Monday, December 12, 2005

Winter Eyes

"Ziema," oil painting by Viestarts Aistars, property of D & S Bowman

by Zinta Aistars

A moment of stillness, silence, of frozen time
with face lifted to sky for its kiss
of slow floating white, melting on warm
skin to a drop, a random tear,
whether from heaven or human eye -
and does it really matter?
Missing your lips, their warmth, their light
brushing over my face, I choose this sky -
its billowing fullness of winter secrets,
clouds low and pregnant with promise
of a flurry that might bury all:
the ache of your absence,
the longing for lips to skin,
the wet now pooling in the corners
of my winter eyes.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Medicine, No Sugar

(Light sculpture by Thomas Haagen)

by Zinta Aistars

Yet a sweet pain, stitched and mended seams of heart
where the rips began. There you touch
now, delicate fingered, clean scrubbed,
where you tore and prodded
before: sharp, with cruel and reckless abandon,
that blood vein that would weaken me most, drop me
to my knees, shoulders sagging, scooped
empty of pulp. You plug that vein shut
with the soft pad of your thumb,
distracting me with your winning smile.
Hurt still? you start to ask, trying hard,
chastised with the knowledge of heedless wrong,
but the fear of reply puts a fist to your mouth.
You want to know without asking,
without suffering the whip
of words, their bloody slash,
drip, and splatter
on your neatly polished floor.
Messes disturb you.
I hand you the mop;
I’ll hold the bucket.
We need the words, the slash exposing raw pink
flesh to bandages, precision stitches pulled taut,
cut places stronger now than uncut.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

The Pacific flares like a silk skirt
rising up Marilyn’s sunbronzed thighs –
edges frilled and foaming lacy and white
over the hips of boulders
rounded and curved
by wave upon wave upon crashing wave
upon endless wave, riding their smooth sides.

Full moon punctured sky overhead,
we lean into each other
on a bench made of unpeeled logs:
watching, listening, hypnotized
by the frill and the fall,
the crash and the rise.

Silent, your hand reaches for mine.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Double Jeopardy

by Zinta Aistars

Be still my silly human heart
at the sweet heat of those animal eyes!
Dog, you disarm me.
I’m left panting, my ear cocked
for the dance and clatter of your claws
on my once unmarred kitchen floor.
Press of your small curved back
against mine all those barren nights
our favorite man is not home.
You lay your furred head on his pillow,
I snuggle in cozy to my own wistful dreams
we both share: of his key in the door.
How can he resist you? the allure
of your cold, wet, grubby nose
nudging his warm palm when it hangs
loose from the arm of his favorite chair,
lost in a book, lost in his human reverie…
you slurp him back to attention,
and we both glory in his sudden laugh.
We both hum in contented pleasure
at the warm scratch and pat of that hand.

Friday, October 07, 2005

To See With New Eyes

by Zinta Aistars

(Published in the September 2005 issue of Encore magazine, Kalamazoo, Michigan.)

"Any weekday afternoon or Saturday you can find them… aspiring young artists rushing past with arms full of tackle boxes and portfolios as they excitedly enter a brightly lit studio…"

—Kirk Lowis, director of SWMVAA

How many tongs on a fork? No fair looking in the silverware drawer. Bring up the image of a fork in your mind. Can you see it? Can you see how many tongs?

"It’s surprising how many people see and yet don’t see," says Kirk Lowis, 37-year-old founder and director of the Southwest Michigan Visual Arts Academy (SWMVAA) in Kalamazoo. "We look at things, at people, at the world around us every day, but we fail to see. The artist is one who has learned to see."

Kirk Lowis teaches very young artists how to see as most do not. Growing up in an artistic family, he never lacked for encouragement to explore his creativity, but when Kirk sought art classes in his school and community, he found very little that went beyond the basics.

"I was a creative kid who was looking for a mentor willing to make a commitment to the developing artist," he says. "Sure, I could find art classes in one area or another. School offered beginning art classes. But I was frustrated that I couldn't find a place to explore art in a long-term and cumulative manner. I swore someday I would do something about it."

Before that someday arrived, Kirk pursued his education. While still in high school, he spent time in England and Wales with a touring theatre company, learning theatre design. After high school, he trained at North Carolina School of the Arts, then transferred to Kalamazoo College where he majored in art.

"At Kalamazoo College, I had to prepare a body of work as part of my graduation requirements. In fact, I did two: one project in performance art and the other an exhibit of paintings. Putting together that kind of body of work helped me to develop my style and find my voice."

Kirk earned his master's in art at Goucher College in Maryland, then returned to Kalamazoo, taking a teaching position at The Montessori School of Kalamazoo. The Montessori method: work autonomously, hands-on, and be an independent thinker.

"Working at the Montessori school was a fantastic opportunity," Kirk says. "The best teaching happens when you are learning yourself. I brought the Montessori method to art, and in 1990, I opened the Southwestern Michigan Visual Arts Academy in the Dewing Building, downtown Kalamazoo. I was ready to keep that promise to myself to fill the void I had encountered as an art student."

Initially, Kirk worked both at The Montessori School and at SWMVAA. The new academy was established as a non-profit school, and for nearly five years Kirk's time was unpaid. He spent his free time looking for students, talking about the academy to art teachers at area schools, putting up posters and passing out fliers. He had no idea how to run a non-profit organization, but he knew that he wanted the academy to be something that belonged to the community. It didn't take long to assemble his first class.

"I was looking for the kind of art student that was not a dabbler," Kirk says, "but someone who shows the right attitude and commitment to developing their art."

Recalling those beginning years, Kirk says, "I suppose ignorance was bliss. I had no idea how little I knew, and so there was nothing to stop me." The school grew quickly, demanding more of Kirk's time. He realized he had to focus on one goal in his life, and so he left The Montessori School to devote himself fully to the academy. As he learned more about the workings of a non-profit organization, he made a decision about relying only on tuition, private donations, and fundraising.

"It's an unusual way to run a non-profit," he admits, "but it's important to me that we answer to the community. In my earlier years of working with theatre companies that relied heavily on grants, I often saw that once grant money dried up, the company folded. But I wanted the academy to be a part of the Kalamazoo community, and for the people of this community to feel like it belongs to them, not one that relies on a grant to function."

Kirk's fundraising motto is: "Never ask a stranger for money." And so the academy opened its doors to young artists of the community, supported by the community, to give back to the community, inviting every stranger to become a friend. First befriended are the students. Offering courses that include painting, figure drawing, advanced drawing, 3-D design, photography, film, sculpture, theatrical design, illustration, Claymation, and art history, classes never have more than six students per instructor to ensure individualized attention. Interested young artists may fill out an application for admission by calling 269.345.7630, or online at . Based on the applications, students are invited to an interview and are requested to bring a portfolio of 15 to 20 recent works. The selected new students may then begin the Foundation semester, which teaches drawing skills and technique, color and design theory. Once completed, students may then choose elective classes to pursue their particular interests. They are placed in classes not according to age, but by skill level.

To befriend the community, Kirk opens the doors of the academy regularly with solo exhibits—every student has their turn—and by participating in Art Hops, a monthly event during which area galleries and businesses open their doors to the public as they exhibit the artwork of area artisans. "Art Hops are a way to get in touch with the Kalamazoo community while giving our young artists their first opportunity to exhibit their work."

Kirk does not feel that SWMVAA competes with public schools with the art education he provides, but that he complements the art classes in public schools. "We are not a replacement, but a supplement. Unfortunately, when schools have budget cuts, the arts are often the first to go, but we can help fill that gap. Art teachers in Kalamazoo know about the academy, and they are often the ones who send students our way."

Fifteen years into teaching young area artists, SWMVAA has now moved to 132 W. South Street, across from the Kalamazoo Public Library. The move, Kirk says, was the greatest challenge the academy had met in its existence, converting office space to school space while trying to keep a regular class schedule. But the rewards of watching SWMVAA grow, Kirk readily acknowledges, are great. "Every student I've been able to help is my reward," he says. "There is nothing like helping a new, young artist develop their own unique style and the confidence to express it. I tell my students the myth of the starving artist dies here. You can find ways to live your dream."

Kirk Lowis, standing in the gallery space of the Southwest Michigan Visual Arts Academy, the walls hung with bright and provocative artwork by his young pupils, is proof of that. How many tongs? He smiles and raises four fingers.

SIDEBAR - Jill Kreling, Young Artist

Jill knew she had "arrived" as an artist when her artwork was censored by her high school principal. "I take every day objects and I try to see them in new and different ways," she says about her art. This particular painting shows a baby doll hanging upside down by a wire tied around its ankle. Aptly, the painting is entitled, "Hanging." Jill's art teacher at her high school was impressed with the painting, and he asked if she would like to exhibit it along with the work of other students.

Shortly after the painting was exhibited, Jill was called down to her principal's office. The painting, her principal told her, would have to come down. The image of the hanging doll was too provocative, it seemed.

"I suppose it makes a person think about child abuse and neglect," Jill muses. "Although I'm not sure why that would be a subject to avoid thinking about."

Jill had been a student at SWMVAA since she had been 10 years old. When she shared her experience with her mentor, Kirk Lowis, at the academy, he was inspired to develop a class for his young art students to learn about issues of censorship, freedom of expression, and how First Amendment rights applies to the arts. The Board of Trustees at SWMVAA drafted a letter in response to the censorship and sent it to Jill's school and the school's board. Even so, the painting was taken down and no acknowledgement was received for the letter.

"I've always felt supported here," Jill speaks of the academy, her smile evidence of her fondness for both the school and its director. Lasting friendships? She lightly jabs a pencil into her mentor's shoulder. Former teachers have become today's colleagues and friends.

Encouraged by her mentor, Jill included "Hanging" in her portfolio when she graduated from high school and applied to art schools. She applied to Cleveland Institute of Art, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbus College of Art & Design, and Minneapolis College of Art & Design. She was accepted to all.

"Hanging" was shown in the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts where it received honorable mention in a juried show. Jill is today a student at Cleveland Institute of Art, where she received a scholarship based, in part, on her portfolio.

The controversial painting now hangs in Jill's bedroom, where it reminds her daily to take risks for her art and always strive to see what others perhaps do not.


Thursday, October 06, 2005

Berry Picking

by Zinta Aistars

We pick words like berries,
avoiding the green and hard ones,
popping the occasional sun-ripened
sweet one
in our mouths, staining lips
the shock color of berry blood.

I bite one between my teeth.
It snaps, splitting skin,
its meat soft mush on the tongue.

I wrote once of hunger.
For words, for the nourishing life sacrament
they bring, feeding the soul,
kicking the wan spirit
in its near death agony
back into life: a pulse,
then another, blip, and blip,
fed with juice and spice
and belief that after death
is new life,
the flavor of sun-ripened berries.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Father Mike's Community of Faith: The Life Sentence of Mike Maslowsky

by Zinta Aistars

When Mike Maslowsky was given six months to live, he realized that being a rising star in the corporate world gave little meaning to a man's life.

Published in the Spring 2004 issue of LuxEsto, the Kalamazoo College alumni magazine.

“…what ever you did for the least…you have done for me….”
Matthew 24:45

How to measure a man’s success? How to gauge the value of a man’s life or define the depth of its meaning?

For Mike Maslowsky ’70, a defining moment came in his early 30’s when he was handed a merciless diagnosis in a doctor’s office: prostate cancer, six months to live. Stunned, he looked at what he had built around him, measuring.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, he was educated in the States and the Far East, his family following his Air Force father to Japan, where he finished high school. Maslowsky returned to the States to attend Kalamazoo College, drawn to the College’s focus on diverse global experiences, majoring in history. His law degree came from Northwestern School of Law. He was a congressional speechwriter in Washington D.C., a law clerk of the U.S. District Court for Oregon, then a lawyer for a prestigious firm in Portland. Success was measured by the size of his client base—banks, hospitals, corporations—and in the hours he poured into his office work. He had been a man dedicated to career, recreation, and pleasure.

Maslowsky was not only stunned, he was embarrassed.

“Some questions cannot be left unasked,” Maslowsky says. “I looked at the life I was told I would soon lose, and I saw how self-centered all my achievements had been. What was there to put into an obituary? I was haunted by regrets and shame. I felt,” Maslowsky takes a slow, deep breath, “shallow.”

Maslowsky was overwhelmed with regrets for all the missed opportunities – “to be a good man, to express kindness towards others. No one regrets that they haven’t worked harder.”

And then: a second chance. News reached him of a misdiagnosis. As suddenly as it was handed down to him, the death sentence had been lifted from him. Maslowsky had gotten a wake-up call, and he had no intention of ignoring it. He now understood his mortality, and he began to search for meaning beyond the courtroom.

“I was raised Catholic, but religion had not played an important part in my life. I realized I had to think seriously about my spirituality. I wasn’t sure I believed in God or the church, but it was time for me to search for answers. I won another large case with my firm’s managing partner, and I should have felt wonderful about it, and yet… I didn’t. Something was missing from my life.”

Maslowsky started to attend church services, and he also took time to volunteer in the community.

“The first time I had to help someone different than myself, however,” he says, “I couldn’t do it.” Realizing the limit of his comfort zone only increased Maslowsky’s determination to expand it. It was a time when his education and experiences at Kalamazoo College would become invaluable.

“One of the most important parts of my education at Kalamazoo College was the K-Plan. My study abroad in Germany, career internships working in the government in Washington D.C., another internship in New York working with the disabled, all exposed and challenged me to examine the parameters in my own life, to look for connections with people where I may not have imagined them to be. I learned a healthy respect for our differences but also our commonalties. At this time in my life, I would have to return to what I had been taught as a young man.”

Maslowsky quit the prestigious law firm and traveled to Rome to spend the next four years in a seminary. The respected lawyer once again became the student.

“I went from being one of the youngest and brightest to, at age 35, one of the oldest and least knowledgeable,” Maslowsky smiles.

Some of Maslowsky’s biggest challenges lay ahead. He was ordained in 1987, served two years as associate pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Salem, Oregon, but then returned to Rome for his doctorate in theology. Back in Oregon, Portland’s then archbishop, William Levada, sent Maslowsky on a mission: assess the St. Anthony Parish, located in one of the poorer sections of the city. Thinking that this parish would have to close, Maslowsky found a basement church with cracked walls and windows, exposed pipes, collapsing ceilings. The property was littered with garbage and discarded tires. The parishioners were few, but passionate about their faith. Impressed with the strength of their faith, Maslowsky determined to not only keep the church open, but to make it thrive.

Although it would take over a decade, the resurgence of St. Anthony’s is nothing short of, well, miraculous. If God helps those who help themselves, Maslowsky knew how to help himself and this parish. Remaining an active member of the Oregon State Bar Association, he would bring his legal and business skills to join with his theology skills to fund, build, and inspire. Together with his parishioners, Maslowsky tapped into his business network, sought financial support from federal tax credits and state guarantees, used his legal expertise in nonprofit housing, and on five acres built a village centered about the church. Today, the St. Anthony Village is a nonprofit, low income housing community with assisted-living units for over a hundred residents, 24 cottages for Alzheimer’s patients, a daycare center for children 4 months to 5 years full to its capacity for 80 children, a series of adjacent gardens, walking paths, a reflection pond, and, at the center of the Village, a new church.

It took $12 million to build the Village. Maslowsky modeled its design after the Italian villages where he studied. European towns were often built around a plaza, and in the plaza, a church. The community came together in the plaza, gathering all generations. At St. Anthony’s Village, where Maslowsky is fondly referred to as Father Mike, the idea is to encourage the connections between individuals as well as between generations.

“No one likes to live in isolation,” Maslowsky says. “The Village is a place that fosters relationships. Here, we focus on the commonalities between us instead of the differences, the hope that we can bring to each other, and the social integration of a community.”

St. Anthony’s Village today has 425 families registered in its church, but the parish operates as a separate entity from the Village. Maslowsky is president of St. Anthony’s Village Enterprises, now with plans for possible similar developments in north Portland, in Corvallis where Oregon State University is located, with a village to include student housing, and in southeast Oregon, providing housing for special needs and young adults with various disabilities and low income housing. Representatives from the archdiocese in Ohio and Georgia are studying the Village as a model for similar villages. About half of the Village residents are Catholic, but church affiliation is not a perquisite for residency. About 80 percent of the residents are on Medicaid.

“Financing has always been difficult,” Maslowsky says. “When the economy is hurting, it affects us as well. But we are a village here, a family, and evicting anyone due to financial problems is not an option.”

When the Oregon Department of Human Services has sent out notices due to budget cuts to Medicaid recipients that their benefits will be cut, St. Anthony’s Village has had to face, and will continue to face, financial challenges. For Maslowsky, he must continually balance being a business man and a parish shepard, bringing out the best of both. Saving the parish once will not be enough; he must continually fight to keep the Village viable.

Maslowsky’s fight for the parish continues, but if he should ever again think himself alone, he has only to step outside of his office and walk one of the paths, towards the center of the Village to the church he helped not only build, but design.

“I’m a frustrated architect,” he admits.

While Maslowsky was the idea man behind the project, the Village church was the first in Oregon history to be designed by a women-owned architectural firm. At approximately $160 per square foot, Nancy Merryman and Diana Moosman built the church to Maslowsky’s specifications, based on the churches he had seen in Italy while drawing on Northwest church architecture for inspiration. The cost was about 25 percent less than a lower-end custom house.

Maslowsky’s wish to have a design similar to hands holding something precious between them resulted in two arcing walls that embrace the congregation while opening to the surroundings. At one end, the walls open to welcome parishioners into a foyer where a simple and elegant sculpture, designed by Maslowsky, centers a baptismal font, illuminated by stained glass windows showing the trinity and the 12 tongues of fire that descended on Christ’s apostles. At the opposite end of the arcing wall are the altar and another stained glass window that spills light and color across the front of the church. A bell tower rises above with one cross that shines towards the busy street just outside the Village, and another cross that shines across the Village.

As he strolls the winding paths of the Village, Maslowsky is Father Mike, greeting everyone he passes, resting a hand on the shoulder of an elderly resident for a moment as he asks about her health, chuckling at a scampering child in the play area of the daycare center, giving direction to a young man working in the gardens, stopping to accept a cookie in the kitchen.

“I used to get irritated as a student at Kalamazoo College at the idea of ‘gracious living,’” he remembers. “But it is perhaps the most important lesson I learned there, if not at that time, a lesson to return to me later in life. I realized life is not about living in comfort, but about rising to the level of the noble, to pursue the good and true , to become richer by the act of giving to others. Life is about the connections we make with other people. Life is about community.”

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Salvo From Treetops

by Zinta Aistars

"Egles," watercolor, by Viestarts Aistars

To look out across the jag and clean cut of mountains,
to be wrapped in the damp cool of vapors and mists,
to be spiked through with treetops, impaled on sky,
heart swinging high and loose against clouds:
Earth blood surges through human veins.
We are the mud and dust of long ago myths,
legends unfolding, carrying
and being carried, bred and breeding,
birthed and birthing the infinite cycles
of a universe without end or beginning,
a story told from the middle and spiraling outward
for time without measure—
waking as She awakens,
sighing when She sighs,
rejoicing when She rejoices,
bleeding Her blood,
dying as She dies,
a silence imploding upon itself,
the mountain inside crumbling to sand,
to dust, to nothing, to less than
nothing, that very moment
when our prayer is said without one palm to soil,
one palm to sky.

Monday, September 26, 2005

How Much is That Doggie in the Window?

by Zinta Aistars

The Fate of Homeless Animals in Kalamazoo. Published in February 2003 issue of Encore magazine. (Photo of Suni catching snowflakes, see sidebars below.)

A din of howls, yelps, barks, whines, and soulful meows rises around me as I enter the room lined with steel cages. In several narrow rooms along a hallway in the Kalamazoo County Animal Shelter, over a hundred cages hold strays – dogs, cats, but at times more exotic animals, including snakes, hamsters, peacocks, or even livestock. Most of these strays are picked up throughout the greater Kalamazoo area. Some are brought in by their owners, no longer willing or able to give them a home. Others are removed from an abusive or neglectful environment. Still others are brought in because of a situation endangering themselves or other animals or humans. For almost all of these animals, death by injection awaits them in but a matter of days.

As I pass the cages, cat paws protrude as if to tap me on the shoulder. “Please look at me, please see me, please save me, please take me home with you.” Dogs of every color, shape, size, breed or mixed, watch my every step. Some watch in silence. Some bark at me. Others don’t look up at all. They curl in tight, miserable huddles at the backs of their cages, seemingly resigned to doom. I wonder: do they smell impending death? Do they know?

On Lake Street, just down the road from the Kalamazoo County Jail, the Kalamazoo County Animal Shelter houses approximately 6,000 animals per year. Only about 1,000 of these animals will find new homes. Another 1,000 are “redeemed” by their original owners in happy reunions. For most animals, however, this is the last stop before they are euthanized. Their only hope is a kind-hearted soul moved by their plight and willing to adopt them. For those who are brought in because of biting other animals or a human, there is no such hope. Their fate is sealed.

Val Gearhart, senior administrator assistant director at the Shelter, says: “We take in all strays, as long as they are from the greater Kalamazooarea. No animal is refused. Our hope is that they will be reunited with their owners or adopted by new ones, but unfortunately, most are not. We have discussed the possibility of becoming a no-kill shelter, but lack of funding at this time prohibits that.”

If an animal wears a tag or a license, Val says, the Shelter will call the number on the tag, or trace the license to the animal’s owner and contact them. Each animal brought in is also scanned for a microchip, a tiny device imbedded just beneath the skin that identifies the animal with a code that computer records can trace back to an owner. “We don’t find too many of these,” Val says, “as it is a relatively new way of tagging pets. But there are some, and the chips not only identify the owners of the animal, but also provide medical information.”

Every day, a veterinarian comes in to the Shelter to check new arrivals. Every animal is given a rabies shot, tested for worms, its general health evaluated. Injuries, if any, are treated. Costs for the medical treatments and shots are covered by the Kalamazoo Humane Society – and their funding in great part comes from donations, while funding for the Shelter comes from the County budget, as the Shelter is considered part of the County’s law enforcement agencies. Other financial needs are met through capital improvement funds. A small part of the Shelter’s income comes from fees paid for licensing pets, or fines incurred by a failure to purchase a license or other fees or fines associated with animal ownership. Adoption fees for dogs housed at the Shelter are $35 (including $5 for a license), $30 for cats. For animals not yet spayed or neutered, a fee must also be paid, the amount dependent on the new owner’s veterinarian of choice.

“Because of our emphasis on spaying and neutering animals,” Val says, “we are beginning to see a slight decrease in numbers of dogs brought to the Shelter. We like to think these are the results of encouraging pet owners to keep their animals from breeding indiscriminately. Even so, come spring, the Shelter is often full to capacity with both dog and cat litters. Puppies and kittens are usually adopted more quickly than adult animals, but too many must be destroyed for lack of a home.”

With a close collaboration with the Kalamazoo Humane Society (KHS), the Shelter refers to KHS those potential pet owners who wish to adopt, but lack the funds for spaying or neutering their pet. “Operation Fix-It” through KHS performs these procedures for minimal fees for owners who are able to show financial need.

“Pet population control is still one of the greatest problems,” Val says. A lack of understanding all that pet ownership involves, she continues, is another. Too often people buy pets, whether from a shelter or a pet shop, without fully considering all that owning a pet requires. “Someone interested in adopting a pet must first plan for owning that animal. They must have the budget for the care and maintenance of their pet. They should consider the size of the animal in terms of the living space they can offer it, and whether they have children or other pets, how the new pet will interact with the rest of the family. It’s important to think ahead about how a pet will fit into one’s lifestyle. A pet needs care and attention just as a child does. At least once a month, a new pet owner returns an animal to the Shelter because they failed to plan.”

A dog the size of a Saint Bernard but pure white in its coloring watches us as we pause by his cage. He is beautiful, his eyes bright with intelligence, his gaze sad with, it seems, an understanding of his fate. Val explains that the dog was brought in by his owner, who no longer was able or desired to care for the dog. Perhaps he, too, was an impulse buy – an irresistible bundle of cute puppy, growing into an animal rivaling a toy pony in size, outgrowing his owner’s ability or desire to care for him. Planning means considering not only the “cuteness factor” of a puppy or kitten, but also what they will become as a fully-grown animal.

“Most of us love our pets as we love any member of our family,” Val says. “But we see our share of abused and neglected animals, too. I traveled for several days with one of our animal control officers to see what they have to deal with answering calls that come in to our dispatchers. Most calls are complaints from neighbors, calling to report a dog barking, or running loose. We receive calls to report injured animals. But we also receive calls reporting animal cruelty. In many such cases we simply talk to the owners and do our best to ensure the situation is corrected, but in some circumstances, if we see that the animal is in distress, we will remove them.”

When the call is to report something like an animal left outside in the cold, or, in the summertime, reporting a dog locked inside a car and becoming dangerously overheated, the animal control officer attempts to educate the owner about more appropriate pet care. If the animal is in distress, however, because of beatings, starvation, or other abuse, steps can be taken to remove the animal in hopes of finding a better home.

“Many people have a view of the animal control officer as a ‘bad guy’ who picks up strays and has them put to sleep,” Val says. “But our officers do everything possible to help animals in distress, return lost pets to their owners, and rescue injured animals, bringing them in for medical care. It’s fair to say that pretty much every person who works at the Kalamazoo County Animal Shelter owns at least one pet that they adopted from the Shelter. Many of us own several pets that we found while working here. I have a dog and two cats at home, too,” Val smiles. “My children fell in love with a kitten brought into the Shelter with a deformed paw. After daily exercise and massage, Xander grew up to be a normal, healthy cat. We all wish we could do more…”

Burnout, she says, is a real problem for those who work at the Shelter. It can be difficult to work with the animals, feeding them, keeping their cages clean, caring for them, but then having to watch so many of them euthanized because no one has chosen to adopt them. After all efforts are made to either reunite pets with their owners or to find new and loving homes for them, most will never leave the Shelter alive. A veterinarian comes in daily to put animals to “sleep” if they have not been adopted after a period of seven days, sometimes longer if space allows.

“Aldonis Mezsets is one of our volunteers who comes in regularly to film animals up for adoption,” Val says. “Every week he prepares a new video of cats and dogs available for adoption. The video, called ‘Doggie in the Window,’ is aired on community access channel 21 every day from 10:30 noon. It’s only one way of our trying to let people know about the animals we have here. We are also currently working on a web site that we hope to have up and running in the early months of 2003, providing information about our services, but also posting photos of the many wonderful animals we have here waiting for someone to love them."

As Val and I stand talking, an orange and white cat limps over to us. Quasi is one of the strays that was brought into the Shelter but not adopted. With a crippled paw, no one was interested in taking the cat home, but the staff took pity on the cat and made her a pet of the Shelter. She twines and brushes around our ankles, purrs contentedly when I squat to scratch her white chin. Quasi is one of the lucky ones. Barbie, a gray cat, is the other Shelter pet, a sixteen-year-old feline who sleeps on her pillow and moves about slowly, showing her years.

Val says: “We try not to show favoritism, and we try not to grow too attached to the animals here, but sometimes it is impossible. Most of us work here because we care about animals, and we hope we can help them to live long and happy, healthy lives. Nothing makes us happier than to hand over a new pet to a loving home, or to reunite a lost animal with its family. We work with a network of other organizations whenever possible to help the animals. When we receive calls about wildlife, we might contact area zoos or rescue groups to care for these animals. We give talks at area high schools about responsible pet ownership and volunteer opportunities. We educate pet owners about how to treat animals properly. If we are too often left with no alternative but to euthanize animals, it is because their owners have been irresponsible about their care and maintenance, or because people allow their animals to breed indiscriminately, or because no one has adopted the animal.”

The Kalamazoo County Animal Shelter, along with director Ann Marie Kreuzer and assistant director Val Gearhart, employs seven animal control officers deputized through the county sheriff’s department, three office staff persons, two full-time and one part-time kennel staff persons, and many volunteers. Volunteers are trained at the Kalamazoo Humane Society.

“While we can always use more volunteers,” Val says, “we can especially use donations to the Shelter. Cash donations are appreciated, of course, but we also accept dog and cat food, both canned and dry, treats for puppies, carpet pieces, old towels and blankets for bedding, bleach and detergent to use for cleaning cages. If anyone has an interest in making a donation, in adopting a pet, or in general information, we’ll be happy to answer any questions.”

Quasi limps into a corner and settles in to give herself a wash. The din of howls and meows quiets for a moment as the few visitors to the Shelter disperse. A young woman, cuddling a kitten under the warmth of her sweater, leaves the hallway of cages to complete paperwork at the front desk for the kitten’s adoption. This one has been chosen to live. The others remain, waiting.

For more information, call 269-383-8775.

Foster Homes Provide Alternative to Euthanasia

Across town from the Kalamazoo County Animal Shelter, in a small store in Maple Hill Mall, is the headquarters for Kalamazoo Animal Rescue. Much like the Kalamazoo County Animal Shelter (KAR), they work to rescue cats and dogs from cases of abuse and neglect. Unlike the Shelter, the animals they rescue are never euthanized.

An all volunteer, non-profit organization founded in 1991 and funded solely by private donations and fund raising events, KAR functions in great part through the help of a network of volunteer foster homes for homeless animals awaiting adoption. Paula Lewis, one of approximately 90 volunteers currently working for KAR, rushes into the store with a bouncy beagle in tow. The beagle, happy over the outing and sniffing his surroundings curiously, perks up at the approach of a small child, hand outstretched. Could this be the one? Could this be… the hand that leads to home?

“We have about 35 foster homes in operation now,” Paula says, watching child and beagle in fascination with each other. “Mine among them. But we can always use more!”

Volunteers mill about the store, busy selling an array of tee shirts, mugs, and pet supplies. Like the foster homes for the animals, the store is temporary space. KAR’s lease is running out in early 2003, and they will need to find a new place, but in the interim, the network of foster homes and volunteers will continue.

On this evening at the KAR store, there appear to be many more human faces than animal faces. That, says Lisa Reeber, president of KAR, is the norm. Animals are normally to be found where they are most comfortable, in their foster homes, but they are brought in to the store on designated days to be viewed by the public, or they are taken to area pet stores to be seen, and hopefully adopted, by passersby. Volunteers also take available animals to radio and television stations to promote them and KAR.

Lisa explains: “Our goal is to provide animals the highest standard of care while seeking permanent homes for them. This not only includes housing and all the love and tenderness that goes along with living in a home instead of a steel cage, but also full veterinary care. All of our animals, without exception, are spayed or neutered prior to adoption.”

“We have turned away people, but we rarely turn away an animal,” Giti Henrie says. She is a volunteer at KAR, like everyone else, but also a board member. “All animals are taken in unless we have a shortage of homes, but if an animal is injured, it is given highest priority in placement. People, however, are a different story. We do not allow just anyone to adopt a pet. There are no on-the-spot adoptions; every potential owner is interviewed. We take time to talk with each person who wishes to adopt an animal, and we discuss living arrangements, the needs of both owner and pet, and we explore the level of commitment a person is willing to offer a pet. A pet is not something to be acquired on impulse. That pet will be a part of your family for maybe 15 or so years – that’s a long term commitment.”

With 150 to 200 phone calls coming in to KAR each month, the need for more volunteers and more fundraisers seems neverending. Julie Hirt is marketing coordinator for KAR, and she eagerly directs interested parties to KAR’s newsletter, “Rescue News”, and the informative web site – – that informs all who are interested about this alternative to bringing strays to the Kalamazoo County Animal Shelter. The site offers extensive information about the organization, features and photographs of available animals, hints on animal care, applications for volunteers, lists of needed volunteer services and donations, and news about upcoming events, including the popular “Fur Ball.”

“Since the inception of KAR,” Julie says, “we’ve placed around 3,000 animals in loving homes. We want people to know that there is an alternative to euthanasia for unwanted animals. We had a dog live in a foster home for seven years before it was finally adopted. Every animal deserves a good home. Here, there is no deadline to finding one.”

Kalamazoo Animal Rescue can be reached at 269.349.2325.

Dancing Puppy Paws on a Kitchen Floor

Lying back on my couch, I reached for the remote control, ready to enjoy an hour of relaxation at the end of a long workday. A bad habit, I suppose – I can’t resist constant channel surfing. But this time, my button caught on a channel. This was no movie, no colorful entertainment show. Channel 21 was showing what appeared to be a home video of a parade of animals. Someone was walking a dog across the television screen, urging the Alaskan Malamute to turn towards the camera. He was huge. He was gorgeous. I leaned in towards the television screen. The great face turned towards me, intelligent brown eyes seeming to meet mine, the handsome face resembling a wolf. The camera panned with him as he walked a few more steps. He was dragging his hind legs a bit. The limp was almost imperceptible, but it was there. His face turned towards the camera again. I was in love.

Suni – a version of the Latvian word “sunis” meaning dog – became mine a few days later. My two cats were skeptical about his arrival in our home, but Suni was, for all his size and power, as gentle as a teddy bear, allowing my tomcat, Tommy, to bat him across the nose a few times in greeting, and Jiggy, my black calico, to hiss at him her catty disapproval. It wasn’t long, however, before Suni became guardian of “his” two cats, and protected them, as well as the human members of his new family, against any danger or irritant that might cross our paths. He was a gentle soul, deeply affectionate, and I never doubted that he understood that he had been saved from euthanasia by a matter of days. The intelligence in his eyes told me he understood everything – and he was grateful.

Five years later, when Suni’s life was over, and brain seizures forced a heartrending decision to have him put to sleep, I held his handsome head in my arms as he drew his final breath and wept as one does when losing a cherished member of the family. I grieve for him still.

With the passage of time and a healing of heart, I returned again to the Kalamazoo County Animal Shelter. The loss of Suni left my home with a void only a dog could fill. Walking up and down the aisles, I peered into each steel cage. The din of desperate howls and meows was breaking my heart. If only I had room for more than one… Which to choose? Which one? I looked into each pair of eyes, searching for the connection. There was a plea in each pair. I said a silent prayer for each animal soul. All living beasts deserve to be loved. A young Chow mix stuck a damp nose between the bars and gave a soft whine. He was smaller than a full-blooded Chow, but his tongue, which is black in the Chow breed, was a spotted pink and black, showing his mix. His fur was matted and dirty. I asked a staff member if I could take the golden dog, his fur tinted just beneath with black, for a walk up and down the hall. I was given a leash, the cage was opened, and the dog bounded out with joy. Freedom! He hardly knew how to suppress his joy. Scampering up and down the hallway, he finally settled up against my knees. He seemed to think he belonged with me. Who was I to argue?

Some might say this was a lucky day for Guinnez. A reprieve. I say – lucky me. A house is not a home without the sound of dancing puppy paws on a kitchen floor.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Bad Girl with Rubber Duck

by Zinta Aistars

With her highly controversial play, "Preaching to the Perverted," Holly Hughes returns to her alma mater to show off her ducks. Published in the Kalamazoo College alumni magazine, LuxEsto, Spring 2001.

Holly Hughes '77 stands in the door of the restaurant and slowly pulls off one leopard-skin glove, then the other.

It is the Saturday morning of her one performance of Preaching to the Perverted at the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse. Her hands shake slightly, her cropped blonde-streaked hair is a little disheveled, and she looks tired.

She is small. Surprisingly small. Hardly more than five feet. Standing there in the door with other customers bustling past and around her, Hughes appears to be someone who could use an arm of protection around her slight shoulders.

Protection for Holly Hughes? The spitfire? The wild woman? The controversial and much maligned Holly Hughes of the infamous NEA Four?

Playwright and performance artist, Hughes has been making her audiences squirm mercilessly with the itch of political, sexual, and intellectual discomfort for the past twelve years. In 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts revoked grants awarded to Hughes and three other artists: John Fleck, Karen Finley, and Tim Miller, citing "obscene and homoerotic content" in their work. All four sued the United States government to have their grants reinstated. Through several appeals, they won and won again. But in 1998, the Supreme Court overturned the verdict and once again revoked the grants, citing the "standards of decency" clause. It was the Supreme Court hearing that inspired her one-woman play, Preaching to the Perverted.

Holly Hughes orders breakfast: "Eddie's Special," a mess of scrambled eggs, sausage links, Belgian waffles. With hot sauce. The petite performance artist has an appetite.

"It's always great to come back to Kalamazoo College," she says, sipping coffee. She politely asks in a soft-spoken voice for the cream the waitress has forgotten. "Although by now I feel New York is home. I live in one apartment in Washington Heights with my partner, but I have another one in the East Village. But what I would really like, my fantasy, is to be an old lady living in a doublewide in upstate New York with fifty-five cats and dogs."

And there it is. That Holly Hughes laugh. She throws her head back and chortles, a resoundingly delicious and witchy cackle, and immediately heads turn. The waitress appears instantly with a bowl full of cream. The neighboring tables grow silent and lean in. The sun slants in a brighter ray of light through the window above.

Hughes has won many awards for her work. Her plays have garnered two Obie awards, a McKnight fellowship, grants from The Jerome Foundation and, yes, even several grants from the National Endowment of the Arts -- the year prior to the revoked grant, the same year as the revoked grant, and in the years following the revoked grant. She has had numerous works published by Grove Press, and she won the Lambda Book award in 1999. Kalamazoo College awarded her the Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award in 1995. Hughes has been a visiting professor at the University of Colorado, Yale, the College of William and Mary, and she currently is teaching women's studies at Harvard University.

"You know what the secret of success is at Kalamazoo College?" Hughes says. "We are risk-takers. Most educational theatre is very conservative, but Kalamazoo dares. Giving me that alumni award in 1995 - that was taking a very real risk. That took guts. I am very honored and humbled by that."

When Hughes was a student at Kalamazoo College, she majored in art, mentored by such art professors as Marcia Wood and Bernard Palchick (now vice president of development) - "So you can address all letters of complaint to them," Hughes lets out another well-rounded cackle. "They were both a tremendous influence on me, even though I no longer paint - that's my contribution to society. But I switched to theatre after I came to New York."

Theatre is Hughes' enduring love. She was introduced to the medium by accident, she says, when she came to WOW, the Women's One World Café in 1983, where she had her debut performance with The Well of Horniness. The difference between traditional theatre and performance art, she explains, is that the latter is more experimental, quasi-anarchistic, rebellious. Which suits her perfectly.

"If you're really committed to change," Hughes says, "then you must be committed to being uncomfortable."

Yet breakfast concludes not with a political bang, not with rainbow flags flying, but with friendly chatter about the gardening Hughes enjoys at her remote cabin in upstate New York, about the stray animals she routinely rescues from the cold streets of Manhattan, and the books she reads, a list of nonfiction tomes exploring differing cultures and recounting travel stories measured in physical distance or inner journeys of spiritual exploration.

Breakfast over, Hughes slips back into her leopard-skin gloves, first one, then the other, and flies off to meet with a group of anxiously awaiting Kalamazoo College theatre students.


In her application to Kalamazoo College, submitted in 1972, the eighteen-year-old Hughes writes her answer to the question of what she believes is the most important issue facing our society today: Apathy towards important issues. Our form of government cannot successfully operate without citizen participation, because our government is based on the will of the people.

In the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse audience, all seats are filled. At least 40 people wait in the lobby, hoping for an empty seat, but there are none. Many more called for the free tickets, but were reluctantly turned away for lack of space.

The lights dim. A spotlight trains on the empty stage. A deep male voice announces loudly over a public announcement system: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight, we are pleased to present Holly Hughes, no doubt best known as one of the NEA Four, NEA Four, NEA Four, NEA Four…"

A gunshot cracks, emitting a sharp smelling spume of smoke, and Holly Hughes stands center stage, having fired a pistol into the air, silencing the PA system. It is silenced.

Then for 90 minutes Hughes recounts the experience of facing the Supreme Court in a losing battle. To represent the nine justices, she sets nine yellow rubber ducks on the edge of a cardboard box.

Hughes: "And I realize that trying to talk to the Supreme Court is like trying to talk to my Dad's Kiwanis Club about art. Don't try to tell them about how artist and audiences are taxpayers too, don't get smart. Because we are not talking about the use of tax money here, we are talking an allowance. And as long as you live in this house, young lady, you are going to be following the rules: in by midnight and no making a mess with that Karen Finley in the back yard. I told you if you kept playing with that nasty Bobby Mapplethorpe and that bull whip somebody'd get hurt, didn't I? Didn't I? So don't come crying to me, young lady. You are grounded. You are so grounded."

Hughes has the audience at full attention. Throwing flags across the stage, prancing about in a rainbow-colored wig, holding out a purple Teletubby, wrapping herself in a flag of rainbow stripes, and tossing glitter and confetti, Hughes mesmerizes more than shocks. And the play makes her main point: the NEA grants were not revoked on the merit of the art but only because of the works' inclusion of homoerotic material, suggesting that the public arena of a theatre stage is closed to gay American men and women.

Receiving less discussion or attention than the controversy of her performance art, and deserving as much or more, is the simple fact that Holly Hughes can write - artistically and powerfully. Somewhere along the legal path, this fact of artistic merit, perhaps the only point of real relevance, was lost.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Call to a Patriot's Self-Examination

Essay by Zinta Aistars

This short essay was first written as a response to another, "The American Dream?" by J. Conrad Guest, posted on and later published on the e-zine, Bobbing Around in 2003. It is even more relevent today. The issue at hand is a call to all Americans, indeed, all global citizens, to examine ourselves for erosion of our freedoms as well as signs of the disease of ethnocentricism.


As one born of refugee parents who came to America from a war-torn nation, not seeking new frontiers, but simply running for their lives, I can say this: my family learned the values of this country, realized and respected much of that dream – the dream that was once America. I have grown up in a multicultural home, with two citizenships, and a profound love for both of my countries – the one where I was born, and the one where my most ancient roots have formed a long and complex tangle. Because the latter has for so many centuries suffered for a lack of the most basic freedoms as part of the Soviet Union, I have learned a unique appreciation for those freedoms that perhaps those who have never had to lose them sometimes take for granted. There lies my respect and love for this country. There, also, lies my fear that we will lose those freedoms for lack of understanding of what and how they are constructed, and how they are to be nurtured and protected.

One lesson I have learned from my heritage is the importance of self-examination. In order to protect a freedom, one must constantly maintain a vigilance over it – to watch for signs of erosion. I find the greatest patriots are not those of us who blindly thump our chests and spout nationalistic (and blindly ethnocentric) platitudes, but those of us who, however painful the process, look penetratingly at the face of our own government, scrutinize our own faces in the mirror, examine closely our own hearts, and forever test and retest our consciences for flaws and shortcomings. It is like the parent who spoils the child with an extravagance of lavish gifts… versus the parent who says a firm no to the child from time to time, and teaches the lesson instead, however difficult, that will prepare the child for a life of self-sufficiency and respect, for self and for others. Which is the truly loving parent? Which the one who sends forth a child into adulthood unprepared and spoilt? The patriot cares enough to be honest – with others and with him or herself, most of all.

Perhaps it is only at a time of testing, such as today is, that our own hearts are truly tested. Perhaps it is only then that we truly feel the extent of our own love for our country. It pains me deeply to see in today’s news on a global basis how far our image has been tainted. How did this happen? Erosion, disease… these are things that happen a granule of sand at a time, a single cell at a time. Hardly noticeable… until it is too late. Until there is an avalanche, until the body falls resoundingly to the ground.

As the global community continues to shrink, the process ever gathering speed as we are connected by technology in communications and transportation, it has become more crucial than ever for all cultures to be cognizant of each other. We must strive to understand our rights to be different in all that we are – in our cultures, in our spirituality, in our lifestyles. It is not our goal to Americanize the world. It is not our goal to convert all others to our ways. This is not a time for chest thumping. This is a time for the true patriot to rise up and take a stand. This is a time to seek out the flaw, find the source of the disease, and to attack it mercilessly.

Ah no, I am not speaking of the attack of the missile. I speak of the attack of the introspective spirit upon the disease that weakens it. We must not lose our American Dream. Fancy cars and designer jeans and immense houses be damned… I speak of our freedoms, our willingness to work towards excellence, our hearts to be open to understanding and compassion. This is our fight. If our global image is tarnished, it is up to each and every one of us to honestly and courageously examine the reasons why. Should we find the taint of corruption, or of greed, or a spirituality that has grown as hollow as it is shallow, then here lies our patriotic duty – to polish what is tarnished, to reevaluate what has lost all value, to fill the void that our spirits have become. Here, in our own front yards, lies our greatest battle – and it must be won.

It is painful to look inward. But we must, we must… It is our greatest dream that is at stake.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Flux of Days

by Zinta Aistars

"Zelta Krasts," oil painting by Viestarts Aistars

We swelter in sirocco breezes,
simmering in a feverish summer sun.
Golden fields of doing nothing. Nothing.
But breathing. Deep. Slow.
Infused with salted air and watching
the spit and spume of surf throwing
her lacy white skirts to the sky: dance with me.
Languorous, so that our bodies rise and rock
into each other’s bones, rib cages meshing,
skin melding, tucked inside and around,
limbs intertwined and synchronized.
Tango the summer across the dance floor,
salsa a storm into the sky,
sultry and unrelenting,
until it surrenders,
until the sky grows leaden with anticipation
of the fall.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


To my grandmother, Lidija Aistars, known to us as

August 9, 2005

I wake thinking of her—my grandmother.
Today marks the day of her birth, a girl baby
born in a Baltic town smelling of sea salt,
sand scattered with the yellow glint of amber.
A quiet girl who grew into a quiet woman,
her strength needing no trumpet blasts or parades.
Patience was her strength, gentle hands,
her ever-hungering appetite for learning.
Always a book nearby. Always another one waiting.

For my grandfather, she was a woman Samson,
as strong as her hair, never knowing the sharp
edge of a blade. He tangled in it, never loosed.
Four sons. Many more children in classrooms.
She taught language like it was spun of gold,
treasure without limit, meaning of life.

His books, and shelves of books, volumes
they would read together, heads close,
or shoulder to shoulder propped on the pillows
in bed, their bedtime stories told one to the other.
His manuscripts written in longhand, a script
only she could read, his one pair
of trusted eyes, and dutifully typed,
her every keystroke an act of devotion.

Even now, these long years of their absence,
others speak to me—in awe and with perhaps
some envy—how they had watched, marveled
at the two of them entering a room
as one, holding hands, leaving the room
as one, still holding hands. She knew love.
The giving and the taking of it—a graceful dance.

My grandmother kept a bay window filled
with African violets, an indoor garden.
She kept a ceramic bowl of sunflower seeds.
A barrel of rainwater in the yard,
water dripping from the eaves,
for washing her long hair, ends at knees,
slowly unweaving the braided rope
until it was a silken curtain around her.
My grandfather watched her.

She sat in the sun, an open book
for a moment forgotten on her knees,
her face raised up to the sun.

Friday, August 05, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

"Ezers deg," oil painting, Viestarts Aistars

The possibilities dazzle:
where there was darkness,
there is sudden
if transient light.

Perhaps not so sudden.
A slow seepage, a backward bleeding,
wounds that some days
seem healed, and others
a raw gash of despair.

Yet hope stands a stubborn
if lunatic guard.
Every morning redeemed
and newly armed.

At first light,
your sleeping face
in childish innocence
next to mine.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Not Quite Crisis

by Zinta Aistars

Z, senior year, Comstock High School

I was eighteen and the world,
as they say, was my oyster--
the kind you drink down raw,
let it slide easy down your throat,
lightly spiced, a touch peppery,
a slick and succulent aphrodisiac.

Even the pearl was mine,
grit mulled and churned and chewed,
worked over and over
by those with swelling hearts.

I'm three decades past that now.
The string of pearls has broken.
I chew new grit, tongue tip
drawn to that sore place
at the back tooth, a vague throbbing,
just enough to keep me up nights.

Empty oyster shells litter my pantry.
Sand spills between my fingers.

The swelling heart is mine--
fermenting dreams long gone to vinegar,
counterfeit loves that never quite warmed
beyond room temperature,
faith that remains lagging
but hopeful, ever hopeful
for another chance at the prom.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Point of Diminishing Return

by Zinta Aistars

"Purva," watercolor, by Viestarts Aistars

It’s just beyond—that place we long to reach,
a bleeding and slow laboring light, evidence of desire,
trembling like a mirage on the far horizon
and knifing the sky, seam to seam, like a split wound.

Just beyond, if only our reach might extend
an inch or two farther than our grasp.
Still standing with our feet in the muck of today
while tomorrow beckons—a clearing
crowned with morning fire.

Thursday, July 28, 2005


"Vientuliba," watercolor, Viestarts Aistars

The prairie wind grows still
and slumbers.
It settles soft
into the rust of sun swept grasses.
Another day, perhaps.
This day silence blesses—
its dreamless sleep a velvet cloak
spread across the eyes,
a body lying warm beside you,
beloved face already stamped
across your weighted mind.
All is well, even now,
when my hand holds yours
across a distance,
even now, when you’re convinced
you stand alone,
this silence sanctified.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Laundry Day

by Zinta Aistars

"Vela zavejas," watercolor, by Viestarts Aistars

Slap flapping in the wind,
sheets setting sail
to an imagined neverland,
a feigned journey of shifty
clothespin pirates,
their snagged bevy
of shanghaied petticoats
twisting on the wire.
Brazen buccaneers
with wooden knobby faces
pinning satin delicates
against a shameless pillowed sky;
whipped into a frenzy
this sun-spilt day has fast become
their sun crazed and billowing ball.

On this line, strained taut
from nail to nail,
begin all maiden voyages:
a roiling sea of sand
beneath a dance of empty dresses
and fluttering loose stockings
that twine in slinky scandal
around a waltzing pant leg,
a cuff that glances on a skirt pleat,
a sleeve that lingers lightly on a blouse,
the coy invitation of a shirt
with all its buttons
come undone.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran: The Power of Place and Story

by Zinta Aistars

Kalamazoo College's new president, Dr. Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, has moved into her office. The power of her leadership is a matter of place and story. Published in the Summer 2005 issue of LuxEsto, the College alumni magazine.

"We must tell our story of transforming lives."
--Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran

The red brick buildings, the grand white colonnades, the front steps leading down to a cobblestone road called Academy Street—these are uncannily similar at Salem College and Kalamazoo College. Dr. Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran won't even have to change addresses. Her office was and is on Academy Street.

There is this difference: on the door of her office at Salem College (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), the plaque says: Vice President and Dean of the College; on the door of her office in Mandelle Hall at Kalamazoo College, the plaque reads: President.

On December 11, 2004, the Board of Trustees of Kalamazoo College unanimously elected Dr. Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran the 17th president, the first woman president, and the first African-American president, of Kalamazoo College. She moved to the Academy Street office at Kalamazoo College last month.

"From one good place to another good place," Eileen says. “The power of place…” and her thoughts veer towards making connections, to crossing borders, and about the manner in which education allows us to pass beyond our personal boundaries to ever new and changing places.

It may be that the similarities of these two places—Salem College and Kalamazoo College—in the life and career of Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran far outweigh the differences. Like Kalamazoo, Salem College is a small, residential liberal arts college, founded more than two centuries ago. Like the Kalamazoo Plan, integrating rigorous academics, career development programs, study abroad, and a senior individualized project, Salem College has its Salem Signature Program, building leadership skills through internships, journaling for self-exploration, and an array of outreach programs. Both schools give top priority to teaching their students to be lifelong learners, and both encourage them to never be limited by the border of any one place.

Eileen sees the similarities: "Salem and Kalamazoo College share a deep commitment that begins in the classroom and goes beyond it. What we learn in these institutions is grounded in the academic world, but practical in the world outside. The focus is on greater values, on having a global perspective, and on being a citizen of a diverse global community."

Eileen says there comes a time to leave one's accustomed place and move forward, to embrace change, and to seek new challenges. Kalamazoo College was that calling. "I had heard about Kalamazoo," she says, "and I was aware of the strong reputation of this institution. I have been reading the history of Kalamazoo College, and I've met with people who represent this college—because it is the people who give the true st sense of what a place is—and with each meeting grew my conviction: Kalamazoo College and I, we fit."

Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, and students, individually and in groups, have met with the new president, and they agree: the fit is right. Education has always been Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran’s passport to move from one good place to another. Her dedication to excellence in education has led her to her new home.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Eileen earned her B.A. in sociology from Pomona College, an M.A. and Ph.D. in education from the Claremont Graduate University in California. She served as associate professor and chair of the department of education at Winston-Salem State University, and she was visiting scholar in education at North Carolina Wesleyan College. She taught in the departments of education and psychology at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Nigeria for 14 years and served as acting head of the department of psychology there for five years. While in Nigeria she was a consultant for UNICEF (Nigeria) in the area of early childhood development. In 1995, she became Dean of the College at Salem College, and later rose to the position of Vice President and Dean of the College for Salem Academy and College. She served as acting president of the institution from November 2003 to March 2004, during the sabbatical of Salem's president Julianne Still Thrift.

"I grew up in a family that placed great importance on education," she says of her childhood in southern California, where her parents, Welford and Juanita Wilson, raised her and her sister Carol. "We were privileged to go to the best primary schools where we were taught to meet the highest expectations. Our teachers remained in contact with us through our college years, like members of our family, guiding our way."

Her study abroad experience, she smiles, was only a partial stretch of her comfort zone. She chose England "because I spoke the language." But the experience was a critical one, and Eileen's work there with immigrant children from West Africa, South Africa, and the Caribbean, determined her lifelong scholarly interest in child development and multicultural education.

"The experience was transformative," she says. "I left England committed to understanding a wider world, fascinated with the notion of the African Diaspora, and determined to travel and study abroad more extensively."

Eileen firmly decided that her next trip was to be to Africa, and that she would not allow language to be a barrier. Upon graduating from Pomona College, she was awarded a Thomas J. Watson Traveling Fellowship that allowed her to spend 16 months traveling and studying in Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania, developing curriculum materials for students in the United States. No less important on study abroad were the adventures outside of academic curriculum, and so Eileen took time to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya and to explore the Dogon villages in Mali, West Africa.

"From these study abroad experiences coalesced my appreciation for the power of cross-cultural study and my commitment to foster a more international focus on our school campuses and within the curriculum."

After completing her doctoral work in childhood development and early childhood education, Eileen accepted her first academic position at the University of Ife in Nigeria. Ife and Nigeria would be her career and her home for the next 14 years. By 1982, she was chairperson of the newly created department of psychology.

"Today's world is so much more connected than it was 30 years ago," she says. “I am a strong proponent of intercultural and international education; it is important not only to send our students out into the world, but to also build and strengthen a diverse community on our campuses. One of my top goals at Kalamazoo College is to more consciously and deeply integrate the experiences of our students abroad with experiences back on campus and in the Kalamazoo community. We need to understand the complexities of living and studying abroad and then apply that understanding to cultivate the full educational potential of students’ reintegrating themselves and what they have learned into their lives, communities, and culture.”

The world grows smaller. And growing larger is the importance of understanding people who see life from the standpoint of cultures and ethnic, racial, or religious backgrounds that differ from our own. In this state of change (characterized by excitement and stress) Eileen has built a reputation as “a gentle bridge builder,” according to a recent article in the Winston-Salem Journal. This aspect of her work has become her legacy and a continuing goal.

Eileen recalls hearing Martin Luther King speak when she was a child. His words took root in her. “You can’t live the dream if you don’t know it,” she says. Cross-cultural education is the means of knowing the dreams of others, a bridge built by an immersion that involving the mind, the body, and the spirit. That bridge, in turn, helps build a more understanding and tolerant society.

“I am drawn to Kalamazoo College for many reasons,” Eileen says, “but I am most intrigued by the College’s desire to develop ‘a culture and climate in which internationalism, multiculturism, and diversity flourish.’ I am also drawn to the commitment of Kalamazoo College to community and to the highest ethical standards, respect for all persons, and leadership with integrity. These are the values that resonate deeply with me. They are what I hope others would say my life has been about.”

Eileen’s awards and honors are legion. They include the Kent Fellowship and the Ford Foundation National Fellowship for graduate study; the Ada Mae Fitts Woman of the Year, awarded to the most outstanding senior woman by the Pomona College faculty; the Thomas J. Watson Traveling Fellowship, the Claremont College’s Black Studies Center Visionary Leadership Award, and the American Council on Education Fellowship, one of the most prestigious leadership training programs in higher education. She spent that fellowship year working with the president and provost of Wake Forest University. In 1999 she was awarded the Gender Equity Architect Award by the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education in recognition of her work in leadership development and mentoring young women and girls. In 2002 the Salvation Army honored her with the Strong, Smart, Bold Award in recognition of her service to women and girls in Forsyth County, North Carolina.

At Kalamazoo, Eileen is eager to immerse herself in the College’s evolving vision of an excellent liberal arts education. She is eager to explore and extend the service learning and outreach programs that connect the College to the surrounding community. She talks about the importance of outreach: “We want to tell our liberal arts story to students in elementary and middle schools, so that when it is time for them to consider college, they will think of Kalamazoo.”

Eileen is concerned with the challenges that face small, liberal arts colleges, and she is eager to meet the challenge by calling the Kalamazoo College community to work alongside her.

"Small liberal arts colleges like Kalamazoo are losing their share of the educational market. In 1953, 29 percent of all undergraduate students attended small residential colleges. By 1993, that figure dropped to only 9 percent. At a time when Division I sports and large universities seem to be everything, we do not have the desirability or visibility of these institutions. We lack the large numbers of alumni. Parents and students are stunned by our tuition costs. Today, more than 75 percent of all full-time undergraduates attend a college or university that costs less than $8,000 per academic year. They want to know what the value will be of the additional dollars needed to attend Kalamazoo College.

"The entire Kalamazoo College community must do a better job explaining the added value of a liberal arts education,” says Eileen. “In an era of rapid change, we must explain the crucial difference that a liberal arts education at small residential colleges offers: the preparation for lifelong learning, the focus on the entire student, access to faculty, small, personal classes, and individualized attention. Our students are more likely to graduate within four years, and they are more likely to go on to complete advanced degrees. We have the capability to transform lives."

One of her roles as Kalamazoo College president is to be this storyteller, but she plans to involve the entire College community. "Who better to tell our story than those of us who have lived it? Our own students, especially as they return from their study abroad, our recent graduates, and our alumni can tell this story. Larger institutions are often 'branded' by their sports teams, but it is up to us to 'brand' our college for its excellent educational value."

Part of meeting this challenge, Eileen says, is the challenge to sustain and grow our endowment. To become an inclusive community and a diverse student body, "We have to find ways to finance any student who wishes to come to Kalamazoo College. Ten years from now, I would like to see the resources and the scholarships in place so that our campus is open to all."

Feeling welcome is also a matter of place. "We must improve our campus climate to match the excellence of our academic heart, which is the authentic and vital engagement between a great teacher and student. But we also need a heart of a social nature, and to help develop that we need comfortable and inviting campus spaces for students to gather and interact with each other. That, too, is a part of their educational experience."

Campus climate is one of several issues about which Eileen has heard from the Kalamazoo College community as she walks the campus and meets with students, faculty, staff, and alumni. She is listening closely. The strength of the College, she believes, is not only in the excellence of our academic programs, but also found in our living human resources.

"And that is how I lead," she says. "I begin to know a place and its people by listening. Before determining a course of action, I consult broadly, listen carefully, review all reliable data, and consider alternative possibilities. One of my strengths is the capacity to build consensus among individuals who hold differing perspectives without closing off the necessary, sometimes difficult, conversations. I am a strong proponent of shared governance, and I work always towards a vision that is jointly crafted. But when difficult decisions must be made, I can make them."

At the end of the day, Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran knows the value of rejuvenation. Her hands are full, she says, and there is much to do as she makes this new good place her own. Her family is her joy and support—husband Dr. Olasope Oyelaran, whom she fondly calls Sope (pronounced Soap-way), and their four adult children: Doyin, Oyinda, Salewa, Yinka. Raising her family is one of their proudest achievements, but now that the home nest is empty—"but for the occasional returning child," Eileen laughs. She makes time for yoga—"that time of day is not to be touched;" reading—"usually several books at once;" and, however rarely, a television show or two—"I love British comedy;" or even a bit of adventure—"I enjoy body surfing."

But the workday holds great promise, and Monday is a day she greets with enthusiasm at Kalamazoo College. When entering her new office on Academy Street, this time in Michigan, her smile broadens. "I am excited," she says simply, "by all that we can accomplish here together. Kalamazoo College is a great institution with tremendous potential. I am here to open doors and build bridges and welcome all to our campus that is but a small corner of the world. Let us move forward together to realize the Kalamazoo College we all imagine."

Success for Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, she adds, works this way: "I am an old girl scout. I always try to leave a place better than I found it."

SIDEBAR - Name Talk: Sope's Story

December 2004

What’s in a name? For some of us, a different sense of home.

Like the rest of the Kalamazoo College community, I am filled with excitement at the prospect of meeting our new “first family,” Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran and her husband, Olasope Oyelaran, wishing to welcome them to their new home. The announcement has gone out to the College community: we have a new president. Introductions have been made. A first presidential speech has been given, and the buzz is electric across the campus.

Taking a moment away from the many introductions, Eileen and Olasope Oyelaran sit down to lunch with a group of Kalamazoo College staff. An open seat beside him, Olasope nods to me to take it. “Call me Sope,” he says. Soh-pay, I repeat, trying out the pronunciation.

I extend my hand. “And mine is Zinta,” and our talk turns to our names—Sope and Zinta. Along with nuances of speech and dialect, unusual names are among the first clue that one is far from home. Sope’s home is a Nigerian village called Ajaawa, in Southwest Africa. Mine? –well, I am still looking for mine. My ethnic roots and one of my dual citizenships branch back to Latvia, a small country on the Baltic Sea, but I was born in the United States, daughter of two World War II refugees escaping the Soviet Army. My upbringing was firmly rooted in the Latvian culture and I attended private Latvian school on weekends and public school, where I learned English, on weekdays. When I was fifteen, I made my first trip overseas to feel the soil of my ancestors’ home beneath my feet. The immediate sense of coming home was powerful.

“And yet,” I said to Sope, “I was simultaneously homesick for this country, too. Wherever I am, I long for the place I am not.”

Sope nodded and smiled warmly with understanding. He and Eileen return to Nigeria whenever the opportunity arises—about every other year—and when it does not, “my family in the village is well connected with cell phones,” Sope chuckles.

Family, Sope tells me, is a tightly knit and supportive network. “So close you can’t see between them,” he says. “I was born into a large family, but not the kind of nuclear family as we define it here in the United States. We were many children raised by many mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins.”

Sope’s family embraced education, even if it meant leaving home. The “westernized” school in Ajaawa was run by the Baptist church. Children moved from grammar school in the village to a “secondary school” in a larger community. If exams were passed satisfactorily, children moved on up to advanced schools called “Sixth Form” or university. Sope passed his exams, and he competed for scholarships that could open for him the road to the United States for further study.

“It was a very competitive program, and only 23 students out of a pool of some 3,000 persons won the scholarships. I was among them. I was the first from my family to study overseas. But with my family’s support, nothing could intimidate me. My grandfather’s sister was a powerful force in my family, and she considered education to be ‘an intellectual adventure.’ She encouraged me to go, learn, return, and bring what I had learned back to Ajaawa.”

A short distance from Salem College and Academy, where Eileen was Dean and Vice President, Dr. Olasope Oyelaran was Director of International Programs and associate professor of English. He speaks seven languages, holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from Stanford University, and, like his wife, is dedicated to cross-cultural education.

“I was invited to return to Nigeria in 1970 to build an authentically African institution of higher education,” he says. After years of study in the United States and in France, Sope returned to Nigeria to establish a department of African languages and literature, “thinking I was home safe,” as in unmarried, he chuckles. “So many who had studied abroad came home with wives from America or from Europe. I came home alone.”

Eileen, in Nigeria on the Thomas J. Watson Traveling Fellowship, met Sope on his own territory. They became close friends, and Eileen visited his village and quickly befriended Sope’s extended family there as well. “Everyone in the village was talking about Eileen, Eileen, Eileen. They all had fallen in love with Eileen,” Sope says, and it is clear that he, too, came to see this energetic and personable woman as far more than a friend. The two were married in 1980, and their intention was to build a life in Nigeria, pursuing careers in education. But new opportunities and the needs of Eileen’s aging parents brought the couple and their four children to North Carolina in 1988.

March 2005

I again meet with Eileen and Sope, this time in Winston-Salem. Sope brings me to his office at Winston-Salem State University. The Office of International Programs is small but bustling with activity, photos on the walls from many of the 43 countries where Winston-Salem students study abroad. Sope has been a driving force in establishing the university’s international programs.

We are standing in the atrium of the Winston-Salem State University’s C.G. O’Kelly Library. Sope has brought me here to show me two immense murals on the wall, painted by John and James Biggers in the early 1990s. The murals represent an integration of knowledge from many academic disciplines: African mythology and folklore, mathematics, science, literature and American history, sociology and religion. The murals are stunning, and Sope is visibly moved by them. Watching him observe them and listening to him speak about them becomes, for me, a window into Sope’s heart.

He opens international doors to his students, and his own travels and studies frequently take him across the globe. So I ask Sope, “Where is home?” He smiles, then says: “Nigeria will always be home. Someday, we hope to return. But we go where there are new challenges to meet, where we can make a difference. We have done our work here in North Carolina, and now it is time to meet a new challenge. Eileen and I are very excited to be at Kalamazoo College, and we are both eager to make Kalamazoo our new home.”

For more information about Kalamazoo College, see

Sunday, July 17, 2005

After the Storm

by Zinta Aistars

Painting, "Pec vetras," by Viestarts Aistars

Light, a pale bride, scorned, drags her veil
across the land, curled into its contours.
The lake remembers in its many mirrors
the dark anger of the skies,
crooning softly now, lapping in gentle caress,
shushing and rocking the many bruised places,
the rattled cattails, the flat, round lily pad faces,
in its embrace, mother to all.

Still the thundering woods surround,
torn cloud wisps leaving the procession
in an arrogant huff, one last look
over the shoulder:

I made you tremble.
You will not forget me.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Be Still, Listen to Nothing

by Zinta Aistars

The murmurs subside.
For a moment, a moment only:
stillness returns,
the heart slowing
into a molasses comfort,
sticky sweet, slow, swimming
in its own dark sugar.
Even the breeze curls
into its nest, circling
upon itself, tail tucked in,
ears folded back
against a warm fuzzed skull.

Even the eyes close,
unseeking and dry,
rolling in towards hidden places
where the beasts tease demons,
where their war games collide,
but for now, now only,
they sit prissing and preening,
leaning into each other
to nab the occasional flea,
a gracious nitpicking
of each other’s thickened hides.

Listen: silence.
All is at rest.
No weeping, no mourning,
no ashes rubbed on a pale forehead,
no breast beating or bawling,
no sackcloth bellyaching.
Unquestioned but welcomed,
life becomes a simple thing—
a hand held open,
a sweet fruit placed within.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Of Bears and Bearded Men

A short story by Zinta Aistars

At the moment of deepest dark, she opens her eyes. Night. The deepest part, when blackness permeates the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the soul of the woman lying on the bed. She is awake in a distant motel room, and alone.

Voices echo and sound from an unsure distance, young, rowdy, boisterous, restless, and they frighten her. She doesn't frighten easy, but it is the deepest dark of the night, she is alone, and she shivers lightly. She had stopped minding nights alone a long time ago, allowing only for an occasional glimmer of human disturbance to keep it from becoming a habit, but this moment is new. She closes her eyes, listening, trying not to listen, but the voices invade, and she shivers, again, involuntarily. The sheets that smell of strange are cold, and she pushes them away, off her, away, suddenly needing out of here, out of this bed, and out of this room. But the voices.

Faint whoosh of passing traffic, that too a distant noise like dreams. Her own shadow, in the wall mirror, like a passing ghost. She stands with her shoulder against the wall, cheap paneling, and waits for nothing. Only waits, feeling the beating of her own heart. They shared a drink, she and the bearded man who sleeps on the other side of the wall, shared partial secrets, but mostly each kept their own, and parted for the night with a friendly nod. He slept soundly, she did not doubt it. He was the sort. Beautiful bearded men sleep deep and sweet and well, never shivering in the chill of their sheets.

Back to the wall, she unbuttons her flannel shirt and lets it drop to the floor, listening for the echoes, a jeering, then laughter, ugly and coarse. She waits for silence. It comes. Cool of the paneling, full length of her, she fights the ripping inside her, the fear, the shaking, the gut wrench, the urge to run. Instead, she presses the full length of her chilled exposed body to the wall and closes her eyes and breathes in the beauty of the bearded man sleeping undisturbed on the other side on whose door she would never knock, who she would never tell, not the secrets, nor show the scars, nor tell him about this wall, nor her flannel shirt on the floor.

Come morning, she would stand before a polished pane of store window glass and stare like a child at a great stuffed bear, luxuriously furred and soft, with shining dark eyes, and great suede padded paws. She wets her lip with the tip of her tongue. "I've never had a teddy bear," she says, revealing her first secret, and behind her the bearded man stops. Her eyes flick to the reflection of his in the glass.

"I'll buy you one," he says. Although she may have imagined that.

Published on the February 2002 issue of "Insolent Rudder"