Sunday, February 27, 2011

Please Mr. Postman, Look and See ...

by Zinta Aistars

Please Mr. Postman, look and see
Oh, yeah
If there's a letter in your bag for me
Please please Mr. Postman
You know it's been a long time ...
                       (lyrics from Beatles' "Mr. Postman")

A letter? In my mailbox, really? From actual person to actual person?

My usual reach for various junk instead pulls an envelope from my mailbox, a stamped envelope with carefully handwritten addresses in upper corner and center. I am immediately at attention, instantly smiling, and trotting a little faster back up the drive to the house, so that I can sit and read.

My son has written me a letter. And even before I have opened it, I know it's good. He has scrawled a tiny smiley face on the back with a bubble coming from its mouth: HI!

What inspires him to write? What thoughts ramble in his head and heart that he wishes to share? I prolong the moment of anticipation, first preparing, pouring, steeping a cup of steaming tea. Only then do I arrange myself in my favorite reading corner in the living room, there in the corner under the pendant lights hanging low, under that warm and golden glow.

It is not as if we haven't talked. He calls from time to time, from time to time we share a meal, catch up, or even sit in silent companionship, sharing space and time. Yet sometimes one wants to put pen to paper.

Or do we? Anymore? Long for a letter rather than a telephone call? Rather than a cryptic, shorthand text of LOLs and u r and BRB and whatever that code has evolved to mean ... when I indulge, I still write in complete words and complete sentences. I refuse to amputate language.

Old fashioned, perhaps, but more, I respect the tool of my own art: words. Language. The written word, and how it conveys something of ourselves across that time and distance like nothing else can. Every mode of communication has its own spirit, has its own particular manner of connecting one human heart to another human heart, one electric current of human mind churning out thought to another.

I hold this letter in my hands, weigh its delicate weight in my open palms, like treasure. And it is. Alighted in my hands like a fragile butterfly, and I am just as anxious that it not suddenly vanish. He may have written nothing more than hey, how are ya? I'm fine, or almost, under the circumstances, and maybe not so fine, but I wanted to tell you ...

The call is over. The text is deleted. The e-mail is obliterated into the Ethernet. The letter remains.

I feel a sense of momentary grief for The Letter. How will future generations learn our hearts? Hasn't much of history been preserved in the exchange of letters? Letters announcing momentous occasions, births, graduations, confirmations, baptisms, engagements, weddings, deaths. Letters threading a new-found love across distance, back and forth, sewing two souls together; letters connecting friends, exposing the heart as little else can, shared thoughts weaving a tapestry of connecting threads.

I remember how letters once arrived in my mailbox, how they made the day, how their absence left the day barren. Love letters, oh love letters, that trot to the mailbox, heart hammering, will it be there? will it or won't it? will today be a gift? does he think of me still? has he received mine?

I remember the envelopes bordered by blue and red slashes to indicate Air Mail. Those excited most of all. Right away, I could see that a long journey had been made, envisioned the envelope among a thousand others in the belly of the plane, flying over miles and miles and miles of ocean. Opening the envelope with utmost caution, slipping the blade of the letter opener into a corner and slicing neatly across its edge, the cut made, and inside those thin and crinkly pages, almost like the thin wafers a priest placed on the tongue at communion and in a moment melting away as if they'd never been ... and then reading, reading, recognizing the handwriting, the personality of the letter writer distinctly appearing in the shape and form of the letters themselves. The sharp and pointed, the rounded and leaning, the jabbing, the lines that flew upwards or sank gradually down, all communicated their own message.

Even the stamps on the letters were tiny works of art, telling a story as well. Scenes from the originating state or country, flora and fauna, objects d'art, tiny landscapes and seascapes, automobiles and ships, faces of leaders. Every envelope was one more work in a museum, an ongoing documentary, telling more, more if one wished to know more.

I opened my letter. I just wanted to take time to shoot a letter to you today ... I've been thinking about my life ... 

I sip my tea and read, and read it again, all of it, salutation to final Love, Your Son.

I read it again.

I've learned something more about my boy grown to man. I am honored at this sharing of a few random thoughts, and am suddenly eager to return my own. Where is my letter paper? Perhaps a greeting card ...

I will write to him about something I saw today on my commute home from work. How the melting ice on the trees of the ice storm drips like thick honey. How the new snow has frosted everything like confectioner's sugar, and that I never tire of it, this cold white beauty. How I miss him. How I look forward to our next shared meal. To seeing his beautiful face at my door. A mother never tires of those faces, the faces of her children, ever ever, each time a world wonder, each time a moment of magic, the heart blooming open in something so sweet it nearly hurts.

I will write to him about how the dog lies next to the door, waiting.

I will write, nonsense even, about weather and news and work tidbits and family gossip. It doesn't matter. I will attach the stamp in the corner and trace the letters of the address, shape the letters of his name, and maybe I will even draw a little face on the back, with one quick stroke smiling, and a bubble emerging from its tiny mouth: HI!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Snap, Crackle, Fall … and Fade to Black

by Zinta Aistars

A little like a war zone, I thought, jumping out of bed for the sixth time during the night, trotting from window to window to look outside for fallen trees or sparking wires. When the trees cracked and fell, they sounded like gunfire. The night was filled with sirens, fire trucks racing down the street, police cars churning around corners, and when the trees fell on power lines, flames licked up into the icy air or sputtered orange sparks. At times, I could see an eerie green glow rise up beyond the neighborhood, then disappear again.

Not war. This was climate change. Weather extremes that are taking us through overheated summers into brutal winters, shaking us up between with earthquakes and hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. Tonight, it was an ice storm.

Sloopy snow smattered the windows, then turned to pellets of ice, glazing everything on contact. Every surface shone. The trees were holding more and more weight, until some of them snapped and fell to their death.

The power had gone out shortly after midnight. That didn’t worry me, although I did recall a freezer full of expensive organic meats and grass-fed beef. I had just recently stocked up. Otherwise, the quickly dropping temperature in the house was still quite tolerable. After all, just a little over a week ago, I was camping out in the snow in a summer tent with screen windows and dog sledding through the forest. Heck, this was a breeze …

It was the trees that grieved me. Each one was precious, mine or my neighbors'. I looked out on the street lined with houses, all dark, all silent under the onslaught. The road itself was a mess of rough ice—not a smooth sheet, but frozen slush, scarred with deep tracks.

I slept off and on, my dog curled at my feet, quick to jump up, quick to bark at the nameless enemy. My cat touched a damp nose to my cheek, nudging me to let her in under the warmer blankets.

At first faint light, we rose, all three of us, and I bundled myself in a thick old sweater. The icy rain was still coming down, hitting the house like pellets.

No hot coffee. Now, that hurt. A little left in the coffee pot from yesterday, I poured it into a mug and drank it cold. Candles … gathered all that I could find, placing them strategically through the house. The magic of light, its warm glow, brought immediate comfort. Dog needed out, so I put on boots and hooded coat, mittens, scarf, and the two of us went out to explore the backyard.

See, an animal’s readiness to enjoy. What’s a storm to my old chow pup? He thought it funny that the snow crunched beneath his paws and danced a little, watching it crack. He gnawed at the edges like candy. He rolled on the pocked white surface, rolling this way and that, squirming and wiggling across the ice. An animal’s joy, ready for whatever comes and finding its good place. I had to smile. Even contemplated rolling and squiggling with him, but tree branches cold-kissed my face instead, drawing away my attention.

All my trees leaned over me, heavy with their burden. Bare knuckles of twigs tapped my shoulder. The shorter evergreens were bent over almost double, like tired old men, enthusiasm lost. A slender “trash” tree behind the shed had snapped and spread its crown across the yard. I didn’t know what kind of tree it was—it had grown like a weed in the shade and I hadn’t the heart to pull such appetite for life out of the ground. By now, it’d grown some fifty feet tall. Forty of that now smashed ungloriously back down to icy earth.

I left the dog outside, standing there in center yard, barking into the chill air, nose to pale gray sky, listening to his own echo.

A cell phone was my last connection to that outer world, and a few quick clicks got me through to the electric company’s message that power would be out for several more days. I would have to save those good roasts and steaks and chops now before they began to thaw. My parents across town would surely have room in their freezer. The power outage hadn’t reached as far as them.

I watched out the window as I packed a cooler. Neighbors had come out of their homes and were wandering the street, walking down its center, like lost souls. Looking for light. Seeking a current of energy. They stood at the end of their driveways, looking down the street, looking up the street, gazing up at the bleak sky.

Was the earth letting us know? Enough?

Long ago.

Before I’d move the cooler of food, before I packed the three of us—woman, dog and cat—into my car, I would explore the area for signs of electric life. Four ways into and out of my neighborhood. I turned one way, to find downed power lines, snapping like black snakes across the road. Yellow police tape already stretched across that way, orange barrels of warning not to cross. One exit closed. Then two: more lines down. Then three. The main road out had a snarl of black cord lying in a heap, dead center.

I went back to pack faster. We’d get stuck here, the three of us sillies and our thawing meat. The furry ones might appreciate it, but I preferred mine less rare. A bag of clothes to get me to work the next day, and we were off, three refugees, seeking warmer shelter.

Still standing in the drive, I heard another blast. Like a cannon firing an iron ball, splitting the air. Then splitting, tearing wood, and the tree in a neighbor’s yard, two houses down, sank as if kneeling, then fell straight across the yard. Another fallen soldier.

My heart squeezed. Another life done, and with it, home for countless tiny birds and animals.

Yet odd, how at moments there was beauty, too, in this battle zone. The light was too pale to catch in the icy facets, but the shrubs with leftover red berries from last fall clanked like crystal bells. Twigs clicked like castanets. There was a faint music in the air, if a funeral march or a dance of defiance, I could not yet tell.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sweet Dreams in the Snow

by Zinta Aistars

A cacophony of howls rose into the wintry air as I drove into Fort Custer State Park, near Battle Creek, Michigan. It was easy to find Mary’s camp site—she had a bright orange banner stuck in a drift of snow that said: Backyard Mushing. 

Mary and I have shared a few mushing—or dog sledding—adventures already. We’ve traveled together to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to bring back a retired Iditarod dog for her own dog sledding team. We camped in a blizzard three winters ago, on New Year’s Eve, and spent the next day dog sledding through the snowy woods. When Mary calls with an adventure that involves snow, dogs and the northern direction, I am always ready to join in. 

We had meant to repeat our New Year’s Eve winter camp bringing in 2011, but the weather did not cooperate. It was a miserable and rainy weekend, with temperatures creeping up close to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, so warm and rainy that there was an occasional clap of thunder. Not exactly prime mushing weather—just too much mush.

This weekend was perfect. The day was white and bright with sunshine, temps hanging around the freezing mark. Some mushers would even tell you it was too warm; the dogs heat up pulling sleds and prefer something around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. 

I pulled into Mary’s campsite and there she was, beaming smiles and waving, dogs bounding around her. Left and right, dog mushers everywhere, in tents and RVs or just pulling up for the day. At the trail head, dog sleds were taking off one after another, as if on a runway, flying into the woods uphill and away. 

Mary’s three were with her: Willow, Shasta and Naboo. The first two were tied to a tree, Willow barking joyfully in greeting, Shasta curled into the snow and napping, but Naboo was wandering around the camp site, wearing a Technicolor fleece dog-coat to protect her shaved belly. She’d recently had surgery, and was along for the company, no longer pulling the sled. As soon as I got out of my car, she came up to place her long, slender head into my mittened hands for some loving. 


The howls all around us were so loud at times that I could hardly hear Mary talking. This was dog joy, no mistaking it. The dogs were singing. Those in harness near the trail head were restless to run, eyes ahead, muscles rippling in anticipation. 

To our left, three Malamutes, my favorite dog breed, threw back their gorgeous heads, nose to the sky, and howled in harmony. They were in their element. Their thick, long fur was perfect for the cold of winter. I’d once owned a Malamute, named Suni, and he loved the winter but suffered in southwest Michigan summer, so I promised not to get another of the breed until I could move up north to the Upper Peninsula, where weather was more suitable for these wolf-like dogs … and for me. 

I’d left my own old chow pup at home, although I’d considered bringing Guinnez along. I’d brought him to dog camp once before, when Mary ran her dogs with a summer rig on wheels down the trails, but Guinnez quickly let us know he didn’t appreciate being in harness. I suspected the touch of arthritis in his aging bones prevented him from enjoying a good run. He preferred now to curl up by the fireplace at home rather than the camp fire.

Mary was busy with other dog mushers, always the hub of mushing activity. She’d been mushing for a few years now, catching the obsession on a trip to the Upper Peninsula years ago to watch a dog sledding race near Marquette. She would still go north to volunteer on the trail, although her own mushing was more for pleasure than racing. 

I started to unload my gear—my tent, my new winter sleeping bag, clothing to layer and unlayer as temperatures rose and fell. As soon as I started to pitch my tent in the snow on the other side of Mary’s camp site, I realized I didn’t need my coat. Off it came, off came the mittens, the scarf. I worked in flannel shirt and snow pants and boots, and even that was a bit warm. I could understand why the mushers said that temps in the 30s were already too high. 

And the champagne bottle from New Year’s Eve … that I stuck it into the snow. Seemed we were closer to Valentine’s Day, but we would call it our new year and celebrate. Always a reason to pop a cork. I dug a hole in the snow for a dish of frozen strawberries, too, to plop into the bubbly later. 

What a glorious day. My tent up, my cot set up inside, my winter sleeping bag unrolled and a second one laid across it for extra warmth, I was ready for the weekend. Mary appraised my setup. 

“Summer tent,” she said. The tarp cover on the tent flapped in the winter breeze, revealing screen windows on all sides. Not much to keep out the cold of night later, I knew, but was reluctant to buy a second tent just for the occasional winter camp. The night would let me know if I was a fool. At least the bag was thick and warm. That much I’d learned from my last winter camp: a three-season bag just wouldn’t do. And sleeping on the ground,  even though last time I’d shared Mary’s tent and Mary’s dogs for body warmth, making it a three-dog night, was a chill my bones could still remember this many years later. 

“But I’m off the ground this time, and the bag is rated for 20 below,” I said, full of hope. 

“If you need to, knock on my tent door tonight,” Mary offered. But I was determined. I was trusting in that winter bag. 

We gathered to watch the dog sleds take off. I was as restless as the dogs, waiting for my turn. Mary was encircled with other mushers, however, busy answering questions, giving advice, trading harnesses, helping out. It was almost too much noise and bustle for me, and I set off in the opposite direction for a while, just to walk in the snow. 

For me, camp of any kind means communion with nature. Campgrounds in general were a turnoff for me. Summer? Forget it. RVs and tents side by side, multi-colored paper lanterns hanging on strings, antennas up for televisions, community chatter, children shouting and running between sites, towels hanging on lines strung from tree to tree, cars pulling boats, coolers crammed with grocery store fare … ah no, no, no, I’m outta there. I avoid camping in summer entirely, if I can. Or find a forgotten private park in some off the beaten track location. Or camp out of season, best of all, when nights are too cold for most. 

The dog mushers, though, were a breed of their own and made for an entirely different kind of camp. I enjoyed the howling of the dogs, but was a little unsure about the constant socializing. That these were people in love with their dogs and sleds was clear. I respected the passion. I found I had to walk away from time to time, however, for a bit of peace and quiet. 

As the day wore on, bright sun beginning to dip behind the bare limbs of the trees, most of the mushers gathered their dogs and went home to wherever home might be. By evening, only us diehards gathered around our campfires. I’d enjoyed an afternoon of snowshoeing the trails, getting to know other mushers, eating grilled sausages and warming my hands around a cup of hot chocolate, and a short run with the dogs on Mary’s sled. 

Quiet enveloped the snowy woods. 

A moon wrapped in mist tangled in the tree tops. 

A soft and lazy snow began to fall. 

It was cool enough now that I was back in my hooded coat, and my mittens were back on. The tarp over my screened tent windows flapped in a random breeze.

“Mary! Z! Dinner’s on!” It was Connie at the next camp site, poking her head out of her RV door. She and her mother, Carol, and their three Malamutes and little black dog Sophie, were the last ones left on this stretch of trail, alongside us. 

Mary and I looked at each other. We had enough food to feed a small army, but the chill of the night was quickly growing an edge. I grabbed my champagne bottle out of the snow drift, the dish of strawberries, and we headed over to the RV. A sweet warmth enfolded us as soon as we climbed in. Connie and Carol had prepared what they called taco potatoes: baked potatoes with taco meat, cheese, onions, bacon pieces, lettuce, tomatoes. We popped open my champagne bottle, plopped strawberries into everyone’s cups, and poured the bubbly. Connie brought a big bowl of shrimp out of the fridge, and we were well into a gourmet camp meal. 

“Happy New Year!” I held up my blue tin cup.

“Happy New Year!”

Bellies full and warm, hearts brimming with cheer, Mary and I didn’t want to go back to our tents yet after our meal. The snow in the moonlit night was too pretty. The dogs were still restless. Mary leashed them up, letting Naboo still run free, and we headed down the trail with miner’s lights strapped to our foreheads. I’d borrowed mine from my son, and it was ideal for hands-free walking at night. 

In the distance, perhaps not so far away, coyotes howled. The three Malamutes behind us howled in answer. Willow, Shasta and Naboo stopped for a moment in their tracks and listened. I wondered if something called in their dog hearts. Called for the freedom of the forest and the night. 

We walked long and far, catching up on each other’s stories, travels, dreams for the future. Mary told me the stories behind all her dogs, others that weren’t with us tonight, rescue stories and stories of adventure, and stories of grief at a good dog’s passing. I talked about my northern dream, still holding true if bounced around a bit from time to time. We all have our passions, our driving motivation.

I was ready for sleep when the night was deep. I lay my coat across the foot of my cot, slipped off my boots, but kept my snow pants on, and pulled on an extra sweater over the one before, flannel shirt beneath, and kept a woolen cap on my head. In I go, winter bag, do me right tonight … 

And it did. I didn’t even remember falling asleep. Only the occasional waking, hearing the coyotes in the distance, the night breeze tangling in the trees, a bit of snow slipping down the tarp over my tent. I curled up deep inside my bag, head below covers, and slept, deep and well. 

Morning already? But it was still dark? No, it wasn’t. When I poked my head out from my bag, I realized the day was already bright through the canvas of my tent. I could hear Mary rustling up breakfast, a first crackle of a campfire, tin dishes rattling. 

“Good morning!” 

“It is!” I crawled out of my tent. Naboo trotted over to give me a kiss.

Mary with Naboo
What could beat this? Coffee steaming hot, eggs scrambled with what was left from last night’s dinner, Connie kind enough to bring over the remaining cheese, onions, bacon bits, all now stirred into our eggs. I didn’t even have to unpack my food. Mary had thought of everything. She always did. It was a joy to watch her in the woods, prepared for any circumstance, undaunted by anything. While she cooked, I went to hunt for more wood for the fire.

This bright morning was mine for the dog sled. Too early yet for other mushers, after breakfast Mary and I harnessed up her dogs and set off for the trail. The dogs looked for her direction, and at first she stood on the sled rails behind me as they took off, but then hopped off and let us go. 

I was coatless, mittenless, hatless, tangled hair blowing in the breeze, and laughing in the wind as we sped down the trail. Joy! This was! I could understand the passion of these mushers. Such a ride was like nothing else. The day was waking up around us bright with sunshine again, winter warm, snow glowing in light. I didn’t want this ride to end … this was my season, my heart racing ahead with the dogs, and I wanted to head north, north until I got there, that place where snow melted away for fewer months, and the crowd stayed far behind. 

Hike! I called. Woo-hoo! Yee-haw! I howled into the wind, feeling the same joy as the dogs did when they howled for the trail. The trail stretched out white and shining all the way to the farthest horizon.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Forgotten

by Zinta Aistars

“Don’t you ever get cold?” my daughter asked me as we sat together over a lunch of tacos and tortilla soup at El Barrio in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

She was leaving soon to drive back to Chicago, home, but had stopped by my office for one last mama-hug. The Mexican restaurant was nearby, and we enjoyed a late shared meal, talking over the adventures of the last few days. She had come to visit me and her “lil bro” before starting a new job, and both lil bro and me had enjoyed her visit exceedingly much. I was already feeling the pangs of letting go. Never gets any easier.

“Sure, I do. I’m actually human.”

“Not in the winter, you’re not,” she said, biting crisply into her taco.

“I get cold. I just don’t mind getting cold. Now, in the summer … “

“I knooooow,” she made her blue eyes big. “You melt into a sad little puddle. You suffer greatly. You get irritable, lethargic, headachy, and not very nice.”

I grinned. “Truth.”

She let a little shiver pass over her and handed me a piece of taco to taste, and I pushed my bowl of spicy soup over to her with a spoon.

Parent and child, but we were opposites. She adored the heat of the summer season, I went into hibernation until fall. She suffered in winter, every chill breeze passing through her. I thrived. I had been telling her about my upcoming weekend adventure—going winter camping in the snowy woods with a dog mushing friend—and she was sure, at least in this, that I’d gone mad.

“You know, lil bro and I came across a woman near frozen when we went dumpster diving last night.”

She had my interest. I beckoned for the story, sipped soup, leaned in closer to hear. Whenever she and her brother hung out together, a good story always resulted. I thought of a long night walk I’d taken years ago with my son as her story began, speaking of dark alleyways behind closed businesses in the forgotten hours, when others slept. My son sometimes lived in a world few of us knew. He liked the night, its quiet, and when he was a teen—thankfully now a good decade ago—he would sometimes disappear for several nights at a time.

“Where do you go?” I once asked him when he was back home again. After my anger and fear had faded and warmed back into curiosity and concern. Rather than reply, he took me along to show me one of his routes. It was our neighborhood, yet it wasn’t. These were the streets between our houses, businesses, yet it was the underbelly, the other side, the dark alley behind, the shadows most of us never saw and conveniently forgot existed. It was easy to do. Shamefully easy.

He was a young kid with long legs, walking fast, and it was all I could do to keep up with him, but I was fascinated … and felt oddly safe with him beside me. Since he’d been very little, he’d been fearless. It was something that I admired, even respected, although at times it terrified me. What leverage does a parent have with a child who fears nothing?

We walked for hours, and he would show me where he would hang out, where he would find shelter, where he sometimes even slept. I saw into his world for a moment and was amazed. How could I have lived here for years and have not known these places existed? Every day passing by, oblivious.

Now my daughter talked to me of a place just like this. Her brother had been, like so many, laid off from his job as an electrician when jobs were scarce, and now had worked out deals with area businesses to gather their scrap metal, clean it up and turn it in to recycling. It got him just enough cash to get by. Just.

She’d gone dumpster diving with him this week. She, too, was interested in her brother’s world.

“So there she was, on her knees on the pavement, behind the dumpster, bloodied gash across her forehead.”

I drew in my breath sharply.

“I suppose she might have died there had we not come across her,” my daughter said. “Quite intoxicated, but utterly dazed. She just slurred replies when we asked her who she was, where did she live … “

Her name was Jennifer. They sat with her until the police and paramedics arrived, gathered her up into an ambulance and took her away. She had been beaten, and those beatings had become a regular part of her life. She wasn’t going to run. She wasn’t going anywhere. She would sit by the dumpster, just another piece of human trash, waiting to be recycled, or to disappear entirely into the night.

This time the shiver passed through me. For a moment, I imagined her cold. The winter night, the arctic chill, seeping through her skin, turning it taut, seeping into her bones until they clicked, her fingers curled inside her sleeves, folded into hard fists, unable to open them again. On her knees, on the asphalt, the stench of the dumpster crisp in her nostrils, its steel bulk beside her an odd comfort. The gash on her forehead pulsing to remind her—she was still alive. Did that bring comfort? Or distress?

I wondered if my children were shadowy angels coming out of the night for her, or if they were her last hope dashed. The cold in her bones, was that an embrace, an icy seduction, in which she longed to find release?

Inside our houses, all around her, up and down the snowy street, we all slept.

In the morning, I would rise from my warm bed of flannel sheets, pack my duffel bag, put on layers of clothing, several pairs of woolen socks, my warmest coat with a hood, my knit mittens. I would pack my tent and my winter sleeping bag. I would fill my cooler with sausages to roast on sticks, with a loaf of dark bread and a stick of creamery butter. I would pack freshly ground coffee and a carton of milk. I would bring along a bottle of champagne to share, and frozen strawberries that would thaw in our tin cups among the fizz and bubbles. The cooler would keep the food from freezing.

In the morning, a friend and I would meet in the snowy woods, pitch our tents, set up our campsites, and we would spend the day dog sledding and snowshoeing. At night, we would sit by the fire, the flames dancing orange over our faces, and watch the snow fall soft to the ground, melting when it would touch on our skin, melt before it ever hit the fire.

I do get cold, I told my daughter. I just don’t mind it. It exhilirates me. Winter is my season.

Another window had opened into my world. Winter pleasures, yes, but for others, it was a season of suffering. A season to endure. A season to survive, breathing shallow breaths behind the dumpster so as not to draw in too much of the cold, so that it wouldn’t spread its blue fingers inside lungs and choke the life from a still beating heart. Ever slower, ever slower.

While the rest of us slept in our warm beds, unseeing, pretending not to know. In the morning, taking our trash to the curb to be picked up and taken away where we no longer had to look at it.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Got Your Back

by Zinta Aistars

Zing! And there is a burst of golden laughter.

I haven’t seen my son this happy and relaxed in a long time. I haven’t enjoyed hearing my daughter’s bubbles of laughter like this since I last saw her over the holidays. She’s paid us a surprise visit, driving out the two-and-a-half hours from Chicago to Kalamazoo on a snowy evening to spend a few days with “lil bro” before she starts a new job on Monday. The two didn’t see each other for the holidays, so they are making up for it now.

Zing! Giggle.

My son has a dry and clever wit, one-liners that come from who knows where and when you least expect them. Straight-faced, deadly serious, he arcs an eyebrow and lets another one-liner fly, until his sister is nearly bent over with belly laughs and begging for mercy. A grin teases at the corner of his mouth. His eyes are full of mischief and sparkle.

I sit back and share the glow, watching them. These are my moments. These are the times when I consider my life behind me, all the winding paths we three have traveled together and separately, the trials, the tribulations, the obstacles overcome, the hard challenges faced and beaten. None of it has been easy, but more times than one might expect have turned fun. I wouldn’t trade my little family for anything. No riches outshine this, no career replaces this, no other love greater.

I sit back and watch them, and my heart is warm with joy, simmering sweetly at peace. I sit back and let my eyes love them and know, if nothing else, here has been my reason for this roller coaster of a life on earth.

Funny, how when I was very young, barely into my twenties when I rocked my first baby, this blonde little girl prone to giggles, then 22 months later rocked her sibling, dark-haired boy, quiet and intent, I swore I wouldn’t live for my children. I would die for them, a thousand times, but not live for them, I said in youthful defiance … and then, that’s just what I did. I died a thousand deaths and I lived a thousand lives, all for them, and I grew ever richer from what both have given back to me.

I have done nothing greater than to be their mother, and nothing else I ever do will compare.

“Mish mash!” My blondie nearly squeals.

I couldn’t resist. Mish mash, this recipe-less meal, was our standby through our long years of struggle. Yet it became our favorite, never the same dish twice. Mish mash was what we called my throw-together meals of whatever I could find on a nearly empty pantry shelf and on the nearly bare shelves of the refrigerator. Sometimes potatoes, sometimes rice, other times pasta was the mainstay, with varied vegetables and different sauces. Maybe meat, maybe not. Somehow, it all came together into a tasty one-pot meal.

Tonight, I’ve brought out my biggest pan and am tossing in carved chunks of heritage turkey from the bird I roasted on Sunday … basmati rice and organic sweet corn … a mix of herbs and spices and plenty of the rich juices from the bird roasting yesterday. The two of them are already leaning over the big pan and taking in the aroma.

So the ingredients are a bit finer now. And look at them, so are they, grown into two fascinating adults on two very different paths. I consider them, their paths, and marvel at how very different they are. Even in their coloring—he is dark and she is light. He has green eyes and she has blue. He is tall and strong with the shoulders of a bull … able to leap tall buildings, I think, when I’m not looking. Surely push them around. But my girl, she’s petite, slight, blows away in a strong wind. He’s country … she’s city. He balked at being chained to a classroom … she went on for her master’s. He’s hung close to his hometown … she’s traveled the world. He takes life as it comes … she plans her steps out carefully. He tosses his dirty socks on the floor … her apartment is spotless. He tends toward going it alone … she’s a party wherever she goes.

Put the two together, and it’s an instant party of two. Somehow, it works. He cracks her up like nobody’s business, and she eases the tension in his otherwise serious approach like butter in summer sunshine.

We all sit down at the dinner table, dip our forks into the mish mash, and eat, licking our chops. Family dinner … it’s been a while, and I am humming with contentment. We talk about her new job as a development officer for a large non-profit, making the world right, and how he is getting by self-employed, collecting scrap metal and cleaning it up, selling it to the recycling center by the pound. He makes dead cars purr again and installs stereos to bring music alive and wires the lights into dark houses.

“Want to go dumpster diving tonight?” he says.

She blinks. “Dumpster diving, huh,” she considers. “Sure. Never been. Why not.”

Clearing the dinner dishes, they prepare to go, and she snaps photos of lil bro in his diving gear, a tiny miner’s light strapped to his forehead, backpack on his back, black gloves with nubby palms, workman’s boots. Her long hair is twirled up into a loose bun, sprays of blonde coming loose and soft around her face. He tells her about his route, a series of dumpsters at businesses that have cleared him to dive for steely riches, sometimes even leaving out boxes and bags for him. Her eyes are big and bright with anticipation; she texts her beau back in Chicago, “Going dumpster diving with lil bro!” Beau texts back: “Y’all know how to have a good time in Kalamazoo!”

Off they go, laughing, rosy-faced, jostling each other all the way to her car in the cold winter night.

I settle in with a book for the quiet evening, still smiling. My mind won’t attach to the page. I’m still thinking about them … my two golden ones, my prize. I see them as babes, pudgy thighs, chubby cheeks, downy hair. I see them little, hand in hand, ready for the first day of school. I see them at Halloween, witch and hobo, playing the part. I see them making music together, her playing the cello and he reciting a ticklish line, already then with the quick wit, hands stuck in his pockets. I see them splashing in the waves, two wet babies, bright as the summer day. I see them on the hiking trail, and he is always first, ever the brave explorer, and she is always just behind him. She’s got his back. She has always had his back, and he hers.

No matter what I’ve done in my life, how I’ve lived it, I know—I’ve done this one thing right.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Family of Art

by Zinta Aistars

The family that paints together, stays together … maybe so. I had inherited a love of the Wyeth family art from my father, artist Viestarts Aistars. It’s hard to say if the talent for a skilled stroke of the paintbrush, or a fine turn of phrase, or a sweet-sounding musical note, or an eye for balanced composition comes to us in our genes or by training. Or, by exposure.

My family has many artists in its fold—visual, literary, musical, photographic talent abounds. Parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, nieces—I am surrounded by family finely attuned to the arts. Indeed, almost no one among us has any idea how to properly wield a hammer or how to check the oil in the car. 

We look upon my son, who changes my oil and installs new brakes on my car as something of a godlike figure with a divine touch. He wires up new lighting in my house and solders broken pipes. We understand nothing of what he can do. We, painters, writers, photographers, musicians, stand back and watch in awed wonder at the turning of the screw.

My father in the KIA lobby
Even so, when I invite my father to accompany me to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA) on a snowy Saturday to view the Wyeth family art exhibit, he accepts near breathlessly. He has been wanting to go, longing to go, but getting about these days is a grand undertaking … having me along gives him courage to make the journey. 

We meet downtown Kalamazoo, and there are times, I admit, that I enjoy the handicapped privilege his van allows him. We park a few feet from the door of KIA, so close I can toss my coat in the car and walk in unhindered, only taking my father under his arm. We discover we are some 40 minutes early, coming in the door that is unlocked for staff. Yet the museum curator greets us kindly, invites us in, and we buy our tickets and sit on the leather bench in the main lobby of the building. We are given beautiful programs to read about the exhibit while we wait. 

Andrew Wyeth
The Wyeth exhibit includes more than 90 works by members of the Wyeth family. Both my father and I lean heavily toward the work of Andrew Wyeth, but each family member brings his or her own style, mood, perspective, and creative brand. The patriarch of the family is N. C. Wyeth, whose vivid illustrations made such books as Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson magical.  He illustrated many children’s books that dealt with the Middle Ages, pirates and warfare in colonial America. 

Andrew Wyeth, N.C.’s son, was carefully mentored by his father in his artistic education. He is among the best known American artists of the last century. His work appears everywhere, everywhere, in prints, posters, public lobbies and waiting rooms across the country—to the point that most everyone recognizes his work if not always his name. 

Andrew Wyeth
Andrew was drawn most to watercolor, but was drawn also to egg tempera and pencil drawing. When he had his first one-man show in New York City at age 20, his paintings were sold out in two days. Critics hailed him as the great new talent of the art world. Combining wet watercolor washes with drybrush technique, using a limited color palette of earth tones, Andrew’s paintings achieve an uncanny realism. He died in 2009, leaving an exquisite collection that spans seven decades.

Henriette and Carolyn Wyeth, Andrew’s sisters, are far less known as artists, but their work shows a similar attention to detail and ability to capture light on canvas. Henriette is known for portraits and still lifes. Carolyn shied away from publicity, didn’t wish to show her work, and took a bit of a rebellious approach by painting odd compositions out of perspective and in bright colors. 

Henriette Wyeth
Carolyn Wyeth

N.C. Wyeth
N.C. Wyeth
N.C. Wyeth
Jamie Wyeth
Jamie Wyeth is Andrew’s son, and his work does show a tie with his father, exquisitely detailed, but he paints mostly in oil, portraits with interesting props in the background that hint at untold stories. His portraits of celebrities such as Andy Warhol, Nureyev, Arnold Schwarzenegger are well-known, and, like his father, he has exhibited his work since age 20.

My father and I sit on the bench in the KIA lobby reading the program and talking quietly to each other about our admiration for the art of the Wyeths. The KIA curator comes over to chat. It had taken years to arrange the exhibit, he told us, and it is not a traveling show. Kalamazoo, no great metropolis, gets yet another kudo for bringing such renowned artists to our small but artistically vibrant city. Nowhere else but here! 

He checks his watch, and it is still a good 20 minutes to opening time, but he smiles at us. “I’m pretty sure you two won’t touch any paintings in there,” he nods at the special exhibit area. “I’ll let you in early.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure,” I make a mock-mad face. “We are a little Wyeth crazed …”

He laughs, unlocks the special exhibit area, and escorts us in, taking my father’s coat for him and bringing it to the coat room. 

My father, artist Viestarts Aistars
But my father and I are already lost, lost to the world, mesmerized. There are lines placed with black tape in front of each painting, marking how close one can step to that artistic treasure, but I lean in close, closer, toes edging over the line, holding my breath, examining the brush strokes. There are few to see. Andrew Wyeth knows how to use a watercolor brush like a magician his wand. His painting, for all its realism, can be remarkably free. 

“How beautiful,” I whisper with reverence. My father, too, leans in ever closer. “How divine, to be able to paint light like this, its radiance, its glow … look at these skin tones. How does one even do this?” I marvel.

“Layer after layer of wash,” my father says, moving his hand across an invisible canvas. “First wet, one color upon next … then the dry brush … ”

He is lost in his own world, connected with the world of Wyeth, two artists for a moment seeing eye to eye. My father, too, is a master of watercolor. Where others strain to control the paint in its watery flood, my father knows when to let go … there is the mastery. 

Yet even he is awed. We look at the paintings together, but sometimes wander apart, each drawn to our own liking. Now and then, my father sits on a bench, and simply gazes at the paintings, lost in thought.

I am drawn to a painting called “Her View,” done in egg tempera. A great white shell set on an old wooden chest makes me audibly gasp. I even feel tears come to eyes. The light! The light on the shell! And the rough texture of the old wood … ah, when a human being in his devotion to capturing beauty touches on the divine … 

We move from room to room. Each room is devoted to its own Wyeth. The second room has the works of N.C. Wyeth, and under glass cases, actual books he has illustrated. There are also exquisite pages for a bible he has painted. And again, this divine light. I stare long at the paintings that eventually became book illustrations. I recall these from my childhood days. Perhaps these vivid and gorgeous paintings had something to do with why I grew up believing books contain actual worlds inside them. That, somehow, we melt into the pages, travel through them like portals through time and space, and enter into another world. 

Jamie Wyeth
The curator comes to talk to us again as we rest on a bench in the hallway from the third room, where portraits done by Jamie Wyeth, Andrew’s son, hang along the wall. Directly in front of us is the portrait of an Asian boy, and behind him, a huge red truck. 

“Shall I tell you a story about the red truck?” the curator asks.


“Jamie was going to paint the boy, and behind him, that farm house. But on the street he saw this truck parked, and so he went to ask the truck driver—may I paint your truck? The truck driver frowned at him and said, no! I like my truck red, just as it is!”

My father and I laughed in glee. 

Jamie Wyeth
“Of course, once he understood …” the curator chuckled, then strode away as he heard a running child in the next room. His watchful eye, everywhere. 

Once more, my father and I walked through the first room, with Andrew’s work in it before at last we were done. We left the museum with reluctance, yet wealthier. 

“I have this itch to go home now and paint,” my father said in a dreamy voice when we were back in the van.

It is why we go to pay our respect to the masters. To learn, to admire, to be inspired. To walk away, richer, and hungry to create. KIA has brought wealth to our community, and who can know the ripple effect of showing us such light as this, on the white sea shell, in the grooves of old wood, through the lacy curtains on a window overlooking the ocean. 

Andrew Wyeth, from the Helga series

Andrew Wyeth

Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
The Wyeths: America’s Artists

January 15 - April 17, 2011

...The Wyeths - rarely has American art spawned a family of such artistic talent and renown. The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts presents an exhibition of works by three generations of artists in the Wyeth family - N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), an illustrator and painter, Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), known by many as "America's Painter," Andrew's sisters, Henriette Wyeth Hurd (1907-1997) and Carolyn Wyeth (1909-1994), and Andrew's son Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946). All have explored the people and landscapes around Chadd's Ford, Pennsylvania, where N.C. Wyeth established the family's home, and the mid-coast of Maine, where N.C. purchased a summer home.

The exhibition includes 90 works of art by the Wyeths, as well as several photographic portraits by Maine photographer Peter Ralston. The paintings (oils, tempera, and watercolor) and drawings are on loan from the Farnsworth Art Museum, Brandywine River Museum, Terra Foundation for American Art, and three private lenders.