Sunday, March 31, 2013

On the eve of a trip to New York

by Zinta Aistars

Easter is fading fast. Tomorrow is April 1. And, no April fooling, I am up early and packing my bags, heading out on a road trip to New York City for the next week. 

I used to love such business trips. I've been sent on similar work assignments criss-crossing the country, hitting 49 of our 50 states. I have always loved to travel, indeed, hungered for it, wanderlusting for ... ah yes, Home. The place that would hold me. I didn't quite realize that was my driving force until I found my Home now, Z Acres. Overnight, the lust in my wander settled to a soft simmer, an occasional curiosity to see what's around the next corner. 

Ah, don't get me wrong. I am looking forward to this adventure, and I am grateful for the work gig, a fascinating assignment ... and I have always enjoyed my trips to the Big Apple. I'm sure it will be a fine adventure. But tonight, I find myself a tad melancholy. It's not easy to leave this place. I am handing my keys over to a friend in Kalamazoo, who will be watching the farm for me, and I leave a ridiculously long letter on the kitchen table for her: find this item here, that one there, feed the cat thus, and be sure to walk that wonderful path up the hill, watch for the bloom of the first daffodils, don't forget to plop a fresh suet cube in the suet cage for the birds ... 

... and I sigh. 

Looking for my extra key, I find the folded up listing for this property, now over a year old: 

"Breeze gently blowing in the hardwood leaves, bullfrogs croaking in the Koi pond, fish splashing as you step out of the greenhouse to sit on the front porch & watch the sunset over your own 5-acre field. Softly you call to the kids playing in their custom built play house on the hill. You hear a deer rustle in the tall grass as he bounds away into the black walnut and apple trees. Your family returns to find a bubbling pot of stew on the antique stove. Fresh currant bread and homemade apple pie (made from currants & apples harvested earlier in the day, right on the property). Whether it is your permanent residence or a weekend getaway, this craftsman-built home on 10 acres captures the past and invites you to step back in time. There is something special built into every nook and cranny, everything about it will wrap its arms around you. Even the past has a way of embracing modern convenience (like convection ovens and washing machines). Everyone that sees it will want to stay!" 

I sigh again. I laughed the first time I read that listing, thinking the real estate agent overzealous. Purple prose. Until I walked this place myself, heard the bullfrogs, watched the koi splash, startled at the deer. And signed on the bottom line as new owner. Why leave? Ever? Has my sense of adventure gone? 

I'm sure I will feel that old itch as I hit the road east tomorrow. Of course I will. I'm just a little envious of my house sitter. Just a little. The first bloom of daffodils in the woods can be such a stunning moment.

Last year's spring daffodils at Z Acres

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Z Acres Easter, 2013

by Zinta Aistars

Although I am now into the very beginning of my second year at Z Acres, my 10-acre farm in southwest Michigan, this is my first Easter here. All these many years, the family has gathered in Chicago for our holidays. My sister and brother-in-law have a wonderful and large home, many guest bedrooms and lots of space to take us all in, and my brother-in-law has been our gracious chef through all those many Easters, Thanksgivings, Christmases ... but at last, I get to take on my share.

While my previous home was actually a tad larger than my current red farmhouse, it was that suburban yard that tickled no one's fancy. Now that I am surrounded by woods, pond, pine groves and meadows, the family has begun to come here for our celebrations.

And I'm loving it.

Even as I have a new appreciation for all the work our previous hosts took on to make us all welcome in their home ... I am enjoying now my turn at being host. The kitchen is filled with the aromas of cooking (and I get to keep the leftovers, if any!), and I am enjoying the pleasures of transferring my love for my family into the dishes I make. There is something so nourishing and nurturing about feeding the ones we love.

That was part of the reason I moved to Z Acres, after all. This is my return to a simpler life. Here, I can grow my own vegetables, keep beehives for honey, make my own jams from the berries that grow here, and later this spring ... take on the new adventure of keeping my own chickens.

It is wonderful to share all of that with family and friends. So this Easter, I was struck with the sudden wish to bring back a little playfulness. Isn't Easter about being born anew? About opening our hearts in renewed faith, believing in the blessing, trusting in tomorrow, and finding our joy again. Because all things are possible.

To have the heart of a child ...

Mama's "paska," a favorite Latvian Easter treat
And so, along with preparing those delicious dishes, sauerkraut Latvian style, hard-boiled eggs in our tradition of coloring with onion skins and grasses and vegetable dyes, mushroom tartlets, spinach salad with strawberries and almonds, maple-glazed ham, spicy potatoes, sausages wrapped in bacon and cheese, deviled eggs, challa bread and Latvian rye, carrot cake, and oh so many Easter chocolates ... I watch the end of that driveway, a tunnel of sunlight through the pines, for my beloveds to arrive.

Struck with the wish to play and celebrate spring, celebrate my many blessings, I picked up a box of 200 plastic eggs at the store last night. Well after midnight, I filled each one with chocolates and candies and nuts. The youngest among us is 31; the oldest among us, 86. Yet there is something of the child, or should be, in each one of us, and as I share my joy of living in this beautiful place, I have visions of all of them wandering the woods, hunting for eggs, my old chow pup trotting among them and laughing his dog laugh. I have visions of chocolate-smeared faces, and I can already hear the laughter.

It's Easter. It's spring. The skies are blue, and my heart is light. Happy Easter to all of you, and the children among you and in you. This Easter, have the heart of a child ... and trust, and love, and believe.

Mom and Dad arrive at Z Acres for Easter ...

Sunday brunch ...

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Z Acres: Year One

by Zinta Aistars

Walking Z Acres with Guinnez, early morning of 3.23.13

I woke early. Very early, considering that I no longer use an alarm clock and haven't for many months. I sleep until I have slept enough, and that is just one of the many joys of living here, at Z Acres, a 10-acre century-old farm in southwest Michigan. I woke with the first thought in my mind being that this was my anniversary.

No, not wedding anniversary. Those belong in my previous life, and I have to say that back in that previous life, I was never so moved, nearly overwhelmed, by the meaning of the day. It is my first anniversary since moving to Z Acres, and my heart is swimming in gratitude, rich with blessings.

I wake in the dark of pre-dawn, and my 19-year-old cat and 13-year-old chow stir in sleepy surprise. They're not used to waking up early anymore, either. They've grown accustomed to my being my own boss, running my own business, Z Word, LLC, from home, setting my own hours. But I am up, and I walk to the far end of my bedroom to look out the window overlooking the back acreage of the farm.

Dark, with only the palest of light from a hidden moon throwing gray shadows over the thin patches of snow. The trees are bare, black limbs fingering sky, and across the back yard, snug up against the great willows, is the tool shed. Beyond that, five more acres that reach to a distant tree line, marked by a row of pines to north and south.

Such stillness, such quiet. But then I see it ... a curtain of light silently sweeping across the sky. A moment, then another curtain of light, then another, and as I stand watching for a long time, mesmerized, these veils of light continue to dance above, sweeping from east to west. Northern lights? Aurora borealis, that mystical dance of light and color that I had on occasion seen while living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, or more often, and more vibrant, when spending time in Alaska.

Whatever the light source, it seemed my first miracle of the day, a greeting, a blessing, and I accepted it. I considered going back to those warm pillows and blankets, but decided against it ... it is March 23, after all, one year exactly since I moved in here and claimed it as mine, and I wanted to enjoy the full day.

A mug of coffee, beans fresh ground, water boiled in the blue tea kettle my daughter had gifted me, steeped in a French press, sipped and savored, and I was ready for the day. Critters fed, Guinnez, my old chow pup, watched me for clues of what was to come next. In warmer months, I would often take my coffee mug with me as I wandered the grounds, taking in the morning, but in cooler months like this, I would dawdle, read a bit, check my work schedule, before going out for our morning walk.

Not this time. The moment I headed in the direction of my boots and jacket, hanging on a hook, Guinnez knew. He's developed an interesting habit since we moved here, I've noticed. The moment he sees that I am going for my jacket, getting ready to go outside, he immediately starts to eat from his bowl, near ravenously, almost as if in preparation for the physical exertion, building up his fuel resources. Makes me laugh. Not like we are going to be climbing mountains, but sure, it can be a long walk if we choose it to be.

We choose it to be. Today, I want to touch on all our favorite places. It's a frequent route, and by now, Guinnez knows it well. We head out front first, to the east, circling the pond. It's still frozen over, although the ice is slowly thinning, and I can hear the soft tinkle of water overflowing from the creek to the south, emptying into the pond, then emptying again on the north side, and down a small hill on the opposite side, to wind into a field to the north of us.

For a moment, I stand still and find myself raising my hands, palms up, whispering thanks. Thank you. Thank You. For this blessing, for this place, this Home at long last, where I have felt myself rooted from the moment I first stepped on this, to me, hallowed ground. All my life, I had searched for Home, moving again and again and again, eventually listing more than 30 addresses yet none such that I could have truly embraced them as more than temporary shelter. Even the last place, where I spent a surprising 16 years, I had always had the thought of leaving in the back of my mind. No more.

I knew the moment I walked to the end of the nearly quarter-mile long driveway. I wasn't going anywhere. I had found Home, and I was staying, growing old here, leaving my legacy, whatever that might end up being, right here. If I had left slivers and shadows of my heart here and there, something in Alaska, something in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, something more substantial and rooted in my ancestry on the Baltic shores of Latvia, this was the place I could call my own. A place I needed to call my own.

Life had tossed me about long enough. In people and in places, coming and going, and I had longed for the place that could hold me. Z Acres embraced me. Now I stood here, in front of my little red farmhouse, surrounded by woods and fields, and raised my face to the paling morning sky. I couldn't say it enough, and my eyes misted over as I did: thank you.

Hard to describe, especially to those who have known a sense of belonging all their lives. Perhaps something to do with being bi-cultural, straddling two countries, two languages, two distinct styles of living. Perhaps even more with a life that had been in constant flux, change and more change the order of the common day.

My heart warmed here, and opened, soft again. Shells fell away, hardened coats of armor. I walked the grounds and thought about the year behind me, the experience of living here. Change here was constant, too, but it was the transitions of nature, and each change brought renewed wonder and beauty. I considered the wooden stairs on the hillside, south of the farmhouse, leading from the driveway to the house. I had gone up and down those stairs a hundred times, bringing boxes of belongings from my previous house. I had thought I would still go back to the house before to sleep that night, waiting for friends to help me move the bigger pieces of furniture, but no. Once I had the key in my hand, I never wanted to leave again.

That first night of March 23, 2012, I slept like a child in her mother's arms. Odd, as whenever I had previously slept in a new place, I would wake in the night, blink in momentary confusion ... where am I? what is this place? ... yet here, I slept long and deep, and in the morning when I first opened my eyes on March 24, I knew right away where I was. Where I belong.

Such is the power of Home.

Watching the changes in nature here has been a continual show of color, of sound, of wildlife, of birdsong, of magic. I had no idea what was coming ahead, and even after this first year, every day brings some new delight. In fact, as I stand in front of the house, the woods behind me, I listen to all the birdsong. Many people say they enjoy the birds beginning to sing again in the spring, but living in the lap of nature as I do here, I've realized that it isn't just in spring that the birds sing. While some migrate, plenty stay, and I have heard as much birdsong in winter months as in warm months. It is the tendency of people to stay inside walls during winter that keeps them from hearing the birds sing, not the absence of the birds.

This morning, the birds are all singing so loudly that I smile. It's downright noisy. I hear the sand cranes in their prehistoric rattle, I hear the crows cackling away in the tree tops, I hear chickadees and cardinals and nuthatches and juncos. I hear geese pass overhead, calling out to each other as they return for the summer ahead. I hear woodpeckers tapping in the woods, an even rhythm. I've learned to recognize some of them over the year, but I have many yet to learn to recognize. I love the learning ...

Over the year, I have shared Z Acres with countless animals and birds: deer, herds as large as two dozen passing through; red fox; packs of coyotes; rabbits and hares; turtles and fish in the pond; wild turkeys; red-tailed hawks; woodchucks and squirrels and chipmunks; owls and bats passing over in silence. They are not visitors. We are a community here, sharing the land.

I recall my first spring, delighted to see daffodils and narcissus and lilies and snowdrops blossom not just around the red farmhouse, but dotting the hillside and popping up throughout the woods. Primroses blossomed golden along the creek, and then came the peonies, bleeding heart, hydrangea and irises. Gardeners have lived here before me, and each has left his and her mark.

I watched the ice on the pond thin and finally melt away, and as the water warmed, suddenly, one morning, the pond swarmed with bright red and orange koi fish, and bullfrogs sang in chorus all along the edges. When storms approached in the distance, the frogs let me know, singing in the storm, then quieting all as one, instantly and as if on cue, then singing once again as the storm passed.

With the beginning of summer, water lilies bloomed on the pond, and a new wave of color spread across the gardens. I have yet to learn to name them all, all those many flowers bringing a rainbow of color. Summer revealed how lush this place could be, even in drought. Where I had been able to see the distant horizon in winter and spring, now the trees tucked me in with their leafy green cover. I had my own Garden of Eden. I became accustomed to wandering outside in the morning sunshine with my coffee cup, still in my nightgown, invisible to the world beyond.

I planted my first garden, and all summer enjoyed the fruits of my labors. I ate sun-warmed tomatoes, a dozen heirloom varieties, and fresh herbs, squash, zucchini, green peppers and beans, cabbages and leafy greens. I made jams from the raspberries and blackberries growing in profusion along the perimeters of my borders.

In the fall, Z Acres blazed with color. Maples turned red and gold. Changing light became translucent shades of lavender. The heat of a long summer cooled, and the cool air was welcome, as I sat on the deck, tossing the occasional log into the fire pit, watching the sun dip toward the horizon, and every sunset unique.

The first snowfall was long, too long in coming, and a first Christmas passed without my longed for white fantasy. At last, end of January, the snows came, and they came again and again. On that first snow, I laughed like a child, filled with joy, and ran out into the snow in late evening to dance and fall into the snow and make snow angels. Guinnez pondered my silliness, and soon enough joined in. Every day of fresh snow, he has made his own dog angels in the powder.

I found Z Acres in snow, and now I watch the snow melt away again. The cycle has come full circle, and now, it begins a new orbit. Guinnez and I walk Z Acres this morning and touch on all our favorite spots. We head up into the woods to the Cottage on the Hill, the only place on which I made some changes during the year, hiring a friend to weatherize the little retreat and build on a deck. It's a retreat in my retreat, 200 square feet of rustic space where I can read and write or take an afternoon nap. I've shared it with friends, who come to stay in the Cottage for a day or a weekend, seeking respite from the racing and mad world outside.

The outside ... yes, that's how it feels. Here, I am inside, at the core, layers peeled away to find what has meaning. A new friend, Larry, recently asked me:

Are you familiar with the Spanish word querencia? The word is used by cattlemen to describe a place that a bull will go to find safety and gain strength. Matadors believe that if the bull finds it's querencia in the ring then the bull can not be defeated. To me it seems the definition applies to the way that Z Acres affects you.

That's a new word for me, querencia, but I believe he is right. Here at Z Acres I am safe, I am whole, I am close to my source. Here, I am in church every day, living with the divine all around me, and always aware. And why shouldn't a woman have the strength of a bull? When I tire of the world out there, I return here and am rejuvenated. I can do battle with whatever the world tosses at me. Here, I find the courage to begin again or to begin for the first time, even as I took off on another long-held dream in this past year, to leave behind the corporate world, to cut all the marionette strings, and to take full ownership of my own life. I work from home now, and I suspect in no small part made that decision because I am so reluctant to leave. My creativity is nourished here, and I can work longer and more productive hours, because I have found joy in the work that I do.

All good things ... and I am profoundly aware of all of them as I walk these ten acres today. Over my first year, I planted six trees, pines along one corner of the pond, and to one side of the deck, where I can watch it grow, the first tiny Christmas tree of my daughter and son-in-law, still with it's little red velvet ribbon tied to its top.

So memories grow and accumulate. I plan to add a dozen more trees in this coming year. The back field, where at the edge five beehives buzzed last summer, producing pounds of golden honey, still awaits its purpose, if any. Once it was a cornfield. Last summer, my son mowed pathways that wound through it, tall green grasses and Queen Anne's Lace and alfalfa growing to either side as Guinnez and I would take our daily walks. This summer? I don't know, not yet, what we will do with this bounty ...

But my vegetable garden will expand, I know, and there will be more fruit than before, and I will tend my flower beds, and I will walk again, and sit in the grass, and roll in it with my old chow pup, who has surely never been happier with his life.  Now 13 years old, he is already going beyond what veterinarians predicted for his life span. Why trot away to doggie heaven when he is already there ... here? I've seen that dog laugh as only dogs can.

What will my second year at Z Acres bring? What new delights and surprises? How will my life unfold here? If there is one overarching lesson I have learned from living here, it is to trust in the process. Let go, let God. Some things I can control, but most things, I cannot. Z Acres has taught me to open my heart again, to all the wonders of a life lived in harmony with my surroundings. A sustainable life, a simple life, a rich life. A life of blessings and gratitude.