Saturday, November 28, 2009

Let Me Count the Ways

by Zinta Aistars

I can try. Count the blessings, attitude of gratitude, but my life is too short to sort through them all. Yes, that's how many. One counted, another pops up to the surface, and so I note the greatest blessings of all - my family. Beside it, good health, and not only mine, but the health of my family.

I latch onto these great blessings even as Thanksgiving as planned unravels. It is clearly a blessing that my daughter, Blondie aka Lorena, has just been offered a job ... offered on Tuesday, to begin on Wednesday. She is now deputy campaign manager for Robyn Gabel, candidate for Representative of the 18th District in Illinois, House of Representatives. There is no time to waste. There will be no free weekends, no holidays. But since Robyn understood that Thursday, one day into the job, Lorena had had long-held plans, she released her for the day, even as she kept working herself. I admired her work ethic, even while sighing with relief that I would get to see my girl, if only for part of the day instead of the holiday weekend.

Lorena's apartment in Lincoln Park, Chicago, is normally little more than a two-hour drive to my place in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This time, she was leaving directly from Robyn Gabel's campaign headquarters in Evanston. Bag packed in the trunk of her Honda, she was ready to go the minute her work day was over. Robyn shooed her away at 2 p.m., but Lorena had a few things to do before she was done ... 3 p.m. she was on the road, I-94 winding through the Windy City, around the southern bend of Lake Michigan.

Only the city wouldn't release her. Eve before Thanksgiving, everyone else had the same idea. Three hours later, she called from her cell: "Mama, I'm still bumper to bumper in Chicago."

I took a deep breath, counted a few more blessings, and told her not to worry. She will get here when she gets here. And then I glanced over at my son, Markus. Those two adore each other. From the time they were two little rascals, not a full two years apart in age, and from the moment toddler Lorena saw that little dark-haired bundle that I had brought home from the hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, and kicked him soundly in the head ... I'm not sure if to see if the little bundle was alive or just out of pure toddler indignation at usurped house status ... they have rooted their hearts deeply into each other. Thick and thin. Hard and soft. Rough and rocky. All three of us musketeers have had lives that would make sad novels (one hopes with glorious endings), but perhaps that, too, has something to do with why their bond is of such steel.

He had gotten out of work early in hopes of seeing her. He, too, would not have release from obligations this holiday, and there was just tonight, the eve of the holiday, and hardly that. Markus leaned against my dining room table, pondering the dinner I had set before him, and tried not to look at his watch. Between her arrival and his departure, the window of opportunity for a meeting was fast closing.

I held my cast iron pan over his plate and let five fried eggs slide onto the plate. His favorite meal, no matter the time of day, was bacon and eggs. I had told him about my trip earlier in the week to a sweet little five-acre farm, owned by the Wyllys family, in Battle Creek - the same town where he worked, just east of Kalamazoo. Both eggs and bacon were organic, from chickens and hogs raised on traditional farms. While I had purchased the bacon at an organic market here, the eggs came from the Wyllys farm, and they were something to behold. Yolks like miniature suns in setting, a deep golden hue, plump to bursting, and even the whites of the eggs were plump, not runny like supermarket eggs. It did my mama's heart good to serve him something that was good and good for him.

I told him yet again about the farm and the turkey I brought home, too, for roasting tomorrow. Anything to keep him from looking at his watch again.

Another hour had gone by. We had less than a half hour left before he would have to leave.

I tried not to worry about the Chicago traffic, the fine rain coming down, the dark of the night growing to a silty sky, smearing out the stars.

She called. I let him pick up. He settled into the corner of the couch, stretched out his long legs, and talked quietly. I could understand from what he said that she was still sitting in standstill city traffic, lucky if inching ahead at 10 miles per hour.

I sighed, quietly so he wouldn't hear me, and went to putz in the kitchen so they could at least talk for a while. The connection would obviously not happen, not this Thanksgiving, as their busy lives would pull them apart. And then I realized ... that wasn't true. The connection had never broken. I could hear his warm chuckle. I could hear him tease. I could hear him tell her the million little stories of his daily life, then grow quiet to listen to hers.

I remembered when he was perhaps only five or six years old, and some much older boys had been teasing his Blondie sister in our Kentucky neighborhood. There were many of them, one frightened little girl in the middle, and one kid brother that had become fierce with indignation. The mouse roared. Little fists like hard chestnuts raised in the air, he snarled like an angry little pup ... and they retreated. He was such a shy and quiet child then, but his loyalty was fierce, and is still. Watching him grow up, I had seen him do battle again and again for what he believed in and always for those he loved. He had taken some truly hard knocks to stand his place, yet not once retreated. He was a bearded man now, six feet one, with the most powerful and muscled shoulders I'd ever had chance to lean on, great hands that I'd seen snap thick limbs from an old tree in my yard like matchsticks, and one of the softest hearts I'd ever encountered in a man. And she, his sister, was forever trying to make the world a better place ...

I could hear him laugh in the other room, still chatting on the phone with his sister. The minutes were ticking away, he would have to leave soon. They would not meet this holiday. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. Silly old Mom. Blessings, indeed. Two great ones in my life, giving mine meaning. If I do nothing else with my life, I've done good and I've done right, for all my various mistakes, and I've done myself proud by raising those two.


"Mom. I've got to go now."

I nodded. She would still be at least a couple hours, but he would have to leave, and tomorrow we would not see him. "I'll save you turkey," I said. "Fat sammich. Lots of mayo like you like it."

He grinned and hugged me, sappy sad happy mama that I was, and didn't ask about my watery eyes. Old enough to be wise.

Oh, that turkey on this Thanksgiving! It was the best yet, truly. How I loved putzing in the kitchen with Blondie, who arrived near 11 p.m. the night before, but woke in time on the holiday to help me put the bird in the oven, prepare the stuffing, roast the slices of yam with butter and brown sugar, roast the biggest potatoes I'd ever seen, the size of hams, and stir up the cranberry sauce. Lorena made the best gravy I'd ever tasted, ever. Perhaps it was the organic bird's juices, so rich with flavor. Perhaps it was her touch. We ate our meal, saying grace one after the other, ate to bursting, laughing and licking fingers, dropping delicious tidbits to the great-eyed pup under the table. Before the day was over, she would leave again, back to Chicago, back to work, back to do her part to make the world she lived in that much better. She still believed the world could heal, and so, watching her, did I.

So, watching her leave, as I had watched him leave, swimming eyes, heart floating on gratitude, I knew my world was perfect by two.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

First: Chicken or Egg? Both!

by Zinta Aistars

What comes first? The chicken or the egg? Do I care? I don't. What I do care about is that the eggs and chickens I eat are organically raised. That means free range, in fresh air and sunlight, enjoying a good chicken life until they reach me. And I am most grateful for the gift offered.

I'm quite new at this, but I'm learning fast. While working on an article about organic foods and traditional farming (rather than food factories), it's like a new world of good food has opened to me. I knew a little, just enough that I had to push it all out of mind in order to enjoy a burger in peace. But knowledge is... knowledge, and once I started doing the research, I soon learned just how much garbage is going into our bodies, how much environmental damage misguided agrigulture is causing, and how unspeakable the cruelty to animals in food factories. Enough. Once known and  understood, there is no going back. And the best part? This education tastes delicious!

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, this seemed like a great time to start setting my table right. I have been horrified by what I have been reading about turkeys... those Butterballs injected with saline solution to make them taste "okay." I have been reading about the growth hormones, the daily diets of antibiotics and other drugs, the genetic manipulation of this poor bird that has resulted in today's Franken-turkey: a bird that is so deformed that it can no longer walk without falling over due to an overgrown breast (we do love those large breasts, don't we? even if they throw off the bird's center of gravity), can no longer fly (yes, turkeys do fly, at least in nature they do) or even, poor old toms, make love to their turkey ladies. It must all be done with artificial insemination. The addled and drugged brains no longer know how to do the act. Talk about a miserable life. A life lived in tight wire cages, not a day of sunshine or fresh air.

I was not going to set another Thanksgiving table with such an unblessed bird. I enjoy eating meat, but that doesn't mean I have to support cruelty to animals. When I saw Shirley's post come up on a local food group e-mail, I immediately called her. Shirley Wyllys lives northwest of Battle Creek, Michigan, about a 22-mile drive from my house, and she had three organic turkeys left for sale. One was now spoken for: mine.

A beautiful and sunny November Sunday, I set out to go to the Wyllys farm. Shirley was waiting with a smile, ready to show me around. I was also interested in her chickens and eggs, because those would be my year-round fare. While researching my food production article, I had read about food factories keeping hens in such tiny wire cages, from birth until slaughter, that they could not even freely turn around. Fed on drugs and substandard feed bolstered with... more drugs to keep them from dying, their beaks cut off to keep them from pecking each other to death out of sheer madness (wouldn't you under such conditions?), their feces dropped through the wire cages on the rows of cages beneath, along with their eggs. Under such terrible living conditions, these eggs have yolks that are actually more gray than yellow, but the miracle of red food dye produces the lie many of us accept.

Not for me. Once I realized what I had been eating on what I had thought was a relatively healthy diet, I was determined to make a lifestyle change. If organic foods cost more, the value is much higher. I am willing to pay more for my own health, for the health of my environment, and for a little kindness to an animal. Shirley sold me three dozen eggs at $3 per carton. She held out a happily cackling hen to me to pet. How soft and beautiful these many-colored feathers! I was struck by how contented this brood was, cackling and chattering and nearly cooing, as they moved around their large pen in the sunshine, grazing freely. Shirley's granddaughter, Madison, joined us, carrying one of the roosters, named Chester, running her finger over his soft feathers, then perching him on her shoulder where he cockadoodled in joyous greeting.

Inside the chicken coop, I found more hens in comfortable, open cubicles, soft with straw. One hen suddenly cackled in obvious joy. She was announcing a fresh egg, just laid. Now, this was more like it. This is what we teach our children about farms. Who of us has not seen the little barns and colorful plastic animals, old MacDonald on his farm? It is a lie. But for small, too rare family farms, that romantic idea of a farm has become instead rows of metal barracks, stinking with manure and animal despair.

Yet something is beginning to change. People are becoming aware. Our children will be the first generation to live shorter life spans than we will, their parents. Diseases are rampant, cancer is epidemic, allergies seem to afflict everyone, and the resistance to antibiotics can be directly traced to our constant overload of these drugs in our everyday foods. If our supermarkets are filled with fake and processed foods, we need to start voting with our forks, as author and food activist, Nicolette Hahn Niman (Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms), recently said during our interview. My fork is voting at every meal.

Shirley walks with me the boundary of their five acres. The strawberry fields are now but autumn red leaves in bunches hugging the cool dirt. Raspberry bushes will grow and fill with berries next summer. A garden will provide the Wyllys family all the fresh produce they require for a healthy and delicious dinner table, all year long. I'll be back: for more birds, more brown eggs, more berries, more good company.

I bring home an 18-pound turkey from Shirley's turkey coop. It is quiet for the season, but new turkeys will be growing there again next spring. Proud birds who sometimes fly over the fence, graze in open sunshine, know how to flirt, and taste mighty fine come another November. Somehow, that will all add to the good taste of my Thanksgiving feast - one I will feel truly good about as I serve a healthy and nourishing meal to my family. They deserve the best.

Shirley Wyllys and granddaughter Madison with chickens

Strawberry fields forever...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tower of Literary Babel

by Zinta Aistars

I had my doubts. A poetry reading in 15 languages ... and no translations. Would people really come to such a Babel of babble? A friend who works at the most wonderful Portage District Library in Portage, Michigan, where I live, invited me to join in her idea of Convergence: A Symphony For the Senses, A Poetry Reading in 15 Languages this past Sunday, November 15. I would read in my native Latvian, choosing a poem or two from my poetry collection, Mala Kausa (In an Earthen Mug). The other languages were Chinese, Spanish, French, Russian, Portugese, German, Japanese, Bengali, Arabic, Farsi, Italian, Irish, Polish, Greek and Nigerian.

And no translations.

How do you say... screw loose in 15 languages? But Marsha knows what she's doing. She's been facilitating events in greater Kalamazoo for years, and whenever Marsha deems an event is worth eventing, it turns out that it is. People gather, often in hoardes and herds and great bunches. I decided to trust her judgment and agreed to join in. I chose a poem about the waning of autumn, and another few-liner about the dripping of rain.

Pak, pik, pak... lietus paskina no pakskiem.... pak, pik, pak, pakskina....

The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became. Without translations, we would be forced to hear the sounds, the rhythm and music of language, separated from its meaning. Or might we guess at the meaning? Can a non-Latvian hear rain in pik, pak, pak?

Maybe so.

To my wonder and pleased surprise, the room at the library filled, filled quickly, and filled to the brim. All chairs warmed by bottoms and more leaning against the outer walls. When I stood behind the podium reading, I looked out on a sea of attentive, even rapt faces. Faces of all ages, skin colors, differing features. We had a little it's-a-small-world-after-all going on here. And there, my parents, too, in the second row, off to the side. Dad looked so fine in his pinstripe navy suit, white hair combed back neatly, leaning on his polished wood cane. He was hurting today, I could tell. More than usual. But he would never let his aching back keep him from poetry, especially if his little girl was reading it. In whatever language. Mom straightened his tie, brushed invisible lint from his lapel, and leaned back to listen, too.

So we all listened to each other. And I was stunned with the beauty of human communication. Even as I was baffled by it. The myriad sounds ... the music of it.... the rolling and trilling consonants, the loping vowels, the chop of short, sharp syllables. Languages that shot out like ammo. Languages that slid, slippery and sweet and seductive. Languages that danced on the tongue and ended with a twirl. How did one people choose and develop one set of sounds to express meaning, and another group one so entirely different? Did our environment influence our choices and blends of sounds? Or something else?

I caught the occasional word in German, having studied it for four years in my school days. I recognized a bit of the Spanish, having taken a couple semesters recently at work, just for the fun and challenge of it. And when the Russian blonde ended her reading with a quick "Spasiba!" I almost reflexively murmured in reply, "Pazalsta."

But I really understood none of it. And wondered at all the worlds, all the perspectives on the world, that I am missing. How different we all are, even while all the same. It is a wonder sometimes to think that we can communicate at all. Yet somehow, we had. The reading over, we all milled about long after it ended, talking to each other in smooth or broken English, sharing impressions, talking about favorite poems, about varied cultures, and how the woman from Egypt teared up while reading with such passion in Arabic. What heartfelt message did she carry? I would probably never know. Only know that we all long to communicate, somehow, if even with a moment of warm eye contact, a smile, a nod.

On a Sunday afternoon in Portage, babbling away in our many brooks of books never read, we somehow made sense, and connected, and walked away smiling, each to our dreams in different languages.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Quality of Light

by Zinta Aistars

Light: does it exist? We don’t really see the light, after all, only its reflection. The gleam on a polished car, the brightening of the room upon drawing back the curtains, the rising joy in a lover’s eyes when we say those sweetest words, the light in our own eyes marking them as truth. The clouds parting to release a golden shaft that ties heaven to earth, dust swirling in honeyed air, and the path through the dark woods that is suddenly bright with guidance. A holy light.

The light, I realize, is something we accept mostly on faith. We see its result. We see where it lands. We can even glance for a moment, eyes squinting near shut, at its source high in the sky, that burning globe of fire around which we all orbit as if in worship—but even that sight, that shimmering and heated, near unbearable light, is but the reflection of the sun’s flaming surface.

I wonder what so draws us to the light. Why it so gladdens our dark hearts? On a morning just a few mornings ago, I drove north to work, the highway stretching out in a straight line through southwestern Michigan farmland either side. A few dairy farms midway, a tree farm, an occasional blink of a farmland community in quick passing. The sky overhead was low and heavy, a fast graying and billowing blue, like an ocean above us rather than below, and we submerged creatures swimming in the depths. It pressed the earth down as if with a flat blue palm. Dark clouds bellied out and rippled like waves overhead.

And then, the sun rose. The heavy sky would not recede, would not give the sun its passage, but such insistent light cannot be held back. Between low and heavy heaven overhead and the autumn pale yellow fields below, light flooded into the space between. It was tinted a pale peach, and it reflected as gold on the land to either side of the highway, now a path of coppery pavement leading me to my destination.

My heart swelled to near bursting, and I couldn’t say why. The light, oh the light …

Even captured like this, between the heavy and the solid, it caused some caught part of me to slip free. I wanted to step out into it, into the light, lift my face toward it, hold out two empty hands, palm up, to be filled. I wanted to stand in its glow, bathe in it, raise my mouth to be kissed by it, be submerged and finally to drown in it, lost forever to the light.

Walk into the light, they say, when we die. See the light, it is freedom, the endless and infinite, the promise.

My faith is weak, a spattering and oozing thing that sometimes fills the cracks but fails to become substance—that rock upon which we should stand. I stand, instead, on light. Here now, then gone, yet come again.

The light reflects on something we never really see, hinting of a place we can never know. It is the reflection of hope. This thing we cannot hold, caught between a heavy and billowing sky and the moving island on which we stand, that keeps us from floating away without ever really touching us at all.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Being Kind to My Food

by Zinta Aistars

Because before it is my food, it is a living animal or a living plant. Being kind to the animal that sacrifices its life for my intake of protein means I have become increasingly concerned about the inhumane treatment of livestock in our food factories. Being kind to the plant on my plate means caring about the way that it is grown, by natural and organic means, without polluting the earth, the water, the air.

I’ve always cared about these things … or, I thought I cared. But it is only recently, when I accepted an assignment to work on an article for an alumni magazine about food production, that I really became aware of what happens behind the scenes. I’m not nearly done learning about this topic; I’ve only gotten started with a few lectures I’ve attended, a book I am currently reading, and a growing file of research. I will be talking to a half dozen people before this article is finished, and not all of them will be on the side of sustainable farming. One or two will give me perspective on industrialized food production, and for good measure, I have a chef on my interview list to throw into the soup, too. But an alumni magazine is about the education these people received, not investigative journalism or an expose, so I get to have an opinion as I learn about my subject matter.

My opinion: I’ve been a bad eater. And not a very nice person when it comes to respecting other living beings. I’ve been boycotting veal for more years than I can remember, and I abhor eating lamb. It took only one photo of a tiny calf boxed into a crate to prevent it from any movement whatsoever, and learning that this is the way veal is kept tender—by not allowing the poor little animal to develop any muscle, to turn me off veal forever.

I wasn’t completely stupid about slaughterhouses. I knew just enough to make me contemplate going vegetarian from time to time. Never lasted. I don’t eat a lot of meat—I eat red meat perhaps two or three times a month. Mostly I eat chicken or fish. But eating plants alone just wouldn’t satisfy. I believe a human being is a carnivore, and being a healthy vegetarian required more work than I was willing to invest in shopping for and preparing meals on a daily basis. Now and then, let's face it, I really want a burger.

Education changes people. I am currently in the process of being educated. One of the aspects I love most about being a writer is that my job is as new as the writing assignment. For a curious mind, there is surely no better vocation. I get an education and I don’t pay tuition—the editor pays me! And how do you close your eyes once you’ve been made to see?

I am beginning to see. As I read, as I listen, as I do my interviews and make my notes, I am fast realizing the cruelty and unethical behavior required to put that food on my plate. I didn’t know that one of greatest environmental threats was—agriculture. The nontraditional kind, that is. I didn’t know the extent of the garbage going into animal feed: the growth hormones, the antibiotics, the drugs, the animal feces that is actually used as feed for the next group of fish to be killed. And this is what I am eating? I didn’t know the incredible quantities of liquefied manure being channeled into our water, our rivers, our lakes out of these food factories. I didn’t realize the stink of these animal barracks was so bad that people living nearby would on occasion have to vomit from the ammonia and other toxic gasses in the air.

I knew, kind of, and yet I didn’t. I had compartmentalized what I did know, pushing it out of my consciousness every time I sat down at the table, walked through the supermarket, or ordered at a restaurant. I didn’t really want to know. I've heard it said that to do the wrong thing, to abandon one's own value system, one must compartmentalize first. Compartmentalizing our thinking is the first necessary step to living against our own values.

I know now. And I am learning more every day. I can’t forget anymore. I refuse to compartmentalize my own reckless eating anymore. I can no longer claim ignorance. All that’s left is for me to change my old habits.

Off to the local organic food market I go. Oh, I’ve been there before. Bought a few items, tsk-tsked at the high prices, and returned to the neighborhood supermarket. Yet it is one thing to think budget and another to know the suffering and damage my food dollar causes—to other animals, to traditional farmers, to our environment, to all of us, sooner or later (and that’s probably sooner).

With a much more educated perspective, I return to the organic food market and take a very slow stroll through the aisles. This time, I am really paying attention. I take it all in: even the other shoppers. They seem ... different. Less hurried, less harried. Everyone seems intent on reading food labels and choosing items, rather than grabbing random boxes and bags off the shelf. I notice that the grocery carts here are smaller, as if the people eating organic have lost their gluttony in their careful consideration of the food they choose to eat. Hm, I don’t see any of our famously obese Americans here …

I notice the fruit and vegetable selection. Oranges have a little green to their orange. No orange dyes. Apples are not so gargantuan in size. No pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The greens, however, are bright green and fresh. There is great variety. Labels tell me much of this produce is grown locally. There is a long, wide aisle of bulk items, and I realize I don’t even know what to do with some of these grains and seeds and kernels and such. I realize… I don’t know all that much about … food. Real food. It is a stunning thing to take in. It reminds me of the time I lived in the countryside of Latvia, my ancestral home on the Baltic Sea, and I shopped there at the open market, buying directly from the farmers. The meat came from animals they had slaughtered that same morning. It actually steamed in the morning chill. The potatoes were piled into great heaps, clods of soil still stuck to them. The rice still had pebbles in it that I would have to rinse away first.

Something about this got my heart beating faster. I was excited. I love to learn. I love to learn something that will be good for me, and for others. I chose my food items carefully, just like everyone else here, with a growing appreciation. Yes, I saw the price tags, too. But was I really paying more? I thought about the cost of good health, about clean water, about keeping my world in good health for my children and theirs. I thought about the calf who would never know the freedom of movement, about the hens who lived their entire lives in wire cages so crowded they would never, not once, stretch out their wings. I thought about the turkeys we eat at Thanksgiving that have become so large breasted from being fed growth hormones that they are not able to walk properly, can no longer mate because their misshapen bodies are genetically mutated, would not be able to survive even if someone opened the cage door. Those turkeys are ... freaks, and not of nature.

I thought about the last time I offered my chow dog a bit of ground turkey, thinking I was eating healthy, and wondered at why my dog sniffed at the proffered meat and turned away. Even he knew better. Even he knew there was something wrong with this “meat.”

I thought about how often I heard my mother wonder aloud why they were seeing so many people die of cancer even though they seemed to live healthy lifestyles, and why so many people today are riddled with odd and inexplicable allergies. It didn't used to be that way, she would shrug, recalling her youth.

I thought about the family farm that was going bankrupt because it was not able to compete with food factories supported by government subsidies. And I thought about sustainable farming, with animals being treated humanely, allowed to graze on an open range, allowed to raise their own young, allowed to live before they die. The circle of life is not inhumane. How we treat living things during their lives is important. In the end, we all pay the price.

The price tag seemed fair. I bought less, because I realized I really didn’t need that much. I wasn't shopping blindly or on impulse. I was considering carefully, because I enjoy good food. There was only one package of meat in my cart, and it came from farm-raised livestock.

When I checked out ($55 for two bags of groceries), carrying the two bags to my car, I had this oddly elated feeling.

I still felt elated as I unpacked my purchases in my kitchen at home. I still felt elated as I prepared my dinner: pasta with zucchini, red and yellow peppers, onions, mushrooms, kale and tomatoes. And I still felt so elated after my dinner that I took my chow pup for an extra walk in the cool autumn evening. He was very elated about that.

Then it hit me: I felt so good because I was doing the right thing. I was casting a vote with my food purchases. I was speaking up for the humane and ethical treatment of animals, for the natural world I so love to enjoy, for cleaner air to breath, for farming families to keep their homes and their land, for better health. It felt good to do the right thing. My conscience was clear.

And it all tasted very good going down.