Sunday, September 30, 2012

Cottage on the Hill: A Writer's and Artist's Retreat

by Zinta Aistars

When I moved to Z Acres in the spring of 2012, I was especially enchanted by one of the outbuildings on the 10-acre property more than others. On a wooded hill, secluded from the rest of the property, sat a charming and eccentric little cottage, built with amazing detail, by the hands of a loving carpenter. Apparently, someone with whimsy, as the cottage is covered with misaligned windows, each one unique. As soon as I saw the cottage, I knew this was a special place.
Cottage on the Hill, or COTH as I have come to call it, reminds me a little of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, that tiny cabin in which the writer lived for several years. Actually, it is more expansive than Thoreau’s, as it has approximately 120 square feet on the main floor, and a stepladder up to a second floor of about 80 square feet. And, in cooler weather, a space heater adds warmth.
Being a writer, I found it irresistible, conducive to meditations in solitude, connecting to one’s Muse while being completely “unplugged” from the busy world seemingly so far, far away … although, admittedly, the Cottage does have electricity!
This past September, a contractor buddy, Davids G., built a small deck onto the back of the Cottage, as a door in the back opened up onto thin air. For some reason, the original carpenter had not finished his project, but his intent was clear—a place to sit and enjoy the surrounding woods of maples and pines, elms and oaks. The deck was the perfect finishing touch, along with weatherizing the Cottage against moisture and the effects of time. I painted the floors a soft gray, whitewashed the walls on the main floor but left the upper floor natural wood.
The Cottage needed a few furnishings, but I wanted to keep it rustic and spare. A full-size bed went into the main floor corner, a small wooden table and chair, a cabinet with shelves. Upstairs, a desk and chair. I brought favorite books to put on the shelves, and hung up artwork by my father, artist Viestarts Aistars, and various other knick knacks to make the Cottage feel like home. A carpet remnant on the main floor adds just a touch of luxury.
I’m so pleased with this wonderful space that I am opening it up to friends with a need for a quiet getaway. Many have asked, and so I am opening the door of COTH:
·       Suggested donation for a one-night stay on a week day (Monday to Thursday): $35 per day
·       Suggested donation for a weekend stay (Friday, Saturday, Sunday): $40 per day
·       Suggested donation for a one-week stay: $200 per week
·       Suggestion donation for one meal provided: Add $15 to above price per day
Donations for COTH will help maintain the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet, online since 2006. A submission to the magazine of the art, written or visual, that you produce while staying at COTH is encouraged!

A little outhouse, built out of recycled barn boards, is in the woods nearby. Water is provided in a 5-gallon container with a basin for washing in COTH, and a two-burner portable stove allows one to heat up coffee or tea, or even warm up a bit of stew in the woods!
Two paths lead up the hill to the Cottage—one leading down to the farmhouse, about a 500 yard walk, and the other path leads down the hill to alongside the barn, with a chair to sit under the old apple tree and look out upon the fields stretching to the horizon, or enjoy the lounge chair or hammock behind the barn to watch the sunset.
COTH is located approximately 35 miles north of Kalamazoo and 35 miles south of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The town of Holland, on the shores of Lake Michigan, is about 35 miles northwest, and Allegan is approximately 7 miles southwest.
For more information, or to reserve the Cottage on the Hill for your retreat, contact Zinta Aistars at

Friday, September 28, 2012

Zinta Aistars Interviews U.S. Poet Laureate (2011-12) Philip Levine on WMUK 102.1 FM, NPR Affiliate

by Zinta Aistars, aired on WMUK 102.1 FM radio, Kalamazoo, Michigan's NPR affiliate, on September 27, 2012. For those outside of the southwest Michigan listening area, you can hear the full interview online at under the Arts and More Program page. 

Philip Levine, the most recent poet laureate, is coming to Western Michigan University Friday. Levine was born in Detroit. Some of his most famous poems are about his time working for General Motors, a job he says he didn't like very much.

Levine recently ended his term as the 18th U.S. poet laureate. He says the poet laureate position is honorary. Levine says many people think he has to help them with their poetry, but he was not obligated to do so because he did not actually work for the U.S. government. Poet laureates are appointed by the Library of Congress, but have few, if any, obligations in that position.

Many poet laureates have chosen to do a project, but Levine says he was more interested in reading to groups like labor unions and OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration). Levine says he didn’t have a project, but he did ask poets he knew to send him the ‘ugliest poems,’ which he put into an anthology. Levine tried to get the Library of Congress to publish it, but they said they would do nothing of the kind.

Though Levine is known as a poet, he’s written many nonfiction works as well. He says his book The Bread of Time is mostly about people who have been his companions throughout his life in poetry. Some of his nonfiction works are anti-war texts. Levine says it’s hard not to take a political stance as a writer today. He says if you taste the chemicals in the water you drink and say ‘yuck,’ you’ve just made a political statement.

Levine says when he writes, he never knows who is going to read it. He says this creates problems for him because he’ll make references that younger generations might not understand. Levins says he thinks of himself as a Detroit poet, but also a California poet because he had lived there for many years. Though he also lived in Barcelona, Spain, he says he doesn’t consider himself a Catalan because he doesn’t speak Catalan, though he does speak Spanish. He got interested in 20th century Spanish poetry while living in Spain. Levine says he’s also heavily influenced by 20th century Polish poetry.

Levine will read some of his work Friday, September 28, at 8 p.m. in Western Michigan University’s Brown Auditorium. To find out more about poet laureate Philip Levine and his work, click the play button to hear his interview with WMUK’s Zinta Aistars.

Listen to the interview.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Vacuum, a Bucket, and Becky Kliss

Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
September 27, 2012

Becky Kliss (Photo by Erik Holladay)
by Zinta Aistars

When the board meeting is over, Becky Kliss is the person you’ll see walking between the conference room tables, bag in hand, collecting anything recyclable meeting members left behind. The janitorial help? There was a time when that was true.

Now, Kliss is board president of
Michigan’s Great Southwest Sustainable Business Forum (MGSSBF), a nonprofit providing education and networking opportunities to businesses.

Kliss calls it the "triple bottom line." MGSSBF helps businesses with:

• Environmental stewardship

• Social responsibility

• Economic strength

"We help businesses achieve balance in taking care of the environment--air and water quality, energy efficiency--and employee welfare, community relations, and finally, return on investment," Kliss says. She is president of the MGSSBF chapter covering Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties.

Along with her work as president of the MGSSBF, and also sitting on the board of Chemical Bank, Southwest Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (Kalamazoo) and West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (Grand Rapids), Kliss is owner of a consulting business, called Green Connections, Inc., based in St. Joseph. All of which began, she says, in 1996 with "a vacuum, a bucket, and me."

"I worked full time while I was a college student taking night classes," Kliss says. "It took me 10 years to earn my associate’s degree in business administration at Lake Michigan College." As it turned out, that work experience tied up neatly with her slowly accumulating knowledge about business administration.

"I started cleaning for Ryder truck rental," she says. "I didn’t know anything about cleaning. Nothing more, that is, than cleaning up my bedroom when my mom told me to." She chuckles.

That would soon change. With a vacuum and bucket as her business partners, Kliss opened up her own ...


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Rain, Rain, Come Again

by Zinta Aistars

Old cat Jig warm by the wood stove
 First day of fall, and the memories of a blistering summer of drought fade with each log I put on the fire in the wood stove to warm the old farmhouse. I watch the edges of the peeling bark catch, flame up, and blossom into a warm fire. It's the third time I have used the wood stove this week, both the cat and dog curling up near the stove to enjoy its warmth as the autumn chill increases day by day.

In the night, the crack of thunder woke me, and the pelting of rain hard on the roof. I lay awake in bed, in the dark, listening, and thought with gratitude of my son who recently spent a couple days with me at Z Acres taking down dead wood and splitting it into small, wood-stove-ready pieces. The diminished cord of wood outside the house was nearly replenished, and the wood bin on the patio was full. Let it rain. I was ready. Just a step out on the patio, staying dry, and I could gather an armload of wood for the stove.

I am going to try to make it through the next two seasons on wood heat. I had done it before, many years ago, living in the country for a while and short on pocket change. My propane tank at Z Acres had been filled at the end of spring, but I wanted it there for emergencies only. Not only was it a grand way to save my heating dollar, but using dead wood from my own surrounding forest keeps the forest clean. And it adds ever so much comfort ...

My son, chopping wood

Falling back asleep, I stay in bed too long on this Saturday morning. The rain lulls. The gray light seeping around the curtains encourages sloth. I have much to do ... more deadlines to meet, more books to review, a literary magazine fall issue to launch, a list of household chores ... but I turn over onto my stomach, face in pillow, cat curled at my head, dog at my feet, and sleep.

A day to stay inside
Yet fall brings on my highest level of energy. Summer heat makes me lethargic, whereas a chill in the air makes me want to move, do, be. When I do get out of bed, it's with a bound. The house is cool when I go downstairs, a part of heating with a wood stove being a cool morning. Over night, the fire has died to a fine gray ash. I put water on to boil, grind a couple scoops of coffee beans, and get my French press pot ready for the morning brew to steep. The dog follows me out to the patio to gather up my first armload of wood for the day. I see him gaze outside, a little mournfully, at the continued pouring down of the rain, leaves dripping and loosening from the trees in a golden flurry that scatters across the wet grass, tree branches sagging and swaying in the wet wind.

I rub between his ears to offer comfort. Rainy days are good, too, I tell him, but he only gazes up at me with sad brown eyes. He curls up with a sigh by the stove as I get the fire going. The cat's already there, anticipating that golden warmth.

Coffee's on. I pour a mugful and settle in for the day's writing. This blog, an article pending, one, perhaps two book reviews, but mostly .... I want to spend time on a creative effort that has begun to take shape. It's a guilty pleasure. I admonish myself for the guilt the moment it creeps in. Isn't this in great part why I decided to take on this freelance lifestyle? To finally have time to devote to creative writing, going over to the art side. I'm not a Sunday writer. I am the all or nearly nothing type, immersing myself to the hairline, drowning in it, lost in it, entranced.

If there is one struggle within me in this new life of a freelancer at Z Word, LLC, it is how much time I can afford to set aside without having my eye on the paycheck. The jury is yet out if I can cover my bills living this way, and I think of all the leads I should be pursuing, the doors I should be knocking on, the offers I should be making. Instead, I take time now, near daily, to devote to the art of writing.

The words are stacking up. The pages are adding up. Where am I going with this? I don't yet know. I don't work with an outline, rather develop the main character and follow her lead, but even as I write, I wonder where this will take me ... to a novel? to something I will send out to traditional publishers? or should I consider the newer, more contemporary route of loading it up into electronic form and offering it for purchase online? After all, those bills ...

Can I afford to market something for a year, three years, five? Until I find a publisher? Or am I shooting myself in the writerly foot by taking the quicker road to readers?

When I start thinking about that too much, it bogs my writing down, and so I push that train of thought aside, for now, and keep following the path my main character has invited me to take. Maybe she knows.

Rain patters, sometimes thrashes against the farmhouse windows. And then, for a while, the wind settles, quiets, and there is only silence. The windows are lightly fogged over from the heat inside. The cat sleeps by the stove, end of her tail occasionally ticking up, down, to show she lives and dreams.

Lunch hour ... and I decide the day is right for popping corn. A pot, a bit of oil, and I pour in the kernels. My old pup immediately comes to attention to the rattle, the sizzle of the oil, soon the pop pop pop, as this is his favorite treat, too. I think he enjoys the catch in the air as much as the salty taste.

I'm lost to the world, then. This world. Lost into another. There is much of myself in this woman I write about, of course, but there is much in her that I watch develop with great interest. She moves differently than I do. She thinks alike, and then not. She makes decisions I would not make, taking sudden turns on the path, and I think, woman, are you mad? We start on the same page and then she chooses her own adventure, going where I dare not go, or where I would rather not. She adds another world onto mine.

Perhaps that's one reason, of many, why writers write. We are hungry for life, and one just isn't enough.

In my world, it rains. In hers, the skies are just beginning to open up.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Three Lessons for a Freelance Writer and Editor

by Zinta Aistars

Learning curve! One and a half months into my experience as sole proprietor of my own business, Z Word, LLC, offering writing and editing services, I am learning new things daily. It's always a good idea to take a moment to look back and note what I have learned.

So. How am I wiser?

Of all newness floating around and soaking into my brain, I have come away with three most prominent lessons about being a full-time freelance writer and editor:

1. Boy howdy, is this a different lifestyle! No surprise here, but it is one thing to know, another to live it. Life as a free agent is different from the moment I wake to the moment I sleep, and I'm pretty sure it affects my dreams, too. It most certainly affects the quality of my sleep ... very deep. No alarm clocks in the mornings (one of my most favorite changes). I sleep better than I ever have, and I'm sure the fact that my "office" is deep in the country doesn't hurt one bit.

On the other hand, after beating down some weird guilt at no longer having to do an early morning commute up and down the Interstate and through city jams, not attending endless drone-on corporate meetings, not dealing with office politics, not doing as I'm told rather than doing what makes sense, I got over it. Time is now as I choose to manage it. That transition of fully absorbing that I am now the boss of my own time took longer than I expected, but it was a fun lesson to absorb. At the same time, this lesson soon led to lesson #2.

2. I have to be a better steward of my time. I am crazy busy, and my calendar has no white space left on it. That's okay. It means I am working. But am I working efficiently? Dollars don't necessarily align with hours, and at first month's end, I began to realize I have to find ways to translate all that busyness into dollars more productively. How? Only area in which I can see my way to that is by cutting back on in-person interviews. 

Oh no! I love doing in-person interviews! And surely, it contributes to the quality of my work. I can't speak for the reader of my work, but when I meet someone in person for an interview, I not only hear the answers to my nosy questions, I also see his or her expressions, body language, environment. I learn a thousand things about that person by sheer observation, far beyond the words that come out of my interviewee's mouth. No less important, it is easier to build trust with the person I am interviewing if he or she can see my expressions and body language as well. I'm certain I come away with better results, more interesting detail, and I can paint a scene for my article that is more than just the words coming out of someone's mouth.

And it is a heck of a lot more fun.

But now I look at my calendar, and I think ... something's got to give. If I travel to talk to someone in person, it can take half a day, sometimes even as much as a full day if I am traveling to a far-flung location, considering that I am coming from a location pretty far from anywhere myself. If I do a phone interview instead, I can complete my interview in, more or less, an hour. I also save gas.

I'm not going to give up in-person interviews. See reasons of quality above. But a compromise is in order. I will have to be choosier about which ones I do face to face, which ones I do over the phone. No point in doing an excellent interview if I can't find the time on my calendar to actually sit down and write about it.

3. Even peanuts add up. I don't shoot my nose up in the air in response to any offer. I consider it carefully. Is it a good networking move? Can it lead to something bigger? Is it a steady account that pays timely? If there is one thing I understood quickly about working for myself, it is that the steady and predictable paycheck is a thing of the past. Of course, I knew that. Thus the need to build up a sizable financial cushion before trying to go into business of ANY kind. You can count on dry periods here and there, and most any business takes time to establish. Dipping into savings now and then is a given. Especially at tax time, which comes around four times a year for the self-employed.

I have been freelancing on the side for most of my adult life, and that has been crucial. I never let my network go dead. Always something on my wire, even when I was busy at my regular job, which paid well enough that I didn't need to freelance ... I just wanted to. I knew it was a smart move for the future, a building block. I knew I wanted to work full time as a freelance writer and editor since ... forever. Keep my eye on the goal.

Now, those past efforts are coming to fruition and giving me a healthy boost as a new business, because, in truth, it isn't really new at all. Since I'm not usually a bridge burner when it comes to work, I am also now able to write freelance for many of my previous employers. They are some of my best clients today.

Back to peanuts. The big, juicy assignments give me a shot of adrenalin every time. Of course they do! But the electric bill might come between those juicy assignments, and what if one of them gets stalled, as one such assignment just did, because the person I need to interview fell quite seriously ill? I probably won't see the paycheck for that assignment for a month, even two months, farther out than expected. Stuff happens. Count on it. And when stuff happens, it is awfully nice to have a peanut or three to keep me going.

It can often be those smaller assignments that add up to bigger checks, too. Not the stuff of lottery dreams, no, but I am currently giving serious consideration to an offer to write four stories a week, with an occasional feature here and there, for a newspaper covering parts of greater Grand Rapids. The news editor and I are meeting next week to discuss the details of the assignment. Per news article, it won't pay much. Add up four such news articles per week, however, and that many over a month, and it can help to get me through the occasional drought. I'm pretty sure I am going to sign on that dotted line and be counted among their crew of reporters. Could be fun. Could be great networking, too. And there is something to be said for a steady paycheck, arriving regular as clockwork.

So that's my life one and a half months in. I am loving every moment of it. Every day brings wonder. I work hard, as hard as ever, and some days harder than most, but I am working for myself, making my own decisions, deciding what I want to take on and what I want to leave off. I am following my bliss. I am spending my days writing, and I love nothing better. This kind of work I could do, oh, forever. It nurtures me, and not just with cash. 

Sitting in the morning sunshine with work associate Guinnez at Z Acres
Some Monday mornings when I get up, not by alarm but when I am rested enough, I go outside to walk the beautiful grounds of Z Acres, contemplating the work day ahead, and I hear singing. Then I realize ... it's me breaking out in song. That's something I can't remember ever doing on a Monday.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Second Wave: Hear Here Puts Compassion in Print

Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media

Hear Here puts compassion in print in Kalamazoo

How do you get people who don't agree to start listening and talking to one another? The answer for Anne Hensley and Melanie Crow was to start a local magazine to foster compassion that they call Hear Here. Zinta Aistars talks with them about the publication launched this summer.
Melanie Crow, Anne Hensley, Peter Brakeman of Hear Here (Photo by Erik Holladay)
Anne Hensley and Melanie Crow sit across the table from each other, two editors for a new Kalamazoo magazine, Hear Here. They are fishing for a common memory, but not finding it. "Funny thing," says Hensley, "but neither one of us remembers ever meeting. We just … converged."

Crow shrugs. "We both have husbands involved in music and teaching, must have been through them."

No matter. They met. Sometime, somewhere. The mesh of friendship was a natural and soon inclined toward the literary.

Both were originally drawn to Kalamazoo by academic pursuits. Crow earned her PhD in English from Western Michigan University and now teaches writing and literature at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and WMU.

"And I came to school here and hated it." Hensley bursts out laughing. "But I loved Kalamazoo."

Another fateful meeting took place, bringing a third party into the mix. (Hang on, we are getting to the new magazine here as the three converge.) Hensley, not loving the academic life, worked instead in food service, managing the servers in several restaurants. A regular at one of those restaurants was Peter Brakeman, owner of a design firm called Brakeman.

"Peter and I became fast friends," Hensley says, "and when he invited me to come work for him at Brakeman, I went. I started as a customer liaison, and I had never even used a computer before. I was fearful of them!" Hensley grins. "But I got over that fear like gangbusters."

Eleven years later, Hensley still works for Brakeman, much of her work on computers. But it took a bout of hard anger and a stranger and a funeral for the convergence of these three to turn into an innovative new magazine.

"Yes, I was at a funeral, at the wake after the funeral, and a stranger started talking to me about health care," Hensley recalls. "He said something like, 'tell me what you think about our president.' Only he didn't want to listen to my answer. We weren't listening to each other. We were just lobbing insults across the fence. I drove home that day very angry and frustrated. On that two-hour drive, I kept thinking that there must be a better way to communicate. When we are both yelling at each other, nothing is accomplished."

Out of that moment of frustration, Hensley started to think ...


Monday, September 10, 2012

A Mind Like This: Zinta Aistars Interviews Susan Blackwell Ramsey on WMUK

September 11, 2012

Susan Blackwell Ramsey

 Airing on WMUK 102.1 FM Radio in Kalamazoo, Michigan, NPR's Affiliate Station:
"A Mind Like This": Susan Blackwell Ramsey's poetry book comes with a dash of humor

Susan Blackwell Ramsey will read from her book A Mind Like This Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Portage District Library. In her interview with WMUK’s Zinta Aistars, Ramsey talked about how her mind seems to remember only the most trivial things. This is the basis for her title poem “A Mind Like This.”

Ramsey often uses humor in her poetry. She says she feels consistently tragic works seem fake, because even a dark subject can have black humor.

Ramsey uses a lot of forms in her poetry. She says she likes forms because they push her to continue writing until the poem has finished in that form. Ramsey says poems should even start after the writer finishes saying what they were going to say.

Ramsey dedicated her new book to her husband, who she says in the dedication is the only person who reads poetry but doesn’t write it. Ramsey says she believes poets are the only ones who read poetry because most people who like poetry usually take a stab at it themselves.

Click play to hear more of the interview with Susan Blackwell Ramsey.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Grit, Glitch, Gap: A Perfect Union

by Zinta Aistars
(based on a wedding toast to my daughter Lorena and son-in-law Derek, 9.1.12)

September 1, 2012

The bride was late. The wedding was at noon on Saturday, September 1, and the bride was still in the van, her uncle Steve at the wheel, speeding through Chicago streets as much as one can speed through busy city streets, north along Lake Shore Drive, and the clock on the dashboard blinked: 12:01.

I sat just behind her, the photographer beside me, the bride's grandmother beside the bride, marveling at the bride's calm demeanor. One of the bridesmaids, Melissa, sat up front, keeping an eye on the bride.

"Wedding can't start without you!" we all chimed. "Almost there!"

And finally, we were. I'd never seen my daughter look so beautiful, so breathtakingly stunning, as she did on this day, emerging from the van, holding up her long lace gown, a silvery toe in her high-heeled shoe just showing its sparkling tip. More than one person had said that morning: Cinderella!

Except for running late, it all seemed so perfect. Almost perfect. Except that the pastor was outside the church, watching us drive up, as was the groom's mother, and the pastor's face gleamed with a light sweat of anxiety. He showed us to one door, then swung around and showed us to another. Lorena, the bride, didn't want anyone to see her before her walk down the aisle. The moment of confusion broke her calm and suddenly her eyes filled with tears.

She wanted this day to be perfect. Just so. We all did. Every effort over the past eight months had been toward this goal.

Seated in the parlor, hidden away from the rest of the church that was full to brimming, she sat in a chair with a trembling curl to her lip that threatened more tears. The pastor came in and held both of her hands, speaking softly to her, saying a prayer.

Outside, the Chicago sky was overcast, heavy with thick, gray clouds, the fringe of the storm called Isaac in the southern states brushing the skyline.

As suddenly as that cloud had passed over my daughter's face, it was gone again. She was the sunshine on this day, and the sun had come out again. She took a breath, the full impact of her wedding day sweeping over her, and smiled. Ready.

I skidaddled back outside the church, around to the main door, where Alex, my nephew and the usher, was waiting to escort me down the aisle. I'd walked that aisle before in my life, but this time had my heart beating more than at any other time. I'm no sop about weddings. I tend to roll my eyes at such romantic ideals and happy ever afters, my own life taken a singular route, but today felt different. I had a deep conviction in my heart that this walk for my daughter would lead to a life beside a mate that would stand by her, thick or thin. I'd warmed to Derek the moment I met him.

And of course, the moment the organ music changed to announce the coming of the bride, the entire congregation of some 130 of us turning back to watch the door, my eyes filled with tears, something in my throat caught, I forgot to breathe, and I saw her: the bride, my daughter, on the arm of my son, her brother, who had stood beside her and she beside him all their growing years and up into this day. My two greatest loves, walking down the aisle together, both of their faces beaming.

With my son, Markus
It was perfect. Almost. Except that when Markus had his sister up to the side of the altar where the wedding party and groom and pastor awaited her, he stepped on the edge of her long train. It was just a moment, he realized it, released her as she turned to look back at him one more time with a smile, then proceeded up the steps to stand facing her love.

The prior week passed at lightning speed through my mind's eye as I watched the two of them say their vows. I'd been in Chicago at my daughter's side since early Tuesday, and it had been non-stop to bring her, the both of them, to this moment. My heel was blistered from the 12-hour day of shopping with Lorena to find the last few items, seemingly simple, even as we walked and drove what felt like all of Chicago to find them. Tall vases for the altar, yet none seemed tall enough, or else cost exorbitant amounts; flowers for the bouquets and decorations; mason jars that we decorated with lace and silver ribbon but had to have a silver rim rather than the usual gold; small cloth letters to spell out Mr and Mrs and then to be hung on a silver ribbon across a wicker suitcase that would collect cards and gifts at the reception; a thousand final items that seemed to elude us as we sought the perfect ones.

At last, we had everything. Every item perfect, almost.

When they spoke of the blessing of hands, Lorena and Derek holding each other's, I teared up again. Hands to hold when we fall, hands to hold us as we age, hands to caress us even when we are not deserving. Oh, don't let me smear my mascara on this day of photographs ... but I did, just a little, as Alex, my nephew and escort today, quietly let me know. I dabbed with a tissue. My days of perfection, long gone.

Husband and wife. Bride and groom leaned toward each other for a kiss, then another, then one more. They turned to all of us, beaming, near floating on air, hands raised together. Mr. Derek and Mrs. Lorena Vaughn.

Why these tears? Did I even believe in marriage? Such an imperfect union. So much struggle, even for the best matched of us. Friction and conflict, constant compromise ... was it worth it? I looked up at the two of them, bright with love, shining like stars, in this perfect moment.

It was. It is worth it. Even when two unwind back into one and one. I felt it again, that conviction in my heart, that these two would remain lifelong as one. I felt that because these two, more than most, understood struggle, compromise, communication. It was indeed their initial friendship during personal struggles that had brought them together, first as best friends, then as beloveds. They understood that life wasn't perfect and never would be. All week I had watched them balance each other. When one had a moment of anxiety, the other one remained calm. When one needed more, the other gave more, and then, that one reciprocated, as needed.

They understood imperfection and were willing to work with it.

And so, when it came time for a champagne toast, as all of us gathered again on the cruise ship Odyssey at Navy Pier, and floating out on Lake Michigan with the Chicago skyline in the distance wrapped in mist and gray clouds, I held my champagne glass in a firm clutch and swayed across the floor toward the new couple. The ship swayed this way, then that way, and my steps had a drunken sway along with the ship's. Hardly graceful. So imperfect. But I made it to their table, turned to face the shipful of wedding guests, and gave my toast.

I spoke about the blessing of imperfections. On this day that is supposed to be so perfect, it is, after all, the imperfections that make it so. Two imperfect beings coming together to form an imperfect union, one that will test them lifelong. Yet what else is love but acceptance of each other's imperfections? It's easy to "love" the beautiful and the young and the unblemished. But it is when we are sick, aging, blemished, anxious, angry, sad, wrong, ugly, mistaken, and still loved, that we know our love is true.

The blessing of imperfections is that working through our imperfections bonds us into a team. Into family. As we work through our weaknesses and troubles, we become stronger. As we make mistakes, we become wiser. As we endure weakness, we learn compassion. And our misadventures, those times when we get lost, those are the favorite stories we share ever after. Life is enriched by imperfections.

I wished the young couple a life blessed with imperfections, not so great that they would call "game over," but the sort that become the grit in the oyster's shell, that it chews upon until the grit becomes a pearl. Grit, gaps, glitches that would keep them holding hands until death do them part, and perhaps even beyond, two made one in a union that would, had already, become family, that net that supports us when all others break.

Family, after all, is not just connected by shared blood lines, but by the fact that these are people who accept us and love us and support us in spite of our imperfections, and even because of them. Our friends are our friends for the same reason.

A new family branch has been added to our family tree. Derek's family and Lorena's family, and all our friends, celebrated this (im)perfect day. Love is the miracle of imperfection made perfect.

Congratulations, Lorena and Derek! We love you.