Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Solitary Traveler

by Zinta Aistars

If you have to leave home to see home again clearly, then perhaps you have to distance yourself, just a little, from creating distance to understand the journey. I am back home again. The journey is a week behind me. And as I move about the house, cleaning, ordering, cooking a dinner for one of liver and onions and mashed potatoes covered in a sour cream gravy, sorting mail, leafing through books, planning the day ahead … I realize a contentment I haven’t known in some time. I don’t do happiness anymore. I’ve lost the knack. Or, perhaps I just have a few more journeys to complete before I regain it. Yet contentment, now and then, I can manage.

My mind still travels. The trip to Washington D.C. might as well be a long time ago. Blondie, my then travel companion, is already on another journey, this very moment pedaling fiercely along Cape Cod toward Provincetown on a fundraiser for multiple sclerosis, in an act of caring and respect for a close friend who has been so diagnosed. So like her. I wait for the next call to update me on her progress, while my own mind cycles over the previous adventure. Normally, I keep an almost religious travel log. This time, nothing. Nothing but an occasional tweet on Twitter, a status update on Facebook—ah, the short bites and truncated images of modern social media! The rest I absorb and store inside myself, unspoken.

Maybe that’s why: my mind still lingers, my mind’s eye still wanders those previous scenes, my spirit winds around the sensory fulfillment of that recent journey. I won’t bother to count how many times I have been to Washington D.C. Many times. I think perhaps the first was with Blondie’s father, my just anointed husband at the time, late 70s. We stayed with friends in the city, about as high in the building of apartments as any building in that squat city reaches. I remember the balcony, lined with boxed plants. I remember that the couple living there, also newly anointed in marriage, brought us to Voice of America, the radio station broadcast rooms that sent scrambled radio waves across borders that were meant to hold out truth, voices from freedom—and then, we believed here we understood something of freedom.

Walking along the city streets of Washington D.C. this many decades later, I came across that building: Voice of America. At least twice, my own voice was carried from that broadcast station across the ocean to Latvia, in an interview about my poetry, and from an authors’ reading. So many times in D.C., I came across many such streets, buildings, parks, museums, memorials, where I had already been, stood, contemplated, left some mark or none at all. I had returned with other travel companions over the years, each adding their own life sense to the journey. Every trip was different.

It occurred to me, this trip, how that flavored an experience: with whom we travel. If on every trip I take—and I travel often—I return home with some new revelation about myself, right alongside any other souvenir I might bring back, or any revelation about my travel companion, this time it is a sharp awareness of this fact. This trip, for the first time here, I came to realize … I prefer now to travel alone.

Yikes. Did I write that aloud? I did. Blondie knows how I adore her. My daughter is a wonderful traveler, has crisscrossed this country and Europe, inheriting that wanderlust gene from me, passed along in my family generation to generation. We have this strain of the nomad in us. The wandering gypsy. Indeed, for the first time using a GPS feature on my BlackBerry to bring us from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Washington D.C., to Tabard Inn on N Street with admirable precision, I named that mechanical woman’s voice on my little bit of technology—Gypsy. Gypsy told us every turn. Warned us of congestion ahead. Counted the miles behind us as well as those ahead. Resisted sounding impatient when we made a wrong turn or decided on an exit she did not recommend. “Recalculating route,” she said in her even voice, and then politely admonished, “Take the next legal U-turn.”

I’m thrilled to take Gypsy along again on future journeys. She knows her stuff, although gets a little flustered when the turns come too fast on city blocks. And I do plan to take future mother-daughter trips, still holding hope I might get my son to agree to a trip someday, too. And there’s a shorter trip coming up soon with Mom and Dad (I don’t want my father, now in his mid 80s, driving outside of town anymore, reflexes slowing with the years). And, yes, sure, there are the occasional pangs of missing previous travel companions who brought their own smoky flavors to a trip.

But it was that first rainy morning in D.C. Blondie and I woke early, had a delicious breakfast downstairs in Tabard Inn—the only place I ever stay now when I am in that city—and set out for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where she was attending a conference for work, on disaster preparedness. I suppose I had given up on preparing for disaster myself. What more could life throw at me that it hasn’t already? I walked with her to 11th Street, embraced her goodbye and good wishes for her day, shone with pride at my daughter now such an accomplished young woman in her sharply tailored business suit and briefcase in hand, waved and went on by myself.

That early, the streets were still relatively quiet, even if a work day. The sky was heavy and sagging with rolling gray clouds. I swung an umbrella in jaunty dare from one hand, just purchased this morning, using it as a walking cane. I’m ready. Then it struck me, no, caressed me, that sweetness of realization. I was content. On my journey alone, alone for the day, I was content to not have to worry about the needs and wants of another. The itinerary of another. The comfort of another. Let’s face it—I do that exceedingly well. I lose myself in all that concern for the travel companion.

Now, I walk free. While there are certainly advantages and disadvantages, undeniable pleasures, to traveling together, I had faced down some demons on my solitary journey two years ago, driving on my own from Michigan to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The moments of loneliness wafted over me, and passed. The motel room beds were empty and allowed me to spread my wings in comfort. I ate when I wished and where I wanted. Food tasted better when I had no conversation to distract me. My senses came alive. I was distracted by nothing but my own rambling thoughts and keen observations. It was just me and the world around me, and we made friends. I was not alone at all. Solitude on the road was sweet.

Moving around bunches of chattering tourists near the White House, I walked through the city, letting impulse carry me. Gypsy was quiet in my pocket. I had no need for direction. I stopped when I wanted, I walked on when I wished.

Don’t get me wrong. There are undeniably times when a Bed & Breakfast bed feels warmer when it is rocked by two. There are assuredly times when dinner conversation is worth more than the food. There are sunrises and sunsets that are more lush with color when shared. I know this. I have known this. I have enjoyed it. Perhaps I will again. But I am discovering a new kind of travel, another type of journey, and it is one done in solitude. Being a woman in midlife, a mother, a sometime wife and lover, my biological as well as learned tendency is to worry more about others than myself. To worry about no one now but myself—fills me with a delicious selfishness, a self awareness, that is healing and good. It’s my turn.

On this trip, too, spanning nearly a week, spending many, many fine hours with my adored daughter, even meeting a long-lost aunt who took a train from Philadelphia one of my days in D.C. just to meet me and spend the day with me, I would cherish times spent with these precious others. I would feel blessed by these hours, this company. Yet I knew that blessing that much more keenly … for my hours spent alone. For my spirit renewed in solitude, not loneliness. I finally felt comfortable with the world, the unknown, around me. I did not require a shoulder to lean on. I did not need an echo to affirm my experience. And when Blondie emerged from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce end of the work day, filled to brimming with stories of all that she learned, the fascinating people she had met, the challenges she had embraced, I was ready to listen. I had stories to tell, too.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Smoking Poet - Summer 2009 - Online Now!

“A fine cigar and good literature―two of life’s most enduring pleasures.

Gluttony of riches, I’d say. Awash in it. Rolling in literary mud. And if you think about it, mud is good earth with just enough spit, and maybe a bit of blood, perhaps a drop of sweat, added to make it into a clayish goop that you can mold into whatever shape you wish. Yes, even Art. And what do we not have here?

We have mesmerizing Trash, the kind that wins first prize (Dan Skelton). We have Good Luck Charm (Emily Burns Ross) in second, and Mum in Decline (J. Louise Larson) in third. Jorro’s Emancipation (Stephen Joseph) earned Honorable Mention.

We have American Salvage, spanking new story collection by our feature author—and honorary judge of our short story contest—Bonnie Jo Campbell. For added spice: an entire, glorious, raucous page of Bonnie’s poetry. “Fiction is like a marriage; poetry is like a quick, exciting affair.”

We have A Good Cause: The V3 Campaign. It’s about Voice, Value and Votes by Lorena Audra Rutens, newest treasure added to our editorial masthead. Lorena will bring you new good causes every issue. Do your part.

We have the lush colors of summer in the artwork of Viestarts Aistars. Nearly every page.

We have poet Shaindel Beers, chatting it up with us.

We have book reviews, where we slander and praise, pages updated throughout the coming weeks. New assistant editor Skye Leslie will tell you just exactly what she thinks of American Salvage.

We have the Cigar Lounge smoking up the place. Rich, fragrant smoke. Sniff out the stogies and light your own fire.

Glory in it all. As we do. Summer is bounty and this issue certainly is that.

With a good word,

Zinta Aistars
The Smoking Poet

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Winston's, Downtown Kalamazoo

by Zinta Aistars

“It’s the ritual of it,” I said to Sherie. “It’s like a meditation. You pick the cigar, unwrap it, cut it. Draw in the scent. Light it, slowly, turning it in your fingers… like this.” I slowly twisted the Macanudo in my fingers, holding the tiny flame of the cedar match just beneath the head.
Life glowed. A thread of smoke lifted from the cigar.

Sherie watched me, then lit the second Macanudo that I had given her. We were sitting in the cigar lounge of the new Winston’s, downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan. What a grand not-quite-summer evening... finale of a Friday, Art Hop, with all downtown opening its doors to art of every medium. Paintings, sculpture, jewelry, woodwork, stained glass, music.

Kalamazoo hops in art the first Friday of every month, but I’ve been far too busy to go hopping along. This is a too rare pleasure. Friday, a warm evening, old friendship, a fine cigar. After listening to the wonderful, honey voice of Alfrelynn Roberts in the old Kraftbrau building, Sherie and I walked through town to find a good place for a meal and a moment of respite. We found Webster’s.

Kalamazoo’s newest bar, found at 224 East Michigan beside its shared kitchen with Arie’s London Grill, specializes in scotch and whiskey. Winston’s is named after (of course) Winston Churchill, the English politician known for the cigar forever in the corner of his mouth. Art was still the bigger draw when Sherie and I strolled in; the place was empty. Only the bartender’s face, wreathed in smiles, greeted us. He waved us in, invited us to make ourselves at home, and we did—although first walking through the entire place and checking it out.

The front room was an inviting space with windows on East Michigan, green and off-white and yellow walls decorated with large and sassy quotes by Winston Churchill and bright, jazzy prints. The bar was richly stocked with bottles of whiskey and scotch, and passing the bar, the hallway led, almost like a secret, to a cigar lounge in back. We peeked inside. A few tables and chairs, black leather armchairs, flat screen television tuned to ESPN (Must they? All cigar lounges? As I find this eye-rollingly typical, that all are tuned to sports stations when I first walk in!) But Winston’s, about 2,000 square feet of space, had a touch of class, a bit of a British air with Irish on the side (bartender in red plaid), and Churchill’s spicy whimsy on every wall. I liked it here.

Sherie and I sat down at the bar. Our attentive bartender, having yet no other distraction, told us delightful stories about the scotches and whiskeys, handed me a cigar menu after I handed him my business card: The Smoking Poet, editor-in-chief. A lift of his eyebrow. Cigar reviews? Did I know my stuff? I do, both literary and cigars, and I pointed out to him that Hemingway, the name of an author and a cigar, was misspelled on his menu with two m’s. He blushed. I laughed. I was having fun not making this easy.

Still, he would shine. He poured tiny amounts of three scotches for Sherie to try, as she explained herself to be a martini connoisseur and not the scotch type. I had already ordered by 15-year aged Glenlivet single malt, enjoying the slow burn. Sherie savored each of the three: Aberlour, Old Pultney and Highland Park. Being the good friend that she is, she pushed a sip toward me. Aberlour was my clear favorite. Highland Park my least. And by the time we were served dinner—Guinness Beef for me, Chicken Curry for Sherie, the place had filled, every seat.

The food was out and out delicious. We expected as much, being already acquainted with Arie’s London Grill next door. Wiping the last from our lips, the two of us retreated to the cigar lounge in back. Where we sat now… ribbons of smoke curling above our cigars, leaning back in the leather chairs, watching the occasional horse and carriage clop by through the tall, narrow windows. Now and then, a group of curious males popped in, inevitably a little taken aback to find two women with cigars. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. On one hand, I enjoyed the surprise. On the other, I sighed at this separation of what the two genders are supposed to enjoy. The cigar industry is infamous, after all, for its objectification of women. CAO has its Flavorettes, each woman not a person, but a flavor to pop in your mouth and flame. Cigar magazines are full of ads dripping with sex for sale, the cigar a phallic symbol in her lips. I am the first to defend the right of men to have their own retreat and women theirs… the occasional separation is meaningful, I believe, and good. But can we ever achieve mutual respect?

Two more men entered the lounge. Saw us and smiled with surprise and obvious delight. One confirmed, “Hello, ladies! Oh hey. Got to love a woman with a cigar! Enjoy…” and they left again, leaving the two of us to discuss, not babies or fashions or our nonexistent husbands, but current events in politics, global warming, and how quickly the planet might recover should humankind disappear tomorrow.

This piece also appears in the summer 2009 issue of The Smoking Poet, Cigar Lounge.