I first heard about Yara Arts Group over a decade ago, when I read about its founding director, Virlana Tkacz, traveling to villages deep in the Carpathian mountains to record ancient pre-Christian winter solstice rituals and songs. In an essay about her experiences, Virlana writes:
“That day I heard a beautiful epic story about a dashing young man who rides a raven black horse around Kryvorivnia turning down gold and silver, but accepting the hand of a fine young lady. I also heard one about how the sun, moon and fine rain come to visit the mistress of the house. I was enchanted, but puzzled. What did any of this have to do with the story of Bethlehem? Eventually, I learnt that the koliadas are part of a winter ritual that now coincides with Christmas, but is much older in its origin, traditions and symbolism.”
The weaving together of past and present, the magic of songs and stories passed down from generation to generation, the ways that myth and folklore resonate with current events…these are ideas I am passionate about and themes I explore in my writing, so I was fascinated with Virlana’s research:
“I was struck by how many of the rituals we witnessed were attempts to bring together the present with the past and to create a greater community that would include all the living (both human and animal), the spirits of the ancestors and forces of nature. All would have to come together to create the next harvest and a bountiful future.”
I have been wanting to see one of Yara’s Koliada winter performances ever since. I was so excited when my trip to NYC last weekend coincided with Yara’s “Winter Light” piece, which wove together Koliadnyky (winter song singers from Kryvorivnia, Ukraine), an 18th century Baroque Nativity folk opera, and scenes from the current crisis in Ukraine.
Created and directed by Virlana and performed by an excellent ensemble, the hauntingly beautiful vignettes blended the magic of the ancient winter rituals with the drama of recents events in Ukraine.
This montage (taken from different performances) will give you a taste of the music and songs from the Carpathians:
In 2015, Yara Arts is staging “Dark Night Bright Stars” at La MaMa based on the meeting of beloved Ukrainian poet/artist Taras Shevchenko and African American actor Ira Aldridge. In 1858, Shevchenko had been released after a 10-year imprisonment (his poetry was critical of the Russian Tsar) when he met Aldridge, who had left the United States to perform Shakespeare in Europe and Russia. The two men became close friends, and Shevchenko drew Aldridge’s portrait:
The piece is described as “multilingual and is about communication beyond language.” I love to see the ways that Virlana and Yara Arts breathe life into Ukrainian stories and traditions, and I hope to make it back to see the “Dark Night Bright Stars.”
We just passed the milestone of 40 days after my Dido’s death. In Ukrainian tradition, this is the time when his spirit moves on to the afterlife, to join my Baba.
Last month, my father and his siblings had to go about the responsibility of preparing my grandparent’s house to be sold.
I’ve grown up with a rich cultural legacy and many family stories, but we never had family “treasures” like other kids I knew. My grandparents left Ukraine during WWII, and they brought very little with them from the Displaced Persons Camps. There were no antiques: no great-grandmother’s rocking chair, no ancestral bible, no great-uncle’s violin.
When my father went into politics and began to acquire a few mementos of historical or cultural significance, it was a big deal for us. These were keepsakes–a word almost reverent because it was rare and new.
My parents would say: Look, here is a photo with the President; you’ll be able to show your kids someday. Here’s a statue your father was given; it will be yours someday.
It was never about acquiring things; it was about building a legacy, something my grandparents had not been able to bring over with them.
However my grandparents, like many of their generation, made up for the lack of keepsakes with the things they themselves made and the rich oral tradition they kept shared. This group of Displaced Persons came to Chicago and built/painted/sewed/baked/engineered with their hands. They created museums, built camps, cultural centers, restaurant, shops, renovated homes, planted trees and flowers. We have a Ukrainian Village in Chicago because of their handiwork (as well as the work of those who came before and after). They got their hands dirty to make a very real foundation–they were crafting a future that connected with their roots.
My sister and I went back to visit my Baba and Dido’s house with my father a few weeks after my Dido died. When we walked in, all the signs of his hospice were gone. On the table and countertops were objects to be disposed of or given to goodwill if no one in the family wanted them. Most of the things were practical everyday objects (kitchen tools for a woman who loved to cook and bake for her friends and family, silverware and dishes from years of entertaining guests) as well as Ukrainian treasures, those things they acquired in Chicago or were given as gifts: wooden handmade vases and plates, paintings and prints, ceramic art and dishes, pysanky, and probably the most precious: those things made by my Baba’s own hands: her embroidery, her pillows and handkerchiefs, her pavuky (straw mobiles).
I felt compelled to have something my Baba used in the kitchen, something she would have used all the time that I could also use: a rolling pin, a cookie cutter, as well as a set of four wine/cordial glasses. My Dido loved to garden, and so from the garage I have a gardening hoe that he made.
It was an odd experience, going through their things in such a way. It got me thinking about what we acquire in our lives and our homes, what we will will leave behind, what we really need.
This week my aunts and cousins came over to teach me and my kids how to make a traditional Ukrainian “pavuk.” As long as I can remember, my Baba had these strange straw mobiles hanging in her home.
I think because they were made with drinking straws and blue and red yarn (or whatever colors she had on hand), I assumed it was a craft she came up with on her own. Then a few years ago, my aunt told me that the “pavuk” is actually an ancient Ukrainian tradition. Using drinking straws and yarn was my Baba’s spin on the traditional handicraft, because actual straw was not readily accessible in Chicago. I loved learning from them, and I was so grateful that they had learned from her.
It turns out this handicraft is in danger of dying out in Ukraine. Like so many others, it’s an old ritual that’s being forgotten. Traditionally, the straw was taken from the final harvest, like the straw collected for the didukh (a bundled sheaf of wheat that embodies the spirit of the ancestors and the reminds us of Mother’s Earth’s bounty).
The Pavuk (“spider”) is a mobile that would also be crafted from straw. It would be hung in the home for the winter season. Out of the chaos of these random pieces of straw , they would cut and craft diamond shapes strung together to make a delicate hanging mobile. Some say the name comes from patterns like a spiderweb, others saw that the hanging mobiles themselves are like giant spiders. Either way, it’s a wonderful name and tradition, since spiders are cherished in Ukrainian culture as messengers, harbingers of good fortune.
The pavuk would absorb the negative energies and then get burned on the Feast of the Epiphany. Some believed that they should be left hanging in the home to attract good luck for the family. Some moved it to the barn to bring fortune and health for the animals. Either way, the pavuk reminded the family of the bounty of the harvest through the cold winter days.
Our ancestors wanted to bring beauty into the home, and so they did so by adorning their objects (sacred or everday) with symbolic beauty: inlaid wood or carvings, embroidery, or painting. They also crafted gorgeous objects out of gifts from the natural world, like straw and wood. Objects of hope in times of darkness.
Winter has historically been a time when people turned inward, became more contemplative. With snow on the ground, they could not toil in the fields or hunt in the woods. They were forced to remain indoors, living off all they had preserved, spending their time making things for Spring, telling stories, playing games, remembering. The land appeared dead or asleep, and starvation was a real threat. All around them were signs of how fragile life can be.
I wonder if many of us are so busy and detached from nature that we forget about how fragile life is and how natural death is?
This Winter I have been less social than usual. I’ve had a a few adventures (and I’ll write about in the next blog entry), but I’ve spent more time in the house with the kids, quiet time with family and friends rather than large parties and robust celebrations.
Hanging in the air is a feeling of solemnity rather than celebration. It’s not sadness exactly, but it’s reverence–an awareness that our lives are changing, that we are shifting into a new chapter. The matriarch and patriarch of my father’s family are now our ancestors. My father and his siblings are the heads of their respective households. The legacy is being passed down in stories and keepsakes. We say their names and share their stories to remember, we use their mug or rolling pin or favorite vase to feel closer to them.
There’s also something else, at least for me. I think with my Baba and Dido dying, I feel my own mortality a little more. It makes me think about whom and what I will leave behind, the stories yet untold, the lessons I hope to impart, the objects I will pass along, the things I make with my hands.
After this past year, death feels more intimate. I now have friends and family on the other side, and I plan to keep the connections strong. In Ukrainian we say Vichnaya Pamyat, which means Eternal Memory. What is remembered, lives on forever.
So I put up their photos, and I talk to them. My father visits the cemetery and brings flowers, blessed bread from church, a kiss. Several of us cousins carry Baba’s handkerchiefs in our pockets and purses. Our children hug their Pra-Baba’s (great grandmother’s) embroidered pillows at night and look for Baba and Dido to visit in their dreams. We share stories, and we teach each other the lessons we have learned from them.