Sunday, August 26, 2012


by Zinta Aistars


 3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons of sugar
1 envelope dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 eggs, beaten
3 cups flour
1 pound bacon, diced
1/2 medium onion, diced
salt and pepper to taste

Heat milk to almost boiling. Remove from heat and add butter and salt. Allow to cool, add sugar.
In a small bowl, prepare dry yeast in warm water and allow to expand. Add to milk  mixture.
Add one beaten egg to milk mixture, then add flour one cup at a time.
Dough will be stiff but sticky. When it begins to leave the sides of the bowl, turn it out onto a lightly floured pastry board or table top. Work enough flour into the dough so that it does not stick to hands or board. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes. Cover bowl with a towel and leave in a warm place to double in size (about 1 1/2 hours).
In a hot pan, fry the diced bacon for about five minutes without letting it get crisp.
Season bacon with salt and pepper. Place in bowl (blot with paper towel if too fatty) and cool in refrigerator. In the same pan and in the bacon fat, fry onions until they are almost clear, but again without letting onions crisp. Pour off any remaining fat (if there’s a lot of fat, may blot onions with paper towel) and add onions to cooled bacon.
Split the dough into two portions and roll each into 20" long strand. Cut each into one inch portions. This will give you 40 pieces.

With your hands briefly roll, then flatten into a thin circle of dough, large enough to put a teaspoon of filling into the middle. Don’t touch edges of circle with greasy fingers. Fold edges over and pinch tightly together. It is important to make a tight seal around the filling so that the dough doesn’t separate during baking.

Place on greased or non-stick cookie sheet (or cover pan with aluminum foil), pinching the seam of the dough under to prevent separating during baking.  Shape the rolls into a crescent.
Brush tops of crescents with a beaten egg (for shine) and bake in a preheated oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 12 to 15 minutes until golden brown.

It's a week to my daughter's wedding, and on the Friday before, family, hers and his, are meeting for dinner after the rehearsal. We are all gathering first at the church in Chicago (where the soon-to-be-wedded couple live) so that everyone can go through the steps. My son will walk my daughter down the aisle, and that's the moment I expect I will be in danger mostof turning into a sopping mess of motherly tears.

It's a bit of a break with tradition, but some traditions are meant to be broken. It's right that those two make that walk together. Growing up, we were the three musketeers, mama and her two babies, and it wasn't an easy life. Sibling closeness was especially important. Those two were, and still are, always there for each other when the rest of the world went missing.

And then, the new couple will join their lives, stand at the altar side by side. With that moment, with the promises made, two families will be connected. My daughter wanted to bring something of her heritage to the new family she will be joining with this marriage. She asked me and her grandmother, my mama, to bake a favorite, classic Latvian treat: pīrāgi

Mama (Mam-mam to her) and I got busy. It was a particularly hot Saturday, hitting 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but we cranked up the air conditioning in mama's house and got busy. Mama was a bit worried; she hadn't been baking for a while, years making themselves known to her. Her energy was not what it used to be. But we both wanted to do what we could for my baby girl's special day. I couldn't even remember the last time I had made pīrāgi. Certainly years. But they were the first treat I reached for on a Latvian table, and they appeared on all of them whenever Latvians gathered for a special occasion.

Mama opened her Latvian cookbook (see recipe above), and we measured, diced, minced, beat, mixed, kneaded. During the hour and a half when the dough had to rise, we had glasses of wine, merlot with plums and black cherries, and talked about what we would wear. I had just picked up my dress from the store that morning, but wasn't sure about jewelry. I'm not much for frill, and over the years had actually sold a lot of my jewelry, finding it of little use as I got more and more into a simpler lifestyle, now living on a 10-acre farm in southwest Michigan. Digging my hands into garden dirt left little use for rings and bracelets.

But oh my mama loves her jewels! Latvian amber especially. She brought out her collection and let me sort through to find something that would go well with my new dress. And I found it! A piece as if created for my dress, with tiny beads strung on rows of tiny chains, glittering blues and blacks. Perfect.

Back to kneading. The dough had risen to double its size. I loved the feel of it. Years before, when time seemed less rushed, I used to bake my own bread, and kneading the dough lightly now with floured hands brought back memories of warm bread fresh from the oven. Surely nothing as delicious. I must get back to baking bread again ...

For all her wondering if she had the energy anymore to make and bake more than 100 pīrāgi, my mama got busy, rolling dough in her hands, flattening it out into neat little circles, spooning in filling, shaping crescents on the cookie sheet. I made rows beside hers, and I painted beaten egg with a small brush over each one. 

Something about working in the kitchen together ... magic happens. We started cracking jokes, mama got flour all over her nose, the delicious pīrāgi came out golden from the oven, and our bowl filled with more and more of them. We had a few to spare, and we ate, sharing them with my father, who was a very willing taste-tester. 

"I should make these more often," mama said, wiping flour off her nose and getting more on instead.

"Me, too," I popped another one in my mouth, steaming hot.

Food bonds. Shared meals, the trading of recipes, families sitting down together at a table. Every culture has its own favorite dishes, and with these dishes comes a history of families and nations.

I look forward to that moment of two families sitting down to one table and breaking bread together.

Friday, August 24, 2012


by Zinta Aistars

Lorena all grown up but still swinging

Comes that moment that all parents stand slapped and stunned, asking: "But when? When did my baby grow up?"

Wasn't it just a moment ago that I was pushing her on a swing? Little Blondie, gold pig tails flying, round cheeks rosy with giggly grins? 

It's been some time now since I started to see my baby girl as a grown woman. She's wise. She's strong. She's a survivor. She's accomplished. I am as inclined to go to her for advice as she is to come to me. That's my girl, my Skuky, the nickname I've had for her since babyhood, a variation on the Latvian word for "little gal." And I love, and deeply respect, the woman she's grown to be.

Now, however, another milestone is about to take place. On September 1, my baby girl is going to be married. Fine man, that Derek. Easy to warm up to, fit into the family at first meeting. I was pleased to see my daughter find a good match for her life companion. Another moment for a mama's deep sigh of relief. Baby will be just fine.

Only we have that wedding to get through first.

All month I've been busily getting my new business established, a writing and editing service called Z Word, LLC. All of my focus was on setting up the business end of it, meeting with an accountant and financial adviser, scheduling interviews and meetings, collecting writing assignments from different sources, doing photo shoots and recording on-air author interviews and sitting in on video shoots, and then, the actual writing. I am loving this freelance lifestyle, but it's no less busy than the life I led before, just more flexible.

Today, I finished writing my last article for the month. Proofed, edited, revised, invoiced, submitted, done. No more until September. Now, I am tapping into that flexibility and declaring my most important role to be mama-of-the-bride. 

Lorena aka Skuky, photo courtesy of Derek

Skuky calls from Chicago and rattles off another worry. The flowers. We are doing the arrangements ourselves, and why not, as I recalled my days of working as a florist at Kathy's Flowers in Hancock, Michigan .... a great many years ago. But when? With the wedding at noon on Saturday, and rehearsal followed by dinner late on Friday, this could get tricky. My insides shivered a little, but I kept my phone voice calm. No problem, Skuky, don't you worry, baby girl, mama will help.

And it WILL be all fine. All perfect in, no doubt, a trimming of imperfections. It's those moments of something not quite so that make our life events memorable, even fun. A recent local news story showed a wedding party, including bride and groom, posing on a dock out on the water, when the dock collapsed under their weight. Wedding photos showed a very soppy bride and a drippy groom, and a very wet, but laughing, wedding party.

I can sense her jitters, though, and the wish we all have for all the puzzle pieces to fit precisely and right, not one missing. No surprises. Eight months have gone into the planning. But we all know better. It would be surprising not to bungle into a few surprises. Spice of life! Right?

I've had my share of weddings in my life, though, in various roles, and I know by now it's not the wedding that makes the marriage. It may indeed be the least important part. When I settle into stillness and give it all some thought, the wedding with all its trimmings, cakes and dresses and flowers and tuxes and flower girls and champagne and kisses, it's what comes after that gives me contemplative pause. My baby girl is starting a new life.

To live as one has many benefits. To live with a good mate has many other benefits. Family. Push comes to shove, shove comes to topple, when we fall, it is nearly always, for most of us, at least the blessed ones, family that picks us up again. My Skuky is about to begin a new family. She will always, always have her mama. And her little brother. And the rest of this crazy bunch, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and the partners married in. Lucky her. Lucky us. But now she is starting a new branch on that tree, all her own, with her and Derek united at its root and who knows what cute little shoots later on.

It's a whole new life. A whole new way of being. From hereon out, nothing will be the same.

My mama's heart swells, my eyes mist a little, and my hopes soar.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

You, Here


Absolute silence.

But no. It takes a moment for the ears to lose their inability to hear. A moment to disperse the sirens, the blaring horns, the constant human chatter, the unending simmer of sprawl, houses upon houses and buildings upon buildings and roads crossing roads, buzz and bump and blather, cacophony never ending. The ears become deaf. Cauliflower ears boxed useless by NOISE.

A moment of sitting still here. Just a moment, and the ears shyly begin to open again. Deafness dissolves. And there, the faint hum of insects in the grass. The chatter of an irritated squirrel. The caw of a crow and then all its brothers. The mewling of a cat bird in the bush, fooling you. The burping of bullfrogs encircling the pond. The odd trilling, almost prehistoric, of sand cranes in the field beyond the trees—and if you listen to the breeze in the tree tops, you’ll notice that it makes a different sound depending on the tree. The tall pines shush as they wave from side to side. The walnut tree with its rows of thin leaves on a long stem, softly rustle one against the other. The willows bend into the breeze, swing like a woman’s skirts, and sound almost like moving water. 

Sit still a while longer, ears open now in wonder, and you will hear how the world is filled with music. Next, your skin begins to feel that same breeze, its tickle and caress and glancing kiss, and your eyes widen to a thousand, no, a million shades of light and shadow, of a rainbow of color, even there where you once saw only green, brown, gray. 

A thrill runs through your body, head to toe, and you must move, must move, rise to walk the land, sensing the slight inclines and dips in the earth, the occasional hard edge of stone beneath, the soft spots where rodents have tunneled unseen, your step sinking slightly where below, life there, too, teems in constant flow. Tall grasses brush against your shins, and your fingertips touch the tops of the grasses lightly, feeling the wave pass through your body, you, the grass, you, the wind, you, the earth, you, the hum of the insects and the chatter of the squirrels and the ancient trilling of the cranes, you, the earth crumbling where you tunnel through to emerge again, you, whole.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Southwest Michigan's Second Wave: Walnut Hill Farm

Tom Conklin and Joyce Latta at Walnut Hill Farm (photo by Erik Holladay)

Photography by Zinta Aistars

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Couldn't Be Bothered

by Zinta Aistars

Learning better habits from my old chow pup, Guinnez

Busy day ahead, three interviews to do, but, as always, I begin it with a walk to the garden, harvesting seven tomatoes today and basil for a lunch salad, then circle around to the pond, where, as always, I begin my day by taking a moment to be fully aware of my many blessings ... thank You.

The three interviews this afternoon: recording an author interview with George Dila at WMUK radio; interviewing the instructor of the Writing Center at Kalamazoo College for a September college newsletter; and finishing the day at a young artist's studio to talk about his sculpture in preparation for ArtPrize in Grand Rapids this fall. I won't be paid for these stories until I write and submit them, but I feel richer already.

Yesterday? I couldn't be bothered.
Day before? Busy as heck. A delightful day of checking in with old friends and colleagues in Grand Rapids, where I worked for almost five years, but now met with various colleagues as a free agent, collecting story assignments. It did my writer's heart good to tap into long-acccumulated experience and work alongside people I enjoy and respect. A lunch hour meeting at another science research institute, portfolio in hand, then yet another meeting with a wonderfully creative ad agency in town, and tying it all up with a bow at day's end by having drinks and swapping war stories with a friend at a new local pub, Brewery Vivant.

So what happened to yesterday? I had had an interview scheduled at Z Acres with an author in preparation for the fall issue of The Smoking Poet, but she called to postpone: family health crisis. My day was suddenly clear on the calendar.
Free time is always a gift. I could have done a thousand things. I won't even begin to list them all here. Instead ... I napped.

In the morning, I slept in. I padded around the kitchen in late mid-morning and brewed coffee, steeping it slowly in a French press, sat down on the couch, cat leaning against me in a steady purr, sipped and read. I took a slow stroll around the garden. Sat by the pond, watching fish surface, tiny mouths forming circles as they nabbed bugs and caused circles of ripples to crisscross across the surface of the water.
And then I napped. No cat nap, this. I napped for nearly two hours.

When my eyes slit open, I thought about napping longer. I peeked with one eye out the window, the afternoon in full sunny blaze. A pang of guilt traveled through me. A thousand things I could be doing ...

I went back to sleep.

I woke wondering what had come over me. My calendar was full enough with approaching deadlines, though none immediate. Just ... pressing. Was I ill? Struck with a bout of laziness?

I thought of my previous days. What, days? Years! Decades of working in corporate offices, buzzing away Monday through Friday and sometimes beyond that. On constant duty. And then the commutes. The last five years I was commuting 110-mile round trips daily, rain or sun or snow. I never missed a deadline. Tried to be a few minutes early for meetings. So what was with this sudden malaise?

Still on my back, on the couch, I pondered. What this felt like was a process of healing. Yes, quite that, my body, mind and spirit patching themselves up whole again. We in the United States tend to be a nation of the sleep deprived, working more hours than most any nation on the globe. We have long been blurring, then losing, the boundary lines between work and ... LIFE. From balance, to integration, to one foggy blur of always on duty, never unplugged, and our own health and the soundness of our families suffering in the process.

Something had to give. I had forgotten to schedule myself a vacation when I began Z Word, LLC. Finishing a four-month contract job, I immediately switched over to the busy world of the self-employed, relishing the process, but once again filling my calendar to busting.

There was an entire lifestyle I was leaving behind. I'd only used my alarm clock once since I had started my new life as a free agent, when I had a particularly early meeting with a client. The first few days, I kept looking over my shoulder, I didn't quite know for what .... my Outlook calendar breathing down my neck? A powerful director glaring at me to question why I was working in my sweats? Why I was still home exactly? Did I have a doctor's note?

All of that. It's hard to let go of what we have known all our adult lives. I was, had been, a part of the rat race, and even though many oh many times I quite loved what I was doing (after all, in great measure, I am doing the same thing still, only the powerful director watching me closely is ME), it was a sometimes unhealthy if not irrational pace that would never give. Or, as a former boss recently said to me as I sat in his office listing story assignments now in my new Z Word role, "You have the time now to be creative." And he was right. I could step back and see what others could not, too busy chasing the next thing while still being hounded by the last.

The difference in being a free agent is that I can draw my own boundaries. This much and no more. I could actually bring back balance, that precious thing that keeps us healthy in body, mind and spirit ... and allows breathing room for creative and innovative ideas to be born.


I went back to sleep. Naps are nice. My whole self needed rest. My gears needed to stop turning for a while. My spirit needed to destress. My entire being needed to detoxify, repair itself, gather back strength. My mind needed to understand this new lifestyle, embrace it, and allow myself to enjoy, enjoy, enjoy my work. My new director, me, needed to learn to take the occasional nap.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Spirit of Place

by Zinta Aistars

As I putz around the old farmhouse at Z Acres preparing for afternoon guests, I think I feel the arms of the place opening up for an embrace. It's not just me that enjoys greeting friends and Z Word clients to this place ... Z Acres does, too.

We like our quiet time, the door closing softly behind us, the gate clicking shut, the very limbs of the trees drawing around and encircling protectively, but there is a time for all things. Other voices, other faces, other steps enter in and stay for a while, and each one adds something special, not just for the moment, but in perpetuity. 

As I walk the grounds this early Sunday morning, I whisper thanks and praise. My fingers brush against the leaves of plants as I pass. I raise my face to the open blue sky, the same sky that last night was streaked with the Perseid meteor showers. Every morning I do this walk; every evening I repeat it.

When I come to the barn, I sense I am being watched. Wildlife? Plenty here, and we often meet eye to eye: deer, sand cranes, hawks, foxes, coyotes, wild turkeys, woodchucks, bullfrogs. I'm sure they watch me now, too, but it's the barn that seems to be breathing in rhythm with me.

I place a palm against the grayed and weathered wood. The knots in the wood look like eyes, like faces. Some of them look like gnomes, or dwarves and elves, magical beings that live inside the wood and emerge at night, when I'm not looking. Some look a little monstrous, buried in the wood. One eye blinks, the other gazes, another smirks and grins.

I'm sure of it: this place is filled with its own spirit. Or even, spirits. The century-old farmhouse, yes, but also the land, the wooded hillside and the fields that stretch out to the treeline in the west. I can't help but wonder about the owners that came before.

I never did get the opportunity to meet the previous owner, the woman in Chicago who sold Z Acres to me. We did all our business with the assistance of technology, faxes and emails and scanning machines, with real estate agents as go-betweens.

Even so, I think I know a few things about her. I know that she loved to garden, and that she respected this land, and listened to it as I do. The greenhouse is filled with packets of organic seeds, garden charts and schedules. The toolhouse has rakes and hoes hanging in neat rows from the walls, stacks of ceramic pots, trowels and garden shears, watering hoses curled into baskets. When I dig up my garden patch in the same place where she had hers, I find soil that is rich and loamy, crumbling through my fingers, well mulched and composted. Perennials burst into bloom across the property throughout the seasons, even throughout the woods, planted there by caring hands. I send her thanks across the miles.

History imbues place with the spirits of those who have lived there. Each of us leave something of ourselves behind. When I slide open the barn door and walk inside, I can see the curls of wood shavings mixed into the sandy floor. Before the Chicago owner came a couple, I'm told, who lived here for a few years, and he built wooden boats in the barn. Thus the two barn doors. One opens as a garage, the other opens for the boats that were created here, emerging to set sail when finished, from shady barn to open water. I see faded and framed photographs of boats sailing over foamy waves in the workshop corner of the barn.

And before them? I hear tales of a man who lived here, seemingly alone, for three decades. Perhaps legend has mixed with truth, but I may not need to know the particulars. He, I understand, built this barn. He built the toolshed, and the cottage on the wooded hill. I found paperwork that listed all the trees that he planted, noted in careful lists. Fruit trees, walnuts, pine groves, oaks and maples and willows. Did he plant each one by hand? Tamping down the dirt around the tiny trunks, someday to turn into great trees, throwing shade across the farmhouse and keeping it cool.

I wonder most about him, and there are moments when I think I sense him walking the woods, leaning against the barn door, standing at the edge of the field and gazing out at the far treeline, one hand shading his eyes. Who was he?

A hint of his sense of humor appears in the cottage on the hill. Windows are built into the walls up and down and this way and that, each one different from the others. There is a playfulness in its floorplan. Perhaps he had children, or grandchildren, that came here to play. Or maybe he just wanted to go up the hill and get lost in the trees from time to time. When I walk the path up the hill, winding through the trees, I sometimes sit on one of the old chairs in the cottage, left behind by the previous owner, maybe the owners before, or even before that, padded seats faded and torn, pink roses gone nearly white, but the wooden backs hand carved with care and still beautiful. I sit and consider. I sit and listen for the voice of the cottage, of the builder, and wait to find out what I should do with this place.

Little by little, I am adding my own life sense to Z Acres. I am adding my touch to all those hands that came before. I am not erasing, but adding to, shaping and reshaping, making this place mine as it was once theirs. Before the man who planted all these trees and built these wonderful structures came many others, and on the large sheet of paper that I inherited with my title are lists of more names, dates, titles and deeds changing hands, all the way back to 1893.

Maybe those are the faces I see in the walls of the barn? The faces of their dreams, good and bad, their personal gremlins, their hidden goblins. With time, mine will appear here too, mischievous winks and eye twinkles, little demons that I've beaten and those that still nag. All in the wood. All in the place. A house that has stood for a century, and may it stand for a century more. In the land, alongside the seeds of heirloom tomatoes and pepper plants and leafy basil. In the blackberry brambles, and out in the pine grove, shadowed and cool.

A place changes with its residents. We change with the homes that we choose and where we let down our roots. Soon it will be five months since I have lived here, yet I already feel changed. To the core. To the heart. And from that change have come new dreams, and old dreams realized, all because I came to live here.

And not just me. My dog and his bark are absorbed into these walls and land, my cat's quiet wanders. All my guests, dear friends and beloved family, my clients who come here to be interviewed and discuss their projects. All leave their imprint. All leave something of themselves. Knotted in the wood, flowing into the whirls of its grain, bleaching out circles and ripples and ridges. We are all here. Winking from the door jamb. Glowing in smiles from the nighttime windows.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Clams Have Nothing on Me

by Zinta Aistars

Enjoying a moment at Z Acres
I am as happy as a clam, yes, that happy, and probably, when shells are all busted open, my pearl shines even brighter.

Even Mondays are shiny, and that's a first. No alarm going off, jangling my senses awake; just me, done with sleep, gently rolling out of bed and into the day. That alone can make the freelance lifestyle worthwhile.

Busy, busy, however, is still the rule of the day. I haven't been doing this long enough to tell if it will hit a higher mark than how crowded my schedule was before, but the balance right now is neck and neck.

Yet it wasn't a busy schedule that I was out to conquer when I made the decision to go full-time freelance. I am not out to avoid work (except maybe first thing on Mondays). I haven't got enough stashed away in retirement plans to assure easy golden days. I expect I will be working as long as my fingers can hit the keypad with more or less accurate aim, and my mind can still string a sentence together with some semblence of meaning.

See, I love my work. I love to write. I never played around with thoughts of other careers. Being of Latvian ethnicity, my parents new immigrants to the United States, refugees of WWII, Latvian was my first language and the only language spoken in our home. It's an old and phonetic language; learn the sound of a letter once and, by golly, it stays that way forever. (You don't want to ask my mama about thought, through, tough, though, thou, threw.) What that meant was that I was reading with ease by age 3. In Latvian, of course. Book after book, sitting on the floor with my little legs crossed Indian-style, and pouring over those Latvian folk tales with absolute relish.

Writing came next. I watched my mama writing letters to friends at her desk, and the process baffled me a bit even as it intrigued me. All that scribbling, then folding up the white pages neatly, stuffing them into an envelope, some scribbles on that, too, lick a stamp, and off it went. In a while, a similar one came back, and I saw her read it with absolute relish.

Magic, wasn't it?

I still think it is. (We can discuss my penchant to write texts on my cell phone in full sentences, without abbreviations or LOLs or BRBs, in another blog.) Long before I had any idea what I was doing, I was crawling up on that big chair at mama's desk, sneaking into her paper pad, and tracing pretty, flowing lines across the page, line after line after line. I wanted to create magic, too.

Sisters with their daddy at home, where Latvian was our language
Language gained even more meaning when I started to attend public school. I realized that my big sister and I, lo and behold, were the only ones speaking in Latvian. What's with those kids? But the masses rule, I had to learn English, I had to master thought, through, tough, though, thou and threw. I walked home from school with my sister and recited all the words I had learned that day. More times than not, I was learning those words from the written page. That meant I was mispronouncing just about everything (still do, on occasion), reading phonetically, just how I had learned to read in Latvian, and so my wise and experienced sister, master of the second language already, corrected me.

What I learned is that languages are not exact replicas of each other. There were things I learned to say and write in English that could not be translated, not exactly, in Latvian. There were concepts I could put into Latvian words that, try as I might, I could not explain in English. To this day, I am still seeking an accurate translation for the Latvian word "smeldze." No such thing in English, not without using several sentences of explanation, and so what did that mean about the differences in the two cultures? Do people see and feel and perceive and absorb life experienes differently? Perhaps they do. And they may circle a problem differently, too, and solve it from an entirely different angle and approach.


And a little sad, too, as I soon realized, mastering only these two languages and knowing just a smathering of another one or two, that entire worlds remain closed to me. Language, I understood, was a powerful tool, like no other. Language IS magic. It opens doors, and windows, and secret tunnels underground. It connects, and it takes us on journeys into places where we would never otherwise be able to go. All the more reason to keep as many languages alive as possible; they contain entire worlds, each one unique.

To be a writer was to be a magician. Language is my magic wand. I can produce a bouquet of blood red roses out of thin air, with the appropriate flourish, describe the petals and the droplet of water on the edges, and the prickly thorns, and the long thin stem, until my reader gasps at the pain of the prick and draws in the sweet perfume of the rose's scent at once. Oh, that's power. The power to convey one person's experience into the being of another, far removed.

What could be better? Why would I ever want to stop doing magic? I don't. I only wanted to explore my magic to where it would lead me, take those long and twisting secret tunnels, to emerge into other fantasy kingdoms. Follow my bliss, Joseph Campbell would say.

I am following. Without the alarm clock, because the pull is already inside of me. I am giving myself over to it entirely.

This week, among my various writerly accomplishments and deadlines met, I also filed the paperwork to became not just Z Word, but Z Word, LLC. That means limited liability company, and that means my magic wand won't come back to zap me, but more, it means I have given my bliss-following an official stamp. The business cards are printed, the website is up, the work is rolling in.

An accountant on Monday gave me many valuable lessons. I need to become a master recordkeeper. I need at very least a detailed spreadsheet to record income and expenses, all those fun little items that can add up to tax deductions, all the mileage I put on my car to travel from interview to interview, from pickup point to delivery. I will need to pay my taxes (and Social Security, and Medicare) in quarterly payments rather than once on April 15, like everyone else does. There's a business to this business, and it's not just about writing.

I'm also learning quickly that, gee, it would be nice to have an assistant ... just to keep my schedule. A good part of my day is just about getting all the puzzle pieces to fit smartly on my calendar. Since I live on a farm quite some distance out of anything like a town, let alone a city, I have to plan my trips so that they make sense. Combine this with that, follow that up with this, get it all done before heading back to Z Acres to do the actual writing. It gets tricky.

If one of the differences in my new lifestyle is that I don't wake to an alarm clock, I don't necessarily step away from my desk at 5 o'clock sharp, either. Nor do I take a weekend like most others do. I may trade a Thursday for a Saturday, for instance, my day off in the middle of the week rather than at the end of it. I rather like that flexibility.

I take my lunch at pondside. Bowl of yogurt in hand, I head out to my favorite seat by the pond, settle in, dog at my feet, and read a book for a while in preparation for an upcoming author interview to air on the local NPR affiliate.

Recording an author interview at WMUK 102.1 FM
It's all turned around, and upside down, and inside out, and new. It's a different way to live. But when another phone call comes in, someone referred to me by a friend with whom I've worked on another job, and I have another assignment on my calendar ... I know I am where I belong, doing what I am meant to do, and doing it the way that I want to do it. I am following my bliss. I am waving my wand and the magic is all around me.

When the work day is done, I am having stuffed green peppers for dinner. The clams may live another day. They deserve to be happy, too.

Green peppers from the Z Acres garden

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Guilt of Bliss and the Bliss of Letting It Go

by Zinta Aistars

My corner office at Z Acres
I hadn't had a vacation since May 2011, when my sister and I took our parents up to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to mark their 60th wedding anniversary. We all still talked about this trip; it was wonderful and memorable in every way.

But that was a respectable while ago, and I hadn't had a day off since. That included most holidays, as my last stint, working on a Great Place to Work application for a global company headquartered in Kalamazoo, Michigan (what turned out to be a 190-page bound book with a thumb drive loaded down with various supplements), was so intense and time-short that it required many of my evenings and weekends ... and holidays. When the rest of America was outside grilling up a barbecue storm on Memorial Day weekend and Independence Day, I was inside at my computer, working away on that application.
Indeed, moving from my previous job to this one happened within one day. I packed up and left my office where I had worked almost five years for a health care organization in Grand Rapids at 3 p.m. on a Friday, and by 4 p.m., I was home and on the phone, taking part in a conference to discuss that Great Place to Work project, which would hopefully rank the company for which I was at that point working (for all of one hour) as high as possible on the Fortune magazine's 100 Best Places to Work list.

It had been like that. And, mind you, even during all that, I continued my freelancing on those spare evenings and in-between weekends. After all, I didn't want that freelance network to go cold. I had a dream ...

... and now I was realizing that dream. It was my second day of working for myself, as creative director, as writer and editor, for Z Word. I had at long last established my own writing and editing business. Hurrah!

Okay, so now what?

The alarm did not go off this morning. I never set it. I was not a late sleeper, so at almost the precise same time that I would have normally gotten up to start a day at the corporate office ... I was up. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Ready to go.

Now, that felt different. I was actually ready to go. No resistance, no soft swearing under my breath, no moaning that here comes another work day. I nearly danced down the stairs to the kitchen to put water on to boil; I had discovered that with just a little more time in my morning, I preferred using a French press to make my cup of coffee rather than pushing a button on the automatic drip. I fed the critters, dog Guinnez and cat Jig, and still in my nightgown, headed outside.

Out here at Z Acres, my ten-acre farm deep in the country, I supposed I could even leave the nightgown behind. No one but the deer and the birds and the wild turkeys and the bullfrogs and the koi in the pond and the squirrels and the sand cranes and the two hawks circling high overhead and the occasional fox or pack of coyotes (although they tended to hang out more in the evening hours) would have seen me. And they probably would have taken no more notice than to have shrugged, eh, funny creature there with no fur or feathers!

I suddenly had the thought: was it okay to go wandering around my garden when it's a work day? After all, it was almost 8 a.m. Most everyone else I knew was at that moment booting up computers in cubes and offices, chatting at the office water cooler, sorting through files and morning to-do lists, checking schedules and calendars, listening to last night's voicemail ...

And I was not. I was peering up at the blue sky at that hawk, still circling, as if watching me watch him. I was checking the vegetable garden to see what had ripened since last evening, and I found reddening grape tomatoes, ripening heirloom chocolate tomatoes, rows of green bell peppers, and new zucchini and cucumber blossoms. My cat Jig walked with me through the garden aisles, mulched in hay.

I popped a grape tomato in my mouth, warm from morning sun, and checked the blackberry bushes. Fewer berries now, season coming to a close, but I had bowls and bags full in my kitchen, ready to be made into jam. Could I take time in my afternoon of writing and editing to make jam?

Who was I asking? Huh. That would be me. No one was looking over my shoulder. The boss was in the mirror.

I felt a tickle of guilt run through me.

Oh now, where had that come from? I straightened up in the garden and frowned, only no one saw that either. After all, if I had made any mistakes yet in starting my own business, it was that I had not scheduled myself a vacation. I did deserve one!


Another tickle of guilt. I grabbed the weed whacker from the toolshed, revved it up with a roar, and started whacking weeds. Actually, this was already part of my work day routine. Something very satisfying about starting the day clearing weeds from the garden, around the edging of rocks, along the perimeters of the barn, along the pathway to the back fields. I often started my day that way, and then plugged in the rechargeable battery, and then ended my day that way, too. This kind of acreage required a lot of weed whacking ... and I loved doing it.

Right about now, some of those once-colleagues were sitting in meetings. In conference rooms, taking notes, trying to look attentive, sweating to make a wise remark instead of a wise crack, sipping coffee to try to stay awake.

My guilt swirled together with some delicious pleasure, as if I was getting away with something decadent and sinful and rich.

Only there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. Not one thing. I had worked long years in those corporate offices, paid my dues, saved whatever I could to build a cushion and a dream, and now I was starting on it. Not one thing wrong with that.

Yet I felt like an escapee from the chain gang, and that both amused and irritated me. Work should not feel that way. Not for anyone, and I had to think there was something wrong with spending so much of our lives doing what didn't give back. Only I couldn't claim that I hadn't enjoyed the various jobs I'd held. I had. Almost all of them, most of the time, and I had learned valuable skills, and built a fat portfolio of writing and editing samples, by working in all those places. Indeed, I will be working for many of them again, picking up freelance work assignments from the very same places where I had once clocked in my Monday through Friday hours.

So why this itch of guilt? Or maybe it was something else? Maybe it was the shedding of a long-worn skin. It had become too tight, too constraining, and in these first days of Z Word, that old skin was splitting open, causing some itch and discomfort along the split lines, as I prepared to emerge into a new part of my life and my career.

My favorite meditation spot by the pond at Z Acres
That made sense. What also made sense was beginning my day with a stroll in the garden, doing a bit of lawn work to give me a physical workout, and even enjoying a meditative pause in my favorite spot to sit by the pond. So I settled in for a while, sipping that coffee, and watched the koi rise to the surface of the pond, making ripples in the water, circles that expanded and expanded and overlapped with each other and floated away.

Whereas a morning meeting in a conference room often had made me tense, perhaps annoyed at endless discussion of the same issues that had been discussed in a thousand prior meetings, gathering my thoughts now at pondside made me feel like something inside was settling into a soft hum, opening, opening, ready to reveal some secret held inside.

The guilt, if that's what it was, was gone.

Thoughts of corporate offices faded away. I thought instead about what I wanted to accomplish on this day. Next week would bring first meetings, first batch of assignments, even first deadlines. This week, what was left of the week, I had time to think about writing a business plan. What exactly were my goals? How did I plan to achieve them? How would I measure my success?

I needed a solid list of contacts, those with whom I was already in contact, and those I planned to yet contact. I also wanted to make a list of potential markets I wished to investigate more closely.

No less important, I needed to gather my first receipts for that accountant I would be meeting on Monday. A neat record of what I would do and how I would do it, how much I spend in the doing, miles I travel for meetings and interviews, and so on and so forth. I needed to get into some good habits of recordkeeping, and I needed to break the bad habit of letting receipts and other notes pile up on my desk before I finally get around to filing them. Recordkeeping would be crucial to my success.

Something else. Something important.

I had this other dream tucked inside of this overarching dream of Z Word ... that it would allow me some time for creative writing again. Not just the business writing and journalism, manuscript editing and radio author interviews that I would do ... but some time to write ... just for me.

Remember that neglected novel? And that novelle I supposedly had finished, first draft, last winter and then set aside? The poetry I had so long set on the highest shelf to collect dust?

Yeah, that.

I had new routines to develop. I had to find my way to routines that felt comfortable, healthy, balanced. Sound sleep, mornings in the garden, meditation by the pond, then solid hours at my desk, even if all I was doing at times was staring out the window. Staring into space is something writers do when creativity starts to bubble up underneath. Few bosses understood that ... but this one did.

It felt odd, and wonderful, and a little scary, and a bit itchy to be my own boss. But I could get used to this.