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

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