Sunday, January 30, 2011

Homing In

by Zinta Aistars

Studio Grill
Loving the place you’re in has nothing to do with loving the place you’re not. If all my life I have been rattling around trying to find Home, it finally seems to be coming to rest in me—I am home in many places. 

Not perfect. Not quite what I had in mind. But I know how to make myself at home in most any place for at least a while—in the United States, in Europe, in any of the four directions of the wind, country or city. I like that about myself. I know how to make do. I also know how to live in the lap of luxury (hey, that’s easy), but I can just as well cope with having next to nothing, and those have been far from my unhappiest times. Indeed, quite the opposite. I like the simplified.

Raised bilingual and bi-cultural by immigrant parents who did their stint as make-do refugees, that seems to be a skill I’ve inherited. Turn my roots up into thin air and I can still find something to cling to long enough to wrap around a root or two.

Yeah, I like that. It’s a good skill, or trait, to have. The downside, however, is having a lot of shallow roots in a lot of places, and always missing the place I’m not. And, not least, missing that place where I might be at perfect peace. In place. Truly Home. A place to combine all things loved. 

At least I have the direction for that: it’s north.

Kalamazoo Mall
On this weekend, work week concluded, I head south. I shrug, thinking my compass is off, but I could always take the other way around the globe, right? Go north so far that I eventually would be heading south so far that I would eventually be heading north again? Well, anyway, a bit too impatient and the weekend too short for globe treks, I head south from a bit outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I have been “house sitting” for a traveling friend, to Kalamazoo, where I have held an address longer than I have managed anywhere else. 

Time does its thing. 

I wasn’t born here, but I grew up here, and when I left, just barely out of my teens and a too-young bride, I swore to never come back. Never say never, you know. Took a long time, several decades, in fact, and some pretty strange adventures, and even a stint overseas, but eventually … here I am again. In Kalamazoo, that oddly named town that roots back to a Native American name meaning “boiling water.” Kind of applies. Steaming and bubbling, it was hard for me to stay in place. When all that bubbling and boiling calmed down, here I was, back again.

I pack my car with most of my things, leaving just enough for a one-night stay in the coming week at the country house of my friend. For the weekend, I am feeling the pull south. Except for a short stop two weeks ago, I have been gone for three. I am a tad surprised at just how homesick I suddenly feel.

Three deer lope by as I close the trunk of my car. I stand in the snow and watch them. Deer have greeted me most every day of my stay here. Sometimes only one, sometimes in herds. They leave in leaps now, one, two, three, and they are soundless in the wintry evening. I smile and nod at them, sending out a blessing as they have been to me. They made me feel at home here. 

I scoop up my cat Jig, who yowls once in question, but then settles in as we pull out of the drive and out and away from the country, back to the Interstate. She settles into my lap, now and then pushing her head up to the see out the window and watch the passing blur. I wonder what she is thinking. Does she know?

An hour and we are there. To my Kalamazoo home. My son greets me as I pull in, his face suspiciously stricken. The water pipe has busted. Water is leaking in to the basement, and his friend Ron is already here, soldering and flaming and steaming, patching the pipe. 

“Didn’t want to tell you,” my boy shrugs, wincing. “Save the plumber. Ron’ll get it done.”

I trust so. Ron is one of those who knows how to do a little bit of everything and a lot of a few things. Handy. Buy him a pizza and he’s a happy worker. 

Bronson Park, Kalamazoo
I’m not going to worry. I’m home, and it feels good, and I let old Jig loose, and my old chow pup, Guinnez, comes racing toward me. I drop to my knees to nuzzle the pooch. My face gets licked and my hands get licked, and he gets a good rub down and more than a few giggly squeezes. Guinnie Pig! I squeal, and we enjoy our love fest. This is how home feels.

This is how home feels: imperfect but perfect. Leaky but good. I’m a little surprised by how good. Steadily, but little by little over the past few years, I’ve been discovering just how rooted I am here. Even as I have roots elsewhere, and feel the echo of Home in my heart in several places. And a call north to claim another.

Nothing rattles me, not even a string of cuss words from the vicinity of leaky pipes as the soldering doesn’t hold. The last few weeks have been some down, some up again, and I have resolved to keep the faith that the up will always come after the down. If I’d nearly lost my northern dream some weeks ago, a hundred things seem to have fallen into place since—including a wonderful job, offered and accepted, for my daughter in Chicago. After more than a year of hard searching and innovative door knocking and temping and learning and being flexible, her drought has ended. She has a good position with a good organization that is, by golly, the perfect combination of her social work ethics and her sales experience. 

I can breathe easy again. I helped her stay above water for that year, but now that my own pipes are leaking, I know she can paddle her own ocean again, while I paddle mine. We are back on the path, each to our own dreams. Congratulations, sweet smart Blondie!

Ron works into late hours, the leak patched then not, and finally ends up falling asleep on my basement couch. I silently roll my eyes… yup, I’m home. Always sumthin. 

Downtown Kalamazoo
Saturday morning shines up new and I’m still keeping the attitude. I leave the two young men to steam over the pipe repairs, while I head into town to run my own errands. There are places I want to stop, faces I wouldn’t mind seeing. Maybe just a walk through town. 

I drop my car off at my favorite mechanic’s, where I have been going for … some nearly 20 years? Both Brian and I now have more than a smattering of gray hairs. 

“Hey, Zinta!”

I nod and grin and fiddle with my car keys, taking off the one he’ll need. I am here for new tires. 

“Hey you.”


“Two. You let me know if I need the front ones, but I don’t think so. The back two are vibrating enough to make me jiggly in the head when I get out. Then again, maybe that’s just a sign of age.”

Brian grins, scoops up my keys, tells me couple hours, and I’m off. Center of town isn’t far from here, and just a couple blocks in and around, and I am at my favorite breakfast place, Studio Grill, side by side with my favorite downtown book store, Michigan News Agency. 

I am greeted as soon as I walk into Studio Grill, the cook and owner coming out of the kitchen to pour me a hot cuppa and asking me how’s it been, Z. It’s that kind of place. The eggs are from local farms, the coffee is from a Kalamazoo place, the veggies are organically grown, and the art on the walls is by a local artist. 

I take my favorite spot by the window, sip the coffee—oh yeah—and lean back in my chair to start reading a new book: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon. She’s just won the National Book Award, a professor down the street at Western Michigan University. We keep doing that here in Kalamazoo. We keep producing those award-winning authors—Bonnie Jo Campbell, David Small, now Jaimy Gordon. 

Something in that boiling water, Kalamazoo folk joke, but there really does seem to be something in this town. Not so very big, but we are rich in creative arts and quick on the movement to good, new ideas. I’d just read a few days ago in the newspaper that we had the lowest foreclosure rate in Michigan, the strongest employment rate … we are hanging in there during these tough times. Our new governor had recently pointed us out as the example to follow. 

Michigan News Agency
I was feeling the pride. Eating my eggs, sipping my coffee, reading my book, I was feeling my place here.

After breakfast, had to drop by next door. Dean, owner extraordinaire of Michigan News Agency, was all smiles the moment she saw me. “Zinta, hello!” and she brought me to the back of the store, down those endlessly long aisles of books, books, and magazines, to show me the new spot for local authors’ readings. I liked it. A good spot. I would try to come by for the upcoming reading by a local poet.

Then to the library. Past Bronson Park, to the Kalamazoo Public Library, where I had a score to settle. I was sure I’d returned that book, months ago, before my last trip overseas. One of several. But I’d talked to librarians on the phone, all kind, all checking the shelf, no book, and I was giving up the wait for it to show up. Let’s get it paid and my card clear. 

The librarian at the circulation desk checked my record. 

“Shall we check the shelf one more time before you pay?” she asked. 

Sure, I nodded. One more time. 

Kalamazoo Public Library
And there it was. She came back with book in hand, checked it in, erased my fine, and then took a closer look at my name. Zinta … she murmured. 

“There’s got to be only one such name,” she said. “You know, you and I, we worked at the same place. Long time ago, office furniture. You were up in sales and I was in the mail room.”

“Oh my gosh,” I breathed. “That was so long ago! Twenty years maybe?”

We laughed, shook our graying heads at memories, not all of them good, but I was some $30 lighter on fines, so happy as a clam as I left the library and walked through downtown. Dan waved from South Street Cigars as I walked by. And there was Jerry’s jewelry store, another good friend in my life. 

Kalamazoo Mall
Town was quiet, snow falling, a few flakes and gently. I walked the main street, bricked and lined with trees, now bare-limbed and white with snow-lace. Past the museum and back to the mechanic. Brian waved as I walked in, my car was already parked out front and ready. 

“What did I quote you on those tires?”

“I’m not saying,” I grinned. “What are you quoting me now?”


“Heck, no! You said $250.”

“Must’ve been having a good day,” Brian mock grumbled, and ran the bill for $250. 

Another errand, and I drove to the veterinarian to pick up a new dog license for Guinnez. Soon as I walked in, staff smiled and called out, “Hi, Guinnez’s mom!”

I chortled. It occurred to me then … everywhere I’d gone today, people knew me. Everywhere I went, people knew my name. Here, they knew my old chow pup. And when I made my grocery store stop just after, the owner, Linda Sawall, came over to talk organic yogurt with me. We shook hands and arranged for an interview—I would be coming by soon to sit down and hear her story, because I was working on a freelance article about her family grocery store and how it was helping local food growers, local bakers and coffee brewers, local gardeners and locals who wanted to eat all that local produce. Like me. From now on, she and I would know each other by name. 

When I got home, my son jogged out to help me bring in the groceries. I gave him a hug, and then another.

“What’s that for?” he eyed me. 

“Just because. Good to be home.”

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