A Zig Zag Confusion by
(152 Stories)

Prompted By Refugees

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A woman holds a child in a paint-scabbed bunker beneath a burning steel mill. She is surrounded by children made oblivious by trauma. I try to imagine the shock waves from exploding bunker buster bombs that must travel through the reinforced concrete and steel floors and collapsed factory roof above her head. I can’t imagine the magnitude of the shock waves. She would like the soldiers to stop bombing them so she and her children can survive to become refugees.

A young woman dressed in blue jeans and parka, a fluorescent-orange knit cap embracing the fragility of her head, pushes forward, scuffed boots sturdy. A North Face backpack sits square on her back. In her left hand she grips a cat carrier. On her right shoulder she carries a shaggy dog, a big long-haired mutt who rests its chin on her back. She, the cat, and the dog are walking toward nothing but the straight line of a horizon.

An old woman, wrapped in a silo of coat, scarves, and blankets, shuffles her swollen feet along a sagging plank, a fast-flowing stream roiling inches beneath the makeshift bridge. Her mittened hands are extended, held in the gloves of a young, helmeted, flak-jacketed soldier, walking backwards leading the old woman to nowhere.

A mother with a chubby child, bundled in a down jacket presses her free hand against a train window. Outside and below her, a grizzled young man in a leather coat reaches up and presses her hand through the glass, condensation forming around the pair of matched hands, digits spread. The train jerks into motion and the young man moves his hand with her hand as the train gathers speed, heading somewhere. The men all stay behind to fight. I have no way to know how each man, each woman, each child, feels about this sudden separation.

I know nothing of these people except that, unlike so many displaced persons, they look like me, white-skinned, brown- or blue-eyed. They even dress like me, in familiar parkas and knit watch caps, hair gathered, clipped short, or braided, not shaven. At the train stations, few of them cry. I see no regret. They smile with strong, set expressions that I can only read as the clarity of people with no options beyond what they are doing in the moment, people with nowhere else to go from wherever they are leaving to the void they face.

I have no personal experience with which to gauge the refugees’ thoughts and feelings, their dread, anger, or resolve. My wife’s ancestors fled Cossacks and pogroms in the same land these refugees are leaving and arrived in America over a century ago. My mother’s ancestors came to America from England nearly four hundred years ago. My father’s ancestors came to America from Bavaria during the famine of 1849.

I have never had my home bombed into splinters, watched my mother or sister raped or murdered. I give what I can, but the barrage of today’s images and stories flood over me in a chaotic torrent or explode, digging craters of rage, horror, and helplessness. Despite my lack of experience, I once again carry a hollow, boundless sadness and a zig-zag confusion that pits pathos against empathy.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

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Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    You are right, Charlie. We are the lucky ones who haven’t been displaced by the terrors of war or pogroms, famine or other hardships, unlike our ancestors who sought out this “golden land” for opportunity and freedom. I, too, watch the news and read the reports with disgust, grief and a sense of helplessness, tempered by the zig-zag you speak of. A world away, a mad man destroys a country and its people for his own cruel vanity.

    Yet, hampered by the divisions within this country, our intake of refugees has been slow and chaotic. Our own country seems on the verge of sinking into autocracy if people don’t wake up and hold the liars and cheats accountable and turn off the media that profits from those lies. Increasingly scary times everywhere.

    • Increasingly scary, and possibly part of a protracted effort to rebuild the union of the soviets, so many of which are now independent nations. I spoke of the emotional toll its taking on us all — the outrage at injustice, the inroads of our own war against autocracy at home. It’s sad and threatening at the same time. However, I’m optimistic on both fronts. Putin is probably ill, and altho the Kremlin can continue without him, Ukraine is very strong and Europe is aware of the stakes. Macron won over LePen big time. Let’s see if Finland joins NATO. But we’re going to be fighting this battle for a long time. How do we cope?

  2. Dave Ventre says:

    Recent rumors of Putin being very ill have elicited some nasty schadenfreude in me. Hoping it’s painful, terminal and immediate.

    • Couldn ‘t agree with you more. He looks terrible, full of steroids, Parkinson’s symptoms. But where does the Kremlin stand with this push to re-Sovietize Eastern Europe? Couldn’t wish his fate on a worse human. Makes me wonder how long Trump is going to last with his steaks and diet cokes.

  3. A nice bit of reportage on what it’s like to be here in the USA, with one’s own vague memories of ancestors who once fled their homelands, watching today’s refugees on the move. I like that you avoided drawing any grand conclusions or the expression of strong opinions, and just let the reader sit with your observations and reflections.

  4. Marian says:

    A beautiful essay about the world of a people collapsing, and their moving forward, one tentative step at a time, to what they don’t know.

  5. susanrubin says:

    A detailed and beautiful portrayal of this awful situation. Thanks for being poetic and sparing us the gore that we see nightly on TV. Your compassion for Ukraine is more helpful than (necessary but soul smashing) photos.

  6. Thanx for the visceral images in your moving story Charles.

    We empathize and we donate to humanitarian causes,, but mostly it seems we stare at the TV news and rage helplessly.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    This is such a searing and perfect descriptions of the images we see on a daily basis on television. I wonder how they manage to survive as refugees going to unknown destinations. So tragic and unimaginable to be in their shoes. What will Putin do with the land he has leveled to the ground? Pure evil.

  8. Khati Hendry says:

    Your descriptions of images from the Ukraine are told with deep observation and respect. I thought I recognized some of them, and you described so well what they represent in human terms. As others have noted, we feel our own vulnerability as events we never thought we would see come to pass here (really? a coup?).

    • There are some alarming parallels here, and some real differences between our very real but particular crisis. It’s been a long time since the Cold War and our involvement overseas in Korea and Vietnam and dozens of other conflicts between democracy and autocracy, seen Nixon fall, Iran-Contra unfold, watched a Cheney fabricate a war around an exceptional September event, but I’ve never experienced internal rot like this. I have a gut feeling that — as we watch Putin deteriorate on his throne — we will see the second infamous McCarthy be killed and eaten by his own kind in a Washingtonian Lord of the Flies.

  9. Susan Bennet says:

    Very evocative, Charles. Thank you.

    I don’t know if you saw V. Zelensky’s video played when he addressed Congress. Images of the splendor of Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine dissolving into images of rubble and smoke. It is excruciating to have to watch this from afar. I so admire the courage of the Ukrainian people and hope for their deliverance.

    • Thanks, Susan. No, I did not see Zelensky’s video address to Congress. I’ll certainly search for it, or if you have a link… would be much appreciated. I am full of hope and am busy gathering evidence of tactical and strategic good news as regards this hideous David v Goliath invasion. To repeat, I am hopeful although I believe we’re in for a long haul… even from afar.

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