Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Half Inch of the Sky

by Zinta Aistars

There are times that you just have to steal the time. I have no business sitting on my couch, candle lit, hour after hour and long into the night, reading ... but that is just what I have been doing this weekend. In between doing a thousand other things, of course. Not the least of which is a tantalizing rush assignment that came to me on Friday for Kalamazoo College, my favorite Vitamin K, that I must, must, must finish before this day has evaporated. I've calculated that it will require approximately 11 hours to finish, and the day is already wearing toward noon.

But there's this book. It is Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It didn't take much to catch my attention, because I have been a longtime fan (and I am the fan of nearly nothing and even fewer persons, being by my age and my life stage too difficult to impress) of Pulitzer-Prize winning (twice) journalist Nicholas Kristof. I was introduced to Kristof some years ago, when he wrote an alarming series in New York Times, where he is a columnist, about sex trafficking in the United States. Where? Here? Yes, right here, in our own cities and neighborhoods, in astounding numbers, very young girls and women being kidnapped, usually as runaways, but sometimes quite simply off the streets, your streets, as they walked to school in their (our) nice, clean neighborhoods, and forced to become prostitutes and/or take part in the burgeoning industry of pornography. For which, mind you, the United States has one of the world's most ravenous appetites.

I read Kristof's revealing, horrifying series in NYT at the same time that I was enmeshed in a relationship with a man that I was coming to realize was addicted to pornography, claiming it was all "just harmless fun," but fast escalating into affairs, a life of constant coverup and lies that threatened to bury me alive. Kristof's columns made me feel sane again. This was not "just harmless fun." This was the result of, and supported by, human trafficking for the most base of purposes. This was the destruction of human lives, not by death, arguably a kinder blow, but by the agony of humiliation and violation of treating a human being as body without spirit, body without heart, body without emotion, a slow death from the inside out. I could say that Kristof helped me un-mesh myself from that slow dying from the inside out from such a relationship. Pornography, and its eventual acting out in "real life,"  is not "just harmless fun." It destroys many, many lives.

This is not, however, the focus of this book. Not directly. Half the Sky is about human trafficking and sex slavery, oppression of women worldwide, usually based on the mere fact of their gender. It is also about how treating women better can, and often does, result in solutions to worldwide poverty - and many other ills. It is a fascinating connection made between how treating women, and girls, as sex slaves as well as weapons of war (the rapes currently taking place in the Congo are an example of this), can lead to the sinking of an entire nation, country, culture. The domino effect reaches us all.

But I don't mean to write a book review here. I maintain another blog, Zinta Reviews, for posting book reviews. I've not yet finished the book, although I am fast closing in on the final 50 pages. What I meant to write about this morning ... was about how living through hard times in our own lives can lead us to good things. Because that was one of the hardest times of my life, those years when I came across Kristof's columns in New York Times. There is much to be said about realizing that one is not alone in a harsh experience. There is much to be said about being validated by reading that there is factual basis to my expanding realization that there is something deeply wrong in an experience, even while society at large seems to continue to condone it. I knew my partner's addiction was not "just harmless fun." I also knew it had little, if anything, to do with sex. It was more about the empty places and carefully hidden shadows inside of him, based on his own fears and the need to have control and power over women, a control and power he lacked in reality. While his behavior was escalating out of control and pulling more people into its destructive vortex of abuse, using others as objects with no regard for the aftermath, I was finally finding solid ground beneath my feet. Solid enough to scamper to higher ground. And finally find the courage to leave. I had a new understanding of the emotionally battered women's syndrome. The novel I am currently writing deals with many of these issues as I experienced them in my own life.

That is what good writing can do. That is what well-written books can accomplish. That is what one man, fighting for the rights of women, a true feminist, can do for the whole of humanity. That is what a good newspaper column can bring about in its readers.

It takes a great deal to make this reader cry while turning pages. I am not easy to impress. But Kristof and his wife (with whose work I hope to soon acquaint myself as well), Sheryl WuDunn, understand that citing statistics does little to bring about change. The stories of individual people do. Half the Sky is a collection of such individual stories - of women, of girls, of children, who have lived through (and in some cases, have not survived) the most unspeakable torture and abuse ... and gone on to change their part of the world. Many of these women have rebelled against their treatment, refused to be silent, risen against mobs of angry men, corrupt leaders, authorities and politicians, even entire governments, who would not take them seriously. They have risen up against other women, for many of their most cruel abusers are women who were previously abused themselves, and accomplished great things and saved many others from a similar fate. They have built schools, built hospitals, built shelters, changed laws... changed age-old tradition and cultures. In short, moved mountains.

And I thought I had a bad day? Welll, yes, I did. Far too many bad days. I will not detract from my own experience, because that is what keeps a woman down. But to read the stories of these women moves me to look to my own life for how I, too, might use my life experiences to reach out and make a difference. How the dark can lead to more places of light. I am excited to see the list of well-tested charities and organizations at the end of this book. There is a list of things I can do. That anyone can do. Beginning with just a thought. Starting with just one small action.

Perhaps, then, this blog can be that one small action on my part on this day. Read the book. Just read it. I dare you to remain unchanged. Every change begins with raising awareness.

Visit to learn more.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Place For One

by Zinta Aistars

With my recent return from a solo journey north—to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—I’ve been contemplating the nature of solitude. Specifically, of being a woman alone. And of traveling as a woman alone. I’ve been traveling alone for much of my adult life—crossing the country and crossing the ocean. I still recall how the first time I drove from Cincinnati, where I then lived with my then husband, to Cleveland, where my sister, still my sister, then lived, I felt a shiver of anxiety. Gee, what if the car broke down? What if I got lost? What if I stopped at a rest area and out from behind some dark shadow popped a bully man?

By now, with decades of solo travels behind me (and, I hope, ahead of me), all of those things have happened. I’m still here. In one piece. Generally unharmed if a tad eccentric (I’m in that decade of life now where eccentricity is not only allowed but welcomed, hurrah!). I’ve also gotten over eating an expensive dinner in a posh restaurant—alone. I find I actually get better service from admiring female waitresses, a kind of cheer gleaming in their eyes (you go, girl!). I’ve enjoyed a fine cigar in a cigar lounge alone, traditionally male territory. I've pitched a tent in the backwoods and sat by my own campfire. I’ve learned to ask for help when I really need it, and I am not afraid of asking for directions, although I find I rarely need to do so. Acquiring a BlackBerry with GPS navigation system installed has opened both horizons in invitation to me. I call it my Gypsy, and her polite but friendly tone directs me where to turn, when I am nearing congestion, what restaurants and lodgings are nearby. Nice. One of my last complaints about solo journeys, trying to read a map spread across the steering wheel while maneuvering traffic, was now resolved.

This may sound like no big deal to you… but it was actually a very big moment for me. I repeat: a big moment. I used my GPS Gypsy on my journey to Washington D.C. last spring, although not a solo trip (traveling with my daughter aka Blondie), and it was like the final puzzle piece falling into place in a long process of recovery from my last relationship. Like, wow. Some invisible chain fell from my ankle. I could travel anywhere, fearlessly, and never get lost again. I can travel alone in complete comfort.

As it turns out, not so. Gypsy’s voice gets quiet when you cross into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There are such wilderness places, such high altitudes and remote corners of the world, where Gypsy becomes baffled and will actually tell me, even as I am happily driving down an asphalt road, that I must turn back! turn back! you are traveling where there is no road! We won’t even speak of what happens when I turn onto some dusty dirt trail. Poor Gypsy starts to stutter and weep.

So now I am weaned of GPS, too. I’m a free and unfettered woman on the road. Nice. The world is my oyster and my pearl.

At ease and relishing my solitude, I soon discovered, however, that the coupling world around me was not so much at ease with it at all. I seem to set off all kinds of bells of alarm and induce all sorts of anxiety attacks as I pass by. If nothing else, our coupling world seems to have no clue what to do with me. I would find myself standing in the entrance of a restaurant awaiting seating—for one—only to find the maître d' peering past my one shoulder, then the other, see no one, and still ask in a insistent if slightly uneasy and hopeful voice: “Two?”

Everything in our (American) society is set up in pairs. Every expectation is that a normal, healthy person will not be so shameless as to disrupt this order of things: the world comes in twos. Yet not long ago, I heard a report on National Public Radio in my car, driving along on my own, that the United States has now officially crossed over into a majority of “singletons.” We are at some 52 percent unmarrieds. Well, cool, I say. Why not. The times, they are a’changing, and it is undeniable that many women of previous generations married primarily because there was no other choice but to do so. We were weaned on dreams of being mommies and housewives, and when we began to attend institutions of higher education, it was more about becoming better and more interesting partners to our future mates than it was about becoming financially independent. We were raised to be dependent. We no longer are.

I say it with measurable pride: today, I bring home a much heftier slab of bacon than all but one of my previous partners in romantic crime. The one, suffering ill health, is today financially dependent on his new wife. So there you are. Money, let’s face it, is the biggest chain to keep a person down, tied to another, limiting choices. Money is power, and money is freedom.

Which is not to say I haven’t loved, and ever so profoundly, along the way, tied by heart strings that were stronger than any dollar sign. Indeed, one of my happiest times in adult life was when I was side-by-side with a man who was a fresh immigrant to this country and literally had nothing more than the shirt on his back. He was dirt poor, so was I, and we were outrageously in love, and the sunshine was bright and glorious in my ever blue skies.

That’s the point. The point is: been there, done that, more than a few times, enjoyed much of it, learned from traveling every path and side ditch, and now I have arrived at a time in my life when I desire nothing more than going it alone. Alone makes me happy. That does not mean I don’t cherish my family and friends. I do. Even more now than I did when partnered. I have more time and space to cherish these others.

Yet why is it that at every turn now I seem to encounter someone or something that assumes my solitude must be cured? As if it were a kind of disease or affliction or, oh my, shortcoming? Surely I suffer?

Calling home to check on my critters when I had brought in my bags to a cabin in the woods up north, my mother's voice trembled over the phone line. She knew where and how I was, yet couldn’t seem to help herself, asking yet again: “You are alone in the woods? All alone? In the woods?” I could almost feel the shiver of the phone in my hand with her horror. “All alone, Mama. In the woods. I’m fine.”

I shook my head, smiled, and set to preparing myself a fine dinner in my little log cabin kitchen. One of my last, quite recent, transformations was to fully realize that I can cook a fine meal for one. I used to cook fine meals for two. Or for my children. Does one really cook gourmet for self alone? I’d been one of those eating-over-the-sink types for quite some time. Yet, gradually, without giving it much thought, I one day realized I was cooking terrific meals… for myself to dine alone, and relishing every moment that I could eat with my fingers if I wanted to, slurp my soup or suck up the last long noodle with gratifying slurpiness, and concentrate fully on the tastes and textures of my meal without distraction of conversation or the need to play hostess. I pour a glass of vintage wine, cut into that prime cut of steak, dip my asparagus in its Hollandaise sauce, and enjoy every last bite.

At some point, I even realized I had begun to crave my solitude. Yes, crave. As one craves the closeness of a lover. I’d start to get cranky if I had gone too long without. I would feel out of balance, off center, out of kilter, like I was tipping to one side and needed to find my way again. Solitude is a good thing. A necessary thing. A space in which we can dip into silence and finally hear our own voice. The noise and bustle quiets, and at first it is a small voice, a whisper in the distance, a tinny little song. With time, it becomes a voice calling out in the woods and meeting its own echo, a glorious opera of one.

Women especially, I think, need to learn to embrace their oneness. We are raised, still and ever, to think of others. And to think of others first, as if to remember our own existence is somehow shameful and selfish. Not a bad thing to care for our many relationships, but too often, we do so at expense of ourselves. We lose ourselves in nurturing our families, our friends, even our colleagues. A woman’s strength is in our ability to know compassion, to be able to see through the eyes of others and so take on great causes and fight to make this a better world, finely attuned as we are to the vibrations of others. We are wise and we have great hearts and we move mountains, every day. Good. As it should be.

But now and then…. we need to remember who we are. We need to go deep into the woods, alone, and listen carefully for our own echo. We need to cook a meal for our own tastes, sit down, eat uninterrupted, and lick the plate. We need to navigate our own paths, and now and then, we need to get lost so that we can find ourselves again. We need to face up to the bully man who jumps out from the shadows, because he will. We need to know we can stand our ground.

We need to know, every one of us, that it is okay to be one of us, one at a time. One of the most important relationships we will ever have is the one we have with ourselves.

We need to know what we like, what we enjoy, when no one else is looking or whispering in our ear which way to go and how to choose.

And we all need to leave people alone about being alone. Matchmakers, bite your tongue. Yours is not the only way. I do believe there is someone, even many someones, for everyone (although there are too many that are blind to their own best mates even as they stand beside them). Everyone should experience love in its deepest hues, an intimacy of two intertwined. It is a challenge that makes us better people in the long run. It is a joy like no other.

Even better appreciated when contemplated in moments of sweet solitude. I am blessed with so many heartwarming memories of past loves, and now, of wonderful friendships awaiting me when I come back out of my time alone. But at this time in my life, I am enjoying a relationship of one. A new memory unfolding of a life fully lived. And I am loving my discovery of the best friend I've ever had: me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tommy the Tom (1994-2009)

by Zinta Aistars

Tommy the Tom

1994 – 2009

By Zinta Aistars

"When tomorrow starts without Tommy remember the wisdom of our ancestors and elders:

"They are not dead who live in the hearts they leave behind. (Tuscarora)

In death, I am born. (Hopi)

I will be known forever by the tracks I leave. (Lakota)

Whether it be on the soft earth or in our hearts (Sharmagne)

After dark all cats are leopards. (Zuni)

And you gave Tommy the love and freedom to be both. (Sharmagne)

"We are made from Mother Earth and we go back to Mother Earth." (Shenandoah)

“Sing your death song and die like a hero going home."

Chief Tecumseh

What is life?

It is the flash of a firefly in the night.

It is the breath if a buffalo in the wintertime.

It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset."

~Sharmagne Leland-St. John-Sylbert

He’s just a cat. Only a cat. But how often did I think that God must have created the animal to teach us, as if His superior creation, how to live and how to love. And still we do not learn.

Tommy knew how: to live and to love. About 15 years ago, my son, Markus, brought him home in his school backpack. We lived in the country then, fields and cows for neighbors. This little kitten was roaming around in the field grass yowling for a mama that wasn’t and for sustenance it appeared he had not had in a long time when my son, walking home from school, noticed him. He was an estimated few days old, maybe a couple weeks at most. My little boy human child handed me the little boy cat child, and said: “Can we help him?”

Would sure as heck try.

I’d never seen so much spunk. The tiny tuxedo cat was pathetic in appearance. His tuxedo was mussed and in patches—he had mange. His watery eyes were full of puss. His nose ran and his little wisps of breath came with effort—bronchitis, we would learn.

Goodness, I already had two cats. We had only days ago agreed to take another black calico kitten, naming her Jiggy, another rescue story of a mother cat and litter someone had thrown into the Kalamazoo River in a sack. My dear friend Jerry had a soft heart and no tolerance for feline abuse, pulled the sack from the river, and was now busy trying to find homes for all. I took the one. Jiggy was youth beside my old calico, Poga (Latvian for button, as her eyes were as big as), yet another rescue story and several times over. Poga was closing in on 19 years. And then, there was Holly, Jerry’s golden retriever, who enjoyed staying with us in the country where she could walk in freedom and enjoy the expansive bounty of nature.

Oh, another cat…

But look at him! Squirming with life, trilling a purr in his ribbed little body when I rubbed a finger under that little chin. Off to the vet we went, with no idea how I would pay… it was not an easy time in my life then, financially.

I listened as the vet shook his head and pronounced his verdict: should put the little guy down. Not a chance. Far too sick. Body covered with fleas, too.

I glanced down at our feet while the vet droned on. That little kitten was skittering from one corner of the clinic to the other. Between our feet then off again. Falling and getting up again. Curious as a cat should be.

“Look at him,” I said. “Who am I to say die when this kitten is obviously so interested in living?”

Vet smiled. Okay. So he sent me home with a shopping bag of pet meds, and when I got home, my son gave up his bedroom for quarantined space. All his furniture came out. Bare hardwood floor and walls, just an old blanket for comfort. We would call him Tommy the tomcat, because there was something so masculine about the way he moved. A swagger, like a little cat version of John Wayne.

Pills, ointments, cuddles and rocking that little life like someone’s child… and he became another one of mine. The furry one. To add to my furry crew, always room for one more.

Fifteen years later, my heart was pinned to that cat heart. We had shared many paths, and he kept teaching me how to love. He was a faithful tom when the human kind were not. He loved me even when I was cranky and undeserving. He thought I was wonderful when I was anything but, and it had nothing to do with who had the hand that fed him—although that was always a moment of joy for a cat born in starvation. And Tommy loved the Alaskan Malamute, Suni, that came into our lives. No bias against species here. Especially once the 125-pound dog understood the 12-pound cat was boss. After Suni was Guinnez, each with their own rescue story, and Guinnez would get boxed, left right left, with soft white paws when he disobeyed … but the chow pup showed deep respect and abiding love for his fellow critter in the house. Guinnez learned to wash his face like a cat from watching his admired cat brother. Guinnez walks along the back of the sofa and perches on the sofa arm, 46 pounds of him, as if he, too, were a cat, because he could see: being a cat was a wise thing to be.

Only Jiggy never quite liked him. Starvation was in Tommy’s bones, and he would steal food from his sister cat at the blink of a cat’s eye. Hisssssssssss. Swat! Yum.

But for me, he was my little tuxedo man, all grace. His coat now shining like silk, and as soft. He kept his tux meticulously clean, up until he was diagnosed as diabetic, requiring two insulin shots per day. The old body was getting worn out. His cleaning was not quite so meticulous. I snipped the mats from his fur where he couldn’t reach them. He tolerated it.

Every night, coming home from work, Tommy and Guinnez would greet me at the door, Jiggy keeping a more dignified (and safer) distance. No matter how taxing the day, my furry family always cheered me. Human children grown and gone, I still had my three fuzzed musketeers to love and amuse.

How to know what transpires in those little minds? I have often thought we greatly underestimate the wisdom of the animal. Our own ignorance, and arrogance, to think we alone ponder and reason and know the full range of emotion. I always had to wonder what Tommy thought in that sweet little head. At night, Guinnez would sleep at my feet, Jiggy up on top of the pillow, but Tommy…. Oh, Tommy knew his place. He swaggered right up to my face, little tuxedoed cowboy that he was, and curled up to put nose to nose. I would open my palm just below my chin, and he would slide his paw in. Paw in hand, hand in paw, we slept.

Just a cat. But I always knew I was important to this little someone.

So when at least my vacation had arrived, and I headed up to my much loved Keweenaw… I worried about Tom the tom. Every time I leave, he gets a little weaker. It’s not just a play on words to say I knew that cat would die for me. I explained to my parents, critter sitters and house warmers that they were in my absence, how to give him his insulin shots, how to feed him the special dietary cat food, how to love him just so and tell him I’d soon be back…

My vet is a very good vet. She has doctored my little tom through various illnesses and brought him back to life more than once. She always told me he was sweet natured, even when the people there had to poke and prod him, as if understanding, purring his funny trill in acknowledgement. They were convinced nearly a year ago that he was about to die. I sat in the “goodbye room” with him for most of that day, petting him, whispering to him, until he came around again, his appetite for life… and food… returning, and amazing all.

But I knew this time was different. I knew he was in pain because of yet another blockage. While giving him momentary relief with a catheter, the vet showed me the ultrasound of his bladder, a tatter of bumps and lumps, more blockages to come. His blood work amazed her, she said. No reason this kitty should still be alive. His blood sugar was through the roof, his kidneys were shot, his bladder filled with blood, and another column of numbers that matched no living creature she’d ever worked on.

“Must have been love,” she said, her own eyes watering. “He must have wanted to see you one more time.”

Just a cat. But I pressed my lips to that tiny head, our eyes meeting just one more time. When she pressed the needle into the vein in his back foot, I could not hold back the sobs, and felt no shame. No shame in my grief. In loving an animal who loved me more, and more purely, than most humans have.

I’ll miss you, Tommy. I’ll miss you. I think you are wise enough to know how much.

Epilogue: Tonight, I will dig the soft earth of this patch of land where I live, and Tommy will rest beside Poga, who died the first night I moved into this house. My son and I plan to plant a small evergreen atop their adjacent graves.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Keweenaw Seduction

by Zinta Aistars

Sunday, September 13, 2009


The words await me. All day yesterday, all evening by the crackle of the fire in its stone fireplace, then waking in the night—a pulsing, red 3:46 on the clock beside the bed—I could feel the approach of the words. That is why I am here. Here, at Black Bear Cabin, secluded in the Keweenaw northern woods, to welcome them. It is a little like a tryst between lovers. Illicit, perhaps, because there is that dance, that zigzagging approach, when you’re not quite sure you should ever meet, ever touch, ever feel your own yearning flesh against the warm skin of those words.

But I am here, and I’m not going anywhere until we have consummated this dance.

Up in the night, padding barefoot on the hardwood floors of the cabin, from my bedroom into the big room, drawing my fingertips across the stone of the fireplace, now cool, I move the green plaid curtains to one side and peer out into the night. For a moment, I think I sense more than see … the shadow of the words, lovingly stalking me. My heart beats with anticipation.

I am here to write. A thousand words prior tossed away. Oh, many thousands, many. Entire manuscripts. A writer must kiss many frog manuscripts before finding the prince of them all. I am here, now, here, and my arms are open, my heart is open, my mind a great ear that listens for them, and my hands, my fingers tremble ever so lightly… because I remember that kind of magic. When the words come.

And still, I tease. I flirt. Let them pursue me. I brew the pot of coffee, I break the two brown eggs on the pan beside the two sausages, toast the fresh bread and butter it. Eating with appetite, I put the dishes into the sink, wash them with slow, lathered swipes of the sponge, and then go out to walk in the surrounding woods. The morning is cool and misty. Rags of a light fog catch in the treetops and wisps hang loose from limbs. I walk the perimeter of the land, looking over my shoulder at the cabin. It charms, the picture of peace. Brown logs snuggled against the woods, a matching place, logs against living trees. These are maples and oaks here, great, strong trees. Fir trees and pines with soft needles. I pick up acorns, both green and brown ones, and put them in my pocket. I plan to take this place and this moment along with me, wherever I go from now on.

This is the place. Where the words and I will join, at last.

We have struggled mightily. Oh, we have wrestled and fought and nearly had one another by the throat, thumb pressed to pulse until consciousness seeps away into near death. Only to come back to life again, coughing and spluttering, gasping for air. Insisting on life.

I could not write when life was a mess. Simple as that. Never could. It could be that a woman, a mother, at least, is made that way. I had to care for my children, I had to run from job to job, pay the bills, for there was no partner in my unnamed crime. I had to know my brood safe and well before I could even begin to think of myself—and the words.

I am here now, in this safe place, the place I carry along inside of me now. A heart that is badly bruised, lined with scars where there were once breaks, now healed, if only pulsing a little with a remembered pain at certain triggers of memory. My heart now is strong and whole and glad. Yes. Funny, almost, to me. That my heart could beat on like this and know happiness again. Yet it is what I have felt, enough times now to know it is not a mere haunting, but something real and with root, tapping down into my core. A happiness that comes up out of me and is dependent on no one else. I felt it driving north to this place. My car window unrolled to the fresh northern air, hair whipping in the wind, a smile spreading over my lips. A grin, even. I dare say it now, unafraid of any jealous gods who would take it from me. I am happy. I am. And I hold it to me, and I know, I know this is what I will need to write again.

So I am here now, in the Keweenaw woods, the bright white page before me, like the clean white sheet of a bed, and the words and I are about to make love happen...


Light dims in my temporary paradise. Reverent, I watch the day come to a gradual close. I have remained at the cabin all day. All day, I have written, written the words, followed their path, at times guiding them, at times letting them guide me. So. This is what it feels like to be a writer. I mean, truly a writer, immersed in this work from morning into night, with no other distraction. Free to listen to the voices in my head and my heart. What wonder. I skim the dozen new pages written with warm satisfaction.

Work is not chore if it is, as Joseph Campbell said, following one’s bliss. Being productive today has given me strength, rejuvenated my spirit, and encourages me to follow this path to its end, however long it might take. The writing is good.

Occasionally rising from my work to prepare a meal, or stroll the perimeter of the surrounding woods, or simply to stand on the deck at front of the cabin and listen to the birds, I enjoyed this creative immersion immensely. At day’s end, I fired up the grill in celebration, searing a steak, bringing to tender readiness corn on the cob, Keweenaw-grown potato, green pepper, and a dozen brown crimini mushrooms swimming in melted butter, and finally, poured myself a glass of red wine and set in to enjoy my meal. Well done, Z, well done, I grinned to myself and for myself. The day was all I had hoped it might be. A pearl among days.

The sun setting, I put match to the wood and pine cones I’ve arranged in the stone fireplace again and settle in to read. First, The Daily Mining Gazette, filled with local names such as Locatelli, Wittla, Junttila and Arola. The Finns, I see, are still plentiful here. Then, I open The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer. Ever the sashaying reader, between Brewer’s chapters, I sneak in a poem or two by Derick Burleson, an Alaskan poet, from a collection entitled Never Night—and am amazed at what power and beauty simple words can hold.

The fire crackles and spits comfortably in the fireplace. Night deepens in the windows, and I rise to pull the curtains. The cabin fills with soft, golden light, giving the log walls a golden honeyed color. Someday, I think, someday my every day will be like this…

For now, I have a day such as this one to hold as a promise of what is to come. And the work to be done until I get there.

Monday, September 14, 2009


It takes effort to rise from the comfort of the downy cabin bed, but I wake with the realization, a little sad around its edges, that this is my last full day in the Keweenaw. I must take hold of all of it, squeeze from it every last drop of juice. Up with me!

How good life could be if we but lived where we wished, lived how we know best, lived true to our selves. Every day an awaiting sweet fruit to peel as the hours go by. While my life has settled into a steady and stable groove now (steadiness and stability, as those who have known me beyond the past few years, has not been a mark of my life), and the various dramas and tragedies have been left behind (at last), I can pay off the dues of the past, make right, and begin to pay for a future of freedom. Who knows how it will take shape… but I suspect the Keweenaw will play some part in it.

I am a little anxious, a speck nervous, to look at the dozen pages I wrote yesterday. In the light of a fresh morning, will they still shine? Will they still please me? Will I resist the seductive delete key this time?

A streak of pale yellow light melts across the horizon, the day calls. I want to drive up to the top of the Keweenaw Peninsula today, a plan I abandoned the other day because I was too eager to get to the cabin and dance with words. I will write less today, but I will instead pack away the memories, the sense of this place so that I can weave it bit by piece into the pages yet to be written. I will pick up the Superior-washed stones to bring back with me. I will take more photographs. I will stand and listen, to the waves, to the woods, to the wildlife hidden away around me, just out of sight. I will take in the tiny towns I pass through—Kearsarge, Ahmeek, Mohawk, Allouez, Phoenix, one copper mining town after another, some of them more ghost than flesh and blood population. Until I reach Copper Harbor at the very tip, where my father brought me as a child, where he set up his easel on the beach rocks to paint and I sat in the stones with my own pad of paper, trying out my own hand at sketches of boats, cottages, trees. I’ll stand atop Brockway Mountain and look out, out into the beyond, Lake Superior but also my own future. And know it is mine to shape.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Deja Vu Calumet

by Zinta Aistars

Where did the years go? I lived here, where I am at this moment - on Fifth Street, Calumet village, Keweenaw, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in 1992 and 1993. A short time, yet brimming with all the rich experience of life fully lived. I don't think I ever was so close to poverty as when I lived here, in a second floor apartment with sloping wooden floors at a rent of $250 a month. Yet, I was never happier. I was here with those I loved: my small children and my new husband, just married in Houghton, across the Portage canal. I worked four jobs. I was editorial assistant at the Daily Mining Gazette in Houghton; florist at Kathy's Flowers in Hancock; waitress at Jim's in Calumet; and in my "spare time," I telemarketed subscriptions for the newspaper and helped the kids deliver the Copper Nugget paper to houses here and in Laurium, across the way. And still, I could not make ends meet. No one here seemed to even blink at the law for minimum wage. You considered yourself lucky to be employed and earning a couple bucks at each job, and that was that. My love and I walked the streets of Calumet in the late evenings and picked up cans, turned them in for the occasional piece of meat at the grocery store, now Louie's on Fourth Street.
The snows were deep and long. Sometimes we would go out in the night and lie down in the snow, make snow angels, come back inside to make love, go back outside to cool again, feeling our wings, snow melting in our embrace. Life was simple and sweet. Work and love and family and snow.
It is a long story, long and winding, and I am here in Calumet now to pick up a thread I left here so long ago. I want to connect it to my present day, and all that went between. I am here now to work on my novel, an effort that has lived inside me since that long ago time, expanded over time... but I was unable to write it.
They say artists create from pain. I suppose that is true. I do, too. That is, from the seed sown by pain, loss, grief. But I have never been able to write while in pain. I produce muddle and muck when I write while in pain. For me, the world must be right again, back on its axis and orbiting in its saner orbits before I can create. When that happens, I can bring my attention back again to where it belongs.
I am back in Calumet now because my world is right again. My heart is at peace. My mind is open and my heart embraces all that I find in my days and in my nights. I am here to write. If even for a little while, before I have to return to my life as people of the U.P. (Upper Peninsula), the "yoopers," would say - as a "troll." A troll is anyone who lives below the bridge, and in this case, that bridge is the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, a structure of grace and  beauty, connecting the two parts of Michigan. For me, connecting two very different and distinct parts of my life... and identity.
I am here to write about two women, one who lives in the Keweenaw among the stones of the rocky shores of Lake Superior, the other in southwest Michigan, in Kalamazoo. I am here to listen to the voice of the woman who once lived here, so long ago in time and space and experience. I sense her here. I feel her presence. I can feel her heart again, its steady and resonating beat. She knows. She knows so much...
And I am ready to know again, too.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Literary Masochism

by Zinta Aistars

It's a holiday weekend, and I could be pursuing a thousand holiday pleasures rather than chaining myself to a computer, cracking the whip until it smokes. Every season, I ask myself: why do I do this? Have I gone mad? Am I a closet masochist?

At the change of every season, I post a new issue of The Smoking Poet. I've been doing this for nearly four years now. It's not tooting my own horn to say that every issue is a continual process of improvement. As the smoke clears, I pull the trigger to launch a new issue of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, art, book reviews, cigar reviews, links and resources, and, most recently, a page devoted to making the world a little more aware, a little better with "A Good Cause." It's not tooting my own horn, but tooting the dozens of horns of the contributors to TSP. Gems, I'm tellling you. Real treasure.

Is that why I do this? Because I can tell you, I'm sure it looks easier from the outside than it does from the inside. I used to be able to accomplish the setup of a new template within a few hours. Then it became many hours. Then it meant sacrificing the day. Now, it's become more like three days. And I'm referring here just to setting up the Web site. Never mind the reading and replying to virtually hundreds of submissions. Every writer (I know! I know!) aching for a personal reply. I try. But time is limited, oh is it ever.

So every season, I ask myself: why do I do this? I begin my self-imposed work day Sunday at 8 a.m. and I know when the midnight hour approaches, I'll probably still be pecking away at it. To resume again tomorrow. I have spent 14-hour days doing this. (While sunshine suns outside, while butterlies flit from flower to flower, while saner human beings play and romp.)

Doing what? Sorting through the submissions that have been processed over the past four months. Labeling each one: accepted, rejected, revised, page of site where it will appear, writer notified, writer reviewed, posted. Choosing the new template. Constructing the pages. Adding artwork to each page, formatting, captioning, linking. Transferring each accepted submission to a Word doc, where I reformat it to the same font and size, align margins, cut and paste into template. Connect to table of contents. Work out mysterious glitches that sometimes appear in the process of transfer. Next post. Write the frontispiece. Write book reviews and post, adding book cover jpg's and links. Construct the feature author page with interview conducted over the previous months. Add photo and link. Curse under my breath because the margins go out of sync. Do it again. Reboot computer because it froze up just before I hit save. Do it again. Revise page layout because one of the poems has longer lines than the others and they break funny. Do it again. Check author list on table of contents again - did I miss anyone? Contact author who forgot to include a bio statement. Revise bio statement another author sent in that is longer than the submission itself. Wonder why almost no one reads submission guidelines. Curse softly again and hope my angels aren't listening.

And so on.

And so on.

Day three.

Am I nuts? What about that novel that is pulling at me, nipping at my heels, tugging at my hem, whining until I want to slap its hungry face? What about the freelance article due Tuesday? What about the housecleaning that awaits, the carpet that needs vacuuming, the pile of laundry that needs washing, the closet that needs ordering, the garage that needs cleaning, the lawn that needs mowing, that no magical elf will do when I'm not looking? What about the last few chapters of Georgia O'Keeffe's biography I am aching to read? The part about how she separates herself from the rest of the human race and does nothing but walk in the desert sun and paint the white bones and the blue table of Pedernal? What about MY life?

I pour another mug of coffee and get back to working on the site. Dang, it's starting to look really sharp. Like puzzle pieces coming together. As I post, my eye revisits a few of the lines of poetry just pasted to the page. Fine lines. Lines that sizzle. Lines that hum in the blood. Lines that make water rush to my eyes. Lines that inspire and tease and haunt.

Really, it would be wonderful to have a crew of editors who share my madness, love nothing more than chaining themselves to their computers for 14 hours, too. Nothing better to do? And for no pay. Not even a free cigar. Is there a listing for self-sacrificing editors in the Yellow Pages who long to give up their holidays for nothing?

In my dreams.

Masochist. No other reason. Self-flagellation, whip over my own head, penitance for unknown sins.

Only then there is that moment. The launch. The trigger pulled. Click on PUBLISH. And suddenly, the new issue is live, the hits hammer on the pages, the words of dozens of new and established writers sing out into the ethernet, reaching who? where? perhaps Australia, China, Latvia, New Zealand, that lonely house on the glacier tip in Alaska. With just a few days of my own time, I have helped, over four years, at least a hundred writers and artists reach a new audience. I can't tell who is behind each hit that racks up on the pages... but the numbers accumulate, and with each new issue, there are more. The Smoking Poet is being read.

And I played some small part in this.

God, I love it.

Fall 2009 issue of The Smoking Poet ... coming soon!