Sunday, January 30, 2011

Homing In


by Zinta Aistars




Studio Grill
Loving the place you’re in has nothing to do with loving the place you’re not. If all my life I have been rattling around trying to find Home, it finally seems to be coming to rest in me—I am home in many places. 

Not perfect. Not quite what I had in mind. But I know how to make myself at home in most any place for at least a while—in the United States, in Europe, in any of the four directions of the wind, country or city. I like that about myself. I know how to make do. I also know how to live in the lap of luxury (hey, that’s easy), but I can just as well cope with having next to nothing, and those have been far from my unhappiest times. Indeed, quite the opposite. I like the simplified.

Raised bilingual and bi-cultural by immigrant parents who did their stint as make-do refugees, that seems to be a skill I’ve inherited. Turn my roots up into thin air and I can still find something to cling to long enough to wrap around a root or two.

Yeah, I like that. It’s a good skill, or trait, to have. The downside, however, is having a lot of shallow roots in a lot of places, and always missing the place I’m not. And, not least, missing that place where I might be at perfect peace. In place. Truly Home. A place to combine all things loved. 

At least I have the direction for that: it’s north.

Kalamazoo Mall
On this weekend, work week concluded, I head south. I shrug, thinking my compass is off, but I could always take the other way around the globe, right? Go north so far that I eventually would be heading south so far that I would eventually be heading north again? Well, anyway, a bit too impatient and the weekend too short for globe treks, I head south from a bit outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I have been “house sitting” for a traveling friend, to Kalamazoo, where I have held an address longer than I have managed anywhere else. 

Time does its thing. 

I wasn’t born here, but I grew up here, and when I left, just barely out of my teens and a too-young bride, I swore to never come back. Never say never, you know. Took a long time, several decades, in fact, and some pretty strange adventures, and even a stint overseas, but eventually … here I am again. In Kalamazoo, that oddly named town that roots back to a Native American name meaning “boiling water.” Kind of applies. Steaming and bubbling, it was hard for me to stay in place. When all that bubbling and boiling calmed down, here I was, back again.

I pack my car with most of my things, leaving just enough for a one-night stay in the coming week at the country house of my friend. For the weekend, I am feeling the pull south. Except for a short stop two weeks ago, I have been gone for three. I am a tad surprised at just how homesick I suddenly feel.

Three deer lope by as I close the trunk of my car. I stand in the snow and watch them. Deer have greeted me most every day of my stay here. Sometimes only one, sometimes in herds. They leave in leaps now, one, two, three, and they are soundless in the wintry evening. I smile and nod at them, sending out a blessing as they have been to me. They made me feel at home here. 

I scoop up my cat Jig, who yowls once in question, but then settles in as we pull out of the drive and out and away from the country, back to the Interstate. She settles into my lap, now and then pushing her head up to the see out the window and watch the passing blur. I wonder what she is thinking. Does she know?

An hour and we are there. To my Kalamazoo home. My son greets me as I pull in, his face suspiciously stricken. The water pipe has busted. Water is leaking in to the basement, and his friend Ron is already here, soldering and flaming and steaming, patching the pipe. 

“Didn’t want to tell you,” my boy shrugs, wincing. “Save the plumber. Ron’ll get it done.”

I trust so. Ron is one of those who knows how to do a little bit of everything and a lot of a few things. Handy. Buy him a pizza and he’s a happy worker. 

Bronson Park, Kalamazoo
I’m not going to worry. I’m home, and it feels good, and I let old Jig loose, and my old chow pup, Guinnez, comes racing toward me. I drop to my knees to nuzzle the pooch. My face gets licked and my hands get licked, and he gets a good rub down and more than a few giggly squeezes. Guinnie Pig! I squeal, and we enjoy our love fest. This is how home feels.

This is how home feels: imperfect but perfect. Leaky but good. I’m a little surprised by how good. Steadily, but little by little over the past few years, I’ve been discovering just how rooted I am here. Even as I have roots elsewhere, and feel the echo of Home in my heart in several places. And a call north to claim another.

Nothing rattles me, not even a string of cuss words from the vicinity of leaky pipes as the soldering doesn’t hold. The last few weeks have been some down, some up again, and I have resolved to keep the faith that the up will always come after the down. If I’d nearly lost my northern dream some weeks ago, a hundred things seem to have fallen into place since—including a wonderful job, offered and accepted, for my daughter in Chicago. After more than a year of hard searching and innovative door knocking and temping and learning and being flexible, her drought has ended. She has a good position with a good organization that is, by golly, the perfect combination of her social work ethics and her sales experience. 

I can breathe easy again. I helped her stay above water for that year, but now that my own pipes are leaking, I know she can paddle her own ocean again, while I paddle mine. We are back on the path, each to our own dreams. Congratulations, sweet smart Blondie!

Ron works into late hours, the leak patched then not, and finally ends up falling asleep on my basement couch. I silently roll my eyes… yup, I’m home. Always sumthin. 

Downtown Kalamazoo
Saturday morning shines up new and I’m still keeping the attitude. I leave the two young men to steam over the pipe repairs, while I head into town to run my own errands. There are places I want to stop, faces I wouldn’t mind seeing. Maybe just a walk through town. 

I drop my car off at my favorite mechanic’s, where I have been going for … some nearly 20 years? Both Brian and I now have more than a smattering of gray hairs. 

“Hey, Zinta!”

I nod and grin and fiddle with my car keys, taking off the one he’ll need. I am here for new tires. 

“Hey you.”

“Four?”

“Two. You let me know if I need the front ones, but I don’t think so. The back two are vibrating enough to make me jiggly in the head when I get out. Then again, maybe that’s just a sign of age.”

Brian grins, scoops up my keys, tells me couple hours, and I’m off. Center of town isn’t far from here, and just a couple blocks in and around, and I am at my favorite breakfast place, Studio Grill, side by side with my favorite downtown book store, Michigan News Agency. 

I am greeted as soon as I walk into Studio Grill, the cook and owner coming out of the kitchen to pour me a hot cuppa and asking me how’s it been, Z. It’s that kind of place. The eggs are from local farms, the coffee is from a Kalamazoo place, the veggies are organically grown, and the art on the walls is by a local artist. 

I take my favorite spot by the window, sip the coffee—oh yeah—and lean back in my chair to start reading a new book: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon. She’s just won the National Book Award, a professor down the street at Western Michigan University. We keep doing that here in Kalamazoo. We keep producing those award-winning authors—Bonnie Jo Campbell, David Small, now Jaimy Gordon. 

Something in that boiling water, Kalamazoo folk joke, but there really does seem to be something in this town. Not so very big, but we are rich in creative arts and quick on the movement to good, new ideas. I’d just read a few days ago in the newspaper that we had the lowest foreclosure rate in Michigan, the strongest employment rate … we are hanging in there during these tough times. Our new governor had recently pointed us out as the example to follow. 

Michigan News Agency
I was feeling the pride. Eating my eggs, sipping my coffee, reading my book, I was feeling my place here.

After breakfast, had to drop by next door. Dean, owner extraordinaire of Michigan News Agency, was all smiles the moment she saw me. “Zinta, hello!” and she brought me to the back of the store, down those endlessly long aisles of books, books, and magazines, to show me the new spot for local authors’ readings. I liked it. A good spot. I would try to come by for the upcoming reading by a local poet.

Then to the library. Past Bronson Park, to the Kalamazoo Public Library, where I had a score to settle. I was sure I’d returned that book, months ago, before my last trip overseas. One of several. But I’d talked to librarians on the phone, all kind, all checking the shelf, no book, and I was giving up the wait for it to show up. Let’s get it paid and my card clear. 

The librarian at the circulation desk checked my record. 

“Shall we check the shelf one more time before you pay?” she asked. 

Sure, I nodded. One more time. 

Kalamazoo Public Library
And there it was. She came back with book in hand, checked it in, erased my fine, and then took a closer look at my name. Zinta … she murmured. 

“There’s got to be only one such name,” she said. “You know, you and I, we worked at the same place. Long time ago, office furniture. You were up in sales and I was in the mail room.”

“Oh my gosh,” I breathed. “That was so long ago! Twenty years maybe?”

We laughed, shook our graying heads at memories, not all of them good, but I was some $30 lighter on fines, so happy as a clam as I left the library and walked through downtown. Dan waved from South Street Cigars as I walked by. And there was Jerry’s jewelry store, another good friend in my life. 

Kalamazoo Mall
Town was quiet, snow falling, a few flakes and gently. I walked the main street, bricked and lined with trees, now bare-limbed and white with snow-lace. Past the museum and back to the mechanic. Brian waved as I walked in, my car was already parked out front and ready. 

“What did I quote you on those tires?”

“I’m not saying,” I grinned. “What are you quoting me now?”

“$325?”

“Heck, no! You said $250.”

“Must’ve been having a good day,” Brian mock grumbled, and ran the bill for $250. 

Another errand, and I drove to the veterinarian to pick up a new dog license for Guinnez. Soon as I walked in, staff smiled and called out, “Hi, Guinnez’s mom!”

I chortled. It occurred to me then … everywhere I’d gone today, people knew me. Everywhere I went, people knew my name. Here, they knew my old chow pup. And when I made my grocery store stop just after, the owner, Linda Sawall, came over to talk organic yogurt with me. We shook hands and arranged for an interview—I would be coming by soon to sit down and hear her story, because I was working on a freelance article about her family grocery store and how it was helping local food growers, local bakers and coffee brewers, local gardeners and locals who wanted to eat all that local produce. Like me. From now on, she and I would know each other by name. 

When I got home, my son jogged out to help me bring in the groceries. I gave him a hug, and then another.

“What’s that for?” he eyed me. 

“Just because. Good to be home.”
   

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Day 17: Random Acts of Sunshine

by Zinta Aistars





A sunrise never gets old. It just turns into another sunset. Every morning as I get up to start my day at this country house that I am “sitting,” I watch the dark windows turn a pale and wintry blue. Sometimes, I catch many color variations between. On Sunday morning, I was dazzled by the light show, threw a coat over my flannels, slipped from slippers into boots, and raced outside with camera in hand to catch the sun coming up through the line of trees at the front of the house. Lavender, orange, red, blue and gold.

I have seen so many sunrises in my half century plus of life. So many sunsets. Why is it that such things stun us with their bright beauty each and every time as if we’d never seen them before? On work days, I miss some of the light show, busy with work day bustle, but every morning that I’ve been at this house in the country, 17 of them now, I find my hurried step slowing on my way from house to red barn, where my car is parked. It can’t be helped. There is a light in my eyes.

Light, and sounds of twittering birds and cooing creatures, and a freshness in the air that fills my lungs and wakes me in a way that the coffee mug cannot. Seventeen times, I have come to a standstill between house and barn. And stood. Just stood. Looking. Listening. Breathing. Forgetting time.

Smiling. Touched by random sunshine.

We tire of our chores, we tire of our work, we tire of our favorites, we tire of our lovers, we tire of whatever we see day after day after day. Why does this never wear out? This—a new day, fresh, sparkling, sweet. This—the call of nature. I have never tired of this, and I have never gotten my fill.

This day was to be my last full day at this country house. David, however, has written that he needs more time. Pulling together loose ends, tying up this and that, arranging the business of his life. He won’t be back home yet for a few more days, and I have been gifted with a few more sunrises here, a few more sunsets. I am not complaining.

Just a little over a week ago, I was quite devastated at what appeared to be the loss of my northern dream. But I stand now, between house and barn, work portfolio hanging loose from my hand, looking, listening, breathing, and feel a surge of new hope. So many odd and wonderful things have happened in the past week or so. So many unexpected puzzle pieces falling into place. Several surprises, appearing without warning. To sweeten it all, a few random acts of kindness.

We tell our children to fear strangers. Dare I confess that strangers in my life have so often been the bearers of unexpected kindness? I felt my world shift a little on its axis a few days after I had felt it shift me away from where I wanted to be. It seemed the last straw, straw that was woven into a nest for my nest egg with many other such straws, when my daughter’s car broke down with a huff and a puff, not to move again. It seemed the last straw after a year of burning up straws.

After being told to never trust strangers, aren’t we always told to never trust a mechanic? Especially a mechanic who is a stranger? My wallet open and ready to be emptied, my daughter went to pick up her car from the mechanic, extensive work done. The mechanic, an elderly man, had shared with her that he, like her grandparents, was an immigrant to this country. His auto shop was his ticket to his independence here. He made a good living and worked hard. He saw her anguish. He cut the bill in half. Pay me for the parts, he said, and my labor is my gift to you.

My daughter gasped. She called me with the news and I gasped, too. Why would a stranger be so kind? He had worked on the car all day long.

My world shifted on its axis again. I had given up. Silly me. I had forgotten that sometimes there is magic in this world. A daily, ordinary kind of magic that comes to us quietly and when we least expect it. Those shifts we do not see coming, unexpected surprises, and a kindness extended for no reason at all. Sometimes strangers turn out to be good people. They help us find our way home again.

I put one straw back and let it be the first straw of a new nest for a new nest egg.

One should never give up hope. A dream held so dear, so close to the heart, should never be lost. Impossible things become possible and fairy tales sometimes come true and princes sometimes have grease beneath their nails and wear oily overalls.

It was first of several such lessons over the past 17 days. The lessons were piling up like straws.

I stand between house and barn and observe, again, that the sun just keeps rising. After every sunset, no matter how dark, it keeps coming up again.

My number crunching still doesn’t make solid sense. I’m still reaching. Really reaching. And I am going to need a few more miracles, a dash of magic, a sprinkling of wonder, and when I get lost in the woods, a kind stranger to point me back to my path.

I’m pretty sure everything happens for a reason. Everything brings us a lesson. Including the way the golden light reaches across this yard, stretches, expands across the white snow so far between the tall, dark silhouettes of the bare trees.

I still don’t know how it will happen—my northern dream. I’m just sure again that it will. I am trusting in the light. I will keep faith in kindness. I will watch for the unexpected and how it gives shape to hope where it was nearly lost.



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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Day 14: Winter Walks and the Wild


by Zinta Aistars





Snow swirls from the skies and the temperature drops to some chill single digit, but I am eager to be outside in it. I bundle up, two layers of most everything, and twirl a woolen scarf around my neck in circles upon circles, push my woolen-socked feet into boots, pull on knit mittens, and out I go to catch snowflakes.

Back in suburbia, I might be inclined to stay inside, warm and coddled, but here, in open country in middle Michigan, I crave the outdoors. I crave a little something of the wild. At the opening edge of my third week here, I have seen herds of deer most every day, as many as 22 at a time, as few as one, white tail flicking as she pushed her nose into snow for a bite of something that remembers summer. 

The deer are silent this morning, and gone. As I trek back into the snowy fields behind the barn, out toward the wooded tree line, I see only their delicate prints in the snow. But I feel them. I sense them near, perhaps even watching me. 

What is this craving we humans have for the wild? For the elements in their most basic form—earth, air, water, fire? In my days and nights here in this country house, I have connected with all of these, and each time I do, I sense something in my very core realigning and falling into place. Suddenly, I will sense a deep calm. All is right again, with me and with the world. Harmony.

I have been reading a book called Island Farm while living here, by Arthur Versluis, a neighbor, in fact. He keeps striking chords with me and with this country experience—and with this craving for the wild, too. Versluis has found the exact words to describe our connection to the wild when we encounter deer:

“Here on the farm you’ll see them sometimes at dusk or at dawn, silent, poised, round tan bodies on delicate legs, heads turned toward you, brown eyes gazing. They are like spirits floating over sharp hooves, ghostlike in the morning mist or twilight. If you freeze, they might turn, walk on their way, but more often they’ll bolt, and like gazelles, bound among the trees and disappear from view. One might pause, though, and look back at you, just to see what you’re doing, and perhaps your eyes will meet, in that moment some mysterious communication taking place. That’s the point at which worlds join, natural and human, over the tall brown grass ..."

Versluis goes on to say:

“Machinery and convenience are too often mistaken for civilization nowadays, but in fact civilization can be measured only by whether we live in harmony with nature, with one another, and with the divine.”

Nailed it, I think, tapping my finger on the page. The reason why so many of us are in discord with ourselves and others, with our world, and why we seem to be in constant struggle against a creeping unhappiness, is this disconnect. We live in deep isolation—from each other, from our communities, from the natural world around us. Our eyes meet with the eyes of a wild one, and for an instant in time, we feel the connection we have been missing all along. An electric current of momentary harmony with the natural world that birthed us and cradles us still, whether we realize it or not.

It jibes with the Woodswoman series I recently read, the four-book memoir by Anne LaBastille, who lived in a cabin in the wilderness for her entire adulthood. She would sometimes take on teaching jobs at colleges and universities to teach about nature writing and ecology. When a college administrator pulled her aside to warn her of the dangers of taking her students on a camping trip for one night, she sensed a fear of nature among those who live apart from it. Whereas these same students routinely wander city streets, it was a walk in the woods the college administrator feared most when considering their safety. She was expected to teach nature writing while keeping students away from nature.

When did we become so afraid of a walk in the woods? In essence, isn’t this really a fear of the wild in ourselves?

I tromp through the snow, and immediately I feel that surge of joy come up in me. What is it that causes this joy? It is the joy of a reunion with a part of our own selves that has been, nearly, lost to us. It is the cold, fresh air on my face, bringing a flush of health to my cheeks. It is the resonance of my step against the earth. My blood beats with the pulse of the earth beneath and around me. I stand in the middle of the snowy field, surrounded by woods, and open my arms to the sky spilling white like a cool blessing upon me. 

All morning, I walk. Through the field, along the edge of it, and I step into the woods, following the delicate tracks of the invisible deer. I come across a great old tree, a time-worn giant, and feel reverence. I press a mittened hand against its thick trunk, but that won’t do. I take my mitten off and touch that ropey bark, those thick grooves and its rough exterior, worn by many, many years of sun, rain, snow, wind. The tree has been here much longer than I, and I can only hope that it will be here long after I am gone. 

I open my eyes to the beauty of winter—the bare limbs of trees, dried grasses, a denuded world that hides nothing. This is what we build upon. Here is our own white-washed skeleton. Beneath the snow, the earth rests and contemplates her rebirth, yet months away. She is storing up her energies. 

I feel my own energy surging. There is much I wish to do yet on this weekend—read, paint, write. But this is what I had to do first, and what I will need again, whenever my spirit tires. Here is my source. And yes, it is wild. Beyond that edge of the field, deeper into the wood, and beyond, and beyond still, the wild that holds within it life as well as death. This chill, too, after all, could kill, and we must respect it, understand its rules and align our own. Therein is the harmony of our contentment. Not when we tame the natural world, but when we connect to the wild within it, and sense our own, the core of creativity, the voice that howls at the moon, the passion that sustains us and keeps us from drowning in mediocrity. 

We, too, are wild, or once were. When we remember this, when we touch that bounding pulse, we believe again. 






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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Day 10: It Takes a Village ... and a Soup Pot

by Zinta Aistars





Tossing socks and towels into the washing machine, rinsing dishes and stacking them in the dishwasher, scratching Jig behind her old cat ear in passing, it occurs to me that I am very much behaving as if I am right at home. And I am—at home in someone else’s house. Into my second week of house sitting, I’ve received interesting items of news to contemplate:

1. The home owner has purchased a cooking pan in Sarajevo.

2. My daughter’s car requires a new electrical system to run, and my helping to get her back on the road will effectively wipe out the last of my “dream stash” that was to pave my road north.

3. Said home owner has cheerily offered to toss in the piano at no cost if I wish to buy the house.

Cleaning machines whirring away in their cleaning duties, I stir a pot of soup on the stove. I love soup. Toss in whatever, and it just gets better. I rummage through my groceries and find a lush green patch of kale and a box of red quinoa. I chop up the kale and toss it in. I shake out some red quinoa from the box into the simmering pot. I still have some frozen peas in the freezer, too.

Laundry done, dried and folded; dishes dry and put away; soup in belly, I settle into the corner of the couch and watch the dance of bright flames in the wood stove in the living room. I don’t have to wait long—my daughter calls for our weekly Monday night chat.

Excitement is palpable in her voice. A job offer is taking shape. No small potatoes. My girl is somewhere in the midst of a career change. Her master’s is in social work, but for many reasons, she has now switched to real estate, completing classes and passing the test for her license over the summer. Madness? In this housing market? Maybe, but what following of bliss isn’t?

My favorite author, Annie Dillard, is quoted as saying: “If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be too cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

I’ll confess: my cynicism by now about love affairs and some friendships has won upperhand. Even as I encourage others to take those thrilling cliff leaps, even as I still believe in that occasional moment of brilliance in the human condition gone deliciously mad, I have for some time now chosen to expend my energies in other pursuits. Setting aside some dreams, throwing others on the funeral pyre, I’d chosen one last dream to pursue. Those who read my blog on a regular basis will have already read about my grieving that last dream—to live in a remote cabin far north in wilderness.

I hear myself encouraging my daughter to follow her bliss (nod to Joseph Campbell) and to know that I am behind her. All the way. Dream with your heart, dream big, work hard, I tell her, and I will be the village offering support if you should need it.

I have never known anyone who works harder than my girl. I stand in awe. If now and then life trips her up, as in the form of a faulty electrical system that effectively leaves her stranded in her work to show housing to clients, well, by golly, I will toss whatever fuel I have left on the pyre and give her a step up.

Isn’t that what family is all about?

When I wrote about my last dream waning, receding into the fog, I received many compassionate notes and calls and e-mails, from strangers as well as from friends. I was moved by the response. Goodness knows I hesitated in posting about my moment of weakness. Grown woman blubbering like a child, I hardly felt at my strongest and best. I hesitated, but then I thought about the writer’s journey I’d begun. If I was going to write about the high points, I should just as faithfully write about the lows. I respect my readers, whoever they might be, and I believe they sense authenticity. I had to be honest about my struggle.

One response, however, questioned whether I was right to support an adult child when life sent her on a spin. Wasn’t my parenting done at age 18?

When I drove back to Kalamazoo this past Saturday to help my father transport his paintings for an upcoming art exhibit, was I enabling my elderly parent, bent and in chronic pain from four back surgeries, to rely on me instead of himself? Lord, I hope so. I want him to know that I am here for him, as he so many times has been for me, just as I want my daughter—and my son—to know that I will always be here for them. If my helping my elderly parent is a show of respect, which it is, then how is my helping my adult children anything less? Both have earned my respect, my admiration, and my love.

There were times that I, too, fell to my knees during adulthood. Divorce, poverty, health emergencies when I had no health insurance … there were many critical moments that I ran out of strength and resources on my own. My village—my family, my friends, even my colleagues—gathered in a protective circle around me and helped me stand again. I am forever grateful.

There was the time that I had started a new job with an anorexic salary, a young and single mom with two small children, and I was too new on the job to have yet earned any paid time off. My doctor said the surgery couldn’t wait. There was suspicion of a malignancy. The surgery would be major enough that I was to miss work for six weeks, but I would receive no pay. I reeled at the news. Meanwhile, my brand new colleagues, all of whom were virtual strangers to me, passed the hat and collected enough to pay my rent for one month.

I will never forget.

There was the time I lost a job because an accident had so damaged my eye that I had to wear a bandage across half of my face for weeks. When the surgeon spoke of corneal transplant, I shrugged, said no. I had no health insurance. I had no income. My job then was temporary and they let me go because my bandaged appearance wasn’t suitable for front desk work. As a temp, they had no obligaton to me. A friend showed up at my door, pushed me aside when I opened it, and brought in bag after bag of groceries.

I will never forget.

There was the time I returned from living overseas after making a heartrending decision about where I was needed most. My marriage in one country … my children in the other. I made a decision that broke my heart but that I would never regret. Becoming a parent means making sacrifices. May we never have to choose between those we love, but when pressed to the wall, my children will always, always win out. I returned to the United States with no money, no housing, no vehicle, no job, no belongings. I had to start my life over from nothing and build it up again. My parents opened their door to me and to my children. We lived with them for a month while I found work, found an apartment, bought a clunker to get us around.

I will never forget.

I could list such times that my Village stood me back on my feet until the day runs dark, and another, and the year turns into another. Every day, I experience random kindness from strangers. Every day, I remember the blessing of family, my parents, my sister, my children. Every day, I think of my friends, those who have held true through thick and thin.

Whenever possible, I try to be that stranger. I try to be that blessing. I try to be that friend.

We all get a turn.

We all have in us untapped reserves of strength, courage and kindness. When we receive these gifts from others, I believe with all my heart that we are given a blessing that we are meant to pass along, not clutch to our own chests.

I grieve a lost dream. Even as I wonder what will take its place. A house with a piano? The house awaiting me back in Kalamazoo? A quiet place far up north that somehow, in some mysterious way, is still meant for me and awaits my finding the right path? If I can’t get there on my own, perhaps a village will point me in the right direction with its beacon of enduring light.

While I am waiting to figure that one out, I do what I can to pass the blessing along. And trust, just trust, that when I teeter back on my heels, something, someone, will catch me before I fall. We all fall. That Chinese proverb stands beside Annie Dillard’s quote—it’s not how many times we fall. It’s how many times we get back up.

In a time when so many families are breaking apart, when collecting more “stuff” seems to have greater importance than the concept of sharing, when being “tough” is understood as being hardened and without emotion rather than being tough enough to cry, when social networking has connected us to so many even while leaving us isolated in our own little lives … I wonder: What happened to the Village?

As for me, as much as I enjoy a life of quiet solitude, I know my Village is out there. Just beyond the edge of the night, in the shadows and ready to step out of them at moment’s notice. I, too, am part of a Village, and ready to step through the shadows when needed. My Village, and being part of one, gives me the courage to find a new dream.

I always did love the Fable of Stone Soup, about a pot of water three hungry men were boiling in the middle of a village. They had nothing but three stones out of which to make soup. The villagers came around, and they were all poor, too. But each villager had a little something to contribute. Each one tossed something in, a carrot, a chunk of meat, a bit of potato, a wedge of cabbage, a dash of salt, until the water turned to a delicious soup that fed the entire village.


I am thinking about buying a new cooking pan, or maybe a big soup pot. I will have to trust that I will find the right home where I can use it, and that the soup I boil in it will be delicious and nutritious. I would like to invite my Village to dinner. A little dinner music would be nice, too.




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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Day 8: Art is Therapy and So Is a Sweet-Faced Dog

by Zinta Aistars






Blue Friday … would the weekend heal? Waking to snow is a hopeful start. The flakes are falling slow and thick and lazy, and I stop for a moment just to watch the snowfall from the kitchen window. I wish I didn’t have to go … drive that long hour home from my temporary home … but I’ve made a promise to help my father, artist Viestarts Aistars, deliver 15 paintings to the Portage District Library, and I don’t break promises. Especially because I know he would pay in pain if he were left to lift the paintings himself. After four back surgeries, in chronic pain, any lifting costs him days of immobility. The art exhibit begins on Wednesday, January 19. This is our last and only chance to deliver.

My son calls, still sleepy voiced, and warns me, “Sure about this, Mom? Lots of snow. Could be tricky driving. Be careful?”

“I’ll be careful.”

Always touching when roles are reversed. Child watching out for Mama. But it’s not long before I am pulling out of the barn and down the long driveway to the snowy road, and on my way. 

Was this drive always so long? How quickly we adapt to ease. House sitting at a location just minutes from work, one week and I have already gotten myself un-adapted to this hour-long trek, and in snow, it will take longer. 

I don’t mind the snow. Just a matter of slowing down. Gradually, I am back in my old groove. The road mesmerizes a bit, and my mind begins to wander. The day before still weighs heavy on me. It was a day of harsh realization. Straw on this camel’s back. One more financial hit, a hefty one, that drove the point home to me—my reserves are wiped out. My retirement plans aren’t going to happen. I had started too late and had been in a hole too deep to dig out in time. My finest dream is crumbling to dust before my eyes.

The miles wrap into my tires. I can feel the back two shimmy and vibrate, and the vibration is increasing. I need two new tires, and had put that aside week after week. With a shorter daily drive to work, it matters less. The tires could wait. 

I wanted to stay put this morning, stay in my warm, worn out sweats, stoke the fire in the wood stove, pull out those paints, paintbrushes, stones and pads of paper waiting for me. They would have to wait for Sunday.

I drive, thinking about the art projects I want to work on. I am preparing a portfolio to send in with a package of materials to apply for an artist residency up north. It involves living in a rustic cabin in the mountains for two weeks. With my dream of living in a cabin in northern wilderness waning, this residency is fast gaining importance to me. Two weeks couldn’t compare to being permanent resident there, but if bread crumbs are all that are left, I will search for every last one with appetite. 

The house where I am “sitting” is perfect for artwork. Quiet, with a large picture window for long hours of daylight, table beneath, it is ideal for writing and painting. I am eager to begin. And by now, I need to. When my heart is aching, nothing heals better than being immersed in something creative. 

So I muse, and so remember how it was that I had become more or less accustomed to this long daily drive. It gives me time to dream. I need a new dream. A much smaller one, in far less bright colors, but it is impossible to keep putting one foot in front of the other without a dream to pull me forward. 

And then I am home. My home. Blue house with white shutters, set up on an incline, and I find myself smiling as I drive up. Good to see the old place. I open the garage, and there is my son, covered in grease, working on a stack of car parts and unidentifiable machinery, dissected beyond recognition. 

“Hey,” he grins.

“Hey!”

That hug, grease and all, is sweet medicine. Needed that. 

He follows me in and I tromp up the stairs to the kitchen, looking for the old chow pup. 

“Outside,” my son detects my mission.

“Guinnie Pig!” I shout, opening the sliding door to the snowy back yard, where my old chow pup, Guinnez, is leaping around in the snow, up past his red-furred belly. His eyes get wide, he stops in his tracks, then comes leaping over like a cross between rabbit and deer and fox. I stand shin-deep in snow with an armload of red fur and a well-licked face, laughing.

“Has he been good?” I call back to my son, standing in the door.

“Course not.”

I don’t visit for long. My father is waiting. But I skim through the stack of mail, then hoot with cheer. A check! I had thought that freelance assignment already cashed in, but had apparently forgotten… it isn’t much, but every bit coming in will mean less borrowed. Then there is a retirement fund update. I tear that one open with less enthusiasm. Not so good. Not even half good. My last dream rolls over and dies. 

Sometimes all you can do is put one foot in front of the other, even when you’ve lost the focal point on the horizon. I don’t know where I am going anymore, but I do know I have to stop by and help my father. For now, that would do. That would be my focus. When you don't quite know how to help yourself, help someone else. I give him a quick call that I am on my way, and I am on my way. 

Portage District Library, Portage, Michigan
Fifteen paintings, delivered to the busy library. Marsha, kind and attentive librarian who had planned the event, meets us there. I stack the paintings on a cart and wheel them in, five trips and done, and my father sits on a bench, head down. 

We have lunch together afterward, and I don’t argue this time when he picks up the tab. I tell him about the quiet place where I am living for a few weeks, the silence of country surroundings, the herds of deer I have seen, the evenings of reading by the fire. He smiles. I tell him about my upcoming Sunday and the ideas I have in mind, what I want to paint, and he leans forward, listening with interest. 

“I’ll warm up by painting on some of my gathered stones,” I say. “That’s what I know. Then I’ll gather courage to try something on paper. Something that will be image to my words. They’re called broadsides.”

I tell him about the artist residency, the rustic cabin in the northern mountains, and that if my submission is judged worthy, I might earn myself two weeks there. He understands. It was my father that introduced me to the northern woods, planted that dream in the heart of a little girl.

I hadn’t expected to get homesick from such a quick visit, but when I turn back onto the country road leading to my borrowed home, I feel the sadness return. Wish that old chow pup was here to grin at me. Wish I’d gotten an extra hug from my son, or three. Wish I could show my father a new painted stone.  

Then I am greeted again. So many of them, so many deer! How many this time? I stop in the road again, and count: 22. A new record. The deer walk peacefully across the white fields, calm. I sit and watch them, soaking up their calm. 

***

Sunday … and I wake too early. Haven’t slept well. Should sleep more, the night is still edging the morning, but my mind reels with thoughts, dark dreams, fading visions, the grief of a lifelong dream. I drag myself out of bed, feeling stupid with fatigue. 

Coffee. 

I blink when I switch on the kitchen lights. 

The kitchen table is covered with my art supplies. Pads of paper, palettes of paint with rows of tiny paint tubes, and neat little brushes with fine points. Books with favorite images to inspire me. And the day—the day is all open, with no obligations, no promises to keep but the one to myself. 

Jiggy, my 15-year-old tortoiseshell cat, along for the stay, winds around my ankles, crying for breakfast, and I feed her. 

“Well, old girl, let’s get to it. Sunday. Our day. All day. Yes?”

She purrs and stays close on my heels, watching to see what I’ll do next. 

The kitchen window is dark with pre-dawn, then turns deep blue, and I can see the shadows of the pines and the evergreens outside emerge. Slowly, the light seeps into sky and sweeps away the last of the shadows. 

Somewhere the time slips, like silk, smoothly, away. I don’t notice it. Even my cup of coffee grows cold. 


I paint a fish, a large bass with plump fish lips, smoking a pipe. It’s a larger stone than most that I paint. I had started it a long time ago, put it aside, and on this Sunday, at long last, I finish it. 

Sitting by the fire late afternoon, I cradle the stone in my hands, pondering last touches. My fish has solved nothing for me. Nothing has changed between morning and oncoming evening. My heart still feels like it is carrying a stone. Letting go takes time. But dipping a paintbrush in a dab of color, walking outside in the snow to gather more wood for the fire, tickling my old cat’s caramel belly, and listening to the deep silence of a Sunday in the country—it all moves me one step, two steps forward. Toward someplace, toward something, perhaps even to a yet unseen solution, yet unknown. 





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Friday, January 14, 2011

Day 6: Not a Pretty Sight

by Zinta Aistars





Not even babies are cute when they blubber. Who wants to see a grown woman whimper and whine? I don’t. I am looping around any mirror, any reflective surface tonight, don’t want to see it. Put the shiny cover of that pan away.

Just money, I keep telling myself. It’s just money. Know what they say. Even if you don’t have it, if it’s a problem that could be cured by throwing money at it, it’s not really a problem. 

Tell that to the homeless mother and child.

Hey, I’ve been there. Have lived that scenario, and it did feel like a real problem. But yes, yes, I get the idea, and even between whimpers, I have to agree. Even without a television in the house this week, I have glimpsed enough news online to sense the depth of tragedy in Tucson. Many deaths, many horrible injuries, and a sweet-faced little girl was just buried there …

I get that, and I am more than a bit shamed by it. What kind of a person whimpers at the loss of a dream, torn to pieces bit by bit, bill by bill, and whisked away, when my children breath and stand up to the day, alive and well? Have I given up? Is this all the fight left in me?

It’s going on the third month in a row, after a year of such, that unexpected wallet-eaters have befallen me. If not me, my children. Both adults, but as any mother will tell you, that doesn’t mean they sit on your heart any lighter. 

I have been paying off debt, whittling away the numbers, car payments, mortgages, working on buying my freedom, dollar by dollar, cent by cent. Making wonderful progress. Every payday a celebration. Not because I had money to spend, but because I had money to pay into that debt, and that was exhilarating. My northern dream, that secret cabin in the woods, was moving out of the fog and taking shape. Even as financial advisers and a few others, too, have rolled their eyes at me. Starting a bit late in life, aren’t I? 

Yes. 

But what’s an old girl to do. Children raised on my own, finally my turn. Could scent that dream in the air, the sweetest perfume. Do whatever I can. 

The economy has hit many of us hard. My son was laid off work almost a year ago, and my daughter lost her job, too. Hard working kids, do a mama proud, and I was glad to help. At least I finally could. Their childhoods had been very lean, and my heart ached over that. Family, three musketeers, we would lean on each other, and sometimes one was stronger while another needed more. 

I get cranky when I hear those who talk about health insurance being only for those who work and pay in. Most of this past year my girl has worked hard, scrambling from part time job to another part time, doing the temporary, doing what she can, and always without benefits. Something hurts, she ignores it. My son would fix cars in our garage, install stereos for barter, change the oil, change the brakes, tune an engine. Back aching, muscle in spasm, let it go. Neither one of mine have health insurance, and both are too old now for me to cover. A doctor who had cared for my son since childhood now refuses to see him, won’t let him in the door. No insurance card. 

Cars break down, bodies break down, bills roll in. I pay. And we all feel bad. Plan best you can, and the surprises still come. This, that and the other. So today when news came in that my girl’s car stalled in Chicago traffic and the electrical system gave out, the mechanic spoke of nearly a grand to get her on the road again.

Head in my hands, I fought back tears. Can’t catch a break. My numbers are not going down. Spinning wheels. Dancing in place. Numbers that refuse to shrink, only escalate, spinning out of control and up over my head. 

Work day over, I race home, home to my temporary house-sitting home, house in the country. Good to close the door behind me, close out the day. Stoke up the fire in the wood stove. Brew up a cup of hot, steaming tea. Curl up inside my softest robe and hunker down, small enough for the world not to notice me. I want to hide. 

I want to whimper and whine. I want to blubber like a spoiled child, tears big enough for a crocodile. I think about that sweet cabin up north and watch it recede back into an ever thickening fog. 

“I’m too old,” I blurt out at my old cat, jumping up into my robed lap. “I’m too old to ever retire.” One has to start planning for such things when young as my daughter, looking far ahead. Careful to avoid lean years, single mothers raising children and not catching a break. Now that I can finally afford to plan, it’s too late.

Is it? Too late?

In a perfect life, all stars aligned, I could do this. Out of sheer spite, I could. 

Last I checked, life is anything but perfect. Things bust and break, accidents happen, economies slide, injustices rule, luck spatters, good and deserving people go without. Machines bust and health fails. There’s the thing, there’s the crux. Stuff happens. And numbers grow fat again instead of fasting thin. 

I toss another log on the fire. It burns. It crackles, sparks, flames up, pops. I watch it burn. One dream left in life, and I am watching it go up in flames. 

Oh, whimper. Oh, whine.

My daughter sends a text. I love you. 

My son calls. Waiting to see you tomorrow.

And suddenly, even as my dream goes up in smoke, I am wealthy again.




Thursday, January 13, 2011

Survival of the Fittest: Michigan News Agency

 Published today, 1.13.11, in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave


"Michigan News Agency continues to evolve to meet the reading needs of book, magazine and newspaper lovers. Zinta Aistars talks to owner Dean Hauck about the work and love that goes into growing a business that supports the community and is in turn supported by the community."


Photography by Erik Holladay



When you open the door, jingle the bell, and walk into Michigan News Agency on 308 West Michigan Ave. in Kalamazoo, you feel like the most important person in the world. And to owner Dean Hauck, you -- the customer -- are most important.

She calls out to you, her face lighting up as if she has been waiting all day just to see you...



Read the full article at Second Wave









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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Day 4: Plink at Play


by Zinta Aistars


The work day is long and complex, although not hard. A quantity of brochures and memos to revise and edit and proof.  An interview to do for an article, and I am always glad for a jaunt out of the office to another building, to someone else’s office, to pry as writers do, into someone else’s life for an hour or so. Back in the office, I sort my notes, fill in blanks while memory is fresh, and follow a trail or two for research. It is work I enjoy, yet sometimes it seems …. entirely too devoid of creative play.

The urge to play wells up and threatens to spill as my 17-minute trip to the country house begins. At what shall I play tonight? A snowman? A skip down the road? A dance in the field? A snow angel on the bank?

Lavender streaks across the sky as I turn onto the home stretch. Lavender and orange and threads of red, then inky blue. I park the car quickly in the red barn, don’t even bother to close the door, don’t bother with gloves or scarf, only grab for the camera I carry in my briefcase, and race around the barn toward the back. Toward the lavender dance. 

And halt. 


Again, deer. Tonight, a single small doe. I nearly run up on her, yet she is so nose in snow and nibbling this and grazing that and white tail snapping left to right that she does not even note my approach. I want to run out into the field to catch the lavender light… the sun is sinking, sinking fast … but she remains oblivious and I remain frozen in my tracks. But one hundred feet away. Any closer? I step one more and one more and one … and her head snaps up and her white tail twitches and she leaps and arcs across the dry grass in snow and she is gone, gone.

I bound after her, not nearly as graceful, a stumping human in winter boots, but it is the lavender light I am chasing. Lavender veils now tangled low in the black silhouettes of trees. 

And moon. A chunk of white, nearly square it seems, glowing through mist.
 
Every night now these: deer, snow, black trees, moon slivers, and the clear cold air in my lungs. I don’t tire of any of it. 

But enough outdoor play. I stayed at work too long; it is already dark, and I take my itch for play inside.

There. Just the thing. There is a piano in the dining room, and why not. A room to feed the body, and to feed the spirit, too. Along the outside wall, there is a guitar here, and bongo drums, a flute, a harp.

A lamp glows overhead with blue dragonflies, wings outspread. Nature at play, with flight, and bounding dance, and veils of light. Do I even know how to play anymore? Is there still child in me? I sit down at the piano and try to remember … but I can’t. I can’t remember when I last played. 

When I lived up north, in that previous fairy tale life, there was a piano in my bedroom. I would fall asleep some nights to the sound of music playing. When the music stopped, I stopped listening to music. For years, I lived in silence. 

Until I heard music again, in the whistle of wind, in the tattering of dry leaves on trees, in the zipping of a hummingbird, in the howl of a coyote in the wood, in the chatter of a squirrel, in the sloshing of a foaming wave, in the purr of my old cat. 

I sit down at this piano, now, and put one hand above the keys, the other still in my lap. 

I think of her, then, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Valija. Not one lesson, ever, but she would sit at the piano unafraid, sure that it was created just for her, and loosed her hands over the keys, a torrent, a rapids, a ballet, a spat. She would play for hours, never the same twice, always improvised and with no idea how to read notes, nor needing them. What might she have been had she ever had lessons? A pianist? But she was a pianist now, in a mad and joyous dance, fingers a blur, casting spells over the instrument and it on her.

I think, lessons would have ruined her.

She knew how to play. And it was all play to her. Like a child, freed, and not knowing discipline, only the joy of her music.

I let my hand fall onto the keys, lightly. But I am … if not afraid, then awkward with unaccustomed position. How long ago? I was surely a child, a girl, a very young woman when I last played. Do I remember? 

Don’t think, I tell myself. Just … let it come. Just play, play, like a child, experimenting with the wonders of sound in order and disorder, chord and discord, harmony and noise. 

I plink. One hand. Plink. A chord. Another. Move my fingers across one octave, then higher, then lower. It sounds… almost pretty, a little silly, and then I catch a few notes that appeal to my ear and try to repeat them.

It is a game of memory. Where was that note? How did that go? A pattern, a rhythm. 

My other hand lifts to help, a little jealous. I like the contrast, the low and the high. My hands go hunting for that illusive something, sometimes find it, then lose it, then find it again. 


The windows darken with night, and time has vanished. Lavender veils are now black velvet. I have lost myself in the evening, and for a while, I think my grandmother has entered the room, silently standing behind me, smiling, listening to me at play, and my looking for her in the music.