Sunday, January 25, 2009

United We Yawn, Divided We Thrive

by Zinta Aistars

When in my life have I not been divided? Cleanly down the middle, knifed from head to toe, through the two hemispheres of the brain, between the right and left ventricles of the heart, belly button separated into two tiny half moons to shine over two places where I reside. I have never been one, a whole, but from the moment of conception a person of two minds, two hearts, two languages, two homes. Having crossed into the second half-century of my life, there is apparently no reason to end this trend.

Indeed, it is my birthright. If as a child, my first language was Latvian, only upon entering public school learning English, holding dual citizenship both in the country of my birth—the United States—and the country where my ethnic roots snake deep, deep into centuries of an ancient culture—Latvia, one of the three Baltic States—then I have so long followed this dual path, straddling two separate lives, that it has become my comfort zone. At last, I accept it.

As I enter this newest hang-out in Kalamazoo, The Wine Loft, I see my good friend, Sherie, waiting for me. This new place is located on West Michigan, in what is known as the Haymarket Building, and I have always enjoyed being here. I know the building. I have shopped at favorite little boutiques here. I have dined here at the original location of Food Dance Café, now expanded and moved a couple blocks down in this ever growing town. But the boutiques and the café are now gone, replaced by this expansive … shall we call it a bar? But it is not the conventional watering trough. The double doors open on the dark gleam of copper and bronze and gold, the bar itself curving gently to my left, into the depths of the room, and to my right, a few candlelit tables, but straight ahead, with Sherie having chosen the ideal people-watching spot, dead center, among comfortable groupings of velvety, chocolate-brown sofas and low coffee tables, divided by silky scarves that fall from the dark wood ceiling high above. Gold and bronze threads catch light in the scarves, billowing slightly as waitresses move silently from person to person, bringing glasses of wine. Sherie holds a slim glass in her hand, something golden and sparkling with bubbles. I toss my coat beside me on the inviting couch, order a glass of Stryker merlot, and settle in.

“What?” Sherie smiles at me, watching me shake my head, roll my eyes, throw up my hands to the heavens.

“I will never be able to choose,” I give up.

“Then take it all,” Sherie laughs, then decides to ask, “What exactly must you choose?”

“Oh, I don’t have to choose,” I realize. “Which is the point, I suppose. It is my life. My destiny. Ever a two-timer.”

“Oh?” Sherie raises an eyebrow.

“No, no,” I wave away her expression, realizing what my comment intimated. The waitress hands me my wine with a gracious dip of her hand and slides away into the dim of the lounge. I appreciate her not interrupting our conversation. “I have been making this daily 110-mile commute for over a year now,” I continue. “Every day, back and forth, and God knows it swallows up my time. Energy, too. And the highway in winter, alongside the Lake,” I sigh. I swirl the burgundy liquid in my glass and close my eyes for a moment to enjoy the delicate scent of fermented fruit. We live alongside Lake Michigan, the lake nearly as great as a sea, and the highway I drive daily, Interstate 131, stretches along it in a nearly straight line, open to all the harsh winds and swirling storms that cross over that body of water. I don’t bother to finish my sentence. Sherie knows. She’s a road warrior, too.

“These days, I say—I sleep in Kalamazoo, and I live in Grand Rapids. But it isn’t true. I live two lives, here and there, there and here, and I am loathe to give up either. I have grown quite fond of my new city, but I realize how deep runs my affection for this one. As much as I have run from it in the past.”

Sherie shrugs at such a problem, so easily solved. “Then keep doing what you are doing. And when you no longer wish to do it, stop.”

I laugh. Sherie always knows how to pare a problem done to the bone, often finding it doesn’t really exist in the first place. Nothing a glass of fine wine and friendship won’t solve. Indeed, as we clink glasses in a toast to this wintry Friday evening, full of promise for an enjoyable weekend ahead, I settle into the soft, velvety pillows of the sofa and allow my muscles to melt. I sigh again, long and easy, releasing the day, the work week, the various nuisances of life, because I am well aware of my many blessings. The nuisances are merely that. I sip and allow my eyes to travel across the room.

“Terrific, isn’t it? “ Sherie says. “Kalamazoo’s newest, and you can see how people are drawn to it.”

Yes, the tables fill quickly, as do the seats at the bar, and the groupings of couches, while others pass us to go up stairs to a loft at the back, closed off to the rest of the lounge by a dark curtain of secrecy. Rented space for private gatherings. Glasses and rows upon rows of wine bottles shimmer along the wall behind the bar. A pewter mask on the wall overhead gleams in the dim lighting. I ponder an abstract painting on another wall. People are talking quietly, leaning into each other, sipping their wine and eating from small plates—bruschetta and olives and creamy cheeses and thin slices of peppered and marinated meats.

“Terrific, yes,” I agree. “See what I mean? What a wonderful new place. Inviting, relaxing, sophisticated, and just right for us vintage dames who enjoy fine things and philosophical conversation. I dare say this will be my new favorite in the Zoo. Yet one more place to hold me. Before I take off again.”

“It’s all about acceptance.”

“Futile to resist.”


And a few moments later, Elizabeth joins us, Sherie introduces us—this is Zinta, the writer, this is Elizabeth, the cellist—and we clink three glasses this time in introduction. Elizabeth talks to me about the Stulberg International String Competition, and I am intrigued. She is on the board of directors with the organization, working to support young musicians from around the world, all striving for recognition, all gathering to compete once a year in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Elizabeth accepts my business card, advertising my freelance services, and we talk about press releases that I will write for Stulberg. I am honored. She invites me to attend the competition and dinner this spring, and I am only too pleased to accept. My time is already stretched to the utmost, a few threads already snapping and curling up in exasperation, like violin strings in the cold—ping. But how can I say no to promotional work for such a breathtakingly beautiful cause in support of the arts? I have heard Elizabeth herself play, her cello bringing tears to my eyes, years ago in a Kalamazoo concert hall. The soul needs these riches. Music, literature, the company of the vintage wise, and fine wine. I embrace it all. I wish to be a part of all of these. I refuse to choose between my divided lives and many interests, and instead, ever into deeper waters, leap in.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Courage to Listen

January 20, 2009 - Inauguration Day
By Zinta Aistars

We are all eyes pasted to the television screen in the conference room. Ears perk to catch every word. This is a day that will, no matter the long term outcome, shine in history. These are numbers no one has yet seen, amassed in the country’s capitol … no, not numbers. These are individual people. American people, with all the ethnic and racial mix of a great patchwork, massed together into one shimmering, living tapestry, gathered to stand as witness. In little more than half a century, what a long way we have come in seeing each other as equal, as worthy, with equally valuable voices, each and every one deserving to be heard. And just when it seemed all was lost, all hope gone, we have hope back again.

He may yet, at moments, disappoint us. He is, after all, a human being, like all of us. With faults and weak places and moments of passing shadows. Like all of us. But in this moment, he marks a turn in the path that has been leading to lost places, and he carries within him a symbol of hope that we can find our way to the light again. We are nothing without hope.

In his hands, he holds our hope. From all we have thus far seen, he holds it because we have gifted it to him, and we did so, en masse, because he listened to us. The young and the old, the poor and the wealthy, the white- and the blue-collared, the educated and the ones who run on instinct. He listened. He heard. It has been eight years since we have been heard.

We were all eyes, all ears, all heart, watching the inauguration of this country’s 44th president. One among us suddenly sighed, and said, “Am I the only one here who still likes the guy before him?”

There was a dead silence.

“Surely,” she continued, “you will admit that he had courage in his decisions. He didn’t care what people think.”

The silence in the room pulsated. My jaw clenched, and I bit my lip, my mind’s voice urging silence. Anywhere else, but not at work. One does not talk about sex, religion or politics at work. It is unprofessional. One cannot divorce a colleague.

I kept my silence, as did we all, and her voice sank into that silence, the last of an era now done, and remained watching the inauguration with the rest of us … because he is our president, representing all of us. Her, too.

When did we cross out “We, the people” from this country’s most sacred documents? When did we give up our democracy and trade it in for one man’s authoritarian rule? The president, after all, is not our ruler. We—the people—we rule. This is our unique and lasting American greatness. Our voices matter. The moment the president stops listening to his people, he has become a nation of one, and our democracy dies. Listening to the people is the first requirement, non negotiable, in the president’s job description.

Office folk, we kept silent, but we no longer feared not being heard. We had been heard. There he stood now, answering the call of our voices, speaking to us of hope and a nation about to be reborn, aspiring to greatness once again.

He may yet fail in many efforts. His work will be demanding and harsh and, at times, impossible. But that he stands before us today at all, taking an oath to act as a representative of “we, the people,” not speaking as us, but for us, is reason to hope.

We have been heard. Now, hear us roar.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Beast Upstairs

by Zinta Aistars

He drags carcasses across my ceiling much of the night, waking me from dreams and giving me nightmares. Surely that is how it seems, from the whimperings and tiny squeakings and frail and fading protests, while the unspeakable weight shifts from one end of the house to the other. Final cries for help? Unheeded. For I can do nothing. Nothing more, that is. If they aren’t quite carcasses yet, from all indications—they will be.

Too late now, but my son and I realized already last summer that we’d made a mistake. Soft-hearted idiots. After the leaky roof had been patched, a temporary stop-gap until the entire roof would have to be replaced within the coming year, we figured the invisible beast would be gone. No doubt frightened away by the hammering of the roofing crew. Shingles peeled back and tossed away, they caused enough racket up there to scare away anything sensible.

But no. The beast remained.

The next few evenings, my son and I sat below, in our living room, heads cocked to one side and listening, staring up at the unrevealing ceiling, and we distinctly heard—life. A light pattering of tiny feet.

“Oh, dear God,” I sighed. “You don’t think there’s a nest up there, do you? That we’ve trapped some hungry babies inside that attic space?”

I could feel my son’s eyes switch from ceiling to my face with a look of resignation. “You want me to open up that hole under the eave again, don’t you?”

So carefully sealed, the roofer balancing on the fifty foot ladder, hammering plywood across the gaping hole on the side of the house—we thought that would do it. Peace. At last.

I went outside to watch my son pry the plywood away again. Starving little babies, who knows what kind, breed, species, but I couldn’t bear the thought of their mother locked outside, frantically clawing at the ungiving wood where the opening to home used to be, and inside, the squealing little critters waiting for a meal that would never come.

Now, in the dark of night, I imagined no frantic mother and babes. I heard a male beast, prone to blood lust and violence, grown fat and heavy over the warm seasons, his steps clodding across my ceiling. His body was surely heavy with the accumulated layers of fat, yet no need to hibernate, for the heat of my home, below, would keep him comfortable and awake throughout even this brutally chill winter. Was he a possum, twitching the bare, pink rope of his tail? A raccoon with masked eyes? A tree-climbing rat? A monstrous squirrel? Woodchuck? Vampire?

Night after night, I would hear him drag something, some living thing, across the ceiling and it protesting all the way. My dog, Guinnez, would follow the sound from one end of the room to the other, yet not once bark. Even he seemed to fear this invisible beast. Why else such silence when every mailman and Girl Scout selling cookies were lambasted with such howls that surely they would be ripped to shreds were he released for the kill? Now, his red ruff prickled a bit as his dark eyes scanned the ceiling, but he made no move, no sound.

Some nights, the dragging, the plodding, the scittering, the squeaking, would wake me so often that I would take my son’s baseball bat and bonk its tip against the ceiling. You. Shuttup already.

And he would stall in his step, leering into the dark of the attic, eyes glinting, beastly head cocked in turn to listen to the noises of the hell fires below. Far below, the two-legged creatures in their endless scurrying, the frequent rising smells of cooked and frying flesh, the blaring of noise and voices from throats that had no language he could discern, giving him no peace. If only they would leave, and he could, at last, know peace in his home.

In the morning, blinking over his first mug of coffee, my son says, “Think we’ve let this live and let live concept go a little too far, Mom? Maybe?”

I nod. We will wait for him, her, to emerge in the spring, belly swollen with new life, for maybe there are two of them up there, then slam the gaping hole shut. Or, when it is time to replace the roof, and the roofer will peel back the skin of my house, we will all stand there, balancing ourselves against the sky, peering inside, at the detritus of alien life scattered across and over my life below—its carcasses and time-bleached skeletons, patches of torn fur, chewed up apple cores and the empty shells of nuts, nests built of gathered souvenirs of a lifetime of travels, and that gold heart pendant I lost two summers ago.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Fire Walkers

by Zinta Aistars

Not the chest-thumping, sword-swinging, trumpet-blaring kind, but the silent sort of heroics—these are the moments of courage I so deeply admire. Not the fearless moments, but indeed those moments when one feels fear most, the full blast of it, the quicksand of it, the lava eruption when fear burns through your core and leaves you on buckling knees. Then you rise and do what you must anyway. You do what is right, not because someone else demands it, not because someone is watching, not for applause or reward, but because it is the right thing to do.

Yes, that is what I respect, even revere. We see it so rarely. This submission to the power of our fears. This acknowledgment of our demons. This letting go, just before standing up and taking control back again. It is accountability, responsibility. It is walking through fire. And over just the past few days, I have witnessed two such heroes, doing battle.

No muscle-bound Schwarzeneggers, mind you. One of my heroes is a young woman I’ve been blessed to know since she was a little girl. The other, a woman who left no name, but a lengthy comment on a book review I’d written years ago, telling me of her fight to reclaim herself. These two women humble me and they inspire me. I sense the fear in them both, even as both of them grit their teeth to rise up from their knees after they have lived their lives too long pretending to have control where there was none. Until now. It is when we at long last submit to the fact that we have none that we finally have just enough.

The young woman, a dear family friend, called me as she stood outside the door of a hospital. She was about to admit herself into a treatment program for alcohol addiction. Over the phone line, I could hear the chattering of her teeth. She was shaking with fear. She was crying. She was terrified. I asked her to tell me what it was she feared most, because I have long believed that once we name a fear, we have taken away—in that naming—a great deal of its power over us. In my mind’s eye, I could see her, far away yet right before me, staring at the door, closed but always with the potential to open.

“I’m afraid of finding out who I am, and am not, without my addiction,” she said. “I am afraid of being fully alive. With nothing in me deadened or dampened, but to be fully present to life. I’m afraid of the void that will open in me where this was and afraid I will not know how to fill it.”

In hearing her, it suddenly occurred to me that for all of people saying we fear death most, it may indeed be life we fear most. Being all. Feeling all. With open heart on sleeve, vulnerable, a vessel waiting to be filled with every possible blessing. Every sense vibrating and receiving. Every emotion vibrant and expressed. Love: unadulterated and unconditional, toward ourselves and others. Pain without anesthetic, yes, but also joy in all its depth and breadth. How terrifyingly wonderful …

Born into a broken family, this young woman had not had an easy childhood. There were other addicts in her family. There was poverty and struggle and deprivation and abandonment and abuse. Life was overwhelming, and so she had learned to deaden herself to it. Now, she tired of merely going through the motions of empty emotions. She hungered to be fully alive, even as she feared it. As surely all of us do. She tired of feeling lost, and she longed to find her way even as it terrified her. This door before her, perhaps it would open on a new path, and no doubt a very narrow one but with an ever expanding horizon. To enter that door, she had to first know hope.

I knew she could do this. I had watched her grow up, and time and again, I’d seen this young woman thrash and writhe in fear of something, then do what she must all the same. She knew how to walk through fire. I was confident she could do it again, and again if she must, and again. Each time more steely in her determination. Odd, though, how she saw herself as a coward, even while I saw her as the strongest person I’d ever known. Perhaps no hero sees herself as a hero, and that is part of the hero’s definition. It is humility that moves us to accomplish great feats.

Phone to my ear, I talked softly to her and told her about the anonymous comment left on my book review. The words were a jumble, full of typos, and the sentences at times nearly incoherent. But the overall message was clear. The book I had reviewed was The Emotionally Abused Woman: Overcoming Destructive Patterns and Reclaiming Yourself by Beverly Engel. I read the comment into the phone:

“i am a 24 year old mother of two.for years prior to me having children of my on i watch my mother get physically abused,i thought to myself why on earth would she stay.even as a 4 year old little girl i would cry with her and beg her to leave.after many more severe beatings and having to give up three out of the five of us to our dad she finally left... and even though after years she got us all back.i always told myself i would never go through that.i didn't relise that i would pick men that i could abuse.once i did relise this i started to pick men that abused me immediately i thought it must be my fault,i must be doing the samething my mother did that caused her to get beat so from 16 to 18 i stay with a boy that verbally abused me hit me and cheated until finally after giving birth to first child my daughter i found strength and left him for good something no one ever thought i would do only to go to the one man i thought would never hurt me the man i called my best friend he is five years older he had already lived with other women he said he loved me he could talk to me he acted like he respected me and what i did for a living..but two weeks after i moved in with him it began all of a sudden i'm bitches,i'm hoodrats the money that i make means nothing and when ever i feel like i have the strength to leave he pulls me back by acting like the reason we have problems is because of me i feel so traped not by him but by the retrants iv'e placed in my mind. i can't wait to go get this book i hope it can help me before its to late....”

We cannot be trapped by others. We can only be trapped by the restraints we place upon ourselves. I could hear the young woman’s breath catch over the line as she listened. The next sound I heard was the opening of a door.