Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Keweenaw Sunrise

by Zinta Aistars

Morning on Keweenaw Bay, Upper Peninsula, Michigan ...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Up to UP

by Zinta Aistars

I wake to the soft shush of Lake Superior waves just south of the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. This is one of my favorite places of all places, northern wilderness and small towns where I lived and worked years ago, too long ago. I come back at least once a year, more if possible, to reconnect, and now I return to continue my search for a little piece of the Keweenaw for myself.

The last few weeks back home in southwest Michigan had been a swirl of looking at properties. I've been on a hunt for a house closer to work. Now, my daily commute is 110 miles a day; the hope is to reduce that as much as possible while still finding a property with a bit of acreage around it. I found the perfect place, a log house on four acres, and was in the midst of putting together an offer when another buyer swooped in and paid cash for the entire price. Hoo yeah, obviously not the house meant for me, but someone else's dream come true.

Then there was House #2. Also very nice, and much lower in price, much more modest, but still offering the seclusion necessary to me, with an acre of pine woods around it, and a commute of 18 miles to work. Very nice. I put in my offer. The clock ticked, the offer expired. A day later the owner responded with a counter offer, lowering the listing price by an astounding one thousand. He refused to fix the few small repairs I'd requested in my offer. Not only my agent was disappointed, so was his listing agent. I rolled my eyes, refused to play, and walked away. Not the house meant for me, either.

I'm not sure I can define it, what that is that I believe happens when we choose the right path, but it seems to me that when we choose the right one, the path clears and puzzle pieces fall into place. Not that reaching our goals can be done without struggle or testing our muscle, our determination. But when the opposite happens, when one obstacle after another falls across our path, then I suspect we should back up for a moment and think about it. Did I choose wrong? Is this my path? Or have I made a wrong turn somewhere?

Coming to the Keweenaw always restores me. Priorities realign, perspective finds its proper place, stress eases, and my heart beats steady again. I have had two real estate agents working for me--one in southwest Michigan, one in the Keweenaw area up north. One is working to find me a home now, while I continue my work; the other is working to find me that place that will serve as a getaway now, perhaps a place to spend my retirement years later.

I am trying to bake my cake and eat it too, and still be left licking frosting from my finger tips.

My rented cottage on Lake Superior, in the Keweenaw Bay, soothes away the stress and wackiness of all that house hunting, negotiating, throwing up my hands at ridiculous counter offers, and working hard to meet work deadlines in the meantime, preparing for a week away. Yes, and The Smoking Poet's summer issue deadline is fast approaching, too. My head swirls with obligations and decisions, but as soon as I enter the little blue cottage on the water, it all peels away from my shoulders and I feel lighter.

My head clears. I can think straight again. Give me the week, and I will remember how to spell my name again. Tomorrow I meet my UP (Upper Peninsula) real estate agent, and the hunt begins again, and I can't wait. What place will call to me? Any of them? A few cabins, a few vacant plots of wooded acreage, possibilities. I will also return to several properties I viewed last time I was here, because they haunt me still.

For now, my path is open again and the way ahead is clear. It won't take long, I know, to find a fork in that road, and decisions will demand their due, but on this morning, I take my blue cup of morning brew and go out to stand on the edge of the land, where the rocky beach begins, and listen to the call of the Superior, whispering the call of Home.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Empty Nester Seeking Nest

by Zinta Aistars

Rising on the Sunday morning of Mother's Day, I contemplate my empty nest. They are grown. They are gone. And yet, the two of them are never far from my mind and always present in my heart. If I feel a bit blue starting my day hearing the echo of my steps in an empty house, my blues pale as I sit down at the table with my first cup of coffee and pull two Mother's Day cards toward me to read. I'd been saving them for several days, since they'd arrived in my mail box.

As soon as I open my son's card, warm tears mist over my eyes. He has written across every possible open space of the card in tight, compact writing ... between the card's bright illustrations, up and over the front and into the inside of the card and over the back and even between the copyright. It is the kind of love letter every mother hopes someday to receive from her adult child. A lot of thank yous, some regrets, apologies for the occasional mistake, real or imagined, sweet dreams of future anticipations. He invites me to go camping with him sometime this summer or fall and writes of how much he enjoyed our last camp-out, last summer.

My blues fade, and fade some more, and I am misty with mama love. I miss both my kids, now long grown into adults, even as I cheer their steps into their independent lives.

My work is done. My parenting ended many years ago. My role in their lives is redefined, but one thing is clear: this nest, the house where the three of us spent so many years, has served its purpose as a family nest. When I bought it, it was very much with thoughts of what would suit them best. Schools, nearby shopping, access to first jobs while Mom was busy at two jobs of her own, so that they would not always be dependent on me. I chose a typical residential neighborhood, a quiet street lined with houses and neatly fenced lawns.

Now an empty nester, I want something different. I've grown curiously fond of this house, and it's come to fit me pretty well. Through renovations, I've gutted the inside and rebuilt it to suit me. My personality has made itself known in color schemes, furniture arrangements, well-loaded book shelves, dim lighting, moody art work on the walls. But two things don't fit me at all: first, the 110-mile daily commute to and from work; second, that quiet, residential street of neighbor side-by-side with neighbor.

When my real estate agent asks me to give her a list of must haves, nice to haves, and totally unacceptables, I know just what to list first. Seclusion. Give me acreage. Give me a taste of the woods. Find me that oasis where I can go at end of day and be rejuvenated from whatever kind of day I've just had.

The past few weeks, our house hunting has been intense. Lunch hours, after work hours, weekends, we meet to go hunting. By now, I can't list the houses anymore. There are too many. Some have become all muddled together in my mind, strange outgrowths of rooms and closets and basements and yards and driveways that wind around and around in my mind until I'm dizzy.

Close calls, some of them. I like one feature, am repelled by another. There was the house that seemed nearly perfect ... until my agent and I realized we had yet to see the basement ... only to climb down into the puddled dampness and find a small waterfall below the house after a few days of hard rain.

Listings so often look beautiful, only to find reality quite different. That picture perfect house that appeared to be sitting on a sweet hillock, surrounded by oaks, might in reality be a few yards from a huge electric tower. Always something. House hunting could be a fun but stressful process.

I measure miles from property to office. Close enough? The honey place might be 10 miles beyond the maximum I've given my agent, or the place just around the corner require so much updating that I would need that extra time at home just to get it up to par.

There was the quirky hut with winding paths through pines and a backyard that docked into a wake-free lake. When I peeled up a corner of carpet, it looked like it was built on a layer of plywood on ground. Pass.

There was the stunning house with soaring ceilings and stone fireplace and gorgeous kitchen with granite counters and slick hardwood floors ... and neighbors so close I'd hear them scratch their noses.

There was the house that promised so much, including the acreage, including the quirky factor, including the perfect floor plan ... and the owner that decided he didn't want to sell after all, now that his argument with his live-in girlfriend was resolved.

I spend my evenings surfing listings. I make lists and send them to my agent, she gets busy arranging showings and collecting disclosure statements from properties of interest.

Meanwhile, I send a second list up north, to my second agent working the Upper Peninsula for me. Both know about the other, and I am committed not to make any offers until I have had a chance to go up north again and do a property search there, too. Will I put my last dime into a house here? Will I go halfsies? Will that northern place be an occasional getaway or the permanent place to go when I retire? I need a fresh dose of Keweenaw before I make any big decisions. This commute is wearing me out but the north makes my heart skip a beat, every time.

And then I walk into a little brown house in the woods. It is up on a hill and surrounded by tall pines and old oak trees. Neighbors are nearly invisible; I see the faint shadow of a roof line through the trees not yet leafy. There, the fireplace I wanted, with a smooth wooden mantelpiece along which my hand slides in easy caress. The kitchen cupboards were made by a woodworking owner with a rare level of quality that shows in every loving detail. Here, in this room might be a study with view of the tall pines. And the quiet ...

I drive from house to office and measure 18 miles. My commute could go from 110 miles per day to 36. That alone makes me nearly weepy. I suddenly realize how tired I am of that long drive, over and over and over again, for four years.

Heart has much to do with choosing a new nest, most certainly, but I must let head rule overall. The importance of this decision is sobering. So many factors to consider. What I did with a snap in younger years, I take on with much more deliberation in my middling years. I will not be tempted with the first flush of romancing a house. I will not. Finding the right place is like finding a long-term relationship ... all the priorities must be in place, the rest can be compromised, but the love must deepen with time, not fade away. Would I regret my decision a few weeks from now? A few months? In another year? Would there be a seven-year itch as I pass another house on a wooded hill and find myself slowing down for a longer look?

One great thing about having adult kids ... I can ask their advice rather than the other way around. I talk on the phone with one, then the other. I send photos. I request comparisons between Choice #1 (little brown house in the woods) and Choice #2 (larger red brick house on sprawling acres). I can sort through their feedback and see how it fits with mine. Do they see something that I don't? Am I really sure I'm not letting emotion cloud rational and sound investment thinking?

I'm not. There's a lot to be said for the vote of the heart. It's the balance that's tricky. I'm also glad I like my house now so well. We've been pals, after all, and have known each other intimately for a very long time. I'm in no hurry to make a bad decision. And a good decision can wait. If someone else grabs it up first, well, then it wasn't meant to be. I have 110 miles of driving up and down the interstate to think it all through.

Feedback is in from my kids. They can't decide between my top two house choices. Very different set of best features. Wait until I toss in the Keweenaw factor.

In the end, it's my nest. My nest that is empty of concerns for the needs of children and deliciously full of options for developing my own interests. Windows for good lighting so I can write and paint. Quiet reading corner. A backyard where I can practice tai chi without an audience.

This is going to take a while.


Monday, May 02, 2011

An Anniversary Up in Smoke

by Zinta Aistars

Zinta preparing to read at TSP's anniversary event
 Dare I admit that I don't actually smoke? After all, I am founder and editor-in-chief of the literary online magazine, The Smoking Poet. Having just celebrated our fifth anniversary of publication, 18 issues ago and in 2006, I am often amused at how often readers think I live in a puff of smoke. I don't.

In fact, when the Kalamazoo Gazette wrote an article about The Smoking Poet's celebration, Putting on the Dog: TSP Celebrates 5, and ran it in Easter Sunday's issue on April 24, my parents were a tad dismayed when they opened their Sunday paper. I do believe they were on the verge of grounding me, or at very least standing me in the corner with a dunce cap on, for lighting up.

Okay, so I do own a humidor. And it is pretty well stocked. And there is a small sculpture atop it of a bulldog with a stogie gripped in his boxy muzzle. And I do know my way around a good cigar. And I do have a favorite: Hoyo de Monterray Excalibur. And I have on occasion been seen in a cigar lounge. And they do know my name at the local cigar shop in Kalamazoo.

And, all right, all right, eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevery once in a while, now and then, on the rare occasion, when the eve is just so and the stars twinkle on a warm summer night and the mood strikes me in a contemplative way and the fire pit crackles with a cheery flame and a  pal stops by with a couple fragrant ones with a conversation to unweave over the next couple hours ....

I might unwrap one and light it. I just might.

Amy Newday, emcee for the evening
 Sit back and enjoy the smoky mood for a couple of hours. It would be a good time to reflect on that celebration we just enjoyed at The Wine Loft.

Oh, but it was fine. Everything came together. Perfectly. After nearly a year of planning, with much much help from Amy Newday and Friends of Poetry, the sponsors of the evening, the event was finally here. Posters of our mascot cigar pup were in most every Kalamazoo business window downtown. The good people at The Wine Loft had been promoting us at every opportunity. Announcements ran on WMUK radio, Kalamazoo's NPR affiliate, and I did a live radio talk show with Lori Moore at WKZO to talk about poetry.

Now we watched them come for what we had built. And they came. Kalamazoo came. Even with Yo-Yo Mah playing cello on the other side of town, we packed the room and then some. Thirteen authors read: Rick Chambers, Michael Loyd Gray, Gail Griffin, Hedy Habra, Kathy Jennings, Elizabeth Kerlikowske, Colleen Little, Kate Lutes, Amy Newday, Cheryl Peck, Elaine Seaman, Diane Seuss, and yes, me.  Dean Hauck from Michigan News Agency stacked books against the wall and sold them.

When it was my turn to read, I looked out at the audience and felt warm with pride. All this talent, and all of these people had been published in our pages in our first five years. This was only a small sample of hundreds of fine writers. This was our local talent, but our reach has been international. We have published work from writers from many countries and from across this country.

Dean Hauck from MNA
 If there were times that I wondered why I keep working on The Smoking Poet, issue after issue, with no pay, sacrificing many a fine weekend and a frequent evening, building the website, maintaining our social network, reading through submissions, communicating with writers, then on this night I no longer wondered. Here was my reward. I had helped to give a moment's spotlight to people whose work I believed in. I had given them a stage from which to reach an audience. Although quite a few had a large following of their own, I liked to think our pages might have introduced them to readers who may not have otherwise discovered them.

I'm a writer, too, not just an editor, so I know what a hard fight it can be to find one's audience. One can even publish a shelf full of books and still not have found it. We chip away and hope to make that golden thread of connection, one human life with another, an understanding that mirrors one perspective on life to another perspective for a momentary glimmer of shared experience. It is a moment of knowing ourselves not alone in the world. Someone gets it. Someone sees what we see and feels what we feel and nods in acknowledgement.

Writers are by nature a solitary sort; we need and crave solitude in order to create. I do not believe in writing to an audience or even being aware of one while we are writing. Such practices, I think, are for hack writers. Art must serve its own purpose, exist in its own right and for its own self, but once that purpose has been accomplished, social animals that we are, we enjoy the act of sharing. While the true writer will write regardless of ever having a reader, we surely enjoy the moment when we know we have found one.

There I step in. Connecting writer to reader, and reader to writer. I am drawn to that magical moment.

I find literary treasure and I spread my blanket out in the sand so that I may arrange all that treasure out in the sunshine and let it catch a ray of that light. Gems, every one. A passerby can hardly resist but to stop for a moment, pause,  pick one up and turn it in the light to enjoy its beauty.

Out in the audience, among our many eager listeners, I saw faces of friends and family. I saw my sister from Chicago. I saw my parents. I saw many familiar and friendly faces I'd come to know and care about because of our common ties to The Smoking Poet, based on our common love for fine literature . I saw my community. This was why I had put in those five years of countless hours ... and why I would no doubt put in many, many more. On this night, we could all share the treasure and be in awe. Its glow would reflect in all of us.

It was precisely the sort of moment I would no doubt reflect upon , and more than once, on some future starry summer evening, a curl of smoke rising from a stogie in my fingers. Mom, Dad, I don't inhale. Not cigar smoke. But I do inhale poetry, and fine prose, and I get giddy on it, every time.