Sunday, February 22, 2009

It Takes Much More Than Just One Village

By Zinta Aistars

In yet another of his poignant poems, “The Homeless: Psalm 85:10,” poet Aberjhani writes: “This world’s anguish is no different/from the love we insist on holding back.” In it, Aberjhani describes an artist who gathers the homeless to record the rumblings of their empty stomachs—the rumbling of unfed emptiness is just the sound the artist craves for his symphony. He pays the hungry a dime and pushes them back out into the street.

Aberjhani gives me pause. What he has captured in his poem bounces off the commentaries about our economy that I’ve been listening to on National Public Radio as I commute (feeling blessed) to my job. The stimulus package, the “bailout” as some call it, the inconceivable numbers—who can truly conceive of billions?—that is underway now in an all out effort to nudge our ailing economy back into life—is it wise? Rise, Lazarus! And we have all heard it, and many of us joined in the heated discussion: When is it enough? To whom do we give? From whom withhold? Yes, who is deserving and who deserves only punishment?

On one thing we all seem to agree. This sad state of affairs has been caused by unbridled greed. The rich have ached to get ever richer. The poor have ached for an end to their misery. With that combination of factors, the wealthy have tapped into the dreams of the less wealthy and promised them manna from heaven, and sure, it is, almost, nearly, just about free. Well, not really. The loans for big dreams rolled out shiny and tempting, but the price to pay was there, and it is that hidden price we are all paying now.

This is where the ruckus begins. Why should we all pay for the greed and weakness and foolishness of others? Those of us who bought our homes within our means, paid cash for our groceries, drove sensible cars, made the payments on our bills in time and in full, and generally lived our lives with an attitude of responsibility—why should be now bail out those who did not? Admittedly, my initial thoughts went that same path. I work hard. I have lived much of my adult life as a single parent, receiving little or no child support to ease the load, whether financially or emotionally, of raising two children. I won’t even begin to try to elaborate on how difficult that has been. I had dreams, too, but I understood patience. Yet here I am now, with shelter, however modest, stocked pantry, debt nearly paid off, and a very reasonable mortgage payment. I’ve been pinching pennies most of my life, and even now when I could afford to toss a quarter or two over my shoulder without noticing, I won’t buy what I cannot afford. If I can’t pay for it in cash, on the store shelf it stays. So, why should I pay for those who drove up their credit bills and lusted for five-bathroom houses on cul-de-sacs in gated communities?

I listened with interest to the NPR wise folk, broadcasting commentaries. I happen to be an NPR junkie, because public broadcasting opens my ears to ideas and thoughts I had not considered. Now, a poem by Aberjhani echoes those thoughts, and it rings true and it rings home to me. Why should we care about bailing out others? Who are we, after all, to pass moral judgment on those who reached for too much? While some of them may have been greedy, others may simply have been big dreamers, if foolish. A moral failing is one thing, for it is a conscious choice, but an act of foolishness is quite another. The most important factor here, however, is that we remember what got us into this mess, as a society, in the first place: greed. Caring too much about our own comfort, not enough for that of others. The rumblings of the hungry were just another eccentric song to add to our exuberant symphony. Are we to be greedy now and not think about our foolish neighbor?

The reality is, these economic commentators pointed out, that property values fall in a domino effect when one house, two, three, foreclose. We cannot save the deserving without including in the net the undeserving as well. We cannot save an ailing economy for an entire country, indeed, an entire globe, if we are going to try to pick and choose who gets what and why. We all need help. We all depend one upon the other. We are none of us free if one of us is yet a slave to debt. We have thought each about our own welfare and wellbeing for far too long. A nation of self-absorbed, narcissistic people will not, cannot, thrive. Can we learn from our own recent history? What got us into this mess—always putting our own desires first—will never get us out.

Or, as one of the commentators, an ethicist, pointed out—if we all got what we deserved, we would all be in hell. How about a little heavenly bailing out? The water is flooding into one and the same ship, carrying us all.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Heart Up in Smoke: Hookah with Blondie

by Zinta Aistars

Friday the 13th, 2009

All she has to do is ask. Blondie asks, and I toss my duffel into the trunk and am off. Chicago, here I come, here I come to spend my Valentine's with my heart's ever truest love, my baby girl. Toughest baby I know, so no one can tell me blondes aren't sassy and sharp and can rule the world. 

The skyline never fails to thrill me. It's night black by the time I speed into town, so the city is laced and dripping in strung diamonds. Blondie lives just a block off Lakeshore Drive, so that's the way I go, a relatively new route in for me, and although this is far from my first trip, I catch my breath nonetheless. The road curves just alongside Lake Michigan. Black silk tosses heavy waves to my right. The city shimmers to my left. It's a trick to keep an eye on the road and let an eye wander across the scrapers, down Navy Pier, the water below the bridges, the glowing windows, the pearls of traffic drawing ever changing lines of definition. I love this city. I am a wilderness woman, but I love this city, and perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I was born here, in Chi-town, and spent nearly all my childhood summers here, even when my mama and papa had moved me to Michigan. I thrill to visit my daughter here now, and it surprises me, not a little, that I have recently found myself taking long walks through her neighborhood, so close to the Lake, just off Belmont and Broadway, the perfect city mix, and envisioning myself ... actually living here. Moving here. Which is ever so slightly nuts, because the only dream I have consistently sustained since earliest kid years is the dream of moving north and living in northern wild places. 

I won't move. I don't think. But I love coming here to spend time with Blondie. I turn onto Broadway, heading for the parking lot where the parking attendant is, by now, beginning to recognize me, yet charges me a different price every time. Thief. Ah, but Blondie to the rescue! I called her on my cell as I approached the city, and there she is, standing in the parking lot driveway, waving me in. The parking lot attendant, a dark little man in wool cap and squinty eyes, has hunkered even smaller and stands just behind her, looking cowed. Blondie towers, proud and bright and beautiful and tough as nails. She's bargained the price down substantially for me, he dare not argue, and she waves me into my spot and thumbs up to signal I am in. 

We have better plans for wasting my money. After a quick dinner at a packed to the walls burger place, where we check off the items we wish on our burgers -- I pass on the shrooms, choose the guyiere, sauteed onions, red peppers, garlic aoli sauce -- order chocolate raspberry cinnamon shakes, and we dive in, dripping juice and sauce and giggles. 

Waste more  money, because this is Blondie, and this is Chicago, and this is the weekend to celebrate a free heart, so we scoot into a place she's wanted to try, just a half block from her apartment: House of Hookah. We have no idea what we are doing, but the long haired boy, stringy wisps falling into his eyes, so thin he will surely break if he leans over too fast, places the tall hookah pipe between us, sets the water inside to bubbling with his little spoon of charcoal atop. The air begins to fill with the scent of marlette, and he hands us the long, curving tube for a draw. Surprisingly pleasant. The flavor is faintly sweet and smooth and calming. We sit back and pass the pipe and blow smoke and bubbles and chatter nonsense into the Chicago night. Surely nothing better than a mother-daughter Chicago eve of sharing the hookah pipe. 

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Sun on a Sunday Morning: Musings from Water Street Coffee Joint

by Zinta Aistars

Sun on a Sunday morning, even if directly in my eyes—there cannot be any complaint. The winter unflexes its muscle, even if for a day only. Yesterday’s 52 degrees broke records in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I spent a good hour, perhaps two, mesmerized by the crystal waterfall spilling down the sides of the shed’s roof in my backyard. Shimmering silvery streams cascaded down the black shingles, turning ordinary material to diamonds. I sat, staring. My cats sat at the window, staring. My dog, standing in the thinning layer of snow on the back deck--staring. The world was melting, weeping with a quiet joy.

This Sunday morning, the sun is in my eyes. Having taken up residence at the corner table at Water Street Coffee Joint, best table in the house, where my view is of the entire room, however small, ideal for people watching, but I still have to deal with this bright winter orb. I’ll be here for a while. It will pass, soon, over the low skyline of Kalamazoo, the old train depot first, then behind the Kraftbrau Brewery, then on over town. I’ll still be here. I can do patience. It’s a good spot, despite the wall of windows, and if I maneuver my laptop screen just so, it cuts the light, and myself, straddling two chairs, just in the middle, I can take advantage of the wooden slat down the window to at least slant in shade across my eyes. And there, in a little while more, the sun is behind the Brewery and I am in warm winter shade, unblinking.

A week ago, early that previous Sunday morning, I was hanging my father’s paintings and drawings along the inside wall of Water Street Coffee Joint. I glance up at them from time to time, with a sense of pride. I watch a few other gazes over coffee cups linger on the paintings and drawings, occasionally peering closer at a detail, a slight nod.

I witnessed last week how this place fills, quickly, with long-sitting clients, the studious sort, the Sunday morning newspaper-reading sort (still on crackling paper), the book reading and notebook filling and manuscript pondering sort. Writers, I suspect, many of them, and certainly many readers. This morning they are here, too, a few of the same faces, many new, including my own. I haven’t been hanging out here much, now that I commute daily to another city north for work. Hanging Dad’s paintings here last Sunday reminded me … I like it here. Mom shrugged her shoulders and wondered aloud, why do they all sit here? With their books and papers and laptops? Have they no homes? Is there some racket there they wish to avoid here? Perhaps. But I suspect most here come for quiet, unspeaking companionship. A silent camaraderie, not wishing relationships or intimacy of any kind, so much as the nearness of other life, the quiet electric frequency of human thought, shared daydreaming, maybe even the rubbing of shoulders between muses, all while sipping cups of aromatic coffee, nibbling on scones and pastries and quiches. Do we know why coffee shops so draw folk? The coffee can be just as good at home (this place, too, sells its own beans). The silence at home, deeper. Too deep?

I’ve come here this morning to connect with a new friend at high noon. We’ve been working on a common assignment for a couple weeks now (I’ve written the press release, she will be doing the distribution, so why not brainstorm?), communicating through e-mail, so it made sense to make actual eye contact at last, over that cuppa. Recalling a week ago, I thought it might be pleasant to set up my own laptop reading and writing corner this morning, so came in early, why not. Arrange my own shop. Galleys of a new book, soon to be published, that I am reviewing. Notebooks of notes from half a dozen interviews, to be shaped into an article for a college alumni magazine. A poetry book, for nourishment. I arrange them around me on my table, beside the big blue cup of Costa Rica coffee and the orange plate of egg and chorizo burritos, warm. I’m set. It’s Sunday, and the coffee is hot, and the company, not bothering me but pleasant to be around, all those pondering and daydreaming minds, just waking up.

The tables are all full. For a while, a professor with whom I once worked in a previous place of employment, sits down beside me, hey Z, fancy you, here, awaiting his own table, and we chat … what’s new at the college, what’s new in your writing, what’s doing. How about that sun. A table clears. He nods, smiles, gets up, balancing his cup, scone, and books, and we wish each other good beans, he retreats to his corner and sets up in his own thinking man’s shop.

Time for another cuppa.
While I wait, a friend (?) on Facebook "tags" me to list 25 random and odd factoids about myself. I come up with ...

1. I love to procrastinate whenever it is time to write something important. The more important the piece of writing I have to do, the more I procrastinate. Guess what I am doing now? (Trying to write a good sentence never fails to scare the bejeezus out of me.)

2. I was 42 years old the last time my father grounded me. Yes. Grounded me. He had just heard me say, live over the local radio station, that I was planning on skydiving the next day. I jumped from the plane, 14,000 feet, the next day anyway ... and lived to write this note about it. Meanwhile, my mother tripped over her own feet on flat and solid ground while I was in midair and broke her wrist. Me? I only broke Dad's rule.

3. I have this thing for mushrooms. Raw, in butter, sautéed, stuffed, sliced, diced, marinated, fried, breaded, doesn't matter. If you want to lure me somewhere I don't want to go, toss me a 'shroom. Toss me another.

4. I am the founder and editor-in-chief of the literary ezine, The Smoking Poet. Good writing, good cigars. Yes, I occasionally light up a fat stogie. Or a dainty one in a silver tin. Don't tell Dad. He would ground me.

5. I can talk grammar for hours. Literally. And I work with a tussle of writers who relish same. It's a kewl office. On the other hand, I enjoy misspelling words like kewl and stoopid and seester (who is kewl, not stoopid).

6. English is not my first language. Nor is it my last. Currently, am hammering espanol into my head. Sometimes it hurts.

7. I was homeless for three months some years ago. Gave up my home, my job, my past, packed up sleeping bag, tent, guitar and old cat, and traveled across 10 states with a few hundreds to my name, and finally found a place I wanted to call home. Got the lease on a handshake and a promise I would be employed within the month. I was. It was one of the best times of my life (I made $4,000 that year and was never late with my rent). Thank God for handshake-worthy landlords.

8. The longest I've spent on the road in one stretch is 10 months - in an RV from Kentucky to Alaska. I lived in Haines, AK, and landed my first job on a newspaper. I had no idea what I was doing. But I did it anyway. Pretty well.

9. The RV was stolen in California and I had to go back to Kentucky. Dang.

10. I have had the same dream since earliest childhood, unchanged: to live in a cabin up north and make a life out of creating art. All kinds of art, literary and otherwise.

11. I have had over 30 different addresses in my life. After 30, I stopped counting. The house I am living in now is the longest I have been in one place, ever. It will not be my last house. See #10.

12. I was six months pregnant with my beautiful blondie before I told anyone. Except her daddy. He kinda noticed. In my sixth month, my brother-in-law called me to tell me my seester Daina had just given birth to her first daughter. It only took her 36 hours. I threw up.

13. I have never been more in love than on July 5, 1980. That was the day my daughter was born. The second time I fell that much in love was 20 months later, when her brother was born, 2-28-82 (guess his favorite number). I didn't know a human heart could contain something so big, so deep, so strong. It keeps growing.

14. I was 13 years old when my first story was accepted for publication in a magazine. I was 19 when my first poetry manuscript was accepted for publication. And 21 when my first story collection was accepted. I have had a great deal of trouble completing a book manuscript all these decades later. I keep starting over. I keep rewriting. Okay, so I have completed a couple of manuscripts. Okay, maybe three. I show them to no one.

15. There is a beast living in my attic.

16. My favorite season is winter. I detest summer. Yes. Really. I get sad when the snow starts to melt and the temps climb past 40.

17. I have been an emotionally battered woman. I am the strongest person I know. It can happen to anyone. I get it now.

18. Seven times in one day.

19. I sometimes take a sip of something, coffee, tea, a cold brew, then get distracted. Someone will say, "Z? Swallow!" and I think, oh yeah. Gulp.

20. My parents called me The Professor when I was a child, because of my tendency to daydream, be absent-minded, be scatterbrained, or to chatter on endlessly about the meaning of life and such. Or forget to swallow.

21. There is a chunk of silvery driftwood under the silvery, tall pines along the Baltic Sea, near the village of Piltene ... just on the edge of the white sand, and deep into its silvery bark is carved ... well, he knows. I wept, then laughed, when I saw it.

22. I argue with God a lot. I am trying not to. So much.

23. The older I get, the more I crave silence. So that I can truly listen, and hear, what matters.

24. I still remember how to love.

25. There are things I would not put into writing, on any list, ever. They will die with me.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Caffeinated Art and No Rest for the Bleary

by Zinta Aistars

One eye open, I peeked at the clock on the nightstand, and in the next—groaning and tossing out one or two peppery expletives, and this on a blessed Sunday morning—I leapt from bed, hit the ground running, half tumbled down the stairs to the kitchen with hand outreached for the coffeemaker (nectar of the gods if not this Sunday morning’s God, Who no doubt was still chewing on my choice of expletives and contemplating my damnation), realized there was no time, ran back upstairs, skipping steps, and ran instead for the shower. No time. Splashed water on my face, ran a toothbrush over my teeth, jumped into my jeans, nearly toppling over, popped my head through the opening of a sweater, sneakers and socks, hopefully without holes, back downstairs, let the dog out, glopped spoonfuls of cat food into two bowls for two cats who don’t like each other, grabbed the insulin from the refrigerator, stuck a needle in, just to the line, and held up a tent of my poor cat’s much-punctured hide to jab in the injection while he was distracted with his breakfast. He flinched. I apologized. Let the dog back in. Keys, coat, bag, and I was off.

And reached the Water Street Coffee Joint in 25 minutes, bed to coffee counter, in downtown Kalamazoo. Without a speeding ticket. Not that I didn’t deserve one.

My father was already stacking the paintings and framed charcoal drawings along the seats next to the wall. I didn’t want him lifting anything. Not with his spine crumbling to dust, and the last spinal treatment just a week ago, painful process of injecting some kind of steroids into his spinal cord to stop the pain for at least a short while. Which didn’t seem to be working. He was still in pain. He was pretty much always in pain. He was shuffling along, bent forward, rearranging the paintings to a more suitable order.

“I’ll do it,” I said, waving him to sit down. “Just give me a moment.” I looked back at the coffee counter, where a huge blue coffee cup, big enough to be a soup bowl, steamed in seductive invitation. Oh yeah. Oh. Yeah. I sipped, then drank, then gulped. Yeah. Two eyes open.

It was too early for anyone but one other confused soul to be in the coffee shop. I knew I’d pay for a too short night this morning, but I felt terrible not to have beat my folks to the shop door. Mom had set down one of the framed drawings long enough to come over and tuck a stray lank of hair behind my ear. Must look like hell. I rooted around in my jean pocket for a hair band, usually one in there, found one, and did a quick French braid to hold my hair out of my face as I set to work.

Then realized I had no idea what to do. How to do this. Hang paintings. From hooks along the edges of the ceiling, coils of fishing line, at even heights and without sagging away from the walls. Huh. I knew how to supervise this sort of thing, sure, but not the doing it. Simple, right? Our favorite art curator, Kirsten, had gone AWOL to Mexico, who knows if she’d ever come back, but her e-mail had popped up like clockwork in mine a day ago to remind me: another Kalamazoo Art Hop was coming up, and this time, twelve of my father’s works would hang—not in art galleries, not in expansive office building lobbies, but here, in this little coffee shop on the edge of town, in a building I could remember from my very earliest youth, half a century ago, as a gas station. Set right alongside the train tracks. So close its bricks rattled and realigned the mortar every time a train chugged by. Truly charming. Now, clean-faced college youth served coffee here that could put the buck-making Stars of coffee to shame. Along with muffins, pies, scones, beanful salads, chocolaty bars, and cookies as big as your face. Loved it. As did most every other coffee-worshipping soul in Kalamazoo. Thus the expansion to a bigger space, big enough to show off local art, and a second location on the other side of town.

I was guessing my father had a better chance of selling paintings in this coffee joint than in any of the local fine galleries. If, of course, I could figure out how to hang them more or less straight on the walls. I slid out of my sneakers and climbed up on the seats to pry the hooks free along the edges of the ceiling. Fishing line curled from some of them, left by the previous artist. I examined the slip knot used and slowly untied it, memorizing it. Tying it back again wasn’t as easy, but after six of the twelve paintings, hey, I just about got it. The slip knots held, and when I needed a painting to hang lower, I could unslip it a bit to adjust. When I needed one to hang higher, I could simply loop the line around the hook, once, twice, depending on how high I needed it. Then Mom would stand back and say to the right, no, to the left, no, back a bit, no, back more, no, not that much, no, right again, no … until I glared at her and she shushed, grinning. Dad was sitting at a table cutting out labels with painting titles and prices.

By the time I had all twelve hung, many more coffee worshipers had come in. The sun was bright outside, shining in buttery through the wide windows. Or maybe my eyes were just that much more open, two soup bowl mugs of coffee circulating freely now in my bloodstream. I had to shimmy between the java-worshippers at their tables, sipping in their Sunday blessings.

“’scuse me. Don’t mind my leaning over you. ‘scuse me.”

I pressed poster putty in squishy pieces to the backsides of the frames, pressing them against the walls. This was starting to look pretty good. Although I still thought Kirsten, the art curator, had the better idea, crossing the border to warmer climes and an easier pace of life. I had to slow down. Done here, more work awaited me at home. And this was a Sunday, day of rest, if only I could figure out how to schedule some in. Papers to write, submissions to read, interviews to conduct, books to review, articles to write, and here and there, a load of laundry to do.

And still. Standing back to take it in: Kalamazooans sipping java at neat little tables in a sunny coffee joint, my father’s beautiful drawings and dreamy watercolors brightening the place, I took a deep breath. Smiled. My father wrapped an arm around my waist and pressed a kiss on my cheek, “Thank you, Zinti. What would I do without you.”

There would be other Sunday mornings to sleep in.

Viestarts Aistars Art Exhibit

February 1 to March 31, 2009

Water Street Coffee Joint

315 E. Water Street

Kalamazoo, Michigan 49007

(269) 373-2840

ART HOP artist reception

Friday, March 6, 2009

5 p.m. to 9 p.m.