Sunday, August 30, 2009

Measuring Happiness

by Zinta Aistars

You can't, of course. Measure happiness, that is, anymore than one can measure the sunshine that has spilled into this Sunday afternoon. Or the warmth contained in the embrace of a loved one. Or the depth of any emotion, certainly not sadness, which I think is the twin of happiness, and not its enemy.

Yet here it is. In the midst of all my many errands these past couple days, rushed into the too-short space of a weekend, I find myself stopping in my tracks at an unexpected moment in full realization: I'm happy.

Say what?

There is suddenly a wave of cautionary fear. Careful, don't say that out loud. The gods may be listening, and we all know how jealous they can be, as if happiness was a limited commodity, and should some mere mortal take hold of a piece, their portion might be lessened. But it is not. Happiness shared, oh silly gods, is happiness expanded.

So I say it aloud. Relishing the risk. Not in a shout, mind you, but in more of a reverential whisper, full of wonder: I am happy. At this moment in time, frozen in mid-step, here in my own humble living room, for no apparent reason (no lottery won, no love letter received, no last minute reprieve from my too many errands, no extraordinary anything), I stand in awe of this thing. And it feels daring, deliciously risky, to say the words out loud. I try it again, one decibel more:

I am happy.

I take a deep breath. The roof of the house remains unlifted. There is no shaking of the window panes. No lightning from these blue skies. No one batters down my door to take it away from me.

I sigh, grin, and go on to my next errand.

I realize that may be the very reason that I trust this so-long-unfelt-now-renewed emotion, that there really is no extraordinary, blatant, golden reason behind it. It just is. A thing, a whisper, a feather that has floated down on me, like a soft and silken blessing. Am I deserving? No idea. Not sure it happens that way. And I have never quite grasped that new-agey idea that happiness is a choice, a decision to make. That seems downright silly to me, because I can't imagine that anyone would choose or decide otherwise. Oh, perhaps some evil soul somewhere, corrupted deep to the core, who relishes the darker emotions... but in that case, his dark side is perhaps his happiness, however warped?

I have chosen and decided upon happiness always, tending toward optimism from birth, even as I was a serious child (my family called me "the little professor" for my thoughtful and ponderous if somewhat scatterbrained ways), but it has not always chosen me back. We have relationships with our emotions, I think. We do not hunt them down and capture them, making them our prisoner. Instead, we pursue, and coax, and court our happiness, sometimes circling it in cautious invitation, like the most tremulous and skittish butterfly, landing for a moment on our proffered pretty blossom, then flitting off again. In that pursuit, we often stumble, or have to leave our chosen path as another demands our attention. And none of these side paths are wasted ones, not even the wrong ones chosen. Some, I think, take us into dark places to teach us to appreciate more the light once we see it again. There is no light without the dark, we all know that... even as we resist knowing it.

Bad choices, stupid decisions, and we veer from our path to happiness in long and twisted ways. True, some never find their way back. Perhaps that is where the moment of decision enters in. Do we keep up our pursuit? Or do we become seduced by the dark that lives to some measure in all our souls and forever lose ourselves in it?

I chose happiness with every cell of my being, every fiber of my bruised and battered spirit, but for a long time, it would not have me. I could court happiness, but one cannot force a relationship if the other is not interested. Happiness had other plans. The skittish pretty thing flitted away to a flower just out of my reach. I sank into such shadows others thrust upon me that I can only, at long last, start to peel some of that inky blackness from my shoulders, from my heart.

And our happiness does not depend on others? Balderdash. If there ever was a social creature, it is the human being. How do we learn to smile? but by looking at our mother's glowing smile hovering over us as an infant, reaching pink little fists up to be held, reflecting and mirroring it. The isolated child grows warped and mentally deranged, sickened in body and heart, babbling sounds rather than language, mistrusting everyone. Oh, we do depend on each other, in so many ways. We are all interdependent, a constant parade of passing mirrors, a reverberating of echoes in the abyss that is life. We learn from each other. Good, bad, we learn from our interactions.

I have learned so much. So much good, so much bad. With age comes wisdom, with experience comes the knowledge of how to recognize happiness when it comes courting us. For this reason, I count among my greatest blessings my years, no longing for youth and its stumbling if on occasion blissful ignorance.

I have known love that is deep and true, that seared my soul with enough power that I no longer long for repetition. Been there, done that, loved such loving, yet now am free to explore what else remains... even as I know I would not be who I am if I had not been so well-loved. Thank you, oh thanks to these good if flawed men, who loved me in spite of (if not indeed in part because of) my own flaws. You remain in my heart and are now a part of my being.

I have known abusiveness, too, a battering of profound selfishness, a disconnect that led to grief and suffering as I had never known. This, too, taught me about happiness. We can learn as much, or more, about what we need and want in life by its absence as we do by its possession. I am, if not quite grateful of such an experience, respectful of its lessons.

I stand and count my blessings, lining them up before me. Good, beautiful faces, beautiful souls that have enriched my life in countless ways. Work that I enjoy immensely, finding in it my role as a productive member of this global community. A home where I can put down roots, whether for a short time or longer. This day, should it or one soon following be my last, or whether that last one is still distant. The bread on my table, rich, dark, of life-giving grain, so that I never go hungry. My good health, with ever growing appreciation of the mechanics of this aging woman's body. The change of seasons, the night, the day, the sky, the earth in all its shapings and colorings and wonder. All such wealth, such wealth. Even when we forget to appreciate it.

Now, I can choose this solitude, only and because I have known the most intimate connection. I have absorbed and soaked up all those lessons, the sweet and the sour, and now I stand in the center of my house and smile. Smile with my entire being. I stand here a survivor, no victim. Have taken steps beyond mere survival, to fully grasp what happiness means - and it is a balance of time together and time alone. I love deeply, loving my two children beyond what words can describe. They are my greatest treasure. In a different kind of love, I hold close to my heart my family, core and extended; my many, very diverse friends and the countless lessons they bring; and the strangers, too, that cross my path on our daily excursions.

I deeply appreciate all those different souls on all those different paths, so different from mine. Now and then, ours cross. I hope when that happens, I shed an instant of light and warmth before I am gone again.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pebbles in Still Waters

by Zinta Aistars

I wake in the still dark of a Saturday, the world around me still sound asleep and lost in dreams, perhaps some in nightmares, but I lie in bed musing on the fact that my dreams are sweet enough. Another nightmare averted. Literally a last hour reprieve. And while my life is littered with such last hour, even last minute reprieves, I no longer thrive on such drama. A little more root in the soil beneath me, a little more stability from one day moving into the next, that's what I want now. Call it the aging process. I won't mind.

My male cub had his life pulled potentially in a northern direction, and not by his free will. Life and its nasty obligations, debts to pay just when you thought them long ago erased. "Life isn't fair," he huffed a day ago. His lady Sarah was leaning into him, both of them leaning into the corner of my living room couch, as if they thought leaning into it enough might lose them into its pattern, become a part of the furniture, and perhaps life wouldn't notice... wouldn't keep bothering them quite so much.

"First thing," I said. "Give up the thought that life is fair. Never was. Never will be. Thinking that is even a possibility puts you at a handicap at the starting gate."

He sighed. Knew as much.

The next lesson I had to share was that of luck. No point in counting on that, either. Only losers believe in luck. Those who succeed in life are too busy creating their own luck, and not just in the short term. The older I get, the more I observe this phenomenon, and I resist saying, "Would you like some crackers and cheese with that whine?" Rather than doing something about it, the whiners moan endlessly about how nothing they do matters and it's all just destiny. Oh, poo. Just listening to such tripe makes one want to pull away. No wonder luck itself is repelled. And success finds a home elsewhere.

Granted, some circumstances are tougher than others. But I firmly believe life has a way of balancing things out quite evenly. Advantage here, disadvantage there. All comes out in the wash. Call it God, call it karma, call it the way of the universe. Whatever your belief system, if you feel lucky one day, I promise you... the unlucky one is coming, too. Only it isn't luck. It is life. Life that we begin to build from the very moment of our birth. Not one thing we do isn't without consequence. Not one thing we choose not to do isn't equally without consequence. And sometimes, those consequences are heavy, and long-lived, and build their influence on years of our lives, not just passing moments. Believe in the bible or not, there was something to that verse about seven generations and the sins of our fathers. We so wish those sins could disappear in a quick instant. Especially the bigger ones. Wake up. They don't. At a moment of bad decision, a domino effect of a thousand, a million, a countless infinity of ripples move out from that circle, an effluvium of effect, even long after you yourself have forgotten the pebble you threw into that still water.

The sweeter news is that it works this way for both good and bad deeds. For both good and bad decisions. The good we do ripples out in expanding circles, too. Forever and ever and ever and...

In truth, life is exceedingly fair. Judged by the moment, it may seem to be otherwise. Living in the moment as we so often do, we can get away with calling it luck, good or bad. It does not depend on human memory. It does not depend on forgiveness. It does not depend on subsequent turns of event. Every moment is a living thing, a dynamic set into motion, and all that it sets into motion will move out in its path and travel its journey, and there is no stopping it. We can only create new ripple effects, toss new pebbles into the still waters, and perhaps some of the good that we do will cause ripples that cross those effects we would rather not keep experiencing.

Because we are done with a part of our lives does not mean that part of our lives is done with us. Consider all the many others our actions affect, and the others who are close by to them, and to them, and so on.

"I don't want to go," my cub says, and his voice is quiet and tormented. He doesn't, I know, because he has worked hard to build a new life, right here, among the people he loves and who love him. There is nothing else beyond living in our circles of love. He is old enough to understand that. His lady Sarah draws a warm palm across his cheek in agreement.

In the very next moment, I see a ripple go through him. He gets it. There could very well be no way out of this particular mess. It is a ripple of resolve. Even as...

Even as elsewhere, miles away, his older sister, who has never believed in luck, has rolled up her sleeves to set to work. She knows people. She knows a lot of people. It's called a network. And had she to rely on this moment alone, it would all be of no use, but she has built a conscious life of networking, treating people right along the way, doing favors, expressing kindness, working hard, being fair, doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do. Luck, you say? She calls in a favor. It was a dozen years ago and she but a high school kid then, working in an advanced college prep class and making good impressions. Would she be remembered? She was. A phone call here, a phone call there. Seeking openings in a time when openings are rare.

Lady Sarah and I are resolved, too. We bring out phone books, underline names, work on strategies. My cub nods and jumps in. Everyone's sleeves are rolled up, up past the well-greased elbows.

He resolves to accept what cannot be changed, even as he sets to work to change what just might be. He bustles, he hustles, he rushes, he calls, and he never forgets to say please and thank you.

So it happens. Never mind the details. It's the process.

Sister has jumped in her car and is here. Lady Sarah is here. My son is here. The phone rings the hour before we pack the car for the journey north. Apparently, a position has opened right here, in our own town. What do you know. He doesn't have to go.

Sarah's dark eyes widen. She is exhausted, but she leaps with excitement at the news and hugs her man. "I can't believe it!" she sings. "What luck!"

I smile at both my cubs, son and daughter, both of whom fill my heart with pride, but also with an enduring love like no other. I have made many unwonderful and foolish decisions in my life, and many decades later, no matter how many right things I do now, the ripple effect of the not right is still washing over me. I understand and accept that. Life is, after all, much more fair than we wish it would be. But then, so is the ripple effect of the good. The lessons I taught my cubs when they were so very little, so long ago, not just in words, but in my own position of role model, have set in motion the events of this moment. Sometimes we do right. Sometimes the wash of the warm water of long ago is sweet and ever so refreshing in this faraway day of today.

His wide grin is worth years of tossing pebbles into the still waters. He hugs the three women who love him and tosses in a pebble of his own.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Writing

by Zinta Aistars

I do not regret the tossing of words, of many pages, of thick files, of the time spent ordering sentences in the meticulous construction of a manuscript. I have done it many times before. Indeed, I think it may well be the secret, not so well hidden, of acceptable writing and surely the requirement of good writing and the harsh reality of great writing: that far more words end up in the proverbial wastebasket, or, in today’s technology, lost in the ether that pulses just below the DELETE key, than remain on the page for reading.

It is all about knowing what to cut away, what to slice, dice, chip off, whittle into sawdust, carve into curls that land on the floor at your feet, rip away the extra layers, peel back the hides, sculpt away the extraneous, trim the fat, and drill down to the very core. Here is the pearl. The golden heart. The treasure.

I do that.

And am sometimes left with nothing. But the dusty trace of path taken wrong. It was the other path at the fork in the road I should have taken. Yet no regrets, for every adventurer will also tell you—as much, or more, is learned by exploring the mistaken route as when taking the right turn right away.

I warrant the guess that the writer who is cruel in her pursuit of literary perfection has tossed 99 percent of all written words and kept the one. After writing another 99, kept a second. Until that place is reached that few will find for sheer persistence. It is a necessary cruelty in pursuit of the kindest word.

Nor do I know if I will pass the test. I am still lost in the woods, bread crumb trails scattered to the four winds. I have not even kept the two golden words. Not even the one. I stand with empty palms lifted to sky and open myself to the voices that may fall down upon me. I listen to the air, ear cocked to the breeze, to see what it will whisper to me. I watch the changing of the light to see what the shadows might write across the earth, if any of it will call my name. I stare into the tea leaves in the bottom of my cup and find only mess. I tap the keys, I hold the pencil in my hand, and allow for the flex of delicate string of muscle and tendon, as if holding the divining stick that will tremble in the hand when it senses cool and refreshing water deep, deep below…

… waiting for the word that has not yet come.

In preparation, the mind wields its own work. In those subconscious depths, I see her emerge, ever so slowly, from the murk of the dark below and the dark inside. I listen for her name. It changes. She tries hard to fool me. Takes me down those wrong pathways and submerged tunnels that end up at a hard wall. No way out. But back again.

I am earning her trust as she earns mine. She is the character that will appear in these words yet unwritten, and I coax her to me. Like a beaten animal, she scents the air for my intention, and I hold out my hand, my outstretched fingers, for her to feel warmth, kindness. For her to know: I will treat her with utmost respect. I will love her. I promise this.

So I love her into the light, and she begins to speak, and our conversations weave into ever longer exchanges. Because I listen, she speaks more. Because I understand, she at last begins to speak the truth. We are getting closer.

I give her a name that at last she is willing to accept. I promise to throw away all that I have written so far, and she nods in approval, because by now we both know, there was nothing there of value. Well trod paths, too many footsteps there, no discoveries left.

Then it occurs to me. She will like this, I am sure of it. I will set aside time for the two of us to talk without interruption. She has left bread crumb trails of her own for me to follow, and has spoken of a place she loves as she loves little else—and she knows I love this place, too—and we arrange a time away together.

“You’re traveling solo again?” a friend asks me.

“Solo? Ah. No.”

My friend tips his head to one side in surprise. “Not alone? But I thought…”

“Oh. Yes. Alone, yes. I am going north alone. With my notebooks, my books. Yes. Solo.”

He shakes his head in confusion, shrugs shoulders in acceptance of my rambling, but I am doing more of that now, speaking in tongues, bumbling nonsense, losing the language of one world even while I enter the shimmering and seductive layers of another. My mind is drawing in, ever in, and I speak more now to the voices inside than to the ones around me.

I make the reservation for time away in the Keweenaw, because, I now know, it is where she lives, that hidden woman inside, and we will meet there. We will talk. Time will no longer be of essence. The clock will hold its hands still, so that ours may open. She will speak, and I will transcribe, and if that delicate balance holds, the words that will emerge from this communion will not need to be tossed away. Not this time.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Swallowed by a Flower, Curved Into a Bone

by Zinta Aistars

Georgia’s flowers swallow me whole. I walk into them. I lay my cheek against her white bones. It is all I can do, all I can do, glancing over my shoulder for the whereabouts of the museum security guard, not to lay myself against the canvas and meld myself to the heat of Georgia’s flowers and Georgia’s bones and the sun-warmed adobe of her pueblo walls. I stand at the base of Pedernal and remember when I did—stand there, a woman alone on the southwestern desert, orange cliffs blazing around me, and Georgia’s mountain, cool blue, on the horizon. Two years ago, I was at Ghost Ranch, not far outside (just far enough) Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now, I stand in the cool rooms of the Kalamazoo Art Institute, mesmerized by her paintings, even more by the photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe herself.

Although I have come to appreciate the art of Georgia’s hands increasingly alongside understanding something more about the artist, I have been far more fascinated with the artist herself. When I drove cross-country two years ago on a business trip to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, I knew I would have to take some time to drive, too, to the Ghost Ranch, her home that she called “the faraway,” and to Taos. I would stand on the ranch land, her red dust on my shoes, and stare long at that mountain for which she bargained with God—“if I paint it enough, God promised it would become mine.” And so it has. I cannot but see her brush strokes in that faraway blue.

And I wandered among those pueblos, the ranch, where she lived and painted and adored the quiet, the solitude. Born in Wisconsin in 1887, she grew in a time when women were not taken seriously as artists. It took her well-known photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, to bring her to the art world’s attention—and he would do it with something of a sad predictability: he promoted her work, these great and gorgeous paintings of giant flowers with delicate layers of soft, curving petals, as having sexual undertones. However much she loved her husband, Georgia resented the lie. She had no such thought in painting her flowers, no such intention in the gentle stroke of her brush along the curve of a skull bone. Only after Stieglitz had died—his own greatest claim to fame being his astounding hundreds upon hundreds of photographs of Georgia—did she, arguably, fully come into her own. If Georgia brought a movement of modernism to art in her time, she also opened the door for women artists. She loved being alone, and Ghost Ranch was her place alone, Pedernal her altar of solitude, and in her long life spanning very nearly a century, she would develop and control her identity in the art world. She refused the idea of being objectified or having her art so boxed in.

It is her own beauty, too, that draws me in. Spending leisurely Saturday hours in the art museum taking in not only her paintings, but also her contemporaries—Weber, Dove—I finally move into the room where the walls are lined with black and white photographs of Georgia herself. There is a moment when I stand directly in front of her, eye to eye, that the focus of my eye momentarily changes and I see my own reflection transposed across hers. I catch my breath. Something of her spirit… I wish for it, too. My eye traces the lines of her aging face. They are deep and wonderful lines, curving like the curves of flowers and mountainsides and clay walls in her paintings. She has an expressive mouth, a painting in itself, and her hands, subject of many of Stieglitz’s photographs, are art, grace, the great Feminine.

I return to the paintings again. White on white, bones and petals, and she has captured a thousand gradations of white. A pueblo wall, one window, one door, and I am suddenly back at Ghost Ranch again, standing in that very door. A sacred solitude. Woman alone. Power. Grace. Peace.

I stand before a red tree on yellow landscape, and wonder at how she painted the color of her emotion rather than the color of the subject. All that we see, after all, is through the prism of our inner eye, the lens of our self, colored by our own life sense and experience.

I am back at the photographs, gazing into her dark eyes, and wondering how all these many photographers—for she was one of the most photographed women of all time—did not seem to notice the wall she kept in place. Even as she smiled, which was rare. Even as she made an occasional grimace of fun. Her eyes kept that sense of the aloof: I am here, and you are not to enter on my place in this world. Only so far. I am the faraway.

For a moment, I am there, too.