Sunday, December 07, 2008

Tom the Tom

By Zinta Aistars

And so he is: through and through a tom. No mistaking him for a feminine feline; he is all man. Smaller than most toms, perhaps due to his kittenhood marred by starvation, Tommy is nonetheless masculine in his form and manner. Even with a spicing of the proud machismo.
Tommy came to us in my son’s backpack. A yowling, pathetic little bundle of mussed patches of black fur and oozing eyes and spindly legs that could barely hold his meager weight. That was some fourteen years ago. My son, too, was at that spindly age of limbs growing faster than he could keep track of them. Not without an occasional yowl of his own. His mission in life was to rebel. As hard as he worked to hide the softness of his heart, however, it never failed to shine through when an animal was at stake. Both cat and boy were determinedly machismo, but not when it came to the vulnerable. Well, never mind the hapless mouse.

Markus scooped the little tuxedo (however shabby) tom out of his backpack and set him down at my feet. The tiny furball nearly toppled over. Too small to be without a mama. We lived out in the country back then, far out, and walking home from school meant passing through cornfields, circling barns, jumping ditches, and coming down dusty dirt roads until our little house appeared on a small ridge. It was a place we rented for a little over a year, on five acres and with cows for neighbors. There were more animals around than people, and we rather liked it that way. No doubt this little creature had wandered off a little too far from the rest of the litter, managed to catch whatever diseases and infections, while losing his mama’s milk and nurturing.

Couldn’t help myself, my heart was instantly tugged and twinged, and off we went to the country vet. Didn’t take him but a moment to pronounce sentence: Too sick. Put him to sleep. But who were we to decide? Even as the vet played god, the little tomcat wandered around the room, tangling between our feet, sniffing and exploring, all curiosity with no desire to be killed for it.

“What will it take to give him a chance?” I asked. The vet shrugged. Prescribed a small shopping bag of pet meds, ointments and pills, quarantine for at least a month, more for the protection of my other pets—I already had two cats at home, and a sweet golden retriever, named Holly, I was dog sitting for the summer for the man then in my life. This sick little tom added to my furry brood was, beyond argument, an inconvenience.

“Suit yourself.” The vet filled a small shopping bag with various pills and ointments, explaining what I would need to do to save the kitten.

My son instantly gave up his bedroom. Keeping his face hard and uncaring, he had connected to the little tom and was ready for the sacrifice. All the furniture came out. The room had to be bare walls and hard floors, and my son sleeping on the living room couch for the month.

Assuming the kitten would live that long. Every day the two of us traded off care: a pill cut in half and stuffed down the squirming kitten’s pink throat between those needle-sharp tiny teeth, and his throat massaged until he swallowed in spite of himself. His infected eyes were to be carefully washed with a clean cloth, dabs of ointment squeezed into the corners. We washed our hands carefully with soap after each contact, so as not to spread mange to our other animals, all of whom were snuffling around the edges of the closed bedroom door in puzzlement and wonder.
At night, when the kitten mewled with loneliness, I would soon enough find my son sleeping not on the couch, but in his room, curled up on the hardwood floor, the kitten curled inside his circle of warmth. He would talk softly to the little tomcat, calling him Tommy in soothing tones, until both boys, human and animal, slept. In the morning, human boy warmed milk in a pan and fed it with an eyedropper to the animal boy, wiping spare drops from his wobbly chin.

Tommy lived. There was no question. If perhaps his growth was a little stunted, his fur filled in and covered the bare spots, turning velvety and shining with health. His body filled out and grew, although his hunger remained ever present. Starvation in his early days had become a lifelong memory in his cellular makeup. Tommy loves deeply, as animals do, but he will steal food from you without hesitation.

Once released from quarantine and allowed to join the rest of the household, pronounced healthy by an amazed vet, he would routinely conduct food heists. When my children sometimes sat on the floor, watching television, dinner plates balanced on their laps, Tommy would align his route from a calculated distance, take off like a rocket on a trajectory, never missing a step, sink his little teeth into a pork chop on a plate in passing and keep racing, out of sight before you’d even seen him coming. A mere black and white blur, and then a growl from some hidden corner, sounding more like a small dog than feline, chomping away on the meat and then shredding even the bone.

Was it only this past spring? On St. Patrick’s Day, I had boiled a hunk of pink corned beef, sliced off two small slices with potatoes and cabbage, and foolishly left the rest in the Dutch oven on the stovetop. When I returned but a quarter of an hour later, the hunk of pink meat was gone, not even a grease spot on the floor, only a bulging tomcat, eyes wide and round, mouth open and panting. I was sure that hunk was bigger than he was, nose tip to tail end.

He’s slowing down now. I’ve had cats much older, but Tommy’s start has taken a toll. We’ve had struggles with kidneys that hold too long or won’t hold enough. There’s a notch in his ear from some night’s caterwaul, and there have been many. He’s gone from rather roly-poly to lean and even a bit ribby again, in spite of a raging appetite, still. Whatever the changes, first signs of old age he was never supposed to see, his years with our family have been memorable. Other household pets notwithstanding, and there have been many, he remains a favorite with my son, who has long outgrown the fakery of machismo to become a real man.

Tommy has always held his own in this house. Never mind the 125-pound Alaskan Malamute whose gorgeous black muzzle he’d box from left to right with his two white front paws when the great dog got too near his cat bowl. No fear of the chow and retriever mix in our family now. If the dog gets too rowdy, Tommy sinks his teeth into the muscle of the dog’s foreleg, just enough to make his point. But he loves his canine brother, rubs his cheek against the dog’s every morning in greeting. It’s just that discipline and rules must be obeyed. Everyone here knows who’s boss.

Now that my son is grown and gone, Tommy knows who scoops the tasty meal into his bowl. At night, he spins in circles on my pillow, until the spot is soft and molded to his shape, just right, then curls into and settles a paw across my neck. Just like the man he is. It is a mix of tenderness and proud possession. Or, if my own hand is up on the pillow, palm up, he tucks his paw inside.

Years have piled up, for both of us. He sleeps, below the table now, here out on the deck where I write away on my laptop in autumn waning sun. The fur he had always preened and cleaned to dandy velvet and silk is now rather dusty and matted. His white paws could use a wash. He contemplates jumping on the chair beside me, but decides the effort would cost too much. The squirrels he loved to chase waddle by in laziness, ignoring him and he them.

Life is to be lived day by day, but then, I suppose, it always was. We accept those who wander into our lives, needing help, and offer it. In payment: years of that unconditional acceptance animals offer in a way that somehow eludes humankind. No inhibitions. Gratitude on furry sleeve, alongside open heart. Perhaps we so cling to our pets because they do so well and seemingly with such natural ease what we struggle lifelong to learn: how to be, simply be, stake our corner out, grab a good meal when we can, and sleep faithfully beside the one who treats us best.

Tommy, you’re a good man.


It is my birthday weekend. I’d written the above remembrance of Tommy some weeks ago. Tommy is dying. A few days ago, our vet gave me the cruel list: a mass by his right kidney that appears to be cancer, kidney disease, but probably the diabetes is what will kill him first. A few weeks perhaps, but probably more like a few days. He does not seem to be in pain, only exceedingly slow and weak, ever weaker.

I had only one birthday wish—to have my little tuxedo tom with me for the day. He may be “just a cat,” but he, along with my other pets now gone, have taught me more about the meaning and true expression of love than any human. Sometimes I think when God created animals, he gave them the full blast of Love—how to feel it, how to show it, how to embrace and share it—and when he got to Man, He only had half a load left. I’ve never known a truer, more faithful love than this little tom has given me, and so freely.

There he sleeps, beside me. When I move, even slightly, his eyes open a little to keep watch. If I get up, he pulls himself up, too, his body wobbling with the effort, and follows me. To be near. To be near those we love. Everything. I scoop him up into my lap and sit for hours, moving my hand over his thin body, feeling the slight beat of his tiny but great heart. I whisper into that little silky black ear: happy birthday, Tommy. Today is for both of us. A single day of life is eternity.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pre-Thanksgiving Gratitude

by Zinta Aistars

Admit it. You don’t really think it will ever be you. Not you. Not me. Not ever our turn to be called, our number up, our unlucky moment of surprise. We pretend to accept that someday it will be our turn, but deep down we are convinced … it will never be us. Always the other guy.

What a delicious sense of freedom when The Boss says, two hours early: go! Be free! It’s holiday, and this is the gravy. I lock up my office and nearly sprint to the parking lot, feeling the next four days unfolding bright before me, all sweet invitation. Thanksgiving is easily one of my favorite holidays. The gift of the day is to be among friends and family, enjoying a meal together and the warmth of community and love. Nice. Perfect day for counting blessings.

But Thanksgiving is tomorrow. I’m not counting yet. I’m on the highway, speeding over the 55 miles home, my audio book on the car stereo amusing me, my thoughts occasionally wandering to consider my trip to Chicago at the break of dawn tomorrow. It does not occur to me that Someone might be flicking numbers Upstairs, considering: this one today? That one? Some ingrate perhaps?

I only notice, with some slight annoyance, that the white Buick ahead of me is slowing, effectively hogging the passing lane. Cars to the right, cars behind me, and this Buick ahead of me, blocking my way. I confess, I have been in the speeding mood today, eager to eat up the miles and be home to sink fully into the buttery sweetness of holiday. How good it will be to get home early … but not when I am stuck behind this road hog.

He slows even more. My eye traveling along his side, I notice then that his front, driver’s side tire is wobbling badly. Maybe that is why he is slowing? He senses something awry, pulls into the lane to the right, and in the next instant, when we are almost exactly side by side, all I suddenly see is a shower of fire-red sparks spray across my windshield, a loose tire rolling and bouncing in front of me, the grate of metal on pavement, shimmying machines, a looming car in my rearview mirror, an eighteen-wheeler closing in on the white Buick, the sharp descent of the shoulder to my left, no place to go, no escape from this trap, and the red and orange sparks spraying like flowering fireworks … there is no time to think, even as the mind switches its own gears into wise reflex, absorbing data faster than my conscious mind can process it. Sparks, metal, spinning machines, eighteen-wheeler, bouncing tire, objects in the mirror are closer than you would hope …

I’ve been making this daily commute of 110 miles round trip between work and home for nearly a year and a half. Through changing seasons, at all hours, many of those hours pitch black, and at various stages of fatigue. In the winter, white-knuckling through long stretches of white-out, lake effect snow blowing over the Interstate from Lake Michigan to the west, I’ve counted as many as 17 accidents on just one side of the highway. Why shouldn’t I be one of them? In this past year, I have had several near misses, and been the target of road rage where I had to call 911 on my cell to finally get the SUV chasing me at 110 miles per hour to back off. I sense that this commute has an expiration date on it and every drive is a nibbling away at the odds.

Today? My reflexes operate of their own volition. I swerve toward the hobbled white Buick even as it veers toward me, avoiding the bouncing tire. The tire past, I swerve back, losing minimal speed so as to keep the vehicle behind me from becoming too intimate a friend. I can hear the wheeze of air brakes as the eighteen-wheeler groans to slow and avoid the crippled car. There’s a lot of praying going on. A lot of cursing, too, I suppose, among our ballet of vehicles, but my own heart hammers a call upward, one that has no words, only the shape of hope and a blind reliance on protection.

And we are heard. The white Buick slows, slows more, and finally pulls into the far shoulder, grinding its naked axle and the remaining rotor until the spray of sparks is but a spit. By now, we have all slowed, as one machine. We are all … spared. I watch in my rearview mirror as one vehicle pulls over to help the man in the white Buick. The semi, too, slows. The tire lies somewhere in the grassy median on its side.

My pulse has quickened to a flutter, and my heart is a hard thud in my chest. Not today. No, not today my number. What then do I say of this blessing a day before we are to count them? A reminder that we can never count on tomorrow. That every day is a holiday. That the best work I’ve done this day was to tell my sister and my daughter in Chicago that I am most eager to see them tomorrow, to spend a moment in time in that nurturing shared space: a meal, a clatter of dishes, a rousing of toasts, a shimmer of laughter.

There is nothing else.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

An Interview with the Editor of THE SMOKING POET

Kelly Bacon Interviews Zinta Aistars about THE SMOKING POET for Western Herald, the student newspaper at Western Michigan University.

What is the literary e-zine's connection to Kalamazoo and/or Western Michigan University (if any)?

There is none. Other than Kalamazoo being the resident city for the editor-in-chief, we are not affiliated with any "place," but are an international, multicultural, literary presence online.

What makes The Smoking Poet different from other literary journals/e-zines/magazines?

Any publication is made unique by the editorial board that contributes to it and, subsequently, by all the contributors who submit their work and are published on its pages. I make no qualms about bringing my own literary tastes to the pages of TSP. How can I not? The work we accept, the work we let go (I hesitate to use the word "reject" because these are not rejections, but rather a statement that someone's work is not a good fit for the general literary taste and ambiance of a publication); all of that is a very subjective process. Art can't be measured the way hard science can measure a substance—it is this thing or it is that thing. The work we publish resonates with the editors, and that is something very personal.

That said, what I see as differentiating us from most online publications is that we go out of our way to publish work from all corners of the globe. Not only American writers and artists, but we have also published work coming to us from Latvia, Ireland, France, India, China, Australia, England, South Africa, Japan, and many other intriguing and wonderful places. We consciously resist tunnel vision in our literary tastes. Every culture expresses itself in its own way, and we want that to be reflected on our pages.

What else? Earlier I used the word "ambiance." Because of how The Smoking Poet was born (see upcoming question on how it was founded), it has a sense of place to it. We wanted it to feel like that comfortable, relaxing, soothing lounge where you might go at the end of a stressful day, sit back in a plush leather chair, be served a glass of wine or old scotch (whatever your pleasure), listen to the jazz quartet in the corner of the room … and maybe even light up a cigar. Can you see the cigar lounge in your mind's eye? (In fact, we have a page called Cigar Lounge that posts cigar reviews and poetry and prose on that theme. You do not have to be a cigar aficionado, however, to submit to TSP!) Now and then, a poet might go sit by the jazz quartet and read her work to the room. Or a musician might solo on his saxophone. A novelist read an excerpt of his novel. By evening's end, you are relaxed and your spirit refreshed and inspired.

This is the sense, the feel, of what we hope to bring to the readers of The Smoking Poet as they enter our pages. But just to keep things hopping, we are not averse to publishing an essay on political or social issues and stirring up a bit of controversy.

In your opinion, what makes a poem a piece of art (or a quality poem)?

I touched on this a bit in my previous answer. Art is one of those things impossible to define. Which is why perhaps some hold it akin to religion. It is a spiritual experience, certainly. Along with our exposure to quality art throughout our lifetimes, we develop a general sense of what is good, what is less good, what is not any good at all. I trust that gut reaction, that instinct … that inner voice of wisdom. It knows.

I've heard beginning writers argue that anything coming "from the heart" is art. I don't agree with that. Everything creative comes from the heart. That doesn't automatically make it good, or make it art. Saying that is an insult, I think, to all those who have devoted years upon years to honing not only their craft, their skill, but also their sensibility that differentiates between art and not art. There are very many wordsmiths, crafts people, who write. You might even call them technical writers. To become an artist, however, is to transcend craft and enter … well, here is where I start to sound spiritual … some higher level of creation and being. You go beyond the skills of constructing grammatically correct sentences and enter another realm. And when you do … something spiritual happens inside. As if your heart expands, the walls fall away from your mind, the blinders come off your eyes, and you see deeper, higher, with sharper detail. You begin to produce art. And your reader recognizes that, because in reading your work, that experience is duplicated. You have made a connection of the most intimate kind.

Do you ever publish in hard copies? Or is TSP strictly a literary ezine?

At this point, we are online only. Originally, our thought was to someday go to hard print as well. But you know, watching the evolution of literature, the evolution of society and how we take in our information, how we spend our leisure time, our general daily habits … I have to say, we probably will not go into print. Never say never, but at this time, I no longer see that as a goal.

Just this morning, I read a New York Times article about the Kindle, an electronic reader that Amazon has produced. You can now purchase books online, magazines and newspapers, and read them on your Kindle. Instantly downloaded. Is this the wave of the future? E-books? I can't say, but I do know that publishing in general is taking a hard hit these days. Younger generations are not reading books the way they used to. There are so many competing venues and mediums of entertainment. I am thinking this is the future. Online.

I know this, too: in print, we would never have had the kind of reach we have now.

When was TSP founded?

It's a very fond memory for me. I was on a business trip at the time, doing some interviews and also attending a conference in Austin, Texas. It was January 2006, the perfect time to travel south. My travel companion was author J. Conrad Guest, also from Michigan. J. Conrad is a cigar aficionado, and now and then, he gets me to light one up, too. We often sit back on an evening and light up a couple of satisfyingly expensive cigars and dive into all manner of philosophical discussion.

This particular Austin evening, we had just visited an Austin cigar lounge where the owner, a very kind and warm-hearted man named Charlie, had invited us in and poured us a couple glasses of wine, and sat talking away the hours with us about cigars and about what it took to open up a cigar lounge. By the time the two of us left that lounge, we were nearly convinced we should return to Michigan and open a lounge. Well, okay, we thought that for about five minutes. Here were two writers, after all, working hard for a living, knowing all too well how difficult it is to get rich in the creative arts. We sat down on a bench in the middle of Austin, enjoyed the warmth of the evening, watching the white smoke of our cigars (gifts from Charlie) swirl overhead, and talked silly dreams about an imaginary cigar lounge up north. J. Conrad knew just what cigars we would sell. I knew I wanted a jazz quartet playing in the place. And wouldn't it be the coolest, to have a poet get up there now and then and read …

… we indulged our daydream, but knew neither one of us had the capital to actually attempt such a thing. But, hey. What if we created a kind of facsimile of this place online? And what if we called it …

… and you know the rest of the story.

What would you say was the climax or turning point of TSP thus far?

Every new issue is a moment of euphoria. Putting together an ezine and promoting it is a tremendous amount of work. We read through and discuss hundreds of submissions, choosing only a few. We put together the template and post each piece in its place, aligning and tweaking and revising and tweaking again until we can get as close to perfection as we possibly can. Then there are hours of promotional work. Then we post calls for submissions for the next issue, and it begins again. I have spent as many as 14 hours on a Sunday working on it.

But you know? It truly is a labor of love. For both of us. We do this for nothing more than the love of fine literature.

In what ways has the literary magazine been most successful?

See above described moment of euphoria. To me, that's success. TSP has garnered a lot of attention in, to us, an amazingly short time. We have featured such exceptional literary talents as Dorianne Laux, Ingrid Hill, Paul Levinson, Tish Cohen, Lynn Stegner, Sue Miller, and many others. We often feature visual artists who catch our eye, too. And we have given a platform to some of the best new literary and artistic talent … that is a wonderful, wonderful feeling.

What are your ideas for the future of TSP?

We are thinking about a redesign of the site's template. Hiring a Web designer is an expensive proposition, but I think it would bring the ezine to a higher level.

Hmm. Any WMU students interested in Web design?

Do submissions that aren't placed at first, second, or third place wins still have a shot at being published in your ezine?

Absolutely. That's exactly what happened with our first short story contest. We were so impressed by the quality of work we received! Our issue featured the winners of that contest, but each editor had championed some other favorites, several of whom we then brought back for the following issue to feature their work, too.

When will TSP's next contest be (and what exactly will that contest be)?

We have had a short story contest, and currently underway is our poetry contest. Deadline for that is the end of November 2008. I expect to run our next short story contest in the spring, poetry again in fall, but we are playing with ideas of non-fiction contests, memoirs and essays. Who knows, maybe even best cigar reviews. Watch for our announcements!

What incentives to most poets have for choosing to be published in TSP when contemplating submissions to other e-zines?

I can't speak for our contributors, but I would hope it would be the fine company they keep at TSP.

What rights does the ezine ask for of its poets (i.e., first serial rights, etc. )?

Our submission guidelines address this in detail, but basically we look for new, unpublished work, which is archived for two issues. The author retains all rights after the issue featuring their work goes offline.

Do you sometimes publish rhyming poems?

As a rule, no. It is extremely difficult to write a good poem in rhyme, to not sound outdated and cliché, and one must be trained and talented in this classic art to produce something of quality. I am always willing to break a rule for quality.

Who are some of the more famous poets that you have featured in your ezine?

Dorianne Laux is a poet whose work I have adored for a very long time. Anyone who knows American poetry knows her work. She is, in fact, one of the judges for our poetry contest. We have also published many poets who have won Pushcart Prizes, are poets-in-residence at esteemed universities and colleges, even the occasional poet laureate. I will resist dropping names only because I can't drop all of them here and don't want to leave anyone out. They have brought the very best to our humble pages.

What percentage of the poets regularly featured is never-before-published?

We have kept no record of this, so I can't say. I can only say that it makes no difference whatsoever to me when I read a poem whether the poet is long established and much published, or this particular poem is the first thing the poet has ever set to paper. All TSP cares about is that it is a poem that moves us. If it brings that quiet little hum of pleasure in reading it… it will make it onto our pages. I have also been known to turn down the work of poets with a long list of awards attached to their bios. It is the poem that matters, nothing else.

When does your next issue come out?

The winter issue, featuring the winners of the poetry contest along with selections in fiction and non-fiction, book reviews and cigar reviews, links and resources, and an interview with a visual artist whose work will take your breath away, is due online in mid December.

Where can we find The Smoking Poet?

We also have a page on MySpace and on Facebook, on, as well as various other sites. You can find us on for updates on our submissions, too.

or you can always Google us!

Sunday, November 02, 2008


by Zinta Aistars

I remember his hands. I loved those hands. Behind closed eyes, I see them now. Gnarled and thick-knuckled, grooved and lined, the veins roping over sturdy bones, the large, square nails, pared with a knife.

This many years later, at an age that I remember him while only beginning to know myself at this half-century mark. My half century measured against his. Then, I was a little scampering bit of trouble at his knees. Now, he lives behind my closed eyes, his blood a potent blend with mine.

I can still feel their strong yet gentle grip. Today, November 2nd, is my grandfather’s birthday. I refuse to count the years. I know only, with a sense in my physical body, more than a calculation of the mind, that he has been gone from me a long, long time. It is an amputation.

Odd, how we had the same pet name for each other. The rest of the family called him Vecais Papitis, or Old Pappy, while I called him – Samtins. Samts is the Latvian word for velvet. With the addition of a diminutive ending, he was my soft place of comfort, my warm and gentle heart. In return, he called me the same: his “mazais Samtins.” The little velvety one.

He was my first great love. At family gatherings, where the very young were a nuisance and the very old, the same, the two of us always seemed to find our way to each other, in some tucked away corner of the busy room. The rest, they thought my childish chattering too silly and simple. His stories, repeated a thousand times and yet again, had faded to a drone in their ears. Yet to Samtins, my chattering seemed always great wisdom, a call to pondering the mysterious and grand world I was so eager to explore and he equally eager to guide me. To me, his tales were an open book of adventure, a history of the world behind me, and I never tired of hearing them. There was the land he worked in Cesis, Latvia. The days of being a postmaster in Riga. The war that tore him from his land, so that he and my grandmother, my mother and her brother, ran through the dark forests and followed the rails, all the way to Germany. How brave he had to be …

He was small in stature, thin and wiry, so thin that even in sweltering summer he wore two, even three shirts, suspenders holding up his pants. Yet his strength seemed something of myth and legend to me. Indeed, when I heard later that he had participated in the Olympics in his youth, won a medal in jiu-jitsu, wrestled in the light-weight division, I was pleased but not surprised. I’d always known he was a warrior. My first and ever knight in shining armor. The only knight who would never, not once, disappoint me. Even when I’d reached my adult height, as soon as I saw him, I’d race into his arms and he’d grip me in those steely, great hands and lift me up, twirl me around him, until we were both laughing. He was my Atlas who never shrugged.

When he died, I knew myself alone for the first time. No knight to guard me. No great and gnarled hands to gently touch my cheek. No ear to hear my nonsense stories. I found my way to his closet, buried my face in his old tweed jacket, smelled his scent, my history, and understood fully, at last, I had lost my soft spot of velvet in an ever-shifting world.

I think of you today. I miss your hands. I am empty, still, where you were.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Random Sighting

by Zinta Aistars

Was that you? Across the lobby? So crowded, all those bodies milling, all those faces, all those mouths moving in chatter, noise and heat and bustle, and so I could hardly tell, was that you? Across the decades? Crowded, too. All those bodies milling, all those faces, all those mouths opening and closing and creating the noise of passing time, passing life, so much life, that sometimes I can hardly tell if that life was all mine. Or did I share it? With variations on a theme that was me, me the child, me the girl, me the girl heating up into woman (where you were), me the woman ripening into all that I could be, perhaps less, sometimes more, and me the woman now, someone with whom I am still striving to make acquaintance. Was that me? All those children, girls, women—me?

It looked like you. Transported across time and space. Not so very, not so utterly changed. Only the brown shaggy hair gone white. So white! Even now, needing a trim. The glasses sliding a little down your nose, that too unchanged, that I recall and that it did something, oddly enough, to me. You peering over. At me.

A little weightier, perhaps. Well, yes. As am I. The fourteen year old girl I was, although the hungry boys all mistook me for much older, or wanted to. You were twenty-one, and shy. I was always drawn to the shy, as I still am, that undiscovered and hidden treasure, not easily shared. Did you know that I sometimes thought about being an archaeologist? I could argue that being a writer is much the same.

What did you become?

Yes, the marriage. I heard about that. You stuck to one, I had more than that, foolish girl, more foolish woman. But there was a threshold there to cross when you first touched me. That summer. Oh, that summer, and the next one, too. Living by the lake, walking through the sand until you came down from the throne where the life guards sat and stood in front of me, smiling. Would you like to… ? Shall we….? Hello, my name is… and I noticed that…

You took me out on the lake in the boat and then cut the engine. We would float on the blue, rocking on it, up and down, back and forth, the waves sloshing against the sides of the boat, the sun beating down, and I was in that bikini, the one with tiny red flowers on a field of chocolate brown, lazy in the sun, and you watched me. Peering over the glasses, slipping down your nose, your mouth coming open a little. I was naïve with youth and all-knowing, all at the same time. More confident then than I am now.

Now, I know. Too much.

Have nearly lost what you began to teach me. Polite beyond measure. Your voice soft like silk, a whisper in my ear. Unshaven cheek. Lying in the sand at midnight, you explained the constellations and brushed sand from my bare arm, my shoulder, the bend of my neck. And then there was your mouth. Your sweet, warm mouth. Your living mouth.

Yes, I'm sure it's you. I would know you anywhere. Even with the white hair, the arc of lines at the corners of your mouth. Frowning a little with concentration. Peering at me over your glasses. I had to look away. I had to. I always run from what interests me.

I'm sorry I hurt you.

I'm sorry life is so imperfect. That one life can't, after all, contain all our lives, but bends and twists and bursts open at the seams sometimes, spilling out the soft white insides. I always meant to tell you. How sorry. Only years later (two more lifetimes) understanding what it means to break a heart, took me years (two more lifetimes) to develop one. At fourteen, at fifteen, at sixteen and seventeen, I only lived from one moment to the next, and I was quickly distracted, loved a pretty story, chased a random butterfly, fell into a lap that rocked me into daydreams that would last through yet another lifetime.

I did think of you, sometimes.

Passing under willow trees, I would remember. Standing barefoot in hot sand. Tracing the stars in the sky, Aquarius the bearer of water, holding a cup out to the gods to quench a thirst that was unquenchable. I sometimes hold that cup in my hands now, thirsty.

Think louder, I still say. I can't hear what you are thinking, say the words.

Across the lobby, I send none. Pass a cup of cool water through the milling and jostling, toward you, and then leave by the back door, quickly, quickly into the night, still alone.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Full Circling Kalamazoo

By Zinta Aistars

No matter the many years, over a decade, that I walked this walk each working day – it never grows old on me. To be back on the campus of Kalamazoo College never fails to send a hum of electricity through me. As if here all things were possible. Out of this place, as if it were a hub of an ever-turning wheel, indeed, all things are. I have been witness to it.

I sit on the stone bench at the top of the hill, overlooking the Quad. That is, the quadrangle of green, sloping down toward the residence halls, the Hicks Center student union to my right, and Mandelle Hall, where my office used to be on the third floor, to my left. Just behind me is Stetson Chapel, its doors thrown open to the warmth of an October day, warmer than usual, and the frenzied bustling there as a wedding is about to take place. As so many weddings have. Few spots in Kalamazoo, if any, are more beautiful than this. Flowers surround me, reds and whites and golden yellows, and the great oak trees rise like wise old men, overseeing all. The legendary squirrels of K College race and scatter all about, cheeks busting out with acorns, sleek and fat with the good life. (Officially, the hornet is the college mascot. Unofficially, it is the squirrel.) The Georgian architecture of the buildings, some dating back to the late 1800s, adds a solemn grace to the scene.

I am waiting for Ross. He is part of my freelance story-in-progress on international programs that I am writing for the alumni magazine, LuxEsto. Once, that magazine was my daily bread. Now, it is my sweet dessert. I could not but keep my ties to this place. You can take the woman out of K, but not K out of the woman? It just may be. Because the message of the college embodies much of who I am: multiculturalism, study abroad, intellectual curiosity and the life-long pursuit of enlightenment. And a hunger for adventure that never quits.

Although, for this moment, I wish only to sit in silence. Take it all in. Rest. The week has been long and testing. Another long night spent in the emergency room at the hospital, watching over my father, picking out the clues from what doctors would tell me and not tell me. After a battery of tests, another reprieve. He will be fine. But as his years collect, now in his 80s, I know I must count every year, every day, a particular blessing. I sit now on the stone bench overlooking a place of beauty, internal and external, and whisper a prayer of gratitude. I am in humble receipt of this gift.

And then, Ross is here.

We sit for a moment together, remarking on the beauty of this place, and then rise to walk its perimeter and find a spot at the bottom of the Quad. Here, we have a table under the oak trees so that I might take notes. For the next couple of hours, I am transported. Let no one talk to me of modern day youth who know nothing. Who care about nothing. Who wander shopping malls, don’t bother to vote, pursue empty pleasures, cause trouble for the sheer fun of it, and give no thought to tomorrow. There may be such. But then, there is also Ross. And the countless students I have met on this campus, no doubt mirroring similar students elsewhere, who care and care deeply. These young people give me hope when I lose it among those of my own, more cynical age. These youth are bright with it. They emanate an almost tangible light. Ross tells me of his two trips to Botswana, one for a few months, the other for the better part of a year, and yet another to Germany that tamed the young rebel in him and transformed him instead to a rebel with purpose. He understands hopelessness, too, does not have his head in the clouds. Sure, he speaks of walls that cannot be scaled, at least not easily. But he leans against them, these walls. He leans into them. He tosses a dream or two over to the other side, and now and then, someone tosses one back.

My notebook is filling fast with my scribbles of notes, the skeleton of what will be my story. But I am loathe to pay attention only to these scribblings. There are moments that I forget to write, and am caught in the blue gaze of those young eyes as I see them turn inward to an image only he can see, but is trying to share. Through him, I travel parts of the world, some where I, too, have been, some where I may never be. When our conversation wanders off topic a bit, we find shared tangents. He speaks of the beauty of old Europe, and mentions a short jaunt three years ago to a city called Riga, in the tiny country of Latvia. My home, I say, my other home … and we compare memories. Who would have thought, Ross says, tipping his head to one side and looking more closely at me. Such a fascinating thing, he says, to talk to a person, peel away the layers, and discover all that they are and what you may never have suspected from first glance …

I think that is why I so thrived on this campus. It is a place that contains all places. In every student, in every faculty member, staff member, there are a thousand and one stories, and even in a decade, I had only begun to scrape the surface … and if I ever did, there was an influx of freshmen, and a new wave of stories to discover. A small campus, but it was Rome, all roads leading to and from, to all corners of the earth. Meeting Ross, I discover he is the other half of a story I had written a few years back, when a new exchange program had opened doors to Botswana. Back then, I met a young woman, the first of two students sent here from the University of Botswana, in exchange for two Kalamazoo students sent there … and Ross was one of the latter. Her name was Pretty, and she was. Girlish giggles, but strong hearted, with a spirit of steely determination to succeed and the will and smarts to overcome all obstacles. Even after my story about Pretty was written and in print, I remained friends with this remarkable young woman, and still on occasion keep in touch, even as she has returned to her faraway home.

All roads lead to Rome, to K, and all roads, given time, pass by again. I sense the full circle nearing connection again. Ross is the mirror story of Pretty. The young American gone abroad to learn and discover how he is different, how he is the same. And the young woman from Botswana, going home having learned that lesson, too. Here I am, too, traveling my own spokes outward, yet regularly returning to the hub to find my own center—this necessary heart where all big dreams begin and take shape. There are decades between this young man and myself. He is at the brink, the first horizon. I am somewhere middling, pondering the final horizon of an aging father, pondering my own horizons and how to use the hard-won wisdom of the years to align my further travels. We blink in amazement at how many paths we have shared. Botswana friends and ancient Baltic cities. Discoveries that are new to him, rediscovered to me. When I point out to him the window in Mandelle that used to be mine, near hidden in the treetops of the great oaks, he smiles and says, oh, you can’t ever leave this place … not really. It gets into you, doesn’t it?

It does.

Life is a series of circles, I decide. Some edge always overlapping another. You can go home again—if perhaps only through the eyes of another.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Melting Pot? Mixing Bowl!

By Zinta Aistars

Astrid waved at me as soon as I walked into the door of Ann Arbor Art Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The place was hopping. A rainbow of humanity. I spotted my father seated to one side, watching the milling and bustling with wide eyes. It was as if the artwork had stepped out of the walls and turned into the living. Only some of the art represented what none of us would wish to see alive. Dark spirits, gray suffering, painted portraits of those who had endured the unendurable. The exhibit was titled, Displaced Spirit: A Visual Journey, and tonight was opening night.

I made my way around the gallery, stopping on the way to pick up a glass of Shiraz, a plate of strawberries and chocolate. My eyes were drawn as much to the milling crowd as to the varied pieces of art. This was a microcosm of the world, I thought, right here in one gallery. My father had two oil paintings on exhibit of Latvian women in folk costume. When I stood in front of one, my favorite, a woman with downcast eyes, holding a plain brown vase in her hands, another gallery patron stepped closer to me. I felt his eyes study me as much as the painting.

"You?" He squinted at me, then at the painting. "A resemblance…"

"I don't think so," I said, keeping my eyes on the woman and her vase. "Although, perhaps… " I let my gaze swing around the room again. "Something from all of us. A little of everyone."

He nodded thoughtfully, sipping his wine, and I moved on. The artists were almost all here, standing near their work. A table at the back of the room had books from every represented country: Sudan, Iraq, Latvia, Iran, Israel, South Africa… fourteen countries, places that had groaned and bled under the hands of the power-hungry. More land, more gold, more chest-thumping. No matter the cost.

When I turned back to my father, I saw another one of the artists had sat down next to him, and the two were deep in conversation. And there. In the two of them. The meaning of this entire exhibit. My father, an elderly European man, thinning gray hair and back hunched with lifelong pain, and the young, tall man from Sudan in his striped floor-length robes of gold, orange, and yellow. His bare brown feet showed beneath the hem of his robes. His shiny, black hair fell in long dreadlocks from underneath a striped cap, curtaining over his shoulders. He pointed to his work, a series of ceramic tiles, matching the golden hues of his robes, with delicate blues and browns painted across them. Blue villages melting in African sun.

"When he moved to Ann Arbor, he painted his house a bright yellow," Astrid came up beside me, following my gaze. "His neighbors didn't understand. In their brown and gray houses."

I turned my eyes to Astrid. We had met once before, when I brought my father's artwork to the Center two weeks prior. It was she that found us, program director seeking international work to represent those displaced by war and genocide, and sent me an e-mail inviting my father to submit his work and represent Latvia. We bonded quickly and easily, as she told us over lunch that day her own history—an Australian father, a refugee mother from Latvia who drowned when she was four years old.

"Look at you," I smiled at her. "Aren't you beautiful." I touched a fingertip to her heavy jewelry, created from ancient Latvian designs and patterns. Ropes of gleaming silver, butter-yellow beads of amber. And she was. Beautiful. A tiny young woman, her black hair draped over her shoulders, her round face and sparkling blue eyes all smiles, she emanated joy in life.

"Oh," she blushed. "Thank you. These, too, are my mother's." Then she placed an insistent hand on my arm and tugged lightly. "Come with me. I brought something to show you. And I want you to meet my fiancé."

"Lucky man," I smiled and winked at him, and he was, and his own smile showed his knowledge of it. A musician from Ann Arbor, he had courted the young woman from Australia on a trip, and she had moved across half the world to be with him. He watched her fondly as she held out a wooden box to me. It looked very much like a box my mother had. Polished oak with imbedded Latvian folk figures out of a darker wood. Inside were old photographs, mostly black and white, a few with color, now faded into off shades of pink and yellow. They reminded me of the photos my parents had saved, bringing them along through the various camps for "Displaced Persons" in Germany that took in the Balts—Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians—streaming out of the tiny countries being swallowed by the Soviets. The groupings of pretty women huddled together in the photos, arm in arm, smiling with youth and hopes for the future, never to be realized. Their lips were stained dark and pursed prettily. The tall young men in their loose trousers and shined shoes, looking a tad cocky and mischievous. Cheerful gatherings. Carefree socializing. The bliss of ignorance. War was but an impossible nightmare in the distance, the sort of horror that happens to others, always others.

Astrid set the box down and carefully unfolded a piece of paper that had been in among the photographs. It was a church program from her own christening. It was written in Latvian, and she did not know the language. This was a piece of that faraway world to which her mother had belonged, a remaining echo.

"Can you tell me what it says?"

I looked at the program, and I was transported back in time. My mother. My grandmothers. Myself, holding my babies close in my arms, rocking them gently, my face pressed against their pink, soft skulls and drawing in the irresistible fragrance of one's own child.

"These are lullabies, Astrid. This one, my own favorite."

Aija, zuzu, laca bernin … pekainami kajinami … tevs aizgaja medus podu, mate ogu vaceliti…

"The mother bear sings to her cub," I said. "She tells the cub that his father has gone to get a pot of sweet honey for him, and mama bear will bring home a pot of sweet berries, but he must sleep now, sleep and dream of the sweet to come…"

It is a lullaby that Latvian mothers have sung softly to their children for many centuries. Astrid's eyes grew moist. If perhaps she could not quite remember—she had been so little—then perhaps something in her spirit knew the echo, felt the words, and over the decades, a mother's love wrapped its warmth around her once more, half a world away and across time.

Humming ancient Latvian lullabies, I moved around the gallery again. An Iraqi artist, a small man with a cane and a back even more bent than my father's, grasped at my sleeve and pulled me toward the table of books. What did he want? He knew no English. I knew nothing of the Iraqi language. He showed me a book and pointed to the name on the cover: Iraq. He pointed to four paintings on the wall. They were his. We stood in front of the paintings, and he was eager to be understood, and I was eager to understand, and he spoke in his language, and I listened to its rhythm and its music, like the pulsing of a heartbeat, and nodded. From his eyes, from his bent back, from his cane, from the deep blue of his art, the mad swirls of color, the anguished and upturned faces, searching for hope, I understood.

There were paintings here of Native Americans, riding beautiful stallions across the wide expanse of once open land. There were broken ceramic pieces hanging from the ceiling by string, and more broken pieces mixed in with sand scattered across the floor. Each one had a person's name on it, nearly unpronounceable to me. Names I could not enunciate, lives in which I could never share, only stare for a moment at the order of letters that represent an identity, a person's name, a tolling of the lost, an entity of human hope for a future that would never arrive. Jagged, scattered pieces in drifting sand. A mosaic of porcelain pieces was arranged to form a tiny yellow songbird, soaring toward a distant sun. Another painting showed a corner of a playing card: the Queen of Hearts. Her face was frozen without expression. Her eyes were black points.

They came, people off the bustling, Friday night Ann Arbor streets, and I wondered what part of their evening this might be. An after dinner treat. A stop before the theatre. A random wandering. They were young, they were old, they were middle-aged, and a few of them were children. They were all colors. They were elegant and bejeweled. They were young students from the university nearby. They were alone, or they came in couples, holding hands, or in chattering groups. They spoke a variety of languages. Some translated one for the other. Some spoke not at all. For a moment, they looked deep into the world of the Other, their faces drawn close to the images on the wall, as if to lean in would bring them closer in understanding. It was a desire to see. And that was everything.

I could see the fatigue drawing gray shadows into the lines of my father's face. I took him by the arm, and my mother came up beside me, and the Latvian minister, Biruta, who was kind enough to drive them here so that my father would not have to drive in the dark. We found our way to an Irish pub, hoping for a warm and simple dinner, but the place was so packed with bodies and noise, that I saw the immediate horror in my father's face, and we kept moving down Main Street, looking for a place of simplicity and quiet. Ah, yes. He likes gyros, I thought, spotting the Grecian diner. We sat eating, talking about the turquoise beauty of Greece, the waitress shouting out opa! as she set flame to the cheese and doused it again with lemon juice.

"This I have never had," Biruta smacked her lips, smearing the melted cheese on a thick slice of fresh bread. "It is wonderful, to taste like this … other worlds."

Monday, September 29, 2008

Gorilla Faces and Sweet Blondes

by Zinta Aistars

Teetering out the third floor window, I rubber neck. Straight down: a lush green courtyard, a neat space of trimmed trees and shrubs, compact flower beds, a swept clean walk, and entryways to the left, to the right, to the far end. Toward the street, I see more brick houses, city houses, the kind that lean one onto the other’s shoulder, human lives bustling inside like busy ant hill inhabitants, each holding their own story. I will never know most of these stories. But for this too short weekend, I am privileged to take a quick peek into the short story of my daughter’s Chicago life.

I let her know without hesitation: I love her new digs! The setting is near perfect. Turn left out of that courtyard below, and she is one mere block from Lake Michigan. Stand on the walk, and you can close your eyes and feel the lake breeze kiss and caress your cheeks. Nice. Very nice.

Turn right, and not more than twenty steps is the busy drag of Belmont, brimming with cafés, little bookstores, antique stores, coffee shops, eclectic art galleries. It makes for fine walking, and the rubber necking is grand.

We’ve done our work quota already on the Friday eve, soon as I arrived from my drive from Michigan. Off to pick up random pieces of furniture she’d found online. My girl is a maestro of bargain-hunting, unearthing any number of odd treasures. Tonight, we are tracking down a kitchen island on wheels, fold-down leafs, insertable wire baskets. Naturally, it is on the third floor of someone’s city apartment, and naturally, my daughter lives on the third floor, too. I suspect everyone in Chicago does, the first two floors mere painted windows of imaginary lives. Another treasure is a frosted glass bar table, a tiny thing on tall, spindly legs of steel with two slim benches on equally spindly stork legs. Perfect for the tight space of a city studio abode. We sweat the pieces down stairs and up stairs again, then stand back to marvel at the tightly fitting perfection.

The rest of the weekend is stalking the pleasures of city life: a variety of ethnic meals, for starters. One night we eat Vietnamese, and my girl pushes aside the menu to explain instead to the waiter just what it is she wants to see on our table. Last spring, she had traveled to Vietnam, and she was intent on my sampling some of the delicacies she had enjoyed there. She explains, he nods, and soon enough, the table between us groans with the weight of steaming dishes. White water spinach, a sort I’ve not seen, rich with brothy flavor. The juiciest duck I’ve ever tasted, and I give up on the chopsticks to eat with my fingers, juice dripping down my fingers, smacking my lips, sucking bones clean. Flaky fish near buried under straw mushrooms and something diced and something spliced and something julienned, I know not what, but it is all moaningly yum. Another day, we dip into Middle Eastern hummus and yummus, fried little balls of falafel, stuffed grape leaves, and something spicy and tingly on the tongue. I don’t have to know what all this is to enjoy it, do I? I ask, and she laughs at me. I claim to be old enough now to be eccentric, if not senile … the freedom-giving benefits of a woman growing older.

My favorite is a Sunday brunch at North Pond, a pretty building, all stone and wood and earth colors, a building once used to warm ice skaters from the frozen pond. My girl heckles and harasses the intrigued waiter to name every ingredient and mystery flavor in the three courses we are served. She is working on a third degree, this one sheer fun, in a culinary school, and the magical intricacies of food preparation fascinate her. Every meal has become continued education to her. And because she is such a sunny blonde with batting eyes and sweet curves, not one of her requests goes unbidden. The waiter trots obediently to the kitchen to whisper to the chef and is back again with his revelations, once, twice, three and four times. Cherry soaked in port wine, he says. Or, a type of caviar. Cardamom. Or, he lists the three absolutes of a perfect sauce.

Even walking through the parks, she knows no peace, but like all pretty young girls, has learned to ignore the stares. I tease her and she rolls her eyes. Oh, that one was for you, she says once, an older gentleman’s eyes gluing a moment too long on my face, my lips, gliding down my shoulder as we walk by, but he is only one and her admirers are past counting, and I realize, after the first sting of realizing myself an older woman, gradually fading into invisibility, that it is, actually, a rather sweet relief. I can scratch my nose in public. I can exhale. I can tuck the loose hair from my graying ponytail behind my ear and not give a darn. There is real freedom in this, and I can walk the streets with a firm and knowing stride. Let the young girls battle the constant glances now, I bid them a glad farewell. When the peppering of stares accost my girl overmuch, however, my eyebrows scrunch, and I start to feel protective of my offspring: I unleash my own killer stare. Especially on the middle-aged ones with other women by their sides. Enough. But my girl walks oblivious and swimming in youth by my side, chattering away about her plans and dreams and hopes, and I glory in them, too.

We walk along the marina, and the wind is fresh on our faces. Sleeping boats and yachts bob in the water, silly names painted on them. Forever Late, one is named. An Hour’s Bliss. Sweet Nuthin’. The shore curves in and back out again, and we can see Navy Pier jutting out from a dazzling city of sky-scraping towers. I was born in this city, in its seedier Cook County parts, in a hospital known for handling the victims of violence. But since my girl has moved here, I’ve seen a different side. I find myself looking forward to these city trips not just to see her, but to see this city, again, to pick up its scent, taste its juices, dip into its rippling currents of water and traffic and lights.

We wander into a park around a lily pond with jutting flat sheets of stone surrounding it. A sign tells us—it’s been here since 1889. More recently, cleaned up again from neglect, so that it reminds one again of Monet’s watery scenes, lily pads with their flat green faces open to the sky. We wander more, and there are flower gardens, a conservatory, a jungle of ferns, a greenhouse of fragrant orchids, and a zoo. I know you hate these, she says, but keeps walking, and we are in, and I admit, I am drawn to stare at the gorilla’s handsome silvered face even as I mourn the cages and the glass and the bars. He opens one sleepy eye and gazes back. My heart skips a beat, as if in first flush of love. Oh, his great, black face, thick-skinned and hard, yet somehow soft, beckoning caress. His round beer belly, smooth muscled chest. His green-black fingers like thick blood sausages, and he opens his palm like a baseball mitt in a tender vulnerability. I want to place my hand inside that great hand. I want to press my forehead against his furred one, against that ridge of hard bone, and ask forgiveness.

My girl tugs at my sleeve to move on. I thought you hated zoos, she says, but I am swallowing hard, and she sees, still, why.

We walk another path, Lake Shore Drive winding to one side of us in a stream of moving machines, the water lapping in soft sloshes to the other side. We walk between the two worlds made one. I am mesmerized by the paradox, the contradiction, the juxtaposition, the bridled wild.

We walk and walk, for two days, off and on, sleeping but a little—and always by an open window. We walk between trees as we walk between shelves. Thrift stores and grocery stores and bookstores and doodad shops. In our dreams, we buy a thousand useless things. We laugh, arm in arm, and toss them all away again. I am happy, I realize, my heart full and warm, visiting my little girl’s life, unfolding and opening petal by petal, parting like a sea to either side. I am on the brink of some other place, some quieter dream, while hers surges and pulsates and thrives. I visit her like I visit myself in another time. I release what was and greet what is, and I am deeply pleased to do so. My own blood streams in the veins of this golden girl, and I am only too ready to pass along this crown to her, that she can rule now, take the world into her hands and shape it. May she be a blessing, always. A drop in the ocean, perhaps, but every one of us changing the world, somehow. Even if by one golden smile. By one cherry dipped in wine. Or one hand placed inside another, tender pink inside an open palm like a great black baseball mitt, asking forgiveness.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Displaced Spirits

by Zinta Aistars

Leaning back in the white plastic lawn chair, I think: so this is what it is like to feel the years piling on. I have been sitting in this chair, tucked away in a shaded corner of my parents’ back yard, for quite some time now … doing nothing but thinking. Thinking. Reflecting. Remembering. Wading into pools of cool nostalgia. You know, like old people do.

My open book balanced on my knee, my eyes had instead wandered to the yard itself, scanning its width and breadth, and as if one transparent film overlaying another and another, I saw the various decades of my life simultaneously. Childhood streaming into middle age streaming into youth streaming into childhood again. The back yard was crowded with ghosts, some of them my own selves from a previous time. And I could well recall—because even now, she is a ghost in this yard, I can see her clearly—my grandmother sitting here and staring into space, hours on end, lost in thought. The child me would peer at her from time to time during my play and wonder, how could it be that a person could sit still for so long? Not even reach up to scratch her nose? What could a body be thinking and thinking and thinking like that and not jump up screeching with boredom after five such unbearable minutes? No, three. Three minutes was surely the outer limits of endurance. To the child me, sitting like that in one place, unmoving, just thinking, seemed the sign of an old person if not of senility. Life was movement.

Now, I sit. Far, far longer than three minutes. Yet I am not even conscious of time, because time has lost its boundaries. The ages have collapsed in upon themselves. The days past overlap with days present and seep into the future. And I sit mesmerized.

My mother is inside the house cooking dinner. My father, no doubt, is padding past her, this way and that, in his stocking feet, in tiny scooching steps, his stooped back never quite alleviating the ever-present pain. They are old. Let’s face it. My mother and my father are old. And I am getting older.

The three of us have spent the day together. I was up early on this Saturday morning, drove here to their house, once upon a time also mine, to gather the two of them up and head east across the state, from Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor. My father gladly handed me his car keys. With relief, in fact. The more I can do for him, the more relieved he is, and he settled back into the passenger seat with a sigh, Mom in the back, as we drove cross-state down I-94 to deliver two of his paintings to the Ann Arbor Art Center for an upcoming art show next month. A panel of jurors had selected two of his paintings, both of Latvian women in folk costume, as part of an exhibit titled, “Displaced Spirit: A Visual Journey.” The exhibit is a collection of art that expresses the survival and longing of the spirit displaced from its home by war and genocide. That definition included my father. It also included artists from a too long list of many other countries and many other wars.

As we neared the needed exit, I coached my father. I would not be with them when they would next make this drive, although my father had already arranged for another driver for the evening of the artists’ reception. He was deathly afraid of driving after dusk. His night vision was poor; the approaching headlights dizzied him, disoriented him, until he was confused about what was road and what was ditch. He was also afraid of all things new and unknown.

See, I point out to him. The sign says Exit 172, Ann Arbor. Did one of you want to write this down? You will be taking this exit.

My father tries to turn in his seat back toward my mother. “Veltin?” He begins, but she is already digging in her purse for pad and pen. After nearly 60 years together, they do not require full sentences to communicate. My father grimaces at the pain from the motion, his back spasms, and he turns back in his seat to try to memorize the road.

I point out landmarks. I read the names of roads in Latvian phonetics, rather than English, making the names sound ridiculous, making him laugh. My thought is that this will help him remember. It is really very easy, I keep reassuring him. See, Tita, we don’t have to turn anywhere. All the way like this into town. No turns. Only here, by the overpass—I point my finger up to the heavens as we dip down beneath an ugly, rusty overpass that throws a momentary shadow across our laps—do we make a right turn onto First Street. Yes? My father nods eagerly, peering at the sign, peering at the surroundings. First Street, I repeat. The first street as you approach town. Very easy. Two blocks, two lights, and here you are, home free: Liberty Street. He nods. One block up and he cries out with relief and glee as the multicolored sign is already apparent: Ann Arbor Art Center. Do you see how easy that was? I say again, but this time it is I seeking reassurance. I know how he worries. I know how his mind spirals into fear of the unknown, new roads to places he does not know, the sense of getting lost in a vortex where no one will ever find him again. This, yes, from a man who has traveled much of the globe, has changed countries, languages, cultures, jobs, served in the military, earned a degree in a language he had hardly yet grasped. Perhaps that is why the unknown so frightens him now, in his 80s. We all long for home and a sense of roots, firmly enmeshed in the earth beneath us.

I carry the paintings in, even though he protests and tries to take them away from me. I know, it hurts his pride. A father wants to do for his baby girl, not let her do for him. With the expression of relief are also the lines of worry that he has given up a role in my life he had cherished, even as he cherishes me. But I cherish him, too, and so I look away so I will not see his face. His tiny, halting steps scitter by me as I carry the paintings, and he holds the door open for me—at least this. I don’t want him to run, I hate it when he runs, because I know the next expression on his face will be one of excruciating pain. He is scheduled for yet another procedure next month on his back. Something about singeing nerve endings to prevent the pain signals from reaching his brain. After four back surgeries, steel bolts, fused vertebrae, shaved bones, unpinched nerves, cortisone shots, acupuncture, massages, water therapy, surely nothing more can be done. I imagine the pain is by now so singed into his brain that nerve endings are but a distant echo. He knows nothing else.

Paintings delivered, the program director, Astrid, accompanies us to lunch. We had thought about merely crossing the street to a pub called Old Town, an easy distance, but the pub is closed until the dinner hour. We have to walk one block farther. Astrid picks a place called Grizzly Peak, and she chatters prettily in her Australian accent—she has moved to Michigan for love, a wedding date set in January—as we work to keep up. She is young. She turns from time to time for my father to catch up, and I walk beside her, in conversation, then walk back to walk beside my father, then catch up again. Midway, pausing under Sweetwater Coffee Shop’s brick wall, I turn my back to the wall and face my father. He has stopped. He stands hunched in the middle of the sidewalk, people streaming by him to both sides as if he were a rock in a stream, and holds one hand to his lower back. My mother stands just ahead of him, looking at him, looking at the people streaming by him, looking slightly embarrassed. Astrid waits. My father starts to walk again, in slow, slow, halting steps. Two blocks are two miles to him. Twenty. Endless.

But for a moment I see the child in him, that happy, when the waitress places a personal pizza in front of him. Tomatoes, sausage, layers of stretchy cheese, and he is in bliss. Astrid tells us about her childhood as we eat, and it is because of her own roots that she found us—searching for Latvian artists in Michigan on the Internet and finding her way to my father’s artwork, where I have posted a page for him on MySpace. Her mother was a Latvian woman that had immigrated to Australia from refugee camps in Europe during World War II. She had married an Australian man, Astrid’s father, but had raised her daughter to know her native language and culture. Tragically, she drowned when Astrid was but a small child, and the language went with her. And still, we carry the roots of our parents, present inside us if not beside us. Astrid wanted a Latvian artist to express something of this ancient, war-torn culture in the art exhibit of Displaced Spirit. All things come together at some point. The legacy of finding love in different continents has continued, and now she is creating a new home for herself in the small town of Ann Arbor halfway across the globe from her childhood home.

My parents comment on her jewelry. Latvian pieces, all of them, silver rings with golden and blood red amber pieces. Her mother’s, she says, and her voice is soft. One of the rings reminds me of a silver sun with an amber center that my grandmother wore. It is now in my jewelry box.

I hear my mother calling me for dinner. I sit for a moment longer in the back yard. I recall when I was a little girl, the house just built, and the yard was nothing but dried mud scarred with the deep grooves of bulldozer tracks. Today it is carpeted with emerald green grass, lush from recent rains. I remember planting trees in this yard with my father. Fruit trees, little maples, tiny birches, and willow twigs that curved in my hands like whips. He taught me how to plant a tree, how to care for it, how to help it grow.

Only one fruit tree remains. The pear tree is hardly bigger now, some thirty-five years later, but it is heavy with green pears. The maple, which grew to over a hundred feet, is gone, its roots prying too insistently at the basement of the house. The great evergreen toppled in a recent storm, crashing into the eaves.

The yard seems empty to me now. Just a few trees along the borders, a random flower bed here and there. A few rose bushes.

I remember dancing back here as a child, dancing between the trees, for sheer joy of young life. I remember celebrating my engagement in this back yard, family gathered and holding up champagne glasses to me and to my husband-to-be, the father of my children. He is married to his third wife now. I remember my grandmother sitting in the grass with my children as they scampered around the yard, giggling and splashing in the tiny pool we’d set up for them. I remember the green swing set with the Chiquita banana oval stickers I collected and pasted along its every surface. We ate a lot of bananas. I remember the laundry line where my mother hung out the wash, the clean white sheets slapping damply in the summer breeze. I remember the four brothers gathered here with my grandfather when my grandmother died, my father the eldest. My grandfather’s white hair shown like a halo in the sun. He never let us see him cry. His back was always straight as a board, and he died just a few months short of his hundredth birthday, talking to my grandmother in whispers as he passed.

For a moment in time, it seemed all time opened its doors to the same space, and they were all here. All of them. My grandparents, my parents, young and strong, my own loves, my little ones, myself in a thousand different, fleeting moments. Always here and gone forever.

My mother calls me for dinner again. Zin-eet! She calls my childhood nickname. I rise slowly from the white chair and make my way through the crowd back to the house.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Me llamo Sinta: Seeing the World New Again

by Zinta Aistars

¿Cómo está?

I consider the question, then waggle my hand this way and that. Así, así, I reply. Because, after all, it is only the middle of the work week, and I have a presentation to give immediately following this class, so that my mind keeps wandering to other tasks. So-so is all I can manage. But then, I reconsider and revise my reply: Bien, gracias. ¿Y usted?

I revise my reply, because today, for an hour, I am a student again. And I am learning a new language: Spanish. My colleague and student-in-arms, Rick, replies politely, Estoy bien. Gracias. But we are two delinquents sitting in the back row, sharing a workbook, chortling and teasing. Ah, school days. Only no one here can make me stay after class. Such are the privileges of schooling when there is gray in my hair and no mama at home waiting to sign my report card, scolding when she sees it.

No, no, really, I am not being mal. Well, not so very bad, anyway. I’m just amused that something juvenile seeps through me to be sitting in a class again, filling out blanks in workbooks, contemplating spit balls. I’ll be good, I promise. The truth is that I am thrilled to be here. Not only because it gets me out of the office for an hour twice a week, but because it is re-molding the stiffening clay of my brain to learn a new language. Learning, they say, and taking on new challenges that massage those brain cells is what keeps us young and alert. A brain is like any other muscle, requiring the occasional flex.

Not only that. I am a writer. Language is my tool. Language and I are lovers. I was born into an immigrant family, and Latvian was my first means of communication, the only language spoken in my childhood home. It is a logical and sensible language, the oldest, in fact, spoken yet today, dating back 2,000 years and some. Learn a sound, tack that sound to a letter, and it remains the same ever after. The beauty and logic of phonetics! Grammar brings along with it rules, but most of those rules hold steady and become a skeleton on which to build and add the flesh and muscle of true human connection.

Because language is that. It is a portal—from one world into another. Not merely a means of saying hello and asking directions and satisfying some pressing need, but a tunnel that leads deep into another culture. Translation may seem like a cheat sheet, but the only one being cheated is the person who relies upon it to gain understanding. Nothing can take the place of learning the words of another people.

Consider language a key, and a key the means to unlocking a door. Once you have that key in hand, the door can open to another room, a place you have never been before, a space with windows looking out upon the world from an angle you’ve never yet seen. Perhaps only a step or two, this way or the other from what you have seen before, but don’t ever underestimate a slight shifting in perspective. It can change everything.

Writing first in Latvian, only in my later adult years writing creatively in English, my second language, did I fully begin to understand this shift in perspective. I made frustrated attempts to translate my work from one language into the other. With poetry especially being such a precise vehicle of language, every word carrying not only meaning, but also an intrinsic rhythm, perhaps an alliterative echo, and level upon level of complex cultural connotation, I soon deemed the task impossible. And, truly, it is impossible. Translation is much like the child’s game of telephone. With each new translation, the original text and its meaning is subtly but forever transformed.

There were also those missing words. Keys without doors. In the Latvian language, for instance, I could not find an exact equivalent for the English (American) word for “fun” or “hobby.” While there were many Latvian words that spoke of joy, there is nothing quite so, well, frivolous as these very American concepts. And I began to realize how a language absorbs a culture, the entire history of a nation, its very sense of life and how to live it. The Americans are a nation who love to play, and hold few things in such esteem as their pleasures and their leisure. The Latvians, on the other hand, were a nation that had been oppressed by many a cruel master over the centuries. Our various venues of art are highly developed, for one has to find a way to express one’s spirit or it will burst from its own pulsing. But hobbies? What serf, enslaved to his baron, had time for hobbies? What comrade in the Soviet Union had leisure when you had to stand in line for five hours to buy a cheap cut of meat to feed the family?

Yet Latvian has words like smeldze, and I have yet to find its equivalent in English. This feeling that I struggle to describe to my American friends—a kind of humming deep inside my heart, a vibration of joy that makes the heart feel like it must swell and blossom. It is a kind of joy that goes far beyond the passing moment of pleasure and a bit of frivolous fun.

Language is a living thing, and so Latvian is quickly changing, as is English. As are all the living languages of the global community, now connected by the Internet and so often, regrettably, absorbing one another. Some of the idiosyncrasies of a particular nation and its very personal style of speech are smoothing out in such global communication, and it is somewhat sad, I think, that this is so. Yet much of expression survives. As long as we all live in our own little corner of the world, under the circumstances peculiar to that place—in terms of environment, government, economy, or whatever forms and reforms a people—our language will continue to mirror who we are at our innermost core.

Me llamo Sinta, I reply when asked my name. And even my name in another tongue sounds subtly different. I resist the spit ball that might hit the back of the head of an unwitting student in the front row, seeking to be teacher’s pet. I want to be here. I want to learn Spanish. I want yet another key to another door, leading to a new room where I have never yet been. So that I might look out upon the world and see it new, all over again.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Retreat and Embrace: GilChrist

And so I return, the days of retreat, then embrace, gone far too quickly into my past. Yet it is as it needed to be. I have gained much by going into the deepest silence of solitude, and I will hold that wonder that I found with me in the coming days. My heartfelt gratitude to the warm hearts that hold the gates of GilChrist open to us who need it. You are a blessing to many of us that pass those gates and emerge again, changed.

This is my journal of those days at GilChrist. I thought to proof it, revise it, clean up the mess and make it a fine thing, dressed for company, as a writer inevitably does … but then thought better of it. This retreat was not a time of perfection, after all. It was a time of accepting myself and my life as far, far less than perfect. And embracing it nonetheless. For the blessing that precisely imperfection brings and perfection only denies us. It is our crying out to God that we cannot do it alone, after all, and that we need Him to edit.

Take it then for what it is: the random scribbling of a few days of quiet wonder.

GILCHRIST – Sept 2, 2008

The Retreat and the Embrace
“I have no reason anymore
to be other than I am.”
~Mark Nepo


Tues, 2pm

How can so little be enough? How can I have lived so long with less than this? For Jeremiah is all that I need, all. A small place in the woods. Windows open to the green. A table, a chair, a small bed, no more than a cot. And that tiny hummingbird that just flitted by my window. Yet on first stepping in to the little house called Jeremiah, I felt enveloped in luxury. Why would I ever want more? The sweet silence. The summer light flowing in. The faint ticking of the ceiling fan, turning high overhead.

It is far more than I expected. The hardwood floors, cool under bare feet. The quilt on the bed, folded back, and two pillows. The cabin is centered by a red brick fireplace, the kitchen – a refrigerator, a compact stove, oak cupboards to the right as I walk in. To my left, the pine table with a basket of colored pencils and a green glass lamp. In the corner, a second chair, tiny, almost like a child’s, painted green wood, and beside that, another large window, a low table, perhaps a little more than two feet in width, with a green pad and round green pillow before it as a meditation space. On the table: a candle, a two-toned gray stone, a shell, a striped feather, a dried milk pod. And in a frame, this text:

In this small hut

In this small hut
are worlds beyond number
living here alone
I have endless company
already I have
attained the essence
how could I dare
to want something higher

~Muso Soseki

Then, a floor lamp with a green and white plaid shade, set beside a forest green futon that serves as comfortable reading chair facing inward and directly the brick fireplace. On the other side of the futon is a small bench. A few steps more, the little bed and nightstand, on which someone has left a glass vase of wildflowers—lavender, orange, yellow daisies. The bed has a headboard that is a bookshelf, and on that, another small lamp for reading at night before sleep.

Rounding the perimeter of this space, at the foot of the bed, is a door to a small screened back porch looking out into the forest. A wicker chair, table, and candles along the windowsill are in this space. Back inside, continuing clockwise, the bathroom, surprisingly luxurious. Shower and bath, towels each inscribed: “Jeremiah.” In the closet there, a box of logs for the fireplace. Just outside of the bathroom is a dresser, and in its drawers—crayons, great pads of paper, a jar of soap bubbles, pastels, paintbrushes, watercolors. In another drawer, linens and extra blankets for the bed. As I continue around the room, I return by the backside of the fireplace into the kitchen again.

I need nothing more. Ever.

It is but a few hours since my arrival, and already I think my blood pulses more slowly. I drove in this morning twittering and jittery with excitement and eagerness to embrace my retreat.

Coming up the gravel drive between the trees and into the sun, the caretaker’s house was to the right, and John soon came out to greet me. With him, Samantha.

But a few hours later, Samantha shares my bed. Such is the open heart of a dog. The sweet little mutt, mostly black with brown rippling, some mix between beagle and maybe a touch of dachshund, has in a dog blink decided that we are old friends.

Showing me where to park my car, John took my luggage into his golf cart and gave me the grand tour. Samantha with her pudgy low belly and ears flapping, trots alongside us. She has not left my side since, though John is long gone.

My luggage, I apologize for it, too much, but John merely smiles. His long wavy white hair bespeaks years of experience that have done their part, I can tell, to regulate proper priorities. He questions nothing. My heaviest duffel bag is loaded down with a small library of books. My retreat, after all, is intended to embrace my love of the literary arts. There is Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis, Rainer Maria Rilke, Joyce Carol Oates, many journals and notebooks and sketchpads with a tin of graphic pencils, several issues of Poets & Writers, also issues of Poetry. There are my father’s and my mother’s diaries from the Second World War, carefully bundled, entrusted to me. There is a leather bound bible. There is my laptop, blessedly without an Internet connection here, to serve only as writing tool.

Other bags hold groceries: milk, pasta, rice, a loaf of bread, butter, olive oil, a jar of strawberry preserves and a jar of peanut butter, a round of sausage, a box of green tea, a pound of Kona coffee, a box of granola, a can of baked beans, four small squares of dark chocolate, garlic salt, a brick of Muenster cheese, half a pound of potatoes, chicken bouillon, and a bottle of red wine. I am ever so pleased when I find in the kitchen shelves and drawers all else that I could possibly need. Even the corkscrew that I had forgotten. At the front gate, John had shown me the garden and invited me to return at any time and gather whatever I might need. There are sun ripened tomatoes, yellow squash and zucchini, round watermelons and cantaloupes, even corn growing in rows. And herbs. Samantha waddles between the rows of vegetables pointing out its bounty to me.

What more can I possibly need?

I had been told that when people first come here—they sleep. I am amused at this. Not me. I am too eager to get all that I can from my too short stay. Already I am aware of the ticking away of precious time. And yet, soon after John has delivered me to Jeremiah in the woods, Samantha decidedly staying behind to keep me company, I fall into the little bed. And it is just right. I do not know how long I sleep. I refuse to look at the clock, whose tiny ticking face I have turned to the wall.

Sometime after dinner ...

One fawn nibbles at a tuft of grass, no more than 25 or 30 feet from my window. The other fawn wanders back along the path, but the doe walks on her dainty little hooves along the gravel path leading to my cabin, to Jeremiah, carefree and unworried about her two children. It is safe here. I feel it, too.

After Samantha and I napped this afternoon, and she all snuggled cozy and spooning against me, smelling of the forest, I got too curious to stay put, despite the heat of the day. I, who despise heat, am completely intolerant of it, realize I could well live comfortably without air conditioning on a 90 degree day in this space. Those who know me, how I melt and wither away in the steam of summer, will crow, what? No! But the little house stays remarkably cool, as all my windows are shut, the ceiling fan whirring overhead. I even contemplate trying out the fireplace tonight—it’s that cool—but decide to leave that for later in the week, when the temps will indeed fall a bit.

I brave the heat. Samantha hops off the bed to follow me as soon as she sees me stuff my hair under my Santa Fe straw hat. I put my sunglasses on, grab one of my recyclable Meijer’s tote bags, now emptied of groceries, and head down the path to the garden. Samantha dawdles, finding some living something, some invisible critter, apparently hiding under a slanted rock in front of Jeremiah. She whines, digs with one paw, digs with the other, circles, yelps. I wait a moment, laughing at her antics, but then continue on my way. As soon as I emerge from the woods onto the path that borders a large meadow, the sun slams down on me. But I am that content today. I don’t mind. My hat pulled low over my eyes, I hike to the garden, first going uphill, then turning left, away from Windhill, the meditation chapel on top of the hill that John showed me earlier. I will explore that further perhaps tomorrow.

The garden is surrounded by a graying old wood fence. The gate creaks when I push it open. I am a girl in a candy store, choosing the roundest melon, snapping off two large corn cobs, picking through the pale yellow squash for two perfect ones. Handfuls of yellow and red cherry tomatoes, a bit of lettuce, sugar snap peas and green beans go into my tote. And a large red chili, biggest I’ve ever seen. Two green peppers, and I’m set. My tote bag is heavy, but my heart is light.

After delivering my bounty to my little kitchen, I head back out again—this time across the meadow toward a little stone chimney rising beyond the hill. John drove me by earlier in his golf cart, explaining it was a little stone chapel a woman had built here for worship. I will have to find out more of that story, but I head over now on a grassy path winding through the meadow, until I am over the rise and see just on the other side a wooden chair set in the shade of a tree, gardens surrounded by stones with bursts of color flowering everywhere. The tiny chapel looks like a hobbit house. I sit in the shade for a moment to take it all in. But I have yet to fully slow down here. My heart still beats a fast rhythm. I am every moment driven, eager to see around the next corner, wanting adventure. I sit but for a moment before popping out of the chair to peek inside the hobbit house… chapel. I have to duck to enter the curved wooden door. It is all stone, large stones, all shapes, and inside the floor too is of stone tile, one wooden bench to either side. Tiny octagonal windows allow a bit of light inside from either side, but the far wall has candles set upon the stones wherever they jut out. I wonder who lit them, because, aside from John, I have seen no one here. I find more candles in a basket on the floor, wooden matches, and I light another and place it on a jut of rock.

And then I sit. Sit. Still. Resisting the urge to move, to get up, explore, touch. No. Sit. Help me slow down, Lord, I whisper. Help me let go. Show me what it is that I am supposed to learn here. I want to find my way again.

The prayer is short, even as a tall candle with Jesus on it, his bleeding heart glowing in the middle of his chest, watches me in silence. I am up, walking along the walls, pressing my palms to the shapes of the rocks. This one, that one. My hand longs for the feel of rock, wood, earth, plant. I mold my hands to the rocks of the chapel, feeling for a pulse, and I am almost sure I feel one.

Back toward Jeremiah, but again I pass the little house by. The path winds further, around a bend, and I want to see where it leads. Around the bend is the first other person I have met here today, aside from caretaker John. The sun bright behind her, I can only see a silhouette of a young woman approaching, then pausing for me to near.


Hello, I reply, and we stand facing each other and smiling. We talk for a while. She is Laura from Chicago, a chaplain who works in a hospice, a pretty young woman. A bit burned out, she says, smiling. Needed a moment to … retreat. I tell her why I am here. Retreat and embrace, I say, and she nods. I tell her that I am a writer, that I write business words all day, but I wish to find my art words again. She nods, says quietly, I wish you to find them, and we pass each other and continue each on our own way.

I see paths this way, that, toward meadow, into woods. I choose the woods again, and as soon as I enter the shade of the trees, I catch my breath. Three deer. No doubt the same family this moment outside my window. Doe and two fawns, and they leap as light as air and are gone. I follow them, a little more slowly now, my heart jittery with joy, and come back up on my own little hobbit house, this time from the back.

A quick shower, I shimmy into a light little summer dress, and I pad around my new home humming.

Dinner, then. I wash my vegetables and set them out on the counter, choosing which ones I will have for tonight. Contentment seeps through me. There is something about picking fresh vegetables, something about cleaning and preparing them, something about preparing a meal, lighting candles, pouring a glass of wine at end of a sweet day. And watching deer play as I finish my meal.

Why, I wonder, do we so complicate and clutter up our lives? When joy is such a simple thing.


Approaches already evening. I have not been driven to write today. I came here to write, I thought, but no. I came here to let go. To submit. And to do so fully, I am discovering, is not quite yet to write, or perhaps at all … I don’t know. I am now only trying to listen. To open and take in.

My pace has already slowed. Indeed, as I had expected, this is a process, and this is a time of taking off layer after layer. I worry that there will not be enough time … but then I remind myself to let go of that, too.

This was the first morning that I woke with no tension headache in some time. That was my first realization of the process of letting go underway. I woke feeling rested and light. My evening before had been as if charmed. I discovered how wonderful a place is that little screened-in porch out back of Jeremiah. I keep referring to everything as little, as tiny, as small … and yet what I am experiencing is how little, and tiny, and small, and crowded my life has become, constrained in its tensions and worries and stresses and fears. This might go wrong, and what then? That might fail, and what should become of me then? I resist all such thoughts. Let go, is my mantra, let go. Retreat. First, retreat, and then, embrace.

After my dinner of linguini and freshly picked vegetables, I retreated to the back porch to read. Since I hadn’t finished my glass of cherry ginseng wine, I took that with me. I have noticed that my need to eat, ingest, wish for the relaxation that a glass of wine might bring have already lessened. One glass is enough, more than enough. Where I am has already begun to do its work upon me. My surroundings have intoxicated me.

I sit on the porch in the wicker chair that fits me perfectly. How is it that everything here fits me so perfectly? The little house called Jeremiah fits me perfectly. The chair and the table are just for me. The futon is comfortable on my back, just low enough for my feet to rest on the floor, and the bed is the right degree of soft and firm. Everything is just so, for me. For my needs and even my wishes.

I light a small (yes, this too, I have chosen in small size) cigar, a Mayorga Columbian Supremo, coffee-infused cigar from a tin of several. I haven’t smoked a cigar in months, but tonight the mood seems right and the pause in time seems right. It gives me something to do while I learn again how to do nothing. I light it and I light also the candles that someone has set along each windowsill, on all three sides of me. It is perhaps the first time since my arrival here that I truly do nothing. Only sit, watch the coffee-infused smoke rise, pause, and open my senses to my surroundings.

All around me is the forest. And at first I see only forest. It takes time before I see the trees. And then the brush beneath them. The leaves. The twigs. The blue sky between the tops. The chipmunk scittering across the pile of wood and bark chips. The whirligig that spins out from a tree branch and helicopters toward the ground. The dragonfly that hovers and zigs suddenly away.

My eyes adjust to seeing the world again. I begin to see.

I spend another hour, or is it three, or more, sitting on the porch, reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I have intended to read this book for a long time. It has rested with other books on my nightstand back home for at least a full year. Now, at last, I do. I am a great fan of C. S. Lewis and he does not fail me now. I am drawn in, as I find my questions and arguments and wonderings and protests about Christianity being answered with surprisingly clear and satisfying and rational answers. I begin to see.

It is a while before my ears pick up the sound. A slight puffing. A crackle. And a sense that something else is near, something living. I glance to my left and but a few feet away is one of the fawns I had watched earlier, as I ate my dinner. Now she is so near that I can hear her breathing. When I move, she picks up her head, her delicate white ears in my direction, and our eyes meet for a long moment. She goes back to eating.

What is she eating? I had thought earlier that she was grazing on tufts of grass. But I can hear her distinctly now. She snuffles her nose along the ground, finds the treat she seeks, then crunches it between her teeth. There seem to be many of them, these treats. Nuts? Acorns? I note to myself that I will go out and look more closely at the ground and find what it is that she so enjoys.

She wanders even closer. I see the soft of her spotted coat. The tender pink of her ears. Her breath coming in gusts. The second fawn appears, too, but wanders around to the other side of Jeremiah more quickly , and she lags a bit, but then follows him.

I sit silent with blessing, and for a moment, I think I will weep with the immensity of a simple joy. I have had quite a few such moments here already. Wanting to weep for release. Feeling the tears just on the other side, but not yet spilling them. They well up inside me, I sigh, and they are gone again.

This morning when I woke there was such a moment, too, of wanting to weep out of sheer goodness of being alive. Of belonging to the day and wanting it—the day, as one longs to unwrap a gift. Padding around barefoot, I made coffee and took my mug back out onto the back porch again, this time to sit outside on the step. I walked around in the grass in my bare feet, feeling for the hard knots of whatever it was the fawn had been crunching with such pleasure, but found nothing. So I sat on the step and sipped coffee and watched the light change slowly in its quality among the trees and over them and through them.

Good, good morning.

A walk to Windhill. I see no one on the way. I see no one coming back. I see no one at the meditation chapel of Windhill. It is as if the world is mine alone, and I want it just that way. A sign at the door of Windhill reminds me to remove my shoes, which I do, placing them on a wooden shelf. I walk through the great rooms with white carpeting and soaring cathedral ceilings and great windows to all directions of the sky. I stand inside the chapel for a moment and read the psalms on the altar. I walk into the library and browse through every shelf. I find more books by C. S. Lewis and I set those on the table. I find Walden by Henry David Thoreau and smile with memory. Thoreau’s Walden is one of those books that was a turning point, a defining place, in my young life. I was in high school when I first read it. I have purchased several copies of it since. It is still among my cherished treasures, but it would be fitting to read some of it while being here.

I take also a book titled, I-94: A Collection of Southwest Michigan Writers, and I add to the quickly growing stack, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, and two slim collections of poems by a poet I do not, yet, know—Mark Nepo.

Before leaving Windhill, I step inside the white tiled kitchen and see a sign on the refrigerator, inviting me to take whatever I like from its contents. I find more gifts from the garden, and I choose one zucchini to take back with me. My arms full with gifts, I return to Jeremiah.

The day is quickly growing hot again, and it is the time I wish to withdraw. John has left what looks like an army canvas duffel bag, but for its orange embroidered “JEREMIAH” on one side, on the bench next to my front door. Inside are fresh towels for my bath and dishtowels. I set them inside, I put away the zucchini, I put my books on the back porch, and I close all my windows to keep out the heat. The hut remains as cool as if it were air conditioned.

Then something comes over me. I don’t even sense it coming. But in the next moment, I am dancing. In a circle around the centering brick fireplace, I dance around my hut, circling and swaying and leaping. In my mind’s eye I see a little girl, one I had not thought about in so many decades … and I feel that distant sense of weeping again, a mix of sadness and joy. I hadn’t thought of myself dancing as a little girl in such a very long time. But when I was quite little, I would dance nearly every evening. Still dressed or already in my pajamas, I would quietly sneak out into the backyard as night was falling, and I would dance and dance and dance. Between the trees, around the flower beds, arms up to the sky, twirling and swirling all around the back yard until I would fall, dizzy, into the cool grass. I am sure now that my parents must on some such evening have seen my nightly dance of joy. But they never said a word. And I never named it in my mind. This dance. It is, perhaps, a show of my appreciation for another day of life. And a wish, too, to be a part of the magic of falling night.

So I danced now. I felt the awkwardness at first in my body. Although I had danced countless times over the years on various dance floors, waltzes and tangos and fox trots, this kind of free form movement felt odd to my body. Over the last near decade, caught in a relationship that had brought shame on all things physical to me, feeling broken and ugly, I had withdrawn inside my body and, in many ways, abandoned it. I had long ago detached from my body, as if we were two separate beings and that one, an untrustworthy stranger. I pretended it did not exist, for it had come to bring me only a sense of pain and rejection and the most intimate kind of betrayal.

But now I danced. If at first forcing my body to stretch and unfold and uncurl, feeling a little like a tin woman grown rusty, then soon I turned with more grace. This kind of healing would take a very long time, I knew, and perhaps this part of me would never be completely whole again … but to dance like a child again, simply for the joy of movement, was an unexpected gift. It was a first step in taking back ownership of my physical self and acknowledging her to be a part of me, of my whole self. Yet one more that Jeremiah has gifted me.



I wake to it, shattering the sky, clapping the leaves like a thousand hands in applause. Heavy rain, downpour, a waterfall from the skies, washing all clean and quenching all thirsts. Even mine. And this, after a night of wandering wakefulness. For I woke in the very middle of the darkness, my heart pounding, a pressure against my temples, my thoughts jumbled and restless. By morning, I realized—this was the exact midpoint of my stay here. The womb of night was birthing me, from retreat into embrace.

The peaceful coddling was done, and now I must find my way into a life that I can embrace. Unable to sleep, I turned the light above my bed on, and grabbed for a notebook. It is the notebook in which I have been doing a messy sort of scribble of brainstorming for the past few weeks. Ideas, concerns, questions, hopes, goals. Plans on how to achieve them. More than a few fears that I might not. No, when I look through the random notes, I do not find the fears that I might not. Only fears. To overcome. And next, the notes on how I might, possibly, do so.

Several pages are hard reality. Debts owed and budget. How long to pay them off and buy my freedom. In what order. Plan of attack. But then there are more pages of ideas. Some bizarre ones, no doubt. But I have not censured myself here, because dreaming is a messy business, and its seed is in the impossible made possible. One has to begin somewhere, and although I wish I were much, much further along, here I am. So here I must begin.

I sit on my bed cross-legged and scribble more notes while paging through the last issue of Poets & Writers magazine. There is more than enough here to keep me busy: awards and prizes, calls for submissions, grants and fellowships. With a marker, I circle one here, one there, many throughout the pages, and circle twice the deadlines. Some are breathlessly near. But in the middle of night, in the hour of dreamy madness, all things are possible. The morning will have its own say.

At last I sleep again, but it is to the crack of thunder and the nearing of dawn.

And in the full unfolding of morning, the refreshment of rain. My worried mind is eased when I finally open my eyes. I am hope again. My spirit opens and drinks in.

One of my favorite parts of mornings here—and I take immense pleasure in by now being able to say that a relationship is beginning to be established between me and Jeremiah, me and this solitary life, me and the surrounding woods—is the ritual of opening my windows to the day.

Doing so, I feel my own opening to the day. One after another, I draw up the dark green blinds and tie them back. I open the windows just enough to let in the cool breeze, fresh from the rain. I open them all, until the gentle gray light of the rainy morning enters my abode, and we are one.
Everything here is about being one. Connection. The blending of human to nature and even human to house. In my life in that other place, out there, now seeming so far away, time is an enemy, hurrying me along, biting at my heels, a demanding master. Here, time is my gentle and most kind and patient companion. It urges me along, an open invitation, while allowing me to dawdle when I need to along the way. I am present in each and every moment. I note every detail of what surrounds me, and all is wonder. All is a tender miracle. All is a gift, and the sense of being at every moment near bursting, near weeping in gratitude, never leaves me.

So I pad around my circular space, the brick fireplace rising in the center as a steady marker. My windows are my eyes to the world in its grace, and now I make my pot of coffee. The spoon in my hand is a solid fit, a cool curve on fingers, and I find myself gazing at an ordinary spoon as if having never quite seen one before. The gift of time …

The delicious aroma of percolating coffee fills my abode and mixes with the fresh rain breeze. It is cool, deliciously cool, when I go out onto my little back porch and settle into my wicker chair with a blanket wrapped around me. I light the candles on all windowsills, to all three sides of me.

The steam from my coffee cup rises, the blanket is soft and warm, the rain has slowed to a steady patter, the candles flicker, and I am at peace.

I am at peace.

I embrace the day.

I read a chapter from Luke in my leather-bound bible, my favorite for Luke’s literary slant, and sense that for all the times I have read this book before, at least half a dozen times, I never quite felt the words as I do now. They seemed harsh at times. Hard, like stones. Even frightening. If I was drawn to them over a lifetime, it was never quite as to a friend. More as to someone I could not ever understand, yet was drawn to ponder, sensing a wisdom that eluded me. This morning’s reading feels different. I am listening to a teacher, and He speaks to me.

And then, second cup of coffee—and Rainer Maria Rilke. I read his Book of Hours, and there are so many lines, so many verses, that I would want to share, stop people in the road and hold their sleeve until they read them, too … yet the curious part of these my days of solitude, is that the need to share is not immediate. A time for everything. The gift of time, now for myself, to take in.

I have done so much reading in the last couple of days. I read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity in one day. Truly, I could not step away from it. Could not. This intellect had taken on and answered for me so many questions that had plagued and even tormented me over an entire lifetime, answered them so easily and clearly, that it was all I could do not to throw my head back and laugh. In pleasure at the simplicity of his understanding and ability to communicate it. In release, at having so many mysteries at long last solved. In astonishment at my own childlike foolishness at not being able to see, see, where the answers had stood before me all this time. In acknowledgement at the wonder of it, that if I did not see before, that it was no doubt because I was not yet meant to, was not yet ready, and that every single step of my travels to this very point in time were just as they were meant to be. To bring me here. To Jeremiah. Now.


The rain, more rain, all day the rain. I love the soft sound of it, and being safe, and warm, and cozy inside. I have a log burning on the fireplace. A little while ago, a friend called. It is the first time since coming here that I have heard my own voice. We talked for perhaps 40 minutes, and then we each returned to our respective evenings. I have not wanted to talk during my too few days here. But it was a good voice to listen to, and more importantly, a good laugh. We talked about work, and play, retreats and vacations, and art. We talked of how one does not really see a thing until one tries to duplicate it. Drawing, painting, carving into wood, putting into a story, doesn’t matter. You think you know a thing, and you discover, until you want to recreate it, you do not. In recreating, we create a thing for ourselves, for the first time. We put ourselves inside of it, and so know it.

Now I return to sitting by the fire, watching the flames, listening to the rain, reading a little of my mother’s diary from 1943 and 1944, that I have also brought with me. Time, passage of time, the past the present the future blending. In reading about her summer of 1943, I see my mother as a young, carefree girl, oblivious to the war soon to come that would rip her away from her home, forever.


All night it rained. Sometimes beating against the roof, the windows, sometimes a caress, a most gentle tapping with its knuckles. All of it comforting. I love the rain, the hint of it coming, the downpour, the after green, so lush. So it is this morning. I wake earlier than all my mornings here, but I am greedy for the day, to get all from it that I can, every minute, seam to seam.
It is just barely first light when I draw the blinds. The forest hums with waking life. I open the front door and stand on the steps in my nightgown. I breathe in the fresh of the morning. The earth is rich and loamy and damp. The grass has gone from blonde to deep green, and drops of water linger on every surface—every blade of grass, every upturned leaf, pearled along each branch of every tree.

I make coffee, wash quickly while it brews, drink it down hot and fast, and dress. I want to be out in this morning. I want to feel it on my skin. I wish to be kissed.

I meet John along the way, his brushed back white hair still wet from his own morning cleansing. Samantha dances between us, nosing at my hand. I scratch her silky black ear and she offers her damp nose again, and so I am kissed. I was just heading up to Windhill to leave you a note, I say to John. He nods, reflecting my tone of sadness. No doubt he hears it in every voice that says farewell to this place of peace. Will you come by at … I stall. Samantha noses my palm. I pet her. I look at her and not John. What do you think, Samantha? I say instead. But no one will tell me to go. Or to stay. Although John upon my arrival did say they wish everyone who comes here to stay even longer than they thought they might. But I must. I must go, tomorrow. There must be this transition of home before returning to the busyness, the madness of work. Will you come by at noon tomorrow with your cart? Then I add, you can forget about me if you like …

I head past Windhill then to the labyrinth. John had pointed it out on my arrival. Down the hill from the Windhill house and meditation chapel spirals a circling path, in and around itself, around and around, nearly a mile when stretched from end to end. From a distance, it looks like … nothing. Random circlings in the tall, dry field grass. In other seasons, no doubt, the path winds between billows of wildflowers and tall grasses, or mounds and arches of snow. When I arrived, it only seemed a field of bent hay. The rain has given it new life. I enter the labyrinth through an iron gate, an arch overhead. The grass slaps wet against my ankles. A few turns in, I begin to see the beauty that is here, even in this parched season. Rain has washed it clean for me to see. I should have known, I think. I am the daughter of an artist, and from watching him paint all my growing years, the first thing I learned about color—is that there is no pure color. There are no whites, no blacks, no greens, no yellows or blues. Every color is a mix of every other color in varying proportions. Every color contains within it the full spectrum of a rainbow.

And then it occurs to me, as I wind along the path and follow its lead, that I am walking the labyrinth in its season that mirrors mine, at the end of its summer and just before autumn. The black-eyed Susans are now only the black eyes. The brightest flowers are past bloom. But the array of flowers and grasses is no less beautiful now. Only the colors are more subtle, less showy. Still, they are all here. If less obvious from a distance, on coming closer, the beauty of this array is fully as rich and inviting. The pink blush of clover growing close to the ground. Clusters of tiny white flowers, as delicate as lace. Pale gold petals, and a smoky blue. And the grasses, they are every height, heavy with seed, sagging into the pathway, brushing soft and damp against my bare hands as I pass by. Shafts of wheat sway heavy with grain. Berries glisten full and ripe, near bursting with dark juice.

I realize, then, as I walk, that my right hand has been clenched, a fist, I do not know how long. All morning? Upon entering the labyrinth? All my life? I consciously unfold it, open my palm and feel the wildflowers and grasses brush soft against my palm as I pass.

Let go. Let God.

The path winds and curls and snakes in upon itself and unwinds again. I circle inward and then out and back again. At one point, I walk just by the gate, right where I began, and instead of being nearer to the summit, I am back at the outer edge. Just then, the path takes a turn, and the next moment, there I am, at the summit, the inside circle of the labyrinth. Here, the path is a blossom. Circles of mown grass in every direction of the sky. I look out and see the meadow in its gentle slopes, the vegetable garden in the distance, the woods to my left, the gate to the retreat, the road beyond.

When I let go and trust.


Oh, dear. What is this knot of anxiety beginning again? As if I can feel every singular moment passing me now. Bringing me closer to going back. How to keep what I have found here always with me? How to keep it safe? From slipping away and out of my hands like a slippery eel? I don’t want to go. I don’t want to lose this.

Still later.

Unable to be still, losing all direction, I slipped into walking shoes and headed across the field to the stone chapel. The little hobbit house. Frantic that I am losing all that I have found. Answers, please, direction! I am afraid again, and feeling lost …

For the first time since I have been here, I am able to weep, and I do so, in heaving and heart-shattering sobs, sitting in the cool dark of the tiny chapel. Until I am done.

There is a tiny wooden carved heart set against one of the octagonal windows, how did I not notice it before? Or wasn’t it here the other day? I hold it for a moment, but it lacks the skin-silky-smoothness of the wooden hearts Andy used to carve for me. They felt like living flesh in my hands. It is odd to think of him now, here. From so long ago. From so far away. A long ago love that colors me even today with the memory of silk-smooth wooden hearts in the palm of my hand, placed there as a gift.

I light a votive candle and dare not put it where the altar, such as it is, is. A couple other candles flicker here already. Jesus with his bleeding heart overhead (an image that has always seemed strange, if not nightmarish to me), out of my reach, has no burning flame inside him today. I set my candle in the far right corner, as high as I can reach, on a jut of rock that looks a little like an open cat’s mouth. I sit and weep, softly now. My breath catches like a child’s. I swallow and cry still more.

I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave this place and go back to the madness, the noise, the void. Where nothing makes sense. Where everything can come crashing down at any moment. What am I to do? How do I keep the lessons I have learned here—out there? How do I not lose them between here and home? Here and work? Here and the rest of the world?

Have I, after all, discovered anything? I am not even sure anymore that I am a writer. What is it that I write? Journals and travel logs and thoughts that come loose and unhinged. I’ve paged through some old poetry during this stay, but it is as if someone else had written it … and it occurs to me, someone else did. I am not sure that I will ever write poetry again. As time passes, my conviction that I will not, deepens.

She is gone.

Let go, I remind myself. Let Him. If I am a fool, He is not. He will know what to do. All right then, I whisper between tears, You do it, then. And tell me how.

I wander back through the field to Jeremiah. Which is, I have discovered, the longest book in the bible. And Jeremiah is something of a poet, too. An anguished one, too long without trustworthy friends, but never afraid to tell the truth, nonetheless.

What am I to do? How will He direct me? I keep thinking of a shell, big as my fist, that has been sitting on the back porch windowsill. Determined to offer no argument, whether something makes sense to me or not, I feel as if I should try to draw this shell.

And so I do, paper pad on knees, sitting now on the front step of Jeremiah, shell placed up on the bench next to the door, at eye level. It’s an ugly thing. More like bone than shell, like some old man’s fist, flesh melted away. The shiny exterior has been washed and pounded away by sand. It looks like white bony knuckles. I draw it carefully but quickly, date it, and bring the pad back inside, and the shell, and place them on the table. The drawing is not a bad one; it has captured some of the bony knuckled ugliness.

I wander the hut, wander and circle. I start another fire in the fireplace. I wash three potatoes and cut the zucchini from the garden into three large pieces and set it all to boiling in a large pot. I sit by the fire, reading Annie Dillard, The Maytrees, adoring her every fine word, and wondering if I will cry again before the night is over.

The evening deepens and nears night. I sit by the fire, facing it, and read Annie Dillard, remembering why I so love her artistry. Perhaps a resolve, but I have grown more peaceful again. Now and then, I rise from my chair to go look at the drawing of the bony shell. Each time, I am surprised to see that the drawing is good. I hold the shell in my hand and put it down again. I thought for some time about it, whether it would be wrong to take the shell from Jeremiah and keep it with me, to remind me of the peace and goodness of this place, but I decide that it would not be wrong … if I take it with a promise to return and bring it back again. Because I will return.


I am watching the sun rise directly across from my front window, across the meadow and slants of light through the trees in front of Jeremiah, bordering the gravel road. Ever brighter, brighter. It looks something like heaven. No, don’t laugh, it does. The way it slants like that, dusty golden shafts of light between the trees and sparkling across the still wet grass. A chipmunk scampers across a rock to watch, too. For a moment, the trees are in sharp silhouette. Such stillness. The earth in breathless waiting. A butter yellow leaf falls slowly from one of the trees in front of my hut onto my path. Where it curves toward the road, a puddle from yesterday shines and reflects the rising sun.

It is a miracle that happens each and every day. Every day, yet how often do we really see it?

It is a promise.

I will miss these wooded mornings of solitude and silence. More than I can say. But it is my hope that I will be able to preserve something of what I have found in these few days and bring it with me—out there. It is my prayer. While I do not know yet what it is, exactly, what I am to do in the coming days, in the coming years, with the rest of my life, there are stirrings inside me, something like that anxious little chipmunk out there on the rock, and I am yet too unsure to name them, but there they are. There they are.

I am taking the bony shell with me. This shell, too, is a promise—of my return. I will owe it to Jeremiah. Someday, I will bring it back and place it once again on the windowsill facing into the forest, and I will then know its secret. It reminds me now of my own clenched fist, clenched so hard that the knuckles press white through the skin. An ugly thing, yet beautiful at the same time, holding tight within it unspeakable pain and too long suffering. Yet without that pain, as C. S. Lewis wrote, as Mark Nepo wrote, as Rilke wrote in his love poems to God, “You, darkness, of whom I am born— … It lets me imagine/a great presence stirring beside me …"


Deborah will come by for me at noon in the golf cart. Showered, dressed, breakfasted, I have my bags packed. The few items of clothing, now with the smell of woods and wind-washed meadow to them, thistles caught on sleeves, seedlings rimming pant legs—are packed. More, the books, notebooks, sketch pads, and the one with the drawing of the bony shell. And two totes of leftover groceries, including the round watermelon from the garden that I never ate, but will be a sweet reminding treat back home.

The deal is this: guests must all clean up after themselves. Each guest prepares the welcome for the next guest to come. As I wash and put away my breakfast dishes, scrub the stove, rinse out the sink, wash down the shower, change the linens on the bed, put out fresh towels, sweep the floor … I wonder why it is that we do not all do this in every place that we sleep. Every place along the road, every table where we sit for a meal. A honeyed peace flows through me as I put things back as I found them. I think of the next soul to come to Jeremiah, and my heart is warm and brimming with compassion. We all come here with our hurt places. We all come here wondering, afraid, hopeful. Each of us unique and all of us the same. I add a few fresh wildflowers to the vase on the nightstand, and replace the burnt out candles with new ones, placing the box of matches beside them.


I am no longer afraid.