes — Propaganda and shame are terrorists’ WMDs of choice

My latest article for Blue Force Tracker:

There are a lot of horrible stories from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. My little brother, former Air Force Capt. Drew Peterson, told me one of the worst I’ve yet to hear.

He was riding in a convoy from Bagram Air Base to Kabul during a deployment to Afghanistan in August 2010.

This particularly dangerous stretch of road was known as “suicide alley” due to the frequency of Taliban improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. Most of the IEDs along suicide alley were physically connected to detonators by a thin copper “piano wire,” which, unlike IEDs remotely controlled via cell-phone, made them immune to jamming.

These hard-wired IEDs, however, required greater precision out of the attacker to time the explosion to passing vehicles.

So the best defense against attack was to drive fast and not stop. Not for anything.

“The Taliban would do anything to get us to stop,” Drew said. “But as soon as you stop or open your door, you’re dead.”

Drew was sitting in the back left seat that August day, behind the Afghan National Police (ANP) officer driving the Toyota Tacoma, which was the lead vehicle in the convoy. There were two other people in the cab, as well as an ANP officer in the back bed of the truck manning an AK-47 assault rifle.

Suddenly, there was the high-pitched squeal of brakes and the deep bass thump of impact. Drew instinctively turned to look forward, only to see a young girl, maybe five or six years old, split in two over the hood of the truck. “Half her body went over the truck, half her body went under it,” as he described it.

There was a lot of blood.

People inside the truck were yelling and cussing.

The guy in the front passenger seat was screaming, “Go, go, go.”

“We just ran over a fucking kid,” someone else said.

The Afghan driver fought through his instinct to stop the truck — he knew this was no accident.

The driver later explained that he saw a man kick the young girl into the road. This was a common tactic used by the Taliban to try and coax NATO and Afghan government convoys to slow down or stop so they could be destroyed by an IED or an ambush.

But the driver didn’t fall for the Taliban’s ploy, he punched the gas and kept the truck moving, thus saving the lives of my brother and everyone else inside from the Taliban ambush that was sure to follow, but never came.

“It fucked with our heads,” Drew later said. “But I’m sure if we stopped, they had some plans for us.”

Just to reiterate — the Taliban deliberately kicked a child in front of a truck to set up an ambush.

Such barbarity has the secondary effect of wounding the souls and consciences of the troops who witness such things.

Four years later, Drew’s sentences sometimes trail off as he explains that day, his mind replaying images and sounds for which there are no words.

“It definitely makes you question whether we are doing more harm than good over there,” Drew said. “Who are these people, the Taliban? These are not human beings. There is no bringing these people back. And if they are willing to do this to win, there is no bomb that can defeat that. How do you destroy someone that doesn’t care about being destroyed?”

Continue reading