Monday, May 04, 2009

The New Old

by Zinta Aistars

Fields of colored cups, like curved hands held open and waiting. Tulip time in Holland, Michigan. Every color, and the shades between. My eye is drawn to the eggplant purple, the deep pulsing color of royalty.

I haven’t been to this resort town on Lake Michigan in seven years. No, eight. Funny how my mind wants to forget, muddles the facts, snicks matches beneath the bridges, attempting to set fire and burn. Sad trick, that my mind cups around flashes of those distant memories, like protective palms, like the goblets of tulips, and wants to keep a few of them. Sad slivers of moments I want to believe were … pleasant. Only I can’t trust any of them. One lie works like a domino, tick tick tick tick tick, and knocks the whole row down.

Such a sunny spring Sunday, why not a road trip? Why not meet someone new? A colleague made the virtual introduction, our e-mails whipped back and forth, finding common ground, finding plenty of it, beginning with the shared history and shared Latvian blood. It tugs, somehow. I ponder this. Driving the 75 miles northwest from Kalamazoo, I muse over our human need to search for mirrors in those around us. We are drawn to those who reflect something of ourselves. Why? Don’t we have enough of me me me? That we still long to find me in you you you? Odd. Yet I enjoy the echo afar. Perhaps it reaffirms that our personal oddness is shared and so … less odd. Or if someone else can survive being us, maybe we can survive being us, too.

And it works. Just like that. We say hello, sveiks, in Latvian, I extend my hand for a handshake, and it suddenly seems silly to do so. Our e-mails have already established that we are bred of the same Baltic white sands, shared amber ancestors, a language as old as any, spoken over many centuries, our names resonating that ancient wisdom, so surely … and we embrace with warmth, laughing. Of course. I knew it, didn’t I? Driving north, always my best direction, never east, never west, forget south, only north. We are instantly new old friends.

The sun melts over our shoulders. We walk and talk, talk and walk, pointing out the color goblets holding Sunday within them, rows and rows. A. takes me to a sculpture beside the lake—a family in bronze. Mother, father holding a child curved against his shoulder, a grandfather in his cap, son with eagerness carved into his stone eyes. They are the immigrants. In this town, of course, the Dutch from the Netherlands. But we stand gazing at them and wondering at our own parents, grandparents, just like these, and what it must have been like to be new in a strange land, never yet seen, an unknown language that feels like steel on the tongue, no home, no work, no welcome. A. turns and takes me the other way to show me a patch of ground where once there was a house, end of the street. A childhood home. Memories, here. For a child, good growing years. For the immigrant parents, we can only stand here and imagine. A’s parents strove toward assimilation. Mine resisted it. A. never left Holland, never wanted any home but this. I have wandered from place to place, seeking it.

“Why leave?” A. says, standing face to the shimmering water. “I have all that I need here. A small community of the arts, a network of friends, my honest work, my memories." Including two sons, born here, now grown and gone, one east, one west.

Yes, why leave. A. wants to know about my travels to Latvia, that history source we share. We sit in a café, snacking on chicken pizzas, licking our sticky fingers dipped in cheese and sauce, and I talk about a country both of us knew before we knew anything else.

“Did you grow up on stories about the war, too?”

“Yes,” I nod. “Other kids had Goldilocks. Our bear was real. It ate little countries for breakfast. You grow up watching your back. The lesson is—don’t trust anyone. Anyone could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger. Anyone.”

A. understands, grew up on the same folklore, same warnings, same tender stories of execution. Yet how is it that we were able to trust? And perhaps too much. Even in this little tulip town, when we stop in a little parlor to pick up bottles of green tea, I turn for a moment and see a table where I sat, eight years ago, across from a man who told me I had beautiful lips. I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe in him.

And so we walk and talk, talk and walk, and talk: about the wars we have fought and won, partners that came and went, each leaving corpses on our scattered battlegrounds, some that we could still recall with the tenderness of an execution.

A. draws me into the town library. Another love, we find, that we share. Places filled with books, like walking into a cathedral of humming minds, rich with fantasy, dreams, spinning ecstasy of unbridled musing. Books. We run fingers along their spines.

Downstairs is a concert hall, tucked away like a precious secret. No tickets needed, we sit in the center of the front row and listen to The Perugino String Quartet—two violinists, one violist, one cellist. They play Four for Tango by Astor Piazzolla, and I feel the pores of my skin open and breathe. You understand: I love jazz, I enjoy rock now and then … but this kind of music, this is the music from which all other music is born. Song of the Ch’in by Zhou Long is a tantalizing plinking of strings, a heartbeat out of the cello, a dance that takes us to the Orient. But then, then, then it is our Ludwig, and no one, still, has a note on Beethoven. String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, and without realizing it, I have begun to pulse in my chair, my body swaying toward the stage, my foot dancing its own little patter, my mind swirling in a dream. There is no other kind of music. And it has been far too long that I have listened to such as this.

So we walk and talk, the sun sliding along the arc of blue sky, and sit on a wooden bench overlooking a stream caught between dry grass, a yellow kayak zagging between yellow stalks.

“Swans,” A. points, and I look, see: two great white birds soundlessly moving their white wings and folding them into air to glide across the sky. And they are gone. Into the next life.

We talk about the generations behind us, we talk about the work that we do, the future as we see it, hope that was lost and how we might now recapture it. We walk between rows of red, gold, orange, purple tulips, and little blonde Dutch girls clomp by in pointed white hats and wooden shoes, giggling. We lean against a wooden rail and stop talking for a while to watch the slow swirl of a windmill’s paddles paddling through air and getting nowhere, not needing to. It is a good moment, full of new hope.

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