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

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:58 PM

    Such a beautiful post, Zinta! I'm honored to have spent part of this special day with you.

    :) Amy