Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Father's Sketchbook

by Zinta Aistars, artwork by Viestarts Aistars

Artwork by Viestarts Aistars

The tiny drawing, framed in a cheap brown frame and hung on the far outside wall of his basement studio, never fails to draw me toward it. Every time. Every time I go downstairs at my father’s house to peek in on his latest artwork, it reels me in like a fish. The little house with its weathered wood walls and red shingled roof. Or are they ceramic tiles? Whatever they might be, they are no longer.

I visited that little house on the Baltic Sea just a couple of months ago. I visit it most every time I travel to Latvia, where my father was born. The house belonged to my great-grandfather. Today, the walls of the little house called Tomdēli, near the village of Sārnate, are covered with pale yellow aluminum siding, and the barn, that red building behind the north end of the house, is nothing more than rubble, overgrown with weeds. Over the holidays, I hear my father telling my niece, Erika, his granddaughter, about Tomdēli and his carefree boyhood summers there. My grandfather kept cows, he said, and chickens, goats, pigs. Wonderful summers by the sea…

I stand in front of the drawing and lean in to see into the past. My father sketched it from memory after he was forced to leave his home as a teenage boy. It has hung on his studio wall ever since. World War II and the Soviet occupation of Latvia are now memories, too, and the teenage boy has become an 83-year-old elderly man, stooped, with a scuffling step, but still with pencil in hand.

As always, there are new works all around my father’s art studio. Here is the richest, most expressive part of his life. Ever since I was a little girl, I watched my father express his thoughts, his feelings, his perspective on life through his art. When his paintings became dark, I knew something troubled him. When light reappeared, a wan shaft of gold, I knew hope had returned. When the skies cleared and became bright, I knew his heart and mind had cleared, too.

I’d always rather envied my father his medium. He paints; I write. While every art form requires its creator to reveal his or her innermost self, I had often pondered how the art form I had chosen, creative writing, required me to get far more naked on that public stage than did his art. One sensed a mood when looking at his drawings, his paintings … but his secrets remain his. No matter how I write, however, even if my characters are little green men on Mars, they reveal my core sense of self. Every line of dialogue states my values. Every scene I choose to describe, from whatever perspective, recreates my inner geography. My hero tells the reader what I most admire and respect. My villain tells its flip side.

The first time I ventured to write a novel, in fact, it struck me fully how revealing a piece of writing can be. Fiction? Not really. Everything a writer produces is yet another puzzle piece to an autobiography. Anything less than putting ourselves into that work wholly and honestly, and the quality of the work suffers. The reader knows. Intuitively if not consciously, the reader senses a lie, or a half-truth. Characters are one-dimensional, their dialogue rings false. A writer can’t fake it. There is no holding back.

As I so often do, I sit down on my father’s wooden stool by the easel and pull a sketchbook from his bookshelf. I love paging through these old books. I always go for the oldest first.

Many of the sketches are from travels, or from visits to my home, or my sister’s, or the home of some other friend or relative. I find drawings of family members, unaware that they are being observed. I recognize favorite vacation spots. I find a drawing my father has made of himself, standing on a beach, and gazing across to the other side, a horizon lined with evergreens.

My eye traces the lines. The easy curves, the careful shading. Some of the sketches are mere thoughts in passing, a daydream. Others are a careful study, taking time.

I begin to realize … my father has shed some skins here, too. Perhaps I am not the only one standing alone on a public stage. My thoughts and dreams and values, my heartaches and disappointments, my soaring moments, my wandering line of thought may be easier to decipher … but I see that his are here, too.

He draws what draws him. Where he sees beauty, his pencil follows. What he respects and admires receives care in detail. What interests him appears in the picture; what repels him fades away. Or never makes it into the picture at all.
I can tell which places he loves most. The lines flow easily, almost like an embrace. When he is having fun, there is a flourish to the line his pencil makes.

Perhaps he had to be as revealing of himself in his art form as I in mine. No doubt a careless reader will miss what is between the lines, and the careless observer will miss the play of light and shadow, the care in every line and paint stroke, in my father’s work as well. Indeed, it occurs to me, that the reader and observer bring their own selves to the manner in which they interact with art. We all project something of ourselves in what we like and dislike. It just could be that the art connoisseur must stand naked in the light, too. When we declare to others what moves us, we are making a statement about ourselves.

However that may be, I page through my father’s sketchbooks with care. Every time I look at them, I see something new. Some detail that had escaped my eye previously now appears … and it may be that my sharper eye says something about me, too. In fact, I’m sure it does.

I treasure these drawings as I treasure the artist who created them.

To view more artwork—sketches, oil and watercolor paintings—visit Viestarts Aistars on Facebook and on MySpace.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Punches and Rolling with Them

By Zinta Aistars

That would be the trick of getting through life and doing it fairly well, I think—rolling with the punches. What that idiom means is that one takes the hit, but rather than taking it full force, rolls with it, and so diminishes much if not most of the blunt force behind it. Stand stubborn and resist, and it will hurt a lot more and cause more damage.

I’ve done quite a bit of rolling over my lifetime. Rolling means I have to give up control at times of where this ball will land. Give up the hard edges and curl up into a ball, and you may travel this way or that, ending up in some unknown place and circumstance. Maybe a good thing, maybe not. You just don’t know until you let go. But when you roll rather than resist, you get to keep a lot more of your innards and bones intact. And your sanity.

One of my favorite holidays approaches: New Year’s Eve. In general, I dislike holidays. Oh, I do enjoy the time off from work—that’s a necessity if we are talking about maintaining said sanity. But the making of a “special” occasion means instantly adding pressure to, well, be special. Rather than just relaxing and enjoying the occasion, suddenly there is stress, and the game is on to make the occasion rise about the common day.

I like the common day. Some more than others, sure, but the common every day is a good day. Our lives are made up less of special occasions than they are of common days. Look closely, and there are actually plenty of special trimmings on the common day. It begins with the moment of waking, that moment of being aware one is alive, despite and in spite of everything, and that in itself is special. It keeps going from there. To be alive means all things are possible.

Times Square, New York City
 New Year’s Eve is a milder holiday. If one so chooses, it can be trimmed with all kinds of party-throwing stress. I’m betting the folks who organize that massive gathering on Times Square in New York City every New Year’s Eve wouldn’t call it stress-free. I’m sure they long for a real holiday right after it, just to take a deep breath and rest from all that specialness.

It is what we choose. As I’ve gotten older, I have chosen quieter and simpler celebrations of the night into new day, beginning of another year. Looking over a lifetime of more than half a century of such celebrations, I glimpse parties, popping champagne corks, bursting fireworks, dances 'til dawn, floating balloons, streamers and confetti. I glimpse family gatherings, and gatherings with friends in homes. I glimpse long, luxurious romantic nights for two, far away from the madding crowd. I glimpse walks across frozen lakes, looking up at a sky studded with crystalline stars, wondering what the future will bring. I glimpse sitting on a rooftop, huddled under a warm blanket, trading resolutions. I glimpse bonfires, red and orange sparks dancing upward toward another night sky of stars. I glimpse children, asleep in my arms.

This New Year’s Eve I had hoped to repeat one that I spent three years ago, one of my favorites. I had planned to camp out in the snowy woods with a few friends and our dogs, dog sledding through the fluff, drinking bubbly out of tin cups, our tents circled around a campfire.

All week I’ve watched the weather forecast. While much of the country is frozen in deep snow, southwest Michigan has only a dusting of white, and it looks like even that may be washed away soon by … rain. Thunderstorm? Yes, the forecast for New Year’s Eve is mid to even high 40s Fahrenheit with rain, even a possible thunderstorm.

Of course, I am disappointed. I had purchased a new sleeping bag, made for minus 20 Fahrenheit, and was eager to give it a try. I was thinking about taking my old chow pup, Guinnez, along for the adventure. I had looked at photos from that night three years ago, and smiled every time, remembering. What a fine way to make this holiday special, and without undue stress or pressure. No gifts to buy and wrap and exchange. No dressing up in finery. No need to have perfect Norman Rockwell family gatherings. Just hanging out in the snow with some pals and our dogs and making tracks.

Roll with the punches, I remind myself. Sh— happens and so does warm weather … in winter. We still have plenty of winter to go, and surely some weekend will open up and we can give this plan another try.

I consider a few more conventional invitations I’ve received to join parties, turn them around in my mind, and decide against them. In a generally very busy lifestyle, some of those most special moments for me are the unbusy ones. I think I will opt for something pleasantly quiet. One friend, one bottle of bubbly, old chow pup curled at our feet, and the clock slowly ticking toward midnight. Nice.

I’ve rolled into quite a few odd and interesting places in my life when I have rolled with the punches. Most any time I have thought my road ahead was a pretty sure thing, that I could see clearly for at least a few miles and predict the outcome—the road will take a bump and a twist and surprise me. Not at all how I had planned things. Sometimes that sharp bend in the road has taken me into some pretty dark and scary woods, and I have had to wage some unexpected battles to free my path again. Sometimes when I thought I was going to a known place, the road would twist and take me to some other place, and hurrah, sometimes even a much better one. I just had to trust that would work out, and if it didn’t work out, that I was equipped to handle the challenge.

In this time between Christmas and the New Year, I have watched people around me go into the holiday with bright faces, high expectations, giddy excitement … and then emerge with pinched lips and downcast eyes and deep disappointment. Not what they expected. Not the gift, not the perfect family gathering, not the scene painted in their hopeful imaginations. I’ve heard that statistically the holiday season sees more human tragedy in people giving up, even higher suicide rates, than any other time of the year.

Oh, that’s sad. Truly sad. Yet I don’t think the answer is to lower one’s expectations. I have known dark people with shadowed hearts who go through life protecting themselves from disappointment by maintaining low expectations. You will hear such people say, expect nothing and you will never be disappointed. Watch what they get, time after time: nothing. Pretty disappointing.

I think the answer is more along the lines of keeping high expectations of life. Aim high, really high, right up there with those dizzy and crystalline stars. But if you miss that one star, roll with it and see if you might not catch another. Do your rolling in the sky rather than down in the muck. There is just one nothing, but something can come in a lot of different shapes and sizes, in an endless variety of packages.

If you aren’t alongside your imagined love—whether in person, or place, or life occupation—consider that the only true love is all about loving imperfection. Embrace it and watch it shine.

An unchallenged life is a pretty boring one. Go for the adventure. In this upcoming year, push yourself toward the farther horizon. Leave yourself less protected. Open a door where there was once solid wall. Declare the day, any day, a special occasion. Wipe the slate clean and choose colored chalk for your next drawing. Everything you have so far experienced has brought you to this moment like no other moment. Watch for the miracle.

Resolve to enjoy the journey more and care less about the destination. You never really know where any road will take you. When you realize that the mystery of it all is the best part, you’ll have learned to roll with the punches. Changes in your route are more fun to travel when you aren’t all hard edges and sharp corners.

Expect the stars, and be one. Don't just count your blessings, but be one.

Happy New Year, every day.

And yes, next snowy weekend, January or February whatever, I'll be out there, with bubbly in my tin cup, calling it special.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Bah Hum… Oh What the Heck. Deck Those Halls.

By Zinta Aistars

I surrender. Oh no, not to those masses of sales and the long lines for stuff, no, no! I surrender to the spirit, the true spirit, the buried spirit of the holiday—Christmas. It is the day of Christmas Eve, and my extended family is preparing for our annual gathering in Chicago, at the home of my sister’s family. Even my old chow pup, Guinnez, is coming along (and don’t tell him, but he is about to be dragged into the bath for a good suds-ing to make him scentfully presentable and to meet the approval of my sister’s cats, almost). 

Several Christmases ago, my sister bought me a black scarf, and embroidered on it, in gold thread, are the words: “Bah Humbug.” Every year I enter the family hubbub muttering under my breath, epithets against this holiday that has somehow become, for me, the symbol of all that is bringing this nation down—a shallow materialism of the worst kind. Not the pursuit of happiness, but some mistaken and crippled offspring, the pursuit of more stuff. How did the birth of a man called the Son of God, born to us to save us from, among other things, becoming obsessed with stuff rather than spirit, come to this? 

Mind you, I’m no born again, bible-thumping, salvation-spewing religious fanatic. I do believe in treating others as we wish to be treated ourselves. And I can tell you—I do not want more stuff. Family love and appreciation from friends will do, and that is what I do my best to offer in kind. I’m not even sure that December 25 is really Christ’s birthday. I have heard theories that that particular star alignment, with one shining above all others, more likely happened in summer. Maybe, maybe not. But somehow some Saint Nicholas, who no doubt was also not into stuff, got messed up with this holiday. And he was the “god” that took off and created shopping sprees. Apparently my American countrymen and countrywomen decided they liked a fat flying elf better than a swaddled child in a barn. 

A child today is no longer admonished to be good so as to reach a higher level of enlightenment, but must be good in order to earn more stuff out of Santa’s bottomless bag. We no longer teach doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do ... but do it for reward.

Let’s just say that this day is my least favorite of the year. I avoid stores and malls as much as possible. The traffic jams of grumpy and rushed shoppers keep me on side roads during this season. When the day is finally over, I breathe a sigh of relief, and look forward to my true favorite: New Year’s Eve. A time of new beginnings. No different than any other day, really, but why not choose one and call it a clean slate. Most of us don’t need more stuff, but probably all of us can use a clean slate about now.

But today, it is December 24. One more week to go before I can wipe this particular slate clean. I have the day off from work, and when I wake after a rare eight-hour sleep, I feel refreshed and at peace. Peace. Ah, yes. Peace. This kind of feels like … Christmas. Suddenly, I feel something of the spirit enter, and I get out of bed with a smile. My old chow pup groans like the old man he is becoming and heavily slides off the bed to the floor and heads for the back door. Prostrate calling. I pad after him and let him out. Grind some beans and put on a pot of coffee to brew. Feed the cat and let her lick the last bit from my finger. Contemplate the almost empty duffel bag on the floor. 

I did buy a few things. A few. My daughter mentioned holes in her socks, and I have half a dozen colorful, warm new socks rolled into balls in my bag. I noticed my son, dropped by for dinner earlier in the week, sporting the Jethro look with a thick rope holding up his old jeans. A belt for him. And, quietly, I picked up a few unpaid bills. Some of hers, some of his. Give them a head start into the new year. Maybe not what they wanted, but surely what they need. 

It’s possible that I might paint a few stones this lazy afternoon, too. My family knows about my big basket of smooth stones, collected from beaches along Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and the Baltic Sea. It sits on the floor in my living room, next to the fireplace. Eating breakfast, I glance at it, and a vision of tiny winter scenes float through my mind. Christmas Eve last year at my sister’s house, and after a delicious dinner with the family, I slipped out for a walk in the snow with Guinnez, and for a while, my mother tagged along, then waved and tossed a snowball as I kept going and she turned back to the warmth of the house. It was snowing, and the evening had a surreal blue light before turning dark. 

I pick up a stone and hold it in my hand. Blue snow … evergreens heavy with white … a lone lantern shining in the night. Would make a fine gift …  and would be one for me, too, to spend the afternoon with tiny paintbrush in hand, rather than leaning over a computer editing work copy. 

And I realize that I am feeling like Christmas. There it is, that gentle something, that warmth, that silken contentment entering the heart. The act of creating and giving, it seems to be somewhere in there, and not in the long lines at the store. The act of taking time, a moment to think of that other while working on a little lump of joy. Because as I take the tiny bottles of paint from my cupboard, it is family I am thinking about. I see their faces. My mother, my father, my daughter, my son, my sister and her husband and children, and the new faces, too, the new loving partners our children are bringing along to welcome into the fold. I see them all. Before I am even there, I am embracing each one. 

My heart swells with love, almost too much to hold, and just behind it, a warm and deep happiness. I can hardly wait to see everyone. When I do, I will wish each dear one: Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Shrinking Down Numbers to a Dream

by Zinta Aistars

Not one day goes by that I don't think about it: how to get myself, my life, moved up north to something simpler, something more remote, something quieter and more at peace. I'm a bit of an odd bird, and I know it. I don't care. I am a woman who likes getting older. For me, that means a ticket to freedom from the daily grunge and leaving behind the rat race. Far behind.

I also love winter. It is my season of exhilaration.

I also don't give a hoot about fashion, or new shoes, or shopping. I don't particularly care for stuff. On the other hand, when I walked into a outdoorsy sports store yesterday, shopping for a winter sleeping bag, my heart started to race as my eye wandered the shelves of camping equipment. Two weeks away from camping with dog musher Mary and greeting the new year on a dog sled pulled through the snow ... I can hardly wait. 

I finished reading Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille a few days ago, and lost no time opening the covers of Woodswoman II. One of the reasons I think about my future move into woods is that I know it is a life about which I still have a great deal to learn. So many times we have a fantasy in mind, only to find the reality much more harsh, and once the glow is off, much less desirable. Would my move to a cabin in the woods turn out the same? Would I miss some of these luxuries of civilization? You know, like electricity at the flip of a switch, or a flushing toilet, or running water ... ?

Honestly, at first flush of fantasy, I wasn't thinking about doing without these. But you know how love can be ... blind and silly and idealistic. When I drove north last September to meet Gretchen, my Keweenaw realtor, we surely covered some 200 miles in one day of looking at properties, some of which were cabins and cottages, many of which were open acreage of land. I learned a great deal that day, about what questions to ask, what considerations were important and which ones less so, what legalities and zoning would matter, and so on, and so on, and so on. I had a reminder of just how raw nature can be. How relentless, how unforgiving, how not easy.

I also fell in love with a certain cabin. It was far more remote than I intended to be. It had a generator for electricity, a sauna for cleaning, an outhouse, a stove that worked on gas, and water was hauled in. Roads would close down in winter, buried under snow, forgotten by everyone.To live there year round would mean either owning a snowmobile or keeping more careful notes when Mary talked about her dog mushing. I realized on that trip that I could not live that kind of lifestyle without a shotgun or two hanging on my wall. Just in case. And I came to realize why no one living in this manner seemed to have household pets, cats and dogs, running loose in their wilderness yards. There were bears nearby, and wolves, and bobcats. Household pets make a tasty lunch.

Reality dawned. This would be no retirement of convenience. Was I nuts? 


"Got a lot of nerve," Gretchen said, grinning and shaking her head. Gretchen's house is a neat little place tucked up on a hill in Houghton, on a residential street and side by side with other pretty houses with shutters and decks and flowerbeds. And indoor plumbing.

A lot of nerve. Or plenty of foolishness. I could imagine moving up there into the wild wood and finding out within a few months that I had gotten myself in too deep. There were risks, many of them, and all of them increased as I imagined myself getting older up there. It is one thing to move into the wilderness as a woman in her mid 50s or 60s. Another thing entirely to be 85. Or 90. Genes in my family for long lives abound. I can already feel how my body is changing, even now, quicker to tire, with less hand strength, a bit less endurance. After all, when Anne LaBastille built her cabin in the Adirondacks, she was still in her 20s, a strong, young woman, and she lived there all of her adult life, yes, but was eventually, if rumor has truth to it, placed in a nursing home with Alzheimer's ... I didn't even want to think about that. 

I toss that jumble of fears around in my head most every night as I go to sleep, preparing for the next work day. What if some drunken hunters in deer season stumble across my cabin in the woods and decide to give me a hard time? What if my axe swings left rather than right when I chop wood for the stove, and I hit a shin instead of a log? What if my heart gives out, and I take a fall, and no one can hear my whispered shout for help? What if one of those bobcats that chases my dog for fun decides to give me a run?

Anne LaBastille
Oh heck. Anne addresses as much. As I read her Woodswoman books, I take comfort in reading that she had all the same questions, and more. She, too, rolled fears and worries and concerns around in her mind day after day. The same ones, and several of them happened. She had to purposefully develop a reputation for being a bitch to keep those drunken hunters away. She chased away a  group of such drunken so-called deer-hunters with a shotgun. They didn't bother her again. She did end up getting injured, falling from a ladder, getting a sudden attack of appendicitis, dusting her eyes with caustic cement dust to cause chemical burns to her eyes ... there was plenty of that. Part of the territory. She also survived all of it, none the worse for wear, only wiser.

Anne also retreated to the city from time to time, to fulfill various work obligations as a freelance writer and public speaker, talking to groups about ecology and the saving of the environment she had so grown to love. Her description of her first day back in the city is priceless. A SWAT team surrounds a neighboring house where a burglary has just taken place. A rapist is loose in the neighborhood. Parking tickets litter the windshield of her old pickup truck. Traffic jams drive her to despair as she witnesses road rage, and feels some of it herself. Pollution accosts her senses.

In short, risks and inconveniences are everywhere. There are just as many risks living in the city. Perhaps more. What it comes down to is to find our own comfort zone. It is the unknown that is the most frightening of all.

Still, I have a lot to learn. The phrase "babe in the woods" has taken on new meaning for me. Browsing through the outdoors sports and hunting store, I realize how little I know about the furnishings of that outdoors world. I eavesdropped on a man telling his female companion about how to choose the best sleeping bag for what kind of usage. "You want to unroll the bag and let it hang for at least 24 hours before you take it out on your camping trip. If you don't, its temperature rating will be half what is advertised."

I took note.

To do is to learn.

This would be my second camping trip in the dead of winter. I loved the first experience, even as I learned many lessons, and watched Mary the dog musher set up her camp with experienced hands. I was such an amateur. I would be less of one this time. And I had no doubt I would learn important lessons on this trip, too. Nothing replaces experience.

The secret to aging gracefully is to keep learning.

The other secret to aging well is to keep expanding one's horizons.

Yet another secret to aging with gusto was to nail down that dream one has had since childhood.

Who knows, will I buy this particular cabin? or find another one? or build one of my own? I knew this: that I would regret it with every fiber of my being if I let this dream go. I had had it in my mind and heart for far too long ... since early girlhood.

There was still some room for compromise. Possibilities were open and inviting. Perhaps I didn't have to choose one home over another. I had spent all my life, after all, calling more than one place Home; why stop now? Maybe a place in Latvia during the season when roads close down in the more remote areas of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Maybe I could keep my house in Kalamazoo, as I work now to pay off the mortgage and own it free and clear. There was something to be said for having a place closer to where my adult children's families would be expanding in the future.

I had time to figure this all out. My focus now is to pay bills, pay them all, erase all debt, and in so doing, buy my freedom. In this way, too, perhaps an odd bird, as one of my very favorite activities now is to sit down to the "chore" of paying bills. I love it. Each time I do so, I add up the numbers and look at the bottom line ... this is how much closer I am to buying my freedom. My freedom to choose a dream, and finally to pursue it. I watch those numbers shrink, and my exhilaration grows.

My wardrobe now is as dull as they come. I turn no heads. I have stopped cutting my hair to save a few dollars, and more often now simply twist it into a rope and pin it up with a large comb at the back of my head. Recently, someone referred to me as a blonde, and I bristled. "Blondie" is my daughter, not me, and as pretty as those golden locks are on her, I was born with nearly black hair, thank you, and liked it that way. I spent my adulthood with long, dark brown hair. No more. It is now fading to a paler and paler shade as I give in to the whitening of my hair.

I am not a girl anymore; I am a woman growing older, with gray roots making themselves known. I am finally accepting that. I now find myself even greeting it ... the gradual metamorphosis from girl, to young woman, to an older woman who has acquired a great deal of experience and still holds a fond dream. An older woman who still has fire in her heart and fire in her belly to do what feels right, regardless of what others do, regardless of the advice of some while learning and being inspired by others.

I rather like this getting old enough to be allowed my measure of eccentricity. If I was a tad wild as a girl, I am a tad off my rocker as a midlife woman. I like it that way. I've earned the right.

Time to time, I check on that cabin up north. Still for sale? It is. Buried now deep in snow, road swept away into drifts of white. I imagine myself there. I imagine how a Monday morning will feel as delicious as any Saturday night. I imagine risk, and sometimes trouble, but that is something that I would have to face no matter where I am. Only its shape and flavor would change.

I keep dreaming. I keep planning. I keep marking off days on my calendar. I keep waiting for the next payday, to add up to the bottom line again and see it with a smaller number, pared away. A little bit closer. Maybe it will be that cabin, and maybe it won't.

There are some areas in life where I have learned to let go, and let the winds blow and the dust settle where it will. Something will tell me. If someone else buys that cabin before I am ready, so be it. It was not meant to be, because some other place is silently waiting for me. Some plot of land, some other doorway opening to the next phase of my life. I can live with that.

Meanwhile, I will keep acquiring experience. Testing myself against the wild. Reading, learning, asking questions, rolling around those worries and open-ended questions in my mind until I have tumbled them into smooth answers, or a willingness to move ahead without all answers yet in place.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Do It Again: To Mush Into 2011

by Zinta Aistars

Our camp site, mushing in 2008

This time I will be better prepared.

Three years ago, on New Year's Eve, I received a phone call on the morning of December 31 from my friend Mary the dog musher. She asked if I wanted to join her for a camp-out in the snow, complete with three dogs and dog sled, to greet the new year of 2008. I was in my toasty warm office when I received the phone call. I didn't hesitate for a moment. You bet, I said. Count me in.

It was a remarkable experience, and I've often thought of it since as one of my best New Year's Eves. Sure, I froze myself into an icicle. Sure, that night saw one of that winter's fiercest blizzards. Sure, Mary's car battery died in the morning. Dang, it was fun.

I didn't hesitate this time, either, when Mary started in with, "Remember that New Year's Eve in the snow?"

"How can I forget," I replied.

"Wanna do it again?"

"You bet. Count me in."

Mary with Willow, Naboo, Hannah, Moose Tracks
 Only this time, I'd learned my lesson. Lessons. The first and most important was that a three-season sleeping bag will not do for that fourth season, even with extra blankets below and above. I have carefully avoided any and all shopping during the holiday rush -- I boycott Christmas, restoring sanity to my winter season -- but I will venture out this weekend to shop for a winter bag. Not just for 15 degrees above. I want one for the big Zero or better. If it hadn't been a three-dog night three years ago, I would surely be frozen solid still. Mary had slept on one side of the tent, snoring cozily in her Yukon winter bag, hound dog curled at her feet, the second dog lying between us, her breath a puff of white above her cold black nose, and the third, Willow, glued to me, my arms wrapped tight around her for body warmth. Brrrrr, it was cold, and the ground felt like solid ice beneath me, the chill rising up and into my bones.

So why do it again?

Because it was obvious to me, from observing Mary, that the right equipment for winter camping made all the difference. She was snug as a bug in her bag, cheeks rosy with warmth when she zipped out of it in the morning.

My next lesson was to never leave any of my clothing, not even for a short while, outdoors. While pitching our tent in the blizzard, I'd warmed up enough to take off my coat and laid it out on the tent. Minutes later, it was so wet from the snow that I could have wrung me a river.

And there were a few more lessons. I made careful note of each, for future reference. The overall lesson, however, was that this was one heck of a memorable way to spend a New Year's Eve. No drunk drivers here, deep in the snowy woods. No crowds. No noise. Only the stillness of great white snowflakes floating down like cool kisses on the morning of January 1. The world had never looked more beautiful. When Mary had me get up on the back of the dog sled and called Hike! to her three dogs, all girls, then let me loose onto the trail, I caught my breath with wonder. We were racing at top speed, yet our movement was utterly silent. The dogs ran with obvious joy, the sled skidded across the white surface, and the white-laced trees of the forest hung over us like a shimmering canopy.

I would never forget that experience, and I wanted to experience it again.

Mary mushing
 This time, Mary and I would take two tents instead of one. Not only do I plan on having a new winter bag to keep me warm all night, but I will have the foldout cot I bought a couple summers ago to keep me entirely off the ground. We are having a generous stack of wood delivered to our campsite for a campfire to keep us warm and set the night aglow. We are starting the trip earlier and staying later. I am taking five pairs of woolen socks instead of just two, an extra pair of boots, and I am considering bringing my own old chow pup along, too.

What the heck, this time I will bring two bottles of bubbly instead of just one. And I have some frozen strawberries in my freezer, picked last summer, to toss into that tin cup of champagne for breakfast. Camping in style.

Trading emails with Mary as we plan our adventure, Mary reread my essay about our New Year's Eve three years ago. She wrote:

"Well my friend, rereading your essays brought tears to my eyes for so many reasons ... We had such a great trip to get Ivy and then on New Year's. Your words had it all flooding back. Thanks for being such a great writer and putting it down so that it can be revisited.

"The loss of three dogs -- all great and still missed. Shasta is a lovely girl but doesn't have the exuberance of Hannah -- well not many could. She is quiet and well mannered, but does love to run. The genes run deep! Willow has mellowed some and Naboo is showing her age -- wants the comforts of home and warmth and shorter trips..."

Our three dogs on the sled that year were Hannah, Naboo (a retired Iditarod dog), and Willow. Ivy came later, another retired Iditarod dog that Mary and I drove to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to bring back. We both fell in love with this small, wise dog immediately. Just a few months later, a car veered off the road near Mary's house and hit Ivy in Mary's back yard, killing her. Hannah has passed away, too, old age. Naboo and Willow will join us again, and I will meet Shasta, Mary's newest, for the first time.

It will be a new and different experience. We have all gotten a little older, a little wiser. The craving for nature and its beauty, and the itch for adventure remains, and will carry us into the New Year.

I can hardly wait.

Ivy, RIP

Mary's Facebook page for those interested in learning more: Backyard Mushing.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Smoking Poet Winter 2010-2011

THE SMOKING POET WINTER 2010-2011 ISSUE is online now at
“A fine cigar and good literature―two of life’s most enduring pleasures.”

I watch for the blizzard as I pack up my winter camping gear—I am hoping for it. Three winters ago, I camped at Fort Custer, near Battle Creek, Michigan, in the midst of a blizzard, pitching a tent with my camping companion, Mary the dog musher. It was New Year’s Eve, crossing the threshold into 2008 (scroll down for the story and photos) and we stood in the shimmering white at midnight, three dogs around us, and held our blue tin cups up to the fleecy sky in a toast to the New Year. On the morning of the New Year, Mary harnessed the dogs to the sled and I hopped on for the ride. This silent slide over the snow, beneath the white-laced trees, was an experience to remember.

So, this New Year’s Eve, crossing the threshold into 2011, I’m doing it again. You’ll find me on the dog trail, racing through the snow. In my book, there is just no better way to slide into new beginnings.

Speaking of books …

And, speaking of beginnings, new starts, open doors, crossing thresholds, clean slates, fresh adventure—we bring to you a winter issue like none other. It’s a chatty one. We talk to some fascinating people. Dorianne Laux, poet extraordinaire, talks to us about her fifth poetry collection, The Book of Men. Lisa Hickey, publisher of The Good Men Project Magazine, talks to us about good men, and why we love them that way. Michael Loyd Gray talks to us about his novel, Well Deserved, in four voices. Jen Knox shares with us her remarkable story, Musical Chairs, of her journey from being a stripper to becoming a writer, editor and teacher. Lori A. May talks to us across a wide range—she does everything in writing. And, from Latvia, Laimdota Sēle talks to us about researching the many centuries-old history of Ventspils, city on the Baltic Sea, for her newest novel, Cērt Zibens Marmalē (Lightning Strikes the Sea).

The artwork for this issue, in fact, is also from Latvia. The photos you see throughout our winter pages were taken by me and by coeditor Andris Sīlis. We met again this past fall, after 17 years, in Ventspils, Latvia, and spent a day exploring Cape Kolka at the northernmost tip of the Kurzeme province, where the Baltic Sea crashes up against the Gulf of Rīga. It was a day of wonder and mystery, swathed in fog, and we wandered among the fallen pines along the Baltic shore. Enjoy the photos—and the travel essay.

As always, our pages are filled with stunning contributions of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and cigar reviews. Book reviews and music reviews will be continuously refreshed throughout the coming season, so read them now and keep coming back for more. Links and Resources are ever expanding. Kalamazoo & Beyond shows off local talent.

For the first time, we are especially excited to open the doors of Our Gift Shop. All proceeds go to support our ongoing efforts to showcase the very best in literary talent. Shop, enjoy, and do good for writers who work hard to excel.

We want to wish all of you a wonderful winter season, celebrating holidays, beginning a new year, stretching your literary muscle to reach your fullest potential. If there is space on your gift list, please consider a gift to The Smoking Poet, to support our efforts to shine a light on some of today’s brightest and most promising new and established talent.

With much gratitude to my co-editors Joannie Kevran-Stangeland, Mick Parsons, and Andris Sīlis.

May 2011 be a year of great adventure.

With a good word,

Zinta Aistars
TSP Editor-in-Chief

Andris' Blue Note

Namaste by Various Artists

Wild Angels by Mary Ann Hobbs

Cigar Lounge

Kandahar 286 by Cpt. Earl E. Weigelt

Deadlines: Our Mick smokes a Cuban Robusto Reject

Book Reviews

The Book of Men, poetry by Dorianne Laux

Cērt Zibens Marmalē by Laimdota Sēle

The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood, edited by James Houghton, Larry Bean, Tom Matlack

The Merry Baker of Rīga by Boris Zemtzov

Musical Chairs by Jen Knox

stains, poetry by Lori A. May

Well Deserved by Michael Loyd Gray

The Smoking Poet

WINTER ISSUE 2010-2011 ISSUE #17


Sara Basrai
Stefano Cagnato
David Corbett
Erik Fassnacht
Ruth Foley
Kimberly Grabowski
Michael Loyd Gray
Lisa Hickey
Jessica Barksdale Inclan
Grace H. Jung
Dorianne Laux
Colleen Little
Amy MacLennan
Kristina Moriconi
Thomas Naber
Scott Owens
J.R. Pearson
Gabrielle Rose
Kristi Petersen Schoonover
Laimdota Sele
Ian D. Smith
Melissa Studdard
Ray Succre
Jari Thymian
Marc Taurisano
Margaret Walther
Earl E. Weigelt
Sarah White
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

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Sunday, December 05, 2010

Caring for Children

by Zinta Aistars

On a routine work day, I sit in my office in one of the many buildings of a large health care organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan, working at my desk. Now and then, I venture into one of the hospitals or research labs to interview health care personnel about their work and write an article about it for one of our many publications. I am a publications editor and writer here. Truly a great job. I have learned much over the three plus years I have worked here, met countless remarkable people doing remarkable things in health care, helping us all live longer lives in good health.

This past week or so, however, I have had an opportunity to leave my office and work directly in one of our hospitals--a new children's hospital that opened its doors on December 3, but will be filled with its first little patients on 1.11.11. There is a significance in that number. It is a hospital that puts children at number one ranking.

I have been working as a volunteer on various floors of the 14-story building, helping to guide tours of donors, visitors from neighboring hospitals, physicians and employees (we have nearly 17,000 people working in this organization), and also the community. It is great fun to see faces light up with wonder. The new children's hospital is really something to see.

Walking the halls, looking into the as yet empty patient rooms, operating rooms, emergency rooms ... I, too, feel great wonder, even as at moments my throat chokes up and my heart twists a bit. On one hand, I am awed by the level of both caring and technology that has gone into this building. Cutting edge, indeed. Miracles will be happening here, every day.

I am also awed at the details, the thought that has gone into choosing colors that soothe, creating play spaces that help heal the spirit, making room for family members to rest, stay overnight, cook meals, do laundry, say a prayer, gather around their little patient in warm support. Even the artwork is thoughtful: all done by children, as if in greeting and comfort to peers who will enter here. But when I stand in the doorway of a space called The Resuscitation Room, I feel a little faint. I can imagine what scenes will yet unfold here. What pain and fear families will experience here ... and I can only hope most of these scenes will have happy endings, even as I know not all of them will.

How far we have come from the days of my own childhood. When I was 8 years old, I had to stay in a hospital for a month. I underwent major surgery, and my memories, still vivid, still edged with the sense of a nightmare from which I could not wake, occasionally still haunt me. As my physical body underwent tests of endurance, what the medical field didn't seem to understand back then, was that my spirit, too, my emotional self, underwent tests of endurance, as well.

It is just good common sense that health care involves not only the human body, but the mind and the spirit, too. We are all of these things, and separating them, not only in health care, but in ALL aspects of life, only leads to disaster. My body, these physical scars, has long ago healed. I realized, as my gut tenses and my heart skips a beat, looking into these patient rooms today, that my spirit hasn't.

Memories still lurk there. Ghosts still haunt. Decisions and choices I make today, so many decades later, in different areas of my life, thread back to my experiences as an 8-year-old girl.

I pause in the door of a patient room in this new building and stare: 330 square feet, an entire wall of glass looking out onto daylight and the city around us. There are 212 of these private rooms for ill children in this place. Every possible comfort in a less than ideal circumstance. Flat screen television, a desk, a large bathroom with shower and full-size tub, a sofa that folds out into a bed, and for the health care part of it, every imagineable accomodation. Every child treated as if he or she is the only ill child in the world ... and to someone, he or she is.

Back in my day, visiting hours were strictly enforced, and nothing could be more frightening to a child in physical agony and indescribable fear of the unknown in a stark white building than the sight of one's parents, backs receding down the long white hallway into the night, ushered out by hospital staff, leaving one entirely alone.

I remember that room. Large and white, walls lined liked a barracks with hospital beds. Children in each one, and oddly enough, none of them crying. Only an occasional suppressed whimper. I, too, was silent. When I spoke, it was only in whispers to the girl in the next bed. She was in a full body cast, suffering from some odd ailment or disease I could not fathom, that caused her bones to shatter like thin glass at every contact. She had been here already, numerous times, for one surgery after another, and she seemed to have adopted an attitude of acceptance ... accepting that life equated to suffering. Yet she was not bitter, nor did she seem afraid. Most of my body was wrapped in bandages, too, and she whispered back words of comfort, or welcome distraction. I grew to love her, my friend in shared experience of our silent nightmare, and I endured because she did.

On the day that my friend vanished, her bed empty and sheets impossibly white and clean and unwrinkled, no one bothered to explain to me what had happened to her. No one talked to children back then, it seemed to me. No one considered that we needed something more than meds and injections and pats on the head. No one mentioned that children can die, too.

In today's hospital, specialists and counselors and social workers buzz around families, talking, explaining, soothing frayed nerves, working through fears. Toys created especially for illustrating what will happen during medical procedures allow children to ask questions and "practice" through treatments soon to be received.

I knew she had died. But I took my cue from the adults around me, and I didn't say a word. I asked no questions. Nor did I say a word about the intern who took me into an examination room, unwrapped my bandages, gasped at the sight of what I later came to understand was a badly botched surgery.I didn't say a word. I no longer even whispered. I didn't greet the new patient in the bed beside me. I stared at the white tiled ceiling above me and stopped counting the days as they passed without marking. When my mother came to visit, I listened to the stories she read to me, or told to me, and made no comment. By the time I was 8 years old, I understood that life was a battle that I had to learn to wage alone.

Day after day, I was given injections. I had no idea what the injections contained, nor what they would do to me. I heard the nurse remark to my parents what a good girl I was, never complaining, never shedding a tear, always submitting to whatever poking or prodding was done to me. Until one day. One day, when another nurse came with the usual injection. After weeks of not making a sound, I started to scream. I thrashed and I screamed and I pushed her and her needles away. Even my mother could not calm me. I screamed until my throat was raw. I screamed until they held me down, people in blue scrubs standing all around my bed and holding me down, the needle pushed into my arm, until I fell into a drugged sleep.

Walking the hallways of the new children's hospital, I imagined those future little patients. Rooms that were not included in the tour had colored paper chain ribbons taped across them. The very first patient to use the new room would be allowed to cut the ribbon. It was almost like a party. It was almost like a celebration of the precious life of each and every child.

There are so many ways in which I think contemporary American society has neglected children. Values seem to have diminished with time, careers and the pursuit of materialism taking precedence over spending time together as families. A dinner table with family gathered around it seems to have become a thing of the past in many households. The holidays are heaped with toys under trees that no child really needs. What every child does need is our time... and not just quality time, but a great quantity of time, and yet that is what seems to have dropped away from our busy schedules.

We need to champion our children. We need to advocate for them, in sickness and in health. We need to stand by them, talk to them, hold their hands and give daily hugs, lots of them. We need to listen to our children. We need to have conversations with our children. We need to remember what it was like to be a child ourselves.

What a wonderful thing is this place, this new hospital in Grand Rapids. I hope we remember that these little patients deserve our very best, even as their healthier counterparts do.

I wish that little girl in the bed next to mine, her bones shattering like tinkling crystal inside her little body, could have experienced this place. Her name was Alison.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The roast that brings in the customers

from Southwest Michigan's Second Wave
a feature story by Zinta Aistars

Thursday, December 02, 2010

"Every town needs a coffee shop to call their own and many Kalamazooans claim Water Street Coffee shop. Writer Zinta Aistars finds out about the roast that makes the sun rise at the city's most popular coffee joint."

From 1934 to 1985, the owner of the little red brick building on the side of the railroad tracks at 315 East Water Street pumped gasoline into the cars of Kalamazoo residents. In 1993, a bright blue sign with a rising sun advertised Water Street Coffee Joint, and the new owner of that little red brick building, Mark Smutek, began to pump steaming hot coffee into the residents of Kalamazoo.

Today, he and the baristas of Kalamazoo's best loved coffee shop are pumping coffee at a rate of 2,000 pounds of roasted beans per week, retail and wholesale.

Smutek and his staff of about 50 baristas, cooks and bean roasters fill Kalamazoo cups and mugs in what will soon be ....


Other articles by Zinta Aistars on Second Wave:

Growing the local economy with local food

Gilmore biennial keeps Kalamazoo in tune with global vibes

Tea shop owner reads a bright future in tea leaves

Dog mushing: It's not just a winter pastime

Gallery taps into buy-local enthusiasm