Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Smoking Poet—Summer 2011 Issue Online Now!

Art work by Brent Spink

An online literary magazine

“Words that turn the page to flame.”

And the years zip and zoom by, melting in the swelter of summer before the next season arrives. Just this past April 28, we—the fans, the readers, the writers, the staff of The Smoking Poet—gathered in our home town of Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA, to celebrate our fifth year of publication. We gathered at The Wine Loft, and the place was packed, every seat taken, and listeners lining the walls. A dozen writers read their work, and many more approached the open mic later in the evening. What a glorious evening it was!

Now what? Onward and upward! Another issue presented to you here, brilliant with the art work of Brent Spink, rich with the fiction, nonfiction and poetry of our fine writers. Feature writers include Sherry Ackerman, talking to TSP about The Good Life: How to Create a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle, and Daiva Markelis, sharing thoughts on her memoir of growing up Lithuanian in the United States, in White Field, Black Sheep.

Yet nothing stays the same, no, not even TSP. As we enter our sixth year, we take a moment to reflect on our past many pages. Our literary field of plenty will surely only grow more lush. We so enjoy the work so many of you send us, from all corners of the world, and we will keep printing here the very best. We plan to expand also on book reviews, music reviews, and social commentary such as A Good Cause. We will be making more room for what we do best—providing a stage for fine literature—and closing down the Cigar Lounge after this issue. Our nod of gratitude to Mick Parsons, Cigar Lounge editor, for overseeing many smoky issues of TSP.

Selfishly, we are also combining the coming fall issue with winter. As much as I, TSP’s editor-in-chief, love this magazine, it has required a great many hours to maintain and publish as a quarterly. In result, my own creative writing has had to smolder on the back burner. We will temporarily go to biannual publication with the next issue—but expand the pages of these issues. Look for more: more fiction, more nonfiction, more poetry, more art.

Keep up with our news on Facebook and on Twitter. We will keep you updated on deadlines, new themes, the occasional contest, and more fresh ideas for more years of a smokin’ literary magazine. We are here because you are.

With a good word,

Zinta Aistars

TSP Founder and Editor-in-Chief

The Smoking Poet

The Smoking Poet Summer 2011 - Issue No. 19
Sherry Ackerman

Marion Boyer

Tobi Cogswell

Elisha Webster Emerson

Hedy Habra

Amie Heasley

William Henderson

Casey Holman

Maureen Kingston

Georgia Knapp

Cara Lorello

Ricki Mandeville

Daiva Markelis

Amy Newday

Ronald Nitke

Luca Penne

Ralph Pennel

Scot Siegel

Alan Stedall

Rick Steigelman

Bronwyn Trathen

Evan White

Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Editors: Zinta Aistars, Ficton and Nonfiction; Joannie Kervran Stangeland, Poetry; and Andris Sīlis, Music


Monday, June 27, 2011

Taking Time to Smell the Petunias

by Zinta Aistars

"An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Something stirs, some faint noise somewhere in the night, and I am awake. Awake. Nothing to be done about it. I attempt to sink back into that warm, velvet sleep, but it will not have me.

My mind begins to swirl behind closed eyes, and as the clock ticks toward dawn, I give it up ... I get up. Still deep dusk. Such stillness. Only my old chow pup gathers himself up from his sleep to follow me downstairs as I head for the coffee pot, set it brewing.

I may regret this later in the day, I think, but at this moment when the world is so still and renewed, I feel the peace of this new day. It's not yet 5 a.m., but I slip into sweats and attach the harness to the dog, and we head out early for our morning walk.

Hardly a light anywhere. Dark windows in all the neighbor houses. An occasional rabbit hops across our path, white cotton tail bouncing. Nowhere, no one, only a thousand birds singing in morning greeting. Listen to all of them ...

And by the time we return to the house, a pale, veiled light has spread across the sky. My white petunias open shy faces. New blossoms, green buds, and I have the gift of time to sit on the front step and do nothing, for a while more, than to admire them ... and to watch that pale light spread, thin the night and bloom the day, its face opening ever brighter, ever brighter.

A Monday awaits. Soon: the long drive north, traffic, flashing lights, that endless highway, key in my office door and the hum of a computer booting up. Work awaits. Meetings. Deadlines. Errands and chores.

But for now, I sit on the front stoop and sip coffee, its steam swirling, my dog at my knee, and watch the flowers open, the grass grow, the morning doves sway on the wire, a red wheelbarrow collect a soft dust of possibility.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A New Pot to P In

by Zinta Aistars

You know how it is, you cheaters, you who step out looking for another someone better and prettier and younger ... eventually you come to your senses and return home. You know where you've got it best.

That's what I did. I left my old house to go seeking a new house, and for a while I was seduced by all those pretty facades ... to the point of making an offer, a tempting proposition, leading to negotiation, a flirtation of numbers back and forth until we stood toe to toe, threshold to threshold, about to cross to closing ...

... but I did not cross that threshold. My money stayed in my pocket. I withdrew my offer and knew where I had it best.

That old house. My house, the same one I'd been living in for the past 16 years or so.

Oh well, okay, it's no palace (but it is my little castle) and it's not even the house where I plan to stay ever and forever. But it's a pretty kewl little place. Especially after I'd renovated much of it. I had given the old house my imprint, the colors and general lines of my personality. Over time, we had grown to reflect aspects of each other, as two partners do who have spent many years side by side.

And now I felt a little guilty. I owed my old house an apology for stepping out. A gift.

How about a new bathroom? I offered. House smiled.

My son was up for the challenge. After all, if our plans continued on this route, the house would someday-not-so-distant be his, and I would be moving to ... somewhere else. If my house hunt was on hold, the 110-mile daily commute that drove me to it is not. I still have that problem to solve. And lo and behold if other living opportunities are not opening up ... but that is another blog.

My penance, then. A new bathroom. We would remodel one of the two in the house. My son and I planned the logistics. Tape measure, diagrams, ideas, plans. The floor would come up. The vanity would come out. A new window would be inserted. The mirrored medicine chest would be plucked from the wall. And the walls would see fresh paint.

We shopped until we nearly dropped, tying the new vanity to the roof of the car. Tools, grout, spacers, saws, safety goggles, bags and boxes from store to car to home in offerings of peace and old love renewed.

The racket has begun. Saws sawing, drills drilling, hammers hammering. My garage has turned into my son's workshop, my car has been relegated outside to the driveway, as he works on materials, sawing boards and tiles, and prepares for the bathroom renovation. Three layers of flooring come up, surprise beneath surprise, each layer uglier than the one before, until we reach a gold-speckled laminate. Eek.

We ponder who has lived here decades ago, what stories were theirs, what these walls and floors have witnessed. How many bare bodies have dripped and primped in this bathroom over the past decades? I close my eyes and shiver a little. Behind the old vanity, now in the driveway awaiting a garage sale, are patches of wall from other lives, layers of wild color, yellow, pink, gray with maroon splotches. Hints of the personalities of previous residents.

Day by day the transformation continues. My old house accepts the change and gives up her layers of what has been for what will be.

Will I be forgiven for my stalled house hunting venture? May it be so. I appreciate my old house more than ever. I feel the comfort the moment I walk in. All is in its place, and every place suits me - or soon will.

Only the toilet still sits on the back deck, beneath the trees, birds chirping cheerily overhead.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Big Think

by Zinta Aistars

I could feel it coming on. The Big Think.

It was time. After weeks, months, of swirl, of dizzying indecision, or decision made and then unmade, of making a commitment and signing my name on the bottom line, only to have the other party fail to meet the deadline. Offers, counter offers, more counter offers, inspections, appraisals, addendums ...

I kept handing the seller of The House rope to hang me and he kept dropping it.

Universe, are you trying to tell me something? Could that be You shouting in my ear, stamping your universal big feet, waving your arms, tossing bricks at my head, just to get my attention?

Yet, truthfully, it was the voice of my daughter, a state away and in a clearer state of mind, who gave the voice deep inside me an echo that resounded, finally, in my head.

Here's where things stood ... the last hold up. The last addendum, based on a detailed home inspection, came from me, was sealed not quite with a kiss, sent by real estate agent to the seller, with a list of five items out of several more that I considered "must fixes" before I would agree to buy the new house I had been circling for a couple months. It had an expiration date and time on it that gave the seller three full days to have his Big Think and sign on the dotted line. Either yes, he agreed to repair or replace all five items on the list and proceed to closing (now only two weeks away), or no, he did not agree, and we would both walk away free to pursue other houses, other buyers, other plans.

That was Monday at 5 p.m. The clock ticked toward deadline. Morning of Monday, my real estate agent called to say his agent had texted that repairs were busily under way. "You do recall we indicated the broken and antique central air conditioning unit was to replaced, not repaired," I reminded my agent. Oh yes, she knew that. It was written in the addendum. She had called the other agent to clarify. Replace, not repair. New unit, not old vintage unit given a heart transplant, only to fail once closing was closed. We had spent enough time together on this house hunt for her to know that I have zero tolerance for heat. Soon as the temps went up over 75 degrees Fahrenheit, she knew without a word to turn the air on in her car as we trolled the neighborhoods. She silently shivered beside me. Priority #2, after Priority #1 on my list of Must Haves, was that the house must have central air. Priority #1 was wooded seclusion.

Priority #1 was why we were doing this dance around The House. An acre of wonderful woods surrounded it. The house itself ... eh. Nice. Okay. Just fine. But I had long said, I would rather spend my money on a good piece of land than house. Setting mattered most to me.

And staying cool. Summer is my season of hibernation. My least favorite. The season of steamy lethargy. Give me a deep white snow rather than a steamy and humid one always.

Tick tock. Deadline for a signed addendum came and went. My real estate agent called his real estate agent and left a voicemail. Hello? Anybody home? This is a buyer's market, isn't it?

I'm not being unreasonable, am I?

By Tuesday, I was increasingly irritable about the entire House Affair. How many times would we be doing this dance? I couldn't recall my previous house hunt being this complicated. Offer, counter offer, inspection, fix it, done. Keys in hand.

Empty boxes were stacked in my family room in my current house. Movers had been called, but put on hold. Mortgage was approved and finances were in place. Family had agreed to take time off to come out and lend a helping hand. My request for a day off from work had been approved.

Tick, tock. No signed addendum. Rumor trickled in from the other agent that the seller was still trying to find parts for the old air conditioning unit. The same one my home inspector had told me was too old to repair, wasn't up to code.

I was starting to hiss. When I vented steam to my daughter, she coolly replied: "I sense you don't really want this house, Mom. Ambivalent maybe? If you really wanted it, you wouldn't let an air conditioning unit stand in your way. You'd put it in yourself."

Ambivalent maybe?

The world came to a screeching halt. Was I surprised to hear these words from her? That was just it. I wasn't. These were the words roiling around in my own head, and had been from the start. Sometimes it takes hearing those words roiling around inside spoken in someone else's voice outside one's own head. And suddenly, you know.

You know. I knew.

Premarital jitters, I'd called them. But if you are truly in love, truly, and you have found your soul mate, do you really hesitate at the altar? Do you still quibble about the fact that the rose on his lapel isn't the right shade of red?

I drew in my breath and held it. It was time for a Big Think. This was a big decision, and I had to get it right. Buying a house really can be a lot like choosing a long-term relationship, even a marriage, and I wasn't looking for a divorce. I wanted to march up that bank aisle with pen ready in hand to sign the contract and take the keys to the door.

So why are you buying a new house? my daughter asked me, even though I had spoken that answer before.

Because I am tired of this infernal commute. 110 miles every day, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. My mornings were early, my evenings were slim. I was so dang tired of that interstate drive ...

Once more, I drove that long drive home. 55 miles to home. I pulled in the familiar driveway of the blue house with the white picket fence. I laughed out loud when my son put that fence up, found pieces in one of his adventurous dumpster dives. A section of white picket fence from the corner of the house to the boundary line. I stood out front and laughed, because that was one thing I'd always said I didn't want ... a house in suburbia with a white picket fence, and there it was. All mine.

He grinned, hammer in hand. Knew dang well. But with more than 16 years of living in that house, I knew he was starting to feel the same way. The blue house had grown on both of us. He had helped me in the last few years of renovation. He'd put some real sweat into the place, too. It still needed work, but that house was really coming around.

Too bad it was 55 miles from work and without an acre of woods surrounding it.

Wouldn't it be perfect if life could be perfect?

Big Think. With no signed addendum in hand, effectively freeing me of any and all obligation (again) to go through with buying The House, having invested no more at this point than a few hundred in a home inspection, I could still walk away from all of this. Should I? Or was I just being a wuss? Just acting out of frustration?

I threw off my work clothes and changed into my home comfies. My favorite T-shirt from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, that place that hummed in my heart for retirement years, and my worn gray jammy pants. I padded out back, grabbing a cigar on the way from the humidor with wooden match and cutter. My old pup dutifully followed me, close on my pink heels. My black calico twirled along just behind him. We three were in a caravan to the back yard, where the grass grew thick and trees leaned overhead, and the evening felt cool and breezy.

I hadn't lit a stogie in I don't know how many months. Many, many. Hadn't felt the need or want. Tonight, however, it felt right. The one reason I did ever put a match to one was to slow down the clock and have reason to sit still and enjoy an hour or so of quiet meditation. It set the mood.

It was a small Carlos Toscana cigar, and I cut off the tip and held a long wooden match to it, twirling the cigar in my fingers until the end was an even circle of red. There. I sat on the middle step of the deck, my bare feet in the grass, shrubbery forming a green arc overhead. My dog lay down beside me and put his muzzle on my leg. My cat stretched out gracefully in the grass, one paw stretched forward and the other tucked beneath her. The tip of her tail every now and then ticked from one side to the other.


A thin wisp of smoke rose from my fingers and the cigar gradually turned to ash. One third down, the ash finally fell to the ground. I listened to the evening. Quiet. The neighbors were inside their houses. Somewhere in the distance, another dog barked and mine raised his head for a moment to listen, his ears perking up to points.

I wondered how long it had been since I had last lain down in the grass. The way I used to when I was a kid. Eye level to the ants. Staring up at the sky or across the expanse of lawn, pieces of grass tickling my face.

It felt good to lie in the grass. Why hadn't I done this in so long? I mowed this lawn. I planted it, cared for it, walked it. Why not lie in it? The world had a whole new look to it from here. Tree tops made such a beautiful and many-colored canopy ...

Okay, so why so ambivalent? My girl was right. In my gut, I knew it. I knew it when she said it. I only needed someone else to say it, not trusting my own inner voice.

How many times did I need to learn and relearn this lesson? That inner voice is wise, it comes from a lifetime of accumulated experience, observation, a warehouse of stored memories and introspection. Whenever I didn't listen, I made a wrong turn. But the cacophony of voices around me had drowned it out, and I grew confused on which voice was which, and ...

Ambivalence should always stall us in our tracks. Something left unsettled. Some thought not thought through.

Think. Tap into my heart, not just my mind. Think, feel. Listen.

Could one lousy air conditioning unit really trip me up if I really wanted this house? If I was really ready to take this step?

What was holding me back?

A community I had grown to love. Family and friends. Aging parents nearby. Yes, all those, but also a sense that I was getting off track again with a long-held dream. Maybe I needed to write it all down again. Just where do I want to end up? Where am I going and how do I plan to get there? Balance heart, mind, and checkbook, too. Was this the best use of my finances?

But I'm so tired of that long drive! Little twit of a whiny voice tugged at my other ear. And gas is expensive. And I care about how I treat the environment. It's wrong to have such a long commute. It's an indulgence.

Are there other ways to solve this problem?

I flicked a bug off my arm and flipped my dog's velvet-soft ear in my fingers. A cloud peeked between the leaves of the trees, white against green against gold against burgundy.

Other ways ... other solutions .... surely more than one. My mind picked up speed, running through possibilities. The cigar was but a stub in my fingers and I let it burn out. My eye caught on the edge of the deck. I could see beneath it from here where I lay in the grass. That deck was really showing its age. I could pay my son to re-do it. A new one? Or just power wash and paint and ...

Huh. I think I just made a decision.

I sat up and reached out to press my palm to the gray, weathered wood of the deck. No need to take down the old, yet. Give it a face lift.

I went inside, my dutiful dog immediately leaping to his feet and following me again. My cat circled, stopped to scratch, and trailed behind us.

Favorite reading spot. Here on the new couch. Lie back on the pillows and I can see the pendant lights my son hung for me. In the evenings, they make a honey glow on the pages of my open book.

Ceramic, hand-painted tile on the fireplace mantel. A gift just recently given to me by my sister on our family reunion trip up north. We both loved Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The painting on the tile is of a northern evergreen, covered in soft snow. That place where I want to end up ...

It had felt really hard, surprisingly hard, to leave this house where I live now for a seemingly better house near work. I had put a lot of myself into this house in the past years ...

... and I wasn't finished.

I would call my agent in the morning and let her know. No signed addendum, no obligation. I kept handing the seller the rope to  hang me, and he kept dropping it. Maybe it wasn't so much that the Universe was trying to frustrate me ... as trying again and again to tell me, bonk me on the head, slap me in the face with the flash news: not now, not this house, not this way.

Funny. I suddenly remembered the evening I told my real estate agent I was ready to make an offer on The House. For the first time in the two or so decades she had worked as a real estate agent--and she truly was a terrific one--she had forgotten the paperwork. We sat in a restaurant over dinner, ready to get it all on paper, and there was no contract to sign.

I had missed so many signs and signals and trains racing toward me with bright lights shining in my face that it was almost comic. And maybe all that really wasn't happening. No mystical swirlings happened around me. No bricks falling out of the heavens to wake me. Maybe it was all just a momentary misstep on a fork in the road before I realized I had almost missed the longed-for forest for the woods. This was not the acre for me.

Other solutions, yes. I would take some time to reassess ... everything. Make sure I have found my way back to that right path, that point where I turned off for a while. Then proceed again.

In the morning, my real estate agent and I have a heart-to-heart. By now, I've come to think of her as a friend. She, too, doesn't seem all that surprised. "I knew you weren't in love ... " she says, and I smile to recall that metaphor I've used all along. Finding the right house can be like finding the right partner. Sometimes you almost make it to the altar before you realize the one you left behind really was the right one all along.

I also talk to my daughter. I tell her thanks. She was the voice in my head, outside of my head, and just in time for me to listen. Ah, what a wonderful thing it is to have raised such a wise young woman. That, too, is like building a sound house. The rewards go on and on.

I close the back door and head upstairs for bed. Dog and cat follow me. One curls up at my head, the other leans his back into my side. A breeze sweeps up the curtains of my bedroom window so that they billow and wave overhead, and for a moment it almost seems like we are on a ship set to sail toward another horizon.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Turning Out the Lights, Turning Them On Again

by Zinta Aistars

As I sit on the deck of the old house on a radiant Sunday morning, as I have sat so many times over so many years, my faithful old pup curled at my feet and chewing on a twig, I contemplate those years, those mornings, those evenings, the familiar song of birds in familiar trees.

My black calico Jiggy circles and circles and makes a comma of herself on the deck boards, raising one black leg straight up toward the sky in salute. She settles in for her morning sun bath.

I may or may not be moving in about two weeks. It all depends on the seller's reply to the addendum my real estate agent and I submitted late on Friday, requesting various repairs or replacements. By end of tomorrow, I will have one more decision to make: proceed or walk away.

But on this morning, I sit and soak up Sunday. I sit as I have sat in this very place near 16 years. How did so many years speed by so fast? I have never lived in one place this long. Rolling stone, no moss gathered, but somehow this place snuck up on me and let down roots while I wasn't looking.

I've never thought twice about moving. Moving has been in my blood. Most of my boxes never got unpacked. More than 30 addresses ... but this one didn't change all these many years.

This one held me. For better or for worse, and there was plenty of both. Some of my most painful memories happened in this house. Some of my most glorious moments, too, of healing, of rejoicing, of love renewed, of family come together, of the shared laughter of friends, of quiet hours, and hours lost in pursuing my art, painting and writing.

For years, the house aged around me. The roof leaked. The floor creaked. The furnace stopped working. The rug wore thin. Came the right time and the needed resources, and I rolled up my sleeves to give the house a makeover. I hired help. Old furniture found its way to the dumpster or a garage sale. The old roof came off to be replaced. A new furnace and central air were installed. My living and dining room were gutted until we saw daylight between the studs. New windows replaced old. The front lawn was ripped up and new landscaping put in. I planted perennials in new flowerbeds to add color to future years. Fresh new sapling trees were planted out back.

Trucks arrived with new furniture. The walls were smooth and bright with rich, fresh color. New lighting was wired into the walls, and light shone golden as honey on new rooms. At last, at long last, I had given the old house something of myself. My touch, my hand, my spirit, my reflection.

And now I am preparing to move.

My old pup glances back at me over his shoulder, then gets up to come yet closer. He leans against my leg, panting softly. I curl my fingers into his long, soft fur. We've gone through a lot together, old pal, haven't we? He nuzzles my hand and licks my fingers.

The new privacy fence has closed off his view from neighbor pups, but he knows every patch of grass in this backyard and surely loves each green tuft like his own. Because it is. This is his house, too, and he has spent his best years here. What will he think of the new wooded acreage I'm considering? I know, he would follow me anywhere, but will he think back on this place with longing in his dog-heart?

He follows me into the kitchen instead. I bring the duck, roasted last night, out from the refrigerator onto the counter and pare away at the meat on the bones. Duck soup tonight. I look through the lush collection of garden-fresh greens, my newest CSA bounty from Harvest of Joy Farm. I carve the bird, and the occasional juicy piece flips from the pan and in a neat arc to the dog's happy mouth.

My son calls. Dog and I settle into the corner of the sofa for a chat. I catch him up on the newest. Maybe I'm moving, maybe not, I tell him. All depends on the reply to the addendum. Is he kewl with that? He's coming back to town within just a few more days, and when I move out, he would move in. I would become landlord.

Suddenly I know it's all good. No matter which way things settle. I am about to begin a new adventure. New roots, old. If I dawdle in this old house, new projects await. Perhaps a new deck or stone patio out back with a built-in fire pit ... a project I have in mind for the master bedroom ... and a patio with awning overhead on the west side of the house ...

If the move proceeds, I have a new house to befriend. An acre of beautiful woods, a fire pit already built in, a fireplace for those winter evenings ahead, a soaring cedar-planked ceiling, a sweet house on a hill that is invisible from the road ... and a new city nearby to discover. I've only been there, oh goodness, three times, and I tell my son on the phone that we shall have breakfast there so that he can see both town and house. I can't wait to show him ...

He tells me he can't wait to see it all. And that no matter which way this house drama concludes, he will be happy to turn the lights on. Electrician by trade, he can, and I grin to hear it. I love the pendant lights he put in for me in my living and dining room, the delicate swirls of color on the Italian light shades ... and I realize I would love to have something just like them in the new house, too.

The duck soup simmers, my old pup pants in anticipation, and I pour off a little duck broth in a bowl to cool for him. He looks happy. And I realize, so am I. However this story turns out, where this fork in the road will lead me, I will keep my roots. I have roots that reach into this old pup's heart, into this old house reborn, in the young man who turns the lights on, and reaching far into a future that is rich with promise. It could be, as bittersweet as is this nostalgia, the best is yet to come.

In fact, I'm sure of it.


Thursday, June 09, 2011

Jitters at the Threshold

by Zinta Aistars

What might make that house a home? That one on which I am closing in on with a closing date in a matter of a couple weeks or so. At this point, it can all go swimming down the Rogue River. These are days of paperwork, of looking over finances and considering best options, nailing down choice interest rates and final negotiations. These are days of home inspections and appraisals. Anything, I realize, could still go awry and the whole prospect of someday holding the key to the front door in my hand ... still pass me by.

Indeed, I may be the one making that choice. To give it up. Because as I meet the home inspector at the house this week, I am a bit taken aback by the laundry list he presents to me. Such a clean and pleasant house, but bring out a magnifying glass, combine that with a knowing and expert eye, and all sorts of bugaboos appear.

Back to that metaphor I've been using all along this house hunt. I've been comparing finding the right house to finding the right life partner, a soul mate. I've "dated" so many houses in the past weeks that I have almost wanted to run back into the forest and pitch a tent instead. So many houses on the market, eager to be picked! Many with very fine features, but all with something faulty, something to make me walk on, keep looking, not falling in love.

By now I know: there is no such thing as perfection. No Mr. Right and no Right House. I must simply choose my highest priorities and abide the rest. The test and growth opportunity of any relationship is to learn to compromise. To let go. To realize that we ourselves are also imperfect beings.

So I have looked and looked at houses, considered their assets, considered their liabilities, and passed on them all. Only this one kept me coming back. Perhaps it is my age and experience that keep me from falling, keep me cool-headed instead of giddy, enable me to look through that first romantic flush and see the house before me just as it is.

Or did I? Maybe there was a bit of a rosy flush, after all.

Maybe, I suddenly wonder, my old house, the one I am living in now, was really the best partner for me all along?

The home inspector greets me at the door and says hello in my native language: Latvian. Labdien! I return his greeting. One likes to deal with the familiar, I suppose, but among the Latvian community back in Kalamazoo, where I live now, I have friends who own a home inspection business, ProTek Inspections, and I have chosen to deal with them. And they have been kind enough to make this 70-mile drive to inspect this house under my consideration.

After a mating dance of making offers and counter offers, finally reaching a compromise acceptable to both parties, I should be closing on this house soon--if all remaining pieces fall into place. When I hear the inspector greet me, see his familiar face, hear that familiar language of my childhood, I  relax with confidence. He will tell me the truth. I will know this house for what it truly is.

We spend a good hour walking through the house together. Janis points out one thing after another. Some of what he points out is good. Some of what he points out is not so good. Some of what he tells me makes my eyes open wide. What? The central air conditioning unit doesn't work?

It is 96 degrees outside on this day. Inside, the thermostat shows 81. Not bad, in terms of insulation and sound structure. Not good when the AC whirs and blows no cooling air.

The inspector and I converse in Latvian for our entire house tour. We walk through each room. We walk through the basement. We look at the furnace, the circuit board, the insulation, the walls, the floors, the electric wiring. We walk around the house from the outside and look at the roof, the gutters, the siding.

The list grows longer. The insulation has been dropped in with spaces between. It's like putting on a warm sock with holes in it, he says, and I sigh. The second bathroom has no source of heat, no window or vent. There is only one smoke alarm. The faucet in the shower is backwards: cold is actually hot and hot is actually cold. The filtering for the water isn't the best; in such a forested and sandy area, I'm going to see a lot of hard, rusty water, even grains of sand come flushing through.

And then there is that old AC unit that doesn't work.

For me, a December baby, a woman who despises summer heat and longs for winter cool, this is very nearly a deal breaker. I've been ticking off all the costs of moving in my head. There are many. Why am I doing this? Ah yes. Because I have grown tired of driving 110 miles to and from work every day for four years.

If I could magically transport my current house to this plot of land, an acre of secluded forest 19 miles from my office, oh, I would.

I think back on my old "partner" for the past 16 years. I resisted at first. It was a house I chose for raising family. Family is grown now. I thought I was going to move many years ago to a place, well, something like this. A place away. A house in the woods. Quiet, secluded, peaceful, removed from civilization and all its tiring bustle.

Yet I stayed. Somehow, that house grew on me. We became friends. We molded to each other. I made extensive renovations, and the house came to fit me like a glove. When I closed my blinds to the neighborhood outside--a nice one, after all, but still not as nice as a forest of trees--I felt I was in my oasis.

WHY am I moving?

Yes, yes, that infernal commute.

Okay, I need a new house. This one would do. I was not in love. I liked it. Many fine features, but it was surely a modest, even a humble house. With my personal touch, it could become cozy. Standing back and using a little imagination, I thought about how I might make this house into Home.

My mind mulling and chewing on the list of items the house inspector had given me to consider, I drove back to my home of 16 years, thinking about how to make that new house into Home. For all the faults the inspector pointed out to me, it had lots of potential to be, well, nearly perfect for me. With some compromise, with some personal touch, with a few changes and tweaks and adjustments ... it could be Home.

And I was feeling just a little, oh just a little flushed ... because the surrounding forest was now in full regalia of green. Since my last visit, the trees were now abundant with leaves, and the house was in the palm of that forest. Pine trees, maples, oaks, evergreens .... and driving up that driveway, up that little hill on which the house was set, had taken my breath away.

Maybe this was just premarital jitters, eh?

My sister had once told me that, with all the moving from house to house that she had done, what made her feel at home was cooking that first meal. Filling the house with warm scents of favorite meals, and sitting down with family to be nourished.

For me, I had to bring my books into a house. Line them up on the shelves, the familiar titles and favorite authors. And maybe lining the windowsills with smooth stones that I had collected in my pockets from many travels--to Lake Superior, to the Baltic Sea.

And maybe, too, it was hearing my first language spoken within its walls.

Was this the right marriage of house and person for me? I still didn't know. We would still have to take the inspector's list to the negotiation table. My real estate agent already knew my quirk for the cold; I didn't even have to tell her. She saw the list and said, the AC will have to be fixed or no sale.

Here I stand, at the edge of the woods, considering that winding path in. Would I say I do? Or would I leave this house at the altar?


Thursday, June 02, 2011

Z House

by Zinta Aistars

Back and forth we go, in our dance of offers and counter offers. I toss in mine. It is ignored, expires, then a feeble counter offer made. Pshaw. I walk. I ride north, in fact, to that cool wilderness, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, that I hold so close to my heart. My final goal is there, has been for as long as I remember. I don't lose focus.

I chose this house in its pine forest for its seclusion, its oasis qualities, place away. I also chose it for its modesty. I must plan carefully, how much to put in this basket, how much to save for that basket. A place now, a place for that golden future.

While I wander the northern woods of the Keweenaw, a second counter offer arrives. Yes, quite reasonable now. But I'm in no hurry. I am walking the shores of Lake Superior, her red rocks beneath my feet. Nowhere does my heart beat quite as fiercely, and at that same time, in such peace.

Patience, I remind myself, patience. Do this right and in the right order. Building block upon building block. I have much yet to learn, and plan, and details to decide. Knowledge is power, and time is on my side.

I return to search some more, and I see yet many more places, each with their own fine attributes, each with some daunting lack. Ah yes, that second counter offer. It was good. Three times I walk through this place, listening to the sound of my own steps. Three times I walk the pine woods, lean against their tall and slender trunks, listen to the breezes shushing in their needles. I lean into the door. I gaze out the windows. I stand in that fine kitchen with its high and sloping wood-planked ceiling and watch the sunlight slant through the trees outside and turn the wood golden.

I have let the second counter offer expire, but time settled me. I submit my second, and match it. Within hours, the call comes. Accepted.

And now the bustling begins, the lining up of papers to be signed, checks to be written, numbers to be crunched, inspections to be conducted, final details to be worked out. Gather the boxes. Price the movers. Consider the accumulation of stuff and sort.

It is an exercise in reviewing one's life. There was a time when I moved often. Now, time has passed, and without realizing it until recently, I've settled in. I'll be feeling this move more than most. In the early morning, when I take my old chow pup for a walk in my old neighborhood, where we have walked so very many mornings together, I get a little misty-eyed. We will find new trails to blaze, new paths to wear in. Yet the old routine had grown pleasant, if initially resisted.

What new adventures await? What new introspections and moments of contemplation and creative journeys? What laughter will resound here, what tears? What memories snow down upon my shoulders, the moments that accumulate to create a lifetime ...

A house becomes, with time, much more than a house. It becomes home, and Home reflects its residents and the residents the Home. How will this new place change me? How will I make it mine, truly mine, and not just with signatures on a stack of papers?

Will we become close friends, this place and I?

If I have likened the search for a home as akin to a search for a soul mate, the metaphor still holds. We have decided we have chemistry, but now comes the true test of time, the gradual bonding, the daily routine and its constant repetition until we get to know each other so well that every creak and whisper becomes familiar. It is a marriage of place and person.

I must only enter with an open heart.