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."