Friday, November 26, 2010

Selling Time: A Holiday in Black

by Zinta Aistars

My daughter and son, Thanksgiving
 Another holiday season approaches ... and I cringe. No, I'm no Scrooge, but I do bah humbug the holiday season, that period of time between Thanksgiving and the rolling in of the new year, as my very least favorite time of year. The saving grace is that it is winter. I love winter. I love snow. It can make the holiday season tolerable for me.

This past week has been a test of endurance, as my father spent four days of it in the hospital, then I caught his illness (after the hospital staff insisted his illness was not contagious) and spent a day at home feeling like death not nearly warmed over, and then returned to work scampering madly to catch up on all that I had not been able to do over those four days... and all of it intensified by the coming in of the holiday season with Thanksgiving.

An ingrate, you think? Not at all. I am intensely aware of my blessings, and roll them over in my mind and my heart each and every day. I have plenty. Too many to count. Highest on my list this Thanksgiving was the restoration of my father's health ... and it didn't hurt to more or less have mine restored, too, if still feeling a bit tattered. Health is everything. This past week keenly reminded me of this. Without it, nothing else matters.

If the holiday season were more about being aware of, and enjoying, our many blessings, I would be enthusiasm personified. It is not. Where and how did this holiday become a five-week long exhibition of greed, selfishness, and the ugliest forms of materialism? I had only a moment while cooking the Thanksgiving meal to glimpse a snippet of news in the evening on the television someone had turned on downstairs, but what I heard was that this was the first time ever that some stores had decided to not wait until "Black Friday" to open their doors. They were open and advertising their sales on the day of Thanksgiving.

Not even one day.

Black Friday, indeed. The term presumably has come to mean the American super shoppping day for Christmas, when retail stores go deep "into the black" with their profits, while (as a journalist friend glumly remarked on her Facebook status update) the American shopper goes deep "into the red." That is, into debt.

I watch very little television, and I watch even less when this season rolls in. If there is anything worse than political campaign ads, it is holiday ads. When I turned on the television on the day I was home sick earlier this week, I saw an ad with a bleached blonde, middle-aged woman in a bright red track suit, a look of sheer madness glazing her eyes, pulling several shopping carts behind her, each weighted with heaps of what would presumably be shopping bargains, stop watch in hand, and training like an athlete for the coming ordeal. The ad is run by Target. I turned the television back off and went back to feeling sick.

Christian or not, whether one believes this holiday has anything to do with Christ or not (researchers actually believe Christ was born in the summer, probably July), if this holiday was by any measure meant to be a time for family gatherings, a time to appreciate those we care about most, a celebration of divine love, human or otherwise ... it has become anything but that. How can one see, truly see, over the heaps of bargains, stuff and more stuff, to the love on the other side? What exactly are we loving? Each other or this indulgence in gluttony?

I am not against giving a gift or two to someone we love. I have given some very special ones, and I have received more than a few. The giving and the receiving has brought me joy at times, while at others it has felt more like a burden. I enjoy filling the stockings for my children, and even now, when they are adults, I still enjoy filling them with cute little somethings. It was when I realized it was all going to an extreme, deep into excess, that I began to feel the ugliness. The excess ate away at the shared love. If one thoughtful gift conveys love, twenty-five gifts do not convey more of it.

Mom counting her blessing...
 So as I cooked the turkey for my family and prepared our holiday meal, I counted among my blessings that I would not be among the hoardes of crazed shoppers on Black Friday. Never have been. Never will be.

The entire year behind me had been one of giving to those I love most. When my daughter lost her job in Chicago and struggled to find a new and suitable one, I did all I could to help support her household until she was back on her feet again. When my son, too, was laid off from his job, the company for which he worked shrinking down to no more employees but the owners themselves, I helped however I could to keep him going, even hiring him to do renovation work around my own house. He did a great job. When my parents struggled with the woes and aches of aging, I took time to take them places, provide new and enjoyable experiences, treat them to something as yet unexperienced and memorable. Gifts to those we love should come all year round, when they are needed most, and as true need arises.

As I sat at our Thanksgiving table, listening to my father say grace, it suddenly hit me. The gift of time. Over the past year, I have come to enjoy my relationship with both of my parents more than I have in my entire lifetime. As I have watched them age, as I have listened to them express their grief over the passing of several dear friends during the past year, I  have been acutely aware that time is running out. For all of us. Time races by, faster than we can imagine, and in the end, all we have had ... is time. The greatest gift of all.

As Thanksgiving day drew to a close, the night grown cold and dark, I stood at my door waving at my daughter as her car pulled away for her drive back to Chicago. How quickly the day had whisked by. The delicious bird was just a carcass now, boiling in a pot on my stove for turkey broth to use later.

What I would have given for just a little more time with her ... a little more time with all the people I love so much, but so many of whom are no longer with me. I am not going to waste any time. I am not going to stand at the graves of loved ones someday with a heart filled with regret because I didn't give them enough time.

In a harried and rushed world, time seems to be the most difficult gift to give. Yet nothing I had done of late had so enriched my relationship with my parents as the fact that I had made a commitment to spend more time with them. So many old chips had fallen off my shoulders. So many old wounds had healed. So many misunderstandings and sore feelings from more youthful and stoopid days had been cleared away.

I am not even sure when all that happened, but over time, over time spent together, sometimes doing nothing more than sitting shoulder to shoulder and watching the day, something magical, something healing, something wonderful had happened. I had really gotten to know my father ... not just as my father, not just as an artist I had admired all my life ... but as a person. As a whole human being, complex as that is. And I had really gotten to know my mother. With her especially, I was astounded at how differently I could see her today than I had seen her years ago. Like many mothers and daughters, we had had our conflicts, our frictions, our disagreements. I held her to high standards, and over time, I had realized how many of them, on my part, had been unfairly high. Over time, I began to see her not just as my mother, that ideal, that hero I wanted her to always be ... but as a person apart from myself. A woman who had led quite an interesting life. Another imperfect human being who actually has some pretty remarkable qualities. I hope I have inherited at least a few.

Lorena and her grandfather
 All of that took time. I didn't realize all that was happening. Somewhere along the way, I just realized I was having a lot of fun hanging out with them. One at a time, or both together. What had started as a commitment had become something I found myself increasingly looking forward to ... our time spent together. Being friends.

There was a point on Thanksgiving day that I felt worn out. Overwhelmed. Tired. Days spent at the hospital, watching over my father and his care. A day spent so sick myself, that when I was thirsty, I could not find the strength to rise from my bed and go all the way down those stairs to the kitchen for a glass of water. I did without. Days spent back at the office, chasing deadlines I had missed, catching up on projects that required my input. Evenings of shopping for the holiday meal and preparing the menu. Cleaning house for my soon-to-arrive guests. I was worn out.

The turkey was in the oven, beautifully prepared according to a new and somewhat elaborate recipe. Pots bubbled on the stove. The kitchen was steaming with delicious aromas. And I sat at my dining room table, my hair pulled up and out of my flushed face, still in my sleeping shirt, towel in hand, and tried hard not to cry. And failed. My mother, my father, sat across the table from me, watching my distraught face closely and mirroring it. They listened to me. They listened to my litany, to my whine, to my babbling, to my whimper, to my story of my week. They nodded in understanding, and I knew they did.

"I'm tired," I sighed. "I'm so tired. I could so use more time."

My father struggled to get up out of his chair. His back was bent from past surgeries and aching, as always. He hobbled over to me, slow and cautious, arms outstretched. My mother drew a hand across her own flushed cheeks, to wipe away her mirrored tears. They hugged me. They held me, and rocked me, old child that I was, and my father's eyes became wet, too... that man I never saw cry as a child.

And I felt better.

They responded to me with words that told me that over the past year, they had followed my life closely, too. They knew about the work that I am doing. They knew about the dreams I am so avidly chasing. They know about the novel I am writing. They have followed the story of my journey to Latvia a few weeks ago, and they spent two entire days looking through my photos and listening intently as I read aloud to them my travel log. They know about the freelance articles I write and the interesting people and places I get to learn about in doing so. They know about the books I read and enjoy. They know about my worries, my hopes, my concerns, my challenges, my moments of joy. They know me.

They have taken the time to get to know me, their daughter, not just as their offspring, but as a whole person, separate yet bonded to them. The only investment required to do so ... is time. Those too busy cling to the saying that it is "quality not quantity" that matter, but I know absolutely that isn't so. While quality is important, only quantity allows us to truly connect with another human being.

Just be...
 No gift, no bargain, no sale can give any of us what all of us really need. There are no shortcuts to getting to know someone we love. As much as we love our family members, we don't always know them very well, and that takes time. Sometimes we know those closest to us least of all, because we come saddled with projections and expectations and impossible standards, asking more what can you do for me than what can I do for you. Yet it is only when we stop, pause, and take the time to do for another that we begin to truly know them, and in getting to know our family better, we can't help but get to know ourselves better, too.

Santa, this year, and all years on out, please pass me by. Go home. Spend some time with Mrs. Claus. Hang out with the elves a bit. Let the reindeer graze. Park the sleigh and build a snowman instead. Stop asking me for my list of stuff and remind me to go home and be with my family and friends. Just be. Because spending time with those we love, and who love us, will never put us in the red. It can only keep us well in the black. Richer after the holiday than before it began. Imagine that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Wandering Mind Looking for Stillness

by Zinta Aistars

“...a mind that likes to wander ’round the corner is an unwise mind...”
                                                        ~George Harrison

Live in the moment, they say. At least half of our day, our minds wander to either the past or into the future. But happiness lies, it seems, in that state of being fully present in the here and now.

I heard this on Good Morning, America, the morning news magazine show I sometimes have playing on my television set downstairs while I am upstairs getting ready for my work day (and later, read it again in New York Times). Rushing to dress, gathering my things for the day, grabbing for my car keys, my mind raced between what I had left undone yesterday to what had to be done later in the day, in the week, the month, the year ....

I heard the man on the screen say the Buddhist monks know how to do this, how to be present in the moment, and they rate high in happiness. But most of us, most of the time, are anywhere but in the present.

"So now we know that being in the present means being happy, but the study does not tell us how to do this." He shrugged. "That will be for the next study."

I flicked off the television and rushed out the door into the garage to get going on my long commute to my office. The news bit rattled through my mind as I drove north, the 55 miles it would take me to reach work. It would be one hour in my day that I could allow my thoughts free rein, and of late, I had stopped listening to the radio, stopped listening to music, simply allowed my thoughts to wander inside this space of silence.

Sometimes my thoughts went to the past. I replayed recent happy times, pleasant travels, or brought up my children's faces, bright and shiny, in my memory. Sometimes my thoughts flew forward, and more times than not, they winged north, far north, and over the years to a time when I would no longer answer to anyone. When all my life work finally produced that longed-for result ...

And there I go, daydreaming.

I'm not sure I can wrap my mind around the study's implied advice to live in the moment. How does one plan for the future? How does one pursue a discipline, slog along day after day, if not with a bright light of achieved goal at the end of the line? Where would we all be without our dreamers today, but back in those Neanderthal caves ... and aren't we at least in part in this economic mess today because the American culture has become ruled by the mantra of I want it now! like spoiled children, rather than planning and saving for a future purchase? Yet it could be argued those some brats lack the ability to appreciate the now, the here, the status quo, and thus the constant dissatisfaction, forever filling voids that would not be filled.

Then again, that is something else entirely. One measure here was of happiness. The other measure is of a goal chased down and realized. One did not necessarily have to mean the other. And how many, having achieved their goal, expecting a moment of glory, find they are not so very happy at that point, after all. I knew such, more than a few. Always the grass was greener somewhere else, that place impossible to attain and always just out of reach, when all one had to do was to water one's own grass with more care to make it greener, right here, right now.

Could be those meditating monks spent lifetimes achieving that stillness in the mind that kept them anchored in the now. They do not worry about yesterday, they do not worry about tomorrow. They simply are. But I am an artistic sort, and art is always the product of some mind wandering, some daydreaming, some moment lost in reverie. Happiness in general may not be the best recipe for creativity. As necessity is the mother of invention, so necessity goes hand in hand with some as yet unresolved discomfort. And a good storyline... doesn't that always involve some quest? some conflict? a point of friction? a gasp of a cliffhanger? some unscratched itch somewhere?

When I let my mind wander to some future place, I realize it isn't envisioning something giddy with joy. Rather, I am in pursuit of a simple contentment. Joy passes all too quickly. Contentment has a way of lasting, hard won as the fruit of acquired wisdom and the struggles involved in pursuing enlightenment. Even as that means reaching a place in the future where I would long for nothing more than what I have .... yes, just to be ... in the here and now.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

PRESS 53 Open Awards Anthology 2010

Press 53 Announces

Poetry, flash fiction, short-short story, short story, creative nonfiction, novella--these are the prize winners of 2010, each in their own category and compiled here by Kevin Morgan Watson in one lush volume.

The volume begins with winning poetry - entries judged and winner chosen by Zinta Aistars, who says of the winning poems: “A female voice, Terresa Haskew is strong and sure in her word choices, expressing image and mood with impressive clarity. She is accessible to any reader of poetry, and I respect that, yet captures that common experience in a way that makes me hold my breath until I reach the end of the poem.”

Published by Press 53

ISBN 9781935708070

USD 16.00

Editor: Kevin Morgan Watson

Read more about the anthology, panel of judges, winners, and order information at PRESS 53.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Growing the local economy with locally grown food

An article by Zinta Aistars in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
November 4, 2010

Photo by Erik Holladay

On the last day of the season at Texas Township Farmers Market on 7110 West Q Street, Donna McClurkan, founding force, organizer and heart behind the market, is being tugged and pulled in every direction. Every tug, every pull has not just a dollar sign, but also a heartstring attached to it.

The tuggers and pullers are a mix of farmers market customers and vendors, volunteers and township committee members. Everyone wants to say thank you. Many want to stay in touch over the coming winter months. And every single vendor is making sure McClurkan knows -- they intend to come back next spring.

"We started this market in the fall of 2008 with the target goal of 16 vendors and 400 customers," McClurkan says. "We ended up with 24 vendors, and 1,200 people coming through that first fall." This year the market was at capacity with 60 vendors and an estimated 3,000 customers. A survey going out to vendors this winter will gather actual numbers and dollars made.

The steeply upward trend is no fluke. It's also happening at ...
Learn how spending $10 weekly in your local economy translates into $40 million statewide.
Learn about the local food movement and farmers markets in every season.
Learn how to eat better and healthier while building up your community.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Kalamazoo River Valley Trail: The Old Chow Pup and I Hit the Trail

by Zinta Aistars

You know the song lyrics ... "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with ..." Well, for me, the lyrics on this cool November weekend, autumn in mid-song, go more like this: "if you can't be in the place you love, love the place you're at."

Or something like that. Prepositions dangling at the end of sentences send this editor into twitches and spasms, but that's another tangent and we won't go there. It's a silly song. I don't even believe in those lyrics, certainly not when it comes to loving human beings. Beyond wrong.

Places, however, are a little different. We can't always be where we wish to be, and there are so very many beautiful places to be and enjoy on this rather worn but still breathtakingly gorgeous globe. It's been a couple weeks (more? really?) since I've returned from my journey to Latvia, and it took me ... honestly? it's still taking me, still holding me on some level, still haunting me a bit, still feeling the old cobblestone beneath my feet, still leaning on centuries-old wall even while I'm bumping into modern American brick and aluminum siding .. .where was I?

Ah yes. I am here. Not there. Here. In the United States, in the state of Michigan, and a very long way south from my other most favorite place, the Keweenaw, land arrow pointing into Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Take away the centuries old buildings, and there you are: the Keweenaw. Northern wilderness, bordered by wild water, and I haven't been back yet two weeks? is it three? and already I have a confirmed reservation for a week in the Keweenaw for spring. Blue cottage with white shutters on the very brink of the Superior.

Oh let's admit it. I am totally a two-timer.

Keweenaw, Latvia ... Latvia, Keweenaw ... I long for one when I am in the other, and when I am in the other, I picture that place left behind. I have a cheating heart. When it comes to place.

And here I am, in neither. I am in southwest Michigan, and am solidly planted for the next some years, until I am all grown up and financially independent and free to go where my cheating heart calls me.

I wake up on a November Saturday morning in Kalamazoo, and the autumn sun is bright and the skies are azure and the day stretches ahead with a few demands, but none that can't be put off for a while longer. At least my old chow pup, Guinnez, is sure of it. Curled up on my bed beside me, he grins a big toothy dog grin at me the moment I lift my head from the pillow.

Wanna? wanna? wanna? wanna? He grins. Can we? can we? can we?

Oh all right. I tousle his cinnamon head, and bounce from bed ready for some outdoor adventure. I have just the place in mind. I've been thinking about it for some time now, and I'm pretty sure old Guinnie can smell the very thought of trail on me. We've walked the Portage Bicentennial Trail, and I've biked the KalHaven Trail, but there is a new trail that's been snaking its way through the city, sliding alongside the Kalamazoo River, and is branching out here and there, connecting to other trails. I would like to check it out, and this day is perfect for it. And Guinnie agrees. He's all over it. Yeah yeah yeah, wanna wanna wanna.

We share breakfast, the cereal for me and the milk at the bottom of the bowl for Guinnez. I shower, Guinnez sits on my towel. I dress and Guinnez dances around me. I put on my old sneakers, nicely worn in, and Guinnez bows his handsome head for me to slip his harness over him and fasten it under his soft belly. We are ready.

There are many places where we could connect with the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail (KRV Trail). We drop in on one section, just behind the Homer Stryker Baseball Field, where I've watched a handful of Kalamazoo Kings games. The baseball field is empty and silent. The season is over. The trail behind it is empty, too. We take a quick loop around, take a look at each other and say, in human-doggie language: nah. Not what we had in mind. Woods, lots of trees, that is what we had in mind. Guinnez grins at me, lolling his black and pink tongue (chow pups have black tongues, and the pink in his bears witness to his otherness) at me, and hops back into the car so we can find another section of trail to try.

We follow the curve of the river, cross it one way then the other, always keeping it in sight. And there, a good place to jump on again. We park the car and head in, pup trotting ahead. Initially, we see the back and alley-sides of buildings, we hear the hum of traffic in the distance, we see the smoke from industrial chimneys, a water tower, but then we cross train tracks and head into woods.

I sigh. My step quickens. Guinnez looks back at me over his red-ruffled shoulder, flirt that he is, and grins his approval. I wink at him. We are hiking into the perfect November Saturday afternoon. I can love the place I am in, today, now, and set aside my wandering heart for other shores east and north. I am loving the place we are now, and my heart opens to the perfection of the day. The trees are bare. The colorful leaves of early fall are gone. They are now dry, brown ground cover.

For a moment I stop on the trail to look around me, to look up at tree tops and sky, to watch the gentle slip of water moving along between its banks. Not waves, not even ripples, but like a dark silken cloth slipping along. This may not be the most beautiful time of year, not by gaudier standards. The green of spring and summer are gone. The vivid blaze of early autumn colors are gone. The pure and brilliant white of winter has not yet arrived. This is the soft gray of in between, the soft gray of rest, and the earth needs it, too.

There is beauty in these hundred shades of gray. There is beauty in the stark nakedness of the trees, their limbs rising, reaching up toward the sky, scratching at cloud bellies, their roots knuckling under and tangling in dark earth. There is beauty in rest. The autumn blaze is now a soft, pale glimmer of ash. The forest to either side of the trail has exposed itself, offered up its truth, its vulnerability, its open self, unadorned. And Guinnez and I, we are each grateful for the silent wood, each in our own way, but perhaps quite the same.

We have the trail to ourselves for the first three miles of our walk. We can imagine the world as ours alone. Now and then, we veer off the path and walk up to the river to watch her flow. Dry leaves crunch beneath our feet and paws. A woodpecker flies into the tree branches overhead, takes a few hops up the trunk, off on a limb, then pecks for insects, rat-a-tats and finds one.

We stop to look at clusters of berries on a gangly weed. My eye catches on a single branch that still has a row of stubborn red leaves clinging to it, curled like tiny scrolls containing burning secrets. Cat tails stand straight and proud among tall grass, deep velvety brown. Guinnez catches scent and sends a flurry of quail up and away. I toss a smooth pebble into the smooth dark mirror of the river, just to break its surface.

After a long stretch of straight-as-an-arrow trail, we take a sharp bend left, and the trail begins to curve, this way and then the other way. We spot a pattern of white half shells of fungus growing diagonally across a black tree trunk. A patch of bright green, velvety moss stuns the eye. Branches fall and curl in withered vines like knots.

The air is cool and fresh. I breath. I breath deep, and release a week-load of work thoughts and work-worries and other obligations. If I sometimes forget just how much I need this, to be out in the woods, to walk along a river, to see trees, birds, weeds, berries, moss, insects, rocks and pebbles, sticks and tangled vines, and the back end of my happy old chow pup, tail wagging, just ahead, then I full-force remember when I am back in it. This I cannot live without. Wherever I am, on whatever shore, whatever sea or lake, this I need.

Dog and I, we need this. Somewhere along mile five, we are skipping a bit, adrenalized and feeling brightly alive. The seasons change, but all seasons have their beauty, even the inbetween half-seasons, those quiet times that  are not quite this and not yet that, when the earth draws in her breath, too, and ponders where she has been and where she wants to go next.

Love the place where you are now, I hum. And I do. Present in the moment. This subtle place of gentle grayness, between decisions, not ready yet for choices, and not wanting to be anywhere but here, now. Guinnez stops to lift a leg. Yeah, the every day, with time to rejuvenate and take care of one's needs before climbing mountains and crossing oceans again, I can love this, too. I can love routine, and every day chores that keep us on track, and straight path as well as the bend in the path.

I am grateful for this trail, mile six as we near its end, to remind my old chow pup and me that we don't have to be at the world's eighth wonder to see a beautiful earth, and to feel pleasantly tired and rejuvenated in spirit all at once. Sometimes it takes a denuded, skeleton forest to be ready to appreciate it in full regalia again. Two men in a canoe slowly paddle past and wave. I smile and wave back. Guinnez wags a tail.

Trail end: it's been a good day. A day between, a place between, a season between, a moment to hold one's breath and feel the cool air filling lungs, just before bursting into song again.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Journey to Latvia - Part 20 (That Place Where We Belong: Conclusion)

by Zinta Aistars

The Conclusion of a Journey to Latvia

Of queens and paupers, I knew something of both. In the end, I’d rather be a pauper and enjoy a life of wealth, nonetheless. There was greater wealth than the rooms of Rundāles Pils exhibited, rich as they were with silk draperies and elaborately framed paintings, porcelain vases and gold-trimmed furnishings, frescoes of pink-cheeked cherubs on their ceilings and Persian rugs underfoot.

Jānis and I stopped to tour Rundāles Pils, or the Rundāle Palace, near Bauska in the central region of Latvia, after our day in the enchanted forests of Tērvete. The palace had been the summer residence of the Duke of Courland, Ernst Johann Biron, was built in 1736, designed by the Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli in baroque and rococo style. We toured the staterooms—The White Hall, Gold Hall and Grand Gallery—the Duke’s living quarters and staterooms, the Duchess’ apartments, and the exhibition of 19th century fashion in Latvia, and then headed out to wander the lush gardens.

I’d been here once before, many years ago when restoration was just beginning. The palace was still undergoing restoration, but most of the rooms were back to what they were in their day, and the gardens, too, had been greatly expanded. It was quite breathtaking, and yet, I walked from one room to the next and thought …. cabin in the northern woods. All I want is a cabin in the woods.

Now that much of the palace was restored, it was often used by the president of Latvia to greet dignitaries, or by wealthy locals who sought exquisite and unusual surroundings for weddings and banquets and special occasions.

“Uncomfortable, really,” I spoke my thoughts aloud as Jānis and I stood in one of the bedrooms—I’d by then lost count of how many rooms we’d been through. A bed stood inside an alcove in the wall, draped in an emerald bedspread, every corner neatly tucked in, looking as hard as a block of cement. I tried to imagine the Duchess tossing a slipper across the room, just for fun, and showing a pale pink shoulder to the Duke when he peeked in. Come hither, my Duke …

Nah, I couldn’t see it. These rooms were beautiful, but too strict and proper. One dare not touch anything, for everything seemed to cost incalculable wealth. Did these rooms ever resound with laughter? Did anyone ever go skidding across these polished floors? Did anyone lie down in the center of The White Room, shoes tracking in black mud, and make angels in the dust, spinning in circles?

The duchy in the portraits looked very clean and not given to giggles. The Duchess peed in a delicate porcelain bowl decorated with giant goldfish. No, wait, that was for bathing her pink toes, and the pee landed in the pretty bowl, flowered and trimmed along its edges with a thin line of gold.

I’d never been a duchess, but I’d lived a life of relative ease a long time ago, a thousand years ago, when I’d behaved myself long enough to be married to the father of my children, living in a fine home with a cleaning service coming by weekly, and four vehicles parked along both sides of our Kentucky driveway. Spoiled and I knew it. Yet the pull I felt was for something else, and when I left that life, taking nothing but a few personal belongings and my children by hand, I never looked back.

If I ever looked back with any measure of longing, it was for those days when empty cans and bottles picked up along the roadside were traded in for food at the local market, and when I sat on the park bench a block from Jim’s greasy spoon at the end of the night, counting tips stuffed into my apron pocket from waitressing. I didn’t have much, but I had no debt, and I felt free as a bird untethered.

I’d experienced comfort and luxury, and I’d experienced being homeless for a summer, pitching a tent night after night and hauling my cat inside our canvas home for another night beneath the stars. No job, no address, no savings, but I was happy as a clam in a sleeping bag. It was the latter life I dreamed about on occasion, while the former had faded into pale oblivion.

When my financial advisor looked over my plans prior to this trip and admonished me for having my head in the clouds, there was much she didn’t understand about me. One should be careful making judgments about different cultures, but also across social and economic classes. We did not all seek comfort in the same ways, and thank goodness for that.

Granted, although I had lived that way, too, and in Latvia, in a house with no running water and no flushing toilets, heated by wood, I did not aim for such primitive surroundings in my eventual retirement. I rather liked my toilet to flush. And not having to heat my bath water first on the stove was, well, pretty dang nice.

Yet on the following morning, my last full day in Latvia, when Jānis took Alda and me to the Brīvdabas Muzejs, the Open Air Museum in Rīga, for a look at how our ancestors had lived centuries ago, and in some areas of the country, still did… I felt myself more drawn to those simple, clean rooms, swept with a broom, windows open to the breezes of forest and the passing chirp of a bird. Wooden houses built with logs, rooftops of sticks and moss, and inside furnishings that were basic and purposeful—a long table for family and laborers, beds alongside the walls, under windows so one could watch the moon come up, or fall immediately asleep after a long day of hard work.

Maybe I was a bit of an odd bird that way, I wouldn’t argue it. I had no interest in fashion, blow-drying or curling my hair was too much of a bother, and although I’d danced across more than a few ballrooms in long gowns and high heels when very young, my preference now was very much for a softly worn flannel shirt and loose jeans, my hair pulled back into a ponytail.

Closer to the core of things, closer to the truth, closer to where all things began and would someday return, closer to that place without distraction, closer to that one note that hung high in the air and would never fall, closer to that which stood naked and proud when all veils were parted and all masks removed and all hides drawn away, to reveal, to reveal that place where we were all the same and yet each one breathlessly unique.

Closer to where time stands still. Where I could stand on the ground where my ancestors stood, and know myself connected, all one and each one moving all forward. I leaned into the doorway of a house built by my people many centuries ago, as perhaps they had leaned in some long ago moment of contemplation, and felt their voices singing in my bones. What made us who we were, what we were, a people who existed still today and still spoke the same language, one of the oldest languages still spoken on earth, was our ability to survive. To endure the unendurable. To withstand the unbearable. To pick up again, no matter how many times knocked down, and start all over again. And build. Build again. One home set aflame in war, another home raised to greet the future in peace. Even when it didn’t come.

I was proud to belong to these people. I wasn’t always. Like all human beings, we have our weaknesses and our failings. I could be hard on my own family, expected much of them. But in the end, what mattered most, is that we kept on trying. We kept on, and we kept on, and we just kept on rising up no matter how many times we’d been pushed to our knees. After so many centuries of oppression, we kept rising up to declare ourselves free.

I had some flags of my own to fly. Some declarations to make. All in good time. But my journey back to Latvia had given me renewed courage and strength, and deepened my understanding of my people and my own nature.

All journeys change us. This one had changed me, as I knew it would. I had come to close doors, and I had closed a few, but not the doors I had expected to close. I had closed doors on a painful past, finding healing in old friendship. I had opened new doors, or found my way back to them, realizing I had unfinished business with voices that still called out to me.

On our final evening in Rīga, our friends and relatives that lived nearby, gathered at a tiny restaurant just across the street from the Rīga Pils—Vecmeita ar Kaķi (Spinster with Cat, who, legend has it, at long last found love in Rīga and is a spinster no more). Alda and I sat in the middle of two tables, surrounded by the laughter and warmth of dear friends, some older and some newer, even while we missed many beloved faces among our circle. We toasted our time in Latvia. We looked for the right words to thank this place, these people, and found none. None that could contain the love and gratitude we felt for both.

When we returned to our apartment on Pils Iela for one last night, setting our alarms for 3 a.m. to make our predawn flight, I found a comfortable spot on the couch and pressed a few now familiar numbers into my borrowed phone.

We talked for some time, about nothing important, as if this were any day or every day, weather and current events and sights seen during the day. We talked about things that were important—about our children, and about our hopes for their futures. Finally, time being the beast with bottomless appetite that it is, we talked about saying goodbye.

Andris’ voice seemed to grow quieter and quieter. I pressed the phone hard to my ear.

He wouldn’t say it. “Pagaidām,” he said again. “For now.”

I nodded in the dark of the unlit room, the night drawing a black cloak around me and tucking it in. As if he could see, and somehow, I knew he could.

“Tu brauc atkal,” he said. You come back …

“Tu gaidīsi?” Will you wait for me?


He would wait, eagerly. And I would wait, eagerly, for the right path, my path, to open itself before me, reveal that fork in the road, and know that I am being called Home to that place where I belong.