Monday, December 27, 2004

A Midlife New Year's Eve Love Story

A short story by Zinta Aistars

This was that most dangerous of nights — New Year's Eve.

The end of one road, the beginning of another. It was, in truth, a pause in the road that for some time now they had shared. Both of them had long walked separate paths, or paths alongside others. There had been adventures and misadventures, passing loves and broken hearts, soul mates, real or imagined. Ex-husbands and wives, pretend partners, borrowed lovers, perhaps even the occasional buddy with benefits. Yes, by now they had reached midlife. Or something a bit beyond.

Still, they had love between them. The sort that one walks, not falls, into. Cautious step followed by cautious step, at times taking one backwards, at other times to one side or the other. Not "in" love, he lectured, but oh, this will do. If not quite settling, then a heart-cozy settling in, leaving old bruises fading behind, slow smoothing of rough and broken edges in their passing, a comfortable shimmying into common place of common ground and shared memories.

By now, see, everyone else had left. Or had been left behind. Paths had circled, zagged, split, and gone on in opposite directions. At those places where all others had gone, where they had found themselves standing (again) alone, they had finally turned — and found each other.

So he was a little banged up.

So she was a little baggy around the hips.

So they were a bit prickly around the edges, lost a degree or two (or several more) of youthful fire, no longer blissfully naïve. But in exchange, here, now, had entered a kind of weathered wisdom born of age/experience/trial and error/accumulation of blatant mistakes. It took a moment to recognize.

When she first looked at him, and admittedly she had to look twice for her eye to learn to linger, she saw the silver gleam of his hair. Beckoning touch. She saw the off-center plump and almost delicate curve of his upper lip. Beckoning nibble. She saw the reading glasses slip to the tip of his thin nose, pale green eyes squinting above their rim to study her, and suddenly, at last, there it was, that weakness just behind the knees. She saw the swagger, first rate Duke, of his gait. She would follow then, shrugging lightly, giving in.

What he saw, who could tell? It could be difficult even for him to say. She was nothing like those who had gone before her. She was not the one he would notice upon entering a smoky bar, maybe the second, maybe not at all. She would be deep in conversation with someone else. She would be wearing suede clogs instead of stilettos. Instead of blonde Farrah wisps in a prearranged tangle, her chestnut hair would be braided to fall loose down her back, an untangling rope. Gray would already be showing at her temples. Her curves were too time-softened for his appreciation for perfection, her breasts that had suckled children decades ago too heavy for one palm to cup. A jagged scar, he would later find, marked her shoulder as testimony of her life before him.

How perfectly imperfect they were. And so, a good fit.

He was a wordsmith; she strung words like pearls. They understood each other, better than either let on. They understood even more as the years logged on.

Marking yet another New Year's Eve side by side, they uncorked champagne before midnight, lit matching cigars, popped buttered popcorn, and dropped a rented movie disc into the player's extended shelf. Another evening home.

It was the warmth of her thigh pressed alongside his when couch-tatering (as she called it) that woke something sleepy and fast warming in him. He watched the opening scenes of the movie, eyes ahead, but the warmth seared him, his leg. He shimmied a little closer, dropped a casual arm around her. Her shoulder settled into the curve beneath his. The soft side of her breast, warm too, pressed into his ribcage. He glanced over, down, to see her drop a popped kernel into her open mouth. Her buttered fingertips, still pressed together into a rosette, gleamed in the flickering movie light. A tongue tip forgot itself in the corner of her mouth, pink, moist, sweet. A momentary innocence of the once-child, a borrowed memory that moved him unexpectedly: this gray-templed woman once a girl he never knew. He tightened the circle of his arm. Something tickled in his groin.

The next kernel popped from her fingers into his mouth, the very tips brushing across his lips. Butter scented.

He watched the movie, she watched it, every so often glancing up at him. Her occasional smile, that crinkling at the corners of her eyes, quick gleam of teeth between opened lips, made his heart swim, gone loose from its tether. She was his Home. After all these winding paths, full of pitfalls, her being here under his arm, knowing too many of his secrets, so many he could sometimes hate her, but couldn't, wouldn't, because still she stayed. He thought, yes, Home.

His cigar had gone out, neglected too long, mind distracted, even while the smoky flavor still lingered in his mouth. Her hand had wandered under the blanket covering both their laps and began tracing lazy circles on his leg. He couldn't remember anyone before her.

Champagne fizzed in two glasses. It was not yet midnight. Scenes on the screen blurred like lives speeding up and approaching the final cut, the one that mattered and made all else make sense.

Circles skittered across his lap. Rows of them. Dancing pirouettes. Smooth, long glides. He was on low simmer, heat rising. She pulled the blanket higher. Pressed into him, head falling to his chest. They were so often more talk than play, two wordsmiths honing their mutual craft, discussing, debating, splitting the hairs of their wordy passions.

But it was New Year's Eve, with too many gone before them, too many champagned eves that no one remembered anymore. This one was becoming a pleasing pattern, sneaking in under the door the way it had, and it had a different flavor.

This was play.

Her shoulder leaned into him. Her breast. That ample softness like no other. His mind saw her breasts behind closed lids, familiar shapes, darkened pink into wine of a taut nipple, a hard button in his palm. His tongue remembered.

Her fingers stroked. Outlining that same memory on him. Stroked, the growing length of him, stroked achingly slow. The movie flickered across the screen. Scent of cigar wafted in the air. His bones felt liquid in his chest. He flicked a plump popped corn from his lap with a snap, watching it roll across the floor. She took no notice. Her eyes were closed. Her own palm smoothed, kneaded, warmed the seam of his jeans where it crossed with another seam, at his very center. Behind her closed eyes, she saw him — the seam of him, the straightened and the curve of him, the strength and the most vulnerable of him. His need. That want. The part of him that was now hers and hers alone.

She softly spoke his name. His eyes fluttered open. As if from dreams. Only this was real. Real as in past the middling of life, real as the sheen of butter on her cheek, real as the silvering of his hair, real as the up and the down, the rollercoaster of this heart-bruising love they had backed into, momentarily caught off guard.

She loved him. He could see it in the crinkling of her smiling eyes, suddenly swimming in tears. It wasn't the happy ever after of a rented movie. It was theirs, their ending and beginning again, their slipping from the couch cushions to the blanket on the floor, hand molding to breast, mouth pressing to mouth, bone of his hip settling into the curve of her pelvic bone in a practiced move, just so, and his body knew how to move against and into hers like a thousand times before. He swallowed hard at the knotted secret he held so tightly inside. That he loved her too, and loved her well, like the mother sister wife daughter friend he'd never had, never known how to keep. His very own. His last. It was a protest of raw need in him, pelting him into her, to join in their dance, one more time, once more, ever more, without end. One. Hot. January. As the morning of the brand new year washed over them, gasping old secrets into each other's arms.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Cross-country Trail - Riding the Rails from Kalamazoo to San Francisco

A travel essay by Zinta Aistars

Published in Encore Magazine, November 2001 and online at coilMagazine in January 2002, again on River Walk Journal in Sept/Oct 2004.

The Amtrak train hisses, chugs, jerks momentarily forward, then settles into impatient stillness. People press down the aisle, carrying luggage, backpacks hanging over their shoulders, eyes scanning seats for an open spot. I hoist my bag, holding my sunglasses in my teeth, and keep close behind Joe, fellow writer and my companion on this journey.

We find two seats still open, but not together. A quick request for a trade with the amiable gentleman beside Joe, and we have rearranged ourselves to sit beside each other - and I am eager to hear Joe's response as the train shudders once again but remains at a steaming standstill.

It is because of Joe's white-knuckled dislike of flying that we have decided to travel cross-country by train instead of by plane. Boarding at Kalamazoo, our final destination is San Francisco. If our decision to ride the rails instead of skimming the clouds began out of a dislike for air travel, I was soon convinced this was the greater adventure. We have only one transfer - in Chicago. Following that, we will be riding number 5, the California Zephyr, across the Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and the desert, until we finally reach the Pacific coastline.

The train sighs, chucks, trembles, and at last jerks into motion, gathering speed. The train station on Rose Street in Kalamazoo is quickly behind us. We roll past Kalamazoo College to our right, Western Michigan University to our left, and Kalamazoo is gone, mere memory behind us.

The seats are full, many by students already having boarded in Ann Arbor. Many are Chicago-bound shoppers, planning to catch a train home again by end-of-day. Our journey, however, will require nearly three days before pulling into Emeryville, our end of the line.

"I hope the entire trip isn't this crowded," I voice my concern to Joe. People around us chatter with each other, across aisles, rearranging limbs and belongings, snap open newspapers, peer through dusty windows. A train attendant sways down the aisle, checking tickets.

One small town, another, another. Before the finish of the third hour, buildings and houses begin to come closer together, empty green spaces convert to brick and stone, and skyscrapers rise against the horizon. We arrive in Chicago.

A momentary break: we emerge from the bustle of the train station for a few hours before boarding the California Zephyr. The sun is blindingly bright, the air sears with heat. Light glimmers off the windows of skyscrapers, and the city streets pulse with life. We blend into and lose ourselves in this frenzied stream of life, for a short while only, before we reenter the station to board our next train.

What a pleasing surprise: the California Zephyr is a long train (13 cars) pulled by three locomotives with cars of spacious double tiers. There is also a dining car and an observation car that consists almost entirely of windows - sides and ceiling - for passengers to take in passing scenery. At the front of the train are several sleeper cars for passengers wishing the comfort of narrow beds and privacy on their ride westward - at a price.

Joe and I settle with a contented sigh into our seats. These will be ours both night and day. Similar to recliners, a bar extends for resting our feet, and there seems plenty of room to stretch out in comfort. Certainly this is more spacious than any seat on an airplane. Three days and two nights in these seats? Why not? Three days next to each other without the luxury of showers? Sure. Unable to walk away from each other for any length of time should we tire of each other's constant company? Hmmm. I eye Joe. He looks at me and winks. I smile. Undoubtedly, by the end of this journey, we will know each other much, oh much better than when we began…

I write in our shared travel log:

"Somewhere west of Chicago… with a passenger kitty corner behind me about to get backhanded if he doesn't stop sucking his teeth. Chicago just around the station was city garbage and mess, postage stamp lawns, dilapidated houses with boarded up windows - from the tracks we are seeing the underbelly and backside of the city. The farther we travel, the lawns stretch longer and wider, greener and cleaner. The windows are glass instead of board, and the houses sprout extensions and additions and expansions, telescoping themselves into suburbia."

As we near the Illinois state line, the train slows for a moment in Galesburg, yet another tiny town that might be missed by blinking too long. This town, however, has its claim to fame painted in large letters on the side of a brick building: "Hometown of Carl Sandburg." Nondescript. Not a feature worth remarking upon but for two slender white church spires spearing the sky. How could such an unremarkable town have bred such a remarkable poet? Perhaps it is just this nondescript quiet town that infused Sandburg's words with such a warm glow of home that seemed to apply to each of us, no matter where one resides.

During the evening hours, we cross the Mississippi and enter Burlington, Iowa. Joe snaps photos; it is his first viewing of this expansive river. Indeed, all of this countryside is new to his eyes. Having traveled widely most of my life, I enjoy watching my travel companion's enthused responses to all that he sees; it is almost as if I too were seeing the wonders of our country for the first time.

In our travel log:

"Thus far, a comfortable ride. This might well be an addictive style of travel. The passengers have withdrawn quietly into their own thoughts; only a few spots of soft conversation drift down the aisle. The train has been booked full since Chicago, and the few seats that open up at various small Midwestern towns immediately fill again. At each stop, our train attendant, a tall thin man in his mid to late forties named Curtis, makes his way adeptly up and down the aisle checking the tickets of new passengers. His walk, accustomed to the jolt and bump of the train, has a boyish bounce to it that we soon learn is reflected in his personality. Between stops, he leans against one seat, then another, checking on the welfare of the passengers in his car, telling stories of his own travels that stretch over two decades."

At dinnertime, we try out the jerk and sway ourselves. We amble down aisle after aisle, from one car to the next, making our seemingly drunken way to the dining car. When the train gives a jolt, we tumble in sudden intimacy against the nearest passenger, making quick smiling apologies, and then right ourselves to amble onward.

In the dining car, we are led to a table where we join another couple. Space is at a premium, so everyone must share a table. Passengers are called down to the dining car in rotating shifts.

Joe's entry into our travel log:

"Zinta and I are serenaded over excellent dinners and wine by Sweet Pea, the cook in the galley. Although dressed in Amtrak attire, the pewter belt buckle fashioned in the shape of a guitar was a dead giveaway of this young man's musical talent. He later informed us that he'd taken the business card - along with the compliments - of a young woman from California who had suggested he send her a demo. Perhaps we have met and been served dinner by the next Nat Cole!"

Our first evening darkens to deep night as our silver Zephyr winds, unstoppable, down the tracks. The moon bobs from one window into the next, down the length of all the cars, winking and blinking over nodding passenger heads. Baby Jordan, half a dozen or so chairs ahead of us, peeks over the high back of her mother's chair as if counting all our sleepy heads, her own bobbing along as if on a spring - until she sags against her mother's shoulder and drops off into dreams.

Joe and I lean into each other and I settle my weary head onto his shoulder. The train's rhythm is soothing and even. Clack, clickety, clack….

…until morning.

"Lightening sky as we slide even-paced over endless green Nebraska fields, sometimes broken by wheat yellow. John Deere tractors dot the landscape, patiently awaiting their drivers and the day's chores. Hay bales like Hostess Twinkies, secrets in their middles. Occasional small towns are silent. It's still early.

"The night was… no, not as comfortable as a bed, and my body feels a bit of crimping at the base of my neck and between the shoulder blades, but those are small discomforts easily paid for the adventure and discovery of travel such as this."

Facilities, I soon find, are not just bathrooms, much like the tiny cubicles found in airlines, but also a larger community dressing room with seats and two sinks and a wide mirror. I chat with the woman next to me as we do our best to freshen up, feet spread wide to keep our balance over the sinks. We giggle when the train jiggles and her eyeliner and my lipstick take an unexpected loop and curl at the end of the stroke.

Then, suddenly, we are stuck. Arriving in Denver, Colorado, Joe nearly pressing his nose to the window at sighting the first hint of Rocky Mountain crags rising up against the horizon, our train attendant announces the delay. It seems a ruptured sewage pipe in one of the cars has spilled sewage onto a section of a luggage rack. My eyes and Joe's meet instantly. Better not be… we both hiss at the same moment. But there is nothing to be done but climb off the train for a few minutes and stretch our legs, hoping for still clean laundry at the end of the line.

Denver. The mountains are just there, at arm's length. Joe's eyes are glued to the ragged and gorgeous horizon; it is the first time he has seen such mountains. Meanwhile I am lost in my own memories. But three years ago I traveled to this town with my daughter on our last mom-daughter vacation together, pitching our tent in those mountains, exploring this city and Boulder, just north of here and tucked closer into the foothills, where she would attend the University of Boulder-Colorado for her freshman year. I wish I could retrace our steps, wax a little nostalgic, but Curtis warns us to watch the time and not wander away, lest we miss the train as it heads for the mountains. We must simply gaze at the city from the edges of the station, tethered to the rails, forbidden to leave the station.

And then we are going upward, climbing, climbing, circling in loops, snaking in repeated circles, weaving our way up the sides of the Rockies. The air pops in our ears. We rise up to over 9,000 feet.

Joe's entry into our log:

"Magnificent! Never have I seen as much beauty as in these last 18 hours. If the trip up the eastern slopes hadn't already daunted me, the ride down the western slopes - through a number of gorgeous canyons - left me mesmerized. Reds, yellows, greens, and rock formations knit together in shapes and sizes more beautiful than any stonemason could have constructed. As Zinta described it - a cathedral - and I agree. One in which those who choose to travel only by air will never worship.

"We disappear and reappear from a series of tunnels. Traversed the third longest tunnel in North America, at just a little more than 6 miles; I hardly felt the weight of 2,500 feet of rock above us."

I find my one frustration on this train trek is my inability to bring the train to a screeching halt every time I spot a place, a trail, a riverside, a grassy patch where I would like to rest a while, or dig in and explore, or simply contemplate this wondrous country around me. The train's forward movement will not relent. I want to run and play! And yet I cannot. I have my own nose as flattened to the window as Joe's. We are both like frustrated, amazed, mesmerized, restless children.

Our second night folds black around us. The mountains now behind us, the desert on the darkening horizon, we curve our aching backs into our seats. A little grumpy, a touch cranky, we nudge and poke each other into more comfortable positions that do not exist. I hiss. Joe bites. I snarl. Joe growls. We turn our backs to each other and feign irritable sleep.

Morning finally arrives with a dull ache in my shoulder and a light throb that threatens a headache in my temples. We keep losing time as we travel westward, now three hours difference from home, and I am awake earlier than most in our car. This Utah pink sunrise is mine, mine alone, and I am suddenly cheered. All bites and growls of the previous evening evaporate from memory as I gaze blissfully at the otherworldly landscape of rose-colored Utah cliff sides and rock formations. Joe's soft, light snore beside me soothes me, and I am careful not to wake him.

"Bald sandy mountains rounded into gentle slopes, and ground that is often white as snow. Salt? In that tender pinkish light, it is nearly eerie. The slopes so pink, like baby flesh, flushed against the brightening sky. Tumbleweed bunches. No trees. Craggy shrubs, but few. Sand at times covered by stubble, blonde and fuzzed. An occasional old fence post. The morning is full now, flooded with sun. Utah has won me over."

The soft snore halts. My companion is awake, but grumpy. He ambles away sleepily, then brings coffee in two cups from the lounge, a cinnamon roll and blueberry muffin, but holds them out to me to choose.

A second day without showers. We are not pretty. I begin to reach up to smooth a silvery lock of hair fallen on Joe's forehead, but resist the tender gesture. Utah tumbles into Nevada, the desert grows ever drier, ever more barren, and our conversation reflects it. My ankles are swollen from sitting for so many hours. Maybe this whole idea was insane. What were we thinking?

I stare out at the Nevada flat nothingness. I am bored with this barrenness. It annoys me. It grits in my teeth. Ah, my Queendom for a tree! Just one. A single oak flourishing in that emptiness, a willow waving sensuously, a maple applauding its great leafy palms - just one to relieve my eye!

I have nothing to do as we pass through this monotone landscape but write my grumps into our travel log:

"Rough night. Didn't sleep well and brain buzzed and roiled through a series of whitewater rapids in my sleep, but woke to white endless sand. Perhaps it's the scenery of my travel companion I can't tolerate. We talk to pass the time, and somehow go from laughter and amazement and thrill….to spit and stutter and snarl. All kinds of sediment stirred up in me. Journeys. Travel like this is not only a journey across terrain, but simultaneously an inner journey as well. How long have we known each other? Not so terribly long. But we know each other now. Much better, certainly. With so many hours to pass, surely we have talked about everything that two people can talk about, backwards and forwards, and not all of it nice."

The train slows and comes to a stop. A station has appeared in the middle of the Nevada desert, springing up out of nothing. Suede hills roll gently in an arc around us. We have a moment to get off the train, breathe in the warming day, and stretch our stiff limbs. I follow Joe out into the day. We stand for a moment, lost in time. Our eyes meet. Then I am in the circle of his arms, all is forgiven, and wherever we are, I am home.

California invades us like a lush jungle after the dry desert. Palms, citrus fruit, luxurious flowers, drooping heavy on their stems. Towns grow into cities, and highways stretch longer and wider. By day's end, as the sun sets and melts, scarlet, into the bay, the California Zephyr nears the glimmering lights of San Francisco. I grasp Joe's hand and squeeze it, once again the excited child on the brink of discovery.

Well into our third day, two nights, by now nearly five hours behind schedule, we approach our point of destination. From field to town to city to mountains to desert to ocean, we have seen a little of everything. We have discovered the treasure of our own country's landscape, and have ventured into the landscape of each other's inner worlds and emerged - still friends. Friends with a shared, unforgettable experience.

"As after every journey I've taken in my lifetime - and there have been many and varied ones - I am reaffirmed in my belief that there is great value in travel. To remove oneself from one's usual routine, to detach from one's accustomed surroundings and experience newness, strangeness, and otherness - it challenges and stretches the spirit like nothing else. No one understands the very idea and feel of Home as the traveler does. And no journey is only a physical one. Equally or more valuable still, are the inner explorings that must occur on such physical journeys. It has been a fascinating and often revealing exploration of who we are as individuals and who we are in response to one another."

Joe holds my hand tightly as we hoist our bags back onto our shoulders and step out into the breezy evening air of San Francisco. "What do you think," he asks me, "about getting tickets for the sleeper cars on the way back?"

For more information about the California Zephyr, see


Thursday, December 23, 2004


by Zinta Aistars

For the house on the Baltic Sea in the tiny village of Sarnate, Latvia, where generations of my family have been born, loved, have given birth to new generations, have died, but live on in the blood of generations to come.

Published in the October 2003 issue of Poetry Life & Times.

Seven generations accounted for,
the tiny house hunches its stone shoulders
against the cool salted winds of the Baltic,
windows watching with tested patience
the swoop of gulls, the occasional tern,
the passing frame of a familiar figure, glimpsed,
then gone again, like the years,
the generations themselves, of women
watching from those windows,
shutters thrown open, curtains flaring,
their eyes focused on the blue horizon
disappearing in mist, or perhaps tears.
Even as they work, even as they cook their meals,
peeling potatoes, coring green apples,
kneading the soft dough of bread,
even as they nurse their babes to breasts
too long untouched by a man’s callused palm,
they watch – for the return of their mates,
always lured from their honeyed embrace
to that other unknown, to that misted horizon,
to those chests of uncounted gold,
to those women of untasted flesh, fruits
ripened by tropical suns, and the lure
of unfought battles testing muscle and grit
and flaming bravado baptized
by the burn of absinthe and mead,
the madness of dreams that can never be bought.
The house waits. The watchers at the windows
change with each generation, weathered
by the same sea, the same sun, the same salty breeze.
The women walk the white sand of the Baltic,
skirts flaring with the wind, hair tousled and sun bleached,
faces bronzed and eyes lined with the fine
imprint of gazing long against the sun. They bend
to finger each nugget of clouded stone,
rubbing the pad of a knowing thumb
across its wave worn surface, the resin
warming to their touch as they hold it up
to the amber light that will identify
its jeweled and enduring past.
They wear amber necklaces, beads
of amber molded to their fingers,
thick knuckled and gnarled like roots,
knotted amber eyes, clear as sunlight,
golden as honey, dangling from the lobes of their ears,
from wrists, clasped against white linen blouses,
evidence of that which survives
seven upon seven generations, and seven more:
the years of waiting and knowing
the horizon is but a line of dreams,
hopes that palpate the human heart,
the siren call that drives a good man to wander
but a woman to wait, in the wisdom
of seven upon seven generations
to know the virtue of a passing madness
always returns to a horizon seen from the sea,
blue with promise of a tiny house
with stone shoulders hunched against the winds,
and windows framing a face turned towards the sea.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Andy's Eyes

by Zinta Aistars

-for Andrew Wyeth, American painter. Painting above, "Wind From the Sea," 1947

With your eyes I see:
chiaroscuro, shadowdance on the floor,
cat paws of patterned light flickering
across planks, rough hewn and scraped
by a hundred years of faltering steps,
footfalls of an uncomplaining life
worked hard into the wizened lines
of a proud farmer’s face – broad-cheeked
countenance with lips repeatedly kissed
by dusty wind and salt rain.
Curve inside a bowl where a drop
of daylight spills with a splash of unbridled
color, muted rainbow, burnished gold,
a galaxy of hues – umber, burnt sienna,
sand, earth red like old blood,
mud brown - and a speckled hen,
mottled sow with velvety snout,
the hooded eye of a prize bull
contemplating the forbidden taste
of sweet ruffled grass sprouting
against the hard lean of a gatepost.
Where the Brandywine flows
you dip your brush, dreaming worlds
onto canvas, painting breezes of consequence
to the tatter of curtains lacy as spiderwebs.
With your eyes I see
the variegated light of silence
caught in divine perpetuity,
complicity of gods
we dare not question.

Monday, December 20, 2004

It Begins with a Thought...

When genocide against women happens in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Amy Elman, professor of political science at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, does battle to bring Karadzic to justice. Published in Encore magazine, March 2001.

On the wall just inside the third floor office of Amy Elman, associate professor of political science at Kalamazoo College, is a framed arrangement of Nazi symbols on a black background. Stars of David in yellow silky material. An assortment of triangles and varied letters. She explains each one without hesitation, without pause - it is that ingrained in her mind.

"The six-pointed yellow Star of David is well-known," she says. "That was the symbol every Jew had to wear for identification during the Third Reich. But there were many other symbols people were forced to wear." She points at one of the triangles. "Red triangles for political dissidents. Green for criminals. Purple for Jehovah's Witnesses. Blue for emigrants, brown for Gypsies, black for lesbians and other 'anti-socials,' and pink for homosexual men."

Elman narrows her dark eyes at the framed symbols. Her lips are pinched. Her short dark hair falls freely across one cheek, but then she tucks it behind one ear.

"Does it surprise you how many different symbols they used for people? I'll tell you what surprises me. The pink triangle," she nods again at the largest of all the triangles on her wall. First adopted by American gay men in the early 1970s, Elman explains, the pink triangle is now seen as a symbol of gay and lesbian pride and liberation. She asks out loud, "How can you use a symbol of destruction and annihilation for liberation? The willingness to embrace the very symbols of one's destruction reflects an incredible degree of hatred and self-contempt."

These are the kind of questions that torment a mind like Amy Elman's. They give her no peace; they send her on a crusade of rectifying a wrong and educating those who perpetrate the wrongs, and, perhaps even more, the ones who seem to be the blissfully ignorant bystanders to the wrongs. There is no glory in ignorance. There is no excuse. Elman accepts none of them.

Elman teaches her classes in political science and women's issues at Kalamazoo College with a passion for justice and a crusade to awaken the blissfully ignorant. She came to the College in 1991, the same year she completed her Ph.D. at New York University. Her courses range from introduction to comparative politics to comparative revolutions, from women and the western state to the politics of the Holocaust. The Holocaust, at least in part due to her own Jewish background, is her chosen specialty.

"Being Jewish has everything to do with it," she waves a hand. "I grew up in a socially responsible atmosphere. You have to be Jewish to truly understand the Holocaust. You need that grounding."

Yet Elman herself has never been to Israel, has never yet visited the concentration camps in Germany. To speak of it, Elman tenses. Her voice drops an octave, grows more subdued. "I will go, someday I will go," she promises, and she is speaking to herself more than to anyone else in the room. There is no doubt in hearing her that she will. Elman does what she says she will do. The completion of this promise, though, may require some special moment in time.

"I've been in Germany twice," she muses. "First time as a Fulbright scholar. The trip was all paid for… and I called home and asked my family - should I go to Germany? Go! they said. Very strange being there, very strange."

When she makes the journey a second time, she does so in the company of a close and trusted friend, and still, she cannot bring herself to visit the concentration camps. "I know myself well. I know my boundaries," she says. "I feel bad about this, and I should make the trip, I need to do this… and in time, I will."

Elman has never been one to shy away from a cause she believes in. Fueled by her own Jewish ancestry, even though she declares she does not follow the Jewish faith personally, she is aware that her ancestry, her blood, her traditional Jewish upbringing, has made her into who she is: a woman driven to raise the flag for those who are oppressed. More often than not, the oppressed are women.

"I was going to be a lawyer," Elman recalls. "But I went into the world of academia instead - and I don't regret that. Academia traditionally attracts those who wish to transform the world through their ideas and research. But I'm not so sure that it is still that way. Academics sometimes are in danger of too much navel-gazing, too much abstract thinking. We're living in reactionary times. Those in teaching jobs are often poorly paid, less respected than we once were. There's a feeling that now you have to escape to the wilderness to find the idealistic world you seek. But it's really up to us to make our work interesting. It is up to us to make our work worthwhile."

Even while places like New York, Boston, Stockholm feel more like home to the native New Yorker - "I'm an exile in the Midwest!" - Elman feels a deep loyalty to Kalamazoo College. She serves as Chair for the political science department as well as Chair for the Women's Studies Program. She is co-director of the Center for European Studies. In 1997, she was awarded the Florence J. Lucasse Lectureship for Excellence in Scholarship. Author of two books, Sexual Subordination and State Intervention: Comparing Sweden and the United States, and Sexual Politics and the European Union: The New Feminist Challenge, Elman is frequently invited to lecture throughout the U.S. and Europe. Her work has earned her numerous grants and awards.

"The first article I ever had published was about lessons for feminists from the Nazi state," Elman says. Published in 1987 in a journal called Trivia, the article is called "Sexual Subordination and State Intervention." In it, Elman foreshadows what have become ever greater concerns in her academic work - and in her personal battles with the injustices she finds in the world around her. "The twentieth century has witnessed an increase in human brutalities and a decrease in the number of people willing to rebel against them," Elman writes. She states that the proliferation of pornography anesthetized and enabled the sexual oppression of women in the Nazi state. "The role sexuality plays in the suffocation of dissent has received little analysis," Elman's article states. "While, no doubt, the very horror of the Holocaust often contributes to a paralysis by despair, there are numerous scholars interested in accounting for its occurrence. Most, however, have attributed the appeal of fascism to economic, social, and psychological factors. The sexual appeal of anti-Semitism is often either completely overlooked or quickly dismissed. The sexuality of anti-Semitism is rooted in the way in which sexuality is structured under male supremacy. It is detached from women and men; it is thus experienced as an immensely powerful force beyond one's own control. Hence, the common excuse that men - being the victims of their (biological) sexual drive - have no choice in behaving abusively with sex towards women and girls."

The stage is set. "It all begins with a thought," Elman says. "Just a thought. And it is a mistake of immense proportions if we, as a society, do not take these thoughts seriously. There is a connection between thinking and acting."

From a thought begins action, and action can lead to violence, and violence can lead to oppression, and oppression can lead to genocide.

Elman speaks often about this connection and the need to be aware of it. Her work leads progressively along each of these steps: the thoughts, the actions, the violence, the oppression, the genocide. She deals with each step - and she has recently dealt with the whole. After years of work in the classroom, at national and international conferences, at public lectures, and in published articles, Elman has argued against the lack of understanding that allows prostitution, domestic violence, inequality among the genders, pornography to exist and even prosper - and that all can eventually lead to a holocaust against women.

Does she realize that such a view might raise eyebrows? She does. Raising eyebrows, Elman feels, may just be a necessity. If raised eyebrows mean opening eyes wider - then she may have accomplished the improved vision that is education.

In 1993, Elman took part in a conference on the dangers of pornography at the University of Chicago Law School. The gathering of women - feminist leaders, professors, lawyers, and others - argued that pornography was not an outgrowth, however distasteful, of first Amendment rights, and for that reason to be tolerated, but the direct result of oppression and forced prostitution. The panel's approach to pornography was to treat it as a civil rights issue, instead of as a first Amendment issue. A result of such views was that Elman found herself, called by some a radical feminist, pitted against other feminists who defend the use of pornography as nothing more than another "freedom."

"Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice," says Elman. If libel, sexual harassment, and criminal threats can be considered legally outside of first Amendment rights, then why not pornography? she asks.

It was at this same conference that Elman found a strong ally in her views. A spokesperson for the regulation, if not prosecution, of the use of pornography, was Catherine MacKinnon, law professor from University of Michigan.

It had been MacKinnon who, at an earlier meeting with Elman, had urged her to enter the world of academics instead of law. "She dissuaded me from becoming a lawyer," Elman says, "saying that it would be like being a rat in a maze." Ironically, it would be as a lawyer, that Catherine MacKinnon would, just a few years later, play a major role in proving the validity of this very theory in a federal courtroom.

A tragic and nightmarish oppression of women, often with the accompanying use of pornography and forced prostitution, would bring Amy Elman and Catherine MacKinnon into a New York federal courtroom during August, 2000 in the defense of eleven women survivors of Serb rape-death camps.

It is August of 2000, and Amy Elman is in New York City awaiting the arrival of eleven women she has never met before, but who would shortly become eleven of the most vividly remembered faces of her life. She is uncharacteristically nervous. What will she do when they arrive? How will she recognize them? How will they communicate? The eleven women do not speak English and Elman doesn't know a word of Croatian.

The women arrive from various places around the world, emerging from the dark shadows where they have been hidden for their safety, to step now into the stark spotlight of a New York courtroom and into the full view of the public eye.

If these eleven women are unknown to Elman, their tragedy is not. She has followed their stories, their personal living nightmares, for eight years leading up to this meeting. Having befriended a young woman named Natalie Nenadic at a conference called "Prostitution from Academia to Activism," she had learned about the alarmingly escalating incidents of raped and murdered women in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Under the leadership of Radovan Karadzic, Serb troops had built rape-death camps and systematically imprisoned Croatian, Bosnian-Muslim, and Bosnian-Croat women to impregnate them with the purpose of producing Serb children. These eleven women were survivors of such camps.

"I met Natalie Nenadic, who was then a law scholar at the University of Michigan, the day after she had returned from a trip to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. She was still feeling the effects of jet lag. But even more than the jet lag, she was feeling the effects of what she had seen in the country of her own ancestry," Elman recalls. "I was horrified by the stories she had to tell. She was describing something to me that was even more sinister than what I understood about the Holocaust. Women were being raped, tortured, humiliated, murdered in their communities and in front of their families. Held captive in rape-death camps, they were systematically being impregnated to produce chetniks - that is, Serb children, or, future soldiers."

Because the Serbs believe that paternity determines identity, they had created camps to hold the captive women for a minimum of 28 days - to insure a full estrus cycle. The women were imprisoned, raped as many as a dozen or more times a night by groups of Serb soldiers, in a systematic manner until they were obviously impregnated. If they survived at all, they were released only when their pregnancies were nearly full term, and abortions were no longer possible. Once released, the women were homeless, impoverished, traumatized, their families and homes destroyed. Many are still in refugee camps today.

"Women were raped during the Holocaust, as they have been raped and murdered in all wars," Elman says. "But this was not a by-product of war. Women have always been treated as 'loot' in war, as the bounty of the conqueror. It has come to be something that is ignored, even accepted by society. But this was a systematic rape of thousands upon thousands of women, including the very young, still children themselves. That was bringing genocide to a new level of horror, never before experienced."

Survivor testimony had been leaking out from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina for years, but there was a curious silence among the international community that was maddening to Elman. She refused to be a part of that killing silence. Despite a growing number of compelling reports on what was euphemistically referred to as "ethnic cleansing," the United States government in the early 1990s insisted that the war against Bosnia was "a blood feud grown out of age-old animosities," expressing the notion that it was a civil war in which all sides were equally to blame. The State Department discouraged congressional or private delegations from going to the scene and cited a CIA investigation had found no evidence of systematic killing in the camps, only of "unpleasant conditions."

Elman fought her battles in the academic arena, and beyond. She introduced students from her classes at Kalamazoo College to Natalie Nenadic, so that they might hear for themselves the stories Nenadic had to tell. Two of the students, Ivana Ivkovic, also of Croatian ancestry, and Corinne Vorenkamp, would accompany Nenadic back to Croatia to meet some of the women survivors for themselves. Elman herself made trips to the war-torn country, to be a witness with her own eyes to what was happening, and to meet with the women survivors.

"I was very proud of my students," Elman smiles. "When I arrived in Croatia to meet some of the women survivors of the rape-death camps, they were naturally very distrustful of a new face in their midst. I was a stranger. But once I was introduced to them as the professor of Ivana and Corinne, they immediately allowed me into their trusted circle."

Elman's students not only completed research projects on their experiences in refugee camps in Croatia, but would return to Kalamazoo College to speak to the entire campus about what they had witnessed and what might be done to help. Fundraising events from bottle collections to concerts were organized by the College students to assist in bringing financial aid to the survivors as well as to raise an awareness of their plight.

The students would soon graduate, but Elman continued to teach in her classes about the dangers of remaining uninvolved and apathetic to atrocities perpetrated against women in any arena - domestic or international.

When a women's group called Kareta, based in Croatia, helped to organize a group of women survivors willing to testify against Radovan Karadzic and the rape-death camps run by his Serbian armies, a small coalition of women, including Natalie Nenadic and University of Michigan law professor Catherine MacKinnon, filed a lawsuit in New York City called the Rape/Genocide Law Project. MacKinnon agreed to represent the cause of the Croatian and Bosnian women pro bono. They were able to bring a lawsuit against Karadzic in a United States federal court based on the obscure Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, giving foreigners the right to file civil suits in U.S. courts for injuries suffered in violation of international law.

On sabbatical from Kalamazoo College in 1998-99, Elman returned to Croatia and worked with Nenadic and the Kareta Women's Group to make the U.S. civil case against Radovan Karadzic possible. A year later, she waited to greet the women survivors to give testimony in the case in New York.

"Then they arrived," Elman takes a deep breath. "Women with small bags or duffels in their hands, they had hardly any belongings at all, not even real shoes on their feet, but only thongs… yet they had such incredible strength and dignity. Some huddled their children, also victims of the camps, close beside them."

Elman describes the women with a reverential voice. These are women of remarkable courage, willing to give testimony at a time when their rapists and tormentors were still in power in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, she says. These are women who survived atrocities that test the limits of imagination. Their bodies are broken and ravaged, their families have been destroyed, their homes pounded into dust. Still, they arrive in a country they have never seen before, to give testimony in a court held in a language none of them speak. Only one of the women has any English skills.

"Oh, but we found ways to communicate," Elman says. "Gestures, expressions. You understand each other. Eyes speak volumes."

Elman secured safe havens where the women could stay during the trial in New York. Upon seeing them, she also realized they would require court-appropriate clothing. Going to battered women's shelters in the city, she was able to find enough clothing that the women would be dressed for the trial.

"To preserve personal dignity was crucial. They had been humiliated enough. To give testimony about what had been done to them would be added humiliation. It was important that they wear clothing that would allow for self-respect so long denied them."

It was also apparent that all of the women suffered one form or another of medical conditions caused by their experiences. Elman set to work finding medical help for each of the women's needs.

"Finding medical care without cost in New York City," Elman shakes her head, "now that was a challenge! Doctors willing to give medical care to eleven women without charging a cent… but I found them." Nothing short of a miracle, it would seem, but medical care was obtained pro bono from internists, gynecologists, audiologists, and optometrists.

When one of the women expressed a desire to hear classical music again - she had loved to play the piano, but had not heard a concert in ten years - Elman readily gave up a ticket to a Mozart concert in Lincoln Center. She took another woman, who had never seen a large body of water, to Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty brought tears of joy to the woman's eyes. A third woman wished to see a holocaust museum in New York, a smaller version of the Washington D.C. museum.

"It was important for her to know she was not alone," Elman says. "She needed to affirm that others had survived the worst kind of atrocities - and that they were remembered and honored for what they had suffered."

Serving as tour guide of the American city, Elman walked with the women through the streets, explaining what she could with gestures.

"At one moment, a motorcycle passed us and suddenly backfired. One of the women immediately froze. In an instant, her entire body was drenched with sweat."

When it was time for the trial to begin, Elman encouraged a third Kalamazoo College student to come to New York and witness the proceedings. Liza Brereton, currently a political science major at Kalamazoo College, joined the professor in New York.

"Dr. Elman has made me aware of the abuses women suffer all around the world," Liza says. "I am much more conscious now of how women are treated, what is appropriate and what is not. What seems like a relatively small thing, in comparison to this kind of genocide of women, I now understand can begin with society looking the other way when a husband beats his wife." About witnessing the trial, Liza says, "I will never forget. There is no textbook that can teach you what you learn by being there. It was the most horrifying two weeks, but I wouldn't give that experience up for anything."

Nine jurors were selected for the trial. A photograph of Radovan Karadzic was taped to a chair, in the spot were the defendant would have been seated if present. An attorney represented him in his absence. The United States District Court of Judge Peter K. Leisure was ready to hear the case.

And then the eight days of testimony began.

Elman understood what these women needed the most from her. They did not share a common language, but they shared a common bond as women, as human beings. Each day, Elman sat where she could be clearly seen by the women as they testified in front of the jury and the public through translators.

"They needed a friendly face in the crowd, a focal point," Elman says simply. "For eight years, they were not believed, or, worse, they were ignored by the international community as they cried out for help. Would they be heard this time? Would their suffering be acknowledged at last? I wanted at least my face to be one among the crowd that did."

One of the women, a Bosnian Muslim, testified how she had been dragged from her home by Serb soldiers, one of whom had been a neighbor from her town in northern Bosnia. She described the men as wearing photographs of the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic pinned to their shirts. The woman, along with her two small children, was forcefully taken to a mountainside shack where she was locked inside and repeatedly raped - with her children present.

Another woman testified that her abductors, as reported in a New York Times article, "slapped me in the face, saying there was nothing and no one to save me, ever. It was their state and they could do as they pleased. There was no way for me to escape."

Many of the women wept as they testified on the stand. One of the women fainted. Another ran out of the courtroom after completing her testimony and broke into sobs in the hallway.

Radovan Karadzic, who had already been indicted for genocide by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, never appeared in the courtroom during the eight days of testimony, but did submit documents that vigorously contested the right to hold a civil trial in the United States for offenses the plaintiffs claimed were committed overseas. He rejected the ability of American courts to sit in judgment on his actions.

"Can you really hope to find truth, or do justice, or protect rights of people in distant lands?" Karadzic writes in his letter, according to New York Times reporter John Sullivan. "Do you really believe that attaching a U.S. dollar sign to human tragedy around the world by empty judgments in uncontested lawsuits is a step towards peace or justice?"

Perhaps a dollar amount attached to human suffering does nothing to erase that suffering, or even lessen it. But after testimony was given by all eleven women survivors, after a short deliberation by the nine jurors, Karadzic was ordered to pay $745 million in damages to the women and to two organizations of survivors that they represented.

"Then something happened that I had never heard of before," Elman says. "The judgment was handed down, the trial was over. The jurors then stood up and invited the eleven women survivors into a back room, where they could talk with them privately. There was a great deal of tears in that back room. And a lot of hugging. That part did not require a translator."

Elman tells of one such embrace that had a special meaning to her as she prepared to leave the Manhattan courtroom and return to her work at Kalamazoo College.

"There was one woman, she was extremely thin, who could not bear to be touched. Not even a handshake. We had all been very careful not to have any physical contact with her whatsoever or she would break down. But when the trial was over and the judge had read the verdict, this woman approached me to give me a hug…"

Elman grows silent. Her dark eyes focus somewhere in the distance. It is but a moment, an instant, and she is back again, her face resolved and calm.

"It is important to emphasize," she says again, "and I cannot say this enough - that all actions begin with a thought. There is a progression in how such things happen. And they can happen anywhere. It is dangerous to think that such atrocities can happen only in some distant and uncivilized country. The Holocaust happened in one of the most civilized countries - Germany - that has ever existed. Genocide can happen in different forms and variations, but it takes seed in a society that grows anesthetized to the abuse of women by allowing the spread of pornography, the media violence against women we view as entertainment, the misuse of symbols such as these pink triangles that were once symbols of destruction, the mute acceptance of domestic violence. It is important that we as a nation have a clear understanding of the workings of fascism. It is important that we fight tirelessly against all forms of bigotry."

Elman has returned to her classroom in the halls of the political science and women's studies departments at Kalamazoo College. She continues to speak at conferences on women's issues both in the United States and in Europe.

"Higher education institutions can do so much," she says. "We have the resources, we have the time, we have the minds. There is a real opportunity to educate not only our students, but society."

While no longer directly involved with Kareta Women's Group in Croatia, Elman does not offer a happy ending to the stories of these women's lives. Many of the women who survived the Serb rape-death camps now face a community in which they are ostracized as "undesirable and damaged property." Many still live in crowded and impoverished refugee camps with no prospect of rebuilding their homes and families.

"Aside from the ongoing suffering of these women," Elman explains, "there is now the new generation, children born of the rapes. Who will love these children conceived in such violence? How will they feel about the fact of their own existence? If the goal of the Serbs was to effectively destroy the Bosnian community through the atrocities inflicted upon these women, they have succeeded."

Elman is thoughtful for a moment, then says: "But violence against women is still a war to be won. Winning, you know, begins with a thought."


by Zinta Aistars

I return from an author's reading panting.
Believing myself to be well fed
until I am given this food -
a smooth grape, shock of sprayed juice
between the clean snap of teeth,
a luscious tart, sugary sweet and sticky,
sour lemon slice forcing surprise
onto my lips like an unbidden kiss.
Suddenly dizzy with hunger.
Must eat, must bite
down hard on words,
sink teeth into the solid meat of consonants,
break open syllables like crisp seedpods,
peel off rinds to expose plump ripened vowels,
dripping with juice,
shucking shells of sentences I have cracked
over my shoulder,
and deboned paragraphs,
filleted then poached to flaky whiteness,
sucked clean ribs
exposed in neat rows
to the white sky of a page,
the rich and promising soil
of a single word.

Winner of First Prize, Kalamazoo Community Literary Awards 2000)


by Zinta Aistars

On the surface—scatterbrained,
skittering thoughts like a dust bunny race,
multiplying beneath beds
(not always my own),
collecting in corners
for a whispery conferring of like minds
and kindred war cries, collections of lost
musings, first impressions, final glances,
over the shoulder and shrugging,
endless parade of comings and goings,
U-turns and turnabouts, fence sitting and jolting,
escape routes and underground tunnels.
The mind is harebrained and stupid with wondering,
or absent entirely,
a skull hollow and reverberating with echoes,
yodeling and a bounce
of one mirrored and remirrored and remirrored sound,
begun at birth, that primal pitch and yowl,
hilltop to mesa to abyss,
wall to wall and sky to earth,
avalanche of loosened pebbles
that, eventually, accumulate
into secret mountains of jagged and ripped loose
summits, those flighty afterthoughts.
Stony perch for the stoned with meditations,
revelations, giddy with epiphanies of ricocheted
reflections, sweet enough for a greeting card.
It is the rumination that makes the man.
Gives him face. Eyes with which to see,
wading pools to a splash of soul, aching chasm
that it might be, bottomless pit and insatiable
appetite—the cup that can never be filled
nor drunk empty.
The scattering of thoughts returning
to form flesh, blood, spirit,
dust bunny of a soul,
held together by the stitching of dreams
and the ever-patient grace of the divine.