Friday, May 27, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

Strife settles and smoothes;
now only the silent bleed,
the sluicing away of memory,
the dim echo of long ago sirens
that sung the heart raw,
until the vessel is empty
once again and waiting
to be filled.

There is that far horizon,
that clean line across the mirror
of water like glass, soft lapping
at one’s feet in pious devotion,
and pebbles washing in a tumble,
empty shells with crumbled edges,
remnants of a life lived vulnerable
and coiled tightly inside,
grains of sand catching sun,
remind one of serenity
long before it is felt.

(Watercolor painting, "Jura," by Viestarts Aistars.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A Few Simple Things

by Zinta Aistars

In spring: winter.
A slow unraveling,
season from season, day from night,
the threads of one life from the tapestry
of another.
Cells detach, fingers loose, lips unlock.
Slowly, knees buckle
and touch earth again.

A flickering of pale light in the window,
a fine mist turning the sky opaque.
A calm quiet place in the woods,
spot of sun, cover of trees,
knowing you are just beyond
the edge of the woods
in your own sun:
all I need.

(Painting "Ziema" by Viestarts Aistars. To see more, visit )

Saturday, May 21, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

The bartender at Conor O’Neil’s on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, leans across the bar, damp towel thrown over his shoulder. His thick eyebrows scrunch.

“Sorry, but I can’t resist,” he says, looking from my cousin Guntra to me. “But what’s that you’re speaking? Russian?”

Guntra and I look at each other. Look at him. We let the silence sit, brooding and dark.

“No,” I say after another moment. “Latvian. No similarity.”

He mutters apologies and withdraws, realizing his tip had just decreased by at least a buck. Perhaps not quite realizing why.

Guntra had contacted me about a week earlier to ask if I might be in town and meet her for a quick farewell. She was leaving in a few days for a year in Latvia, and since she knew I spent many of my weekends in Ann Arbor, had hoped this was one. It was. I had a second life in this town, cross state from my own, a long distance romance now in its fifth year of biweekly commute. Yes. Madness. Perhaps all loves are, whether for person or place.

Sadzeram,” I said, raising my Guinness, “to that we drink.” For Guntra’s own six-year romance would remain, at least for now, in Ann Arbor, while she traversed the ocean to spend the next year in Latvia. “To tested and enduring hearts. Prozit.

Our menfolk at home, neither of whom is of Latvian blood, we naturally fell into our native language. For the next few hours, we spoke in the language we had learned to speak first in childhood, English the foreign language we had learned at public school in later years.

We spoke of recent events in our lives—Guntra of her studies at the University of Michigan for her doctoral degree, and I of my work at Kalamazoo College, writing, editing, and media relations. We talked of our travels. Laughed at the family affliction: wanderlust. Guntra had crossed Europe back and forth too many times to count, and most recently had been in Guatemala and Costa Rica. My travels in the last few years had been all domestic, a couple cross-country trips by car and rail, many shorter travels in all four directions of the sky. But I envied her trip coming up next week…. back home to Latvia.

“How long has it been?” she asked in a quiet, sympathetic voice.

I thought for a moment. How long… how many years, how many lifetimes ago… and it was, I surmised and not without the longing bleeding into my voice, about ten years. Yes, a lifetime ago. I was hardly the same person today. We both knew how travel changes a person, the journey not only an external one of traversing physical geography, but each new place adding some new feature to the mind, some new facet to the spirit, and each old place reawakening ancient wisdom. As first generation Latvians, born in the United States of refugee parents escaping Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, we were entitled to automatic citizenship. We crossed the ocean like we cross the street, going from home to… home.

Parak ilgi,” I said softly. “Too long.”

Only two years for Guntra. But she already spoke of restlessness. She keeps an apartment in Riga, the capital city, and subleases it to a young woman during her absences. Since 1991, the tiny country on the Baltic has flourished and is recovering with amazing speed since its 50 years of occupation by neighboring Russia. The bartender’s question had struck a raw nerve. There are times when an enslaved man has nothing remaining of his own identity, no memory evident of his freedom, but the language of his ancestors. We spoke Latvian, one of the oldest languages still spoken in the world. The taste was sweet on the tongue, golden in the ear.

“You could visit me during the coming year,” Guntra offered. “You have a place to stay in Riga. Come home… brauc majas.

There had been a time when I traveled to Latvia on a yearly basis. A few months overseas, then return to the United States to start anew, saving money for the next trip. If I had amassed no material wealth to speak of in my adult years, it was in great part due to my constant travel, my constant new beginnings, new jobs, new addresses, new homes, and boxes of belongings with never enough time in one place to unpack.

I dipped my head, speaking into my Guinness, mentioning debts that now kept me tied to one home, denying me the other. While cost of living in Latvia is still very affordable, something I could even manage as a freelance writer submitting work electronically back to the States, I had bills to pay that had come along with the roots I had let grow into Michigan soil. I could feel it now, how things tied us to place, how they rooted us like a ball and chain. Do we own things? Or do things own us?

“Look at me,” Guntra raised a hand up in a flourish towards herself. “I travel for my studies. I write grants and they make the travel possible.”

“Grants,” I repeat. “Ah…” as the thought soaked in. “I’ve never written one.”

Guntra smiled. Tipped her head to one side and watched me think.

Vajag tikai gribet,” she said. “You must only want.”

And similar words come back to me, from a man I had known a long time ago, who had accomplished great things: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” As long as he believed those words, and in himself, he could accomplish anything. How could I have forgotten?

We paid the Guinness tab with a small tip. Emerged in the sun outside the pub, embraced and wished each other well in the coming year of new adventure and challenging decisions. I wished her a good journey. Guntra went to the right, where her bicycle awaited her, and I turned left to walk back to my car.

I walked, my mind tumbling with thoughts, wanderlust woken fierce in my heart. Might it be somehow possible… travel, new adventures, challenges met. What was that saying I once so favored by a favorite Latvian author, Zenta Maurina… “Skaisti ir uzdriksteties.” It is a beautiful thing to risk.

A voice shouted out my name from behind me. I turned to see Guntra pedaling fast down the street on her bike, hair flapping loose around her laughing face. She waved at me, then took the next turn right to disappear behind the next building, but not before I heard her call:

Vajag gribet! Write that grant!”


(Last of a 7-day series.)

Friday, May 20, 2005


by Zinta Aistars


That longed for day. That day that goes ahhhhh. That day that gives life a grain of sweetness, a smidgen of delight. That day that peels away the rhino hide and reveals new pink hope, smooth and as yet unweathered by the unkindest elements. That day that leads to two more that are all mine, all mine, greedy greedy greedy.

Maybe not all mine. Maybe not all pleasant. I foresee obligations and duties, travel through construction on the interstate (my weekends often involve travel), a bit of rush and bustle, and even a little work. Still. The day outside my office window late on a Friday afternoon shimmers with sun, and the breeze through the open window caresses like a velvet glove.

I want out.

My daughter e-mails me a photo of a tent among pines beside a lake. Did I not raise her right? Such torment. Child, how can you torment your good mother so? I think of the northern woods, and how long it’s been since I last camped. My favorite spot: the Keweenaw Peninsula in Upper Peninsula, Michigan, and a campsite located just beyond…. no, wait. You don’t want to know. It’s mine.

And I want to be there. Now. I may be somewhere around, give or take, midlife, but I can still throw a temper tantrum with the best of them. Tent. Now. North. Wanna go. Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

Okay, that was ugly. My apologies. I’m still in the office and have no business behaving like a juvenile. But the heart swells with longing. My spirit aches for green and wild and cool and silent and serene and good earth. I forget how much I need it, and that may be part survival instinct among the cement we live in, but the need is real. I lose perspective, my priorities veer dangerously out of whack, the important becomes diminished and the unimportant screams in my face. Until I go to such green places. And sit quietly. And take down my civilized and dusty interior walls and open my self to that mother’s call that is rugged and bountiful Mother Earth.

My daughter understands. In fact, I raised her very right. I imagine she knows that one of my fondest memories is of our trip together some years ago, just prior to her leaving the nest, to the Rockies in Colorado. We slept in just such a pup tent. Chilly night at high altitude, drizzle all night, but the cold mountain stream just outside the flap bubbled and gurgled all night like a lullaby. We fit into the little tent like babies in the womb, each in our fat sleeping bag. Up at dawn, and when I peeked out from under the flap, there she was, Blondie with her hair pulled back, fussing over an already crackling campfire, oatmeal cooking in a pot.

At the foot of those mountains—the charming town of Boulder. My baby girl was about to go to college. She would stay, and I would go back to far Michigan. Crying all the way. But some tears are meant to be spilled. Returning to the natural world reminds us of this natural order of things, the rites of passage, the times of growing and letting go. The memory of our camping trip was our gift to each other, cherished always.

It’s Friday, and my grown up baby girl e-mails me photos of green places before she returns to her own work in another faraway place, all these years later. I am in my office in Michigan. She is in her office in Florida. And both of us, I know, are looking out the window…


("Friday" is a part of a 7-day series.)

Thursday, May 19, 2005


By Zinta Aistars

"It was the music of hill and moon, a calling-down music, keening and wild. There was a stag's lowing in it, the murmur of sea against shore. There was moonlight in it and the slow grind of earth against stone. There was harping in it, and the sound of the wind as it sped across the gorse-backed hills."
- Charles de Lint, Into the Green

Suddenly, like a lost child, like a madwoman, like a burst and bruised and broken heart, I am all tears, streams and rivers and falls, and the evening outside my window is weeping, sky broken too, and rain falling on the lone robin swaying on the branch just outside my window, his head pulled down deep into his wet feathers, tiny life of chilled misery, bobbing with the movement of the branch as the rain pours down, swaying, submitting, finally giving in. Was it a mistake to put music on tonight? Every note finds its mark. As if every place I long ago thought healed has become raw again. Yet I lack the strength to put the music away, I can't. I can't. It sings of my self, it sings my history, it sings my loves and losses, it sings the doors that have opened and those that have shut for all time, it sings of wishes unheard and lost, it sings of nights once warm and now grown cold, it sings of yesterday, now mere memory, it sings the echo of abandonment, the stab of betrayal, the deep dark places of deception, it soars to the summits I wanted to climb but fell short, it sings of faces I have too long not seen, too long not touched, mouths not kissed, hard and sweet and long, those dear faces no longer held between my hands, eyes that won't meet mine, arms that no longer hold me, warm me, it sings of places I long to be and am not, it sings of words I dare not speak but that cry out inside, beating fists inside my walls, it sings of a life I wanted to live but could not, it sings the songs I thought I had forgotten, it sings of the moon that once held me in blue cool light, stars that shot through me, it sings of summer nights that came to an end, it sings of colors now faded and flowers now wilted to crumbling ash, it sings of nameless things, of sacred things, divine and achingly pure, of words I cannot find, my lips will not shape, it sings of courage I no longer have, and the strength that was once mine, it sings, it sings, and the tears belong to themselves, beyond will and beyond desire, it sings of unlit fires, it sings of rivers I could not swim, waves rising over me, of untraveled roads and the journeys never made, of homes that will never be mine, the music tears at me and its beauty sears and wounds all over again. Oh God, may the music never stop…

Painting, "Light in the Forest," by Viestarts Aistars

"Thursday" is part of a 7-day series.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


A 7-day series of essays by Zinta Aistars

"I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.
--Maya Angelou

I look over my shoulder to see what has happened to Paula. We're walking back across town after lunch--she to the newspaper offices where she works as a reporter, and I to my car, to drive back to the college where I work in communications--but then I glance over and Paula is gone.

There, she's just a few steps behind me. Stopped and listening attentively to another woman who has suddenly appeared from around the corner of the building. I hear something about money.

"…need a few dollars… just maybe $3.75?… left mine behind… too many blocks away. If I go back for it… be late for work. Please?"

I go back and stand to one side of Paula to listen. Hard to tell… homeless? Seems not. Something like a blue hospital gown over a flowered dress. She's large and heavy, her expression a bit simple, or perhaps it is just that she is flustered. There is a hospital a couple blocks from here, perhaps this woman is an orderly there. A nurse? Somehow I don't think so. Her plea for money seems a little too practiced, a little too desperate, her voice a little too like keening.

"You look like a nice woman," she says to Paula. "Maybe you can help? Please?"

Flattery, I sneer, always a nice opener. I'm glad I don't look like a nice woman, I think, and watch with some curiosity to see how Paula will handle this. Paula says nothing. She's a reporter; she knows how to listen. She's a reporter, she's sharp and perceptive; she'll know when she's about to be had. The large woman's voice pitches upward with her plea. She waves an arm in some vague distance towards the other end of the mall, then brings it back into a fist that she pounds against her heart. Where she lives? On the north side? Not the best side of town.

Paula is a petite woman, and yes, I too can see it in her pretty face, even though her smile is rare and given only with good reason--there is a quiet kindness in her dark eyes. She is looking up at the other, unsmiling, attentive, waiting for the woman to finish her story.

There is a moment of silence. Then Paula reaches into her bag and pulls out a folded bill. She presses it into the other woman's hand, whose eyes grow suddenly large, too large, and the woman stares at the bill, far more than she had asked, gapes back at Paula, who is already walking away.

"But… but," the woman takes two hurried steps after her. "I will give this back to you! Where will I find you? Your name? You will need change for this!" she waves the bill in the air, and for a moment it seems she may cry.

Paula holds up a hand and waves away the offer. We resume our walk.

I want to ask: did you really think her worthy, Paula? You don't think that was just a cheap line? You're a reporter, you know a line when you hear one…

But, instead, I merely say, "Now where were we.."

"I was just going to say," she offers, "what an incredible day it is today. Don't you think? Look at that sky. Look at it. Not one cloud."

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Part of a 7-day series of essays by Zinta Aistars

"Perhaps this is what her life will be from now on, a series of small graces,
now that she's awake to the world again."

--from Flight by Ginger Strand

There are too many champagne bubbles flowing through my blood stream for a Tuesday night. But who's counting? Not bubbles, not I. There are times to celebrate, our own celebrations or those of friends', and my Tuesday is a celebration of Ginger Strand's new first novel, Flight, smoking hot off the Simon & Schuster presses. She's come home to Kalamazoo, and a little bookshop on the downtown Kalamazoo mall, called Athena's, has opened its doors wide to the breezy warm spring evening and Ginger's guests.

George, the bookshop owner, in a navy blazer setting off his stunningly white hair and goatee, is bustling everyone in, trying to find space in an already packed shop. Readings don't usually bring out this many listeners, but Kalamazoo loves Ginger, and her novel is taking wing.

Finding a seat, I settle in for a listen. I love readings. I'm on assignment tonight, having an advance reviewer's copy of the book on my office shelf in preparation to write an article about Ginger and her book for her alma mater's alumni magazine. But no one needs to know. My work is my pleasure. Ginger and I have chatted via e-mails but have not yet met--until tonight.

I pull my chair in as people crowd by. The little bookshop has never seen this kind of bustle. George and his assistants are scrambling for more chairs, even bringing in the little plastic ones from the children's section. Those without remain standing, leaning elbows on bookshelves, pressing into each other, mumbling pardon me's and 'scuse me's and oh, sorry. I decide without hesitation that I have spotted Ginger's mother. She is glowing, feet above ground, and her camera is flashing in every direction. She giggles and tells the audience to smile. And we do. No one argues with a proud mama.

Our chairs forced too close, the man next to me begins a nervous chatter. Do you know Ginger? he asks me. Have you already read the book? Your thoughts? He tells me he is a neighbor, house next door and lawn to lawn, and can now claim a novelist as a family friend. I'm treated to stories of Ginger growing up. Her father, too, was an airline pilot, like the main character in the book. Family, it's about family, and all the mess and fuss and loveliness that families bring. Sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers and soon-to-be relatives as they all come back home for a wedding with a wincingly reluctant bride.

Ginger begins her reading from the first page of the book. We are all ears. She reads of places we know, flight patterns from Detroit along I-94 ("…he's worn that highway like a coat for thirty years…") through Battle Creek to Kalamazoo, and just north, Grand Rapids. The audience laughs at all the right places, like family at an inside joke. It feels good to recognize places, things, people, and ourselves. There is a reason authors come home for their first reading. They belong, and we let them bask in their belonging.

The lines are long as Ginger signs her books. We mill and converse as we wait. There's Richard from work, and he's brought his two sons, and here's Carol, and Sass, and Fred, still in line and already on chapter two. I run into Cindy, whom I haven't seen in four years, and her sister. It's another kind of family. George brings out another stack of books.

At last, it's time to celebrate this initiation. The evening air is just right, sweet smelling and cool, and we head out en masse, up the mall and then right down South Street, corner of Bronson Park, to the grand old red brick towers of the Park Club, one of the oldest in town. And the champagne is already poured. Strawberries dipped in chocolate, tiny marbled cheesecake squares, and creamy bites in lacy paper with fresh raspberries on top. Nuts and cheese and grapes. I put down my empty champagne glass and it's magically refilled.

"Really," I say to my evening's companion, "I have no idea how it got full again… " But I am merely laughed at.

I watch Ginger through the crowd. She is flushed and dewy with pleasure. Perhaps a little unnerved. She's a hometown gal done good, and it is her night, and the champagne bubbles for her.

Evening over, I walk several blocks back to my car. The bubbling fuss vanishes behind me. Long day. Tired. But it's been a good one. I drive home with the sky already grown dark, and for a short moment, I feel the wonder of something longed for coming to fruition, of a dream realized and shared with friends and family, and how flight can happen… if we only let go, let go, and let the current of air draw us upward towards the clouds.

Monday, May 16, 2005


An essay by Zinta Aistars

“Monday, Monday, can't trust that day...”
--John Phillips, The Mamas and The Papas

And I am that distrust personified. I am reluctance, heels dug in, gritting teeth, silent scream within, shaking my fists at the tyrant of Monday. Sunday still lingers on the mind and seduces the spirit into its sweet laziness. Then, that long ago day, that much missed Sunday, when the Queendom was mine…

Yet I enjoy my work, indeed, very much. When interviewed for the position, now many years ago, I was asked what I would consider my “dream job,” and I replied: “The job that makes me love a Monday.” I got the job. I still don’t love a Monday. But I do love this: the ambiance of creativity, the team that comes together in this academic institution to discuss ideas and brainstorm new ones, molding and framing these ideas with words and color and grand design, all of us pulling as one. I am a part of that team, a writer and editor, a communications specialist.

Still: communicate a fine Monday to me. The kind that feels like a warm, fuzzy robe. The kind that smells of freshly ground coffee, infused with butter rum. The kind that is velvet on the nerves.

Oh, soldier, dream on…

Meetings, phones, voicemail, e-mail, communications fly. Deadlines creep against the wall. Cranky comrades zap over electronic insults, and I leave behind the robe and put on, instead, the thick rhino hide. The coffee is rancid; the meetings last two hours instead of the allotted one, the requests for assistance come in long past deadline. Memos fly, accounts demand to be paid, files breed secretly among themselves. But then, yes, there is this too: the thank you’s and the considerate welcomes, the shared punch line at the cooler, the task completed and well done, and the icing: a surprise phone call from an old friend.

“Communications, this is Zinta…”

“Hello, Z,” and I recognize the deep and suede smooth voice. We haven’t talked in weeks, or has it been months, oh maybe half a year. Maybe closer to one?

And the workday, for a little while, is set aside. We have been friends since we met on a previous job, nearly a decade ago. A battle zone that bonded. A madhouse that drove to madness. A week of Mondays. Out of the front lines, we held on. And still do, from time to time, and so we chatter about children, mates, been and gone, current jobs, random travels, and undying passions. He mentions a ride on his new Harley, the one he wanted for so long. The one he works too hard and too many hours now to ride. I laugh, and tease, and chide as good friend would, and put in my demand for a ride. Damn good thing for both of us, I say. It was once how we kept our sanity in jobs gone sour. The Mondays melting away, gone with the wind, as we chased them on long bike rides.

“Done,” he says.

But back to work. This short reprieve is over. A moment when life snuck into making a living, and it almost felt as good as that Sunday robe.

Jangling phone and Monday takes me captive again. Until the clock, at long hard eight-hour last, gives time back to me. I run back into the arms of evening, and I have earned it.

Driving home and weaving on automatic habit through the traffic jams, I consider those long ago bike rides. Straddling that throttling machine behind my good driver, I began with my arms tight around him, then was drunk with the wind in my face and hair, spread my arms out wide to catch the passing world as it rushed by us and we roaring through it.

"You hold on, Z!" he warned into the wind, slapping my thigh.

But I didn't, and wouldn't, and couldn't, because this was how life was to be lived. Unruly and daring, with mussed hair, arms spread wide, and racing towards the future.

Life should be a week without a Monday.


("Monday" is part of a seven-day series.)

Sunday, May 15, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

"Let me not turn away. What I am is all that I can carry."--from Trapeze by Deborah Digges

When the bright of morning blooms, I am warm and curled into the sheets of my bed, three animals surrounding me. Guinnez, the chow mix pup, although no longer a pup, has his golden furred back in perfect arc against mine. His nose is tucked between two paws. Tommy, the tomcat, born wearing a tuxedo and forever trying to keep it clean, has his pink nose but an inch away from mine. He opens his green eyes when I open mine, a darker shade of green, and stares. I am sure there is laughter of the most mischievous kind in those eyes. Jig, black calico, is stretched long and lean along my other side. She only pretends at relaxation. Her nature is the very essence of suspicion and anxiety. All three of them come to immediate attention the instant I open my eyes.

They've been waiting. It's Sunday.

And a pleasantly rainy one. A soft spring rain rattles the window, like a lover tossing pebbles against the glass to gain my attention. I'm up, I'm up, wrapping my body in the warm and the soft of a favorite old robe, and my furry troop bounds ecstatically in front, behind, and around me at every step. I pretend annoyance, chiding them and laughing at them in the same breath.

Spooning sticky coffee beans that smell like heaven into a grinder, I have time and leisure to consider the laziness of a Sunday morning. No rush necessary. No clock demanding to be noticed. No inbox awaits me, no phones, no bosses, only this gift of time that belongs to only me. The beans are ground, and my nostrils flare, eyes closed--few pleasures entice more than Sunday morning coffee, and this pot an exotic peanut butter cup flavor.

No adoration is greater, no gratitude more profound, than that of my furry troop as I feed them. Surely these dry bits and smelly canned stuff is manna from heaven, how they bound about me for every glop and crumb. Even Guinnez gets a spoonful from the cat food can. In his mind, having grown up around the two felines, he is puppy-cat among his two adopted siblings. He produces an odd growly purr in his throat at my caress. He walks the arms and back of the sofa behind the other two, cautiously balancing his 40 pounds. But Tommy, who fancies himself a kitty-pup, growls jealously at the loss of that one spoonful, bats Guinnez hard across the nose, and leaps at his dog brother's face in mock threat. Meal downed, both animals lick each other's ears and snouts clean. Peace is restored. Jiggy avoids it all.

But I have my face in the first cuppa Java. Inhaling. Lips just touching the heat. Hum of pleasure at the first sip. This is addiction, and it's glorious.

We all have our routines, and they bring sense to chaos, become a safe oasis of predictability in the toss and roil of stress at our workday lives. My Sunday morning flickers on my coffee table, an array of scented candles and lamp oil in a tall bottle, once filled with lime vodka (something for my Saturday night), this favorite mug of coffee held between two hands, a small stack of books to one side for my current reading, and a blanket to pull across my lap. The rain only adds to the blessing. All three pals find their new spots and curl into them nearby.

In these morning hours, I speak quietly to God, bringing in my own church into my living room, my own congregation of simple souls. I speak of my fears, the battles I wage within, and the demons who assail me, and at times the demon I become. I speak of my hopes, these golden and delicate wishes, secrets of my heart, dreams I weave and for which I require not only blessing, but divine and guiding help. I do not walk alone. I speak the long list of blessings, and in so counting them, I begin to realize how infinite they are. I name the names of those I love, and those too number many. Lives woven with mine. Lives long ago gone in another direction. Lives running parallel, only now and then crossing paths. Each one adding to the quality of mine. No woman is an island. I speak of my transgressions, and humbly ask for absolution. I fail, and I fail again, and yet again, in so many ways and in my foolish pursuit of so many illusions. I offer my awe and gratitude. For this day, and every one before it, and the gift of each to come. Even those I have resisted, even those I curse, and even those I would rather not experience. Perhaps those are the greatest gift of all, offering me wisdom. I whisper: thank You.

The candles flicker. The rain patters and slows.

My books beckon, and I bring my knees up under the blanket to read some slim volume of poetry. I have my favorites: Rilke, Milosz, Gluck, Ivaska, Dybek, Carruth, Oliver, Olds. But every Sunday I gather a new one to the fold. Words tease and tingle, my mind blossoms in welcome, unfolding in greeting and invitation. Touch me. Teach me. Enlighten me. Transform me. And they do. It is my second form of prayer.

A novel draws me in, and for an hour or two, I become someone else and live another life in another time, and yet, when at last I close the cover, it is myself I understand better.

The rain has stopped. I had not noticed it. A wan sun spreads butter across new spring leaves bursting over thin branches outside. I open the sliding glass door to the back yard and let my little herd go out and play, and send myself to the showers, to dress, to prepare for play myself. The day lies ahead like a lover with open arms. My body and my spirit have been nourished, and I am ready to greet whatever awaits me.

Friday, May 13, 2005

End of the Tunnel

by Zinta Aistars

The rattle of bones, the mad march of skeletons,
skulls rounded and milky white, eyes vacant
with the loss of memory—life is that and nothing else—now only
these locked and bolted doors, the hard rain pelting
the windows, the membrane of yesterday
a shimmering gauze across the summon
of future gone past
too soon, too sleek and slippery in the hand
to hold, or even caress, even grasp its solid curve,
its chill, its hollow egg fragile with potential,
for one moment, one full and ripened moment,
begging only to arrest, hold, linger, fathom,
taste on the tongue
tip, and honeyed taste on the lips,
a mango sweet, dipped and rolled and set
to flame. Only one. No matter.
Time flings itself in reckless abandon.
Thrashes against the closet doors, shatters the windowpane,
has its nervous breakdown and curls into a fetal coil
in the darkest corner of the room, whining and whimpering.
This room. One life.
And time a colder thing even than apathy—
this dizzying speed ushering in a visage
of empty desert, a golden and infinite nothing.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Working for Smiles - From Kalamazoo Across the Nation, an AmeriCorps Volunteer Makes a Difference

by Zinta Aistars

This is no ordinary camp. These are no ordinary camp counselors. And when the door of the bus finally opens, and a hydraulic lift begins to rise to meet the wheels of a wheelchair, it is clear: these are no ordinary campers.

A week on assignment with Lorena Audra Rutens, AmeriCorps volunteer... and my daughter. Published in the November 2003 issue of Encore magazine in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Photo of Lorena Audra with camper Ruth.

The first small bus pulls into Camp Courageous at about 2 p.m. It is a bit earlier than expected, so the camp staff members, all of them wearing lime green shirts that have STAFF spelled across both front and back, are still gathering around the picnic tables not far from the parking lot. Clipboards in hand, they are getting their assignments for the coming week of summer camp.

This is no ordinary camp. These are no ordinary camp counselors. And when the door of the bus finally opens, and a hydraulic lift begins to rise to meet the wheels of a wheelchair, it is clear: these are no ordinary campers.

Camp Courageous is a year-round camp for people of all ages with special needs. Located in eastern Iowa, five miles from the town of Monticello, it is run completely on donations, without any government support or formal sponsorships. While there is a core staff of about 70 paid employees, the camp, which takes in about 4,500 campers over a year, relies heavily on the work of volunteers. Eleven of the lime-shirted staff members, most of them between the ages of 18 and 24, are volunteers from AmeriCorps. They are here for four weeks, as part of a 10 month fulltime residential program that will send them all across the United States to complete 1,700 hours of volunteer service in various projects in public safety, public health, and disaster relief. Camp Courageous is not the first project these eleven volunteers have been on, nor will it be the last.

One of the eleven, her blonde ponytail bouncing as she dodges around the gathering staff members now helping campers unload from more buses, more vans, more cars, is from Kalamazoo. She is Lorena Audra Rutens, 23 years old and paying her own way through college. Working on a social work degree that is two semesters shy of complete at Florida State University in Tallahassee, she has taken a break from the classroom to test her new skills in the real world (see sidebar for Lorena’s own story). When she completes the 10 months of service on AmeriCorps projects like this one, Lorena will have earned a stipend of $4,725 to be used for tuition or educational purposes only. That, she will tell you with a quick smile, amounts to approximately 70 cents pay per hour.

“I’m obviously not here for the money,” Lorena laughs, “although that stipend will help me finish up my degree back at FSU. And after that, I hope to go on for a Master’s. Most of my tuition has been paid from money I make waitressing and working at a daycare center in Tallahassee. No, I’m not here for the money. I’m here for other reasons.”

But there’s no time now to talk reasons. Campers are arriving, and they all need assistance of one kind or another as they tentatively gather in the center of the Camp Courageous campus. There are 62 of them, all of them adults, 13 of them in wheelchairs, and their physical and mental disabilities range from autism, multiple sclerosis, visual and hearing impairments, Down’s syndrome, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, paraplegics, attention deficit disorder, to a long list of other, lesser known disabilities and disorders. Most campers have been diagnosed with more than one disability. All are welcome here.

Staff members, including all of the AmeriCorps volunteers, mix easily and quickly with the new campers and assist wherever a hand is needed. Luggage is taken off the buses and out of the trunks of various vehicles and arranged in piles that will be sorted into the rooms where campers will sleep along with staff members, at least one per room. Some weeks the camp is expressly for disabled children, but this week is for adults only. Even so, the diaper bags and boxes of adult-sized diapers accumulate into large stacks beside rolls of sleeping bags and duffel bags.

A short blind woman, not much over four feet tall, holding her white cane with one hand, hangs onto the handle of a wheelchair with another. Although her face has the innocence of childhood, her hair is showing first streaks of gray. Her head rolling from side to side, she repeats the same few indecipherable words again and again and again. A young woman in a lime green shirt approaches her and takes one of the blind woman’s hands in hers. The blind woman repeats her three words faster, as if in greeting.

Another gray haired man in a baseball cap shuffles slowly across the campus, feet turned sharply outward, and peers into a glass door of one of the campus buildings. A young man in a lime green shirt stands beside him and leans into the window too. They strike up a quiet conversation.

A middle-aged man in billowing blue trousers walks a determined straight line down the center of the campus. When he is just about dead center between the grouping of buildings, his blue trousers drop around his ankles. He sits down on the ground to contemplate the situation. Several lime green shirted staffers form a circle around him, one or two sitting down beside him, to contemplate and collaborate on a solution to the suddenly drafty situation with the new camper.

Lorena has found one of the group assigned to her care for the week. This is Gwen. Lorena checks an index card in her back pants pocket and quickly finds out that Gwen is 49 years old and suffers from schizophrenia. Lorena chatters happily with Gwen, asking her questions, telling her about the camp and where they will find their room and beds. Gwen listens with utmost seriousness, unsmiling, her eyes never leaving Lorena’s face as she studies her. The rest of the group soon gathers around the two of them. Two other AmeriCorps volunteers, Fedora and Kirsten, have found the campers assigned to them – Marie, Carol, who is the only one in their group who is in a wheelchair, Brenda, and Nancy – and they head for their room, lugging sleeping bags and luggage. Gwen is the youngest in the group; the other women are in their 50s and 60s. Brenda and Nancy have their teddy bears along for the week, and they place the stuffed animals carefully on their beds when they are shown where they will sleep.

Fedora, one of the other AmeriCorps volunteers, is from the Virgin Islands. As she helps camper Carol, who is in the wheelchair, arrange her belongings in a cubicle at the end of the room, she talks about her experience: “I just finished college prior to joining AmeriCorps. My degree is in international affairs, but I would like to work for a non-profit, human and women’s rights type of group. I joined AmeriCorps because I hadn’t ever volunteered before. I wanted to try a new experience and to travel around the United States. It is not quite what I expected, not what I would choose first for myself, but just as it is important in life to know what you want to do, it can be just as important to know what you don’t want to do.”

Kirsten, the third AmeriCorps volunteer with this group, is a pre-med student from Albany, New York. She has found exactly what she expected to find in volunteering. Studying to be a pediatrician, already with four years of experience working with children dealing with cancer, she is an eager participant, sleeves always pushed up past her elbows. “I’ve done volunteer work before,” she says, “and I love it. There is so much to choose from, and AmeriCorps gives us extensive experience with all kinds of projects that help great people.”

Once the campers have settled in, activities begin. There is a long list of things to do that fill the week from one end to the other. With 16 buildings on 80 acres, the camp provides space for indoor and outdoor activities: swimming, archery, canoeing, fishing, rock climbing, tree climbing, arts and crafts, dancing, games, various sports, and more. While some of the activities seem challenging to even the most able camper, all are encouraged to participate at their own comfort level, perhaps even pushing it a little, to build self esteem in new found skills.

Every camper gets personal attention. A few wander aimlessly, not participating in activities, but nevertheless included in the group, and for each of these “wanderers,” a staff member wanders right along beside them, everywhere they go. Down hiking trails, through various buildings, across the campus, in and out of rooms, these campers are never out of sight of a staff member, even when the wandering continues long through the hours of the night. If turns need to be taken, staff members switch night watches, but vigilance is constant.

“It’s amazing to see the dedication of the volunteers,” Lorena says as she walks with her group down a trail into the woods at dusk. “Keep in mind, we are not professionals in the field. Most of us have never done this sort of work before. We are given a few days of training, and then we are on our own. We watch over the campers, we help them dress and undress, we help feed them, wash them, care for them. When necessary, we change diapers. We do things we never imagined doing before, but it doesn’t take long to get past the discomfort of dealing with this kind of work. This could be you. This could be me. This could be my brother, my mother. Someone has to care. Why not me?”

Dedication is paramount; the time the AmeriCorps volunteers put in a day at a project such as this one can mean as much as 17-hour long workdays, sometimes even more. It can mean lost sleep. It can mean aching muscles from lifting a paraplegic from his wheelchair to his bed. It can mean six day work weeks, with little energy left over for anything but an intoxicating sleep on the single day off.

A camper from another group spots Lorena just as she walks by, ponytail bobbing, and decides she likes her smile. The camper, a middle-aged woman with a slightly lopsided gait, makes her way over to give Lorena a big, warm hug. No explanation given, no explanation needed. Lorena coos and giggles and returns the hug. The two of them hook arms for a moment, do a little jig, give each other a high-five, do another jig, then follow the rest of the campers into the woods, where they all finally meet in a circle to sing favorite songs.

“My training was a little shorter than the others received,” Lorena says as the campers burst into a cacophony of song. “A few of us were called away for emergency disaster relief. AmeriCorps headquarters for our group is in Denver, Colorado. There, we go through seminars and training before being sent across the country on various assignments. This is my second project. The first was in Texas, near the Mexican border clearing a preserve. But just as we were going to head out for this project in Iowa, there was a lot of flooding in the south, and I was sent to assist Red Cross in Alabama in helping flood victims. So I missed part of the training at Camp Courageous. But volunteering teaches you to adapt quickly, to fly by the seat of your pants. If you have heart, you roll up your sleeves and get to work, and you learn as you go. You do what you need to do.”

A frequent presence throughout the camp is the camp’s director, Jeanne Muellerleile. She not only works long hours at the camp, she lives here. Her house is directly on camp grounds, just inside the main gate, and with her live her husband and daughter.

“This is the kind of job you don’t put away at the end of the day,” she says. “It becomes a part of who you are. I started volunteering when I was a teenager in St. Louis, Missouri. I helped in a swimming class for handicapped children. I enjoyed that, but when I started college, I wasn’t sure what kind of career I wanted to pursue. I was still volunteering during my summers, and I began to realize this was something I really enjoyed doing. Oh, the first summer I had doubts, sure. I felt overwhelmed. But by the end of the summer, I knew. This kind of work pushes your comfort zone. It’s stressful. You question yourself, if you are doing things the right way, whether you will know how to reach people different than yourself. But then something happens, you stop worrying, and you begin to realize how wonderful these people are and how much they are teaching you, and not the other way around!”

Her biggest challenge, Jeanne says, is not with the campers, but with staff. Problems with an inability to deal with stress, not showing up to work on time, or simply not being able to cope with all the requirements of a job such as this one. She is grateful for the AmeriCorps and other volunteers, whose dedication and willingness to work without pay make the camp possible.

“Since we exist solely because of donations of time, goods, and dollars,” she says, “organizations such as AmeriCorps make places like Camp Courageous possible.”

The message Jeanne wants people to understand most is the importance of being open to all kinds of people. “About three percent of the population in the United States has some kind of disability. The rest of us need to reach out to these people and not make assumptions about them based on their appearance or behavior. Get past that initial discomfort. Talk to them when you meet them on the street. Say hello. You might make a new friend.”

The week goes by quickly. The campers have played games, organized a carnival, danced to a live country band, attended a circus, gone bowling, bottle-fed baby farm animals, tie-dyed shirts, played basketball, canoed down a river, climbed trees, and had a cook-out. And more. Memories are not in short supply.

Lorena walks beside camper Gwen to the awaiting bus, helping her carry her luggage.

“I’ll remember you,” Gwen says. She stops for a moment to gaze at Lorena, as if memorizing her smiling face for all time. Her own face, so serious throughout the week, slowly blossoms into a bright smile.

“I’ll remember you,” Lorena says. Her eyes appear suspiciously wet for a moment, as the two women hug, rocking back and forth for a long moment.

“I work for smiles,” Lorena says, as she watches Gwen climb slowly and carefully onto the bus.

Note: After completing this assignment, Lorena traveled to New Mexico, where her next project was building houses with Habitat for Humanity for families in need of homes.

If interested in learning more about Camp Courageous in Monticello, Iowa, see:


AmeriCorps Volunteer Gives to Receive

by Lorena Audra Rutens

Only halfway through my AmeriCorps stint and I’ve found that I’ve changed much.

In a public restroom in a store I look at the handicap stall and recall lifting and assisting a handicapped woman back into her wheelchair. I step out of the bathroom and leave the store. My hand trails the outside wall and the coarse gravel of mortar between the rocks recalls for me the distant sound of a chainsaw, and in my mind's eye I watch tree branches careen to the ground. It begins to rain and I recall a flood: torrents of water splashing and hissing, the flow unending. In my mind I walk into an old trailer and the wind is knocked out of me by the smell of mold. I trip over the ripples in a once flat living room floor. "We lost everything, everything," the owner sighs holding his tanned, weathered hands in his lap.

By the end of this simple walk through a store and a tiny parking lot, I find I have traveled through many lives.

I wrench back the door of the oversized van to see 11 faces staring at me: my team... my family for 10 months. What we’ve seen in this short time is more than many people will see in a decade. We’ve ridden in this 15-passenger van across the country and lived in five states, spent 10-hour days in the hot sun, backs throbbing and arms aching, clearing new trails into a mountainside, and stood on ladders precariously balanced on cliff edges to stain cabins in which Girl Scouts would soon be laughing. My team became a composite of stonemasons to renovate a new porch for generations of these women to walk on. I spoon fed the most beautiful 17 year old man because he lacked the dexterity and coordination to feed himself. With a pure yet developmentally three year old mentality, he repaid me with glowing smiles and blown kisses.

These stories, only a few of many, have left their marks on my heart.

At a remarkable camp we helped the most severely disabled people feel alive and brave enough to explore caves and scale rock walls. We issued hope to the victims of floods by providing beds, clothing, and food through American Red Cross funds.

Today I sit in New Mexico, in the office of Habitat for Humanity. My team is attempting to get the help and structure needed to build six houses in seven weeks for families that now live in substandard houses, dirty, cold, and leaking.

Living and working with these 11 people, all strong willed and between the ages of 18-24, is no easy task. I have felt the joy and frustration, the ups and downs associated with all of the projects I’ve worked with these people. Although I’ve made friends who may one day sit with me on my porch reminiscing about the "good old days," the best friend I’ve met is me. I’ve learned how strong and powerful I truly am.

I will be a leader in whatever I choose to do. I will lead by love—of myself and of humanity—and by my will to use my talents to help others to bring about true success. AmeriCorps has taught me this. I offer a taste, a glimpse, of the self-realizations and experiences one will face while working for a community service organization such as AmeriCorps. This 10-month endeavor is the domestic equivalent of Peace Corps. Volunteers devote their time and efforts, after rigorous training, to serving their communities in return for an educational award of $4,725.

This is no easy journey, day in and day out, but it is well worth the greater social, political, and spiritual awareness to be gained. The empowerment I feel today, as my term draws to a close, is worth every minute of this rollercoaster ride.



AmeriCorps - Corporation for National and Community Service

Created in 1933 and sometimes referred to as the “domestic version of Peace Corps”, AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs that meet the critical needs of education, environment, public safety, and health. More than 50, 000 young Americans each year serve as volunteers through more than 2,100 nonprofits, public agencies, and faith-based organizations. AmeriCorps volunteers tutor and mentor youth, build affordable housing, clean parks, work in after-school programs mentoring children, and respond to the needs of disaster relief.

AmeriCorps is made up of three programs: AmeriCorps State and National; AmeriCorps VISTA; and AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. NCCC, the residential program described in this article, is a 10-month, fulltime residential program for men and women between the ages of 18 and 24. NCCC combines civilian service with the best aspects of military service, including leadership and team building.

AmeriCorps is open to U.S. citizens, nationals, or lawful permanent residents aged 17 or older. Members serve full or part time over a 10- to 12-month period. Fulltime members receive an education award of $4,725 to pay for college, graduate school, or to pay back student loans. They also receive health insurance, training, and student loan deferment. Part time members (at least 90 hours over two years or less) are eligible for an educational award of $2,362.50. Up to two such awards may be earned per member. Education awards can be used at most institutions of higher education, including graduate and professional programs.

Are you up for the challenge? To learn more about AmeriCorps, see: or call 1.800.942.2677

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Mother's Clouds (Mates Makoni)

by Zinta Aistars

To my mother, who has so often told me of the beauty of clouds in the sky over Latvia, where she was born.

This poem has been published on "Poetry Life & Times, October 2003 issue, along with an interview with Zinta.

Mother would insist:
back home, across the expanse
of ocean and gulf of time,
the clouds had a different shape.
They are, she said, a glowing white
tower with the full soft curves
of a woman’s blossoming heart.
They rise to the corners of the sky,
she said, light as the fluff of a dandelion.
They sail, she said, like old Viking ships,
rocking slowly into the sunset,
weighted with gold.

My sister and I would wink and smile
at Mother’s fancies, colored, surely,
by distance of space and time,
charmed by a remembered childhood,
the softening of memory that caresses
like a mother’s hand her baby’s cheek,
safe as a father’s hand clasping hers,
sweet as a first love perfumed
by forgetfulness, wistfulness, desire
to keep the past – pure in its perfection,
and billowing white.

Crossing the expanse of ocean,
my own years leaving a first fine crease
at the corners of my eyes, the color of hers,
my sister’s jawline softening, like hers,
we lie in the green fields of our mother’s
childhood. We gaze up at her sky,
ceiling of her innocence. And the clouds,
great billowing ships, breezes
filling their glowing white sails,
glinting against the sea of sky,
rock lightly in their buoyant voyage
over space and time, until
we can almost hear
the slap of canvas at filling sails
bellying into the outer curve
of the horizon of our daughters’
and our granddaughters’ next sunrise.


Latvian translation:


Mate zvereja:
tur majas, tevu zeme, pari
okeanam un laika dzilumiem,
makoniem cits vaigs.
Tie mirgo balti, vina stasta,
pacelas augstos tornos ar pilnigiem
un maigiem apveidiem
ka sievietes maiguma parplustosai sirdij.
Tie aizpeld lidz pat apvarsniem,
vina stasta, ka pienenu pukas.
Tie aizpeld, vina stasta,
ka seni Vikingu kugi,
lenam iesupoti saulrieta,
smagi ar zeltu.

Masa un es saskatamies smina –
ai, mates aizsapnosanas berniba,
iekrasoti bernibas kosam krasam,
apburta vina atminam kas glasta
ka mates roka berna vaigu,
dross ka teva roka saturot saveja,
salda ka pirma milestiba,
aizmirstibas sasmarzinata,
velmes saturet bijuso baltu
un muzam neaizskartu.

Merot okeana plasumu,
manas pasas gadi atstajot
pirmas vieglas pedas
acu sturisos, vinas krasa,
masas vaigam ievelkoties, ka vinas,
mes gulam mates zalos laukos,
mates berniba. Mes skatamies debesis,
vinas nevainibas jumtos. Un makoni,
milzu kugi, baltam buram
mirgojot debesu jura,
veigli peld, lidz liekas
varam saklausit buru piepusanos
preti supojoties apvarsnim
meitu un mazmeitu nakosiem saulrietiem.


(Photo of clouds over the Daugava River in Latvia by Julita Klusa.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

Every night the moment,
eyes fluttering open,
skin drawn tight,
fisted suspension
in air
as if floating
on dreams. Again,
there it is: upward
in its beckoning,
proverbial stairway
to the heavens,
each step rooted
in dark and crumbling earth.

Every night the climbing,
toehold on scrambling pebbles,
the frequent fall,
wobbling handholds tearing loose
and hanging on air.

Luminous morning
open like an overripe fruit
just at that moment
when eyes weigh heavy at last,
heart still pumping
the blood heavy effort
of reaching and reaching
through endless layers
of sleep.

Night waits,
and stairways glistening
with dew.