Thursday, September 29, 2011

An Interview with Keweenaw Writer t. kilgore splake on WMUK 102.1 FM Radio

On WMUK radio, Kalamazoo, Michigan's NPR affiliate:

Poet t. kilgore splake
The online literary magazine “The Smoking Poet” marked its fifth year of publication earlier this year. Kalamazoo resident Zinta Aistars is founder and editor-in-chief . While she receives and publishes manuscripts from authors around the world, in the upcoming issue she’ll feature art from the northernmost tip of Michigan: the Keweenaw Peninsula. For WMUK, via Skype, she talked with poet and writer t. kilgore splake of Calumet. His ties to southwest Michigan include a long teaching career at Kellogg Community College back when he was still known by his birth name of Tom Smith. He read his poem titled “90-Proof  Angels,” talked about his move to the Upper Peninsula, where he first settled in Munising, and explained how he decided on his pen name.

t. kilgore splake’s work will be featured in the December issue of the online literary magazine The Smoking Poet.

Listen to the interview on Friday, September 30, 2011, at 7:50 a.m. on 102.1 FM radio, or visit the WMUK website and click the link to hear the interview (4:46 minutes) as well as the full version of  the interview (28:41 minutes). Visit WMUK Arts & More.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Save, Bury or Invest a Blessing

by Zinta Aistars
Yeah, so I was niggling and grumping and bitching a bit the other day. I do that sometimes. Putting in the hours at the office, churning out work like machinery parts, I was writing and editing my way through tall stacks of seemingly never-ending assignments. Hrmph.
The dear friend whose shoulder and ear bore the brunt of this niggling and grumping (poor thing) sweetly sent me a biblical passage about King Solomon learning to take enjoyment from his toil, even when toil was drudgery.
Got me to thinking.
Now, I’ve read that good book more than once, more than half a dozen times. It would probably be a stretch to call me religious. I’m not. But the topic fascinates me, always has, and I have traveled the gamut of spiritual beliefs over my lifetime. Truth of it is, I don’t talk to Him much—I argue. I shake my fist at the heavens, I batter Him with questions, oh and I do a lot of niggling, grumping and sometimes even some pretty ugly whining to those higher powers. 
Which makes me think that I am either going south in the afterlife, I am merely clueless and blowing off steam, or that I greatly amuse Him. Ha, she thinks she knows something!
Still, I read that passage and gave it some thought. I get the count your blessings idea. Whatever your religion, or if you have none, it is still a good idea to be aware of the good things in our lives. But this story of King Solomon learning to be grateful for toil he did not particularly enjoy seemed to me to go beyond that. It seemed dangerously near to settling.
From my previous readings, I remember a story about God passing out coins to three dudes. One dude buries his to keep it safe. One dude saves his and earns a bit of cautious interest. The third dude invests his, taking some risk in the process, but comes away from his investments with an armload of coins.
Then the Big Guy shows up and asks for his coins back. The dude who buried his coin to keep it safe got spanked. The dude who cautiously turned it over got an unenthusiastic shrug. The dude who invested his coin and came away with a killing got two Godly thumbs up and a loud cheer. Well done!
What does that say about toiling away at our drudgery work? I get that some days even the best jobs suck. Nothing is ever as easy as it looks from the outside, and all things cost. Those are clichés that hold true. We can expect a blister now and then, no matter what we are doing for a living. Investing our talents may, in fact, give us more blisters than doing anything else.
I like my job pretty well, too—it involves the work I do best, writing and editing, and the more I do it, the better I get, and the better I get, the more I tend to enjoy doing it. Still, it’s not the creative writing that tugs at my heart most, and truth be told, my job is indeed a means to an end—4,449 days to retirement. When I’m done here, I will throw myself hook, line and sinker into the work that I love most. I will follow my bliss.
So often, however, I talk to people who do not like their jobs at all. They are in it for the paycheck. Or mere survival, although appropriate in crisis situations, shouldn't be a lifestyle. Such as these do what they must, no more and no less, and detest every moment of doing it. Their coins are buried deep. I do wonder why so many of us greet Fridays, TGIF, with such unadulterated glee if not a terrific sense of relief.
Should it be that way? Are we just ingrates? How many unemployed would weep for joy at having our jobs, or any job?
It gets complicated, this coin, as you turn it over and over in your fingers. Bury it? Save it? Or run the risk, invest everything you have and go for the treasure?
I was once asked on a job interview what I wanted to gain out of a job. I want to love a Monday, I said. The interviewer laughed and the job offer followed and I accepted it. I did love that job. Stayed with it for seven years. But I still hated Mondays …
I’m pretty sure at this point I am the dudette who is cautiously saving my coin and perhaps doubling or tripling it. I am not, not yet, walking the thin rope of ultimate risk and investing it with all that I have in me. That is, however, my ultimate goal, and I am now paving that road.
Somewhere in all this is a fine balance. Not to be reckless, not to be ungrateful, not to settle.
If King Solomon so hates his daily toil, maybe he needs a good kick and a new job hunt. Isn’t it wrong to waste the gifts and the blessings bestowed upon us? When we love what we do, we do it better, and our good work ripples into the lives of others, multiplying blessings. That I believe.
It could be that I forgot to count my blessings that grumpy day, but a degree of discontent can keep us straining toward that ultimate goal. Discontent can lead to innovation, progress, invention, even revolution. A degree of restlessness can fine-tune our efforts, realigning our paths so that we can end up where we were meant to be.
Rolling in treasure.
If that’s gold coins for you, fine, that’s your thing. For me, it’s a life devoted to my art, at long last diving into it with everything in me, every fiber of my being, loving every Monday and in fact, losing all sense of time. When you have found your line of work, your mission in life, then I believe you lose all track of time. You are driven.
There are still elements of toil. There are still occasional blisters. Yet those less pleasant moments are the outer rim of the moments when we are doing what we were created to do, when everything falls into place, our hearts hum in pleasure and we know our purpose. Suddenly, life is full of meaning. We are no longer working so much as we are living.

Monday, September 26, 2011


by Zinta Aistars
And counting. Day by day, closer to flying the flag of freedom.
Some time ago, I wrote about shrinking numbers, living a life of simplicity while erasing debt, paving my path toward a working retirement. The more those numbers shrink, the more fierce my determination to reach Zero.
I’m counting 4,451 days to retirement, and that would be the optimum age, without going to extremes (one could work forever, right?), when I could close my office door and walk away into that shimmering, golden horizon, a free woman, a free agent, pursuing my personal dreams and at long last able to immerse myself in my art. So, a working retirement, but working to follow my own heart.
It’s a substantially lower count of days that I have calculated to reach zero debt. Can you imagine? House paid off, not a bill to be paid but for the daily use of utilities, groceries and such. For that, I need only a few short years.
All around me, I see people still chasing Bigness. Big houses, big vehicles, big television sets, big wardrobes, big toys, big bigness. Americans, I just read, are working harder than ever. Or is it that we are simply putting in more hours? I’m still holding to my not-past-five rule, yet I am churning out more work than ever before. I come into the office and focus, hard focus, nose to the grindstone, and the work gets done, no overtime.
After five, I own my life again. And I keep working, only now it is for my own interests. I work on my literary magazine, I work on my writing, I work in my garden, I work on the house and the chores within it to run the household. There is always a long list of personal interests to pursue, and some days the backlog overwhelms me. I will not be one of those who twiddles my thumbs in retirement, wondering what to do. I will be busier than ever.
And yes, I miss play. I get little of it now, driven as I am to reach my goal. I miss time to daydream—it’s a crucial ingredient of creativity.
For now, I’m too busy paving the path to my future. Office hours, that means doing my job as well as I can and doing it with pride. After office hours, that means nurturing my creative arts network that will keep me working once 4.451 rolls down to 0.
It’s not all drudgery. In fact, almost none of it is.  It can be a fascinating process to bring one’s life down to the simple and true. Just a few months ago, I was a couple weeks away from closing on a house nearer to the office. I would have rented out my current home. Two mortgages would have settled their weight on my shoulders with their weighty responsibility. The papers were ready, I was approved and all signs were GO. It all seemed to make good sense, only my gut never quite stopped churning. Something about it seemed to be moving me in the wrong direction. It was the direction of Bigness. Just because I could do it—didn’t mean I should.
In the end, it might have all worked out just fine, but it complicated my vision. My vision north, to a life in a small space that would provide me with the basics: air, water, earth, fire. The clean, cool air of northern places; the chilled waters of Lake Superior; the rich earth to sustain me with organic foods; and heating myself by the fire through what a northern friend calls “the long white.” It also meant feeding the fire inside from which comes my creativity, my art.
I don’t like complicated. Looking back on my life to this point, it has all been extremely complicated. A web of intricacies and endless tangents. Too many strings attached. I have always, since childhood, longed for nothing more than to know myself free of obligation.
I know, that will never happen. Some obligations we press freely upon ourselves. I have family, I have friends, I have work that I enjoy, and to these I give their obligatory dues. Nothing wrong with that. I earn my way, and these are the parts of my life that give much back. Call them priceless.
Mostly, I now think about how to simplify, how to minimize, how to strip away to the core, the essence, the heart of a life that matters. I find it’s the best part of growing older—a process I am frankly enjoying—as I cut away what no longer has meaning to me and keep what I have found to be true gold.
White Caps Cottage in Michigan's U.P.
I have found that living in a small house suits me just fine. My house now is about 1,200 square feet, and the cabin I see in my future may be half that. I’ve been saving floor plans, collecting photos on my computer hard drive of what makes me hear that sweet humming inside, calling me Home. A place for everything, everything in its place. Nothing spare but the great outdoors surrounding it.
I have been clearing out any clutter I can find, and that applies even, oh yes, to my beloved books. There’s a reason I bought a Kindle—it already has 170 books stored on it, and that means several bookcases I don’t need. I carefully consider each book on my shelves if it’s a classic for me, if I really want it in that form, and quite a few, yes, I do want as actual books. They bring tremendous comfort to me.
On the other hand, I’m no clothes horse, and fashion means nothing to me. I drive a Honda Civic, bought and paid for, and I plan to have it for many years to come. I’ve been eyeing the appliances in my kitchen with a sharp eye. How many times have I used that blender? My television set is modest in size and at least 15 years old. I consider a future without one. It’s all about downsizing.
I’ve been following the tiny house movement with great interest. More and more people are building truly tiny houses—some are even less than 100 square feet—and enjoying the freedom of living without mortgages, of living in places that require perhaps 20 minutes to clean, of minimizing the chores that inevitably go along with owning Stuff. Some have even put their tiny houses on wheels, moving from place to place as the mood strikes them.
Did we ever really stop to consider that we are working more hours just to own more Stuff that we never have the time to enjoy?
I’ve been reading volumes about those who live sustainable lives, growing their own food in their gardens, bartering with neighbors rather than buying. Fascinating. Even if I’m not sure I will ever go that far, it is a direction to consider. I can cut back. Getting much of my food this past spring and summer from my CSA share in an organic garden halfway between the office and home has gotten me thinking about how much I could cut my food dollar by growing more of my own.
I don’t get those who spout off about organic foods costing more. I’ve never spent less on groceries than I do now—and I’ve never eaten better. My chickens come from a small poultry farm, same place I go to pick berries. My many-colored eggs come from my mother’s hairdresser, who keeps heritage chickens in her backyard. My vegetables come from the earth, grown by two women dedicated to organic farming, and a one-time payment in the spring has kept me fed all these months, with a great stash of frozen vegetables (and my homemade soups and sauces) now in my freezer for the months ahead. I’ve cut out all the middle men, now only picking up my share from these two “middle women” with the rich earth still on their hands.
Indeed, I’ve upped the quality of my surroundings in my mission to Zero. I buy fewer items, but when I do buy, I don’t buy cheap. Cheap never is. I pay for quality, for goods that will last me and won’t end up in a landfill anytime soon. I’ve not only been downsizing, but I have been renovating my little house to spiff it up. Get it just the way I want it for day Zero. Because I have realized that I may well want the option to keep it along with that cabin up north. We’ll see …
Call me an odd woman, but shopping is my least favorite thing to do. I’d much rather be sitting on the rocky beaches of the Superior, gazing into the blue horizon, daydreaming my next art piece. So when I shop, it is for something that is fair trade, good quality, dependable, and of a classic style that will outlast giddy fads along the way.
And then I pay the bill, and I pay it all. The sense of freedom that comes from that is beyond words. I’ve spent enough time in my life counting pennies to know the value of this exchange, goods for cash, done deal. The two credit cards I keep haven’t seen any use in many years. What that feels like: nobody owns me. Someday, I will look at this little house and call it mine. From basement brick to roof nail.
Day 4,451 is coming to its conclusion. One more day I’ve put my time in. I’ve done my work to the best of my ability, and that’s good, and I’m proud of it. Tomorrow I will do it again. Every day I consider my daily routines, consider how to pare them down to what makes good sense and builds something more toward the future. I enjoy where I am today while I build an even better tomorrow.
When I look around, I find myself not alone in this pursuit. If there has been a silver lining to our economic struggles in this country, it is that many of us have reconsidered the way that we live. Many of us have reevaluated the things that we own, the dreams that drive us, the climb up some invisible social ladder leading to nothing more than fluffy clouds that disperse as soon as you near them. We have started to build up our savings again, taking more seriously that rainy day. We have let our credit cards cool in the drawer or cut them up. We have taken another look at that great mansion and decided that it makes little sense to spend so much of our lives listening to our voices echo in expansive chambers. We have taken a closer look at every aspect of our lives—how we eat, how we sleep, what we drive and how far and how often, how we entertain and amuse ourselves, how we remain healthy, how we live as members of a community, a close one and a global one.
From loss and constraint comes something good. Have we learned our lesson? Some of us surely have. Others, well, we all have our own paths to learning, don’t we?
At the finish line, we can only answer for ourselves, our own choices. Have we been true to ourselves? Have we considered the world as something to pass along not only to our children but to the next seven generations? What lessons have we learned and which ones shall we teach?
As long as we live, we must keep learning. For me, the lesson at this time in my life is that less is more. Excess is a burden. When I reach that goal, I want to be so light in my shoes that on day Zero, I can catch wind beneath my long-folded wings. I want to know what it is to fly. 


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

House of Mirrors

by Zinta Aistars
She laughs. I’m counting the days—4,474—and my daughter laughs, reminding me with an arched eyebrow to enjoy the moment.
“Of course,” I acknowledge. “There’s a balance between not missing today and planning for the future. Although I can get a tad obsessed …”
It’s my favorite topic among several, talking retirement, planning my breakaway, even if it is still a wad of years away and thousands of days. I commend my daughter, newly crossed into her decade of the 30s, on putting away a nice stash already into her retirement plan. I did not have that option back then, and am hustling now to make up for lost time. If she keeps going like she’s going, her golden years will be golden indeed, while still lining the present with silver.
So we chatter, sitting across from each other at a Thai restaurant, walking distance from the Chicago condo into which she is currently moving. She is on the brink of considering forming a family of her own, playing with the thought, while I am gradually approaching the brink (but 4,474 days away!) of making my empty nest cozy for what I hope will be easier days. We compare dreams.
We are in vastly different places in our lives, and I consider how different we are, mother and daughter. It amuses me, that this old country girl (me) has produced such a vibrant city girl (my daughter). Are such things genetic? Her father was born and bred New York City, to the bone and the steel girder, but while I have always prided myself on my flexibility and adaptability to most any environment, my lean has always been toward the green, the leafy, the wide open. 
I mostly raised my children on my own, and a significant part of that was out in the country or at very least small city or village, but she resisted the non-urban even then. She longed for that fast pace, the excitement, the constant movement, an endless itinerary with every space filled with action, action, action.
We pay up at the restaurant and walk back home, Chicago streets dazzling with their lights and sounds and not entirely pleasant smells. Chicago—I was born here. It’s in my blood, too. I feel a little thrump of my heart when I first spot the skyline, driving in from Michigan, and I never tire of that wide curve of Lake Shore Drive at the southern bend of Lake Michigan, the endless crashing water to my right, the soaring skyscrapers to my left, the Gold Coast, as I drive in to see her. I do get it.
I just don’t crave it, as she does, as I crave the wild north. I enjoy the visit, adjust my rhythm to the heartbeat of the city in its cemented chest, but then race out again, letting the jagged skyline sink back into the horizon behind me.
We pass the row of cafés and shops and boutiques and restaurants a block away from her home, and here is part of what I do enjoy: the cultural diversity. Walking through the big city can be like walking from country to country, languages on signs changing, cuisine and clothing and goods changing, and for a while, one might think a passport had been involved. We’ve visited neighborhoods that are miniaturized, quick  trips to Greece, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Lithuania, Poland, Italy, China … and the list goes on. It satisfies my wanderlust, or piques it for a trip to the true source.
Yet it’s the pace that seduces her, I can see that, as even her step has absorbed it. I used to walk that fast, I think, but no more. Or at least, when I catch myself walking that fast, I purposefully slow. Don’t miss the moment, I think, and leave a little elbow room between the moments.
I treasure these. My time with my daughter is always treasure, moments of sunshine in the every day, sparkle tossed into the mundane. I am always fascinated to learn more about her life and what she enjoys, how she thrives, what makes her tick. She is the greatest wonder of this city, to me.
We lounge for a while in the condo she shares with her honey, gone for the weekend, but our chatter dies down to a slow simmer, then fades. It’s been a long day, a long drive for me, dropping my parents off at my sister’s house on the northwest side of the city and then turning around to head back in again. And it’s been a hot day. That alone saps me. She giggles about growing old herself, ready for bed by midnight, but I don’t buy it.
In the morning, I wake to a view of Chicago brick out the bedroom window. It’s the same view she’s had at her last several addresses, with slight variation in color of brick and its proximity. Sirens flare in the distance, bouncing off brick walls, circling up in the courtyards to slip in open windows. It is the music of the city. The honking of the horns, the screech of brakes, the distant hum and throb of conversation on the streets.
I miss my morning cuppa in the garden, sitting on my deck beneath the canopy of trees, but it passes as I watch her bustle about the kitchen. She is in full blossom, her youth, her vibrancy, her all-is-possible dreams a shimmer that add an almost tangible aura around her. What a wonder she is. Reminding me of my own life, my own youth, my own dreams. She reminds me to be inspired and to believe.
When we sit down in a Swedish restaurant, Svea, for a mushroom omelet and crêpes with lingonberry preserves, two older gentlemen at the table next to us gaze from her face to mine and back again.
“You wouldn’t be related, would you?” one of them chuckles, not expecting an answer. Apparently, no answer is required. My daughter’s coloring has always been light, all sunshine and blonde, and mine had always been dark brunette, but now that I’ve gone white, perhaps we resemble each other even more. I wink at her, mouthing, “Poor you. Lucky me,” and she makes a face at me and rolls her eyes, then laughs.
We eat off each other’s plates, tasting and comparing. The two gentlemen tip their hats when leaving, wishing us a good meal and a good day, and we wish them likewise. We talk about her brother, back home, who had once been my little clone, and she daddy’s girl, but somewhere over the years, they’d switched. He was now the spitting image, as they say, of his father, alike even in gesture, so much so that sometimes I drew my breath in surprise, taken back in place and time. She had grown from resembling him as a child to mirroring a younger me, and in her expressions, I sometimes see my own.
There, that way she frowns a bit when considering the world around her, drawing a line between her brows. Arcing one brow, that was me. And maybe that love of the hurried, maybe there was some mirroring of my lack of patience in realizing favored dreams … counting days, counting days, to get to where I want to be.
Locking up the condo, we head back out of the city and toward the Chicago suburbs, where my sister and the rest of the family wait for us. There I get my fix of lush garden. If not exactly wild, still gorgeous in its taming. Another lifestyle that in no way resembles my own, my sister’s immense and luxurious home in a gated community, yet there you have it … we couldn’t walk down the street together either without someone remarking on our strong resemblance.
Family, yes. We could each move off in our individual directions, develop lives and interests loosely held together by roaming tangents, yet from time to time, we felt the need to reconnect, dabble in each other’s worlds to remain aware. What are you up to? This and that, and you?
I had a sense of my world expanding for our family connections, city and country, wealthy and not so much, married and single, young and aging, and so on and on. We were bonded in our interest in knowing each other’s paths, even if veering off in such different directions.
And for all our dissimilarities, our similarities could surprise. My sister and I have some common interests and tastes that amuse us both. We share a ravenous appetite for mushrooms. One glued to city, other to country, but both with an eye sharply focused on the north for later years. We adore books and trade them, even as our chosen topics can vary greatly. We scare our mother at the family dinner table by how much salt we pour over our food. Neither one of us has much of a sweet tooth, even though both our parents drool over rich desserts.
When we all go for a walk through the Chicago Botanical Garden, I take a path sideways sometimes to observe them all from afar. My daughter, my sister and her husband, our aging parents, my father choosing to take the trails in a rented wheelchair to ease his crumbling spine. We travel those botanical pathways as we travel through life—each drawn to a different environment, a different grouping of flowers, yet constantly checking over our shoulders for the direction taken by the others, and circling back again.
So we move forward, in circles. We are a series of overlapping circles, at one point far apart, then coming around to intersect again. We compare, point out, share what we see, so that none of us might miss what we may not have been drawn to on first passing. One of the joys of family—this expansion on our solitary worlds. If we felt an occasional friction of conflicting opinions or ways, other times there was a tug to consider something we might otherwise have missed. We are tied together by all the ways in which we are alike, but perhaps bonded even more by all the ways that we are different.
My family is my many mirrors on the world and back onto myself. The older I get, the more I appreciate this passage of reflection. They catch the light in angles I might not have, so that I don’t have to miss it, not entirely. They expand my reach even as they keep me rooted. My children gift me with a sense of immortality, watching my own features appear and reappear in many variations. Here is eternity, here is the absence of death’s sting. My elderly parents see life go on in us, their lives, too, same yet different. Life is constant change, life is endless variation.
We hold our mirrors up to each other to know ourselves better. We hold our mirrors up to each other so that the light never fades, only changes its slant across the garden path, leading ever onward.