Monday, September 03, 2007

It's All Uphill From Here (travel essay)

(August 1, 2007)

I feel it: the quickening of the heart. The shortening of the breath. The electric humming deep within, and the desire rising upward in first wave of heat. I am in love. After several days of driving, followed by driving, ending with driving, I have arrived in a place that makes me hum and smile at strangers, who, lo and behold, smile back. The Rocky Mountains rising in a blur across the horizon, a city nestles up against the foothills and opens its gates in welcome to me – Denver. And a short drive north, Boulder. This is a place that resonates with me not unlike the heart-tugging call of Home. Yes, that kind of feeling. That kind of sweet love.

In my cross country drive, I yawned a bit at Illinois and its endless cornfields. Or was that Missouri? The miles were an even blend, and traveling inward was more interesting, if no more fun, than traveling outward. Somewhere along there I even wept for a hundred miles or so. No special reason. A kind of welling up of collected pain and woes and hurts from all my many lives lived and now behind me. A release. A silent sobbing into the asphalt stretching out endlessly behind me, endlessly before me. And done.

And then I enjoyed the softly rolling plains of Kansas. Those gentle curves of green and gold soothe away the last rawness of various stresses. Green uninterrupted, only the occasional shrub or cluster of trees, but otherwise only curves, like Mother Earth lying down and resting, her wide hip and rounded breast and luscious thigh the length of the horizon. Here and there, cows, sometimes all brown ones, like milk chocolate, sometimes black ones, like licorice beans, moving slowly across the land, noses to the ground, munching. I liked Kansas. I could understand life in Kansas. My nerves settled into a semblance of contentment.

But then, oh then, Colorado! At first it is all buttery gold, almost like a desert, and no sign of mountains. I've visited this state many, many times over my lifetime, ranging from early childhood, to taking my own child to Boulder to release her into her college life at University of Colorado-Boulder for her freshman year. I chugged through once on the California Zephyr, a railway trip from Kalamazoo to San Francisco, and when the train pulled to a stop at the Union Station in Denver, I remember peering through the iron fence at the soaring mile-high city, fireworks exploding overhead in celebration of July 4th of that long ago summer, and I longing to go, explore, immerse. But the train was steaming and chugging along, and we, the passengers, could only stare through the iron fence.

I walked along the inside of that black iron fence today. The highway had led me into the city without a hitch. It was as if my car, a little rental Chevy Cobalt, had a mind of its own, and it knew exactly where we should go. Turn here, right there, left here, and a parking spot opened up before me, and the first Denverite appeared to greet me. The Tattered Cover, I said. Near here? Oh yes, he smiled, quite near. And pointed but two blocks down, and even from where I stood, I could see the red-brown brick, the banner waving atop the steep steps up: my favorite bookstore. I recalled it from years ago, that year my daughter and I came to Denver to explore her new home. I never forgot. A writer never forgets an excellent bookstore.

You know that feeling? When every detail clicks into place, like a puzzle solving itself. A path opens, a gate unlocks, a door beckons, and a threshold must be crossed. I walked into the Tattered Cover, and it was just as I remembered it. No chain store, this. Their logo: "Independent Bookstores for Independent Minds." Worn wooden floors, shelves in every which direction, fresh coffee brewing, random soft chairs and plush but worn sofas, no matching patterns or designs. Not in furnishings nor in the people wandering the store. Young and old, business man or gray hippy woman or executive woman or eager child. Yet silence reigns. Every pair of eyes is mesmerized by the written page. Every gaze scanning titles, reading words. Readers settle into favorite corners and turn the pages, lost to the world.

Soon, so am I. For surely they knew I was coming. On the very first table is the very book I have been seeking. A new novel by Annie Dillard, The Maytrees. For it was Annie's voice that burst forth from the radio of my rental car when I had just picked it up at the Kalamazoo airport. Serendipity? A good omen, surely, that my cross country first companion had the voice of my favorite writer. Yet I had missed most of the interview. Heard only the ending, as she spoke of this being her very last novel, for her fingers did not work anymore, could not write, could not type, had not, however, yet tried the chisel…

I pick up the book and hold it to me. I am Home, I thought. I am among friends. I wandered the bookshelves, tables, and aisles. Everywhere books, and nowhere the type of books I avoid in chain bookstores. Surely the Tattered Cover owners have seen my reading wish list. I come upon Orhan Pamuk's Snow, and I clutch that to me, too. Then Mary Oliver's latest poetry collection. Then Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. Oh, I must stop. My new richer salary isn't quite here yet. I find a soft armchair in a corner on the second floor and settle in to read. The chair fits me and I fit it. The books fit my hand. I read a bit of one book, then another, then a third and fourth. I must choose. I must. Oh. I. Must. All right, then, so be it, and I make my way back to the counter with Annie Dillard, my saving grace for this journey, and Orhan Pamuk, because the first page of his novel has so captured my instant attention that I am now haunted.

Lunch beckons, and the bistro I choose is nearly empty, because my stomach is still on Michigan time, and the residents of Denver have already eaten and returned to their offices. Michael has the luxury of waiting on only me, and he brings me the local microbrew that he insists I will love – and I absolutely do – and so, having earned my trust, I allow him to choose the rest of my meal, too. I put fingers to lips and roll my eyes with culinary pleasure when he comes by again to inquire if his choices are satisfactory. He laughs and recommends the bread pudding speckled with chocolate bits, and I moan with longing, but must pass. Must. Pass. But I quietly promise myself: this will be my reason to return. Always leave something behind, a reason to come back.

I walk the city and realize by all the passing smiles on local faces that I am, huh, smiling widely myself. It is an overheated 95 degrees today, and I never smile on such scorchers. Indeed, I can feel my light shirt sticking to me, sweat curling loose tendrils of my gathered up hair, but I am so pleased at the sights of Denver, the brick walks, the historic district, the rusty metal bison sculptures, the soaring skyscrapers with old town tucked against them, that my love is unabated. I have walked into Writer Square, after all, and what do I find in the center of the square but Tewksbury & Co. Premium Tobacconist. As managing editor of The Smoking Poet, I decide this does indeed qualify as a writing tool, and in I go. A row of wooden cigar store Indians greet me. I finger the price tags. The cigar store proprietor comes over to chat me up about such fine relics, and I do not argue, only knock my head to one side and say: someday, someday. Yes, someday, when The Smoking Poet has a cigar lounge to match the literary ezine. But for now, we talk favored smokes, and I breathe deep in the humidor, nostrils filling with the aromas of fine cigars, and I choose La Gloria Cubana in a natural wrapper for my celebratory welcome to the mountains, and two elegant boxes of long cedar matches. I thank the proprietor for the advice to visit Eads News & Smoke Shop in Boulder, promise solemnly to do so, and then reenter the heat of the day.

More little shops. More gifts. I purchase a pair of Navajo artisan earrings for myself, two colorful little turtles, recalling a book I recently read that spoke of turtles as mascots of living a life of balance in courage and care. Consider the turtle, who keeps under a thick shell a most tender being, not easily harmed for its protective shell but no less tender beneath it, who cannot take a step forward without sticking out his neck first. This store proprietor senses my enjoyment of the turtle as symbol and tells me how the Native Americans saw the turtle as a symbol of long life. He offers a matching necklace, a carved turtle on a black leather cord. No, I shake my head, but then, yes. My son collects turtles, I say, perhaps… and he grins ear to ear and gives me a deep discount, an irresistible bargain for earrings and necklace, too, and I throw in a shot glass of Denver, and we are doing business.

Evening in Boulder, and I settle into the luxury of a hotel room, bubble bath and fine smoke, and open the novel by Annie Dillard: "The Maytrees were young long ago. They lived on what still seems antiquity's very surface. It was the tip of Cape Cod, that exposed and mineral sandspit…"

Tonight, then, Cape Cod via Annie, but tomorrow… the mountains of Colorado. It's all uphill from here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Writer Travels

When we speak of travel, we usually speak of planes, trains and automobiles. And other various modes of transportation. But writers also travel on the steam of words. Words are our engine, transporting us forward in life – or, as the case may be, sometimes also allowing us to travel back over time. Words, unlike planes, trains, and automobiles, have no time constraints, nor is any geographical location, even one that does not exist geographically, out of bounds (ask any science fiction writer). Riding on the engines of words, we are free to explore without limitation. Imagination is our vehicle of choice.

Ever since I can remember, I have been a carrier of the wild wanderlust germ. It gives me no peace. It has no known cure. For a short time, sure, I am content to stay in place, content to explore the constraints of my daily routine. But not for long. I crave travel. Planes, trains, and automobiles, even ships and hiking boots and horseback, RVs and bicycles, any mode will do. I have been traveling since earliest childhood, as acclimated to being on the road as I am to staying at home, traveling no further than my backyard deck to let my gaze alone wander the distant horizon. Comes a time, however, when I have to hit the road.

I travel with favorite travel buddies, I travel alone. A journey, any journey, changes according to how and with whom we travel. Traversing the very same miles, taking in the same scenery, my journeys have varied dramatically according to my travel companion. A road trip with Mom is not the same road trip as with my best gal pal is not the same road trip as with a cherished lover is not the same road trip as with my two babies in tow. Conversations to pass the time and the miles differ, from topic to manner of expression. Some travel companions inspire lengthy and deep-diving philosophical discussion, while others inspire prickly silent treatment, and still others, a constant sparking of laughter. We tend to see the world according to the shared experience of and with our travel companions, and they with ours, at least to some degree, and so what catches the eye of one beholder fades into oblivion for another. Traveling with my father means lingering in the local art galleries. Traveling with a co-editor meant checking out the local Irish pubs and stopping by the nifty cigar shop every town surely has if you look hard enough. Traveling with my daughter means stretching every imaginable comfort zone I have – and that is an excellent exercise. Traveling with my mother means revisiting the erring ways of my early youth along those long road miles (ouch). Traveling with a lover imbues a shimmering sweet light to every sunset that lingers long into the night.

There is purity in traveling alone. In the coming days, I am setting out on the road alone, driving nearly cross country, from Michigan to New Mexico. It's a business trip, but there is no chance of keeping this to business only. I've explored this country this way and that, north south east and west, and there is far too much beauty to view and adventure to be experienced for any trip to ever be limited to business. My heart is already picking up its pace in eager anticipation of this new journey.

By now I know that traveling alone also means an inward journey. It means I have no one to distract me from me – but me. When I think I have had just about enough of me… well, tough luck, Z, there is just more me. Which is when something interesting begins to happen…

In every journey, there comes that moment of hitting a wall. When traveling with someone, it is a moment when you think you simply can't bear another moment stuck in a plane, train, or automobile with this other person, and the scream is stifled in your gut, squeezing its way up your throat, leaking from your eyes in a misty vapor, wisps of steam curling from your ears.

Get me out of here!

But, oh, there is nothing to be done about it. Not one thing. You are a gazillion miles from home, and you can't up and leave the house and slam the door. You're stuck. (Unless you don't mind leaping from moving vehicles or skydiving from jet planes.) Deal with it. Deal with each other, and when you finally do, the brick of the wall begins to crumble. Mortar chips away and stone grinds to dust. Bricks come tumbling down and a first sliver of light shines through the cracks. On the other side awaits the exquisite intimacy reached only when two people, in whatever type of relationship, are pushed beyond their personal comfort zones into new territory… together. Words are exchanged, all kinds of words, and a new level of relationship is created.

The same phenomena applies when traveling alone. The miles accumulate, the road stretches out and beyond, and I begin to reach that outer limit of boredom with my own worn-out thoughts, daydreams already frayed at the edges, and the conversations I have with myself in my own mind circle like droning flies. All I want to do is slap them away.

It is usually at that point that I have some kind of epiphany. The thought I tried so hard not to allow in—gets in. And you know? It's not such a scary thought, after all. That demon that I've been dancing with for some years now turns out to be a poodle in a tutu, not at all so intimidating, rather silly, in fact. I deal with it and shoo it off the stage to fully enjoy the new landscape.

What travel accomplishes, aside from filling our photo albums with great shots of mountains and oceans and amusement parks and tourist traps, is an inner journey that aligns itself with the external journey. In travel, we traverse the physical geography of a landscape as we traverse the inner landscape with its own shadowy caverns and mountain peaks and roller coaster rides.

What a writer gains in travel is irreplaceable. Keeping a travel log later proves to be a writing exercise like none other. New backgrounds are gained for an endless array of creative scenery. A deeper understanding of the human psyche, one's own and that of others, is revealed in a way that daily routine forbids. A life transcribed upon the written page must first be lived. In vivid color, mile by mile, traveling in and out of oneself.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Seeing Every Word My Father Paints

Tribute to Viestarts Aistars, my father,
on his 80th birthday: July 15, 2007

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It doesn't matter that we don't speak. He paints, and with that, watching him, I hear every word. Not only the words, but the beating of his heart. I hear the whispers of a random breeze, tangling in his trees. I hear the shushing of waves, small ones, rippling against the soft, sandy shore, and the smash of the great ones, tipped with foam, breaking against the rocks. I hear the creak of old wood in his fishing boats, rusty hinges and masts that bend in the ocean gales, but never break. I hear the soft splatter of rain on his city pavement, on the curved and dripping sides of his umbrellas, blooming against the wet sky. I hear the slapping of wet laundry hanging on the line. I hear the soft, steady breathing of the reclining nude on her flowered divan, her lazy gaze lost in a book. I hear the silence, lying back in his lush gardens and endless meadows, watching his clouds bob high overhead.

I can hear him still, even if my understanding of his words, painted in vivid color on canvas, has grown more sophisticated with time – I've grown to understand something about the ups and downs of life by now, too, requiring a more deeply intoned language – and even when I have stepped away from my father's paintings, they follow me. They have followed me since my earliest childhood, through all my growing years, and now ease me across the threshold of midlife. I know, they will follow me to the very end of my path.

For me, the hearing translates into written words on a page. For my father, his writing tool is a paintbrush. At first glance, perhaps two very different mediums of artistic expression. But are they? My very earliest impressions of my father at work in his basement studio, when I was a little girl in long braids, peeking around the corner and careful to not make a sound so as not to disturb the magic, was of a creator at work over his many worlds. It was that process of creation—from nothing to create something, from the white and blank canvas to draw out living flesh and living things, seascapes and landscapes and figures—that so fascinated me and sold me on art. I wanted that. I wanted to create, too. Surely there was nothing more satisfying in chosen occupation! If the fathers of other little girls I knew donned business suits and knotted ties around their necks and went off to offices with briefcases in hand, surely what my father did beat all. There was nothing magical about business, I thought. Calculating numbers and filling out spreadsheets and sitting in meeting after meeting after meeting… but see, my dad! My dad worked in solitude, separated from the busyness of the world outside, hidden as all wizards are in their towers and hidden caves, and he waved his wand, his brush, across the easel, and before long, behold: a forest sprang to life. A shaft of light fell on the moss. Flowers opened fresh faces to the sun. And up from the earth sprang streams of clear water….

The fathers of my little friends could do nothing to compare to this.

So I kept on watching, and I learned from my father's medium – paint – how to paint with language. Art is creation, and I was giddy with what I had learned in seeing him paint. There was the blank white page. A fearsome thing. Silent and ungiving and patient as death. The creator could sweat and moan and writhe in the agony of uninspired creating, but the blank page, as the blank canvas, would have no mercy, give no clue, only wait, and wait, and wait. But then there was the moment, the first word as the first dab of color, that scarred the page and canvas, and it would never again be the same. Not even when erased or deleted. Juices flowed, passion turned its engines, wheels began to turn, pulleys spin, and the machinery of creation was begun. No turning back now. Using words as my tool, I soon learned my father's exhilaration. This was the elixir of the artist's intoxication, the muse, the siren, and this was, as Joseph Campbell has advised: following one's bliss.

Few compliments I have received over my writing career compare to my audience at an authors' reading telling me: "I can see what you wrote. It is as if," they might say, "you paint with words…" And I beam. The little girl in braids peeking around her father's studio door remembers, and she feels the pride of achievement of a lesson well learned.

Here is what I learned from my father, the painter: when faced with a white canvas, the blank page, think about the composition. There must be balance. To what point do you wish to draw the eye? Consider where the eye goes first, then, to what place on the canvas does it go next? And then? Keep that inner eye intrigued, don't let it slip off the page, but moving, ever moving, across all the lines and angles, taking it all in, every last detail, hungering for more, craving resolution, until at last—the picture is complete. When it is, then be sure the image haunts, and it remains long after the eyes of your audience have moved on to another spectrum. You must capture the mind, the spirit, the heart. To do this, the colors must blend with ease, but then, just when you think you've got it figured out, plotlines and paint lines in order, suddenly—a surprise! That slant of light against the dark background, oh, it fascinates, does it not? For a moment, you can't help considering what it might be like to stand inside that circle of light. To be a part of that painting. A part of that story. A main character. When what they see on the page or the canvas so resonates with the viewer and the reader, when they sense a kind of mirroring of their own experience and life sense in the art, blending so seamlessly that they do not know where the story and the painting begin, and where their own life continues on, then you know you have made a crucial connection. Your art has melded with another heart. For a moment in time, you, the artist, the viewer, the reader, are no longer alone.

Years passing, little girl unbraiding her hair to grow into the woman, and young father growing into an elderly man of accumulated wisdom and vision, more lessons transpire. There is the lesson of passion, yes, the near losing of oneself in one's art: so immersed does the artist become, falling as if into a trance, a kind of madness, delusion and illusion made real, letting go of the boundaries and limitations of reality so as to dance on the other side, yet always come back again. It is necessary. Nothing less will sustain. But there is also the lesson of persistence: the long work day concluded, the artist comes home to begin the work day all over again, this time in his studio or her study. Because even my father at some point had to go to the office. Working as a commercial artist, long before the days of computer and clip art, he drew the cows that mooed across paper milk cartons, the coupons housewives clipped in Sunday newspapers, the menus the hungry read at the downtown posh restaurant. Draining work, perhaps, making the living room couch seem that much more inviting after 5 p.m. Yet my father returned home, not one day missed, and kissed his wife soundly hello, patted both daughters on their heads, and bypassed the couch for his basement studio. It was not a drain to him. It was reinvigoration. The magical hours that made the other eight-hour nonsense make sense.

I got it. When the rejection slips came in for my first awkward poems and clumsy little stories, I didn't worry. The sting was short-lived. One had to create first in response to the voice inside. The whispers of wisdom, that divine something connected, it seemed, traveled straight up to God. Because there never really will be an explanation for art, will there? From where it comes and how it transforms and what it becomes.

My father once told me he was sorry. When I was a grown woman, he once apologized for not spending enough of those evening hours at home with me. Or his other daughter. We played overhead (or so he thought) with our toys and other distractions while he painted below, and sometimes did not come back upstairs until long after dark, when we were tucked into bed. I widened my eyes in wonder. Sorry? Was I missing something? I, who grew up in these swirls of color perfumed with the tang of turpentine? Does one apologize for magic spells broken open to inherit and pass on?

I missed nothing. Not even the lesson that an artist must emerge from his den or studio to reenter the real world. When there was the vigor of youth and health, my father often packed up his palette and paints and folded up his wooden easel to announce: field trip! My mother packed a picnic lunch of dark Latvian bread, thick and fragrant with earthy grains, spread with real butter and lavish slices of sausage or ham, cheese, and crisp pickles. Blankets were folded into the car trunk, but I don't recall being able to sit on one. The places he took us were too rich with life. These were the worlds that lived in my father's mind, I knew, because I saw him pull them from his memory and onto the canvas in the years to come. See the sights, smell the smells, hear the sounds, taste the tastes, feel the touch of reality on our skin so that we would have something to bring home again.

So did the writer require living life before she could construct the story. It was a gathering time. A knocking about time, sustaining and surviving all its hard knocks, submitting to the bruising of life at its keenest edge, because the art created in the tucked away place later would always reflect it. Not living fully, completely, utterly, and above all courageously, would also be evident. Life had its risks, chances would have to be taken, or the connection between artist and art, viewer and reader, might never be made. To paint the breeze in the branches of the tree, my father had to now and then go out into the field and feel it on his own skin. To paint the shining ripple on the water, my father had to roll up his pant legs and wade in. I, too, had to live my life before it could transcribe it. The rejection slips no longer came so frequently. Submission accepted. I gotit.

I got it, Dad. How the paint flows in your bloodstream. Now the words flow in mine. As your basement studio, so now my secluded den. I tap away at the keyboard as you dab away at the canvas. From the white page emerges something living that did not live before, and you planted that seed, that love of the art, that drive to create. I swirl a slant of light into my poem and I think of your forests and the sun breaking through. I paint with words because you taught me to see.

Viestarts Aistars is a painter whose favorite mediums are watercolor, oil, and an ordinary pencil. He has had over 50 one-man shows across the United States and in his homeland Latvia, and his art has won numerous prizes and critical acclaim. One of his paintings was purchased by the president of Latvia and now hangs in the presidential residence in Riga, Latvia.

Zinta Aistars is a writer and editor who has had three books published in the Latvian language, now seeking a publisher for her first collection of poetry in English. She is on the editorial board of the literary ezine, insolent rudder; a poetry editor for the international women's literary ezine, Her Circle Ezine; and the managing editor of The Smoking Poet.

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Daudz laimes, Tet. Daudz baltu dieninu...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Cranreuch Palpitations

by Zinta Aistars

With first humid hints of summer heat,
I am already molten with misery –
a polar ice creature of northern inclinations
meant only for a glacial love.
My heart shimmers with a rime
of jagged-edged hoarfrost stars
at the first blue blink of my lover's cool face.
My icy hands quake at his shuddering sides,
knuckling a frigid rib cage
where a gelid pulse knocks loose
prickling icicles of frosted flatteries:
I love you best in chilblains,
I nip you loose with frostbite,
I shiver your bones to a snowy white,
the snap of a Siberian gust binding
a jewelling of diamond ice chips
to your stiffened lashes, your sweet sherbet mustache,
the fine, golden hairs of your reaching arms
turned platinum and shining silver.
Enfold me in a white flurry,
blizzard my kisses into goose flesh,
warm me to crystal ice, my ice into white-flamed warm,
a hailstone storm of pooling fresh melt
of arctic joy.
I shall not love again until winter.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Perfect Space

by Zinta Aistars what exactly? I'm not sure I know. But, quite suddenly, I realize I want one. Happens when things are being moved around in your life and in your home. With one of my babies grown and gone from the nest, a bedroom had opened up for new use. Small, certainly, and I probably wouldn't call it more than a generous walk-in closet in terms of size. But my needs and wants are modest, the creative space I require to be expansive has always been more in reference to imagination than measurable in square feet or metrics, and when I measured this little room with fantasy unreeling its long ribbons… the space began to stretch out into forests, plains, and oceans. A kind of Z's version of Where the Wild Things Are, with a nod of appreciation to childhood favorite, Maurice Sendak. All things are possible in my little den.

By this point in my life, perhaps a few less wild jungly things, though, and a few more peaceful shores, lapping at my feet. Yes, I could see that here. In fact, my son's wallpaper trim of lighthouses on rocky crags along all four walls were just fine by me. But all else would have to go. Out came the bed. Closet: empty. Gone the collectible cars and stray pieces of stereo equipment, piles of empty CD cases, rock star posters and bookshelves of paperbacks (espionage, mystery, wartime flashbacks).

Standing in an empty room, it is interesting for me to realize, for an odd and lost moment, how clueless I am. A mother, once a wife, too long a girlfriend, I am always more about giving than taking. About considering the needs and wants of others before my own. How does one create a room… for just me?

I begin where I always begin: with a good book. They were already spilling over throughout the rest of the house. The only rooms without bookshelves in my home are… wait. There aren't any. Living and family rooms have bookshelves taller than I. I've created a bookshelf for favorite cookbooks on top of my refrigerator. And there's a stack of Poets & Writers magazines in my bathroom, and slender poetry volumes, perfect for long, inspirational bathtub soaks. In my bedroom, there are now three separate stacks of books begging to be read beside the bed, so I begin with those. Into my new den they go, best of the best on the shelf within easiest reach, the already read on the uppermost. At eyelevel go Barbara Kingsolver's essays, C. S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, Dorianne Laux, Marge Piercy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ingrid Hill, Norah Vincent, Czeslaw Milosz, and Elizabeth Gilbert.

It doesn't take long for me to fill all the shelves available in this space, and soon the little room is a hug of fine literary adventure on three walls. The fourth is an open window, and I pause to enjoy the spring breeze coming in, catching among the branches of the fir tree just outside. An open window invites a chair beside it for a longer pause, a stray daydream to wander in and out of the window, a wandering gaze lost into the distance.

A chair? Where will I find an unused chair? I peek back into my bedroom. There, in the corner, with my silky unmentionables draped over the arm. A sweater across the back. A cat curled on its seat.


I tug and push the soft, padded lounge chair through my bedroom door, dropping silky things along the way, into my new dream room. It fits perfectly in the corner by the window. I sit. I close my eyes and lift my face to the breeze. I dream…

I dream other comforts and cozies into this space, and soon action follows dream. Laptop here, disks there. Files, stapler, paper clips in a glass bowl. A pile of various sizes pads of paper, a ceramic cup of freshly sharpened pencils. Another small round table for a small lamp, the slender green glass vase my daughter brought back for me from Italy last winter, a cigar box of odd business cards of people and places I will probably never meet again, fragrant candles and wooden matches, a wooden spoon someone loved once carved for me, a woven basket of stones collected from beaches as far apart as Puget Bay, the Baltic Sea and Lake Superior. A ceramic pitcher with ancient Latvian designs to hold paintbrushes with tiny furred tips. An amber egg.

Walls, yes, bare white walls, and I arrange a blue watercolor my father painted long ago of a lone boat just come in from the sea. It speaks of serenity. A small framed oil of mother and child a young woman once sent me in gratitude for edits on her manuscript – and I had thought I wasn't kind. Photographs: an old church in Piltene, my children very young, my children grown, my sister who loves me even when I am impossible standing on the staircase beside me. A calendar decorated with Psalms.

On the wooden floor, beaten with many steps and scrapes and dug-in heels (must remain exposed, I think), a small rug just beneath my feet when I sit and read by the window. My chow pup, Guinnez, circles and circles and finds his spot immediately.

It is evening then. Night has crept into my open window. I change into a nightgown and soft, long robe and curl into my grandfather's chair. He read for hours in this chair, a writer, too, with a dozen novels showing his name on the spines. I sit, rocking, rocking, and thinking of him, long gone.

The light glows honey mellow in the room, throwing a golden glow into all the corners. I will write epic poems here, I think. I will write a great novel. I will write heart-baring journals and leather-bound travel logs about all the places outside my window and inside it, too. I will sit in this chair, rocking gently, and reading the masters, classic and new. I will leave the world outside the door when I enter, and inside, I will create new worlds. And, sometimes, I will invite the Wild Things to play here, too.

I sit for hours, marking the passing of the evening into night. Marveling at the essence of space and how it changes by what we bring into it, both tangible and intangible, when my son appears in the doorway of what was once his room. In his outstretched hands, he holds in a little green pot – a delicately blushing pink cyclamen. The petals of the blossoms are folded down along their stems, as if yet too shy, yet waiting to bloom.

"For your new room," he says.

I press lips to his unshaven cheek. My little boy, how did I raise him so well, to know exactly what a space needs to become perfect?


Friday, April 27, 2007

Running with Ivy (travel essay)

by Zinta Aistars

And why not 3 o'clock in the morning? I can do this. For a chance to spend even a short time in the U.P. – the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – I'll not only get up early, very early, I'd be willing to skip a night. But 3 a.m. will do, and so I fall out of bed and move in the general direction of the coffeemaker, where the previous evening I wisely ground the coffee beans, prepared the filter, poured the water. Push button. Go. Off to the showers, cold will do.

Mary pulls up in the driveway a little after 4 a.m. Hannah, her eager German Shepherd-Husky mix, swipes a wet tongue across my cheek in greeting as soon as I get myself seated in the car, bag tossed into the trunk. We are on a mission. Sure, Mary's loosened a few screws, maybe even misplaced one or two, but that's why I adore this woman. However mad the passion, she follows it through to its logical, or illogical, end. This is all about following the call of the gut, far less about the faulty wisdoms of the head. We are two midlife women on a threshold of leaving one life behind and forming another. Children raised, relationships survived, jobs transformed into careers, we seek new adventure.

In this case, it's not only a call of the gut, but also the call of the wild. Since her last trip to Marquette, the largest city in the U.P., some weeks ago to watch a dogsled race, the U.P. 200, Mary has been afflicted with mushing fever. Outside, spring has sprung, grass is green, and the golden daffodils are already showing wilt – but Mary can think of little else than dogs harnessed to a sled, racing through crisp, white snow. Since her return, she's been networking and researching, and the fever shows no sign of abating.

"Oh, I can't wait to see Ivy," she hums in anticipation, the old white Oldsmobile humming in unison with its driver on 131 heading north. Far north. We have a 460-mile trip ahead of us. And 460 miles back again the next day. Our enticement, Ivy, is an eight-year-old sled dog that currently belongs to Ed and Tasha Stielstra in McMillan, a tiny blink-and-you'll-miss-it town in the U.P. The Stielstras raise and train some 100 dogs in McMillan the greener part of the year, but head up to Juneau, Alaska the whiter part of the year, where they run the Iditarod. The Iditarod, also known as The Last Great Race on Earth, is a dogsled race covering 1,150 snowy miles from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. Only the hardiest dogs and humans cross the finish line. Both Ed and Tasha have run the race, and will run it again. And again. They have made a life of dog-sledding. Mary has seen Ivy only on the Web site the Stielstras keep with ongoing journals of their many trails.

Mary is not planning on running the Iditarod. Although by now I know that any fine adventure is open to negotiation with my friend. Which is precisely why I am in the passenger seat this still dark as pitch morning. Over the past few years, I seem to have lost touch with my own adventurous and impulsive side. Life has been getting too cozy for comfort. Or too uncozy for its lack of spark. I miss the spontaneous Z that I used to be… and going north always seems to bring the best part of me back to the surface.

And we're off. Kalamazoo is far behind us; Grand Rapids, too, is a faint glimmer of city lights in the rearview mirror. A little north of GR, trees thicken on both sides of the highway. The dark of the night sky is transformed into a subtle shade of cobalt blue. Michigan's larger cities are mostly clustered on the lower half of the state, as if heavy with cement and humanity, too weighty to float like cream to the top. Clearing the latitude line that pierces Grand Rapids and Lansing, the capital, to our east, and just below the middle of the state, we begin to feel the welcome relief of nature. The farther north, the more untouched.

Hannah flops on the backseat and naps, occasionally lifting her head to peer over the seat at us, at the still dark and starry sky outside, then resumes her nap. We stop twice for coffee. And then – it's light. The cobalt blue has paled, paled, to become robin's egg blue, and I can feel my heart pattering a little faster at the prospect of the day ahead. Soon after 131 turns into a two-lane 31, then joins Interstate 75, we see it: Big Mac. No matter how many times I make that turn, see the sight of that immense Mackinac Bridge curving slightly over the place where Lake Michigan flows into Lake Huron, I have to draw my breath, deep, and feel my heart patter faster still within me.

Home. Yes, that's exactly how it feels. Crossing the bridge, spanning five miles from the Lower Peninsula to the Upper, it's as if we enter a different kind of place entirely. Towns and interstate exits are replaced by forests that cover endless miles and acres. Cultivated land is replaced by craggy rock. All that weighs us down falls away behind us. All that is man-made and "civilized" drifts away. Concerns, problems, stress, obligations, duty, worries, aches and pains, all melt away. Even my cell phone blips and shuts down. I feel free.

I have been coming to the U.P since I was a small girl. My father used to bring the family north to paint every summer. All the way across the width of the U.P. to the Keweenaw Peninsula, the small stretch of land that juts up into Lake Superior at the northwestern corner, he drove us to its northernmost tip, to the town of Copper Harbor. Setting his easel up in the rocks of the beach, he was lost in his work for the day. On the canvas appeared the blue wash of the water, the hardy pines resisting the lake winds, the weathered houses tucked between. While he painted, Mother stretched her legs out into the sun and read a novel. My sister and I each wandered in our own direction. There were times that I sketched with my pencil in a notebook, weak imitations of my father's artistic mastery. Yet end of day, looking over my shoulder, or picking me up to lean against his, he looked with utmost seriousness at my drawings of boats and the pier and patted my head. Well done, he always said, very well done, Zinti. And even if I didn't quite believe him, I beamed.

Over time, I have returned again and again, even if years, sometimes far too many, have come between. At one transitional point in my life, I needed a place to reinvent myself – and so I moved to the Keweenaw and set up a household: my two small children, myself, and a man I loved beyond sanity, whose wife I would become in a small church on the Portage Canal in Houghton, just at the bottom of the Keweenaw Peninsula. My memories of this corner of the U.P. remain some of the best of my entire life, a gleam of bright light in the near half-century now behind me.

Crossing the bridge, I try to recall why I ever left. But so much is… water beneath the bridge. I am not returning to go back. There is no going back. I am returning, I realize, to reinvent myself yet again. Mary knows: I dream of retiring to the U.P. someday – a writer living in the woods in a log cabin, weaving words and watching cobalt skies turn robin's egg blue, walking the rocky shores of Lake Superior, pondering plotlines of epic poems and grandiose novels yet to be birthed.

For Mary, crossing the bridge makes her knuckles on the steering wheel go white. Bridges spell fear to her. Crossing high expanses, deep roiling water beneath, high winds tossing her from side to side make her tremble. But Mary is a woman after my own heart: having identified a fear, she is determined to face it and walk through the fire to the other side. In this case, by driving across the Big Mac. What's on the other side is just too good to miss. What's on the other side of any bridge is too good to miss.

The enticement is irresistible. Marquette is home to her son, attending university, and at present, it is home to Ivy, the sled dog Mary is waiting in ever growing anticipation to meet.

Near halfway across the peninsula, my eyes catch on shadowy movement to the left side of the road. Could it be? I catch my breath and reach over to grasp Mary's arm. Wolf, I whisper. Cautiously, Mary stops and puts the car into reverse. Slowly, wincing at every grating of gravel beneath the wheels, we pull back to where the wolf stands, pondering us, the safety of woods to her other side, the tease of curiosity, hers perhaps equal to ours. We sit and watch. She stands still and watches. Hannah lifts her head in the backseat, then rises to all fours, is still, very still, and watches.

And then, smooth as silk, gray melts into trees, and she is gone.

We breathe, breathe deep with gratitude and blessing and wonder, and drive on.

"A good omen," I say, and Mary nods emphatically.

About fifteen miles later, we find McMillan, passing the county road only once, then making the turn north again, another eight miles, until we see a large blue paw print on a piece of plywood nailed to a tree. The road is pitted dirt, and there are no houses anywhere, only the occasional deer camp. But a turn in, left, more blue paw prints guiding our winding way, the Oldsmobile lurching through potholes, and we enter a camp resonating with the chorus of barks and bays and howls of sled dogs – Nature's Kennel, where nearly one hundred dogs are born and bred to race.

Both Tasha and Ed greet us, along with other staff who have time only to nod and wave. Tasha is petite, blonde hair cropped boy-short, and her skin color even in spring healthy from sun and winter wind. Her small frame is strong and quick, her smile equally quick, and she leads us through rows upon rows of tethered dogs alongside their plastic "barrels" serving as doghouses – towards Ivy. The yapping of dogs is friendly, inviting; eyes follow us with interest. Are we here to harness and race? Tasha calls out to one, then another, seeming to know the names of all, even though we surely pass more than fifty dogs. The animals are surprisingly small, lean and muscled, ranging around 40 to 50 pounds. Colors vary. Only their eyes strike me as different than the usual domestic dog. Wisdom of the trail? Endurance breeds intelligence? But when we reach Ivy, her head ducks with sudden shyness, or perhaps a show of respect towards her owner and trainer. When she looks up at Mary's outstretched hand, we see that her eyes are one colored brown, the other a wintry blue, as if she has always had one eye on winter fun. She is unsure of us; it will take time to gain her trust. Ivy, like all sled dogs, is an animal of the wild, of the trail, and she is not accustomed to human bustle, or wheeled traffic, or the insides of houses crowded together. She knows when to lead, but also when to obey. She follows closely at Tasha's side as we go back through the rows of dogs and plastic barrels.

It is not just Mary's approval Ivy will need to return home with us to Kalamazoo. There is also Hannah. The two dogs must get along, and eventually, they must be able to pull a sled side-by-side. I note the warmth rising in Mary's eyes; her heart is already won. But Hannah? Car door open, Hannah leaps out into the open, head switching left to right to take in the sight of so many peers, but when she approaches Ivy for a sniff, a firm growl greets her. Ivy's lip curls up, exposing white teeth, and Hannah immediately steps back, head bowed.

"I believe we have a new alpha in the household," Mary grins.

The two dogs ride in the back the rest of the way to Marquette, another hour and a half down the road, and Ivy is lying across the backseat in an easy sprawl, while Hannah is now huddled uncomfortably on the car floor behind the driver's seat. The two are not speaking. Hannah wouldn't dare. Ivy doesn't care. Every time I turn in my seat to glance back at her, her two-colored eyes meet mine in a steady gaze. I have my own chow pup at home, my heart is taken, I tell myself, but something about Ivy's sure gaze… I reach a hand back and softly graze her head with two fingers, and she lets me.

My previous home in the Keweenaw is still two hours further down this road, but the sight of Marquette already makes my heart hum with recognition. U.P. cities are not marked by skyscrapers, but by old mining towns as seed: stone buildings, saloons and churches in town, mining houses surrounding, plain and sturdy, surviving many decades of harsh winters. This is copper country, where miners emigrated from the Scandinavian countries, who knew how to withstand, even relish the cold. The ground is riddled with old mines, a latticework of tunnels hidden beneath our feet. And although the mining is now down to a bare minimum, more for tourist attraction than industry, the mettle of the inhabitants of this northern country is unchanged. It is what I so love here: the spirit of independence and individualism, hardiness and wisdom won by experience. Priorities have shifted. Politics and fashion trends, the whimsy of more "civilized" places, seem to have faded in the distance for the fluff that they are.

When Mary and I decide to stop and park the Oldsmobile under the shade of tall pines and let the dogs have their first run along the rocky shores of Lake Superior, it is as if I can feel layers upon layers open up about me, thick hides fall away, old aches diminish, wounds shrivel and mend.

Mary puts a harness on Ivy, who bows her head instinctively for the accustomed gear. Hannah runs loose, knows enough to stay near. Out of the car, Hannah bounds like a deer. Joy ripples through her every muscle. She leaps and twirls and dances. I can't help but smile at the sight of her. This is how an animal shows pleasure in being alive. This is what so many of us have forgotten. I shed another layer.

We head towards the water. Ivy is well-mannered, but an electric current of excitement runs through her. New terrain. Fresh air from across the water. Seagulls screaming overhead. When the four of us, two women, two dogs, stand at the shore, a reverential silence falls about us. Yes. Oh, yes. This is what life was meant to be. This, this pine and sea scent, this fresh wind slapping my hair across my face and back again, this copper-red sand and shale rock beneath my feet, this grace.

"Ladies," Mary finally says – to all four of us. "Let's walk." And we do, for long hours, along the shore and along a forest trail, always tight along the water, and the layers continue to fall away behind us, a littering of what no longer serves us. The two dogs forget themselves, and nose in the same scented spot in the sand, and a sure camaraderie is on its way to being formed. Ivy's pleasure in the walk is restrained and contained, while Hannah brims exuberance. They will be a good team of youth and experience, vim and wisdom.

When I lag behind, stopping from time to time to gaze out at the waves, or to investigate more closely a pool of water among the rocks, Ivy circles back and checks on me. A cool nose touches the back of my hand. Two-colored eyes check mine for intent. All is well? Yes? Shall we move on?

We move on. I bend over to pick up a wave-washed stone and slip it into my pocket. Whatever trails each one of us has run, we are here now, and new trails await.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Intimate Ache

There is the letting go and
there is the letting God.

Both are very nearly, very
nearly, very impossible.
And still the heart screams
for release.

Take it from me, you, Lord,
who hold out your universal
palm, wide and warm and deep
and all encompassing. Take.

It from me, this bloody muscle
that beats a steady rhythm of
pain and pleasure, pleasure
and pain, for all things cost.

I have loved and lost, as the old
song goes. And loved again.
And again, and the disappointment
is deep, and cuts, and wounds

for life. Nothing passes. Not even
the pleasure, which keeps
one foot in front, one dragging
behind, dead limb

drawing a line in the dust
of the drunken and maddening road.
It is what drives me. This ravenous
appetite for joy. Remembered

as if I had once known it. I did
know it. The bond that hums
through the bones when a touch
is not just a touch, but a meshing

of body soul spirit mind and bone,
lattice of skeletons molten together
into one clanking bell
ringing in the morning.