Sunday, July 25, 2010


by Zinta Aistars

The Open Window by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)

The window is open. The door is open. My eyes are open. The day is open. The kitchen is open. The jar of coffee beans, fragrance open from the grind, is open. The milk carton is open. The pot, steam rising, is open. My mouth is open. My throat is open. My belly is open and hungry. The eggshell is open, cracked jagged edges, and spilled yellow as sunshine across the hot pan. The cupboard is open. The faucet is open, spilling, spilling, gushing cool water.

The orange peel uncurls and splits in a soft swirl and opens to bright fruit, bright on the tongue.

My ears are open. Bird beaks are open, open with song, fillling an open morning with song, trilling and whistling an open melody. The green of the garden is open to sky, an open blue sky, brilliant and blue blue blue to an open horizon, open and endless and forever and on.

My hand is open. Palm pink and upward, open and waiting for whatever will fill it, open and waiting, resting on the kitchen table.

My lap is open. Old chow pup, mouth open and long pink and black tongue lolling, rests his graying muzzle on my thigh, eyes open wide and gazing upward for my open hand to rest on his soft head.

My robe falls open, breeze cool on warm skin, awake and awake and suddenly open to be touched.

My book is open, pages lifting in the breeze from the open window, open sentences waiting, waiting for my open eyes and open mind to an open ending for a neverending story, the next chapter open as this day opens onto the next.

Sunday is open, unscheduled for chores, although they await, open to be done. Black calico cat opens her pink mouth with a wide MEow, open to the scratch behind one open ear, open to the scratch behind the other open ear, triangle chin lining up with my open, outstretched hand.

Sunday is open. An open day. Open to possibilities. Open to anything, anything, anything at all, open to surprise. Open to the daydream. Open all day long. Open to chance. Open to mistake. Open to forgive. Open soft, open hard, open wide. Open to wander. Open to wonder. Open to question. Open to as much openness as I can stand, as I can dare, as I can take in one open swallow. Split open. Open and waiting to be filled.

The window is open, curtain lifting to open its folds to the cool morning breeze and billow like an open sail across an open sea of Sundays and the lazy open-ended dream. Sunday sailing on the open sea.

My heart opens, opens like a door, like an old door open on squeaking and rusty hinges, like a fist open to release a sacred secret inside, open tender, open fierce, a house of mirrors opening one image upon another in an open tunnel to nowhere, anywhere, a stairway to heaven with pearly gates open, and hell with a field of open and eternal fire, and the occasional open limbo of indecision with its open bottom for freefall, open to cliffside and abyss and valley and bridge, hot like white coal over an open flame, open like ripe fruit, open to be astonished, open to joy and tears and sighs and gasps, open to silence, open to be empty and to be emptied, open to light as to shadows, open to be exhumed from the dead and dying and back into the ferociously living, open and waiting, open to unknowing, open to be known, open to be held, rising to what has opened, the waiting and open arms, the day opening without limit or boundary, and open to take it in, give it back again, open and alive.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Big and Bad and Doowap Swing

by Zinta Aistars

What's a Friday for? A quick impromptu invitation to head north of Grand Rapids, Michigan to Canonsburg Ski Resort on a summer's overheated eve? I'm there. The skis are at rest, but the grass is green on a hot July evening. Hundreds, no, thousands of people are streaming into the resort, flapping blankets in the wind to settle on the grass, popping open lawn chairs, unpacking picnic baskets.

As the blazing sun sets, breezes pick up. The crowd is immense, but attention is in one direction as the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra files out onto the bandshell. They play Gayene, music from Romeo and Juliet, and their music fills the evening air. Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khatchaturian... orchestra conductor John Varineau jokes about all that Russian, or is it rushin', music from the Soviet days isn't allowed to be anything but happy, with bright endings.

Yet we are all there, let's admit it, much as we love the GR pops and their happy endings, for something bigger and something badder.

The sun dips and the evening is blue. In their zoot suits and fedoras, Big Bad VooDoo Daddy takes the stage. For 17 years, this band has been together, all original members, bringing Cab Calloway and the big band sound of swing to new life, fully juiced, doowap, doowap, swing! Jumpin' Jive, Minnie the Moocher, 5-10-15 Times, favorite tunes make the air electric and alive.

We are sipping cool juices and vinos, toasting marshmallows over tiny fires, licking gooey s'mores from our fingertips, and our toes never stop bopping, tapping, not once. It is irresistable, this music, seductive to the blood on a summer night, bodies rocking, shoulders jumping, and dancing breaks out in the grassy aisles.

A crescent moon appears glowing white behind a lone pine tree on the hill. Thousands of  us sit and listen, bop and rock, doowap, yeeeeeeeeeeeeeah.

Bassist Dirk's double bass looks like it's been with him all these nearly two decades, worn blonde and bone smooth along the edges, but he plays, fingers strumming and dancing, and twirls the bass in a dance of its own. Brass flares, wingtips flash across the stage, fedoras throwing cool shadows over their faces.

Oh, they are big, in their zoot suits pinstriped, double-breasted, gestures large, horns raised to the sky and blowing stars, brass and strings, the sound of a summer night shimmering in heat and moonlight. And oh, they are bad, so bad it moves, moves two thousand souls and more on a hillside to forget the week behind them, the week ahead, and play it Friday night like that's all there ever is, a week of Fridays, a summer of Fridays, a life of Fridays.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

How My Garden Grows

by Zinta Aistars

Do some days simply shower us with blessings? Or is it just that we are somedays more aware of our bounty?

Past days, weeks, have been especially a bustle of busyness, social gatherings and catchings up and chitchats and meetings, dotted with pleasantries and celebrations of someone's this and another's that. All enjoyable. All part of a life I have chosen and embraced. What's this about age not being golden? I think, for women at least, it shines with gold as the years progress. We watch our children grow and thrive, no longer needing our daily guidance. Our homes are finally shaping up as we want them. Our careers settle into a pace that we know and by now master. Our friendships are deep and rich. Shallow relationships are swept away by storm or faded into happy oblivion, no longer serving their purpose. Our priorities have aligned by a life of learned wisdom. Gone the shallow pursuits and frivolous follies. We know who we are as pass by that 50, and by golly, if we don't like it. By now, we don't push around so easy. I yam what I yam and that's just fine.

Yes, life is rich, and I slip out of bed on a sunny Sunday morning, and find myself smiling before my eyes are even open.

Several-day guests are gone. The morning is quiet, and mine. Only the chuffing of my coffee pot, only the chirping of a bird, only the scrambling of a fat squirrel on my back deck. There are always tasks awaiting, always more than any one day can handle, but I keep my pace slow, easy and slow, and count my first blessing: this day.

So counted, more tumble in.

And more.

None of them earth shattering. Yet still. One thing after another rocks my world softly, gently, until I feel like the entire day is a warm hug.

Before the summer temperatures heat up overmuch, I take my mug of fragrant coffee out on the front step and sit, sip, sit. I am watching my flowers grow. The two rows of white petunias alongside the walk. The striped Jacob's Ladder, the soothing lavender, the asters and lilies and yellow daisies, the purple clematis and white peony and pale pink hydrangea. My son has finished building a white picket fence from one side of the house to the boundary, painted the shutters white so they glow against the deep blue of the house. He's left the new red wheelbarrow out by the garage, and I leave it there ... it looks right in that very spot, it belongs, like the poem about a red wheelbarrow.

This house ... I very nearly despised it, for so many years ... how is it that now I grow warm inside just looking at it? Suddenly, it has begun to look like a cozy blue cottage, and who would have thought, me, the nomad, living behind a white picket fence?

I catch myself laughing out loud.

A neighbor across the street waves and I wave back at him, getting up to go inside for a refill. My second mug takes me to the back deck. I settle into a chair on the deck and watch my potted vegetables grow here. Six tomato plants, a Santa Fe pepper, several cucumbers just beginning to wind a green path. Several tiny green tomatoes are rounding out their green bellies, ever so slowly, not so slowly at all, growing bigger to suit my appetite for fresh salad.

And isn't a tiny green tomato a blessing? Even a very fine one?

I sit, sip, sip, sit.

The morning grows warmer.


It is time for me to go inside. A message from my daughter glows on my telephone screen, and I text her back, sending love. My old pup Guinnez leans against my leg, and I curl my fingers into his thick ruff, lean over to nuzzle his muzzle, growing white with his years. Old cat Jig yowls for her turn.

A book, then. I plump a pillow into the corner of the couch, that favorite reading spot between windows under three bell-shaped pendant lamps. Cat and dog take their place. They snooze, I read, and Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying is a fine lesson, very fine, and I am lost in his astounding simplicity, one that reminds me of my youthful days of fallling in love with Papa Hemingway ... those spare words, that way of drawing me in completely, no pretense, no gaudy styling or showing off, no heavy verbiage, but real emotion subtly revealed in honest voice. That final lesson is what makes a man of honor, allows him to walk to his death with a straight spine and clear conscience. I am witness to art, and am moved, even to tears by the final page.

I sit, sip, closed book in lap, and breathe in another blessing.

My cell blinks a red eye with another message arrived. This one has traveled far. It comes to me from overseas, and I sit up, pushing mug aside, to read. Family ... what greater bounty? Near or far. No matter the years unseen. I have been continually amazed by how puzzle piece after piece has fallen into place as the time nears for my journey home, to my other home, on the Baltic Sea. Friends and family offering places to stay, cars to borrow, itinerary falling into place like a neatly planted bed of white petunias, waving lacy handkerchiefs in greeting from far away. My cousin offers keys to a summer cottage on the Baltic Sea, a short drive south of Ventspils, but a few kilometers from our ancestral home, Tomdeli, where my father, grandfather, great-grandfather lived. My friend in Riga tells me he will be at my disposal ... wherever you wish, there I will take you, what are friends for? To bless us, to bless us, and to allow us to be a blessing in kind.

I read the new message. My arrival is eagerly awaited. My letter has been passed around and read together. My long absence, nearing 17 years now, is forgiven. A tear has been shed in empathy for the story of my years that has kept me stranded. I am not alone. I never have been. At bottom of the letter is a list of everyone's telephone numbers. Gaidam tevi! Gaidam visi Tevi ciemos! Sirsnigas bucas no visiem!

Someone somewhere far away is waiting for me. In my mind, years vanish, and I see all of their faces again, see the mirroring of my own features, the sounds of my native language, and when I read of another's tear, spilt for me, I spill one of my own. I long thought I would never find Home. I now know, in my older woman's deeper wisdom, I have several Homes, and I have only to reach out to find someone reaching back to me.

Oh, I am wealthy, and this day swims and rocks gently on wave after wave of blessing. If I feared there could be no going home again, I was right, there is no going back, but to go forward, to come full circle, and complete that journey with hard wisdom won is an even better ending. Even as it is a new beginning.

It amuses me now. How long I have lived where I have lived, in this cornflower blue house with white shutters, and been blind to it. So a wall or two needed to be knocked out. So a new window or two needed to let more light in. So a new fence needed to draw boundaries for better neighbors, what to keep out and what to keep in. Sometimes to travel around the world, all you have to do is to turn full circle.

I sit, sip, sit, and watch my garden grow.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Bubbles and Tiaras and Finding True Love

by Zinta Aistars

I was terrified, not at all sure I was ready for this. Was I or wasn't I? But that particular night in 1979, I spread my fingers across my still perfectly flat belly and knew ... I would have to be. There was something about how tight my skin was drawn from hip bone to hip bone. Something had changed in the rhythms of my body. Something had stirred. I slipped quietly out of bed, not waking my husband, and went into the bathroom to stand naked in front of the mirror, examining my changing self.

No doubt no one else could tell. But the knowledge settled into me. I knew. I knew. And my heart hammered in terror. I had just barely finished college ... was I ready for this? Is anyone ever really ready?

In the morning I was silent, thoughtful. Said nothing to my husband. When I did finally see my doctor for confirmation, and I called my husband to let him know, he raced home from work with champagne bottle in hand, face shining with joy. I frowned at him, took the bottle out of his hand and set it down, hard.

"Yeah, well, what's it to you. Not your body changing."

But he was kind, and gentle, and try as he might, couldn't help periodically spilling glee.

I had never dreamed about motherhood as a little girl. Had never played with Barbies, fantasized about weddings, cared much for fashion. My dream had always been one: move up into northern wilderness into that cabin in the woods and write, write, write ... an artist immersed in her art.

So I got married early, became something akin to the perfect wife, and lived in suburbia.

And now, I was about to have my first baby.

I did the only thing I knew to do: I wrote about it. "Sieviete Gaida" ("A Woman in Waiting") was a short story, written in my native Latvian, that was then published in several Latvian journals, including in the much respected Karogs in Latvia. It quickly gained critical acclaim, and not a few called it my best work in prose.

Thirty years later, I take the book from my shelf. The story collection is called Ievainots Zelts (Wounded Gold), published in 1985 by Gramatu Draugs (New York City), and it begins: "Nule ieseta sekla." In this moment, the seed is sown. Nine months of a woman waiting, a woman transformed, from a young and opinionated 22-year-old girl who has big ideas about what it means to love, what it means to be an independent woman making her way in the world ... into a woman who has given birth not only to a beautiful little girl, but also to herself. And realized that she hadn't had the first idea of what it means to love.

At 5:45 p.m. on July 5, 1980, at The Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, I sat in bed holding this miraculous and tiny life against me. Lorena Audra was born 8 pounds, 10 ounces, a light blonde fuzz covering her pink scalp, her tiny fists gripping my fingers. There was no fear anymore when my laboring began; I refused any meds, didn't want anything to blur my senses, so that I would not miss a moment of this incredible experience.

In that first moment of holding her, feeling her warm little body against me, I knew utter peace. My heart beat steady, in rhythm to hers, and it beat with a love as I had never known and would never know again until 21 months later, when her little brother was born.

So this was love. Not some romantic flush of madness, brain swimming in chemical delirium, not some disguise of a search for something or someone to make me feel loved ... this was love for another human life for which I could sacrifice my own.

If ever I have veered on my path in life, it has always been the love of my daughter and my son that have brought me back to my source of strength. For them, I have been able to reach deeper, reach higher, reach further than I ever thought possible. For them, I have found the strength and courage to go on when my own strength and courage had given out. If parenthood is about giving, nothing has given back more to me than taking on this role in my life.

Thirty years later, I wait up until midnight so that I can text my baby Blondie a message of love for her birthday. She is far away, celebrating with close friends in Florida, while I am in Michigan, listening to the popping of fireworks outside in the heat of another July night. She sends photos over my phone, Lorena Audra in blue dress, wearing a tiara, surrounded by floating soap bubbles that her friends are blowing into the air around her. Oh, so my baby girl ... bubbles and laughter and sunshine. Even as I have witnessed again and again over these past three decades that this girl has a spine of steel, a heart great with courage, a will that is unbreakable to overcome every hardship.

I tell her: this will be a most wonderful decade. And each one after, each in its own way, more wonderful still. My parenting is long ago done, but now I watch her blossom into a woman I admire. We talk often, and often I am the one asking her advice now, as much surely as she does mine. She is wise beyond her years. She has traveled the world, earned several degrees, come back from the edge of poverty to financial health, dedicated 10 months to AmeriCorps, cared for orphaned children in Trinidad, ridden 150 miles on her bike to raise funds for a dear friend diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, done battle for her brother when he needed a big sister to encourage him, and knocked sense into her mama's head when mama needed a knock or two. She's my hero. It's what every mother hopes when we give birth: a new life that takes off like fireworks in the sky.

Every 4th of July, I am grateful for freedom and independence, but when I see those shooting stars in the sky at midnight, I know they are for her. In so many ways, Lorena, your birthday was my birth day, too.

Happy birthday, baby girl.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Named in Hot Rubber

by Zinta Aistars

I've been driving since I was 15, but this will be my first time starting up an engine and setting rubber to asphalt in Latvia. Today I acquired my international driver's permit. Good for one year. Perhaps it is something about the American culture that we so identify with our automobiles, so identify our sense of freedom, freedom of movement, freedom to pursue happiness, with the ability to sit behind the wheel and steer into the sunset of the glowing horizon.

For all the many times I have been in Latvia, perusing train, plane and the automobiles of others, I have never been a driver there. Just moments ago, a Latvian friend warned me ... asked me ... did I know that Latvia and India have the highest fatalities among drivers in the entire world?

Uh-oh. Didn't know that. Thank you for the warning, Sandra.

Yet I sense there is just enough American taint in me that I feel like until I take the wheel and hit the Latvian road on my own, I haven't yet marked my territory. It could be because so much of my daily life now is spent as a road warrior. It could be, too, that since I was 15 and first took claim of my gold Dodge Charger, I had never really felt so free ... to go, explore, escape, discover, just go. Just go. Endlessly. From one horizon to the next, never reaching any of them.

It's all in the journey, truly, although the occasional destination does soothe the road-rattled nerve. There is no discovery as there is when hitting the road. I have driven across this country ... now I ache to drive across that other that also knows my name.

What it comes down to ... I am trying to find my comfort zone. To do there something at least of what I do here. To be there something of what I am here, even as I am different, even as I silently, near invisibly, until it becomes visible, transform while crossing the ocean. One part of me peeling away and the other part of me emerging.

Pronounce my name in either language, and it is almost, almost the same.

And yet it is not. In my sleep, I would hear the difference. The Z is sharper, the I has more of a sly smile to it, the N curves the tongue closer to the roof of the mouth, the T has a delicate bump at its tip, and the A draws its breath with tiniest bit of air more, more air, just a little, just a bit.

I imagine myself driving the road from Riga to Ventspils, pulling to the side when I see someone walking the roadside, leaning out the window and saying, please, ludzu, can you say my name? Can you say it? Can you pronounce it as my mother did when I was a newborn? As it was shaped on my father's lips when he first held me up to the night sky? As my grandmother sang it, rocking me, rocking me to sleep, aija zuzu, aija ...

I am traveling across an ocean to hear my name, hear it in the sound of the rubber on the road, the kilometers running away from me, sucking me in, melting under me. I will start the engine and listen for it. I will listen to it as the engine putters to stillness again.

All our lives, all any of us truly want: to hear our name, pronounced just so, thrown into the sea only to be brought back again on a salty breeze.