Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Grasshopper Āzī

by Zinta Aistars
(Copyright 2013)

A tiny and skinny, very hungry, little cat appears in the night

Watching the sky for oncoming rain, I went out for my daily chore of blackberry picking. Up to several quarts a day, so I see serious jam-making sessions ahead. Guinnez, as usual, was close on my heels. As I headed out back, however, I thought I heard a noise ... there, coming from the hillside to the side of my farmhouse, where the woods begin.

I looked over at the hillside steps and saw a little black bundle huddled on the stairs. A cat? Here in the middle of nowhere? I hurried to put Guinnez back into the house so that I could take a closer look without scaring the little creature away, but as soon as I had put the old chow pup inside and returned for a closer look, the shadow of a cat had vanished.

On to blackberries. I picked and I ate. So luscious, so juicy! I've been tossing the berries into my yogurt, my morning oatmeal, or simply snacking on them when I relax in the evenings. I had several more quarts here, and it was growing dark fast, so I headed back to the house.

There it was again. A cat. Because it was definitely a cat. I heard it meowing as it retreated quickly up the steps as soon as I appeared. Crying even as it rushed back into hiding.

I put the berries inside in the kitchen and came back, holding an open can of cat food I'd borrowed from matriarch Jiggy. Jiggy is my tortoiseshell cat, soon entering her 19th year, and my old chow pup Guinnez is well into his 13th year. Both deserved their peace and quiet in their senior years. I wasn't planning on bringing in any more furry family members until they had enjoyed the full span of their lives here.

But I also wasn't about to leave an animal in distress. It was dark already, and a bat whisked overhead as I climbed the stairs to the drive where I had seen the little cat run off. I had heard packs of coyotes howling at the moon just the previous night; a small cat would be a quick and easy snack for them. Hawks circled overhead every day. And there was more wildlife in those woods than one could count.

And there was rain coming.

I spoke softly to the invisible kitten, holding out the open can to waft its enticing smells. Silence. I sat on the top step. I kept talking to the cat, wherever it might be. I even meowed, trying for its own language. That did the trick.

"Meow ... "
Crying out for help

I heard the tentative answer. A tiny voice, sad and afraid but surely hungry.

I mewed back. The cat echoed me, and we did this for several minutes. Finally, I saw the little animal emerge from the shadows, and its voice got louder as the smell of food surely enticed. Oh my, how thin ... was it a feral cat? Or simply lost or abandoned?

Little by little, the cat neared, crouching, until the can I held out was in reach. The cat's head disappeared into the can, and it ate with great hunger. If I made a move for it, however, it retreated quickly, only to return again, driven by its hunger.

When the can had been licked clean, and licked again, the little cat looked up at me. And then it made its move. I held out my fingers for it to sniff, and the cat did so, then started rubbing against me in gratitude. So, not feral. But the cat had obviously been on her own for some time, as even under the black, velvety fur, ribs protruded. I was impressed that the cat had managed to survive this long out in the country. There were a thousand upon thousand threats to such a tiny animal hiding in the night, ready to pounce.

"You're a little girl, aren't you?" I spoke to her softly, as she allowed me to pet her, even climbed into my lap, purring loudly.

Rain. Drops were coming down, it was fully dark now, and another bat whisked over our heads. I wasn't about to bring her inside to toss at my two animals, but the screened-in patio would do for a safe place out of the rain and away from other creatures of the night.

I picked her up to carry her down the stairs to the farmhouse, and at first she allowed it, but then, as we neared the house, she panicked and started to wiggle. I held her firmly, and she was unhappy, suddenly afraid again. She scratched and sank her sharp little teeth into my hand. I held firm, but blood poured from my hand, and I knew cat bites could be dangerous. I let her go.

She zipped off instantly, off into the night, mewing as she ran. I went inside to wash my hand. The bite was stinging, but I was still concerned about the little cat, so back outside I went. And there she was. Coming around the other side of the house with loud apologies about what she'd done.

"Don't worry about it," I said, "I understand. You're afraid. I can only imagine what you've been through ... but you're safe here."

I held out another open can of cat food and retreated into the screened-in patio as the little cat followed me in, still hungry. I left the patio door open for her, something she checked to be sure I had done, but by now, after more quick bites of food, she had lost interest in leaving.

I went inside, feeling good about making sure the little cat was safe for the night. Rain was pouring down by now, and I was glad she would be safe and dry for tonight, and in the morning ... I would figure out what to do about her.

In the morning, the little cat was dancing in my kitchen window. The moment she detected movement inside, she was up in the window crying to be let in. No, no wild cat this one, but a pet who had surely once known a home and for some reason had lost it. As so often happens in the country, people also tend to drop unwanted pets off in the middle of nowhere, a practice I find abominable. I am sure most pets do not survive.

Time to try some introductions. I let my old chow pup, Guinnez, circle around the back of the house and come up to the outside of the screen patio door. The little cat immediately went running to the door in cat curiosity. Did it kill the cat?

Guinnez was curious, too. I gradually opened the door. What happened next caught me by surprise ... pleasant surprise. The little cat was fearless. Indeed, she was hungry for affection, and not just from a human. It was love at first sight by cat.

Guinnez, however, was a tad more reluctant, but it was hard for my old chow pup to resist such blatant affection. The little cat followed his every step, even walked beneath his furry belly, twined her tail around him, and rubbed up against his muzzle.

Guinnez gave in. He allowed it. He even nuzzled the cat back a couple times.

Tommy the Tomcat
Wow, okay, that went well. But what about the matriarch? Jiggy had blossomed into her own after my previous cat Tommy had died at age 13. Tommy, in fact, was an almost identical cat to this one, a tuxedo cat, and he could be a bit of a bully to Jiggy, box her around, steal her food, chase her and provoke her. She became a nervous cat who hid from everyone. Only after he was gone did she come out of her shell and show a wonderful, affectionate personality. I didn't want to lose that.

Hoping for the best, I opened the kitchen door and let the little cat in. The moment she saw Jiggy, she went for that same friendly approach that had won over the dog. Only it didn't work with the cat. Jiggy hissed and snarled.

Oh, this would be a process.

Credit where credit is due: I've never seen anyone try harder. The little cat tried and tried to ingratiate herself with the two resident furry ones. Again and again, she tried to make friends. Little by little, she gained tolerance.

Three days later, the three furry ones share a sofa. Matriarch Jiggy has allowed the little interloper to sleep within a few inches from her ... and the inches are gradually shrinking. Old chow pup Guinnez has almost become oblivious to the little cat weaving between his four paws, sometimes hiding right under his belly.

The little one is learning. In fact, that is how she got her name: Grasshopper, as suggested by a friend who dubbed her that after seeing a series of my photos of the persistent feline learning the ways of the Z Acres household and how to successfully make herself a part of it. It fit. To make it a bit less cumbersome to call her home from the woods, I thought about the Latvian word for grasshopper or cricket: sienāzis.

Perfect. I clipped it to Āzī  and we had our name. And so the Z Acres family has increased by one. Adventures surely to come ...

The elders discuss how to deal with Grasshopper
Grasshopper Azi anxiously awaits the decision of the elders: can she stay?
All three relax into a fine evening at home
Grasshopper finds a warm place for a cat nap
Belly rub
Ah, acceptance and a new home! Life is good. 

Oh, and that cat bite of initiation? Harmless. I coated the wound in Z Acres honey and wrapped it in plantain leaves I picked in the yard. Two days later, healed.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Escape Artist

by Zinta Aistars
Copyright 2013 (text and images)

Apparently, the outhouse in my woods by the Cottage on the Hill has forest creatures visiting, too. Toilet paper must make good nesting material (note to self: buy big coffee can in which to keep roll). Ah, there you are! My new little friend panics when I open the door and makes for a quick, well, not so quick, escape. He very nearly gets stuck in a knothole in the wall. Does he make it?

There he is, climbing the wall when I open the door, looking for a quick getaway.

I see you!

Ah, here's a way out! Maybe ... just squeaking through ... 

Uh-oh .... maybe not. 

Then again, maybe so. Back into the sunlight! 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

For this community healer, life is a friendly mystery

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave
July 25, 2013


Janice Marsh-Prelesnik grew up on a farm in Michigan and what she learned there led her to become a healer. Zinta Aistars has her story.

Imagine Janice Marsh-Prelesnik standing in the center of a circle. Her life, after all, is all about circles. Circles and life cycles, as the community grandmother and founder of Creative Health Arts in Galesburg nurtures newborns into the world as a midwife; children and young parents to a good start in building family foundations; adults into natural health habits with the use of herbs; and, finally, soothes the ill and aging through the life cycle into a peaceful passage beyond.  

"I always dreamt of being the community healer." Marsh-Prelesnik smiles, sitting by her window that overlooks acres of herbs growing along a winding creek. Birds are in constant flight beyond her window, feeding at a row of bird feeders: hummingbirds, warblers, grosbeaks.

"I am the grandma for everybody," she says with a laugh. Her eyes wander to a photograph on her living room wall. Marsh-Prelesnik's voice grows softer still when she speaks of her own grandmother.

"My grandmother was a healer," she says. "Her father made her quit school in the eighth grade, and so she started to work for a country doctor at the age of 13 or so. She saw births, she stayed with the new moms for two weeks after their children were born. For a 24-hour day, she was paid 25 cents. She had an herb-gathering basket, and she picked herbs to help the mothers."

Marsh-Prelesnik grew up on a farm in the Michigan town of Sunfield, and, like her grandmother, she witnessed births, she experienced the health benefits of herbs, and she watched the life cycles of the animals around her.

Unlike her grandmother, Marsh-Prelesnik stayed in school and earned a graduate degree. Yet her roots held her close, and her interests developed along the paths her grandmother had traveled before her.

What she learned, she says, was more from the farm and from her own studies than from college classrooms and textbooks. "I learned from ..."

Monday, July 15, 2013


by Zinta Aistars
Copyright 2013

My father in a work photo during his graphic art career

Happy birthday, Teti! Tetis (tevs) ... father in Latvian ... my father, artist Viestarts Aistars, is celebrating his 86th birthday today. And that's a big deal. To me, my family, and, of course, to my father.

My father's father, writer Ernests Aistars
Thankfully, we have terrific longevity in my family, and my father's father lived to just a year and a few months shy of his 100th birthday. Another relative, a woman on my mother's side, lived to 105. To my knowledge, that is the family record, and knowing that, I have been declaring to my family that I intend to be the new record holder at 106 ... at least.

I wouldn't mind, however, if my father becomes the new record holder. He is our family patriarch, and we adore him. A gentle man, deeply creative, painting and drawing since his boyhood days in Latvia, he has molded a legacy of art over his lifetime. He was born in Dobele, Latvia, the eldest of four brothers, the son of Latvian writer, Ernests Aistars, and lifelong teacher, Lidija Sulte-Aistars. The Aistars family escaped the country in 1944 as the Soviet armies invaded, killing Latvians in horrific numbers, destroying property, leaving a trail of blood and destruction.

That's one of the reasons I so treasure the few photos we have of my father and his family from those long ago years. On foot, through forests, boarding small boats in the night on the Baltic shores, jumping on trains, taking along only what the family could carry, I imagine those photographs being carried through that nightmare to safety. Finally, the photos, with the family, traveled across the ocean from the displaced persons camps in Germany to the United States.

My great-grandfather and grandfather
My father graduating from Art Institute of Chicago
My parents on their engagement day, my maternal grandfather in back
My parents' wedding day, May 12, 1951
That's me, with my father's self-portrait
My father, about 1 year old
My father holding his granddaughter, 1980
Now, here they are. Lately, as my father underwent various health issues, we younger generations found ourselves drawn to these boxes of black and white photos. We sorted through the images again and again, my sister and I taking some of our favorites home with us to frame and post in historic collages on our walls. They deserve to see the light again, the images once again becoming a part of daily life. Those faces, those faces from the past brought into our present.

We find a few photos from as far back as the days of my great-grandfathers, although we find no images of my great-grandmothers. Perhaps we still will. There are more boxes hidden away in closets, under other belongings, and it's a treasure hunt to find them again.

My paternal grandmother's father
My great-grandfather at far left, wearing a dark cap

My great-grandfather at center, back to camera
The younger generations have asked to see them, too, and over this past weekend, I drove my parents to Chicago to visit my sister and her family, and my daughter and her husband joined us as well. It was wonderful to see the young faces leaning over the images of their elders, spanning centuries, and my father across the table from them, sharing his stories of a lifetime well lived.

My brother-in-law prepared a wonderful meal for us, and we sat around the table honoring our patriarch, lighting candles on his cake. We are where we are today in great part due to him. It is fascinating to me, today to look through the images of my father as a child, as a young man, as a man with two small daughters, changing over the years. How handsome he was, and still is, now with white hair, using a walker, but still and ever with his delicious sense of wry humor, and a playfulness that shows itself when he invites his bride of more than 63 years to take a seat on his walker as he scoots her, giggling like a girl, across the kitchen floor. He cheers us all.

My father with his youngest brother
I see my son's face in my father's face, sometimes a remarkably strong resemblance. In one photo, where my father wears a fedora jauntily titled, leaning on his kid brother, I see my nephew Alex in his expression. In that moment, they look almost exactly alike. Elsewhere, I see my own features mirrored. Growing up, people always told me I was "daddy's girl," and I never minded that label. He was, and still is, my hero.

I see my father in his father, and my grandfather uncannily similar to his father before him. So we move from generation to generation, carrying our ancestors along with us, a part of us. Their blood runs in our veins today, and will flow in the veins of the yet unborn.

My father during refugee years, with sketchpad
My mother and sister with Dad during his military service in France
Four brothers (l-r): Viestarts, Raits, Janis, Aivars
My paternal grandmother
I take great comfort in that. The more birthdays I celebrate myself, the more I have grown to cherish my family. When we are young, we crave independence, we crave a chance to blaze our own path, develop our own personalities and lifestyles and find our own place in the sun, and that is as it should be ... but as we pass into higher years, we travel that circle back again. We need to explore the beyond, but as maturity settles in, we come to understand the treasure we have at home, right where we started. It's what matters most: family.

It has not been easy, these past few weeks, helping my parents as their medical needs and growing years called for more assistance. My father has been advised not to drive by his doctors, at least for now, until he regains strength from his recent health issues. That means transport has been up to me, and it has taken a bite out of my time and my ability to keep up with my workload. I've had my moments, admittedly, of panic, wondering how I will keep everything together. I was at full capacity before, working most every day, including weekends. How to manage this now?

Yes, some things have been forced to the side. My garden is full of weeds, some of my vegetable plants have died of neglect. I have had to reschedule work assignments, although I have not yet, thankfully, missed any deadlines. I have even worked on my computer while sitting in doctors' waiting rooms, while my father was undergoing various tests. And I've happily acquired several new clients. It's been a challenge.

And yet ... in a recent conversation with my sister, who lives too far to help on these daily runs, I found myself saying: "I'm the lucky one." Spending more time with my father has been precious. Helping both of my parents has been a challenge, but also a privilege. I watch him across our family table, sitting in the place of honor, blowing out candles shaped as the numbers 8 and 6, and my heart swells with love for this dear man.

None of us will be here forever. How precious are these days, each and every one. I can't imagine my life without my parents as a part of our family gatherings, coming by to visit me at Z Acres, calling me on the phone, being a presence in my days. Peering into those faraway faces in the boxes of family history, I can only think how quickly time races by, and how lucky we are, how richly blessed, who have the chance to grow old, have our hair turn white, and watch our younger generations blossom and take their turn.

Daudz laimes, Tetin. Happy birthday to my dear father. Many more.

Mama and Dad, reading a birthday card

Thursday, July 11, 2013

BC Pulse strengthens the heartbeat of Battle Creek

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave
Thursday, July 11, 2013


BC Pulse is a new organization whose organizers' deep experience in the nonprofit world is helping other organizations become stronger. Zinta Aistars reports.

Kathy Szenda Wilson and Maria Drawhorn are in recovery.

"I'm a recovering funder," Wilson says.

"I'm a recovering service provider," Drawhorn says.

The co-executive directors are undergoing their recovery nicely under the auspices of BC Pulse in Battle Creek, Michigan, a non-profit organization that the two refer to as a community resource.

"People talk about what's wrong with our community," says Drawhorn, "but what we need to do is spell out what's actionable."

That is what BC Pulse does. Call it a mediator, call it a liaison, call it a go-between. BC Pulse is an organization that ties up loose ends and makes connections where connections are needed. The goal, the two co-executive directors say, is to build a compassionate, engaged, vibrant community.

"We are an organization in our infancy," says Wilson. "Our current funding is a grant to Michigan State University (as our fiscal sponsor) from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation."

BC Pulse was born in July 2012, although Wilson insists there are no founders. Four people are currently on staff--along with the two co-executive directors are Lyssa Howley, associate, and Andrew Tyus, program coordinator.

"We're still working on our elevator speech to define who we are." Wilson smiles. "But the message we most want to convey is that BC Pulse is not about developing new programs. There are plenty of good programs already in place. What we do is help people to strengthen how they do their work."

Wilson worked for 17 years at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, she says, and during that time, she learned about supporting residents of the community for better outcomes in their neighborhoods. "But I saw a disconnect. Voices were not being heard. Somebody has to pay attention to those voices. So a group of us started talking sometime in 2010. What would it take to develop a group that pays attention to these voices?"

"And I spent the last 15 years in nonprofits," continues Drawhorn. "Always putting out fires. I saw restraints in funding while there was increased need. It's difficult to think about making improvements when you are constantly putting out fires. For me, BC Pulse is a great opportunity to ..."