Tuesday, February 28, 2012

30, But Still and Always My Baby Boy

by Zinta Aistars

I’ve heard others say it, too: when we no longer have our parents with us, one of the things we miss most is being someone’s baby. I thought about it just this past Saturday, when I took my own mama out to what I have already begun to refer to as “Z Acres,” the property I have purchased in southwest Michigan and where in just three more weeks I will be living. I wanted her approval. Didn’t need it, no decision hung on it … but when I got it, that approving smile on her face, that little nod of appreciation, I was pleased to have it.

My son has long not seemed to have needed my approval. But maybe I’m wrong. The more I think about that, the more I am sure that he does want it. Sometimes, maybe he even still needs it.

Today, on the 28th of February, he turns 30 years old. I went to bed last night thinking about him. I stayed up too late looking through old photos of him, from baby days to toddler to teen to adult. This morning, I woke thinking about him before my eyes were even open. My baby boy, 30. I had planned a celebratory day, even though he won’t be home on this birthday. After all, in so many ways, it is my birthday to celebrate, too. And I have so many wishes for him …

A day to celebrate, yet I woke with my eyes misting over with tears. All along my hour-long commute to the office, I thought about him, whispered prayers about him, felt my heart swelling with a mother’s love, fierce yet gentle.

All those photos I had sorted through, and they were only a tiny segment, random glimpses, of his life so far. Other albums still stood untouched on the shelf, and I would be packing them all into boxes soon for my move. No doubt, getting lost in them again as I unpacked them in my new home.

It struck me as I looked through them—he rarely smiled. Did I realize then, as a young mother, that he’d been such a serious child? In most of the pictures, he gazed at the camera with his sweet face drawn into a thoughtful expression. Even when with the rest of us in the family, somehow slightly apart. As if lost in thought that carried him elsewhere.

He was a quiet child. Never cried as an infant. Surely he must have on occasion, but my memory of him is of a serene baby, putting up with everything the world gave him, without complaint. It’s interesting that my mother says the same of me. That she would have to come over and give me a little poke now and then just to see if I was still breathing. Something in the genes, perhaps, and my mother, too, spoke of how I never talked at home, always lost in a daydream or a book. Always looking for an opportunity to wander away by myself on some solitary adventure.

I still enjoy solitude. Z Acres will be an oasis of solitude and serenity for me. That’s why I so fell in love with the property—it is a childhood dream come true.

Maybe that’s why I feel so connected to my son. In many ways, I see myself in him. Many of my traits, and not just the good ones. As a baby, comparing a photo of him to a photo of me, we are identical.

Later, he increasingly grew to resemble his father in appearance. I’ve walked behind him at times and been struck with his gait, his mannerisms, at how similar he and his father are now, the younger version, that is. How interesting … because he has seen his father so rarely growing up. We were divorced when he was very young, and many years went by that he did not see his father at all—yet here he is, the same profile, the same step, even his beard trimmed exactly the way his father wore it.

We are our genes. The debates continue, nurture or nature, and in what balance.

By nurture, he is mine. Yet I look at those sweet photos of a little boy, and I wonder if I nurtured enough. Wherever I went, that little boy stayed near. When I stood still long enough, he leaned against me. So young, did I appreciate how much he needed me? My reassurance, my approval?

I think I did, surely I did, but maybe not? Why does he always look so sad? As he entered his teen years, he became a chronic runaway. Broke my heart every chance he got. As a single mother, he tested my every limit and every boundary. What was he running from or to? Every time I finally found him and brought him back home, or he found his own way back in his own good time, there was no anger in him. Just that same quiet look, his eye wandering to the distant horizon.

Sometimes he would lean against me again, much bigger now, and quietly say, “I missed you.”

“Then where do you go? Why do you go?”

He would only shrug. Running, running, away.

When he was in his 20s, he took me for a long night walk once. I could hardly keep up with him, his long and fast stride. He would turn and wait for me to catch up, then take off again. He showed me a route he would walk sometimes in those runaway nights. Back alleys, forgotten streets, abandoned yards. I passed these places every day, yet had never seen them like this. I was fascinated.

He brought me into a supermarket. Down an aisle of lawn furniture and tents.

“Slept here sometimes,” he said, pointing to lawn chair cushions folded in back of stock boxes.



“No one saw you?”

“Never. In the morning, grab a banana or an apple from the produce section, and I left again.”

I tried to imagine being 12, or 14, and making my way through the nights like that. I had never seen him afraid.

I thought back to my own growing years, and how I had loved the idea of being a hobo. I wrapped a box of Ritz Crackers, a toothbrush, a book, a pad of paper and a pencil in a red bandana and knotted it around the end of a stick. In my girlhood home, there was a long, wide grass alley behind the houses on our street, and to me, it seemed like it went on forever. I planned to make it to that other, forever end someday. I never made it that far, not as a child—at some point, fear overtook me. I came back.

What if you are not afraid of the forever end of the alley? Fear brought me back; missing me and his sister brought him back.

“Let me go!”

Years later, that agonized cry.

“Why can’t you and my sister just let me go! Just …. let me go … let me go … “

“No.” I knotted my hands into hard fists. Never. I would never let him go to that other end, where the horizon falls over the edge of the earth into nothingness. Never.

Both of us weeping.

I wake on his 30th birthday, thinking about him. Feeling him inside me, kicking against my ribs, pressing the skin of my belly taut. How I labored, the blood vessels breaking all over my face in reddened webbing so that I looked beaten raw by the time he was born, a nine-pound wonder, my joy, my heartache.

The labor never stops there. It goes on and on. A woman with white hair, I still hold him inside me, my heart filled with him and my wishes for him, and my hands still fisted to hold him hard.

How is it possible to love so much? As a girl, I never dreamt of weddings, of children, of family life. I dreamt of log cabins in woods and living a life devoted to my art. When I had his sister, my first child, I was struck dumb with love. I hadn’t understood what it meant to cherish another life over my own until she was born. Then he taught me again, 22 months later.

For his decade ahead, a man in his prime, I pray: “Father, you know what it means to love your son. What fire that is that burns inside you and never goes out. Bless my son. Bless and protect him, wherever he goes, angels be with him. May he find that peace that has so far eluded him. Root him in love, Father, for there is nothing else that can hold us. And may he always find his way back home again.”

On this day, the face of a little boy in my mind’s eye transposed over the handsome face of a man, I celebrate him. All of him, the dark and the light in him, because that shadow has made that light so gorgeous when it shines. Tonight, he will call at our set hour, and I will curl up in the corner of the couch, drawing a blanket of comfort around me, listening to his deep voice, the voice of a man, coming over a distance, yet sounding so much like it is right here, right in the room with me.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Already My Garden Grows

by Zinta Aistars

At the north trail head of Saugatuck Dunes

It's an old, almost cliche lesson, I know .... but admit it, we all need regular reminders, don't we? Appreciate the day while you have it. Time is shorter than you think.

I was driving home after a wonderful afternoon spent hiking Saugatuck Dunes, just north of the little resort village of Saugatuck in southwest Michigan, and the sun had set. Night was deep, dark, and I was admittedly a tad too impatient to get where I was going. On a country road with two-way traffic, stuck behind two vehicles traveling below the speed limit of 55 mph, I decided to pass.

As I pulled out into the other lane, that very moment a pair of headlights appeared that had the moment before  been hidden in the dip of a small hill. I was too far out, however, to pull back into my lane. Do or die. I pressed down hard on the gas pedal to pick up as much speed as possible to get past the one vehicle and squeeze into the slim space between.

Oddly, I don't think my heart ever picked up an extra beat. I suppose I should have felt a fright, but I didn't. I could see that the oncoming car knew I was in a tight space, and he or she pulled over to the shoulder just in case I couldn't make it. What the other car that I was passing was doing, I couldn't quite tell. He was now in my blind spot. I relied on his ability to see how tight I was cutting it and give me room when I got at least a quick flash of his headlights in my rear view mirror and dipped in between him and the other car.

Made it.

Not pretty, but no harm done. I wasn't happy with myself for not having seen the oncoming car before it was too late, but what was done was done, I slowed my speed back down, and decided to stay put between the two cars for the next some miles. No point in rushing home and not making it.

The vehicle behind me disagreed. He pulled up as close as possible behind me and turned on his brights. The glare in my rear view mirror was blinding, so I turned my mirror at an angle to avert the light. Ah, so he was pissed. Well, whatever. If he wanted me to die in a head-on crash rather than cut him off, he would have to swallow that one whole. I did what I had to do after making a stupid move.

He wasn't done, though. For the next 20 miles or so, he repeatedly pulled up close behind me and turned on his brights time after time. What was he hoping to accomplish?

Normally, this sort of thing would have put me in fighting mode. A finger flip, at least. A quick and hard tap on my brakes. Something. But as calm as I had felt when realizing I was going fast into the oncoming lights, I felt equally calm now. I was wrong, I knew it, I had followed up my mistake with a necessary action, which no doubt had made him brake hard. Sorry, dude, and now, get over it.

Yet the incident remained on my mind and into the next day. I was pondering not so much a near collision as I was my calm in that moment and the moments following. That, and yes, that I must remember to count each and every day as a blessing, because there may not be a next one.

In any given moment, whether through our own mistake or that of another's, or simply the aligning of circumstance, it can all be over. No more chances to get things right.

My mind kept winding back to the calm, though. Why didn't I get more upset? At myself even. I did indeed feel foolish. I should have watched the dark road ahead longer before making my decision to pass, to be sure it was indeed empty. I did think about impatience, and that that was something I need to work on, still. All in all, I am a much more patient driver now than I was even half a year ago. A chronic speeder, I've pretty much broken that bad habit, and now routinely travel on my daily 110-mile commute to and from work at or even slightly below the speed limit. Saving gas, saving resources, saving money, and, I had observed, saving stress. Driving fast meant constant tension and remaining constantly on high alert. Driving slower, I'd found out, gave that long commute almost a meditative quality. For all those reasons, speeding just wasn't worth it.

Soon as I departed from that lesson, I got put back into my place again. Got it.

But that calm ... that confidence in the glare of oncoming lights that the oncoming driver was going to be safe and so would I be. Huh. Interesting. And I liked that. Keeping a cool and calm head in a moment of impending doom. What had changed?

The year 2012 is still young. It's only mid February, and even though not all things are perfect, they are moving in the direction of perfection, as much as possible in our circus-y earthly lives. I have this conviction in me that this is the year that marks a threshold crossed for my family. The stars, if you will, are aligning. When I spoke recently to my mother about changes in my life and in the lives of my children, all positive, she started to cry. "You've had such a hard life," she said through her tears. Not easy for a mother, I know, because I'd long been in the same situation of watching the struggles in my children's lives, too, and there is no more exquisite pain for a mother's heart.

Things had finally turned in a better direction. My daughter is preparing for her wedding day in September to a truly fine man. My son has learned some hard lessons, long time coming, and is emerging out of his cocoon day by day, and in the process, finding in his new champion a potential long-term partner. I've gotten to know her, too, and am at peace that my son has combined best friend and romantic interest in one person--the only way to get it right. Both of my children have it right. My mother's heart hums with peace.

And me? On my lifelong search for the true Home that would hold me, I, too, have finally found my place on this earth. On March 23, I will close and become new owner of a more than century-old farmhouse in southwest Michigan with 10 wonderful acres to wander and cultivate. With one half of the acreage in deep seclusion of woods and pond surrounding the house, the other half open to the horizon, beckoning crops, I have fallen deeply in love with my own little corner of the earth. It's Z-country. I expect it will plough, seed, nurture, reap, harvest as much from me as I from it.

My art, both in writing and painting, is taking new turns. That excites me. I feel a calling to write the book I have long carried inside of me but have lacked the courage to put down on paper. It won't be easy. It will mean digging deep and opening old wounds to share the lessons learned. It will take courage to become that open and raw and vulnerable. Finally feeling safe in my new-found oasis, it's time.

The thing is, it wasn't really the oncoming headlights yesterday that were the most important part of the day. What was really important was the way that I spent the afternoon prior. I met a traveling partner for my hike, a colleague that I had so far known only within the confines of an office and workplace. If we had been friends before, it was on a professional basis, but now we had walked the woods together, walked the shoreline of Lake Michigan, shared a small dinner in the village of Saugatuck afterward. What can possibly be more satisfying than finding another human spirit that mirrors pieces and parts of our own, sharing stories, expanding one another's view on the world, and making a new friend?

Life is about human connection. Whether romantic partners, family members, or new friends, each connection made adds richness to our lives. I enjoy solitude, and as an artist I require it, great measures of it, but the moments that I emerge from that to connect with others are deeply gratifying. Within every human being is an entirely new world, unlike any other.

Already my garden grows.

Even as I watch the oncoming headlights ahead of me, or the angry flicking of lights behind me, I am at peace. I am on the right path, and that I know peace tells me I am on the right one. I am learning. I am expanding my horizons. I am making connections of meaning. I am witnessing the harvest of seeds planted long ago, now emerging as life-giving crops, green and lush under the great blue sky.

Now to slow down and open myself to all that blessing so that I don't miss it.

Saugatuck Dunes and Lake Michigan

Saturday, February 11, 2012

An Afternoon with Lady Dawn

by Zinta Aistars

Dawn pulls her zippy little black sports car into the driveway. With the snow starting to come down again, I would have expected her to be in her other vehicle--a bad-ass big SUV of the heft and bulk that crushes mountains into pebbly rubble. She's my son's kind of woman, and I've been enjoying spending time with her and getting to know her better and how she fits into his life.

I'm not sure I've ever known him to be ... more right in his life. And that's saying something, to be right in his left life, standing straight in that crooked place, filled with hope when there seems so little reason to be. Yet a good partner, a champion when we need one, even when we don't need one, can do that for us.

I'll be darned if my son isn't happy.

What more can a mother's heart want? Nothing more, not one thing. Well, okay, I want a few more things for him. Messes unmessed, crooked lines straightened, and that hope to never fade, never ever again. I want it all for him. With frosting.

I've been enjoying getting to know his fair lady Dawn. We've shared a few meals, had long talks, and boy howdy can we discuss my son behind his back. Ha. That boy's ears must be on fire.

Today, we head to Transformations Spirituality Center together. We leave her little black car in my drive, huddle up in my blue one, and head across town. She's seen some of my painted stones around the house, but I want to show off my first official exhibit. When we pull up in the parking lot, someone toots a horn behind us.

"Sister Betsy!"

She jumps out from her car, bundled up in a warm winter jacket against the faster falling snow, black slacks, on the move, but she saw me and wanted to say hello. I introduce her to Dawn and it turns out that they have some people they know in common. Always good to see Sister Betsy ... she's the driving force behind my first art show, and I am ever grateful for the encouragement.

Dawn and I head on to the gallery, which is a long and bright white hall, lined with windows along one wall, art along the other. My art. Dawn signs my guest book and we wander down the line looking at painted stones and poetry.

Then lunch, or perhaps more of an early dinner, and we decide to try something a little different. I take us to Zooroona's, a Middle Eastern restaurant about which I wrote an article about a year ago. I give Dawn a quick history of the place as we make ourselves comfortable on pillows strewn across the floor at a low table, sitting cross legged. Habib Mandwee wanders by, the owner, keeping an ever watchful eye over the place.

I pour black tea with cardamom for us from a beautiful hammered copper pot into tiny tea glasses with tiny bronze spoons. I like drinking tea here just to get my hands on the tea service. A large platter is brought to us, along with a bowl of baba ganoush and warm triangles of pita bread. Culinary bliss.

We eat, we talk, my son's ears burn.

We also talk chickens. Dawn owns a nice piece of land outside of town with a pole barn and a coop full of hens and too many roosters. I want chickens, too. I think and I think and I think every day about my new old farmhouse out in the middle of southwest Michigan nowhere, home in just one more month, and how wonderful it would be to hear the pak-pak-paaaak of a few chickens, all hens, out back in that barn building that already has a small opening in the wall where a chicken coop once already was. Fresh eggs!

We talk chickens and building shelves with nest boxes and the fresh eggs I will serve for Sunday breakfasts, for me and for anyone I want to have over on a Sunday morning for breakfast. We gossip about my son and simmer his ears and we talk about Middle Eastern food and we talk about a bit of nonsense, too, and the afternoon is good, very good.

The snow is coming down powder fine, the roads are slippy as we drive home, and the evening coming on is full of hope for a bright future, dotted with fresh eggs and painted stones and a peaceful mother's heart.


Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Art of the Chocolatier

Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
Thursday, February 9, 2012

Photo of Cherri Emery by Erik Holladay

The Art of the Chocolatier
by Zinta Aistars

Chocolate: it's good for you! But is it an aphrodisiac?

Studies have shown that chocolate does indeed contain antioxidants that may help prevent heart disease and cancer.

Chocolate also contains tryptophan, which has been shown to increase serotonin in the brain--and that sweetens the mood.

When it comes to being an aphrodisiac, however, research has yet to show hard evidence of a connection between chocolate and love.

Don't tell that to Cherri Emery. Emery is passionate about chocolate and won't go through a day without a nibble. She is also a chocolatier who takes chocolate-making to an art. Her best ingredient is the love she adds to Cherri's Chocol'art.

READ the full article at Southwest Michigan Second Wave Media and learn what the chocolatier herself nibbles at the end of day. It's got some heat.

And then go have a piece of chocolate.


Sunday, February 05, 2012

"Stones with Poems" Art Exhibit

"Stones with Poems," 
Zinta's Art Exhibit at Transformations Spirituality Center
February 2012

Zinta Aistars is a bilingual writer and editor with three books published in the Latvian language. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of an online literary magazine called, The Smoking Poet. It is her father, Viestarts Aistars, she says, that is the painter in the family. Yet Zinta grew up around her father's paintings-watercolors, oils, portraits and landscapes-and considers the highest compliment she has received for her work in literature that she "paints with words."

And still, now and then, she finds herself with a paintbrush in hand rather than on a keyboard. For years, she brought stones home from her travels, mostly from the shores of Lake Superior and the Baltic Sea along the coastline of Latvia. The smooth surface of stones tumbled by the waves drew her interest, and she began painting stones-flora and fauna, animals and insects, even tiny landscapes.

Another form of her art combines her love for words with her love for visual art in broadsides. Broadsides are short pieces of writing, either poetry or prose, decorated with visual art.

"Poems with Stones" will be on exhibit at Transformations Spirituality Center art gallery for the month of February 2012. Transformations is at 3724 Gull Road, Kalamazoo, at the former Nazareth College, now property of the congregation of St. Joseph. Hours are Mondays to Fridays, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and weekends, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Enter by ringing the bell at the main entrance of the Nazareth Center; you will be let in by one of the Sisters and shown to the gallery. 

Please sign the guestbook!

Gateway to Nazareth and Transformations Spirituality Center 

Main entrance to Nazareth, ring bell and a Sister will show you to the gallery

Friday, February 03, 2012

Signing on the Dotted Line

by Zinta Aistars

There never was a third deer. I asked for a sign to guide me to a wise decision: three deer. Leaving the 122-year-old farmhouse on 10 acres after walking the land and watching the sun set beyond the west tree line, I’d hit the brakes hard as a deer bounded across the dirt road. She joined a second one at the other side, and both of them bounded away with breathtaking grace.

Two, not three.

If I’d seen a third, would that have decided me? I’d been circling that property since December, in love from the first moment yet trying hard to keep head in balance with heart.

Asking for signs, that was game playing. I knew the decision had to be mine. I would have to find the answer by looking inward, not outward, deep into my own heart, and I knew already. I was going to sign the last counter offer to the last addendum—addendum number three—to purchase the property.

My old chow pup Guinnez checking out summer spots for lounging

End of the driveway where it meets the outbuiding and overlooks the back acres

My father on the patio peeking into the kitchen window...

What a long process it had been … offer submitted, counteroffer in response, counteroffer accepted, then a home inspection that brought about an addendum. By addendum number three, the seller, a woman in Chicago, and me, a woman in southwest Michigan, had reached an agreement. To sweeten the deal, she was tossing in a riding mower and the big freezer in the outbuilding that I was already envisioning filled with the vegetables I would grow in the coming summer to get me through the next winter.

When Ingrid, my real estate agent, finally called me, moments before the end of my workday on Thursday, February 2, I caught my breath. I always knew when the news was good or not so good by the tone of her hello. Her tone was bright as sunshine.

Blood rushed to my head and thumped to my heart. Both head and heart were feeling it. The farmhouse was mine. On March 23, we would all sit down at one table together to sign the mountain of papers that come with a closing on a property purchase, and then the keys would slide coolly into my outstretched hand.

I will be going Home.

Looking back at the house from the acreage behind
Home, with a capital H, the kind I had dreamed about since I was a girl with scraped knees from climbing trees. Home, the kind I was beginning to think I might never have after a lifetime of wanderlust, leaning toward one shore or another, lost at sea. Home, the kind where I no longer long to be elsewhere, only for more moments just here, in this place, as my roots sink deeper and deeper into the earth beneath my feet. Home, where I can once and for all settle in, no more packing and unpacking, no more changing of addresses after more than 30. Home, my oasis, my quiet island in a storm, my restful corner of the world, my place of peace.

I didn’t need a third deer to tell me what to do. My heart had felt at rest here. My spirit already had started unfolding wings.

Such an old house would surely demand its dues. The years ahead would entail updates and repairs and renovations. But the investments wouldn’t hurt, because they would be all going into a place I was not going to leave behind, only leave to the coming generations.

I imagined the gradual process of learning the house, the acreage, the outbuildings, and letting them learn me. Getting to know the particular squeaks in the hardwood floors. Which window sticks. The spots were the soil is most rich and ready for gardening.

I couldn’t wait to see the seasons change—from this winter white to the waking of spring, the simmer of summer, and firing up of the fall, into another first snow.

View from living room window

I looked forward to those quiet Sunday mornings, padding around the kitchen in my robe and bare feet, waiting for the coffee to percolate and flipping the pancake on the pan. I would gaze out that window while washing dishes, see the hawk soar overhead just as it did on the evening I came here with questions on my mind, to sign or not to sign, and I would smile on that future day, glad that I did.

I looked forward to those cool evenings, a storm brewing on the horizon, dropping another log into the wood stove and hearing it crackle and hiss.

When would the koi fish at the bottom of the pond wake and rise to the surface, drawn by spring light and warmth? Would there be turtles? Belching bullfrogs?

I imagined the flowers I would start in the little greenhouse, the tomato vines I would tie back, plucking the red and ripe fruits for dinner.

In my mind’s eye, I could already see the friends I would invite here, to sit and talk with me, on the decking behind the house while watching the corn grow in the back fields. We would lean back in the chairs and drift occasionally into silence, just to listen to the chorus of sounds of the surrounding woods.

And that little space between the stairs going up to the bedroom and the living room with wood stove around the corner? Yes, there, with the desk tucked beneath the window, looking out over the two giant willows, the tool shed, and the gardens … there, I imagine myself sitting, pondering, dreaming, until the words begin to flow. I will write. At peace, I will write and I will paint and I will let loose all that I have been holding inside …

So I imagine as I sign on the dotted line, counting the days to closing, and I begin to wonder, too, about a name for the place. This is no blow-in-the-wind house. It’s been standing here for well over a century. Neighbors are far away, invisible beyond the hill dotted with pines and beyond the pond and the woods. This place where I can wander and bump into myself deserves a name. Something more than just an address, but a name of its own. Back in the country of my ethnic roots, in the Latvian countryside, all saimniecības had names of their own.

I will have to give that some thought.