Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010: A Year of Coming Home

2010: A Year of Coming Home

by Zinta Aistars

Wanderlust has been in my family genes as far back as I can trace those genes. A great-grandfather, I’m told, sailed off across the Baltic Sea from the Ventspils port in Latvia to explore the world. A Kurland Viking, conquering the seas, ever curious to see and experience what land lies beyond the next crashing wave. My father spent time in many Latvian towns and cities growing up. Both of my parents love to travel, perhaps more open than most to adventure, having been uprooted from their ancestral homes during World War II and coming to America as refugees. They spent a portion of their youth in what were called “displaced persons” camps.

Being “displaced” almost seems like an inheritance. If there is one ongoing theme in much of my writing over the many decades, it is a searching for Home. Home with a capital H—in place and in person. That place where one feels at ease, safe, able to rest from the stresses of the world outside. That place where one can be, fully and truly, oneself.

Everyone in my family loves to travel. I, too, yearn for it on a regular basis. Doesn’t matter to where as much as it matters to embark on an adventure into the unknown. Moving from place to place had become a part of my lifestyle, along with frequent travel. I’ve traveled and lived overseas, I’ve been to 49 of our 50 states in the U.S., and I’ve had more than 30 addresses attached to my name. It is only in the past couple of years or so that I have, more or less, settled down. An occasional trip north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (one of my favorite addresses and one I hope to reclaim someday) to shake the dust of civilization off my mind, a longer weekend jaunt to Chicago to visit my daughter, or perhaps a few days at a retreat in the woods to catch up on quiet and creative time. That’s the extent of my travels now.

Home, however, has always evaded me. It occurred to me at one point that it may be that my family so loves travel because we are, well, a bit homeless. No, not living in cardboard boxes or sleeping on park benches (although I have been homeless for a few months in my life, having no address at all to my name but a tent in the trunk of my car), but more of an internal homelessness, even while we have lived in pleasant and comfortable houses. Addresses where we receive our mail. Roofs and walls that serve as shelter. But Home?

My parents always talked about returning to Latvia, once their homeland regained its freedom. In 1991, when the Soviet Union and its Iron Curtain fell at last, Latvia became a free country again, at least officially. Struggles with its powerful big bear of a neighbor to the east continue to this day. My parents, now having crossed into their 80s, no longer talk about “going home.” As much as they have ever been, enjoying their circle of close friends and a busy social life in the local Latvian community, Mom enjoying her gardening, Dad painting in his art studio in the basement, they have settled into a house and call it home. Travel continues to be a kind of ongoing search for bits and pieces of Home, while never fully finding it. They have settled into a comfortable place in their lives, embrace their golden years, and hope for no more address changes.

As this decade comes to a close, and we cross the threshold not only into a New Year, but a new decade—2010—I have decided to declare this the Year of Coming Home. If Home has kept evading me, at some point over the last couple years, I have realized that it is not an exterior place that has evaded me, but it has been me that has been evading Home. Granted, the safe place did not exist. Neither in person nor in place. I lived in a straw house, and the people I allowed into my life were, too many of them, straw people.

Late in 2009, I took another look at my house. It hit me: I have lived in this house longer than I have lived anywhere, ever. I never intended to stay here this long. I never intended to stay at all. It was a shelter chosen for proximity to schools for my children, for ease of access to work and community nearby, a temporary abode that I fully intended to leave at first opportunity the moment my two offspring were grown and gone.

Some dozen years or more have gone by. I hadn’t been counting. And here I still live. Yet because I never thought of it as Home, and because finances were concentrated fully on raising my two children, I never showed the place any respect, let alone love. It has been the house where I live. Nothing more. A place for my stuff, as George Carlin would say.

I’m getting older. Wiser, too, I hope. I no longer chase adventure and those occasional moments of intense joy the way I did when I was younger. I still love to travel. The road still calls. But the call of Home has grown increasingly more seductive. I want peace more than great drama. I want that safe place, that place of comfort and some small measure of security. A place that knows my name when I walk inside, and greets me with another reflection of my identity, more than any other place can.

In the past few weeks, as 2009 has been winding down, I have thrown my house into complete upheaval. Neglect has been replaced by almost brutally focused attention. The roof has been torn away and replaced, the furnace deep in its belly is new, the rooms have been gutted, the ceiling has come down. I have exposed the very skeleton of my house and am now in the process of fleshing it out again—giving it something of my own spirit. I toss into it the colors that reflect the colors inside of me, a palette called Earthen Serenity. Dusty grays and earthy browns and mossy greens and foggy blues. These are the colors that remind me of the earth, the forest, the misty sky, and the peace of years adding up. This, I see, is the color of me.

I stand in the center of my house ruined to be rebuilt, and I see mirrored pieces of my own face, the body of my life, coming together. What has been scattered here and there, over continents and oceans, over decades, over broken and now left behind relationships, over surely a hundred different lives that I have lived and now abandoned, I am now calling to me the dust of memory, the gold of experience and hard-won wisdom, the shimmer of long ago love, the shadows of wars won and survived, the scars inflicted upon me but now become my badges of honor as a thriving survivor … and it all shape shifts, patch by patch, beam by beam, plaster into wall and ceiling, tile into floor, and becomes Home. If I were a place, this place would be me.

Last night I sat long in the middle of this gorgeous ruin. I sat in the dust of plaster and paint and gazed at this place. We are not there yet, this house and I. But we are moving toward it. That moment when I will open the door, and for the first time in my life, find myself Home.

This will surely not be my last house. It surely is not my dream house. It is not set in a place that I would choose again. It is not perfect, not by a long shot. But it is mine. With each day passing, this house is becoming more my Home than I have allowed any previous place to become.

2010, may it be a fine year. May it be a decade of growth. May it be a year of learning to draw and enforce boundaries, those fences that make good neighbors, gates that lock out the wolves but spring wide open to allow in the kind and true spirits. May it be a year of no more running away, less escapism and more return to self and self discovery. May it be a year of peace. Peace in the world, peace in my community, peace at hearth and heart and home.

I have been waiting for this year for a long, long time. I have been waiting for it from the first year I ever was. It’s time to travel again … travel all the way back—to Home.

Happy New Year, Everyone. May you find your way home safely.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Renovating House, Renovating Self

Day 1 Home Renovation

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

My Color Palette

Renovating House, Renovating Self

By Zinta Aistars

I’ve heard it said that when one dreams of a house, the house symbolizes self. Dreaming of an attic, for instance, corresponds to dreaming of one’s intellect. Dreaming of a basement hints of what lurks in our subconscious. Dreaming of a bedroom is, of course, our sensual self, and the kitchen, for some, perhaps, speaks of the heart of our house, our self. There is the exterior, the self we let show for curbside appeal, and then, what lives inside, an interior that is our inner selves, protected and hidden except from our closest friends, whom we invite for the occasional visit into our interior spaces.

I have dreamt of long and winding hallways with many doors. Which one to open? Why can’t I find my way inside my own house? Why did it all seem so dark? At last, a window, and I rip open the drapes to let the light inside.

For years, more than a decade, my house deteriorated around me. This, the house in which I live. A single mother on a meager income for a household of three, no outside support, we lived from paycheck to paycheck, nothing to spare. The house would have to stand on its own. And over the years, that necessary neglect began to show its effects.

I never meant to live here this long. From the day I moved in, having to find this house in a great rush—I had less than a month to find shelter for my little family of three musketeers before a lease would expire—I was in disbelief when the mortgage was granted to me. Me? A homeowner on my paltry salary? Yet my credit was good, and apparently the bank—some fifteen years ago—trusted me. I was handed the key. I’d found and closed on the little house in 28 days, a near impossible feat, I was told. Maybe there was some element of destiny …

That didn’t mean I had to love it. It was a grudging friendship at first. I was more relieved than excited to be a homeowner. My children would have a roof over their heads. A door I could lock, I hoped, against the dangers of the world … although that proved to be far from truth. Still, I felt gratification. When I walked from my marriage, it was because my children’s father had begun to love the bottle more than he loved me. One of his parting shots: “You’ll never make it without me.”

Oh? Damned if I wasn’t going to try, and more, succeed. And I have. Some fifteen years later as homeowner, I have seen my children off into the world. My daughter lives in Chicago, an MSW who is currently deputy campaign manager for a woman running for office in the Illinois state legislature. Her campaign platform is all about strong and independent women. My son is making a solid living as an electrician, about to receive his degree after a longer and more rocky path. The woman in his life is an Iraq war veteran, shrapnel as hard evidence still in her flesh. He likes strong and durable women. And this house, small and humble as it is, has been our headquarters for entry into the world and all its untapped possibilities.

Looking back on these years under this roof, I can’t say they have been happy ones. Indeed, they have been the most testing, sometimes the most cruel years of my life. This house has seen far more dark than light. I stand now in the living room with its two corner windows, and realize how little light comes in, no matter the time of day. I’ve let the wrong people into it—the sort who have one face for curbside appeal, but entirely another behind closed doors.

My house was falling apart. The roof leaked in several places. The windows were cracked and let in cold drafts. The floors were worn, tiles broken. The paint peeled and faded, showing the smudges of those long, dirty years. The furnace belched and refused, finally, to work any longer. The window AC units in summer popped the circuits more than cooled.

My house, my self?

Oh dear.

Hit bottom. That place in the basement where shadows lurk, the rats of despair, the broken subconscious that has started to accept the lies of bad men that I am not what I should be, that I "can’t make it without you," that this is the best I deserve.

Not a quick process, not a paved path, not a road easily taken, and surely not without battle waged and waged again, and again, but at last there was that moment … that crack in the door that let in a warm and golden light.

It was on a wilderness retreat that I had one of those treasure epiphanies. I had rented a tiny cabin in the woods, not more than 30 minutes drive from my broken house, to seek solitude and healing. I found it. There, and in a thousand other places. But it was in that tiny cabin in the woods, so close, that I suddenly realized: I can find the perfect place just where I am. It may be that I do not have the Alaskan wild about me, or the majestic and soaring crag of Rocky Mountains, or the rise and foam of the Baltic Sea, or the quiet sanity of the Keweenaw. All places I loved or had called home for a short while. Yet here in the Michigan woods, I had realized how little I really needed to be happy. A warm and tidy place.

I do not long for mansions. I do not care about competing with the Joneses, or anyone else, for that matter. My walls do not need to be papered with money; I’d rather they not be. The older I get, the more I appreciate a simple honesty—in person and in place. I was just a few miles away from my home address and I had found that longed for quiet peace. Why not bring it home with me?

Home. All my life I had sought Home. Dual citizenship, bilingual, ever traveling, what did I know of Home? It was everywhere. It was nowhere. It was, I realized, a sense of peace I had to carry within myself.

The children raised, I had been offered a new job, and the salary allowed for more than living from paycheck to paycheck. I had room to breathe. I had room to dream.

And I dreamt of a house …

First, I had to clean up the mess. The debts must be paid off before any rebuilding could begin. Done. The man with the heart of lies must be driven from my doorstep. Done. The children must be safe and well and happy on their chosen paths. Done.

It was now my turn.

To look into my house was to look in the mirror. I saw neglect. I saw abandonment. I saw, too, betrayal. I had not stood by her. I had left her for last. I had cared first and foremost for all others, woman the caretaker, and forgotten that I, and my house, mattered, too.

My turn. My house, my self.

I swore to do it, too, without owing anyone. No one would ever say to me again: “You couldn’t do this without me.”

First, the furnace. There in the dark underbelly of my house, that broken, steel giant whose roar had grown quiet. A new giant was brought in, corded to it—an air-condition unit so that my windows could at last be cleared of whirring boxes and be instead open to light. Next, the sagging roof, gaping by now with holes to the elements. My living room ceiling had split open in agony, dripping a dirty trail of water into my room. The house was in its death throes and demanding attention, as fast as I could give it.

“I’m sorry, “ I found myself saying to that wound in my ceiling. “I’ve neglected you too long. So long. You deserved better.”

A week they hammered away up there. Ripping open my house to sky, fresh air flooding in. Two raccoons were driven from my attic, their nest swept away. No more unpaid tenants. Rolls of insulation unrolled to soften the sound of rain pattering overhead. Rows of shingles, neat and tidy, appeared.

Curb appeal was improved, my summer was pleasantly cooled, winter came with the comfort of reliable heat. But a house becomes Home by other means. I interviewed contractors as a woman interviews potential suitors on a dating site. Will you care for my place with gentle touch and consideration? No hidden agendas hidden behind plaster and paint? I want solid structure that will endure whatever storm comes and still stand strong. And if you upset my dog or kick my cat, you are gone, handydude, gone.

The handydude I finally hire turns out to be another Latvian, my ethnic countryman, someone with whom I grew up. All is right with the world again, and he has earned my trust. Given advice when I ask it, backed off when I make my wishes clear—even if they sometimes seem a tad over the edge of eclectic and into odd. Only I will understand some of my choices.

I watch from day to day as he guts my house. The walls come down, the ceiling is gone. Before the dawn, they say, comes the darkest moment, and my house must endure this denuding to the bone. Her bones show, her skeleton, and I see her age now, no makeup to hide or disguise it. She is in her 50s, and not everything about her is up to code anymore. Codes change. She has stuck to what she knows. But she suddenly appears willing to embrace change.

David the Handydude gently pads the spaces between her studs with new insulation. New drywall goes up, new ceiling. Cracks are patched in and repaired. There is little that will stay of the old, just the bones of her. I look at what were once white walls and imagine color. She has been pale for too long, she deserves deeper hues—the blues of a stormy sea, the sage green of the moss as it grows in the forest, the browns of soft earth, the deep grey of an older woman grown dignified and not all in her revealed to the world in passing.

While David works, bringing along Luke to help, and my house shivers in its nakedness, awaiting her new façade, I realize I don’t yet know how to decorate her. She and I have been all about purpose, nothing frivolous, nothing just for the joy of the thing.

What now? What do I like? No, not my children, not those men passing like stormy ships in the night, but me, what do I like, and she, my house, what does she want?

Thinking about my own choices is at first overwhelming, and then, like strong drink. I am giddy, near intoxicated, with the prospect of choosing—just for the fun and beauty of it. Yes, what do I like, who am I as a house? As a Home?

I can’t remember the last time I had such fun. Such frivolous fun. The money melts, but I have it to melt now, and David comes with me for an afternoon of shopping. I make my choices and he explains the practical whys and wherefores of my choices, presents me with an array of alternatives I may never have considered. I had no idea there were so many options. Lighting fixtures. Switch plates, even. These, the lights, my son happily offers to install. I lose sleep for more than one night considering the colors in which to dress my rooms. White has been banished. There are new windows to be installed, a fireplace that I can turn on with a switch, new floors to be ordered, new appliances. I am awed by an entire catalog of ceiling fans, when I thought there were just a few… there are thousands, from flapping bamboo fronds to steely propellers to unfolding wings. I am dizzy with it all, near tears one moment, laughing the next.

So much yet to be done. So long awaited. It’s my turn. It is her turn. We are both getting ready for a new age ahead, friends at last, mirrored selves, two midlife women proud to be where we are and still standing. Ready to dress up for the ball.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Smoking Poet Winter 2009-2010 Issue - Online Now!

Alaska Native Alutiiq Girl, painting by Dianne Roberson Hendrix

The snows fly, but the words warm. What artistry we offer you this season! To celebrate: the gorgeous art and photography of Alaskan artist, Dianne Roberson Hendrix. She reminds us of the beauty of this season when the world is covered in white, deep in white silence, deep in sleep to refresh what goes on out of sight: the renewal of root structure so that we can greet spring reenergized.

My own roots, in part, grow deep into the beautiful campus of Kalamazoo College. While another, perhaps better known university appears at the top of my diploma, I feel “K” is my true alma mater. I had the pleasure of being on staff for 11 years, and I freelance for the school’s publications still. I call it my Vitamin K. Keeps my spirit strong and my mind bright. So it is with special pleasure that I introduce our readers to Writer-in-Residence from Kalamazoo College—Diane Seuss. Her poetry is garnering ever greater attention, awards and publishing offers raining down upon her. And, if a teacher’s report card is in her students, after reading her poetry and interview, be sure to read work by her creative writing students. Young talent in their own spring season, these are voices to follow in the future.

Poetry is especially rich in this issue. We boast pages of poets from across the world: from TSP's home state of Michigan, from Oregon to New England, from Alaska to Arizona, across the ocean to Ireland, to Bangalore, India, and even from troops serving in Iraq. Seems fitting to have such a global community in these pages, as Kalamazoo College is known for its innovative and extensive study abroad program. I consider The Smoking Poet very much a global citizen, connecting the literati of the world.

Nonfiction is fun—and thoughtful. Don’t miss the essay about living in a yurt. A yurt, you say? Yes, a yurt. You may just find in it your dream home. Or, share the musings of shoveling snow. It's more than just moving white stuff from place to place.

Fiction spreads across two pages, and while you are thinking about great short stories, don’t miss the announcement of our Third Annual Short Story Contest. We welcome honorary judge, Kevin Morgan Watson, founder and publisher at Press 53, who will be helping us choose first, second, and third prize winners. He may even be keeping an eye out for that exceptional writer to publish at Press 53 ... you?

We also welcome poet Joannie Kervran Stangeland as guest poetry editor for the upcoming issue. You’ll find her own poetry here, and in spring, you will see her poetic choices grace our pages.

A Good Cause always is. So many important causes, and yes, we can make a difference—each and every one of us. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does.” Making a positive change begins with awareness. Please read the essay on the virtues of the movement to eat organic. Vote with your fork, says author Nicolette Hahn Niman (another amazing alumnae of Kalamazoo College). Voting never tasted so good.

And after such a fine dinner, eaten with clear conscience, light up a cigar and visit our Cigar Lounge. Capt. Murray Shugars writes for us from Iraq about a cigar club for our troops. There is also cigar poetry and reviews.

Enjoy! Share! Stay warm by hearth and family, enjoy the holidays, and may your new year be a richly literary one.

Visit The Smoking Poet.

With a good word,

Zinta Aistars

Friday, December 11, 2009

Snow on Green Grass: A Stay at Grassfields Farm

Snow on Green Grass
(December 5-6, 2009)

by Zinta Aistars

Mudpack facials were my sister’s idea of a birthday good time. Mine was all about cow pies. Enough with the candlelit cakes already. By now, my cake was running out of room for more candles, and the blaze of flames was enough to melt the icing.

Always on the lookout for a new and unique experience, I found just that while surfing the Web to research sources for organic foods—my new and fast expanding interest. I’m sold on organic being healthy for me, healthy for the environment, healthy for livestock. Now, I was searching for what might also be healthy for my wallet—reasonable prices for organic foods. Getting as close to the source as possible usually meant better prices and even fresher food. It was also assurance that the farm was truly organic, meaning livestock was treated humanely: a good life right up until giving its life.

The source is the farmer, and so as I searched in the southwest Michigan area where I live and work, I came across Grassfields Farm. This could be it, I thought. Cheese made from raw milk right on the farm, beef, poultry and eggs.

Then I noticed the link on the side of the site: Grassfields Inn. Three packages were available, one to two nights at a Bed and Breakfast right on the farm that included a tour of the farm, cheese making, cow milking and chicken chores. Eureka! Not only had I found a source for organic, grass-fed meats and dairy, but I’d just found the unique experience to make my birthday weekend memorable.

This was one of the experiences that would be more fun shared. My daughter craved just such an experience—she was a certified “foodie,” had even taken a culinary class at a culinary school in Chicago, and the idea of a weekend on a working farm greatly appealed to her. Alas, she had just started a new job as deputy campaign manager for the candidate for the 18th District in Illinois just days before, and that would mean working every day of the week and long days right up until primaries. So big sis it was. The very same one who had teased me about paying someone else for the privilege of cleaning their chicken coop.

She rethought her stance when I invited her to take my daughter’s place. It was, after all, an adventure. And it was, after all, my birthday and not hers. There would be spas in November. For my December birthday, cow pies all the way!

A blizzard unleashed itself over the highway as the two of us drove to Coopersville. The livestock may be grass-fed the rest of the year, but it looked more like snow soup for them now. As if from some comic book of stranded explorers requiring rescue on some snowy mountainside, a sweet big mug of a Saint Bernard pressed into my car window when we turned into snowy Grassfields Farm. I opened the door and the warm muzzle pressed into my face, sniffed my shoulder, my hands, back to my face, left a warm and wet nose print on my cheek as seal of approval. I was permitted to exit the car and enter the farm.

“That’s Sadie,” a pretty young woman said, coming over to us. She wasn’t even wearing a coat. Oh, these sturdy and healthy farm folk. I was instantly admiring and envious.

This was Vicky Meerman, we learned, and Vicky brought us into the Grassfields Cheese Store. A simple room with several freezers—cheese and eggs, beef, poultry, beef, lamb. All from the farm, all grass-fed (or snow soup, as the case may be), all organic. I was eager to learn more about this kind of traditional farm, this kind of life, for both humans and animals. I hadn’t been on a farm since I was a kid, when Mom and Dad had to come looking for me when it was time to leave, to find me in with the hogs in the pig sty, cuddled up to a sow. Farms had always held a certain romance for me, but I realized most of what I had been purchasing at the local supermarket had nothing to do with farms such as this. All that nicely packaged food was more times than not from government-subsidized food factories and slaughterhouses, which held no resemblance to a farm such as this. I wanted to learn more.

I’m not sure Jesse Meerman, middle brother of three, knew what hit him when he emerged from the adjacent cheese making room, but I pummeled him with questions and enthused commentary, telling him about what I had learned in my last few weeks of research. This, after all, was a food adventure. In the second half of my life, I was rediscovering food—what it really tastes like when unadulterated by pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, and a number of other artificial means of changing the shape, color, taste, substance, genetic makeup of a food item. Whether we were talking meat, dairy, or plant, something happens when you mess with it. And it’s not good. Add stress levels to animal life, and flavor and nutritional value take a sharp turn for the worse.

We were to start with cheese. First, before beginning our farm chores, Vicky showed us to our room for the night. Four houses sat in the row on 60th Street, a long dirt road in mid Michigan country. All four belong to the Meerman family: three brothers with their respective families, each family to a house, and the house at the northern end of the row was for the matriarch of the family. The father of the brothers had passed on, and the two sisters live in a nearby town.

I wondered at all that family closeness as we entered the second house from the farm, a small white bungalow with green shutters that grew out back to hold a growing family. A good thing? I love my family very much, but I’d probably spent more of my life putting respectable distance between myself and various relatives. I like my solitude. I wondered what it would be like to live surrounded by parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and pets wandering from one house to the next, all in such close proximity. Very communal. Madness or comfort? Perhaps both?

Vicky showed us into her home, one she shared with her husband, oldest brother Luke. They had recently decided to open their home as a bed and breakfast operation, letting people stay a night or two, share in farm chores and farm joys, and learn something about what this kind of lifestyle was like. My sister Daina and I were their very first guests.

We entered a comfortable living room with hardwood floor, woodstove just to the right of the door, dining area at the far end. A short hallway led to our bathroom and a large, shared bedroom that she called The Africa Room—in honor of her childhood home in Africa, the daughter of missionary parents. The walls were milk chocolate brown and decorated with African art, the bedspreads mock zebra stripes and patterns. We could close off this part of the house for our privacy, or leave a door to the kitchen open from the dining area if we wished to interact with the family.

Hm, I thought. More closeness.

The Meermans had built a large addition onto the back of the house, and we could hear and see the bustle of their five children, a mix of their biological, foster and adopted children, and no doubt a cousin or three passing through the house on the way to another house. It was quickly becoming clear that the Meerman family has wide open hearts and always room for one more, and one more, and yet one more.

We dropped our bags in the bedroom and headed back to the Cheese Shop. Putting hair nets over our hair, rubber boots on our feet, we rolled up our sleeves and entered the sterile cheese making room. Jesse was already elbow-deep in cheese curds and whey. A whirlpool-size steel tub was filled nearly to brim with warm milk that was fast curdling into soft white curls of cheese. Jesse stirred and stirred with what appeared to be an immense spatula, and we could see the white cheese swirl to the top and sink again.

“Go ahead, dip your arms into that bucket of bleach,” he directed us to the pail of bluish liquid in a sink nearby. Our hands and arms sanitized, we awaited direction. He grinned at us amiably, explaining the process. I thought at first I detected mischief, and perhaps there was some of that—we quickly learned this was a young man who loved to laugh, to sing, and to make cheese. He enjoyed his work and it showed.

Jesse invited us to dip and dig in, get our hands and arms in there and break up the cheese as it pulled together in what to me looked like great clods of cottage cheese. Daina and I soon found this to be a pretty primal pleasure. We were like kids playing in warm mud. We dipped our hands, elbow-deep, into the swirling whey and grabbed handfuls of the soft, mooshy cheese and sqooshed it apart into smaller pieces. Jesse stirred and stirred, stirring up more cheese from where it kept settling on the bottom. We grabbed for surfacing chunks and squished them through our fingers.

It was impossible not to start giggling. And Jesse was no help at staying serious. Stories poured from him as he stirred, a mix of education and entertainment. With pride, he also told us that in two more weeks, he and his wife would greet a second daughter into the world. This was a man pleased with his life. While he talked, and sometimes sang, he worked with skill and efficiency. The whey was draining way, the liquid lowering in the bin, and he directed us to large bags of dill weed. Today, we were making dill weed cheese. Daina scattered the dill across the cheese, and the air filled with its fragrance, again returning me to childhood as I remembered my mother growing dill in the garden and snipping pieces of it across potatoes and salad.

Again, we worked our hands and arms into the cheese. Most of the whey had drained away from the bottom of the bin, and we leaned across the sides, sinking our hands into the soft mass and serving as human mixers. Tossing, tossing, until the dill was mixed thoroughly into the cheese, we worked it through evenly.

Next? Next, Jesse, with utmost seriousness, had put a cutaway soccer ball onto his head. Sure, he said, he had thought about another life. Doesn’t every kid growing up? Dream of running away to a world unknown? He loved to play soccer and thought about pursuing that ball as a career kick. Then it had dawned on him, he said. He woke one morning to look around at his life. A beautiful wife, a baby girl, a warm home, the good earth around him, passed on to him from his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him, going as far back as 1882. This farm had nurtured and nourished generations of Meermans. Why leave? He’d been singing ever since, with or without a soccer ball on his head.

All three of us worked to fill molds with cheese, each one lined with a white mesh much like cheesecloth. Three molds atop each other, then we watched as Jesse flipped each one over, the cheese now hardening into firm cakes, placed the cakes back in the molds, the molds into plastic cylinders, and then weighted them all down with a simple rack. The rack folded down from the wall and pressed down on the molds from the weight of pails filled with water, each pail hanging from a hook from the end of the rack. No complicated mechanics here. No energy required but simple human effort. Three molds inside each cylinder, rack lowered on top, pressing down from the weight of water. Mechanics even I could understand. Simple and efficient.

Once the molds had sat for some hours, the cheese cakes would eventually be moved into a brine solution in the next room, where they would soak for four days, then be placed on wooden shelves to dry—some for weeks, months, others for years, depending on the cheese and if it was to be aged. I was struck by what a neat and clean operation this was. Best, the cheese was delicious. Daina and I tasted samples in the store: dill weed, gouda, cheddar, garlic and onion, blue cheese, chili cheese, and others. Delicious.

Short break and we were on to our next farm chore. Youngest brother Jay smiled at us shyly and invited us to hop into the wooden wagon behind his red tractor. He drove us around the barn and other farm buildings, out into the snowy field, bumping over the snowy and frozen earth. We saw a long chicken coop, almost like a greenhouse, set out in the field. The moment we opened the door, we stepped into a sea of cooing clucks.

Puck, puck, PAWK. Puck, puck, PAWK.

We stood in the midst of 700 hens and one rooster, walking with confidence among his brood of hens. Some of the rust-colored hens pecked at our boots, clucking with curiosity.

“How soothing,” I said in wonder, listening to the sea of content clucking. Suddenly, there would be an instant of utter silence. All 700 hens were simultaneously quiet. Then, simultaneously, all 700 hens starting to cluck again, in chorus. Jay poured feed into long troughs and filled water coolers, and the hens gathered freely to eat and drink, while others continued to wander from one end of the coop down the long way to other end. Others fluttered up onto the wooden shelves where they nested in spaces behind little black squares of plastic for privacy and quiet. Jay handed us wire baskets, and we went from shelf to shelf, peeking under the black plastic sheets for eggs. And oh, there were many. Brown eggs, smooth and warm in our palms. We filled basket after basket. The hens didn’t seem to mind, just watched with curiosity, clucking endlessly. When I touched one, her feathers were smooth and soft.

Jay explained how to tell a good layer, how to spot the hen that was not. One clue, he said, was legs that were still deep yellow, like the rooster’s. The good layers had nearly white legs, the yellow pigment as if drained from their feet and into those golden yolks.

Putting the baskets full of eggs into the wagon, Jay slowly drove the tractor through the snow and back to the barn. There, we brought the eggs inside and met Erin, who stood at a table hand washing each and every egg and wiping it clean. Once washed, each egg was carefully placed into an egg tray with the Grassfields label.

Kittens played around our feet. Only two left of the litter. A gray one and a black one. They raced through the barn, then curled around our ankles, asking to be lifted and snuggled. We gladly did. Even these kittens seemed to be the picture of purring contentment with this farm life.

Feeling the afternoon in our bodies and our bones, the chill of the winter evening gathering around us, Vicky invited us back to the house for dinner. Meatloaf for me, made from their own beef, and chicken for Daina, from the same hen house. A pitcher of raw milk to drink; it was rich with flavor, better than any I had had.

We wanted to see that fearsome place where the chickens gave their lives for ours, and Vicky and Jay showed it to us gladly, explaining each phase of the process. The chickens were turned upside down—an action that near instantly renders them unconscious—then placed into steel cones, heads protruding, to have their throats slit and bled out. The lifeless chickens were then dunked into boiling water to loosen feathers, plucked out, then placed into a tub with rotating rubber fingerlike protrusions with ridges that caught any remaining feathers and plucked them. Then, insides were removed, and body cleaned and prepared to be frozen for customers.

It seemed to me all of us who love to eat meat should be familiar with this process. We need to understand death and be comfortable with it. Death makes me much less uncomfortable than the thought of livestock living out their lives in indoor confinement, never feeling earth or sunshine or clean air, never eating clean food without a mix of drugs and hormones added to it. It is the thought of cramped wire cages I cannot bear. Of hens with beaks removed to prevent pecking each other to death in a slow madness from confinement. It is life that matters, for at some point we must all die. I would not lose sleep over this clean room, a room we who eat chicken should all see—and respect.

Evening deepened around us, but the farm chores had not ended. Vicky brought us back out to the barn, where Luke had brought in the cows, lined them up to each side of an alleyway he walked below, full udders easily reached. Down that alley hung milking machines, tubes leading to a container in back to collect the milk. The cows were impatient to be milked, their udders aching with milk. One hundred sixty two were milked every evening and every morning.

“Come on down,” Luke urged us. “You have to be able to tell your friends later you have milked a cow!”

Cow heads turned slowly toward us, watching us, great brown eyes as curious as we were. We had to step among plops of manure and splashes of cow urine. That was life. Luke moved easily from animal to animal, his hand patting their sides, testing the udders. He wiped them down clean, dipped each udder into iodine to sterilize, and attached the milking machine. Milk pulsed through tubes, up and out. Daina and I each took a turn milking one of the cows by hand, and the warm milk squirted out easily.

This all felt like life. Life in milk as life in manure, the fascination of living animals that breathe, sides heaving, comforted by routine, expecting it. There was order here. Like his brothers, Luke did his work with ease and efficiency. The animals knew his touch. More than once, he said, not even looking away from his cows, “I love these animals. Cows are my favorite animal.”

Jesse loved making cheese; Jay walked among his chickens; Luke moved from cow to cow, patting their warm haunches. Each brother has his part of the farm in his care, and the whole worked seamlessly together.

Daina and I sat heavily on the couch in the farmhouse living room after the milk chores. Vicky had started a crackling fire in the woodstove and the room filled with the warmth.

“Well-oiled machine,” I said, listening to Vicky in the kitchen next door cleaning up. Her children played around her, giggling, clucking, arguing, laughing. Her husband would be in late, only when each cow had been milked and let back out to the barn. There was no room for change in this routine. No sick days, no vacations, no coming to work late or leaving early. Living things require constant care. Here, they were actually getting it. There was respect for living things here, and so, respect for the sacrifice made at the end of life.

I couldn’t imagine such a farm being run successfully by any less than a large family network, one helping the other, depending on the other to carry their weight in chores and never falter. The boss was the cow, the hen, the curdling of cheese, all setting the clock that ran this business.

In the morning, Vicky served us eggs, some of those we had gathered, and bacon from pigs that had been on the farm earlier in the year. A birthday card was set beside my plate. Now, there was only one sow, and she was happy to take us out to meet her after breakfast (and the best bacon I'd ever had. More, please!). The pig grunted a greeting, lazily rose from her straw bed and came to slosh creamy milk, drinking it up with great slurps, as we stood and watched.

I had to stand out at the edge of the field before my sister and I left that next morning. Stand and think, take it all in. This was a life so very different than mine, but one that I was deeply grateful still existed. The farther our civilization had moved from this, the deeper we sank into a life that was devalued, death a dark and ugly secret, a heartless slaughter after a life of slavery. Could it be that our current escalation of human trafficking has some tie to this? To use any life, to treat any life without respect for its needs, can only lead to a breakdown of values in ourselves.

I am committed now to eating only organic foods, food I know has been raised in a humane manner such as I had seen here. But I had learned something else in this short time on the Grassfields farm. There was a tightly knit family network here that was near extinct, too. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children… each with their own job, no one job unimportant. Closeness, yes, the kind we rarely see. So it occurs to me that if we do not fight to save the traditional farm, we may also lose a more traditional family—one that works and lives together, watching out for each other, filling in for each other, sharing in work and in play.

There is much at stake here. Far more than I had expected.

Returning to our lives, my sister and I reflected on our farm experience. “I wasn’t so sure, at first,” Daina said thoughtfully. “But this was really a special experience. I guess I had no idea, really.”

“Better than a spa?”

Daina nodded, still absorbing it all. “Yes,” she said. “You know? Yes. Much better than a spa.”

Because, I thought, this wasn’t just skin deep. This was life at its deepest level, earthy, pure, life and death in sympathetic rhythm, both approached with respect, even reverence. Back home, I placed the food I had brought back with me into my pantry and refrigerator. Roasters into my freezer, beef steaks, pork chops, thick slices of smoked bacon. I placed creamy wedges of cheese in the refrigerator shelves. What we put into our food comes back to nourish us. All things in cycles. All that we put out into the world, at some point, all returning to us.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Let Me Count the Ways

by Zinta Aistars

I can try. Count the blessings, attitude of gratitude, but my life is too short to sort through them all. Yes, that's how many. One counted, another pops up to the surface, and so I note the greatest blessings of all - my family. Beside it, good health, and not only mine, but the health of my family.

I latch onto these great blessings even as Thanksgiving as planned unravels. It is clearly a blessing that my daughter, Blondie aka Lorena, has just been offered a job ... offered on Tuesday, to begin on Wednesday. She is now deputy campaign manager for Robyn Gabel, candidate for Representative of the 18th District in Illinois, House of Representatives. There is no time to waste. There will be no free weekends, no holidays. But since Robyn understood that Thursday, one day into the job, Lorena had had long-held plans, she released her for the day, even as she kept working herself. I admired her work ethic, even while sighing with relief that I would get to see my girl, if only for part of the day instead of the holiday weekend.

Lorena's apartment in Lincoln Park, Chicago, is normally little more than a two-hour drive to my place in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This time, she was leaving directly from Robyn Gabel's campaign headquarters in Evanston. Bag packed in the trunk of her Honda, she was ready to go the minute her work day was over. Robyn shooed her away at 2 p.m., but Lorena had a few things to do before she was done ... 3 p.m. she was on the road, I-94 winding through the Windy City, around the southern bend of Lake Michigan.

Only the city wouldn't release her. Eve before Thanksgiving, everyone else had the same idea. Three hours later, she called from her cell: "Mama, I'm still bumper to bumper in Chicago."

I took a deep breath, counted a few more blessings, and told her not to worry. She will get here when she gets here. And then I glanced over at my son, Markus. Those two adore each other. From the time they were two little rascals, not a full two years apart in age, and from the moment toddler Lorena saw that little dark-haired bundle that I had brought home from the hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, and kicked him soundly in the head ... I'm not sure if to see if the little bundle was alive or just out of pure toddler indignation at usurped house status ... they have rooted their hearts deeply into each other. Thick and thin. Hard and soft. Rough and rocky. All three of us musketeers have had lives that would make sad novels (one hopes with glorious endings), but perhaps that, too, has something to do with why their bond is of such steel.

He had gotten out of work early in hopes of seeing her. He, too, would not have release from obligations this holiday, and there was just tonight, the eve of the holiday, and hardly that. Markus leaned against my dining room table, pondering the dinner I had set before him, and tried not to look at his watch. Between her arrival and his departure, the window of opportunity for a meeting was fast closing.

I held my cast iron pan over his plate and let five fried eggs slide onto the plate. His favorite meal, no matter the time of day, was bacon and eggs. I had told him about my trip earlier in the week to a sweet little five-acre farm, owned by the Wyllys family, in Battle Creek - the same town where he worked, just east of Kalamazoo. Both eggs and bacon were organic, from chickens and hogs raised on traditional farms. While I had purchased the bacon at an organic market here, the eggs came from the Wyllys farm, and they were something to behold. Yolks like miniature suns in setting, a deep golden hue, plump to bursting, and even the whites of the eggs were plump, not runny like supermarket eggs. It did my mama's heart good to serve him something that was good and good for him.

I told him yet again about the farm and the turkey I brought home, too, for roasting tomorrow. Anything to keep him from looking at his watch again.

Another hour had gone by. We had less than a half hour left before he would have to leave.

I tried not to worry about the Chicago traffic, the fine rain coming down, the dark of the night growing to a silty sky, smearing out the stars.

She called. I let him pick up. He settled into the corner of the couch, stretched out his long legs, and talked quietly. I could understand from what he said that she was still sitting in standstill city traffic, lucky if inching ahead at 10 miles per hour.

I sighed, quietly so he wouldn't hear me, and went to putz in the kitchen so they could at least talk for a while. The connection would obviously not happen, not this Thanksgiving, as their busy lives would pull them apart. And then I realized ... that wasn't true. The connection had never broken. I could hear his warm chuckle. I could hear him tease. I could hear him tell her the million little stories of his daily life, then grow quiet to listen to hers.

I remembered when he was perhaps only five or six years old, and some much older boys had been teasing his Blondie sister in our Kentucky neighborhood. There were many of them, one frightened little girl in the middle, and one kid brother that had become fierce with indignation. The mouse roared. Little fists like hard chestnuts raised in the air, he snarled like an angry little pup ... and they retreated. He was such a shy and quiet child then, but his loyalty was fierce, and is still. Watching him grow up, I had seen him do battle again and again for what he believed in and always for those he loved. He had taken some truly hard knocks to stand his place, yet not once retreated. He was a bearded man now, six feet one, with the most powerful and muscled shoulders I'd ever had chance to lean on, great hands that I'd seen snap thick limbs from an old tree in my yard like matchsticks, and one of the softest hearts I'd ever encountered in a man. And she, his sister, was forever trying to make the world a better place ...

I could hear him laugh in the other room, still chatting on the phone with his sister. The minutes were ticking away, he would have to leave soon. They would not meet this holiday. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. Silly old Mom. Blessings, indeed. Two great ones in my life, giving mine meaning. If I do nothing else with my life, I've done good and I've done right, for all my various mistakes, and I've done myself proud by raising those two.


"Mom. I've got to go now."

I nodded. She would still be at least a couple hours, but he would have to leave, and tomorrow we would not see him. "I'll save you turkey," I said. "Fat sammich. Lots of mayo like you like it."

He grinned and hugged me, sappy sad happy mama that I was, and didn't ask about my watery eyes. Old enough to be wise.

Oh, that turkey on this Thanksgiving! It was the best yet, truly. How I loved putzing in the kitchen with Blondie, who arrived near 11 p.m. the night before, but woke in time on the holiday to help me put the bird in the oven, prepare the stuffing, roast the slices of yam with butter and brown sugar, roast the biggest potatoes I'd ever seen, the size of hams, and stir up the cranberry sauce. Lorena made the best gravy I'd ever tasted, ever. Perhaps it was the organic bird's juices, so rich with flavor. Perhaps it was her touch. We ate our meal, saying grace one after the other, ate to bursting, laughing and licking fingers, dropping delicious tidbits to the great-eyed pup under the table. Before the day was over, she would leave again, back to Chicago, back to work, back to do her part to make the world she lived in that much better. She still believed the world could heal, and so, watching her, did I.

So, watching her leave, as I had watched him leave, swimming eyes, heart floating on gratitude, I knew my world was perfect by two.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

First: Chicken or Egg? Both!

by Zinta Aistars

What comes first? The chicken or the egg? Do I care? I don't. What I do care about is that the eggs and chickens I eat are organically raised. That means free range, in fresh air and sunlight, enjoying a good chicken life until they reach me. And I am most grateful for the gift offered.

I'm quite new at this, but I'm learning fast. While working on an article about organic foods and traditional farming (rather than food factories), it's like a new world of good food has opened to me. I knew a little, just enough that I had to push it all out of mind in order to enjoy a burger in peace. But knowledge is... knowledge, and once I started doing the research, I soon learned just how much garbage is going into our bodies, how much environmental damage misguided agrigulture is causing, and how unspeakable the cruelty to animals in food factories. Enough. Once known and  understood, there is no going back. And the best part? This education tastes delicious!

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, this seemed like a great time to start setting my table right. I have been horrified by what I have been reading about turkeys... those Butterballs injected with saline solution to make them taste "okay." I have been reading about the growth hormones, the daily diets of antibiotics and other drugs, the genetic manipulation of this poor bird that has resulted in today's Franken-turkey: a bird that is so deformed that it can no longer walk without falling over due to an overgrown breast (we do love those large breasts, don't we? even if they throw off the bird's center of gravity), can no longer fly (yes, turkeys do fly, at least in nature they do) or even, poor old toms, make love to their turkey ladies. It must all be done with artificial insemination. The addled and drugged brains no longer know how to do the act. Talk about a miserable life. A life lived in tight wire cages, not a day of sunshine or fresh air.

I was not going to set another Thanksgiving table with such an unblessed bird. I enjoy eating meat, but that doesn't mean I have to support cruelty to animals. When I saw Shirley's post come up on a local food group e-mail, I immediately called her. Shirley Wyllys lives northwest of Battle Creek, Michigan, about a 22-mile drive from my house, and she had three organic turkeys left for sale. One was now spoken for: mine.

A beautiful and sunny November Sunday, I set out to go to the Wyllys farm. Shirley was waiting with a smile, ready to show me around. I was also interested in her chickens and eggs, because those would be my year-round fare. While researching my food production article, I had read about food factories keeping hens in such tiny wire cages, from birth until slaughter, that they could not even freely turn around. Fed on drugs and substandard feed bolstered with... more drugs to keep them from dying, their beaks cut off to keep them from pecking each other to death out of sheer madness (wouldn't you under such conditions?), their feces dropped through the wire cages on the rows of cages beneath, along with their eggs. Under such terrible living conditions, these eggs have yolks that are actually more gray than yellow, but the miracle of red food dye produces the lie many of us accept.

Not for me. Once I realized what I had been eating on what I had thought was a relatively healthy diet, I was determined to make a lifestyle change. If organic foods cost more, the value is much higher. I am willing to pay more for my own health, for the health of my environment, and for a little kindness to an animal. Shirley sold me three dozen eggs at $3 per carton. She held out a happily cackling hen to me to pet. How soft and beautiful these many-colored feathers! I was struck by how contented this brood was, cackling and chattering and nearly cooing, as they moved around their large pen in the sunshine, grazing freely. Shirley's granddaughter, Madison, joined us, carrying one of the roosters, named Chester, running her finger over his soft feathers, then perching him on her shoulder where he cockadoodled in joyous greeting.

Inside the chicken coop, I found more hens in comfortable, open cubicles, soft with straw. One hen suddenly cackled in obvious joy. She was announcing a fresh egg, just laid. Now, this was more like it. This is what we teach our children about farms. Who of us has not seen the little barns and colorful plastic animals, old MacDonald on his farm? It is a lie. But for small, too rare family farms, that romantic idea of a farm has become instead rows of metal barracks, stinking with manure and animal despair.

Yet something is beginning to change. People are becoming aware. Our children will be the first generation to live shorter life spans than we will, their parents. Diseases are rampant, cancer is epidemic, allergies seem to afflict everyone, and the resistance to antibiotics can be directly traced to our constant overload of these drugs in our everyday foods. If our supermarkets are filled with fake and processed foods, we need to start voting with our forks, as author and food activist, Nicolette Hahn Niman (Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms), recently said during our interview. My fork is voting at every meal.

Shirley walks with me the boundary of their five acres. The strawberry fields are now but autumn red leaves in bunches hugging the cool dirt. Raspberry bushes will grow and fill with berries next summer. A garden will provide the Wyllys family all the fresh produce they require for a healthy and delicious dinner table, all year long. I'll be back: for more birds, more brown eggs, more berries, more good company.

I bring home an 18-pound turkey from Shirley's turkey coop. It is quiet for the season, but new turkeys will be growing there again next spring. Proud birds who sometimes fly over the fence, graze in open sunshine, know how to flirt, and taste mighty fine come another November. Somehow, that will all add to the good taste of my Thanksgiving feast - one I will feel truly good about as I serve a healthy and nourishing meal to my family. They deserve the best.

Shirley Wyllys and granddaughter Madison with chickens

Strawberry fields forever...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tower of Literary Babel

by Zinta Aistars

I had my doubts. A poetry reading in 15 languages ... and no translations. Would people really come to such a Babel of babble? A friend who works at the most wonderful Portage District Library in Portage, Michigan, where I live, invited me to join in her idea of Convergence: A Symphony For the Senses, A Poetry Reading in 15 Languages this past Sunday, November 15. I would read in my native Latvian, choosing a poem or two from my poetry collection, Mala Kausa (In an Earthen Mug). The other languages were Chinese, Spanish, French, Russian, Portugese, German, Japanese, Bengali, Arabic, Farsi, Italian, Irish, Polish, Greek and Nigerian.

And no translations.

How do you say... screw loose in 15 languages? But Marsha knows what she's doing. She's been facilitating events in greater Kalamazoo for years, and whenever Marsha deems an event is worth eventing, it turns out that it is. People gather, often in hoardes and herds and great bunches. I decided to trust her judgment and agreed to join in. I chose a poem about the waning of autumn, and another few-liner about the dripping of rain.

Pak, pik, pak... lietus paskina no pakskiem.... pak, pik, pak, pakskina....

The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became. Without translations, we would be forced to hear the sounds, the rhythm and music of language, separated from its meaning. Or might we guess at the meaning? Can a non-Latvian hear rain in pik, pak, pak?

Maybe so.

To my wonder and pleased surprise, the room at the library filled, filled quickly, and filled to the brim. All chairs warmed by bottoms and more leaning against the outer walls. When I stood behind the podium reading, I looked out on a sea of attentive, even rapt faces. Faces of all ages, skin colors, differing features. We had a little it's-a-small-world-after-all going on here. And there, my parents, too, in the second row, off to the side. Dad looked so fine in his pinstripe navy suit, white hair combed back neatly, leaning on his polished wood cane. He was hurting today, I could tell. More than usual. But he would never let his aching back keep him from poetry, especially if his little girl was reading it. In whatever language. Mom straightened his tie, brushed invisible lint from his lapel, and leaned back to listen, too.

So we all listened to each other. And I was stunned with the beauty of human communication. Even as I was baffled by it. The myriad sounds ... the music of it.... the rolling and trilling consonants, the loping vowels, the chop of short, sharp syllables. Languages that shot out like ammo. Languages that slid, slippery and sweet and seductive. Languages that danced on the tongue and ended with a twirl. How did one people choose and develop one set of sounds to express meaning, and another group one so entirely different? Did our environment influence our choices and blends of sounds? Or something else?

I caught the occasional word in German, having studied it for four years in my school days. I recognized a bit of the Spanish, having taken a couple semesters recently at work, just for the fun and challenge of it. And when the Russian blonde ended her reading with a quick "Spasiba!" I almost reflexively murmured in reply, "Pazalsta."

But I really understood none of it. And wondered at all the worlds, all the perspectives on the world, that I am missing. How different we all are, even while all the same. It is a wonder sometimes to think that we can communicate at all. Yet somehow, we had. The reading over, we all milled about long after it ended, talking to each other in smooth or broken English, sharing impressions, talking about favorite poems, about varied cultures, and how the woman from Egypt teared up while reading with such passion in Arabic. What heartfelt message did she carry? I would probably never know. Only know that we all long to communicate, somehow, if even with a moment of warm eye contact, a smile, a nod.

On a Sunday afternoon in Portage, babbling away in our many brooks of books never read, we somehow made sense, and connected, and walked away smiling, each to our dreams in different languages.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Quality of Light

by Zinta Aistars

Light: does it exist? We don’t really see the light, after all, only its reflection. The gleam on a polished car, the brightening of the room upon drawing back the curtains, the rising joy in a lover’s eyes when we say those sweetest words, the light in our own eyes marking them as truth. The clouds parting to release a golden shaft that ties heaven to earth, dust swirling in honeyed air, and the path through the dark woods that is suddenly bright with guidance. A holy light.

The light, I realize, is something we accept mostly on faith. We see its result. We see where it lands. We can even glance for a moment, eyes squinting near shut, at its source high in the sky, that burning globe of fire around which we all orbit as if in worship—but even that sight, that shimmering and heated, near unbearable light, is but the reflection of the sun’s flaming surface.

I wonder what so draws us to the light. Why it so gladdens our dark hearts? On a morning just a few mornings ago, I drove north to work, the highway stretching out in a straight line through southwestern Michigan farmland either side. A few dairy farms midway, a tree farm, an occasional blink of a farmland community in quick passing. The sky overhead was low and heavy, a fast graying and billowing blue, like an ocean above us rather than below, and we submerged creatures swimming in the depths. It pressed the earth down as if with a flat blue palm. Dark clouds bellied out and rippled like waves overhead.

And then, the sun rose. The heavy sky would not recede, would not give the sun its passage, but such insistent light cannot be held back. Between low and heavy heaven overhead and the autumn pale yellow fields below, light flooded into the space between. It was tinted a pale peach, and it reflected as gold on the land to either side of the highway, now a path of coppery pavement leading me to my destination.

My heart swelled to near bursting, and I couldn’t say why. The light, oh the light …

Even captured like this, between the heavy and the solid, it caused some caught part of me to slip free. I wanted to step out into it, into the light, lift my face toward it, hold out two empty hands, palm up, to be filled. I wanted to stand in its glow, bathe in it, raise my mouth to be kissed by it, be submerged and finally to drown in it, lost forever to the light.

Walk into the light, they say, when we die. See the light, it is freedom, the endless and infinite, the promise.

My faith is weak, a spattering and oozing thing that sometimes fills the cracks but fails to become substance—that rock upon which we should stand. I stand, instead, on light. Here now, then gone, yet come again.

The light reflects on something we never really see, hinting of a place we can never know. It is the reflection of hope. This thing we cannot hold, caught between a heavy and billowing sky and the moving island on which we stand, that keeps us from floating away without ever really touching us at all.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Being Kind to My Food

by Zinta Aistars

Because before it is my food, it is a living animal or a living plant. Being kind to the animal that sacrifices its life for my intake of protein means I have become increasingly concerned about the inhumane treatment of livestock in our food factories. Being kind to the plant on my plate means caring about the way that it is grown, by natural and organic means, without polluting the earth, the water, the air.

I’ve always cared about these things … or, I thought I cared. But it is only recently, when I accepted an assignment to work on an article for an alumni magazine about food production, that I really became aware of what happens behind the scenes. I’m not nearly done learning about this topic; I’ve only gotten started with a few lectures I’ve attended, a book I am currently reading, and a growing file of research. I will be talking to a half dozen people before this article is finished, and not all of them will be on the side of sustainable farming. One or two will give me perspective on industrialized food production, and for good measure, I have a chef on my interview list to throw into the soup, too. But an alumni magazine is about the education these people received, not investigative journalism or an expose, so I get to have an opinion as I learn about my subject matter.

My opinion: I’ve been a bad eater. And not a very nice person when it comes to respecting other living beings. I’ve been boycotting veal for more years than I can remember, and I abhor eating lamb. It took only one photo of a tiny calf boxed into a crate to prevent it from any movement whatsoever, and learning that this is the way veal is kept tender—by not allowing the poor little animal to develop any muscle, to turn me off veal forever.

I wasn’t completely stupid about slaughterhouses. I knew just enough to make me contemplate going vegetarian from time to time. Never lasted. I don’t eat a lot of meat—I eat red meat perhaps two or three times a month. Mostly I eat chicken or fish. But eating plants alone just wouldn’t satisfy. I believe a human being is a carnivore, and being a healthy vegetarian required more work than I was willing to invest in shopping for and preparing meals on a daily basis. Now and then, let's face it, I really want a burger.

Education changes people. I am currently in the process of being educated. One of the aspects I love most about being a writer is that my job is as new as the writing assignment. For a curious mind, there is surely no better vocation. I get an education and I don’t pay tuition—the editor pays me! And how do you close your eyes once you’ve been made to see?

I am beginning to see. As I read, as I listen, as I do my interviews and make my notes, I am fast realizing the cruelty and unethical behavior required to put that food on my plate. I didn’t know that one of greatest environmental threats was—agriculture. The nontraditional kind, that is. I didn’t know the extent of the garbage going into animal feed: the growth hormones, the antibiotics, the drugs, the animal feces that is actually used as feed for the next group of fish to be killed. And this is what I am eating? I didn’t know the incredible quantities of liquefied manure being channeled into our water, our rivers, our lakes out of these food factories. I didn’t realize the stink of these animal barracks was so bad that people living nearby would on occasion have to vomit from the ammonia and other toxic gasses in the air.

I knew, kind of, and yet I didn’t. I had compartmentalized what I did know, pushing it out of my consciousness every time I sat down at the table, walked through the supermarket, or ordered at a restaurant. I didn’t really want to know. I've heard it said that to do the wrong thing, to abandon one's own value system, one must compartmentalize first. Compartmentalizing our thinking is the first necessary step to living against our own values.

I know now. And I am learning more every day. I can’t forget anymore. I refuse to compartmentalize my own reckless eating anymore. I can no longer claim ignorance. All that’s left is for me to change my old habits.

Off to the local organic food market I go. Oh, I’ve been there before. Bought a few items, tsk-tsked at the high prices, and returned to the neighborhood supermarket. Yet it is one thing to think budget and another to know the suffering and damage my food dollar causes—to other animals, to traditional farmers, to our environment, to all of us, sooner or later (and that’s probably sooner).

With a much more educated perspective, I return to the organic food market and take a very slow stroll through the aisles. This time, I am really paying attention. I take it all in: even the other shoppers. They seem ... different. Less hurried, less harried. Everyone seems intent on reading food labels and choosing items, rather than grabbing random boxes and bags off the shelf. I notice that the grocery carts here are smaller, as if the people eating organic have lost their gluttony in their careful consideration of the food they choose to eat. Hm, I don’t see any of our famously obese Americans here …

I notice the fruit and vegetable selection. Oranges have a little green to their orange. No orange dyes. Apples are not so gargantuan in size. No pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The greens, however, are bright green and fresh. There is great variety. Labels tell me much of this produce is grown locally. There is a long, wide aisle of bulk items, and I realize I don’t even know what to do with some of these grains and seeds and kernels and such. I realize… I don’t know all that much about … food. Real food. It is a stunning thing to take in. It reminds me of the time I lived in the countryside of Latvia, my ancestral home on the Baltic Sea, and I shopped there at the open market, buying directly from the farmers. The meat came from animals they had slaughtered that same morning. It actually steamed in the morning chill. The potatoes were piled into great heaps, clods of soil still stuck to them. The rice still had pebbles in it that I would have to rinse away first.

Something about this got my heart beating faster. I was excited. I love to learn. I love to learn something that will be good for me, and for others. I chose my food items carefully, just like everyone else here, with a growing appreciation. Yes, I saw the price tags, too. But was I really paying more? I thought about the cost of good health, about clean water, about keeping my world in good health for my children and theirs. I thought about the calf who would never know the freedom of movement, about the hens who lived their entire lives in wire cages so crowded they would never, not once, stretch out their wings. I thought about the turkeys we eat at Thanksgiving that have become so large breasted from being fed growth hormones that they are not able to walk properly, can no longer mate because their misshapen bodies are genetically mutated, would not be able to survive even if someone opened the cage door. Those turkeys are ... freaks, and not of nature.

I thought about the last time I offered my chow dog a bit of ground turkey, thinking I was eating healthy, and wondered at why my dog sniffed at the proffered meat and turned away. Even he knew better. Even he knew there was something wrong with this “meat.”

I thought about how often I heard my mother wonder aloud why they were seeing so many people die of cancer even though they seemed to live healthy lifestyles, and why so many people today are riddled with odd and inexplicable allergies. It didn't used to be that way, she would shrug, recalling her youth.

I thought about the family farm that was going bankrupt because it was not able to compete with food factories supported by government subsidies. And I thought about sustainable farming, with animals being treated humanely, allowed to graze on an open range, allowed to raise their own young, allowed to live before they die. The circle of life is not inhumane. How we treat living things during their lives is important. In the end, we all pay the price.

The price tag seemed fair. I bought less, because I realized I really didn’t need that much. I wasn't shopping blindly or on impulse. I was considering carefully, because I enjoy good food. There was only one package of meat in my cart, and it came from farm-raised livestock.

When I checked out ($55 for two bags of groceries), carrying the two bags to my car, I had this oddly elated feeling.

I still felt elated as I unpacked my purchases in my kitchen at home. I still felt elated as I prepared my dinner: pasta with zucchini, red and yellow peppers, onions, mushrooms, kale and tomatoes. And I still felt so elated after my dinner that I took my chow pup for an extra walk in the cool autumn evening. He was very elated about that.

Then it hit me: I felt so good because I was doing the right thing. I was casting a vote with my food purchases. I was speaking up for the humane and ethical treatment of animals, for the natural world I so love to enjoy, for cleaner air to breath, for farming families to keep their homes and their land, for better health. It felt good to do the right thing. My conscience was clear.

And it all tasted very good going down.