Monday, January 30, 2012

Moment of Decision

by Zinta Aistars

I've been through this before: house hunt, house found, heart palpitation, make offer, wait, counter offer, response of counter counter offer, wait, until the counter counter counter offer arrives. The game is still on.

Just as the last time I went through this process, all went well, smoothly enough, up until the house inspection turned up nastiness. I wasn't surprised. After all, this farmhouse is seriously old. 1930s said the listing, but the inspector took a look at materials used, construction techniques, and said it was easily as old as 1890. And there were signs of age aplenty.

I didn't need an inspector to tell me that, when I stopped by to look at the house on a rainy day, the indoor swimming pool I found in the ancient basement built of large stones and rocks and mortar was not supposed to be there. The old farmhouse smelled musty. Not good.

So on my counter counter offer, filed as an addendum, I listed a few of the many repairs and updates the inspector had recommended, and requested a deeper price cut.

The counter counter counter offer, or let's just say counter to the addendum, said no. No repairs. House sold "as is" and the price cut was minimal.

Sure, I was in love. But it would hardly be the first time in my life that I would consider the object of my love and deem it unwise--and walk away. I'm pretty good at that. Maybe better than I should be ... but we'll leave that for another story.

I'd also done this mating dance enough times to know that one never finds Mr./Ms. Right. No such being. Always some compromise, and therein lies the magic of relationship: it makes us chafe and change and adjust and learn something more about ourselves even as we learn more about the other. No different with a house. Love costs.

Right House wasn't perfect. Not by a long shot. In fact, paging through the 25-page home inspection report, I understood I was being tempted by a money pit. So. Just how attached to the idea of retirement am I ... ??

Holding the counter addendum in my hand, gazing at "AS IS," I felt an ache creep into my skull. I was going to have to make a tough decision. I would have to find the right balance between heart and head. I had to feel passion for the Right House, but it shouldn't be a toxic relationship. That house had to love me back. Enough to keep me from going down the drain with all that excess water in the Michigan basement, the term in Michigan for these century-old holes in the ground lined by rocks and mortar.

What to do? Take the plunge? Or call it insanity and go back to my very nice, dry, warm, cozy little house in suburbia?

I needed to walk those grounds one more time.

After work, I drove out to the farmhouse. The sun was beginning to dip at the far horizon.

"Speak to me," I said aloud, standing in the middle of the long, snow-covered drive that wound between tall pines. The farmhouse was to my right, at the bottom of the hill. The land rose to my left, dotted with pines. Out back, the acres spread out far to the west, where reddening sun met the tree line, and the land was lined by dried and broken corn plants, in memory of the summer.

A hawk swirled overhead and cried out. The great bird soared across the field of snow and back again, crying out again and again.

I walked down the rows of old corn plants toward the tree line, watching the sun bleed red and orange, pink and lavender across the slowly darkening sky. Every time I came here, I saw something new, and I suspect I could walk this land a thousand times more and still find something new, a different angle I hadn't seen before.

I walked back to the house and stood for a while with my back to the door. It was a house without life, no one living here. The glow of the sunset reflected through the darkened windows, reflected in the panes.

Is this Home? Or isn't it?

Driving out from the farmhouse toward my now house, I muttered nonsensical prayers into the evening. Help me know, show me which way, give me a sign, three deer bounding across the road ...

A moment after saying so, a deer bounded out in front of the car. I slammed on the brakes, barely missing it as she arced through the glow of my headlights and across the road and down to another snowy cornfield below, where a second deer awaited her and danced away as a graceful pair into the lengthening shadows. Two deer.

I sat in my car, middle of the white road, breathing hard, watching the dark for a third deer.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Back Through Generations

by Zinta Aistars

My niece Erika has recently taken up an intense interest in her family history. At one point or another, I think we all get to wondering about our roots. Who came before us? Who do we carry within us? Who will our own genes travel through to future generations?

I thought I might help her put together her family tree and dug around in my own files. Before my paternal grandparents passed away, they thoughtfully wrote up their memories, as far back as they could recall, and gave me a copy.

When my maternal grandfather passed away, an alarm went off inside me. He had taken a lifetime of memories with him, unrecorded, some never told. While I did have stored away by then in my own memories the many stories he had told me growing up, I had neglected to write them down. And memory is a faulty thing. I couldn't lose more in this way, so I invited my maternal grandmother to come visit me for a week, and over that week, we sat on a white wooden bench my grandfather had made, hour after hour, all afternoons long and into those evenings, and she told me her stories while I wrote them down. That was sometime in the late 1970s ... she's long gone now, too.

Family trees are ever expanding, and in constant need of updating. As I gathered what notes and information I had for Erika, I invited her to help me get the family at our next gathering ... Easter? ... and talk about our various memories. Someone should write them down, at very least record the conversation. We must not lose more. This is family treasure.

I paged through the now yellowed pages I had in hand. My grandparents had typed them out carefully on my grandfather's old Remington typewriter, and my own scribbled notes were on tiny notebook pages, unraveling now at the binding. Most of these were written in the Latvian language.

My files were also full of yellowed newspaper clippings. Obituaries, various newspaper and magazine articles about family news and achievements. I had to shake my head at some of the old clippings of my own life ... the years have gone by so quickly as I now look back. We think life will go on forever when we are young ... when we are older, in hindsight, we see it increasingly as the blink of an eye.

Here was my father in 1997, meeting with then president of Latvia, Guntis Ulmanis. The newspaper Diena, published in Riga, Latvia, had misspelled our surname, Aistars, as "Aizstars." But my father's oil painting of a woman in Latvian folk costume was now a part of the permanent art collection at the Riga Pils (Riga Castle), the president's residence in the capitol city. My father was actually a name once included in a crossword puzzle in the Riga newspaper, seven squares across. The Aistars name, my grandparents write in their notes, was first my grandfather's pseudonym when he wrote his first of 12 novels. In 1937, he made the name official.

And here was a clipping from the Kalamazoo Gazette with an article about a 18.5 foot long, 6.5 foot high triptych my father was painting in  his garage, commissioned by a church in Chicago. He was 57 years old then, just a few years older than I am now.

I read through my grandparents notes about the family. So much suffering in the family, many times over refugees through different occupations of Latvia, through different wars. Yet such endurance ... and strong genes. My maternal grandmother's grandmother lived to age 105. My paternal great-grandfather lived to 84, even after seven years of being deported to a harsh life in Siberia. He was a widower twice. He loved books, played the violin, conducted the church choir and gave sermons.

I've seen that little church in Sarnate where he gave those sermons, conducted those choirs. I have walked the property and sat on the porch of the house where he lived, where my grandfather was born, where my father spent his summers as a little boy. It's just a little way north up the road where the church is turned out toward the Baltic Sea.

Tomdeli, the house in Sarnate where my father, grandfather, great-grandfather  lived ...
I read how my grandmother didn't see her father, Andrejs, for months at a time because he was a man drawn to the sea. She waited for the ship to come into port, her father bringing exotic gifts from faraway places to her and her three sisters and brother. A pair of embroidered slippers, and the antlers of a caribou which the family hung on the wall to hold hats. Whenever he opened his sea chest, she recalled the smell of the sea emanating into the room.

My father in the Kalamazoo Gazette
I read how she recalls the family burying her little sister who died at age 6. And that her grandmother taught her to read from a slender hymnal with no illustrations. It was the beginning of her lifelong passion for books. She writes about the first time she saw my grandfather, a tall, slender man with wavy dark hair, coming into the church. "That's the son of the Sarnate minister," her girlfriend whispered to her, and my grandmother's heart skipped a beat. In my memory, my grandfather's hair was always snow white ... and I smile to remember my own parent's stories of their meeting in Chicago, so many years later. My father saw my mother in the church choir (he was a baritone, she was an alto) and the two fell in love.

My grandfather's sister Anna lost her husband to the sea as well, shortly after they were married. The waves took him and he never returned. In her grief, she remained alone, a young widow, for the rest of her life, eventually sharing a home with my grandmother's sister Milda. She, too, was a teacher.

I read about the first shared home my grandmother and grandfather had in Dobele, a one-room apartment, where they moved soon after their wedding in 1925, and yet she felt as if she was living in  paradise. Their love story continued lifelong, as they shared many passions for art and literature and teaching. My father was born in Dobele, the eldest of four sons. When my grandfather became director of the Jelgava Teachers' Institute, my grandmother recalls with obvious pleasure how often the students would come to visit her, also a teacher, at their home. The girls would ask if they could unplait and brush her long hair. My grandmother never cut her hair over her lifetime. Past her waist when she married, it hung to her knees when she grew older. My grandfather sometimes washed it for her in rainwater they collected in barrels in the backyard.

There are pages of memories of the war and of the family being forced to leave Latvia. The family of six packed only what they could carry, walking from Jelgava to Tukums, from there taking a train to Ventspils, where they boarded the boat Sanga to take them to Germany. They immigrated to the United States in 1949. My mother's family and my father's family met in Chicago ... and eventually, that is where I was born.

So much here, so much is missing. I gaze at the photos of my father as a young man, laughing, his head thrown back, his hair thick and dark. His hair is white and much thinner now, his back bent, but when he laughs, I still see that younger man, my handsome daddy.

The passage of time ... and so much of our lives is soon forgotten. Yet perhaps some generation not yet born will someday look at our own photographs and wonder ... what were those people like? Are we in some way alike?

Future generations: my daughter Lorena dances a Latvian folk dance in the foreground,  1987.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Reflections at 3:12 a.m.

by Zinta Aistars

No idea why I wake so early. Peek at the clock in the dark ... digital numbers glow a faint green in the shadows: 3:12 a.m.

Maybe I do know.

So many thoughts running through my mind. So many paths unwinding. So many spotlights swinging white arcs across the sky, signaling highlight moments in my life, drawing the thresholds of new eras. My thoughts are a wild card, wild dance, bumper cars, dizzying carousel, a race across the field.

Long lists taking shape of all that needs doing. Empty boxes collecting in the corners of rooms, waiting to be packed. Books, rolls of socks, carefully wrapped pottery, dishes. Which furniture pieces? Which stay? Files to page through; no sense taking along what might better line a trash can.

A new life.

I take my parents out to see the new property. They've not been yet. Only seen my already hundreds of photographs, heard my happy chirps. Mama mumbles her fears. Too far, too deep in the woods, too many years weathering the old farmhouse, too large acreage to maintain, too ... whatever comes to mind. What she is saying, in truth, is that change can be frightening. What she is asking, in truth, is whether I will still be accessible when  they need help or have a question floating loose or a debate between her and my father that needs to be settled. I will be. But the change will be real and will take time to get used to.

I wander my house of many years in the dark, awaiting morning. I try to imagine those first nights there, the first Sunday mornings. How long before I can trace a path up and downstairs in the dark and not bump into walls.

When I drive my folks to the property, they grow quiet when I turn into the long, winding driveway, taking us through a tunnel of overreaching pines. The red house is to the north, steps carved into the side of a hill. To our south, the hill continues upwards, and at the very top of the ridge, the little house that looks like Dr. Seuss built it, angles in every direction, windows at every height, cuts a sharp silhouette against the winter sun. Ahead is the weathered gray barn-workshop, and beyond that, acres of a snowy white cornfield stretch far, far.

Mama starts snapping photos the moment she climbs from the van. Every direction. My father's gaze wanders, holds, wanders again.

"Didn't realize ... or begin to imagine ... "

"Photos don't do it justice."

"How far? That treeline? That one way out there? That far one? Oh."

My father nods slowly, makes his way down the snowy stairs, peers in windows of the house, looks longer at the surrounding forest. He ponders the lacy ice spreading across the glass panes of the now unheated greenhouse like translucent lace curtains.

"I would like to spend a week here. Paint a watercolor ... do some sketching ..." he muses.

I am pleased. They like it here. I see the same look brightening their faces that I'm sure lit up mine the first time I came here.

"Listen," I whisper. "Can you hear the quiet?"

I think I can hear the snow fall and catch in the pine needles.

The morning lightens my old bedroom walls, pale light seeping through the slats of the blinds and drawing outlines across the opposite wall. I know this house so well. It's pressed into the crevices of my brain. My feet   know the count of steps from one room to another. It's a good house, holding many memories.

I am ready to create new ones.

Monday, January 16, 2012

I'm Going Home ....

by Zinta Aistars
It just happened. Puzzle pieces falling into place. A lifelong yearning, a childhood dream, a theme guiding all my many journeys has been my search for Home with a capital H. And now, at long last, even as my hair grows white, I have found that place.
A place to call Home.
Last spring, almost a year ago, I nearly bought another house. It was charming enough—a little house secluded on one acre of pine woods. And yet, somehow, my heart remained cool. When my real estate agent called me to tell me the offer had been accepted, I was quiet for a long time. She asked if I’d heard her. I had.
The owner of the house kept dragging his heels. At every step of negotiation, he missed his deadline, letting me off the hook with my good faith deposit. After a meticulous home inspection, when he failed to meet my quite reasonable request for certain repairs, missed yet another deadline … I walked away. Honestly, my heart wasn’t in it.
When I drove down the long drive of this property, however, the dirt road winding between the tall pines, past the 1920s farmhouse, and out into the back, where the grayed workshop and garage stood, overlooking the ten acres that stretched seemingly to the horizon … I fell deeply and instantly in love. I knew I’d found Home.
Sure, there was the house, a sweet little place tucked against the hill, the stream-fed pond reflecting the trees leaning over it just beyond, and I was enchanted with it, just the right size for me with its little kitchen, the living room with a wood stove, the bedroom and office space upstairs and the dining room overlooking the greenhouse … but it was the land around it that called to me. This, this was what I had been looking for …
End of driveway meeting road
And what about my dream of the far north? My cabin in the snowy woods?
When I finished my first draft of a novella last November and gave it to a trusted writerly friend to be my first pair of eyes, we talked long that evening about what revisions I should make. It was a story about a woman “missing” her exit to work on her daily commute and heading north, all the way north and across the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula. I love the U.P. Always have, and when I lived there on the Keweenaw Peninsula for a short while, I vowed to return.
And return I do, most every year, and I wander my old haunts, and find new ones, and walk along the rocky shores of Lake Superior and dream. The north seems a place that combines my two homes, this country where I was born and where now my children and future grandchildren live … and home of my ethnic roots, across the ocean and on the Baltic Sea, the northern country of Latvia. I have parts and pieces of my heart in both. The U.P. reminded me of both.
My manuscript in hand, my friend gently told me I had missed something in my storyline. There was this strong longing for Home, and yet, and yet, and yet, somehow I hadn’t expressed it completely. I seemed to be holding something back. I was, my friend said, conflicted.
Yes. I had written about what held me in this part of Michigan, in the southwest, where I had formed friendships and a strong literary network. I had written about my son in this area and my daughter a couple hours away, in Chicago. I had written about my aging parents, and wanting to be close by as they needed me more. Finding Home, after all, isn’t just about place, but about the people nearby, too. The U.P. is some 600 miles away from all of them.

We also talked about putting my dream off until retirement. Let’s see, that Post-It above my desk at work says 4,514 days to go ….
Opposite end of driveway, barn-workshop to left
Barn-workshop at back of property
While it is good to have goals for the future, one can’t always count on it to arrive. That evening, after our long and probing conversation, I took a deep breath and booted up my laptop. I wondered …. just take a peek before going to sleep for the night …. if there might be such a place as I wanted up north … down here, in southwest Michigan …
North end of barn-workshop
… and I found it. That very night. As if it had been there all along. A little red house tucked into the woods on ten acres with a workshop, a greenhouse, a pond, a cute little tree house on the hill for those future grandchildren that looked like Dr. Seuss had built it, and acres out back for those organic gardens I would love to plant … And it was secluded in the country yet almost perfectly at midpoint between the town where I live now and the city where I work. I could start living my dream even as those 4,514 days slowly peel off my calendar.
Toolshed and house in distance
How could this be, such perfection? That was a Friday, and on Sunday, I put my old chow pup on a leash and took a drive to check out the area. My heart hammered as I closed in on the address. But this was … this was … beautiful! I parked the car along the side of the dirt road, and the pup and I walked up and down, up and down the road, past the property. I could hardly even see the house from the road, just how I liked it! Oh yes, I wanted to see this.
Back acreage at twilight
House tucked in woods
By now, I have been out to the property a handful of times. The night I told my agent I was ready to write up an offer, I arrived there after work a little while before she did. I felt wonderfully alone in this place, just me and this world away. It was that moment of lavender light, as the day fades away and night creeps in, and as soon as I turned into the driveway, it gently started to snow.

Pond in front of house
I stood out behind the house, looking out to the distant tree line, and my heart opened completely. The long held, tight fist opened to a tender palm, held up to the sky to catch the swirl of snowflakes. Home. Yes. This was it. This was the place where I could put down roots, deep as they go, and never leave again. Grow old here, accumulate memories here, unpack every last box here, plant perennials in these flowerbeds like nobody’s business.
Home. I’ve lived so many places, in two different countries, at more than 30 addresses and in several states. No more wanderlust. I was planting a flag here with a Z on it, gathering all my dreams together in one place. No one place can contain a lifetime. Parts of me would always be in those other places, too. But here I am letting my heart rest and find peace.
The search is over.
Greenhouse at side of house

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Smoking Poet Call for Submissions - Spring 2012

THE SMOKING POET: CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS – Spring 2012. We are reading submissions now.

“Words that turn the page to flame.”

THE SMOKING POET publishes flash fiction; fiction; nonfiction; poetry; author interviews; feature artist (by invitation only); travel essays; book reviews. The Smoking Poet also shares an extensive list of links and resources for writers.

Submissions open year round. Send with genre in subject line: poetry, fiction, nonfiction.

For full submission guidelines and contact information, visit:

SPRING 2012 Issue Deadline: February 29, 2012

TSP News: Keep up with updates at

Friday, January 13, 2012

Winter is no time for hibernation for CSA farmers

By Zinta Aistars as published on Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
January 12, 2012 Issue

All photography on article by Erik Holladay; Amy Newday, left, and Diane Glenn, right

The two women stand at the top of the ridge and look out over the muddy field. They look into the future -- and the future is lush and green.

Amy Newday and Diane Glenn may not be the first image to come to mind when one thinks of Michigan farmers, but that is, they will both admit with a grin, part of the allure. (According to a 2011 National Public Radio interview with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, women are the largest minority in agriculture, with about 300,000 nationwide operating their own farms.)

After a couple of years of careful planning, Amy and Diane started their small farm in Shelbyville, a rural area about 25 miles north of Kalamazoo, in 2011. They call it Harvest of Joy Farm, LLC.

"I warned Diane about how difficult it would be," Amy says.

Read the full article about two women and their farm on Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media.

Visit Harvest of Joy Farm, LLC online.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Blessings of Disappointing Mama

by Zinta Aistars
(Artwork by Viestarts Aistars)
Mama was disappointed in me. She tried not to show it, but I could sense the slight edge of sadness in her voice when I told her no, I would not go along with her on her romps Sunday afternoon in celebration of her birthday. She had hoped to go out to Three Rivers, to the Latvian Center Garezers there, to join in an after-holiday party. She did love her parties.
I heard her sigh over the phone and reluctantly agree to my invitation to stop by my house instead. I would take her to lunch.
When I hung up with Mama, I texted my sister in Chicago. She lived nearly four hours away. “Close one! She almost canceled!”
My sister sent me worried emoticons in response. :-o
On Sunday, January 8, my parents arrived—much too early. They’d decided not to head back across town after the church service to their home. Mine was closer. I didn’t have a chance to finish vacuuming and was still dripping wet from the shower. I shouted downstairs to them to make themselves comfortable, I’d be down in a moment to make some hot tea and dig up those delicious cranberry and walnut cookies I had in the pantry.
Mama gave me her best smile when I wished her a happy birthday and gave her a hug. I put the water on to boil.
“Kind of hungry,” she said, shrugging. “Maybe we could go to lunch early?”
I blinked at her. “Not yet. I made reservations. Here, have a cookie.”
She munched, sipped, looked at the photos I had taken on my last visit to Asylum Lake. I watched the clock.
My cell phone blipped. A text had arrived.
“Someone calling you?”
“Nah. Just a message,” I said, and I read on my phone: “Get your camera ready.”
I’d left the front door unlocked. A few minutes later, as I stood chatting with my parents, both facing away from the door, my sister walked in. With her, her daughter Erika, along for the ride from Madison, Wisconsin.
“Oh, look!” I finally allowed myself to giggle.

My mother swung around in her chair. A full minute passed, not one word from her. My mother dumbstruck and speechless? Never happens. But it happened now. Her eyes got bigger and rounder, her mouth dropped open, and at last it all sunk in—she sprang up from her chair and fell into my sister’s, then my niece’s arms. Both presented her with a white rose. My mother laughed, hugging them both, once, twice, and then wiped tears from her eyes.
We had a wonderful meal at Fire Side Grill, and Mama smacked her lips over almond-encrusted walleye with garlic mashed potatoes and green beans, followed by tiramisu. Her eyes reflected the flickering light of the fireplace just behind her. We chattered and laughed, exchanged family news and jokes. Family members and friends called on the phone to talk to her as we passed cell phones around for us all to connect.
Even I was forgiven for being so unaccommodating to her other plans for the day.
After our meal, we drove back to their house and went downstairs to my father’s art studio—one of our favorite family activities, to rummage around in the stacks of his paintings and drawings, new as well as old. Erika wanted to see her grandfather’s old sketchbooks, and we found them in rows on a shelf, as far back in time to when he was an art student at the Institute of Art in Chicago.
I watched them all. My Mama, my father, my sister, my niece. Many of our family members weren’t here today, but I could see them all in these dear faces. I could see them in those sketches dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. I saw my son in my father’s self portraits in his youth. I saw my own features in his face, and other features in my mother’s face, the many sketches he’d made of her over their nearly 61 years together.
I even found a sketch my father had made of my mother as a young woman with an infant in her arms. In the lower left hand corner of the drawing he had written, “Zinta,” and added an arrow pointing toward the baby. He has sketched and painted me surely a hundred times over the years … this must have been the very first one.

And my niece, now a young woman in her 20s, I could see my parents in her, too, and my sister’s younger face reborn in hers. Erika squealed like a little girl, however, when she found sketches of herself as a toddler, a small child, a growing young woman.

Birthdays … they came and they went, and they seemed to come faster every year. I watched my family huddled in my father’s little basement studio, and listened to the laughter they shared, all day long, and late into the evening, joining in. It is one of the most profound blessings of my life, to be a part of this family.
I hoped with everything in me that Mama would celebrate yet many more together with us. Our relationship had often been complicated, moving through stages of friction, rebellion, declarations of independence, and just plain stubborn nature (all mine). Where other relationships would not have survived, we fought harder to work on ours because we were blood. In the past years, my mother and I had attained perhaps the most enjoyable years of our relationship. We had both worked at it, and work at it still. The rewards are rich. It’s a good thing she’s not perfect, because neither am I.
No doubt I annoy her at times. I still have my stubborn streak. But I have to admire the way she has always been willing to consider another perspective. Even at this age, she’s still interested in trying something new. She knows how to laugh, how to dance into the night, how to flirt with my father and blush. She’s willing to look foolish just to make someone else laugh. She loves to wear her hair long and full, elderly years be damned.

There are still many things I can learn from her. And she from me. I look forward to that.