Saturday, June 29, 2013

Taking My Turn

By Zinta Aistars

Mama and Dad, May 12, 1951

Taking my turn, because someday it will be the turn of the next generation, and then the next, and, hopefully, if we don't finally explode this glorious planet, the next.

I've been mowing four acres of very tall grass this morning, catching up on business and on regular household and farm chores, but the mower coughed and stalled at the end of the second acre, forcing me to take a break.

I tell myself I won't get annoyed. I hit my pace, there is much, much work to be done, but if I have to take a break, so be it. Time to learn patience. Mowing those rows, I've had plenty of time to think and to review the week behind me.
Make plans, they say, and life will turn them topsy turvy. Happens. I went into what I expected to be a busy week for Z Word, LLC, and so it began, with a wonderful interview in Galesburg (Michigan) for an upcoming article I'll be writing. As chance had it (and I'm not a believer in chance or luck), I was on my way home, wondering at the weird, soft feel of my car's tires, trying not to worry, when my cell phone rang with a call from Mom. Dad had taken a spill overnight, going through the house to unplug all things electrical as thunder and lightning filled the skies. He rounded the corner, head took a spin, and the corner took him down.

I was close by, so it was no trouble to take a quick detour and drop in to check on things. I thought it warranted a trip to the emergency room, and Dad and I took the drive.

Friday afternoon, four days later, I finally drove home to Z Acres. But I brought my father home from the hospital first. That's always a sweet trip, hospitals suck, but this ride was sweeter than most. So much had fallen on all our shoulders during the week, including a flat tire on my car by the time I pulled into my parents' driveway that Tuesday, and another flat tire on my father's van when I parked it in the hospital parking ramp, same day. Does that even happen? Two flats in one day? Completely unrelated, sure, yet I still don't think much of chance or even bad luck, so, looking back, I put it down to yet one more straw on this camel's back to teach me patience.

Thing is, I was a good soldier. I took care of everything that needed it. Made arrangements, asked questions, gathered information, played taxi, got both vehicles to the mechanic, picked up prescriptions, researched after care, made grocery runs, and pressed on medical staff that failed to deliver the quality health care my father deserved. Bit too much of that. I postponed my work, rescheduled my appointments, and made room for theirs. And when Mama woke one morning during the week, sitting on  the edge of their bed, crying softly, I got up from the living room couch and went to sit beside her. I wrapped my arm around her and rocked her gently, and while she wiped away tears, I thought about how once up a time, she had rocked me, and she had wiped away my tears. As my father had, too.

Life cycles. Journeys we all take. My shoulders were weary with the load of the week, and it was just one week, but when the head physician took a step back from his earlier decision of moving my father to a nursing home and/or rehab center, and recommended instead a return home--my father had rallied and found new strength under that threat--I found myself suddenly in a mess of tears. My father took one look at my watery face and got misty-eyed, too, stretching an arm out toward me. His other arm was still too sore to lift from his fall.

Dancing with my father, New Year's Eve 2000
The good soldier finally had permission to shift some weight from my shoulders, and I found myself weeping tears of relief. Daddy was coming home. I wondered, how did my Mama feel? What is it like to be in their years, looking into the future? What can it be like to have your partner of more than 63 years be told he is not coming home? I watched the shadows cross my mama's face, and had to remind myself to be patient, be patient, learn patience with all the flat tires, repeated questions, resistance, forgetfulness, fears and occasional irrationality.

We will all have our turn. That is, if we are lucky enough to ever be elderly. The alternative to me was not having them around, and I don't want to sit on the edge of my bed, misty-eyed, looking at the blank place in my day ahead. So go ahead, give me the hassle and hurdles to jump. Give me the tests of patience. Give me the aggravation that is love. Nothing tests us more than our relationships, and our very first, our primary, perhaps our most important relationship is the one we have with our parents.

From that primary relationship, we inherit our weaknesses and faults, but also our strengths and qualities. We will all have our turn ... if we are lucky. Someday I will annoy the heck out of my children when I am a crotchety old woman insisting on my eccentric ways ... that I never be moved from my Z Acres, no matter how unsuited it may be to an older woman getting even older; that I have my coffee beans ground fresh every morning; that my food be organic and not store-bought; that my books be always at hand and plenty of them; that my time of solitude be held sacrosanct.

My sister, bless her heart, arrives in the evening to take her shift. For the next day or so, I can catch up on my work. I can have a moment to myself again, to walk my otherwise daily walk around Z Acres, to just breathe. She calls, and we compare notes, and agree to meet soon to talk strategy.

They've been there for us. Now, we must be there for them. It is hard for them to accept all this help that sometimes feels like an intrusion. All these people coming by, my mother sighs, visiting nurses and occupational therapists and who was that last guy anyway? I remind her to consider the alternative. Change isn't easy for any of us, and most of us have a hard time accepting help. I don't want to take away all their independence, nor do I want to lose all of mine.

Let the juggling begin. I accept the challenge of learning more patience. I could use a dose. Growing older is tough. Being alive, really alive, is always a challenge.

I'm so glad they are still around, and still helping me grow.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Tabitha Farm Urban Homestead and Community Garden grows community ties

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
June 27, 2013


Urban agriculture is part of a larger, growing movement with the potential to influence the food-related choices of rich and poor across North America. And gardens are being planted in cities across the region. Zinta Aistars has the story on Katie Pearson's work in Kalamazoo.

Turning into Dixie Avenue, a small and sharply sloping street on the south side of Kalamazoo, a farm is the last thing one might expect to find. But there it is, a small yellow sign next to a blue house with a purple door:Tabitha Farm Urban Homestead & Community Garden
It's a mouthful in more ways than one. Tucked behind that house are nearly two acres of land, curling behind and around two more sloping properties, and up and down those slopes grow vegetables and berries and fruit trees in and around a variety of raised beds and other structures. Katie Pearson, the owner of this property, invites her neighbors--and pretty much anyone who cares to stop by--to go walk the garden, pick the fruits of her labors, pop them in his or her mouth, and taste the sweetness of a community taking root. 
"There," Katie Pearson nods to another house down the street, "lives a woman dealing drugs. She's struggling with cancer, so I brought ..."

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Sportual Tigers Fan Blogs to Yankees Fans

Now and then I want to shine a light on someone deserving. I'm a big fan of author and coach Jeanne Hess, and her blogs are making home runs on more than one field. She has a guest blog on Lady Loves Pinstripes, hosted by Kate Conroy.

Yankees Universe do you know what Sportuality means?

As a baseball lover, the mother of two Detroit Tiger draftees, and author of a sport-themed book, I couldn’t help but notice your blog. Thanks for letting me stop in to offer a few words. I was 10 years old when I experienced my first Tiger World Series championship. My 5th grade teacher, Mr. Somerville, brought a small black and white TV into our classroom because that was back in the day when the series was still played during the day. Most of the girls in my class would rather have been out jumping rope, but I was happy as a clam because these were my boys: Kaline, Cash, Horton, Freehan, McClain, Lolich, Northrup, McAuliffe, Stanley, and the Gator. Ray-O-Vac made a profit off me that year, because I used up tons of batteries listening to the games on the transistor radio hidden under my pillow.

I wrote about this love of the Tigers in my recent book, Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games, as well as the rivalries that inevitably exist at all levels of sport. Rivalries can bring out the very best, or the very worst in all of us. Sportuality asks that ...

(and give it a thumbs up!)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Be still and contemplate

by Zinta Aistars
Copyright 2013

Looking across the back field of Z Acres toward the sun

It's morning of the first day of the summer solstice, and the forecasts foretell that today and the days to come will be hot and humid. There you go: the reason why summer is my least favorite season. But spring this year has been so delightful, mild and with just the right mix of rain and sunshine, that I've decided not to complain, just enjoy the milder days when they come my way, and batten down the hatches and enjoy my cool red farmhouse on those days that the temperatures soar.

Living at Z Acres has connected me much more intimately to the rhythms of nature. Since I work from home, I almost always begin my day, now that we are in the warmer season, with my coffee and my morning reading out on the deck. Call it my commute to my work day.

Guinnez always accompanies me, although he may not always be fully awake when he does so. Age is slowing him down, and he moves his nap from indoors to outdoors, with a long, contented sigh, and waits through dreams for me to stir.

I have to confess, a great many mornings, or evenings, when I take my book outside to read, I don't get very far. The garden is so inviting. The woods with its hidden wildlife, the back field with its flowers and grasses, the pond with its burping and galumphing bullfrogs, and everywhere, everywhere, the birds, the deer, the shimmer of hidden life looking back at me.

I have to get out there.

First stop this growing season is the garden to check on my vegetables, and then, to the flowers. It's a routine I've developed, a way of centering myself for the day, a walking meditation.

Something so deeply satisfying about checking on the garden. The radishes are already nearing the point of harvest. Kale and lettuces, too. The kohlrabi are plumping up, large and pale and spiky round. The peas are showing tiny white blossoms. Yellow blossoms dot all the tomato plants. Green pepper blossoms are still hard green nubs. Spinach and chard are being stubborn, and I've had to do some re-seeding.

I water. Part of my meditation. Switching the spray of the garden hose from full on to mist to shower to a circle of in-betweens, I wash the garden with droplets of magic, making it all grow. Or pretending I do. Nudging along the natural processes of nature, and that's what I try to do most of all: not get in the way. Organic and true. When the creatures and the bugs take a bite, I don't mind. They belong here, too.

The apples, the little green apples, they excite me. Last year, they rounded out only in my imagination. Hard frost took them from me. This year, look, a tree full of them, heavy with them, branches dropping low with them, hundreds of little green apples to someday ripen to a rosy blush.

The red currants are, almost. I remember these from childhood summers, ripening tiny strings of tiny tart berries growing in the family backyard. Pluck a string, put the whole cluster in my mouth, and pull the string out. Tiny berries rolling around on my tongue, puckering lips, and suddenly it is summer. Currants, along with Janu siers, the caraway cheese that Latvians make at the summer solstice celebration called Jani. This, the longest day and the shortest night, is the day that my countrymen celebrate perhaps more than any other. We celebrate with fire, and brew, and flowering buds, and wreathes of oak leaves and daisies, and laughter and love.

I pick daisies from my fields, bunches of them, bees buzzing around me, drunk with nectar, pollen bags heavy on their back legs. The daisies bring the outdoors in, bunched in a Mason jar I spare from my jam-making and place in the center of my kitchen table. Simplest of flowers, wild and shamelessly pretty. I yam what I yam: a daisy.

And more, lilies and Campanula and irises and roses and mock orange, great shrubs covered with white four-petaled blossoms of purity.

Flowers frame my little red farmhouse, and I stand and gaze at it as if seeing it for the first time. I do that. Every day. Every evening at that magic moment when the light slants just so and goes translucent, golden, transient, I catch my breath and say thanks. My eyes never tire of this pleasure.

My coffee is cooling. Morning is oozing into noon, and I'm still wandering. Guinnez wanders with me, and I follow him up the hill, through the woods, down the curve of the path, watching the rays of sun tangle through the tree tops.

Finally, we are down by the pond, coming full circle, and Guinnez picks up a trot, a slow jaunt, traveling just along the edge of the pond and making the frogs jump. Plop, plop, plop, into the soup. I giggle. Who hears, who cares, but I chortle.

I tour the perimeter, throw my head back to the skies, slosh my coffee, sing a little. Fine morning, this. Even if I can feel the temperatures climbing, the air thickening toward noon, humid mists creeping into tree tops, I am loving the day.

A lot of noise I'm making. In the middle of all that dance, I notice the frog. That one. Sitting so still on the rock along the pond's edge. He slows my dance to a tap, and it's then I hear a sudden crashing around at the pond's end. A deer? A deer. A small one, more than fawn but still slender and slight and young. And still curious. She leaps across the pond's far end and into the next field -- but then stops. Too curious to run.

I come to a complete standstill. Freeze. Catch my breath and watch her through the trees. There she is, very center, at first only the tips of her rounded ears up over the tall grass, but then up, up comes her head, then her long and slender neck, and she is watching me watching her.

I see deer here every day. Sometimes in great number. But this little one has me smiling. She saw me coming, heard my racket, turned for the horizon, but then stopped to check me out. In fact, she starts to come back. A few steps, and she stretches her neck to take another look. But then I lose her again. She walks behind a clump of bushes and disappears.

I get it. I enjoy the heck out of this place, day in and day out, but I'm missing a lot. How could I have come up on her with such a racket and not notice how close? If I'm just still a bit more often, like that frog, there's a lot more to experience than I've been taking in. I'm learning.

To be still. To be quiet. To sit in silence.

I sit down on the wooden bench under the trees, pondside, and just listen. Just watch. It takes a moment. But then it's almost like a switch gets flipped. All around me comes to life. I watch a pair of yellow warblers swoop up over the pond and across it, over my head and past. I hear a Woodpecker rattle out a rhythm in the tree behind me like I've never heard before. The frogs jump back out of the pond and sun themselves on the edge. A moment there, and they begin to rumble. A chorus begins. In some inexplicable synchronicity, they all sing as one, in perfect harmony. How do they do that? I don't know. But I can listen, and I can be filled with wonder.

I've been seeing my world through my own noise. Just beyond that, just, is another one that I am only now beginning to see.

Happy Summer Solstice.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Rebel with a Shovel

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Rapid Growth Media
June 13, 2013

Lisa Rose Starner (Photo by Adam Bird,

For author, herbalist, and foodie Lisa Rose Starner, change begins with a shovel. As she prepares to debut her new book, Grand Rapids Food: A Culinary Revolution, the owner of Urban Ranch and Burdock & Rose talks about how important local food really is. 

Lisa Rose Starner has clean hands when she reaches for her much-loved cup of coffee at MadCap Coffee, downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. That doesn't happen so often. The coffee, often. The clean hands, not so often.

"People who think they have no power to make a change?" she asks. With grit: "Just pick up a shovel!"

Starner is the author of Grand Rapids Food: A Culinary Revolution, published by History Press and on shelves in June. The book release party will be skillfully catered and steaming with freshly brewed coffee on June 25, 7 - 9 p.m., at MadCap Coffee, 98 Monroe Center SW, Grand Rapids, where the author will be present to sell and sign copies.

Starner is the owner of Urban Ranch, her place of residence, but also her place of business, which she calls Burdock & Rose. She grows herbs and runs a CSA (community supported agriculture) for medicinal and edible herbs. "It's an urban, midcentury-modern homestead on nearly one acre," Starner says. "I grow more than 70 plants that can be used for food and for remedies. I take special orders along with the CSA, [and] offer classes on homesteading, herbs, foraging, and organic living."

Starner is serious about instigating a revolution with a shovel. "Grand Rapids is flush with resources, and we need to learn how to be better stewards of those resources. Gardening is empowering people. The book is a call to action to the people of Grand Rapids to do more, to sit down at the table to talk about the economic impact on our community when we connect to place, when we grow our own food."

Starner was born in Flint, but grew up just north of Grand Rapids, in Spring Lake, where she says her mother always made sure the family gathered around the dinner table. "Mom's food was functional, but she also did a lot of canning and preserving. Now that I have two kids, I realize how much hard work that is. Today, though, we live in a world of luxury with the global food system. We can get anything at any time. No need to be seasonal. But now we need to take a closer look at that system."

Unlike most who are deep into the local and organic food movement, Starner admits that ...


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How My Garden Grows

by Zinta Aistars
Copyright 2013

Guinnez awaits me on deck

It's how Guinnez and I start every day: we head outside at Z Acres to wander the grounds and see what's new, what's growing, what catches our eye. With his increasing age, my old chow pup is starting to tag along at a slower pace, but whenever I look around, there he is, nearby, ever faithful.

In this growing season, my first path is almost always toward the garden. I've doubled last summer's garden, little by little turning over new ground with an old pitchfork. I've also added a second, smaller garden, with plenty of room to increase that one, too, next summer. The goal is to eventually grow enough to feed me during summer and fall, but also enough to preserve for the cold season. I don't think I will quite get there this growing season, but I'm getting closer!

I've been eating all organic, mostly local and heirloom, for about five or six years now, and it's been a wonderful food journey. I've discovered new and delicious flavors, expanded my culinary expertise, and enjoyed the health benefits.

Best of all, I now live on a 10-acre farm where I can grow more of my own vegetables and fruits. I love getting my hands in this rich earth, and I love watching the growing results. Weather has been ideal this spring, with a nice mix of sunshine and rain and reasonable temperatures. My garden is responding. Earlier this spring, I planted kale, tomatoes, spinach, peas, cabbage, beets, radishes, turnips, carrots, bell peppers, Swiss chard, lettuces and greens, kohlrabi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, leeks, squashes and zucchini, cucumbers, basil, dill and pumpkin. I'm planning to still add beans and rhubarb and herbs.

As I walk through sections of my garden, I take a look at what's coming up. Green peppers are doing well.

I see my first tomato blossom, looking a little soppy after last night's rain. I do love tomatoes! And I have about 16 heirloom varieties growing in my garden this summer.

I was never a big salad fan ... until I started growing my own lettuces and greens. What a flavor difference! I have an assortment coming up, and with those tomatoes and homemade salad dressing, it will be a tasty meal.

A friend recently brought me a pumpkin plant as a gift to add to my garden. Thank you! I love making a pumpkin cheesecake, or pumpkin pie, or pumpkin soup ...

Two different types of kale grow in my garden, and this vitamin-rich vegetable has fast become one of my favorites. It's so versatile. I toss kale into sauces and soups, add it into all kinds of dishes. One of my recent favorites is a greens pie with kale, spinach, Swiss chard, ricotta cheese, eggs, spices. It's a healthy meal sans meat.

Kohlrabi is one of those veggies that I didn't eat .... until I became a fan of farmers markets and bought a share in a CSA that introduced me to all kinds of vegetables  I wasn't eating. I do now! There is so much variety available once you go organic.

Bok choy is great in much more than just Chinese dishes. I love its crispy, light flavor, and I add it to a lot of dishes now, too.

Yeah, beets. Not a fan. Working on it. They really are so very good for you, and so I am learning to make them in new ways. Roasted beets very nearly have me converted, quite good, and I do like them in borscht. Marinated, maybe. I'm also discovering ways to use the greens of the plant.

Oh, but berries! I love berries, all kinds, and last fall, when another gardening friend offered me some strawberry plants, I was only too happy to take them off her hands. I have a little greenhouse, so I kept the plants in there over the cold season, then planted them this spring. I'm still going to go strawberry picking at my friend Shirley's for some serious berry quantity (I plan to be jamming!), but these little plants give me a start on a strawberry patch of my own.

When I want a bounty of berries, I can do a twirl in my garden and see blackberry bushes nearly surrounding the acreage. A few raspberries, too, but it's blackberries that will soon have me buried in berries. They were a sweet surprise last summer, but this summer, I'm prepared. I have canning jars waiting for all the jams I will be making for myself and friends, and I plan to freeze berries, too. There will be pies, oh many pies, and cobblers and crisps.

After wandering through the garden, Guinnez and I stroll to the flower beds and the back field to enjoy wildflowers and check out a few naturally growing herbs.

The fruit of one of my smaller fruit trees has me puzzled. They almost look like tiny  olives, don't they? Since last spring there was a hard frost that ruined all fruit on the trees, I never did get to see what grows on some of these trees. I am watching this year.

A few of my favorite bleeding hearts are still in bloom in my flower bed.

My barn is getting a beautiful green cover of ivy.

I love watching the greening trees enclose the little red farmhouse as if in a green embrace. It keeps the house surprisingly cool during hot summer days.

Guinnez takes off up the path that leads to our Cottage on the Hill, an artist's retreat I offer to creative friends but also use as a home office for myself. Guinnez knows I keep dog biscuits up there, so he never winds the uphill climb through the woods.

Guinnez settles in to rest inside the cottage and waits for me to bring the biscuits out from the cupboard.

Please? Can I have a biscuit now, please?

Guinnez surveys the woods from the deck of the cottage before we head down the path to the big old apple tree. This tree, too, had no fruit last year due to the hard frost. This year, it is heavy with fruit. I'm thinking apple pies, chutneys, applesauce ...

Gradually, I'm learning about foraging, about herbs and teas. I'm fascinated to learn about the medicinal herbs I have growing right here in my own back field. One of these is mullein. I pick a few of the velvety soft leaves to dry for teas, and it can also be used to make natural cough syrups, with antibiotic qualities.

About a year and a half into my life at Z Acres, I love my corner of paradise more than ever. It's a wonderful place to live and work, to entertain friends, to just get away from the nonsense of the supposedly civilized world. It's my forever Home.