Monday, September 20, 2010

Journey Across a Lifetime

by Zinta Aistars

I wake lazy this morning. Monday, and I don't have to go to work. Don't have to drive from home to the office, that daily 110-mile trek. Instead, I am preparing to make a journey of about 9,000 miles. Tomorrow, September 21, my journey begins to Latvia, a return trip for the first time in some 17 years.

Only I realize that my journey began a long time ago. It began in the spring, when I first made the commitment to cross the ocean to the land of my mothers and fathers, past generations as far as any geneology has taken me. It began when I decided it was time, it was time overdue, and I went to the city hall office to renew my dusty passport. It began when I purchased the airline ticket, from the very same woman in Chicago who had sold me a ticket for my first trip to Latvia, at age 15. Indeed, I gaze at an old photograph in my album... a 15-year-old me sitting at a table next to a 15-year-old boy playing his guitar for me, his eyes dropped shyly to his knees. We met then for the first time. He would grow up to become a classically trained musician, and I would grow up to be a writer, each on our side of the ocean, yet sharing a language and ancestry. That "boy" is today my music editor at The Smoking Poet. That boy grew into a man who would become my lifelong friend.

An evil empire would fall between then and now. An Iron Curtain would move aside. A lifetime would pass. Several lifetimes, it seems, and today, we are both gray and with fine lines at the corners of our eyes.

"Gaidisu..." he writes to me this morning. "I'll be waiting for you..."

And the notes back and forth across the ocean have moved with increasing speed and frequency. Many friends and family members I haven't seen in such a very long time have resurfaced in my life, in my every day. A goddaughter who was an infant when I was a teen, a baby I held in my unaccustomed hands.... today she is a young wife and mother, waiting to introduce me to her two children. There are those that I met so long ago, and today they are gone. Their journeys are over. My grandmother's brother, Arnolds, who was deported to Siberia, thought lost forever, thought dead, but who managed to return to his home in Ventspils after a journey of years, gaunt, near death, yet still knowing how to laugh. I remember his laughter on subsequent visits to Ventspils. I remember his kind smile. I will never see him again, not in this lifetime.

I remember my grandfather's sister, Anna, proud and tall woman, whose life story, too, was harsh and filled with loss. I remember my grandmother's sister, Milda, short and plump, hair swinging across her face as she giggled deliciously. I couldn't help but smile when I was around her. Gone, all gone now. Interesting to me today, looking back, that those who would have most reason to be hardened and embittered, for all the tragedies in their lives, showed the brightest smiles and back then greeted me with the warmest embraces, making me feel at home. They helped me understand the meaning of family.

So much has passed during all these years. We have all changed. So many of us are now parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents. Too many of us are gone.

This journey began so long ago. So very long ago.

And as I pack my bags today, tucking my renewed passport and airline tickets into a pocket, I realize I may never make this trip again. I have had my own harsh choices to make in life. I, too, have had to walk away from sweeter dreams and a brighter happiness. I remember Arnolds, Anna, Milda, and take courage. But I've done my best, made what I've known in my heart were the right decisions, and so I prepare now to see all those much loved faces one more time, realizing that after those joyous hellos will come teary farewells. I have been saving for a dream to move north to Michigan's Upper Peninsula for a long time... and these trips, expensive as they are, can eat away at this other dream I have had since I was a girl. Choices. I have more choices to make.

So my heart has opened again, warm and full to bursting, and then clenched again, knowing that the flip side will be wet with tears. I already know how this story ends. Yet, I am reminded, "never say never." Who knows what may yet come? Certainly as I look back on my life of more than half a century now, I can see how many twists and turns there have been in this plot, how many surprises, how many impossible dreams become stunningly possible. One never knows.

The heart must always remain open to possibilities. A journey is an adventure when we let the road lead us instead of our always trying to determine which road we must take. I have my goal to pursue, but the forks in the road, I know, will yet be many.

For now, I read those warm notes that have traveled so many thousands of miles ... gaidisu ... and my heart beats steady and strong, full of anticipation. So many beloved faces. So many threads left untied long ago, to be picked up again. That gray we now have threaded through and through our hair, it has been honorably earned, and I am proud of it. If my heart had ever clenched tight again, it is today soft, and open, and pulsing with the pleasure of knowing that I am welcome, that someone somewhere waits for me, with open arms.

The clock ticks. The time nears. The jet engines begin to whir and gather speed.

It is time. At long last, it is time to go home again.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tea shop owner reads a bright future in tea leaves

Southwest Michigan's SECOND WAVE feature story
by Zinta Aistars

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The difference between a good cup of tea and a bad one is all in the timing. Writer Zinta Aistars reveals the passion, the process and the product behind tea shop Chocolatea's success story in Portage.
Polly Kragt, also known as the Queen of Tea, is demonstrating to a new group of customers, soon to be fans, how to brew tea.

This is "the agony of the leaves," a phrase used to describe the steeping and unfurling of tea leaves while brewing the perfect cup of tea.

If agony smells this sweet, agonize away. The aroma is...
read on in SECOND WAVE

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Announcing The Smoking Poet Fall 2010 Issue

Live now at

“A fine cigar and good literature―two of life’s most enduring pleasures.”

Artwork by Ladislav Hanka

I know, I know, I say this every issue: it’s our best issue yet. Thing is, it’s always true. However good you get at what you are doing, what really matters is not to sit in that limelight or on those laurels, but to keep moving forward—keep doing better what you’ve done before.

The Smoking Poet is now well into our fifth year of bringing you fine literature in a smoky ambiance. In April 2011, we will be throwing a grand celebration at The Wine Loft in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with five candles—or cigars—burning on our anniversary cake. If your work has been published or reviewed in TSP, you are eligible to participate in our author’s reading. If you’re a fan, we’d love to have you there to help us cheer in the next five!

So come on in. Enter into our pages and be spellbound. On most every page, you will find the stunning artwork of Ladislav Hanka. Learn more about this artist and sense the mystery in his story and in his art. Look closely, listen … you can very nearly hear the heart beat in his art.

Conrad Hilberry is our gentle spirit, our feature poet, but there is fire hidden in those Hilberry lines—and whipped cream. Enjoy our interview with Con, and then dip into his poetry.

Gail Griffin’s new book, The Events of October, the true story of a murder-suicide on the beautiful campus of Kalamazoo College, is difficult, moving, alarming, and inspires to thought. It’s not always easy to confront the shadow in ourselves or in others, but it’s potential to explode is always present. It is not the stranger we must fear. It is, far too often, the person standing closest beside us.

It’s not just the person next to us, however. It is the world we create around us, and what we do with the world we live in. Olga Bonfiglio speaks to current environmental issues, but touches also on matters of the writer’s heart.

Our editor Andris Silis usually writes about music for TSP; this time, he has picked up a camera. Visit Andris' Blue Note for a photo essay of his native Latvia.

Poetry, fiction, nonfiction are filled with wonderful works. Kalamazoo & Beyond brings local talent from southwest Michigan. You won’t be able to take it all in with one sitting. Keep coming back, and we promise you will find new treasure with each visit. Our book reviews are updated with new reviews throughout the season, and the Cigar Lounge may just be the best we’ve ever had … ah yes, I said that already.

See if I’m not right.

With a good word,

Zinta Aistars
TSP Editor-in-Chief

The Smoking Poet

FALL 2010
Issue #16


Eddie Blatt

Martin Bolton

Olga Bonfiglio

Robert Lee Brewer

Joaquin Carvel

Rebecca Coffey

Sara Fitzpatrick Comito

Belle Crawford

Holly Day

Aaron Deutsch

Murray Dunlap

Mary Bess Dunn

Michael Frissore

Gail Griffin

Hedy Habra

Ladislav R. Hanka

Nels Hanson

Monique Hayes

Conrad Hilberry

Lisa Hirsch

Jessica Barksdale Inclan

Kristin Isgett

Kathy Jennings

Gayle Kaune

Raymond Keen

Len Kuntz

Dane Kuttler

Henry W. Leung

Helen Losse

Maryann Miller

Amy Newday

J. A. Pak

Cheryl Peck

David Pilling

Robert Schladale

Birute Putrius Serota

Anna Simmons

Carolyn Syrgley-Moore

Bron Trathen

Răzvan Țupa

Jed Waverly

Natalie Williams

Cigar Lounge

The Cigar Maker by Mark Carlos McGinty

Excerpts From: A Cigar Smoker’s Summer Hell Diary by Mick Parsons, Cigar Editor, The Smoking Poet

Grandpa's Toscano by Olivia Arieti

Mick Parsons, TSP Cigar Editor, Interviews Mark Carlos McGinty, Author of The Cigar Maker

Diamond Crown Robusto #3 by George Davis

Unholy Cocktails by Garrett Ashley

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Between Two Places: A Straight Line

by Zinta Aistars

Cabin in the woods

A colleague came to my office to drop off a project with a fast-approaching deadline. “After all,” she said, “you’re leaving in a little over a week, aren’t you?”

My head pops up from my work. A little over a week? Really? I stare at my calendar. By golly, she’s right. How did that happen?

I’ve just returned a few days ago from a road trip to the Keweenaw, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The trip put 1,206 miles on my trusty little Honda, from my doorstep to the border of the Keweenaw—the number caught my attention because it is my birth date, December 6. The universe was giving me a nod, I was sure. My plan to move north as retirement nears, even if still only a small dot of light on the horizon, is coming to gradual fruition. It would surely be a kind of rebirth.

I hadn’t planned two trips in one month. It just … happened. My trip to Latvia, after all, had been planned since early spring, when I finally gathered up the courage, and the dollars, to renew my passport and purchase my airline ticket for my first time back in nearly 17 years. For too many reasons to list here, I had mixed emotions about a return. It could be, I imagined, an emotional landmine. It is the country of my ethnic roots, and I have been there many times, have family and friends still living there, and the last time I left … well, suffice it to say, it was one of the most difficult decisions I had ever had to make. My life would never be the same.

That could be, and was, both a good thing and a bad thing. Change is rarely easy. Growth is nearly always difficult, even painful. Yet not to grow is disastrous, and I had long ago decided that I did not want to be among those who resist change, opting for safety and security in life rather than take the risks necessary to find happiness.

Just got this one life, you know. Or even if there is more to this than one go-around, no guarantees. I’m not wasting it.

Leaving 17 years ago wasn’t my taking a risk for happiness. It meant leaving happiness behind. It meant doing the right thing. I was torn between obligations, but I knew my priorities. I never questioned my decision. Yet doing the right thing is sometimes the hardest of all. I paid dearly, a price I knew must be paid. Happiness was brushed under the rug, someone else’s toy.

No, time does not heal all wounds. As I enter the second half of my life, I’ve learned by now that time heals nothing, nothing at all, but we do, eventually, learn to cope, learn to set some things aside that no longer suit us, learn to live with our scars and wounds, and, one hopes, perhaps even use them to our advantage. We go on in life stronger and wiser, and if we have done our growing right, also more compassionate toward the struggles of others.

I like to think I’ve done that—grown wiser, grown stronger. I have developed a lot more compassion for those who are in the good fight, while I have lost patience for those forever seeking excuses.

That would include me, myself and I. No more excuses. I have had one dream and one dream only that has survived in me the entire roller coaster of the life I have lived. One dream. When I was a little girl, while others dreamed of powerful careers and big houses and fancy cars and rich husbands and goodness knows what else … I dreamed of a cabin up north, deep in the woods, where I could live my life writing and developing my art.

That’s it. Pretty simple.

Some thirty-plus addresses later, I still have that dream. One of those addresses was overseas. I have called Latvia home, and that has been a true name. I have called many other places home, too, and all have been, in one way or another, for one time or another. But the Home I seek, where I know I belong, has always evaded me.
Lake Superior

I have been traveling up to the Keweenaw since I was little. Probably around that time that I first became aware of that fond wish, in fact. My father took us—my mom, my big sister and me—to the Keweenaw, right on up to its tip, Copper Harbor, and summer after summer, set up his easel and palette on the rocky shores of Lake Superior and painted.

Call it a seed. A sand grain. A small and smooth stone, washed by Superior waves.

There are two journeys here. One, to Latvia, place of my ancestors. The other, north to the Keweenaw Peninsula, a place that has been in my life time and again from the beginning. I know that it is not a coincidence that the two places in some aspects resemble each other. They are both northern places, with great white birches, and water along the shores that rises in fierce, foaming waves.

With three weeks ticked off my work calendar, I had used up all my vacation time for a while. The only way I could get up to the Keweenaw this year, it dawned on me, was to take advantage of a three-day weekend. So, Labor Day weekend, I rose just before 4 a.m., tossed a bag into my car, filled a tall thermos with freshly-brewed coffee, and set off north. I cannot bear anymore a year without a trip north.

Something had happened since I purchased that ticket overseas in the spring. I had mustered up my courage to walk an emotional landmine. I was seeking a place of peace in myself. All fears soothed and put to rest.

Oddly enough, I had already found it. The plane hasn’t even lifted off yet, but my heart beats steady and content. It’s been a joyous time, reconnecting with family and friends, arranging our visits, talking about places and times where we will meet … soon, soon. I had faced down a fear, looked it in the eye, found it to be a rather sweet old monster, arms open wide to embrace the prodigal daughter.

What I was hoping to find has already been found. My battered old heart is just fine.

When I stood in the tiny village of Calumet this past Labor Day, I sent a photo over my cell phone to my sister in Chicago. It was a photo of Fifth Street, where I once lived a long time ago. I sent the same photo to a lifelong friend in Latvia. My sister texted back: “How does it feel to stand there?”

Good, I texted back. Really, really good. An entire lifetime has passed by since then, and my heart is strong, and happy, and wise, and thumping with warm compassion—for myself so long ago, for myself today, for the likes of humanity who journey from place to place looking for Home.

A text arrived from Latvia, too. “Nothing has changed … “

And this was true, too. Nothing, yet everything. I was the same person, yet entirely new. My new self was built on those old bones, the history rich in my veins, and I knew I would not be nearly myself of today without that history. I was grateful for it. I stood on Fifth Street, cool Superior breezes caressing my face, and smiled.

I knew, then, that I was Home. I had a dream to realize. Everything in my life had changed over time. Everything. Only this one dream that a little girl in beribboned braids once had … had remained the same. I was in the Keweenaw to meet with Gretchen, my realtor, and the next day, we spent a solid 12 hours on the road, traveling from one plot of land to another. We walked forests, we traced streams between trees, we stood on sandy inclines between white birches and watched the sun finally set on Lake Superior.

By end of day, I felt I had made a new friend, not just someone to help me find the exact right location for my dream. Just try traveling with someone for 12 hours without becoming either crazy … or close, with hours of shared experiences and perspectives. We had ever so much in common, we found, from our love of the north, to our personal politics, to our adventures of living abroad. It struck me again: when you are following the right path, the pieces somehow just seem to fall into place as if by magic.

On my last morning in the Keweenaw, I met a new friend over breakfast in Houghton. I ordered a Finnish pancake with Finnish toast, just because I had never had them before, and trying new things is good. My new friend, Tom, was a Calumet poet, and he told me about the arts community in the Keweenaw, about poetry readings and art shows that happen there on a regular basis. I listened with utmost attention, and I felt the gradual unfolding of a welcome.

As I drove home, my mind kept wandering back to all I had seen. Such beauty. Beyond words. So many possibilities. One log cabin in particular haunted me, situated on ten acres and overlooking a creek below. I would not make my decisions quickly. Heart must be engaged, but so must mind. I had scheduled a meeting with my financial advisor upon my return. Would she call me mad?

She did. Or at least, she implied it. One eyebrow arched up as she listened to me gush, back in lower Michigan the following day. I know, I know, I waved away her skeptical gaze. “I know what you are thinking. I should be working until I am 95 to save up enough money to ever retire.”

“No, no, not 95. But longer than you think.”

“Ten.” I slapped my hand on the table. That was my offer. Ten more years of labor.




“Ten. My final offer.” Okay, so I wasn’t much of a negotiator. I did look at her figures. They were lean. I had brought numbers of my own. Not just from today, but from the past three years. I wasn’t her average Jane. I was Z, stubborn, a dreamer, but determined. I didn’t need what most people need. When she looked at my budget and asked why she didn’t see a clothing allowance, it was my turn to arch an eyebrow. I plucked at my old shirt, slapped the pant leg on my thigh. “Does this look like I have a clothing budget?” No fashion horse, this Z.

We had at it for nearly an hour and a half. Line by line. She reviewed what I had accomplished over the past three years and finally nodded. “Well, maybe you can do this.”

There. That’s it. Now at last I could ask her expert advice what to do next. She gave me a brutal financial goal, entered my name on her calendar—December 20, 2010—as the date she would call me and asked me if I had met the goal.
Portage Lift Bridge, to Keweenaw Peninsula

Ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches, here I come. And Latvia? I have come to realize this will be my farewell tour. Yes, fully an emotional landmine. So many beloved faces, so many special places … in a little over a week, I will journey across the ocean to touch my hand to the white sands of the Baltic Sea, so very much like the sands of the Superior.

And then I will return again. Three weeks later, I will get hard to work again, I will eat my Ramen noodles, I will take on those extra freelance assignments, I will launch yet another issue of The Smoking Poet, and I will set another date, come spring, to spend a week in the Keweenaw and touch base with Gretchen.

There’s a cabin in the northern woods, I know now, with my name on it …

Home on the horizon