Sunday, October 30, 2011

Catch as Catch Can

by Zinta Aistars

The Battle Creek Book Club

Catch-as-catch-can adj. Using or making do with whatever means are available; irregular: made a catch-as-catch-can living doing odd jobs.

"At 54, you'd think my days of delicious impulse and dizzy madness would be over. The truth? I suspect they've just begun."

I'd read just that much from my novella-in-progress, titled Catch as Catch Can, and the four women of Shirley's book club in Battle Creek, Michigan, convulsed in laughter and went into immediate chatter.

"You're reading to the right group!" Shirley laughed.

I thought so, too. This was a grand way to give my fresh new manuscript a test run. I figured this group was as good as any and better than most, representative of what I guessed was the high percentage of contemporary American readers: female, middle age to older, educated, lively and curious, and maybe just a tad prone to impulse and dizzy madness now and then.

I'd read to Shirley's book club a year ago for the first time, and it was most enjoyable. I'd read from my novel-in-progress that time, and their response was encouraging. It was hard to keep up with such long works, however, when I was working full time, commuting on the road for two to three hours a day, managing an online literary magazine, helping to manage my father's artwork, and a grocery list of other interests and pursuits.

Among those interests was a recently purchased Kindle. I've been enjoying it more than I had expected. Although it didn't mean giving up traditional paper-bound books (I'm as much a book purist as most literary fanatics), it was a great way to expand my library, make it portable, save a few forests, and trim my lifestyle toward my goal of simplifying and downsizing. As I'd been expanding my electronic library, now up to 182 books contained in this slim apparatus, I'd made the discovery of the Kindle Single. These are short stories, essays or novellas, ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 words.

Hey, now this I can handle! Bite-size novels! If I wrote about 1,000 words a day, I'd have a first draft down in about a month. And 1,000 words could be written over a lunch hour, even on an early morning or later in the evening when I came home from the office. Doable.

I set aside my novel manuscript, took a break from it, and started in on something new and fresh. Not only that, but this could be a way of writing as therapy, working out my Monday morning frustrations as I began yet another work week in an office that, in spite of all the good things I can say about it, still wasn't the log cabin in the Keweenaw that I so fiercely desire.

So began Catch as Catch Can. A novella that lets my daydreams take shape, at least on paper, electronic paper as the case may be. I call it "A Short Novel of Quick Escape," or I simply refer to it as my fantasy autiobiography. One of the book club women really liked that one, so maybe that's what I will call it.

I expect to be done by Thanksgiving with my first draft, then let it "marinate" for a month or so, work on an edit over the holidays, and perhaps, all literary gods lined up on my side, ship it off to that board of publishers to await their decision.

No matter what that particular outcome, I realize I may be playing a bit with fire here. The last time I completed a novel manuscript, I was astounded a few years later to find that I was living substantial portions of it. It dawned on me that I created characters that I then met in reality. How was that possible? Power of suggestion?

We discussed this a bit at the book club reading. We discussed, too, the power of Home, and our common love for nature. We talked about Michigan's Upper Peninsula. We talked about being midlife runaways. All of these play important roles in my fantasy autiobiography.

Shirley had cooked a delicious breakfast for the group, and so body was nourished along with spirit and mind. It was how we had met, in fact. Shirley has a small farm in southwest Michigan, where she raises free range chickens and turkeys, fields of strawberries and raspberries. All of which eventually find their way into my freezer, into my oven, into my mouth. I would leave the book club with a dozen brown eggs and a very large and heavy turkey, ready for Thanksgiving.

That, and much to think about. I was having more fun writing this novella than I'd had in a long time. Words were flowing, scenes opened up with ease, even as I knew that at this point, nearly halfway in at 13,207 word count, I was about to enter into some deeper and darker shadows in the storyline. Giving into impulse was one thing ... staring up close and personal at the consequences was another.

And I still have no idea how this story will end ...


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mist, Art and a Clean Kill

by Zinta Aistars

I'm not sure how it is that the more I believe in, and try to move toward, a simpler and cleaner life, the busier my schedule seems to become, the more expanded my days. And yet.

Ironically, signing up for an outdoor tai chi class is a part of that effort, but it meant my Saturday would be jam-packed with activity early beginning to late end. I confess, I grumbled a little when my alarm went off on a Saturday morning at 6:30. Technically, when compared with my workday, that IS sleeping in ... nevertheless, it was still dark outside and sleep beckoned like the sweetest seductress. How soft that pillow, how warm that bed ...

Once I pulled into Lakeview Park in Portage (Michigan), however, to meet the tai chi group on the very edge of the lake, I was won over. Chill as it was, just one degree over the freezing mark, I felt blessed by the autumn morning. How beautiful ... the white frost crystallized on every fallen leaf, on every blade of grass, and over the lake, rising a soft mist, a mysterious fog toward the white sun on the horizon. Tender pink tendrils of light floated over the lake. I almost forgot to offer a greeting to the tai chi group as I joined them, awestruck as I was.

There were five of us. All smiles, all rosy cheeks, all ready to go. Ed was our instructor and stepped to the forefront, his back to the lake, so that I had trouble keeping my eyes on him rather than following the arc of flight of three cranes gliding over the misty water. Lee tossed me an extra pair of his warm knit gloves, pulled from his pocket ... good soul ... and we lined up to begin that ancient and graceful dance. Perhaps mine was not so graceful ... it's been a couple years since my last class ... but when I remembered a move just right, a thrill ran through my body. This was why I was so drawn to tai chi rather than one-two-three, one-two-three forms of exercise. This was a dance, a reverberation and reflection of the surroundings, looking for that place where I was in tune with mind, body, spirit ... and that wondrous lake, the rising of the sun, the settling of the cranes on earth again, and with the two swans now gliding silently across the water.
The hour went quickly, and my companions left to rejoin their own days, but I wandered the edge of the lake even as I was conscious of the clock once more ... in two hours, I would have a guest arrive at the house. Still, how to resist this? Standing at the end of the pier, leaning up against the railing along the dock, watching, listening, melting into that rising mist ...

Home, a quick change of clothes, a quick brushing back of my hair and sweeping it up out of my face, and already Alda was here. It was just a smidgen past a year since we had traveled together overseas to spend a few weeks in Latvia ... place of our ethnic roots, our rich heritage. For Alda, it had been a first trip, one that she said had changed her forever. For me, it was a return trip, one of many, this time after a too long absence of 17 years ... and a pilgrimage of healing.

Marking that anniversary, Alda wanted to choose a painting from my father's artwork, a painting to remind her of the many birches we had seen throughout Latvia, turning golden in autumn. She wanted to look at it hanging on the wall in her home ... and remember. My father, artist Viestarts Aistars, had many such paintings, oils and watercolors, but had especially for Alda painted a new series ... birches in every season. The greens of spring and summer; the golds of autumn, the pale white trunks against the blue light of a winter scape.

After a short chat, the two of us headed across town to my parents' house to look at the paintings. Mom greeted us with lunch, a tray of dark bread with various toppings, Latvian style. Then it was downstairs, to my father's art studio, and I helped to bring out the paintings, lining them up against the wall in the next room so that Alda could make her choice.

A stricken look came over her face. She sank down on the floor, stretched out her legs, grew silent, her eyes moving slowly from painting to painting to painting to painting.

"But I want all of them ... " she moaned.

I chortled a little as I brought out more paintings; I'd seen that effect before. On my own face, too. How many paintings hung in my own house? I'd lost count. I liked a small house, but with minimalist living came the problem of wall space when the heart longed for a gallery of images into which to fall into dreams, into memories, into longing, into all those magical moments that art provides us. Who can explain it?

My parents and Alda fell into conversation; while they talked, I brewed apple tea for everyone and brought down a bowl of grapes, a plate of pastries. Oh, I'd heard all those stories before that the three of them were now trading ... I wandered back into my father's studio to peek through his paintings. Hadn't I seen them all a thousand times before?

But no. What's here? Shelves stuffed full of blocks of watercolor paper ... wait, no. This wasn't just watercolor paper, untouched and white. These were finished paintings. Stacks upon stacks of them, oh my, and here were years, decades of treasure ...

I started bringing them out for a better look in the other room, where the three chattered. They grew silent behind me as I arranged the paintings.

"Where did you find those?" my father asked.

"But I thought I'd seen all your work," my mother puzzled.

"Oh no," from Alda. "What are you doing to me?"

Because one of the watercolors was a study of dunes, dune grasses, the edge of pale lavendar water blending with sky just beyond. Alda had lived most of her life in Holland, a small town on the edge of Lake Michigan, and the image resonated. She scooted down on the floor again, held the painting up in her hands, then set it aside with the three paintings of birches she had chosen to buy.

Three? Now four?

I went back to the studio, brought out another stack. I brought out oils, too, men and women in Latvian folk costume, gorgeous women in dreamy poses, reclining nudes, waterscapes, landscapes, seascapes, flowers, and then an abstract watercolor of thin grasses on a dark background, their tips blown to seeds like tiny explosions ...

"Oh my," I heard Alda breathe behind me, and she took the painting of the exploded grasses and set it aside, the fifth one she would buy. "I will be paying you for these for the next several years," she crooned, laughing, pleading for mercy.
Alda and my father, artist Viestarts Aistars
But I couldn't stop. I couldn't. This was discovered treasure. This was opening the door to my father's life, going back years, decades, watching the changing of his perspective, his many moods, his epiphanies, his experimenting, his dreams come to life. He was watching me place the paintings in wonder. My mother's hands sometimes went up to her face.

"When did you ever ... how many are there?"

I brought out more and more, and the shelf was only one-third empty before the windows showed waning light, evening coming on. I had yet another wonderful event to attend this day, a potluck celebration in Shelbyville, by my dear friend, Amy, poet and farmer, my CSA provider along with her farming friend Diane, in conclusion of their first successful season. They had nourished me with their wonderful vegetables and greens all summer.

I brought the paintings all back into the studio and put them away, my eye lingering on the two-thirds on the shelf that we had not had time to view. Alda had eight paintings set aside. I brought one back out to show my father. He had written its title on the back: "Ziemas rits," or, translated, "Winter Morning."

"I'd like to buy this."

"Ziemas rits" or "Winter Morning"
He blinked. I wrote a check. My mother watched and admonished me for offering money, but I insisted. I tire of those comments in our society that an artist must be grateful for "exposure" alone. I knew how hard he worked. I knew the heart he put into these paintings. I'd grown up watching my father come home from work, dog tired, grab a quick meal, then disappear into this very same studio each and every evening to paint. I knew the prices of the paints, the canvas, the brushes, the hours.

I didn't know yet where I would put the painting, but I was pretty sure I would hang it on my bedroom wall where I could see it upon waking and again upon going to sleep. I saw in it my own northern dreams, my love of the lavender blues of winter light in the forest, my longing for the days when I might retire to the northern woods to pursue my own art ...

Alda followed my car in hers as we drove from Kalamazoo through Plainwell by back roads through country rusty with autumn color, then merged onto Interstate 131. I waved as she passed me on her way back to Holland, paintings arranged carefully in her trunk, and I exited at Shelbyville to join my farming friends.

What glorious food, what good and bright faces, what luscious wine, and the laughter of children, lively conversation, as I joined everyone at the long table in Amy's farmhouse. From the art studio, I emerged into another world of the good earth and those who respect it and love it. I was so grateful to these farmers who raise the food I eat and enjoy. I had learned about new foods this summer I'd rarely if ever eaten before, tried new recipes, now routinely making from scratch great pots of chicken soup, tomato soup, ratatouille, spicy turnips fried in garlic butter, baked and stuffed squashes, salads that I woke in the night craving, that fresh, that good, that nourishing.

We talked of the gardens, and we talked about the growing of livestock, the process, from birth to the kill, and what that all involved.

"You know, I never quite know what to answer when I'm selling my chickens at the farmers market," said Jake, who raised chickens and pigs on his farm, "to these people who ask me if these were happy chickens." His eyebrows fly up in puzzlement.

We all burst into laughter. Understood. With the local food movement, there are those good suburbia folk who now seem to envision fairy tale farms where animals frolic and birds sing overhead and butterflies flutter in the stable and ...

... and it's not that such scenes don't take place. But farming is hard and dirty work, Jake explains. And let's face it, he says, we are not "harvesting" animals. We kill. Death happens here. We take a life to sustain our own. It's real.

I ponder this, and I find myself saying to Jake and his wife Christina: "You know, I've long thought about that. That to truly understand this process of life giving life, of taking life to sustain life, I should be aware of it ... face it ... witness it." I struggled to express the thought. "Honor it," I finally said.

"We'd be glad to have you come to the farm when it's time to kill the pig," Christina offered, and I nodded. Yes, I wanted to experience this, as sure as I was that I may find myself in tears ... and yet, maybe not. I wasn't sure, I didn't know what to expect. Somehow, it felt like the right thing to do. That to glorify the food I ate every day, that I should bear witness to the cost and the sacrifice.

We exchanged contact information, and I tucked theirs carefully into my pocket.

Well past 9 p.m. when at last I stood with Amy and Diane under the trees in the fast cooling autumn night. I had propped my newly acquired painting against my car to show them ... my northern dream. My promise to myself.

I thanked them again for the evening, for the summer, for the season. I looked forward to the next growing season, even as my freezer now was filled with the vegetables they'd grown to keep me fed during the winter months.

My day concluded at last, driving the 20 miles or so back home from the farm. My mind was filled and swirling with the many colors and moods of the day. The dawn over the misty lake ... the bounty of painted images from my father's life .... the cozy evening of sharing a great meal with my favorite farmers ... the long drive home in the dark. I was tired, but I felt almost overwhelmingly blessed.

"Cabin in Birch Woods," pencil sketch by Viestarts Aistars

Monday, October 17, 2011

Z on WMUK Arts and More: Talking to Author Joseph Heywood

by Zinta Aistars

At WMUK radio station with Joe Heywood

WMUK at 102.1 FM, Kalamazoo Michigan's NPR affiliate radio station, has invited me back again to talk to another local author for their expanded Arts and More program, now airing from 7:50 a.m. to 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays. That's two arts stories each time. Perfect! I love doing the interviews, just as I love listening to all the other stories on my radio as I drive from home to work.

I think about what local author or artist I'd like to talk to and learn more about ... and a book I recently read comes to mind. It came off the presses just this past September, so the time is right. Joseph Heywood has written the eighth book in his Woods Cop Mystery series: Force of Blood. (See my book review on my other blog, Zinta Reviews.)

And I loved it. Just as I have enjoyed all seven in the series prior to this one. While I am not usually a mystery or detective story reader (with the possible exception of Maisie Dobbs), this series caught my attention because it is placed in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, an area very close to my heart. And, as interesting chance would have it, the author actually lives right here in Portage, in southwest Michigan, just a few miles from me. Joe spends several months each year in the U.P., riding along with real woods cops, researching his books.

So I had plenty of questions. Plenty! And not just about Grady Service, the DNR cop in his books, but also about how he balances his life as a troll (what UPers ... Yoopers ... call those of us who live below the bridge, which is the Mackinac Bridge, connecting lower and upper peninsulas) and turning back into a Yooper again.

Fortunately, WMUK news director Andy Robins was running late, and Joe and I had plenty of time sitting in the waiting room outside of the recording studio to talk about writing, the U.P., and all things interesting to wilderness fans and literary types. I like this guy! I came away with all kinds of new insights into U.P. authors (I have many more happy discoveries to make), about my plans to retire in the Keweenaw (4,406 days to go), and balancing different art interests (Joe not only writes novels, but also poetry, and he paints, too).

Andy came in, all apologies, but I wasn't having it. This pre-interview interview for me had been an absolute treat. Andy brought us into the recording studio, set us up on mics, turned on his broadcast booth magic, and we were off. It wasn't long before Joe had me laughing with his answers. For those of you who live in the greater Kalamazoo listening area, tune into WMUK 102. 1 FM on Friday this week (October 21) at 7:50 a.m. to hear a snippet of our chat. Or, visit the WMUK website ( Arts and More programming) and hear the snippet, or listen to the entire 16 minutes plus of our conversation.

The really good stuff, though? After the mics were turned off. Ain't it always the way?

Joseph Heywood will be reading one of his short stories this Friday, October 21, at 7 p.m., at Kazoo Books, 2413 Parkview in Kalamazoo. Force of Blood will be available for purchase and signing. Be there, Kalamazoo!

And, as we walked back to our cars following the interview, Joe promised me a new short story to publish in the upcoming Fall/Winter 2011-2012 Issue of The Smoking Poet, online in December. I can't wait to read it!

Monday, October 10, 2011

It's Raining Slivers of Gold

by Zinta Aistars

I give up! Every morning when I go out on the deck to sip my coffee, the deck chairs are covered with tiny slivers of papery gold, spilling down from the canopy of tree branches overhead. I sweep them away. Every evening after work, I take my book outside to read for a while after dinner, and I sweep them away.

Tonight, I leave them be. Why sweep away such gold? If the autumn sky insists, I will allow.

Golden leaves cover the chairs, carpet the deck floor, spill across the glass table, lace the end table, scatter across the railings.

I sit back on the lounge chairs, seated in gold, and my book rests in my lap, not yet open. Another work day past, a new work week begun. All day I long to return here, to this quiet spot away, to listen to the day fade, the evening rise, and let it all go, let it all go.

These are the evenings we will remember when the winter storms begin, gold turned to silver, and the skies filled with white light. These are the evenings we will long for, so sweet, still warm, the air as soft and gentle as a lover's caress.


Monday, October 03, 2011

Grit, Glory, Invitation

by Zinta Aistars
Something in my core goes wobbly when I don’t commune with Nature for too long a period of time. I was feeling wobbly. Summer is my least favorite time to camp—too many people, too much noise, too much heat. But October? Perfect.
My son had issued an invitation for us to go camping last spring; we’d waited until now. While I have pitched a tent many, many times, my son has come along with me only once—a couple summers ago in July. I wouldn’t have gone in July if the invitation had been from anyone else, but my heart thrills to spend some extra time with my adult boy.
When he was a smidgen of a boy, cute little thing, we had taken a cross-country trip from our then home in Kentucky, across Canada to Alaska, where we stayed for several months before heading down the west coast of the country to California. We were traveling in a 27-foot RV camper. He was 8, his sister was 10. It was a great adventure, one we had planned to continue for perhaps even a couple of years, exploring the United States up close and personal—but our dream trip was cut short when someone stole the RV and took it for a joy ride, leaving us stranded with nothing but the clothes on our backs, our money and belongings (and my cat) all left behind in the RV.
But that’s another story. And I know many people consider traveling and living out of an RV as camping. Not me. It’s a house on wheels. All the comforts of home still attached to you.
To me, camping means getting out there, in the fresh air, in the woods, on the trail, pitching a tent and dealing with the elements. It means using survival skills. It means grit under my nails, picking leaves out of my hair, and several layers of clothing for those nights under a chilly moon. The freedom not to be pretty. Nothing more useless in the woods.
One of the reasons I avoid state and national parks when camping in season is because I can’t stand the crowded conditions, site by site by site, so that you can’t see the woods for the forest of motor vehicles. I wince when I see the RVs roll up, equipped with every imaginable luxury, antennas up for televisions, paper lanterns hung out on their patios, carpet laid down so that, God forbid, their feet might actually touch grass.
An RV made sense when we were a family of four planning to be on the road for years at a time. It wasn’t just an occasional night or weekend out; it was our home on the road. I even homeschooled the kids out of that vehicle. And it makes sense to me when I see elderly couples living that way as they travel for long months where their interests lead them. I rather envy them …
Yet when I pull into a campground, I steer clear. Big, noisy, gaseous.There should be another word for traveling that way—it’s not “camping.” It’s a rolling motel.
When I camp, I want to feel the grass—or snow—beneath my feet (I enjoy winter camping, too). I want to see sky. I want to hear wind whistling in the trees, see them sway in the passing breeze. I want to see a night sky without light pollution, far away from the civilized world. I want to get gritty, leave the good clothes behind, my face clean of makeup, my hair pulled into a ponytail, my feet in my best walking shoes.
I want to know that I can still make myself at home in the wilderness—that I can figure out how to accomplish what I need to do if I have forgotten to bring along some tool, that I can build and start a good fire, cook a meal over it, and spend a reasonably comfortable night with no more cover than thin canvas.
Something about that, nesting in the wilderness, makes me feel better about myself. Brings me back to center. Reminds me just how very little I really need to be happy. In fact, free of all the STUFF of civilization, I inevitably feel my happiest.
I certainly enjoy sitting in a warm house, electricity melting a golden circle of light over the book in my lap, by a crackling fireplace, a good meal simmering on the stove. I enjoy luxuries like most people. Long ago, I enjoyed wearing a long silken gown, too, doing up my hair, slipping into elegant high heels, and dancing away the night in a ballroom of chandeliers and a string orchestra.
I’ve done all that, I have enjoyed all that, and that style of living encompasses its own pleasures. But the older I get, the more I seem drawn to simplicity, to the basics, to what feels timeless and true. Less truly has become more.
I love silence. I love solitude. Time to think, feel, just be. The ballrooms have steadily lost their allure; the woods have become my cathedral.
While I love to pitch a tent and create a comfortable campsite, I don’t plan to live my life that way, either—I long for that small, cozy cabin in the woods for my golden years. Just enough. No more, no less, but every true need met and the others left behind. The longest I have lived out of a tent is for a span of three months, crossing 10 states. By end of it, I longed for hard walls and a solid ceiling over my head.
Life, I think, is enriched when we live it more than one way. In between, I like to test myself to be sure I haven’t lost my edge. That I know how to sleep beneath the stars. That I can be tossed out most anywhere and not be lost.
Every time I go camping, I learn a little more about how to do it better. I have camping friends who are true experts, and I love watching them build their campsites and complete their tasks with utmost ease. I have learned that the right equipment can make all the difference. When I tried to camp in snow the first time, I thought I could get by with my summer sleeping bag and a few extra blankets. No. Nothing like sleeping on frozen ground in a blizzard to teach me the value of a sleeping bag made for winter.
By now, I’m reasonably good at this. I can pitch my tent quickly, I can build the fire fast, get my site set up so that I can sit back and feel the stress of every day peel away, layer after layer. But I can also enjoy having my big, strapping, strong son around to do some of the heavy lifting. Between the two of us, we have our site in good shape for the night in no time.
In fact, what was that he was doing? As I was puttering around getting dinner together, I realized he’d been gone for a while, only now I heard some heavy thudding from just beyond the trees. There he was, rolling an immense log over a thick chain dragging from the back of his car. Log locked in, he got back in the car and slowly drove into our site, the log rolling along behind him.
“Forgot our camp chairs,” he said, getting out again to unchain the log and roll it closer to the fire. “Thought this might do for a bench.”
That’s what I mean. Making do in the woods when you forget something is what I like about these ventures. Nature makes you think harder about how to solve problems creatively.
“That’ll get you a burger!”
His eyes lit up with appetite as the two large patties sizzled on the grill. I wrapped potatoes in aluminum and tossed them into the flames, burying them in embers with a stick. My nod to luxury was a miniature bottle of red wine, just right for a toast to the autumn evening, and somehow tasting that much better in my blue tin cup.
I let him build the evening’s campfire, something he enjoyed doing. Overmuch, apparently. Gathering dead wood from the surrounding forest, he made a stack so high that when it had properly caught, was more a bonfire than a campfire. We watched sparks soar toward the stars in the darkening sky. My son’s face glowed red from the reflection of fire. The old chow pup sat not far away, tongue lolling, watching. His eyes followed my son’s every move—the love of his dog life.
We didn’t talk much. My son spares few words. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed his presence, watching him, his youthful strength, gathering firewood, snapping thick limbs into smaller pieces. The dog disappeared into the brush behind us, only the yellow rope leading us to him. He’d found a favorite spot, hidden, where he could watch the forest come to a different kind of life as the night deepened.
The darker the sky, the more chill the air. From 50s Fahrenheit during the day, now it was dropping toward 30. As time ticked by, I added more layers—another flannel shirt over my denim one, then a sweatshirt over that, then a zippered hoodie, then a jacket. My son stayed as he was.
“Not cold?”
“I’m good.”
“More sweaters and jackets in the car if you need them,” I said, then let him be. He stoked the fire, knocking his head back to watch the rising dance of sparks.

One of the luxuries I did afford myself when camping, at least when it wasn’t a matter of hiking into a site, was to use a foldable cot for my sleeping bag. Sleeping once on frozen ground taught me it was no fun to lie on a block of ice. Living in a tent for a three-month stretch of traveling taught me that pumping up an air mattress night after night was no fun either. And the air in it could be icy cold. The cot, a matter of unfolding and adding a metal bar at either end to hold it taut, was perfect.
When it was time to retire for the night, I crept inside my winter bag, snug as a bug in a rug. The old chow pup lay on a bundle of blankets on a mat in the middle of the tent. On the opposite side my son was on his cot, in his bag, but I wondered that he didn’t bother to zip it …
… and the chattering of teeth and rolling about and the muttered curses told me during the night that it wasn’t working for him.
“You okay over there?”
“Damn cold!”
I turned on my lantern. His bag was unzipped. The extra blankets I’d brought for him had all slid to the floor. He’d taken his lined jacket off before going to bed. Just like home.
“Call the pup over to you. He’ll warm you up.”
The dog was only too happy to snuggle with him. I zipped the bag up around them both, put the blankets over them after telling him to put his jacket back on, hat, too. This is a different kind of sleeping. One doesn’t undress for sleeping on a chill autumn night in a tent.
.. and then felt guilty. I should have coached him better. I didn’t know much about this either when I first pitched a tent. When he was a kid, he’d lose himself in the wild, a wild boy, fearing nothing, and knew how to survive like one. Something lost over the years.
Zippered back in, extra layers on, dog snuggled against him, I soon heard his breathing deepen and slow. Ah good. My mama’s heart settled and I went to sleep, too, thinking how this was just why a person should camp now and then, do without, so as to learn how. To understand what a cold night means …
… and then the glory of a warming dawn. I blinked. Light seeped through the canvas. Morning already. The surrounding woods chirped and twittered and scurried and crackled with the sounds of waking wildlife.
I saw an eye peek out from the other sleeping bag. Dog’s, then son’s.
“Sleep,” I said. “I’ll get a fire going, make coffee.”
No argument from the bag.
The fire started easily. I didn’t even need a match. As I gathered small twigs and first fallen leaves for kindling, the still hot embers smoked, reddened, then caught flame. I whooshed a long breath over the embers and they sparked fully to life.
Another simple contraption I admired: a French press coffee pot. I had a sweet one, just right for one steaming mug. No electricity needed. Two scoops of fresh grounds, pour over the water I’d heated to boiling over the fire, slowly move the press down to filter grounds from water, and there, my coffee was ready. I made another mug for my son. It was luxury simplified.
Bacon sizzling in my cast iron pan set over the fire brought forth life from the tent. Both boy and dog emerged. Both received their share, and fresh eggs from a nearby farm, and bread slices toasted over the wood coals. How is it that even the simplest meal can taste so wonderful under an open sky?
I was in my glory, taking in the morning, but I could see my son was feeling stiff in the joints and sleepy. After another mug of coffee, he shook his head—this sleeping in the cold was not for him, but hey Mom, thanks for the adventure, heading home.
Old chow pup and I saw him off. I was pretty sure I would be camping alone again in the future. I would miss him, but I would also enjoy the solitude. Seems the older I get, the more such quiet times mean to me, the more I need them.

Dishes rinsed and put away, fire died down to embers again, I harnessed the dog and the two of us headed down the trail. Old pup had been watching that trail all evening, wondering, nose tingling with the seduction of strange scents.
Just around the bend of the trail—a lake. Azure and sparkling with glints of glittering sunlight, clear, lily pads floating, and along the opposite shore, tall grasses red golden. How beautiful. I drew in my breath, felt the medicine flow through my veins, the healing of spirit embraced by the beauty of the natural world. Harder to find now, but still here, still here, open to those who take the time to enjoy.
The morning air was sweet and fresh. Colors hadn’t yet started to turn, but for an occasional splash of red, or a spread of melting yellow. We had the trail to ourselves—until my dog’s ears popped up to listen. He stopped to sniff the air. Another coming our way, man and dog, and we stopped to let the dogs bump noses and circle each other, saying hello.
We made conversation while the dogs wagged tails and made friends, but I was eager to find my way back to silence, so that I could listen to the air, the trees, the lake. I cut it short and moved on, even as my dog’s ears flopped down and he tried to tug me back toward the man and dog, retreating in the distance.
We walked, walked all morning, through forest, occasionally down to the edge of the water. I would camp here again, I thought, and soon. Just me and dog. I would miss my son. Maybe I could convince him to give it another try on a warmer spring or summer evening …. but he would have to find his own way, and I mine. You have to develop a longing for this. Open yourself to the healing the earth offers when we are ready. I belonged here. In the woods. In the quiet. Feet planted firmly on the earth.