Saturday, January 30, 2010

Framing Blueberry Lake, Alaska

"Fireweed Moon," by Ron Birdsall, 1988

Framing Blueberry Lake, Alaska

By Zinta Aistars

The full moon in Alaska mesmerizes as nowhere else. It hangs low in the sky, nearly close enough to touch, a great creamy other world presence that makes the blood rise. It was enough to make a woman throw her head back and howl.

I did not howl. Not, at least, so that he could hear me. I stepped outside our 27-foot RV into the chill arctic night and stood gazing at the white mountains, bathed in blue moonlight. My blue tin coffee cup steamed in my hands. Inside the RV, my two small children slept, and he slept, perhaps, or perhaps not. That did not concern me. Only this moon did, and the rising howl deep inside.

It was approaching winter 1989, and we—my daughter, my son, and my husband—had been on the road for nearly nine months. We had no plans of returning to our home in Kentucky anytime soon. There was a beautiful house back there, some fifteen minutes south of the Ohio border and Cincinnati. Our furniture business, built from the ground up and in its dizzingly successful eighth year, awaited us there.

Let it all wait.

I was in no hurry to return. I could stand here, gazing at these white jagged mountains against the midnight blue of the northern sky, baring my heart to the moon, forever. A woman of two countries and dual citizenship, I had never been able to call anyplace truly home, but this wild and stunningly beautiful land called to me as no other had before or since.

I would have hoped he would understand. His roots were in two countries, too. One of our first bonds was that we shared an ethnic background, even as in most other ways we were a classic case of opposites attract. I was born in Chicago but raised in a small town in Michigan; he was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, a New York City man to the bone. I was an English major in college, with an emphasis on creative writing and literature. He was an economics major from Queens College, and for him, life could always be reduced to numbers and business trends. He was enchanted by my passion for art, but saw no practical business sense in it. And what else mattered?

We were partners in life, in parenthood, in business. Our retail store in Cincinnati was thriving. He did the books and I did the marketing and PR. We both did sales, and with his love for competition, he was always betting me on which of us could outsell the other. To his constant surprise and niggling frustration, I nearly always won the bet. I was an artist with a good sense for what sells and how. I was able to fully enter into his world, and to my own surprise, I loved that world, too. But he could not enter mine.

We had a dozen years together behind us. Nearly all of them were good, even very good. He was a good man. And I never minded his long hours at the business; I understood that kind of passion, and expected it. I was deep into my own. Writing, writing, writing every day, a novel taking shape that had me on constant adrenalin. It was our other bond—he had captured my interest and eventually my heart with his life motto, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” And so there was.

What to do, then, when two wills forked in the road to go their separate ways?

My blue tin cup held tightly in my mittened hands, I gazed up at the moon in wonder. This fork in the road, the one I sensed at Blueberry Lake, near Valdez, was one I knew was mine to navigate. I had, in fact, made my decision some weeks before, when we had driven north, past the Arctic Circle, as far as the road went and then stopped, with no more road to take. We were in the Alaskan tundra, a great expanse of mossy ground and rising boulders, frozen soil covered by lichen and tiny ground blueberries. More than two decades later, I can still say: there is no more beautiful place on the earth. Not to my eyes. Not to my heart.

I felt myself at home and did not want to leave, ever. He thought me mad, and declared that we would go. Take me in body, then, I said, but my spirit remains here.

I looked out on the vast wilderness that day as I looked out on the vast wilderness that night on Blueberry Lake. It was the last decision he would ever make for me again. I knew a sense of calm, as one knows when the next decision to make is right. On our return to Kentucky, whenever that might be, weeks or months or even a year from that moment, as our travels had no designated end, I would declare my independence. I would take life on my own, with my children. It was being on the road together that decided me. Living together, we had been comfortable each immersed in our own lives. Each pursuing our own dreams. But it was on this journey, being together 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that I understood he would never share my dream, even if I could happily share his. It was on this journey that I understood, opposites may on occasion attract, but they do not make sound and long-lasting relationships. He had begun to ridicule my dreams, call them foolish, insist I abandon what was obviously not going to be a money-making business plan. And, as his anger rose to a reddening pitch at my refusal to put down the pen, I took note that the glass in his hand kept rising to his mouth, and it never emptied.

That moon. On January 30, 2010, there is a full moon out again. This is the year that has begun with a full and blue moon. With my house renovation turning my house into my perhaps first real Home, my eyes took renewed focus on the painting taped to my bedroom wall. It is a painting of Blueberry Lake in Alaska, by Ron Birdsall. When I came across it in an art gallery in Juneau, Alaska, I had to have it. It would remind me always of a telling moment in the mountains one northern night, when I knew a sense of bliss rising within me at the first step toward a life I could at long last truly call my own. It was a joy in being alive. Even as I could not know what I would encounter when I packed a few bags, took each small child by the hand, and left that Kentucky house and business and life behind two months after our return. I was about to enter into a life that would seem like never-ending turmoil. It would be a life of struggle, of many, many moves, of travels across this country and over the ocean. It would be a life of finding a great love and the heartbreaking decision I would have to make years later at yet another fork in the road. It would be a life of knowing poverty, of being the victim of crime, of encountering betrayal and abuse and those who live life with two faces, wrapped in lies. It would be a life of discovery of place, person, and most of all, self.

It would be a life of learning how to make a living as a writer. Pursuing my art, even while using my creative tools in business to make a good living and a fine life.

It would be a life that would at long last settle into a quieter place. So quiet, indeed, at times, that no one might suspect the ravaged and pitted road behind me. That is as it should be. As I now want it to be. For all its tests, I would not trade the life I have had for any other. Not for any price. I took the right fork in that road, and I stand under a full moon tonight and raise that very same blue tin cup toward it.

And the Birdsall painting of Blueberry Lake… it struck me that after 21 years, it was time to put a proper frame around it. I could afford to do that now. When I picked up the newly framed painting at the frame shop this week, I stared at it again, as if for the first time, as if I were standing there again, in the fresh chill of a northern night, silently declaring myself free. These many years later, a different woman yet ever the same, I stand in the moonlight again, and throw my head back to expose a white throat to the moon, and howl.

For the sheer, wild joy of it, and in a nod of respect to that young woman standing in the cold, blue moonlight so long ago.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

High Road, Low, Taking the Winding Path

by Zinta Aistars

Our group of 14 hikers plus 3 pups meets in the parking lot

Jerry takes point initially, but we eventually all find our own pace, our own lead

The Chihuahuas have boundless energy, looping around our group but on occasion stay close to their mistress to check in ...

Downhill is slippy tricky, requires going off the beaten track to stay upright. Look closely: it's the two pups, nearly invisible against the snow, who have once again taken the lead.

 After a week of desk sitting and car commuting, my body is craving movement, my lungs are craving air, my spirit is craving the company of Mama Nature. And, what better way to spend time with a new friend? Pondering a fourth meeting - the first several including walks along Lake Michigan, enjoying a concert of classical music, viewing art, and sharing gourmet meals - we make this one a hike through the woods. I have recently connected with a group called West Michigan Nature Lovers, and our hike for this Saturday afternoon is a new park northeast of Grand Rapids, called Knapp Valley Park. I invite my friend to come along.

A light drizzle peppers my windshield as I drive north to Grand Rapids. The sky is opaque. But it's a warm winter day, edging toward 40 degrees, and that's close enough to perfect for me. My friend is waiting for me in my office parking lot; we ditch one car and head still a bit further north. The group is gathering in the parking lot at the mouth of the trail as we pull in. Three Chihuahua pups are bounding from person to person in uninhibited and joyous greeting. I love how animals wear their hearts on their paws: if they are happy to see you, really happy, oh, they show it.

We head into the woods, a group of 14 plus pups. The trails are narrow, if they exist at all. Point person changes as we each find our own pace. Some of us are more focused on the woods and the tracks in the snow and the sound of woodpeckers tapping barren trees ... while others are enjoying the chatter with hiking companions and walk slowly and in close groups. I find my pace quite naturally matches that of my friend, and we take off in the lead for much of the time, occasionally alongside one or another hiker, at which time I find myself gathering new friends even as I gather moments of rejuvenating nature. These are interesting people, varied in age and type, and those one might expect to lag behind (the elderly woman with a walking stick verses the fresh-faced young couple from South Haven) beat a faster path out front. Experience of the trail beats youth most every time.

And yes, from time to time, we get lost. The trail keeps forking. We muddle together for a moment to decide which path to take: the high or the low, the one along the edge or the one directly into forest? No one seems to mind an occasional misadventure, a "wrong" turn taken, because there is no wrong turn. Some paths are simply longer and take more turns than others.

So I ponder as I walk. That I need to buy new hiking boots, yes, that.  But I ponder, too, the developing twists and turns in my novel-memoir waiting for me back home, and the twists and turns my own life is taking. Directions I thought closed to me are opening up again. Trails I thought led only over a cliff now seem to lead to sunny and open meadow.

I watch the little dogs in their unbounded energy. Tiny things with legs as thin as matchsticks, they seem to almost skid the surface of the snow rather than sink in as we do. Their joy in life has no limit. They race ahead, they race back again, they loop around and through and between us, on occasion checking in with their mistress to be sure she is near and safe and well. That's a good relationship, I think. Free to bound out into the world and explore, but always staying true to home base, one's oasis and heart, that one love that keeps us strong and sure. They get it.

And I ponder those forks in the path. We humans tend to get stuck there. Muddle about in confusion and discussion and decision making. But, often, there really is no wrong turn. Just a different way to get where you are going, and each path with its own varied view, its own uphill and down, one perhaps longer than another, but not without reason to be so. The longer one reveals a pond, frozen over. The shorter one goes downhill quick and slippy, but reaches the main trail in saved time.

I decide not to overthink those forking trails. Just go, as these pups do, stopping to smell the interesting scents and take in the sights along the way. The manuscript that awaits me back home is moving in an unexpected direction, too, but why not follow its lead? The words sometimes have a mind of their own, and I do better when I listen rather than whip into shape.

There may be a happy ending on this trail, after all.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Vitamin K and Being Light

by Zinta Aistars

Eleven years of my career, of my life, were spent on staff at Kalamazoo College. I freelance for the college still, mostly because, well, I just need that Vitamin K. I love academia. It is a world of intellectual wonder and curiosity, an ambiance of sparking ideas. One of the publications for which I freelance is called BeLight, which is the meaning of Kalamazoo College's motto: Lux Esto. Three articles appear in the current (January 2010) online issue of BeLight. (Click on title to view article.)


For three freshmen (children of "K" employees) the long journey to college is a neighborhood walk.


For more than 40 years, John Wickstrom has breathed life into medieval history for countless students. He and some of his former students reflect on his long tenure at "K."


Writer-in-Residence Di Seuss and 17 "K" students publish poems in the TSP.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Home Sweet Oasis

BEFORE: The crack in the ceiling that started it all... my Frankenstitched water leakage repair.

BEFORE: Water leakage along west wall, damage above and below.


AFTER: The finished, renovated living room and dining area

AFTER: Renovated dining area

My chow pup, Guinnez, and Jiggy, my black calico, choose their new favorite nap spots.

by Zinta Aistars

Those lists of life’s greatest stressors, no doubt you’ve seen them? Divorce is up there, sure. And money issues rank high. But then there is that other one in the Big Three: home renovation.

At last, it is done. Well, not really. Not even close, in fact. But a big part of it is done in what I call, somewhat ominously: Phase I. Although, in truth, it is more accurately Phase II. The first part of this house renovation into Home was all behind the scenes—deep beneath the house (furnace), or on the side of the house where no one but the dog ever lifts a leg (central air conditioning unit), or high above the house where only pigeons and runaway parrots flitter and flock (new roof), or beneath that shingled covering (thick, pink and fluffy insulation) where two raccoons once lived in my attic and made raucous noise at late night raccoon parties. Who knew such critters partied so? I can attest, they do. Or at least the two that lived rent-free with me did. Regular party animals.

Finally, it was time to get to the cosmetic part of this makeover. The repair that shows. Sure, I’ve enjoyed the cooling in summer, the heating in winter, the quiet of the night. But the eye wants something pretty, too. I wanted to see an interior that reflected something of my self, my taste, my dreams, my past travels, my passions. A house becomes a Home only when we infuse it with our sense of self. And I never had.

Not until now.

So my good handydude gutted the place. Did I say cosmetic? This was more than a face lift. Walls came down, ceilings came down, wallpaper was peeled away, baseboards and casings were ripped up. My house stood naked, revealed to the bones, and prepared to be rebuilt, flesh and muscle. Naturally, that meant all the old furnishings had to go, too. Oh, joy! Truly, there is little in life more therapeutic than the act of tossing into garbage, putting up in flame, tossing grenade into, setting ablaze…. Wait, I get a little carried away here. But it really was a good time. Dumpsters in the vicinity were full to brim. All I kept for my living room was my solid wood bookshelves and the books that went on them. All else: good riddance.

Which was the only part that was therapeutic. Next came the stressor part. Yet isn’t this the way of all great things being built? Ourselves, or our favorite fine projects, works of art, solid and long-lasting relationships, and our best dreams. All require initial mess. All require a tearing apart and getting back down to basics. All require a touch of insanity, a toolbox of good tools, and a dumpster to fill.

My handydude said something hopeful about a four-day project. Did he say four? Must have lost a one in there somewhere… because it all came to more like 14 than 4 days, and I was feeling the stress, coming home after a long day's work to have to climb over chairs in my kitchen, books on the stove, paintbrushes among the dishes, and a bookshelf conveniently pushed up against the refrigerator (time to diet?). This time of building and rebuilding is a time of hope. One must live in the imagination, because the reality is a horrid and dusty mess.

And still, and yet, it is all worth it, and I watched with growing anticipation as the reality came to match my imagination, and then, oh my, even exceed it. My handydude was no speed demon, but he was good. Every little bump in the wall was sandpapered down, every hairline crack in the ceiling was sealed and smoothed shut. My walls looked almost like silk under their fresh coats of paint. And what paint! Bare bone white turned to Brewster Gray and Nantucket Fog and Pismo Dunes and Saybrook Sage and a creamy Monterey White trim.

Here’s a lesson: listen to no one. (Well, maybe your handydude now and then, if he’s good and has an artistic and courageous eye, as mine does.) Listen to no one, least of all Mama, because the big secret we all respectfully keep is that Mama knows next to nothing. Goodness knows my daughter has figured this one out. The world is such a fast-changing place, and every time you reconsider a problem, its parameters have changed. See, my mama told me dark colors shrink a room. Mama, you lie. As the dark and rich hues were smoothed onto the freshly applied, mudded, sanded down drywall, I saw the room open its warm embrace. Angles in ceiling and walls appeared where I had hardly noticed them before. Suddenly, my ceiling was soaring. Stairs were dancing. Walls stepped back and allowed the room take a deep breath of life. I had all this new house expanding around me!

Every day, I raced (within speed limits, someone’s speed limits, surely) home from work to see progress. Every day, I saw less progress than I wanted, silly me, but loved what I saw. How often can you say that reality exceeds fantasy? Well, gee, when I think about that one carefully, I would say most every time. I’m not one for fluff. I like life to be solid and real and muscled with reality. My house in its transformation did not disappoint, but left me exhilarated.

At least until the first set of bills arrived. That did take my breath away for a moment. Reality, indeed. But then, I considered how little I had ever allowed myself to spend on me. Just me. Not my kids, not my family and friends, not a good cause, not for my favorite pet, but for me. We all dream of Home. We all need one—that safe oasis where we come to rest, to rejuvenate, to weep, whether from joy or grief, and then to spring from it again, and again, on some new adventure, before coming back again. Home sweetest Home. I had never allowed myself to feel that way about any place of walls and windows and ceilings.

I am a person of two homes, a person of no home, with two languages and two cultures, one ancient (Latvian) and one adolescent new (American), dual citizenship in two countries, in each being told that I am, somehow, different, an outsider, a person of that other place. So where is Home? In people, I thought, and I planted my heart deep into the hearts of others, sinking roots and hopes and dreams and blessings as I knew to give them. Alas, here I stand today, a heart alone and homeless, with cracks and stitched seams and mended places. I need to go Home.

Then it is done, and I come home late on January 8, and the paint cans are gone, the ladders taken away, the new furniture pushed into place, the drop sheets rolled up, the books returned to their shelves, the dog dish back in its corner and the dog curled up and asleep in the corner of the new couch. As if it had always been his. As if it had always been like this. Waiting for me.

I’m home. I am Home. At last.

The candles are lit, and the fire shimmers in the fireplace. A warm light reflects from the earthen colored walls. I want to weep, only I don’t, because that would cloud my eyes, and I want to see. For hours, all I want is to see. I sit and I stare and the earthen walls gaze back at me. I sit in silence and I take it all in.

No place is entirely safe. Someone can still break down my door and smash the glass of my new windows. Someone can still find their way in, if they know how, and put another patch on my battered old heart. No, no place will keep me away from the living, all the hard and sweet living of life. But at long last, I have my oasis. This small and quiet place that holds me for a little while, apart from the world, and lets me rest before taking it on again.

At least until I begin the next phase. I hear rebuilding bathrooms is a bear.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I Live in Michigan, and I'm Jealous!

How Mary Poppins gets out the good word...

How Lorena, deputy campaign manager for Robyn Gabel, gets out the good word...

Robyn Gabel addresses the gathering of voters in Evanston, Illinois, then answers their questions

I don't get a vote here. This is not my election. I live in the 61st  District in southwest Michigan, but I decided to take a short trip to the 18th District of my neighboring state of Illinois and take a closer look at the lively campaign taking place there. Sure, I have a bias: my daughter, Lorena Rutens, is deputy campaign manager for one of the candidates in Evanston, Illinois. She is working pretty much 24/7 for Robyn Gabel, Democrat for State Representative. As a mama, I want to know ... what has my girl so fired up?

Back home in my Michigan district, and unfortunately this holds true for many, many districts in many states nationwide, few to no women are representing us in our state governments. So I'm already a little jealous when I arrive in Evanston at the Robyn Gabel headquarters. Things are bustling here. I find my daughter, looking a little worn at the edges from the long hours a political campaign requires, working the phones. Two rooms bustle with volunteers. They are sitting at tables, on the floor, along the walls, talking on portable phones and calling the citizens of Evanston.

While the volunteers are talking to their neighbors in Evanston, Lorena is gathering more volunteers, checking who can work what hours on what day. The primaries are February 2, and there is no time to waste. In fact, I am not in the office for more than a few minutes before I find myself with a phone in hand, too, working through a list of names and numbers to call.

So what can I possibly tell the people of Evanston about Robyn Gabel?

To start, I can tell them I am jealous. Gabel is offering her district choices and options I can, at this time, only add to my wish list. She is working to increase funding for education. She is working to bring quality health care that is accessible and affordable for all. She has ideas for real campaign finance reform. She is defending a woman's right to choose, with full ownership over her own body, just as it should be. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will already know how important the environment is to me, including organic and traditional farming. Robyn gets the importance of locally grown, organic foods, too, and this is on her agenda to bring to Springfield as the county's representative. She has plans to improve public transportation, and as someone who lives in a much smaller city than the Chicago area, I can only dream about such transportation options, even as I commute more than a hundred miles a day. I like what she has to say about green technology, and listening to her, I learn a new term: "green-collar jobs." These are jobs she plans to create in keeping with a green and cleaner environment while putting people back to work.

Do I sound like an ad? Maybe. But it was irresistible not to, as I talked to people over the phone about what they are being offered and I can only wish I had in abundance.

Then again, maybe I do? Never too old to learn new things from my daughter, I soon realize from watching her dedication to this campaign that I have been thinking about the importance of voting in a bass ackwards way all along. I have always felt it is crucial to vote for the "big stuff." Presidents and such. But those votes, however important, really do tend to get lost in the masses. Voting in local campaigns like this one, though, really do count. These are the local representatives that have an immediate effect on our communities. On the schools our children attend, on the taxes we pay at every purchase, on the roads we travel every day, on the foods we buy at our corner grocery store. All of that, and more.

I'm making a public confession here, and I'm a bit embarrassed about it. I have skipped more than a few of these state and local campaigns. Brushed them off as minor. Oh, not! If nothing else gained from my long weekend visit to the Robyn Gabel campaign headquarters, I learned this lesson and good. I am paying a lot more attention to my local elections from now on. They may be small, but they matter big.

So I watched, and learned, and absorbed with fascination the workings of this campaign. For a full day, I shadowed my daughter as deputy campaign manager, and that meant, too, shadowing Robyn Gabel herself. I first met her at the headquarters, when she walked in with a brisk and energetic step, pulling her gloves off from the bitter cold outside, eyes scanning the room to take it all in. She greeted Lorena, greeted her campaign manager, hugged many of the volunteers she'd gotten to know along the way. And she gave my hand a firm squeeze and thanked me. I had been helping from afar, occasionally serving as editor to proofread various campaign materials. My pleasure, I replied, and it was.

I was struck with how petite this woman is in reality. Tiny, actually. Trim little figure, short and cute, but it took but a moment for me to see she was a dynamo. And it wasn't long before I heard the now famous line traveling around Evanston ... about Robyn walking into the room at the capitol, introducing herself, to be greeted by the big boys with "You're Robyn?! We expected someone seven feet tall and 300 pounds!"

I could see why that impression could quicly spread about her. She had a rich, deep voice, one that carried authority. Scanning her history and long list of accomplishments while helping out I see a sound resume. Twenty years and more working as an advocate for women and children, she was executive director of Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition. She had helped create Illinois' Kid Care Program, guaranteeing access to health care for children throughout her state even while the nation is twirling about how to do the same. She was a strong voice for maintaining women's reproductive health care rights. Some of what she had done could be pretty controversial, but she hadn't backed down. Little she may be, but she had proven herself to be a political heavyweight.

Her opponents? I got to see them later that day at a public debate sponsored by Women's League of Voters. All dudes. Couple of them were still in their mid-twenties. Oh, please. These boys are telling women they understand a woman's reproductive rights? They were talking experience? My daughter was running the room from end to end, passing out leaflets and brochures, talking to people about her candidate, and to be sure, I was peacock proud of her hard work for a cause that had captured her heart and mind. But even she understood that, still a half year from her own 30th birthday, she was very much at the stage of learning the ropes. She was in a great place to bring her youthful energy to a campaign, but a long way from being the star of the show. What is it that no one wants to pay their dues anymore and put in the time? Experience is not negotiable. It's not a luxury. When you are making decisions for thousands of people looking to you for leadership, you better have real, hard-won, sweat-it-out experience, and no shortcuts. This is no stepping stone here. This is a real job.

I listened to the five candidates word-fight it out on the panel, and I was increasingly impressed with Robyn. She more than held her own. She rose above the rest with unmistakeable authority.

No time to rest on laurels or achievements. Lorena piled us back into her car, Robyn and I sat in the back while Lorena took us the second of two "coffees" of the day. Voters around the district were opening their homes to their neighbors to come over, sit in their living rooms, sip from their best coffee cups, and meet Robyn personally. I loved it. Who would have thunk? A campaign candidate right in your own living room, talking about the issues and answering everyone's questions personally.

The day wore on, but the candidate didn't. I was quietly yawning in the back of another living room, even my girl was looking a little pale, but Robyn was center of the room, cracking jokes, taking up the most incisive questions, answering every last one. Where does she get the energy?

I'm thinking ... this kind of energy comes when you love what you do and you believe in what you do. Doing a good thing comes with its own vitamin. I watched as Robyn grabbed a pretzel from the table and then headed out the door again, checking her watch for the next event.

This may not be my district. Not even my state. But I learned much from meeting Robyn and I want to take several of these lessons home to Michigan. No election is too small. Local primaries matter. And women must be heard. From women themselves. I have had enough of listening to men in office tell me how I feel, what I need, what is best for me. Dude, you don't know. It is high time for more strong women to take their place in politics - on all levels, in all kinds of offices, throughout the country, and globally. We are more than half the population. We have much to offer. It's our turn.

Evanston, I hope you are listening. Don't miss this chance. Something good is about to happen, and we all know the best gifts come in small packages.

Women, it's time to stand up for other women who are standing up for you. Let's show Robyn Gabel it matters to us. Add your vote to the poll.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Arm in Arm

Arm in Arm

by Zinta Aistars

She drops a hint that she would love to come along, and I decide to pick it up. I had told Mom when I first started this home renovation project at the beginning of December 2009 that I was going on this shopping spree alone. I wasn’t sure if she could truly understand my need to make my choices in home décor without influence. Mom, after all, was heading into her 60th year of marriage to my father; the two of them were in many ways one person. That happens when you survive a war and become refugees together, when you restart life in a new and strange country without even knowing the language. You bond. The two of them, truly for better or for worse, were bonded on a deeper level than most any couple I’d ever known, an interdependence that went to the core. They were one.

I was one alone. My life couldn’t have been more different than theirs. My bonds with another were of the passing sort, even when a certain measure of influence would remain with me forever. Some of my past loves had changed me at core level, and for the better. The father of my children had given me my children—that was forever, and I could not imagine my life without my daughter and son, and exactly the way that they are, with that specific genetic mix. My other great love, my soul mate in Latvia, was my husband for seven years, but I could not straddle two continents forever, moving back and forth from the United States to Latvia and back again, each time restarting my life from scratch. It was insane, if often wonderful. The way it rattled my children’s lives, however, as they grew into adolescence, was an insanity I could not bear. I had to make one of the most difficult and painful choices of my life—between my two great loves, my marriage and my children. I chose my children. I chose to stay in the United States.

Home, as I have written many times before, evaded me. My roots would be in my little family, my two babies, but in no specific place. I rooted in them and counted all my apartments and houses lived in as temporary shelter, not anything akin to Home.

I have crossed the threshold of 50 by a couple of years now, and so far, this decade is promising to be life changing and good. It holds no resemblance to my previous life, and by now, I no longer want it to. People who have known me for but a couple of years, well, know the smallest fraction of who I am and once was… and I increasingly find that a comfort. Some things should be left behind and doors firmly closed. At this point in my life, I want but a quiet place. After all the great adventure, the turmoil, the intense joys and harsh payment for them, I wish now only for a sweet serenity.

So, when it came to choosing colors for my newly renovated living and dining rooms, I chose a palette called Earthen Serenity. It fit. I had waited long enough to create a Home, and even knowing this would not be my last, this time—did not, would no longer, prevent me from giving this humble house my own color, my mark.

I wasn’t sure if Mom understood all that. For near 60 years, she had lived with Dad closely by her side, in all ways, in all things. They thought as one, they decided as one, they lived as one. “Displaced persons” that they were, they had found stability, rooted in each other, and took root, too, in a new house they had built together when I was in the second grade. They were still in that same house now. I had, meanwhile, gone through more than 30 different addresses and jumped the ocean more times than I could count.

I wanted to be Home. At last, I wanted to put down some roots, too. When I looked around at my house in transition, I saw the influences of many others who had passed through my life. The furniture in it now, for the most part, was actually cast offs from my parents. It had made sense for them to give to me what they were done with, Mom enjoying regular redecorations of their house, but with plenty of living yet to be done on her old furniture, and since I never seemed to stay in one place very long, why buy new? Indeed. I hadn’t. Nor could I afford to buy new. Raising my two children, paychecks went where a parent’s paychecks should, and none of that was as frivolous as decorating a temporary shelter.

I wanted to be frivolous now. I needed to, for the first time ever, pay attention to myself, my own wishes, my own likes and dislikes, my own yearnings and longings, my own way of being and my own way of expressing who I was, past, present, future. And I needed an oasis of peace after a life that, up until the last couple years or so, had been anything but. I deserved this.

It was hard for Mom to be quiet about her likes and dislikes. We had bumped heads, and hard, many times over the years because we could both be pretty stubborn in having things our own way. In the cause of “wanting the best for me,” Mom had sometimes made choices for me, tried to throw sticks into the stream, maneuver and navigate where it was not for her to do so. And I resented it. I fought back, and it wasn’t always pretty. Some of my more distant addresses were, at least in part, because I needed that distance. But if this new place in my life was all about serenity, making peace with Mom would have to be, I realized, a part of that transformation.

“Sure,” I said. “I would love to have your company on this spree. But, Mom, promise me something.”

She looked at me quizzically, but knew me well enough to quickly guess.

“Keep my mouth shut.”

I laughed. “Yeah. Please.”

She made a face, then laughed with me, and promised to be good.

The old furniture was hers. The dining room table was from my first marriage, once a beautiful fruitwood table with two leafs that had gotten lost some 15 moves ago, a surface that was showing the battering of years. I had three chairs left of eight. The buffet had been left behind when I lived in the Keweenaw, simply because I could not afford to move it. The carpeting in the living room was an accommodation to a more recent relationship, where I had tried much too hard to please a man that would not be pleased, not by me, not by anyone, not by anything. It took a long time for me to learn that, and to let go. But the carpeting in his favorite color remained. Other remnants of my past, and those who had been in my past, were scattered throughout the house. I could look around and spot the imprint of every man I’d ever known on a more intimate level. I could see the various ravages of raising two children alone, rough and demanding years, and some of those memories, too, were nearly unbearable now to recall. There was a time when I thought I would lose my son forever to the dark places where he insisted on going, and now that he was a grown man, much wiser, reclaiming his good heart, I wanted no souvenir.

Nearly all the walls were painted in what I was calling Phase I of my home renovation, this transformation of house into Home. The bedrooms upstairs would have to wait for Phase II, the lower level would be fine until Phase III. My main living space, however—living room, dining room, stairwell to the bedrooms, and the kitchen—were nearly done. One more day, promised my good handyman, David, with the help of his son, Luke. Maybe two. But the living and dining areas were complete and now ready for new furnishings.

Saturday morning of a holiday weekend, near perfect in symbolism as the beginning of a new year, Mom and Dad showed up at my door. Dad would go back home to spend his day painting, a love that had never waned for him. He had another art show coming up in less than a week; there was still work to be done. Mom stayed with me for the day.

I had it all planned. We would visit several furniture stores throughout Kalamazoo. I wasn’t coming home until I had chosen what I wanted. Pieces that would reflect no one else but me. Not chosen for the comfort and liking of the man in my life. Not chosen for the practicality of growing children. Not chosen to suit Mom. For me.

Mom was near jumping with glee. Oh, how she loved such shopping! She prided herself on her fine eye for color, shape, texture, design, no doubt in great part due to living those near 60 years side-by-side with a fine artist. I knew well how hard it was for her to bite her tongue when I pondered this couch or that, this table or that, one color over another. Bless her heart, she stayed quiet. Only when I had clearly made my decision did she make a little hop from one foot to the other with sheer happiness. It turned out my taste, oh dear, was not so very dissimilar to hers. And when she pressed her lips together extra tight and looked a little to one side, pulling her shoulders up like a little turtle, I knew I had chosen something she didn’t particularly like. And that was fine, too.

“You deserve this,” she said, as we waited for the salesman, looking near faint with joy at the huge sale he had made, only two weeks on the job, to calculate the final numbers. I had purchased a sectional sofa, a marble top coffee table with matching end table, and a dining room table, also with marble tiles set off by wood, and four leather chairs with wood trim. “But I don’t think I have ever seen such a table. At such a height.”

“Bar height,” I said, signing the paperwork the salesman pushed toward me with trembling hand. Mine was steady as a rock. “Think how easy it will be for Dad to sit down on this with his bad back. Right up there at his bottom.”

“So you were still thinking about others in your choices,” Mom couldn’t resist. She put her hand on my arm and squeezed.

“Only a little,” I grinned. “And I look forward to having you two over for dinner when all is said and done.”

Her smile widened. I’m not sure when I had last seen her so happy. We had spent the entire day together with not one bump in the road, not one moment of friction. I realized, in her 80 plus years, how much my mother had grown. And, hmm, I guess, so had I. We were getting along beautifully, having learned how to get along without stepping on each other’s toes, respecting each other’s style without inflicting our own.

Purchases made, we enjoyed a mid-afternoon lunch together at a Chinese restaurant. Mom’s treat. I plopped down next to her in the booth for a moment and held up my cell phone to snap a photograph and capture the moment.

“We two,” I said, sending the photo over to her cell phone so she could keep it to remind her of our day of shopping together.

She smiled at the tiny photo that popped up on her phone and then smiled at me. “I love the choices you made.”

I raised an eyebrow. Now, there’s something I hadn't heard very often from my mama over my messy life.

I nodded. “Thank you. And thank you for keeping the happy hops down to the minimum while I was making them.”

“You could tell, couldn’t you?”

“Which pieces you liked?” I chortled. “Yeah. I guess maybe our tastes aren’t so very different, after all, eh?”

The day was still too blue-skied and snowy beautiful to end when we emerged from the restaurant. There was a movie I really wanted to see … Avatar, in 3-D. It was supposed to be pretty incredible, a visual treat.

“Shall we go to the movies to finish off our day? My treat.”

“Yes! Oh. Wait. Let me call Dad, see if he’s okay … Oh, don’t roll your eyes. You know, honey, it’s not such a very awful thing to actually have someone waiting for you at home … “

Mom.” I used my warning tone.

She closed one eye, pressed her lips tight. She made a motion of zipping her mouth shut. I could hear Dad sigh over her phone; a day apart was wearing on him. He missed her. He would be waiting for her, he said, and she listed a laundry list of what he should do while she was gone. Like, feed himself.

Then we were off to the movies, nearly three hours of a most astounding visual treat, the two of us wearing our big black 3-D glasses and leaning into each other through the entire show.

Dad snuggled up to Mom when I finally brought her back home after our day together.