Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Stone Painting of Orion

by Zinta Aistars

Much of the work at Z Word, LLC, is about writing and editing. Some of it is publicity work for other writers. But a less known part of the business is painted stones by commission.

I collect stones for painting on various beaches during my travels. Over time, I've learned which ones work best: smooth with the least porous surface, so as not to absorb the paint. Lake Superior's rocky beaches are the best! I have baskets and baskets full of these stones at home, and when someone asks me to paint something for them, the fun begins by sitting down at one of these baskets and sorting through the stones to find just the right one.

For this commission, I've been asked to paint my client's favorite constellation, Orion. He provided a few drawings that he liked, but I also did an Internet search for inspiration. Found a couple, but I began with a diagram of the stars themselves.

First, I washed the stone and let it dry for a few moments atop my wood stove. Out come the paints and brushes, and I immerse myself in my work. It's a delightful change from working with words, and I find myself forgetting time. Always a good sign, when the pass age of time is but a blur. I start at noon, but it is late evening by the time I finish, yet I feel refreshed by the project. I hope my client likes it!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Rugby players in their element during Snowball

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
February 21, 2013

Snowball rugby (Photo by Erik Holladay at 

What started as a way to fight winter doldrums has become a draw from across the state and a fundraiser for Kalamazoo's rugby enthusiasts. Zinta Aistars reports on those who refuse to let a little cold weather keep them off the field. 

Snow falling, temperatures dipping, the world outside seemed to have stilled into a deep, white silence. What was a group of rugby players to do? Find a way to play, of course.
"We were sitting around in the middle of winter about nineteen years ago, wondering what to do," says Tim Britain. He is the treasurer for the Kalamazoo Rugby Football Club (KRFC), the team established in 1988 and known as the Kalamazoo Dogs.
What the rugby players, or ruggers, came up with was Snowball Rugby—and it wasn't long before Tim Britain was nicknamed the Snowball Czar. He would become the director of the annual event.
During the warmer seasons of spring and fall, KRFC plays seriously, training, playing in tournaments, and in 2012, becoming Midwest Division III Eastern Conference Northern League Champions. But in winter, in the cold and in the snow, it's time just for ...

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Jeanne Hess writes it right

Now and then I read someone else's blog that hits it so spot on that I have to share. Jeanne Hess, one of my favorite authors whom I tagged a few days ago in my  "Next Big Thing," the athlete behind the book, Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games, put into words what so many of us have been thinking for a long time ... yet few will say it aloud. Brave writing. Sportual writing.

Hess takes on team uniforms, high heels, the halftime show at the Super Bowl, and yes, THAT issue of Sports Illustrated.

Past the Illusions

Several years ago, my volleyball team competed in a tournament with three other teams. One of the teams represented a Christian school that did not allow their team to dress in the accepted cultural uniform of the day: short, tight spandex shorts and a sleeveless or short-sleeve fitted top. This particular team wore what was more akin to a basketball uniform with knee-length, loose-fitting shorts and a loose t-shirt. All indications and scouting reports from my and my assistant coach’s perspective were that we matched up well with this team, but we believed our team had the advantage because we were the taller, stronger, and more skilled squad.
They were our last match of the day, and as we both took the court for pregame warm ups, I noticed our team glancing at the other team, making cracks to one another, and judging them based upon ...


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Next Big Thing—A Meme for Writers

By Zinta Aistars

My desk in the Cottage on the Hill
When author Kristina Riggle approached me about participating in The Next Big Thing, a meme for writers, I said, "Huh?" And then I said, "What's a meme?" And then I said, "What's the Next Big Thing?"

Kristina is a terrific author, very prolific, and she wrote about her new book coming out in November, The Whole Golden World, as her contribution to this meme. Meme, it turns out, means something like a game of tag for a cultural idea spreading in a viral manner from person to person. 

Well, that's a lot of next big things. Each writer tags several other writers after answering a series of questions about that work in progress. But who am I to argue? Any one of us may produce the next big thing, and because of my work with The Smoking Poet, an online literary magazine, I have had the pleasure of getting to know a great many wonderful writers. It would be easy to tag a few. I would love to know what my favorite writers are working on!

Okay, I'm in.

But what about MY next big thing?

For those of you who have been my faithful (or sporadic) readers of this blog for the past year or two (oh you adorable people), you know that I have not just been writing, but living my next big thing. I moved to Z Acres, a 10-acre century-plus-old farm in southwest Michigan, in March 2012, and I am a pig in mud. And woods. And pond. And field. And Cottage on the Hill.

I fell in love with this place even before that, and with each day that I wake up on this land, and each night that I go to sleep here, I love it more, and my roots sink ever more deeply into this place. Place, that particular place we come to call Home, is a powerful thing.

Me and Venus de Milo in snow
Being bi-cultural, a Latvian born in America, raised within the Latvian culture and with English as my second language, I have perhaps a stronger appreciation for Home than most. My parents were ripped away from their home during World War II, and I was taught to think of Latvia as my home, too, even if I was born in the U.S. With a great many trips there, sometimes living there for short periods of time scattered over the years, the sense of home on the Baltic Sea took in me.

I felt at home in Latvia; I felt at home in the United States. At the same time, I felt homeless.

Where do I fully belong? At some point in my life, I had to claim one place, one place I could call mine, and know that I would not leave again. I had changed addresses in my life more than 30 times, and I was tired of it. I will not move again. At Z Acres, I am, at long last, Home. I suspect it's no coincidence that these ten acres in many ways remind me of the landscapes of Latvia.

So, over this past year of living here, I have felt that special power of being rooted in place. As an artist, as a writer, I could feel the creativity coming up through my newly rooted self, come up through my blood and into my heart, into my mind, into my spirit, and it has demanded to be released in artistic expression.
Z Acres, my muse

From this big thing, finding a permanent Home, from that warmth and security and peace, from the quiet of country living, a new project was born and is now in progress. I call it, tentative working title: ZILA.

1) What is the working title of your current/next book?
Zila is a feminine version of "zils," which means blue in Latvian. It is the name of the narrator for the book. Not a real name, but a nickname.

2) Where did the idea come from?
I led into that, didn't I? Since my first three books, all in the Latvian language, were published, I have been playing off and on with various ideas for new projects. None have really stuck with me, or subsequently me with them. Reasons have varied, but I long ago learned to listen to my heart and follow where it leads me. Living at Z Acres has meant listening to the voice of the land around me, and also to accept the healing it offers. I feel I am something of a medium between this beautiful land and the paper I write upon, telling its story and how it wraps up with mine.

3) What genre does your book fall under?
This kind of question makes me smile. I think of Zila as an autobiographical novel, which, of course, doesn't really make sense. An autobiography is nonfiction, a novel is fiction. One is truth as we know it, the other is well-told lies. I would argue, however, that all art, in whatever medium, is autobiographical. That includes novels about little green women on Mars. We instill our character with our own life sense, our own values, and that all stems from our own life experiences.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
While writing to me is a very visual process, putting on paper what I see in my mind, I can't say that I have visualized it as a movie on the silver screen. I see the character of Zila (can you tell I have a thing for Z?) in my mind in ever more elaborate detail, which means she is unique and not with the face of any actress I know. Really, I think such things, if ever, come later, and perhaps more in the mind of an agent than in mine.

Meanwhile, since I also enjoy photography, I have considered adding photos from Z Acres to the manuscript, adding that element of nonfiction intertwined with fiction. I love the idea of blurring that line.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
After a lifelong search for Home, Zila finally finds that one place that can hold her—but discovers that having a safe oasis in the world can open up many unsafe meanderings in her mind, back over time.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I would begin by looking for a traditional publisher, probably, although I am fascinated to observe and read about the self-publishing adventures of other writers. There is something to be said about keeping control, even as there is much to be said about the overall lack of quality in far too many self-published books. A good editor is absolutely crucial. 

I have read about a few very successful, big name writers who have walked away from six-figure contracts and have published and marketed their own books. Certainly, the world of traditional publishing has changed, and continues to change, immensely. I may take a closer look at both options once I reach that point of readiness.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft?
Still writing it! And then there will be the second draft, the third, the fifteenth …

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Goodness, I hope none. None than I have read. All right, all right, I'll relent here a bit. I read a lot of nature books, memoirs, people deep in nature and how they connect. One book that really stood out with its beauty and honesty is Siesta Lane: One Cabin, No Running Water, and a Year of Living Green, by Amy Minato. Annie Dillard is forever an inspiration, especially her nonfiction, but I wouldn't dare to compare.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I've already answered that question in bits and pieces throughout the previous questions, but nothing has made this more possible than place. This is a story of place and of belonging.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?
An excerpt, surely! Here you go:

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 swimming in sound, 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 rustling one against the other. The willows bend into the breeze, swing like a woman’s skirts, and chatter 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.

And now to tag another batch of writers to pique your literary interest:

With Joe Heywood at WMUK

Joseph Heywood is a Michigan writer that I met some years ago when doing an author interview on WMUK radio, an NPR affiliate station in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I had read his Woods Cop mystery series, based in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and I love his work. It's a series firmly based in place, it's fun, it's funny, it's serious. He writes about an area I respect and love since my childhood, and I admire how immersed he gets in his subject matter, spending much of his year living in the UP, riding along with woods cops.

Jeanne Hess is another Kalamazoo, Michigan, writer whom I have known for many years, since I worked at Kalamazoo College. It's a small liberal arts college that really is different from any higher education institution you could stumble across. K's claim to fame is study abroad, not just for a few weeks, but for months, even a full year, giving students an education that far exceeds anything you could get in a classroom. Jeanne fits that description, too. She has been teaching physical education at K going on three decades, has also been a chaplain there, but what she does far exceeds anything you'd find in a gym. I'm no sports fan, yawn, but when I read Jeanne's book, Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games, I was blown away. Now I get it: why sports have turned me off at the same time that I am drawn into the hero's quest that happens in sports. She has a really important message, and I hope people listen.

Chris Killian, yes, is a Kalamazoo, Michigan, writer, too, only he isn't. The world is his oyster. By now, you're also getting the idea that Kalamazoo produces some pretty incredible talent—and you're right. Something in the water, maybe, or all those local craft beers, or mind-thriving institutions, but Chris is working on something really, really incredible. That's all I will say about that, the rest is up to him, but Chris caught my attention when he drove a van called Harry around the swing states during the last elections, talking to, you know, YOU, on the streets, in the cafes, in the bars, in the laundromats, wherever you are, day in and day out, to report on what you were thinking about the elections. Now, he's back home and writing like a man on fire. I've been honored with a glimpse at that on-fire manuscript, and I still haven't picked my jaw up off the floor.

Visit these writers next week to read about the next big thing on their desks, leaving wisps of steam on their heated-up keyboards, coming soon to a bookshelf near you.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Forum finds common ground in the earth beneath our feet

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
Thursday, February 7, 2013

The board of SWMSBF (Photo by Erik Holladay at

What do Green Drinks and sustainable business practices have in common? Leaders of the Southwest Michigan Sustainable Business Forum tell Zinta Aistars all about it.

Businesses haven't always thought of "being green" as being profitable.

The Southwest Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (SWMSBF)  is changing that perspective.
SWMSBF is a non-profit organization with a mission to promote business practices that demonstrate environmental stewardship, economic vitality, and social responsibility.

How do sustainable business practices affect the bottom line? By providing a forum for networking and to discuss that very issue, SWMSBF has been offering a platform for a meeting of green minds since 2004.

"We've seen interest cycle, interest that leads to change," says William (Bill) Rose, president and CEO of Kalamazoo Nature Center and board member of SWMSBF. "In the last 10 years, we have had a groundswell of ..."


Thursday, February 07, 2013

Aflame with Song and Scent

by Zinta Aistars
Published by Rapid Growth Media
Thursday, February 7, 2013

Aziza Poggi and Aria Flame (Photo by Adam Bird at

From pounding headaches and busted foot bones, good things are born. Really. Ask Aziza Poggi.

If pain is the mark of birthing art forms, Poggi has paid her dues. Headaches from the alcohol fumes in most perfumes led her to creating her own fragrances, and foot surgery from too many hours on too high heels put her in a wheelchair to brood and heal. And brooding, or getting serious, as Poggi puts it, led her to voice lessons at Grand Rapids Community College.

It was a matter of finesse, because Poggi is more at home on stage than off, and she has been on stage for a long time and belting out songs even longer.

"I was a shy child, so my mother put me into acting classes," she says, and it worked. Poggi worked acting gigs from the age of 14 until about four years ago. Her ethnic background being one of Lebanese, Egyptian, and Italian roots, her dark and sultry Middle Eastern looks kept her busy enough on screen, doing local commercials and taking parts in independent films. "But when I spent a 10-hour day working on an Alltel commercial and my part got cut, that was it, not my ... "


Monday, February 04, 2013

Home Z Home in Winter White

by Zinta Aistars

My beloved Z Acres

Who can concentrate on writing when the world all around is wrapped in white? The woods are dripping with white lace, the hillside slopes are covered with white blankets, the pond is frozen solid sheets of white, and I am in up to my knees, and in places, mid-thigh.

I love snow. I was born in December, and I have never been able to get enough of winter since. For me, it is the most beautiful of seasons. Spring is lush with green and blossom, the  autumn blazes with color, but summer, my least favorite, can be blistering and humid and hot. Only the winter is like waking into a fantasy, the earth pristine and crystallized, a living storybook with clean and open pages.

I have never appreciated winter more. This winter took longer to get to us in Michigan than any in my memory. The holidays were brown with mud. In early January, I was outside in my flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up, working in the garden and warily watching spring flowers coming up from the mushy ground ... far too early. Climate change is feeling painfully real and near.

At last, winter has come. And it comes with insistence, making up for lost time. Day after day, a soft and powdery snow has been falling. Some days, the skies open up with blue, a sun with teeth, shining over the fields in blinding white. Most days, the skies have been heavy and dense with snow clouds ... but the beauty is infinite. Guinnez and I eagerly go out to play each and every snow day. We can't get enough, kid and pup again, all play and wonder.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Memory Disorders Clinic Takes a Family Approach

by Zinta Aistars

Tom and his granddaughter Sophia

Until I was commissioned to write this patient story for the neurology department of a health care organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I had never heard of Lewy Body Dementia. I always learn something new when I write a new story. In this case, that LBD is the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer's, yet is often misdiagnosed. 

Here's Tom's story:

Jessica Mix described what she witnessed in August 2011, when her family brought her father-in-law, Tom, a 72-year-old resident of Ada, Michigan, to the emergency department: "It was like his personality on steroids."

Same personality, yet more of it, and more intense, she said. It was scary for the family. The man they knew didn't seem to know them. He was suspicious of people and didn't recognize the closest person in his life—his wife. That is, he recognized her, but thought that she was an imposter, posturing as the real person he knew and loved. It made him anxious, depressed, frustrated and angry.  

The first approach to treatment was to give Tom medication to calm him for an MRI, thinking he may have had a stroke. "But that only made it worse," Jessica said.

These behavioral issues had Jessica researching on the Internet for solutions. "I looked for neuropsychologists online," said Jessica, "and I immediately landed on ..."

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Surgery That Straightens a Spine and Makes a New Dream Possible

by Zinta Aistars

One of my freelance "gigs" is to write health care patient stories, so that others who may be coping with similar situations can learn more about their options and know that they are not alone. Each and every time someone shares his or her story with me, I feel honored ... and I always learn something I didn't know before. 

This is the story of Ceaira and her scoliosis. 

Twenty-three years old, but Ceaira sometimes felt like she was 90. Her friends loved to go shopping at the mall, and, sure, she would go along, wanting to be one of the group—but after a short while of walking, she would excuse herself to sit somewhere and rest while her friends went on.

And at the park: Ceaira would take her little boy, Jaxen, to play, but after about a half hour, she couldn't stand anymore, couldn't push him on the swing, couldn't carry her little boy on her hip the way other young mothers did.
Life hurt.

Since childhood, Ceaira had lived with a curve in her spine. It became particularly noticeable by the time she was in 7th grade, in middle school. She couldn't participate in school sports anymore. The curve in her back had become a hump. And the pain—the pain had become unendurable.

"The doctors told me it was idiopathic scoliosis," Ceaira said. "Not hereditary, just something that happens. No one else in my family had it."

Ceaira's scoliosis was something she had learned to live with—until she couldn't live with it anymore. When she got married and started thinking about children, and the pain worsened, she knew it was time to address the curve in her spine ...