Monday, December 26, 2011

A Promise to Love

by Zinta Aistars

Derek and Lorena

When the two of them talked about it not being all about sunshine and happiness, then I knew these two were keepers, that their life together would be a success. My mama's heart sang.

Derek had asked my daughter Lorena to marry him a couple days prior to Christmas, and they had kept it all hush hush until they arrived at my house on Friday evening, December 23rd. Lorena stood in the kitchen with a mischievous little Mona Lisa smile on her lips, and Derek perched on the stairs, when she held out her left hand for me to see ... and oh my, it was a beauty, this diamond ring he'd bought with such care for her. I squealed and enfolded my baby girl in a happy  hug.

"I wanted to see your face when we told you," she smiled.

Shucks, I wasn't surprised. None of us in the family were. It was clear two years ago when Lorena first introduced Derek to the family that they had a special connection. I loved listening to their shared laughter ... and sooner or later, everything between them ended with laughter. If they understood that a shared life would be much more than just sharing happy moments, they seemed to have the magic ingredient of long lasting relationships: they knew how to laugh together. They are best friends who fell in love.

We all knew .... we just didn't know when. Now the world knows and laughs with them, a twinkle of joy at new love. Our world can always use new love. New hope, new dreams. It really does keep this silly, wonderful, scary, complex, grand world turning.

My very best wishes to you both, my darlings. Congratulations.

Lorena and Derek share their news with her grandparents

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Good Time

by Zinta Aistars

Rough day. If anything could go wrong today at the office, it went extra wrong. Murphy's Law had settled like a dark cloud overhead. By lunchtime, I was questioning everything. Including myself, and that's never fun. Every decision, past, present or future, seemed iffy. Today was the kind of day that I felt so far from my best dreams that they were a fading pinpoint in the next universe.

Five o'clock and the end of the work day couldn't feel sweeter. With a sigh, I was out the door. And still, that dark puff overhead floated along. As soon as I merged onto the interstate toward home, an SUV the size of a small mountain pulled up behind my little Civic. Pulled up so close his headlights bobbed just above my bumper. If anything happened ahead of me, no doubt in my mind I would get rear ended. I tapped my brakes to indicate that he was too close.

His response? He pulled back just far enough to aim headlights into my rearview mirror and turned on his high beams. I blinked at the glare, shoved my mirror down to keep from being blinded. For the next several miles, he stayed glued to my bumper, high beams on.

Yeah, Merry Christmas to you, too.

Finally, I had a chance to slip through traffic and into the next lane, blinking to get my vision back. My mind rumbled over bumpy thoughts all the way home. Maybe I'd chosen the wrong career. Maybe I wasn't cut out to be a writer, after all. Maybe living alone deep, deeper, deepest in the woods was an excellent idea, all communications with the civilized world severed. Maybe I would never achieve zero debt so that I could find out. Maybe I'd be spinning in this gerbil wheel forever, and the harder I ran, the faster I stayed in place. Oh hrmph.

I coasted home on cruise control. Easy driving. Only that was a bummer, too. I'd been waiting and waiting (and waiting) for a good snow, and not a flake to be seen. A little drizzle, a little spit, but the world remained triple shades of gray and black and piddly brown. No winter joy. I'd suffered through a long, sweaty summer for this?

Grumble, hrmph, spitty spit, mutter, grump. I even felt a spot of wet collect in the corner of my eye. This was not a good time.

By the time I drove into my driveway, it was solid night. Even so, in the faint silvery flow of the street light, I could see something hanging from the doorknob of my front door. A little gift bag. I skipped up the stairs to take a closer look. The bag was a pattern of red and green and gold, a beautiful Christmas globe at center that said "Merry & Bright." The handles were silver rope.

I plucked the bag off the doorknob and took it inside. Fed the dog and cat, picked through the day's junk mail, put a pot of homemade soup on the stove to warm up.

Then I sat down next to the fireplace, set aflame, and took another look at the gift bag. Merry & Bright ... I wasn't feeling it. But how sweet to find this gift awaiting me home on an icky day. Who was it from? What was inside?

I drew out a card in a red envelope. On it: "Zinta/Mom." And I knew. It was from my son and his lady Dawn.

My heart pinged. I knew, here was a large part of the reason I was dragging my heels into this holiday. My son and his lady would not be among us for Christmas. Oh, how I would miss my boy, grown man that he was ... and Dawn was dawning a sweet color of rose on his horizon, bringing light back into his life.

"For a Mother who loves and gives so much ... " I read the card, and my eyes got misty again.

Inside were two gifts, each carefully wrapped. A pillar candle, because I can never have too many, and something else, wrapped inside an intriguing swirl of gray paper. Written this way and that across and around it were sayings about TIME.

"Timing is everything."

"Take time to smell the roses."

"Take your time."

"Time will tell."

"Time is on your side."

"There's a time to work, and a time to rest."

"Time heals all wounds."

"I'm having a great time."

I unwrapped slowly, taking my time, and inside was a delicate little hour glass. I set it on the corner of the coffee table and watched the glittering sand begin to trickle through the slender middle, from the top into the bottom of the glass.


They knew ... how much time I spent worrying about time. Not enough. Too  much left. How to use it. How best to enjoy it. How not to waste it. How to save it. How to spend it well. How to cherish it. Where to direct it. When to keep a tight hold on it and when to let it fly and when to just let it go. And most of all, I worried about when it would be the right time ...

Time. Sometimes I lost track of it. Sitting here now, in this moment of time, I watched the tiny grains swirl through to the bottom and was mesmerized by the trickling sands of time. I had started to practice meditation recently, and this hour glass seemed like a wonderful way to measure time in a soft, unobtrusive way as I lost myself in time.

Funny. Watching the grains of sand pass like time, I felt the stress of the day ease away. My pulse slowed. There was nothing I could do to stop the grains of sand from falling. I could not slow them down. I could not speed them up. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Time just kept flowing.

For this moment, I could just be. Time moved ahead without my assistance. What I needed, what I wanted to accomplish, my son and Dawn were right, time would tell when time was right. There was so much I still wanted to do, and I was frustrated at not having the time, or that it wasn't that time yet that I could immerse myself fully.

It was not yet time, and I had to do my time until it was. If I could just slow my mind, I would be able to move through the confusion and find the answers.

Odd, how this little hourglass inspired introspection, even as it calmed me into a slower pace.

I brewed a cup of tea, sat down again, sipped and watched the grains of sand. Nothing would ease the ache of time spent apart. My daughter and her Derek were coming out for the holidays. Someone near, so dear, someone far, so dear, and the heart simmered between joy and sorrow.

Time spent waiting. Time passed doing. 

As the old year passed into memory, and the new year approached with a promise of fresh-to-be-used time, I wondered at all its promise. In time, my son and his Dawn would be back home again, too. Good times would come again.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Announcing! Fall/Winter 2011-12 Issue of The Smoking Poet!

"Words that turn the page to flame."

Pottery by Ed Gray (Jikiwe)

Something about a New Year … a clean slate. Whatever didn’t meet our hopes and standards in the previous year can be left behind, marked “lesson learned,” and we can move ahead with reinvigorated creativity. Think of it as a rewrite—writers get that. Almost nothing comes off the pen, or the keyboard, without room for improvement, and it’s the rewrite that brings polish to the pearl.
2011 was an exceptional year for The Smoking Poet. The highlight of the year was our 5th year anniversary in April, a reading of 14 authors participating and an audience that left just barely room for standing. So what can we do in 2012 to beat that? Well, in our sixth year, we hope to expand our collaboration with Kalamazoo, Michigan’s NPR affiliate station, WMUK, bringing more author interviews to our readers—and our listeners. Not to worry if you don’t live within the 102.1 FM frequency. You can listen online at WMUK’s site or right here on our pages.
Now entering our sixth year, we bring you an artist, Ed Gray (Jikiwe by his Ojibwa name), and a group of writers and poets from the far north—the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Writer t. kilgore splake refers to their long winters on Lake Superior as “the long white.” That’s a time when bears go into hibernation, but artists surface, using that time of winter silence and solitude to immerse themselves in their art and emerge in the spring with new visions of creativity. We bring only a few of the Keweenaw and U.P. talents to you in this issue—there will be more to come in our spring issue.
Author interviews have expanded. Katie Alvord talks to us about divorcing our cars. Rick Chambers talks to us about self publishing. Kurt Cobb talks to us about peak oil. James Sanford talks to us about beating cancer. Recording broadcast interviews include Joseph Heywood, Michael Loyd Gray, Maryann Lesert, t. kilgore splake, Vic Foerster, and others to be added throughout winter.
And we have travel essays, memoirs, poetry, fiction to inspire you and keep you reading through your own long white. A Good Cause invites you to consider Miss Representation, how contemporary media portrays women with a stunning video and a challenge.
A warm welcome to Kim Grabowski, our newest intern from Kalamazoo College. She will play a big role in moving our winter into spring.
Got some holiday bucks to burn? Visit our Gift Shop, proceeds to writers and the maintenance of our online literary magazine.
Don’t miss our book reviews! We add to these pages throughout the season, so keep coming back—there is always something new here for you to enjoy!
With a good word,
Zinta Aistars
TSP Founder and Editor-in-Chief

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Kalamazoo Foods Market on Second Wave

by Zinta Aistars

Southwest Michigan's Second Wave has published my article about the Kalamazoo Foods Market. I do so enjoy writing articles about fresh food!

Photo by Erik Halladay of Damon Geary at the Kalamazoo Foods Market 

Kalamazoo Foods Market keeps it fresh through the winter

by Zinta Aistars

Thursday, December 15, 2011

During the summer months local food fans get used to fresh produce. At the Kalamazoo Foods Market the opportunity to find local produce extends for months to come. Zinta Aistars talks to co-owner Damon Geary about the community that comes with creating such a place to shop.

Read the complete article with wonderful photos by Erik Halladay.

See also ...

Growing the local economy with locally grown food

Sawall Health Foods leads the way organically

The roast that brings in the customers

Serving up burgers with inspiration on the side

Bringing the best of the Middle East to the Midwest



Monday, December 12, 2011

Healing Between the Lines

by Zinta Aistars

No better editor than the one who can gently point out all the rifts and fault lines in your manuscript and still remain a cherished friend. I’m lucky. After dinner this weekend, I sat down with my friend, the esteemed editor, to go extensively over the manuscript I’d recently finished—what I had half-jokingly called my fantasy autobiography. Past and present truth leading into an imagined future.

And we writers all, without exception, need such an editor. Any who think this step isn’t necessary should sign up for a few therapy sessions to understand ego issues.

When it comes to editing my work, I leave ego on the other side of the door. After all, this isn’t about making me feel like a star. I’m not fishing for compliments. This process is about making my work as good as it can possibly be. Sometimes, it can also mean flinging my work into a bonfire.

We talked for hours, into the late night, about my first draft. My chosen editor asked me a great many pertinent questions. Some of them I could answer. Some left me hanging. I had no idea. Slack mouthed and wide eyed, I could only shrug.

They say writing is therapy, and I would say it may just be the best kind. To write true, the writer must stand naked in the spotlight, fully exposed, even the skin cut and peeled away to expose the meaty red beating of the heart. Hide one chewed off fingernail and a good editor will catch you on it.

Mine did.

Yet it wasn’t that I attempted to hide. Not knowingly, at least. My modus operandi in this first draft was to write so fast that I would outrun my inner critic and censor. I expected the work to be dirty. I was still hoping to achieve some kind of clarity.

Instead, what I now saw exposed on this stack of pages was not one fleshy heart, but two. I had not one voice in this story—I had two. Inside one main character, I had exposed two conflicting and conflicted persons, each one pulling in the opposite direction, and so the character twirled in one place where someone else might skip along ahead with a carefree whistle.

For the rest of the weekend, I mulled and pondered over our discussion. The weekend was almost entirely over before I dared pick up the manuscript to read the editor’s notes in the margins. I couldn’t argue with one single point. Not one. My respect for my editor friend was immense.

I rolled up the manuscript and considered tossing it into the fire pit on the deck out back. Certainly wouldn’t be the first time. At least one layer of the depleted ozone layer is due to my burning of my manuscripts. Deep inside, I always know when I have fallen short of the level I wish to achieve.

This didn’t sadden me. I recognize it as part of the process. I’d grown up watching my father, the artist, discard canvas after canvas, paint over many of them, or cut out a salvageable corner where he’d hit the mark and toss the rest. Early on, I learned that having good work to show meant having a very full wastebasket.

Was this salvageable? Was there a corner I could save where I’d hit the mark while tossing the rest? There probably were, and quite a few, but sometimes I think it is best to keep the exercise incorporated in one’s writer muscle and proceed on a clean sheet.

Yet the fault lines here went deeper than that. This wasn’t about writing skill. The fault lines were about me, my life, and where I had found my way and where I was still twirling and thrashing. Where I was still looking for answers, my writing lacked definition. Where I was still unsure about the values I admire, my heroine stumbled. Where I was still ambivalent about my own direction, my storyline got lost in the woods.

The next step for my manuscript wasn’t so much about new writing as it was about taking a moment to look in the mirror for introspection. Yes, writing is indeed therapy.

I remembered the first time I attempted to write a novel, still in my early 20s. I was just a few pages in, intoxicated with the joy of the process, when I suddenly hit a wall. I came to a dead stop. I can see myself at that moment as clearly as if it were yesterday. I sat down right there where I stood, in the middle of the kitchen, and sat cross-legged for a long, long time, thinking.

Like any story, my new novel had a main character—call him my hero if you like. What would he look like? How would he behave? What did he want in life? What caused him conflict? What kinds of mannerisms were distinctive to him? How did he respond to others? What were his ideals? What made him howl in pain, in rage, in bliss?

Holy moly, I had no idea! To move him even one step forward in the story, I had to answer a great many questions. And all of those questions came back to me. What were my values? What did I admire in a person? What made someone good or evil? To create another, I had to first define myself.

I’d once heard someone advise a writer to take his or her character out to dinner. Observe how this character behaves, eats, treats the waiter, dresses, converses. Something like a first date. It’s all in the details.

When writing my fantasy autobiography, I was taking myself out to dinner. It was a revealing experience. Where real life can tolerate indecision and waffling on goals, fiction is much less tolerant. In reality, characters move in and out of our days without ever making a second appearance. Thoughts go unfinished. Mysteries remain unsolved. If all that were brought into a book, readers would lose patience. In our books, we like our stories to have beginnings, middles and endings, with all loose ends tied up.

While something in me protested about so much orderliness in a work of literary fiction, I knew that my plot waffling reflected on my internal waffling. In my pursuit of my best dreams, I wasn’t nearly making the kind of progress I might be if I were to make a few more hard, solid, nail-them-down decisions.

I set the manuscript aside. I will make THAT decision later. There was other work to be done first. It might just require a few hours of sitting in the middle of my kitchen, cross-legged on the floor, and asking myself: Just who is my heroine? What does she want more than anything else? How will she get there? What demons must she face before she does? What is she willing to give up along the way?

Only then, answers to questions firmly in hand, can I return to my second draft.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

On Becoming a Hood Ornament

by Zinta Aistars

His light was a solid red. Mine, the sign at the other end of the crosswalk, read WALK. I was on my way to a holiday lunch at work, served at the hospital cafeteria, our executives and leadership serving up quarters of chicken and thick slabs of prime rib with wild rice, a medley of vegetables, croissant with butter, greens with dried cranberries, and raspberry cheesecake. It's a delicious meal, and all the employees show up ... there are, count 'em, about 18,000 of us. Yet each year for this annual holiday meal, the long and winding lines move remarkably quickly.

I'm thinking lunch as I step off the curb. I have no idea what he was thinking. Two lanes of cars were idling at the intersection, waiting for the light to change, but suddenly the driver of the white Ford on the outside lane decided he wanted to turn on the red ... turn right ... right through the spot where I was walking. He was looking left, watching for oncoming traffic, but I was in front of him, in front of that wide silver grill as it started to move toward me.

I made a yelp and a leap to my right, but I couldn't outmanuever a moving automobile. Next thing I knew the car's bumper was plowing into me, and if I didn't want to go under, I would have to go up. I bounced up on the edge of his hood and he hit the brakes.

I was okay. Surprised more than hurt. I got out of his way but then turned around to glare at him. His window came down, and I saw a kid, maybe 16 or 17 years old, wide eyed.

"Are you okay? I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

For some reason, I needed to reach out and touch him. A kid. I walked up to his window and squeezed his shoulder. "I'm all right," I said, "but you need to look both ways! Not just traffic, but you need to look for pedestrians, too!"

He nodded, pale.

Lunch then. The chicken was excellent. Drop off the bone tender and juicy. I enjoyed it and I felt fine. Only later, working at my desk again, did my left side feel a new soreness spreading, hip to knee. I thought about my grandfather, Latvian author Ernests Aistars (1899-1998), with a dozen published novels. He's long gone from me now, but I often think of his spirit, still with me. I thought about the time he was hit by a car as a pedestrian.

Pencil drawing of Ernests Aistars by Viestarts Aistars

My grandfather lived just shy of 100 years, and except for the last couple months of his life, he was always in remarkable health. Tall, slender, handsome, vibrant, he never missed a day of walking. It was the only exercise he did, but he couldn't accept a day without putting in a few miles. If for some reason he couldn't go outside to walk, he would pace the hallway in the house, back and forth, back and forth, holding his hands behind his back, deep in thought. I figured he was working out some thread in his next plotline.

Lidija and Ernests Aistars, my grandparents
My grandfather and my grandmother Lidija were known by everyone to be the perfect couple. They were often seen holding hands, huddling together, evident joy on their faces when they saw each other. Not once in my life do I remember a hard word between them, a look of impatience, or any evidence of discord. They were hand and glove. She taught language and literature at the Latvian school, and she edited and typed his handwritten book manuscripts. He had been director of the Jelgava Teachers' Institute in Latvia; they were two educators in life--with four sons, my father the eldest.
My grandfather with his four sons at my grandmother's funeral
When my grandmother died, none of us in the family or among their friends could imagine one without the other. How would he keep going without her? He walked. He read. He wrote. A painting of my grandmother, painted by my father (artist Viestarts Aistars), hung on his bedroom wall, and my parents once told me when visiting him on an evening that he'd been heard talking to the painting, still telling the love of his life about his day ...

My grandfather writing with chipmunk as muse

His walks weren't just strolls around the block. In his 90s, he no longer drove a car, but he walked everywhere--at a fast pace, with a long stride, covering miles in a day. He had rented an apartment about two miles outside of Kalamazoo. That meant frequent walks to the downtown library, two miles there, fill tote bag with books, two miles back.

That evening, my grandfather was on his way to the grocery store. If memory serves, he was 95 by then. The store wasn't so very far away. He cut across the street a little before the crosswalk, and that was his mistake. A Chevette had just made a fast turn right and he was right in its path. The car plowed into him, so hard that it threw him a good 50 feet across the pavement. An ambulance was called out and soon had him racing across town to Borgess Hospital ... where my father was already an inpatient.

My father at one of his art exhibits
Now, my father was once a great walker, too. When I was growing up, the two of us enjoyed long walks together in the evenings, talking art. His painting, my writing. But my father had back problems, and by now, this was his fourth back surgery. All those painful surgeries made no improvement on his crumbling spine. As straight-backed as my grandfather was, standing next to him, my father was bent over with chronic pain. More than once, those not in the know made a mistake identifying which was the father, which was the son.

When the ambulance brought my grandfather into the emergency department, my grandfather was conscious and grinning. No Chevette was going to dent his humor. In his Latvian accent, grinning, he told the attending physician and nurses: "I don't drive anymore. I needed a ride here so that I could visit my son, here for surgery. Thanks for the ride."

Stunned, they looked up the names of the admitted patients and found my father. After careful examination, finding no broken bones, no internal injuries, my grandfather, with badly bruised legs but otherwise no worse for the wear, was placed in the room next to my father.

I wasn't sure I wanted to continue that legacy. At least I wasn't thrown 50 feet. And I have some years, decades yet, to put down before I would get to my grandfather's age then. I figured there was a good chance I'd inherited not only his love for literature, but I was hoping for the genes of longevity and endurance, too.

Odd to say that becoming a momentary hood ornament on a white Ford brought back good memories. But it did. I massaged the sore area on my left thigh, wondering if he wasn't grinning down at me, up there somewhere, holding hands with my grandmother, tellling me to write a story about it, make it a good one, and keep walking.

For a catalog list of my books and my grandfather's books currently available at the Latvian National Library in Riga, Latvia, visit RIIM.


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt, Kettle Chips, and Triple Crème Brie

by Zinta Aistars

That’s me wishing happy birthday to me and giving myself a good dose of pampering. All within a very grown up birthday. After all, it’s a Tuesday, not exactly a party day, and I am nose to deadline grindstone all the work day. My one reminder that this is not just an ordinary Tuesday is that I get to park in our own parking lot today. I usually park across the street—with the other little people—as the parking lot next to our office building, small as it is, is meant for directors and clientele only.

The only thing I’m trying to direct is the copy on the page I am writing and editing at my desk—and my life.

I slip out on an early lunch hour to beat the crowd and make a run to Martha’s Vineyard, a nearby deli and wine store, to find myself something extraordinary for lunch. Usually, I eat at my desk, taking a little time for myself to read a book or indulge in a little creative writing or even put my head down for a moment and grab a cat nap.

With deadlines pressing, I will do no differently today, keeping up with assignments so I can be sure to get out of work on time. But something decadently delicious—oh yes, today I deserve that. I prowl the deli for goodies. There’s a particular cheese I especially adore, and they keep a bushel of fresh-from-the-oven baguettes in paper bags to go with it. There it is—a large triangular chunk of Saint Andre’s triple crème brie. This isn’t just any brie. This is triple times better. Creamy and silky and melt-on-the-tongue rich and delicious.

I pluck a large bar of Chocolove Almonds and Sea Salt in Dark Chocolate from the shelf. Every square is marked with a heart, and a love poem is printed on the inside wrapper. “And all the stars that crowded the blue space/Saw nothing happier than her glowing face … “ by Lord Bryon is tucked inside mine.

A bag of kettle chips and a tub of creamy dip, and a large jar of Brownwood Farms Northern Michigan Cherries. And there, behind the glass of the deli, my coupe de grace: a dark chocolate mound, as big as a fist, drizzled with more chocolate, with hints of caramel inside. I hold up two fingers and nod. Price tags are a little frightening, but it’s my birthday! and I purchase it all with a smile.

Dinner will be waiting for me at home; I’ve already chosen my favorites in the morning—smoked pork chops from Jake’s Country Farms nearby, roasted potatoes, Swiss chard and acorn squash still from last season’s garden, and a heaping side dish of mushrooms sautéed in fresh butter.

I know there will be a gift or two as well, but I know what I cherish most about this day. The more of these birthdays I have, the more I look forward to the best gift of all—time with loved ones, and an experience to remember.

Amusingly enough, the little red light flashing on the corner of my cell phone all day long adds to those simple pleasures. From morning until late, birthday wishes come in from my Facebook page. My friends there vary from very close and intimate to barely known but with shared interest in literature. Regardless, I smile every time the red light blinks. Another “Happy birthday, Z!” has just appeared on my “Wall” and somehow it does what it should—adds a little humanity to technology. These wishes arrive, after all, from various points across the globe. They delight me. It’s a small world, after all.

The simple pleasures … ever more appreciated. Less stuff, more memories. Less prestige, more meaning. Less glory, more truth.

Closing my office door to lean back in my chair and tear off a piece of baguette and slice into that creamy brie, I fill with the warm sense of blessing. I am nearer to where I want to be. The occasional setback, but my focus remains true. Not a day goes by that I don’t ponder my dream and how I might maneuver myself one or two steps closer. The last several weeks have tossed more than one setback in my direction, and some of that hit hard, even had me reeling for a while. But there was little time to brood, only time to plan a new maneuver, and so—to it. Get on with it. The goal remains unchanged.

One candle will go on my chocolate bomb tonight, one candle only. The years may accumulate but the wish is only one. Most all else I could want I already have. I am old enough and wise enough now to know when to say: Enough.

I ponder the manuscript I recently finished for a short novel, now in the hands of a trusted writer and editor. I have jokingly called it my fantasy autobiography. Indeed, that’s what it is. Much of it is from my life, and what yet isn’t, I hope someday will be. I’ve dug back into my past to uproot what has shaped me, tangled it into daily frustrations, and then worked it out again into threads that lead me into my future.

In that novel, I am the age I become today. I am entering my future today—the future I have predicted and worked toward. The story ends about a year away. Have I written my own future?

I pop a square of salted chocolate into my mouth and let it melt across my tongue. As my eyes fall onto the notes strewn across my desk for an article I am working on, I see the quickly scribbled words: “Believe. When we marry intention with action, miracles happen.”

At this moment, there are a few large gaps in that path paved forward. Steps I don’t yet have any idea how I will make them. I realize I may be facing some pretty big tests of my resolve, and points of reevaluation, perhaps even needed changes in direction. And still—that vision at the end is clear. I’ve come to understand that the journey itself is making me worthy of the goal.

Without this journey, without these obstacles, without these tests, the goal itself might fade away like a mirage. I am being shaped and molded and evolved to have the eyes that know how to see the beauty, the heart that is capable of embracing the commitment, the wealth of experience to recognize home when I get there—in person, in place.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Occupy Holiday

by Zinta Aistars

Soft, lazy rain pattering on the roof. It's a Sunday, last day after a four-day holiday, a Thanksgiving spent in and around Chicago with family. Back home now, and the house is quiet, very quiet, with only the occasional movement of my black calico cat, changing the direction of her curl into a long nap, and my old chow pup occasionally coming by to check for news and finding none.

It will snow soon. This slow rain will turn to soft snowflakes, and I'm ready. Winter will begin, a season of a deeper silence. Snow absorbs sound, covers it with lace, and perhaps that is in large part why I so long for the winter.

Only the Christmas holiday .... for that I feel no longing, only gladness when it passes with the least amount of ruckus possible. First hint of its turn toward the dark side of human nature was already apparent as Thanksgiving wound down ... in my sister's living room, we all sat around, gaping at the news on the television, even though every year at this time we see it again and again, film clips showing crazed mobs spilling into stores, screaming, shoving, grabbing for the nearest bargain, turning into frenzied stampedes as they run for the cheap television, computer, iPad, toaster oven. Emergency rooms fill with those who are injured. There are even fatalities. For a pair of designer jeans?

I do not understand it. I never will. I do not want to.

In their chase for the bargain, these people miss what has made my Thanksgiving sweet, and might have made theirs sweet, and I'm not talking pumpkin pie. Have we learned nothing? Has this lurching of our economy, so many families losing their homes to foreclosures, savings emptied, bills going unpaid, credit cards piling up to swallow lives whole, left no lasting effect on our consciousness? All the talk is about Black Friday, this day after Thanksgiving, putting businesses back into the black, making our economy grow.

Grow? Toward what exactly? Our goal should have been to achieve sustainability. We have "grown" enough, and the crash was, is, hard. It was "growth" based on no substance, all lies, all hot air, all fantasy and wishful thinking. This is not  recession we are experiencing now. This is coming back down to earth. Hitting hard reality. Here is where we should start finding our way back to reason.

When those mobs crowded stores, buying stuff and more stuff and yet more stuff that nobody really needs, my sister and I decided to get far away from the madness.

We had enjoyed a wonderful meal with family on Thanksgiving. My brother-in-law is the family chef, and he worked in the kitchen from early morning until late into the evening, a labor of love, preparing the golden bird, the stuffing, the mashed potatoes sprinkled with dill, the sweet potato casserole with pecans. My sister baked a sweet corn pudding, a cranberry relish, and two pies for dessert--cranberry apple and pumpkin with fresh whipped cream.

All yesterday's memory now, and too few leftovers in the refrigerator, as we drove just out of town, northwest of Chicago, to a quiet corner of Libertyville on Friday. St. Mary's on the Lake is a retreat and seminary, Georgian style buildings unobtrusively built around a lake, with quiet roads and pathways inviting a long walk.

I brought my old chow pup along, Guinnez, eager to stretch his legs and sniff the myriad scents of the woods and the lakeshore. The three of us stroll at an easy pace, a little wishful for a snowier scene but nonetheless enjoying the denuded forest, the occasional doe emerging from the woods to nibble at a last leaf. The lake is ever to our left as we walk, and the nearly three-mile stroll takes us across five bridges lined with tall white lanterns and only now and then past one of the seminary buildings, a church, a cardinal's retreat house, a campus library.

We come across an altar in the woods, a great wall built of oddly puckered and pocked rock, and a statue of Mary embedded in its side. Rows of tiny candles burned at the base. Bits and pieces of paper were rolled up and tucked into crevices between the rocks. I had no paper, no pen. I had no matches to light a candle. Counting rosary beads is not a part of my religion, and icons do not move me, but I found myself needing to take a moment for prayer.

I was here in Chicago on this holiday without my children. Although we had gathered at my house for an earlier holiday meal the weekend before, my son was now back in Michigan and my daughter was in Colorado. I missed them both, sorely. I bowed my head and prayed, mother to mother, asking for protection of my children and guidance on the paths they had chosen and the paths chosen for them.
This had not been an easy holiday, but there is no more healing a distraction from our worries and problems than sharing time with what family we have near. I was grateful for the rich blessing of mine. I was grateful to still be able to chauffeur my elderly parents back and forth to Chicago to be with us. I was grateful for my bond with my sister. No matter how vastly different our lives and the lifestyles we have chosen, we have always found common ground. I was grateful for the pleasant distraction before returning to working on those various problems awaiting me at home.

But here I am, back home again, listening to the rain on the roof, basking in the silence. There is a time for cheerful noise of family gatherings. There is a time for solitude, and no longer dancing around the thoughts and subsequent decisions that at some point we must tackle. Yet the issues that cloud my horizon now are, alas, not all mine to solve, and much of it requires the hardest task I know .... to let go and to wait. Wait for the answers others provide. Wait for resolution. Wait for decisions out of my hands.

Up to me is how to respond once the waiting is over.

A text blips on my cell phone, announcing that my daughter has returned from her trip to Colorado, safely home again. I wait for her phone call later in the day to tell me about her trip, and I wait for the phone to ring again, from my son. A mother's heart ... always circling around her children, no matter how far they may be, how grown they are, still, as my own mother reminds me, still and ever our babies, our heartline, even when the child grows gray.

Raindrops streak down the window. My old chow pup slumps on the rug by the sliding door to the backyard, dreaming of romps on a drier day. I watch him raise his handsome red-furred head to gaze out the window, take a long dog sigh, then rest his soft muzzle on his paws again.

I think about something I heard a few days ago from a supervisor at a hospital emergency department during an interview for an article I am writing. Holidays, she said, are the hardest time of the year for very many. While the media would like to present it as a happy time, a time of celebration ... and the retail businesses as a time of sell-ebration ... that tends more toward myth than reality. Statistically, she said, there are more suicides and suicide attempts during the holiday season than at any other time of the year. More depression, more domestic violence as tempers and disappointments flare, more broken families. Even heart attacks and strokes increase as bodies break down from stressed spirits.

How sad, I think. And how disconnected from those raging sales mongers and messages of joyous Noelle. Once, so very long ago, it was meant to be a season for reaching out to touch others and to open our hearts and share our most loving selves ... it was a time to remember the value and meaning of spiritual communion rather than a blitz of shopping. The whole point of Christmas was to remind us that material things will not  save us, but love toward our fellow man will. How did we lose our way?

Something about holidays makes our hurt places surface more than at other days of normal routine, I think, and the myths perpetrated by elf-riddled movies and glowing advertisements of limitless bounty only make it worse, the disconnect that much sharper edged, for those who have not. The holidays tend to spotlight the imperfections in our lives. Rather than focus on all that we have, the contemporary version of Christmas emphasizes all that we do not have: perfect lives, fat wallets, mountains of gifts, and relationships spread with honey. All things perfect. Not. And so the suffering becomes keener, hearts break and tempers bust and bodies break and lives shatter.

We just don't want to consider all that. It doesn't glitter. Another image comes to mind: I recently saw someone on Facebook pass along a post that read, "I am allergic to negative people." Really? Meaning who exactly? Those who are in pain? Those who are worn out? Those who may need a hand up? Those who have lost their smile, their hope, their way?

Perhaps in that one line we have summed up all that has gone wrong with this season and with this society all year round. We prefer the myth to reality. We prefer distraction to contemplation. We prefer stuff to substance. We prefer an artificial happiness, achieved without deserving. We prefer to live in a state of ignorance, because at least momentarily it feels like bliss. If we are enjoying a moment of personal happiness, we want to shut the door on any possible reminder that others may not be.

Thanksgiving was wonderful. It's blessing will carry me through hard times I know will yet arrive. It was a glorious time to absorb the positive, feel its warm embrace around me, giving strength and courage to work through the negative. There is a season for all things, and a time for all kinds of emotion. Eternally positive people in my book are escape artists, maybe even con artists, picking and choosing some emotions while repressing and suppressing others.

The holiday season should be for us all. Those of us with imperfect lives need a holiday, too, and I'm pretty sure that means all of us. It should be a time that opens community-wide arms to welcome the sad as well as the glad, the homeless as well as the wealthy, the 99 as well as the 1, the old and withered and ill as well as the young and beautiful and vibrant. It should be a time that gives new hope to the well situated and lucky as well as those down on their luck. After all, the lucky today may very well be the unlucky tomorrow.

If life were fair, we would all rise up on our good deeds and hard work. Life is not fair. Never was, never will be; it is the nature of living. Sometimes, too often in fact, those who do everything right can have everything go wrong by chance and circumstance. We turn away from that hard fact to our own peril.

Sometimes our days are surprisingly warm and mild, but some days it rains. We lean against the rain-streaked window, energized by good times spent with those we love most so that we can be available to share our strength when it is most needed. I missed my babies this past Thanksgiving, but I am thankful that their mere existence so enriches my life. Mary, hear my prayer. You know what it means to lose a Son, to watch Him suffer and be able to do nothing. Some paths we must travel to the very end. Let us give thanks. Giving thanks, after all, is always a bargain.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Catch Me If You Can

by Zinta Aistars

On my long morning commute to the office, I watch the ominous skies. The sky is heavy, gray, and the clouds with full bellies, hanging low. For a moment, a hint of snow swirls across the road, riding the wind, then vanishes again.

It’s that between seasons time of year, not quite autumn anymore, not yet winter. Trees are bare, leaves fallen, and all the colors seem to have been washed away. It is a landscape of bleak browns and shades of gray.

It’s one of my silent mornings. My radio is turned off, my thoughts free to roam without distraction. The road itself does little to interrupt my daydreaming—in my fifth year of this commute, I know every bump on it. The car very nearly drives itself.

My mind wanders to the novella manuscript I finished a little over a week ago, titled Catch as Catch Can. I am slowly reading it again, trying for that objective eye, and making edits, marking places to be rewritten. Once I finish this first set of edits, I will hand it over to a dear friend who is also a writer, my “first eyes” that I trust for suggestions of more edits. Then, marinate. Set it aside for a month or three, to take it up again later and do another rewrite, a final polish before beginning submissions.

Art takes time. I love giving it that time, and only wish I had more of it to give. I gaze at the highway stretching ahead, a line leading to a horizon that I never reach. It is, in fact, the topic of my novella. I have called it my fantasy autobiography. The narrator is a woman just past the midpoint in life, longing for a freedom she can’t yet attain. Like so many of us, she wears golden handcuffs, imprisoned by financial constraints and obligations, coupled with various emotional ties, not yet able to pursue her fondest dreams—to head north into the wilderness she loves, toward a life of being a fulltime artist.

Not yet.

Only that’s where the story takes a twist. Driving this same highway, gazing at the line that leads toward a horizon she never reaches, her frustrations toss her into wishful thinking for the entire 55 miles between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids—home and office. What if she were to keep going? What if she missed her exit?

You know, accidentally on purpose.

I watch the miles pass just as the woman in my story watched them. Milestones along the way cause her mind to reel with the possibilities. Will she or won’t she? Does she give in to this delicious madness? Or does she squelch the impulse and continue to build toward the moment?

I sense her sitting beside me in the car. I can feel her rising tension in her struggle to make the right decision.

I recently had a conversation with another writer in Kalamazoo about the role of healing in art. We’ve all heard it: writing is therapy. Whatever ails us, putting it into our writing can help us to cope. Developing a storyline around our tangled thoughts and emotions can help unravel them and put them right again.

For the same reason, writing can be dangerous.

I’ve put my fantasy into this novella. One such frustrated Monday, heading in to the office, what if I accidentally on purpose missed my exit, exit 84B … and just kept going? Would the world swing off its axis and crash? Would my house in Kalamazoo go up in flames? Would I end up a homeless bag lady living off dumpster scraps?

Of course, I don’t have a crystal ball and I cannot tell the future. Yet in writing Catch as Catch Can, I’ve explored various scenarios. I’ve chased down many “what ifs” and played out a number of possible outcomes. The dangerous part is that in doing so—I’ve put quite a few of my real fears to rest.

I will give my future readers a hint: the world does not swing off its axis and crash into oblivion. It keeps turning.

If many artists, in whatever medium, work their heartaches, their daydreams, their frustrations, their hopes and dreams into their art form, many do indeed find some measure of healing in the process. The writer I recently spoke to about healing in art is finding his way to closure of an open wound he’s carried inside him for 15 years.

If writing is therapy, bringing healing, it can also be a launching pad.

When I get to my office (at least on this morning), I look at the yellow Post-It note I keep pasted to the wall above my desk. Every morning, I tear it off—with relish—and write a new one, minus one day. Today, it shows the number 4,575. That’s how many days to retirement if I keep my head firmly attached to my shoulders, fulfilling all my requirements and obligations as sensible people have advised me to do before finally unsnapping those golden handcuffs and tossing them in the wastebasket. I look at it before I take up my first project for the day and whisper to myself: “Be good, Z.”

The novella was my way of giving in to the fantasy early. I’m pretty sure, although not entirely positive, that I won’t give in to that fantasy next Monday. Or the one after. Having played out the variables in my head and on paper, however, gives me a growing sense it won’t take 4,575 days either.

I don’t know when it’s going to happen. As many possibilities as I have explored in these 30,000 words, I know I have not explored all of them. The possibilities, after all, are infinite. Yet a writer must be careful of what she writes—more than once, in hindsight, I have found that I have paved a path with my words and written my own future.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Zinta Interviews Author Michael Loyd Gray on WMUK Radio


WMUK 102.1 FM (Kalamazoo's NPR affiliate) radio interview on air Tuesday, November 15, at 7:50 a.m. for a short version ... the extended interview link available here. Michael Loyd Gray talks to me about his newest novel, Not Famous Anymore, and a different kind of writers and book addicts group he wants to start in Kalamazoo.

Michael Loyd Gray

The Arts and More program short version (second story up).

The Smoking Poet interview with Michael, Winter 2010-2011 Issue.

WMUK Arts and More programs.


Friday, November 11, 2011

There’s a Tree on My Roof—and It’s All Good

by Zinta Aistars

My son was hanging out in the driveway when I got home from work. He looked like he was just out there enjoying the first stars of the evening. It had taken me a little longer to get home from work, as high winds had tossed me around on the Interstate all the way home. He waited until I got out of the car, pulling my briefcase off the passenger seat.

“There’s a tree on the roof.”

I blinked, looked at him, took in his perfectly calm, slightly bored countenance. Nothing rattles that guy.

“There’s a tree on the roof,” I repeated after him, trying it on for size, then looked past him at the roof of the house. It was dark already, but I saw no tree.

He nodded his head toward the opposite end of the house. “Over there.”

Uh-oh. He’s serious. I dropped my briefcase next to the car and followed him to the other side of the house. Sure enough, there was a tree on the roof. The tree on the west side of the house had not been able to resist a dance in the high winds and had taken a topple across the roof, splitting the soffit, cracking the roof along its middle, knocking over the chimney.

I pursed my lips, then let loose a long sigh. That was a new roof, just installed a little over a year ago. Ruined. Then again, hmmm, yes, that was a new roof, just installed a little over a year ago, and if it hadn’t been, considering the condition of the previous roof, that tree could have been decorating my living room. For all of that nasty crack down the middle of the roof, what looked like split rafters, the new roof had held.

My son and I stood side by side for a while, looking at the tree on the roof.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Oh,” I shrugged. “I’ll find something. I bought some smoked chops from that farm this week, grass fed.”

“Pig is pig.”

“Oh, but this was a happy pig, rolling in mud and sniffing fresh air in the barnyard.”



He went back to work in the garage, and I went inside to sizzle some pork chops. Those manly appetites, I thought, those keep us on an even keel no matter how big the storm.

Filing a claim online came next. Paying out the deductible would ouch a bit, but this was one of those moments when it made sense to have good home insurance. I prepared myself for a number of phone calls, papers to process, tree service and roofer calls to make, but all in all, my perspective was positive.

I’d been to hear a talk at work during my lunch hour that day. It was a talk given by Ridley Barron, a minister who now talked more at hospitals and seminars than he did at churches. He had a special story to tell. About seven years ago, on a day like any other, Barron and his family—three young children and his wife—were in the family van driving across town. Someone ran a red light. At a high rate of speed, that car ran into the side of the Barron family van. The entire family suffered injuries, but his wife died while still in the car, and his youngest son, only 17 months old, was seriously injured, although expected to live.

What happened next made this tragedy almost unbearable. Between making funeral arrangements for his wife and checking on his other children, Barron visited his little boy at the hospital. The little guy was suffering but the prognosis was hopeful. When Barron left his little boy in the hospital, he never thought that would be the last time he would see him alive. That is, he would see him again, not long after, when a hospital staff person would call him back, but at that point someone would be massaging the boy’s heart through an open wound to keep him technically living until his daddy arrived.

It was hard to listen to that story. A hospital error—a pharmacist who mistakenly prepared an adult dosage of medicine for the toddler that would instantly stop his heart when administered—had taken his tender young life. He’d survived a horrific accident only to succumb to a tragic mistake. Barron now had to bury two family members.

The story was not just to make the audience cry—which it did. As we listened and watched the slides of the sweet, smiling faces on the overhead screen, we heard a story about healing, about forgiveness, about keeping hope alive when everything is falling down on your head.

Ridley Barron was able to forgive that pharmacist the very day that her mistake took his son’s life. Knowing that she had made an honest mistake, not a malicious one, no doubt helped. He was a preacher, after all, and if there was ever a test of faith, well, this would surely qualify. I imagine there were darker moments, too, when that human shadow side we all have must have won out, at least momentarily giving him doubts, making him wonder “why me?” and pour all the rest of human emotional chaos over him that we all surely suffer through when we take such a hard hit in life.

Today, he travels across the nation talking at hospitals about how to prevent such errors, how to treat patients and their families during such testing circumstances, and other valuable lessons of life. It was an hour well spent.

That hour also gave me great perspective when I got home from work that evening to find a tree on my roof. The roof had held. No one was hurt—although my pets were awfully happy to see me come home and give them reassuring snuggles. I can only imagine the noise they’d heard that day.

It was all just … stuff. Housing materials. Money. Sure, I’d miss that cash that had taken some time to save, but it was, after all, only money. I’d heard once that if you consider a problem in life, if it can be solved with money, even if you don’t have that money on hand, it’s not really a problem. That’s a bit simplistic, especially if you are without the cash, but I get the point. I have lived in poverty, and yes, folks, money does indeed buy happiness. It buys freedom, it buys opportunities, it buys peace of mind. If you’ve had to do without, you really learn to appreciate that.

I’ve also learned to appreciate true values in my life. I don’t care about fashion. I drive an older car with 135,000 miles on it. I live in a humble little house. I don’t own a big-screen TV. I’m working hard to achieve zero debt. I can spare that deductible. I am blessed.

I have a tree on my house, and what I later learn are four cracked rafters and 14 feet of ruined soffit and a bashed up chimney and a roof that is pretty much snapped in half—but it’s holding over my head while I await repairs. I also have a son sitting down to dinner with me, a daughter living not so far away whose life is in full bloom on all fronts, parents who are hanging in there even as the years roll bigger and bigger numbers over them. I have excellent health. I have work I enjoy. I have a network of friends that add sizzle and snap to my every day. I have my pets to snuggle. I have a fresh, new book manuscript to prepare for submission. What else? Oh , a long list yet …

I’ll miss that tree. It gave my house shade in the hot summer. Next spring, I will plant another, and return the blessing. I appreciate trees.

I appreciate all the many moments of life. Each one could be the last. You just never know when a car might come racing through a red light, or a tree fall from the sky. Today matters.

Monday, November 07, 2011

A Woman’s Best Friend

by Zinta Aistars

How can I resist that face? That rusty orange face, muzzle turning white with accumulating years, liquid brown eyes that gaze at me with utter devotion—my old chow pup, Guinnez. After a good run through the muddy woods or a roll in a pile of leaves, he becomes my Guinea Pig. But no swine, this. Guinnez has the loyal chow in his blood, the black polka dots on his tongue as proof, but the pink on his tongue point to, I would guess, a Golden Retriever tossed into the mix. The chow’s more reserved personality is tempered with the lick-your-face sweetness of a Golden.
Guinnez and I have been together now for about 11 years, give or take. I found him at the Kalamazoo animal shelter, a rambunctious young pup of almost a year, still growing, with a red ruff around his neck that by now he’s almost lost. I was told he was a runaway, and I’ve always wondered if his wonderful tail that should have nearly completed a circle above his back being instead cut off at about half its fluffy arc might have something to do with it. As friendly as he is, he is very suspicious of the male gender, expecting the worst (and declaring it loudly) until he learns otherwise, yet with the female gender he is much more trusting. Stories of his life that I will never know and can only guess to what those learned reflexes might reveal …

As for my son, Guinnez bonded quickly enough with him, and worships him beyond all others. The two speak to each other without words and without barks, and when my son leaves the house, Guinnez will slump against the door, waiting, waiting, waiting.

This time I invite him to the door with a jingle of his leash, and he comes running. Such enthusiasm! If we humans could sustain such … and that’s only part of why I like taking him for walks. His immense enjoyment of the world around him is contagious. He makes sure I don’t go too fast to miss it, dragging me back to take a deeper sniff of this clump of grass, of that tree trunk, of the sign post, of the scrunched up wrapper tossed aside. He always stops to smell the roses.

Guinea and I take daily morning walks before I go to work. That means pre-dawn, sometime around 5:30 a.m., when the world is still dark and mysterious and silent. Silent, until I begin to hear all the noises, watching the dog’s velvety ears perk up to form perfect triangles as he leads our march. They bounce sweetly as he trots along to catch up with the rabbits that so often bound across our path. He hears it all, scents it all, his nose lifted to the breeze or snuffling right up against the earth. I always wonder what stories his nose tells him of who has passed and how long lingered and why. When he takes too long, I give him a firm tug, but sometimes he finds a scent so intriguing that he’ll flatten himself against the ground when I tug on his leash, giving himself full weight. Like it or not, I have to wait, and often those are the moments that I catch sight of all that I might have otherwise missed … the rabbit sitting still against the tree, the fallen toy on the sidewalk, the twirling leaves falling slowly, slowly from the tree, the morning moon reflected in the puddle.
On this Sunday, we head to Asylum Lake Preserve. I haven’t been there yet, goodness knows why, as it is just two, three miles from where I live. I’ve always meant to stop and explore, and today, we do. Guinnez has his damp nose pressed to the glass of the car window as we park the car. He bounds from the passenger seat into my lap, between me and steering wheel, waiting for me to open the door and set him free. I can hardly breathe with his weight against me. Such impatience! I tsk, tsk, and he touches my nose with his nose and I can’t help laughing.

Out we go. And the day is beautiful, a cool autumn day of clear and mild sun and expansive blue skies. Many of the most colorful leaves have fallen, leaving trees bare, but enough remain to give us a canopy as we enter the woods. Sun slants through branches overhead. One of the Asylum lakes glimmers deep blue between the trees. Guinnez tugs on the leash to reach a new smell under the crisp leaves … I tug on the leash to pause for a moment and take a picture. Looking at the photos later is like taking the walk a second time, and sometimes seeing new detail I missed when I was there.

Such a fine day has brought out others, humans and dogs. Guinnez greets all pups politely, even the tiny black pup, baby Lab, bounding and leaping around him and between his legs while he waits for her to calm … so hard for her to do. He pays his respects to the German Shepherd-Husky, allowing approach, then coming in a step to touch noses. The two of them circle and turn tails to gain more history, I suppose, or whatever that may tell them. We owners trade words about fine weather while the dogs have their own conversation.

I want to pause longer at the lakeside. I squat down to take photos, the tall yellow grasses and cattails and floating leaves across the surface of the water, until Guinnez loses patience with my dawdling and gives me a firm tug, landing me with rear into soft, muddy ground at the edge of the lake.

“Aw, Guinea Pig!” I whine and brush dirt from my pants while (I swear) he sniggers, lips drawn up in a doggish grin. Who's the piggie now. I make a face at him, and he comes up to lick a broad wet tongue, pink and black, across my face as I twist to rub my backside. “Yeah, yeah, forgiven, love you, too.”

On we go, stopping again to watch ducks bottom up, mallards swimming in lines across a smaller lake. We stop to pick up leaves, check for frogs among the reeds, dance in another slant of sunlight. We lose track of time and wish all days were like this—when time disappears because it is so full of meaning. I wouldn’t trade our companionship for any other. This is our bonding, our shared enjoyment of the natural world around us, each of us tugging each other into the world as we see, hear, taste, feel and perceive it.

I can’t imagine taking such walks without him, my old chow pup friend. When we sit for a while in the milkweed to rest, Guinnez pushes through the tall grass for a moment and lifts his handsome face to the sun. His muzzle glows white in the spill of warm light. We are both growing older, aren’t we? I can’t bear to think of someday being without him, but I know that day will come … as it came for all his many furry predecessors, each bringing their own share of miracles into my life. The Malamute, the Husky, the calico cats and the tiger striped, and the tuxedo barn cat, Tommy, that a little while ago was still around to be this dog’s best cat buddy, and mine. I suspect we both miss him equally and think of him often.

My life would be barren without these animal companions. My house, too quiet. My sleep at night, too chilled without their warmth pressed up against my side. My lap, too empty without my cat curling up while I read a good book. My heart, too shallow without their unconditional love to press it large.

Without my old chow pup, I may not always remember to keep my face turned toward the sun.

My stone portrait of Guinnez