Monday, December 30, 2013

Blush: Mennonite girl grows up to be successful academic

by Zinta Aistars

My author interview with Shirley Showalter airs December 31, 2013, on WMUK 102.1 FM radio, Kalamazoo, Michigan's NPR affiliate station. We talk about Shirley's new book, Blush, and what it means to grow up in the Mennonite community. You can listen to the radio station tomorrow live (beginning at 7:50 a.m.), or click on "Listen" mid-page to hear the full interview.

As a young girl, Shirley Showalter never thought she would go to college, let alone become president of Goshen College in Indiana. Showalter grew up as a Mennonite in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. 

In Blush, Showalter recounts everything from Mennonite teens fondness for fast muscle cars to why Pennsylvania Dutch meals have pickled food. 
Showalter says the first time she realized that other kids didn't live like her was when she went to grade school. Even in the 1950's, kids would re-enact commercials and TV episodes on the playground. Showalter says her family has lived in the U.S. for ten generations and she is the first to go to college. 
In the book, Showalter's Mennonite community seems to support one another--especially when it comes to raising children. But Showalter says women were expected to ...

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Holiday Greetings 2013

Photos copyright Zinta Aistars

A day of blessing, waking to a bright sun on white snow, turning Z Acres into a land of winter wonderland. I race outdoors and find myself gasping in wonder ... the heart never tires of such beauty.

Wishing all: peace, love, contentment, and hearts that never stop opening to all the wonder and magic around us ... not just on Christmas, but every single day.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Winter White 2013 and One More Dream in the Making

by Zinta Aistars

Standing out in my back field and looking back at the farm, I make a wish ...

It's Monday morning in late December, Christmas just a few days away, and I wake up realizing all my work for the month is done. Amazing. I don't recall having this much time off from work since ... since ... I don't remember.

I'm beginning my third winter at Z Acres, my ten-acre farm in southwest Michigan. Although I moved into the little red farmhouse in March 2012, it was in December 2011 that I found this place ... that I found Home. Since the house was vacant then, I spent a great deal of time wandering the grounds, the woods, the back fields, circling the pond, contemplating the days, the years to come.

Living at Z Acres is a lifelong dream come true. Starting my own business, a writing and editing service called Z Word, LLC, with Z Acres as a home base was another lifelong dream come true. Now, with a little time off from my work, another lifelong dream comes trickling back into my consciousness.

Building a business is no small task. I'm usually working on something seven days a week, and when you are self-employed, as satisfying as that can be, there are no paid days off. Being the tough taskmaster than I am (I'm the toughest boss I have ever had!), that has mostly meant no vacations.

So it's Monday morning, a light and fluffy snow is falling, it's my favorite season, and I have no work waiting on my desk. I'm free. Free to play.

I sit on the edge of the bed, blinking. I pad down to the kitchen and grind the coffee beans, feed the hungry and waiting cat dog cat, pour hot water over the beans in the French press, and then sit down with my steaming mug, pondering the day. Well, there ARE a few assignments pending in January ...

... stop it. Breathe. I shake my head. How odd, to feel a wave of guilt again on workday morning at not sitting down to a pile of work. I haven't felt this since I first started Z Word, LLC, and had my first independent Monday morning of not hurrying to get myself ready for the office, jumping into the car for a long commute to work, and keeping nose to grindstone until past 5 o'clock.

Those days are gone. I now work long after 5 o'clock!

But I do it mostly at home, and it's a very different life, running things on my own. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I'm happy. No, better. I am content. Two dreams under my belt, who can say as much? Few of us can say we are living our dream(s), just the way we imagined as dreamy little kids, dreaming big. I am blessed each and every day.

I get dressed to go outside in the snow to enjoy the day. The boss says I may.

I shake off the guilt of doing nothing, and I realize there is plenty to do. I can wander. I can make snow angels. I can walk with my old chow pup, Guinnez. I can toss snowballs. I can refill the wood bin. I can sing to the chickens. I can dig for kindling beneath the snow. I can ... I can daydream. The way I did when I first walked these snowy woods and fields three winters ago.

Let my mind wander to new places. Maybe I'm not done dreaming up new visions. In fact, there is one that is nearly as old as I am. While I have wanted to be a writer since I was very little, even before I knew how to write, and now I am making a living being one ... I miss the time to do some creative writing.

Stories, poems, that unfinished book I started so long ago, then set aside ...

Maybe even a children's story or two, for that first grandchild coming into our world this February. So many friends have told me I am living a storybook life. Z Acres is filled with ideas for children's stories.

I call out to my girls as Guinnez and I head across the backyard to the chicken coop.

"Good morning, my little hens! How are my girls? Are we full of peck and cluck this morning?"

We are. Six little ISA Browns are waiting for me when I walk into the coop, once a tool shed, converted by my son for dual purposes. The little hens are about to begin their ninth week, raised from tiny balls of fluffy down to these lively hens, not yet full grown but growing amazingly fast. Fingers crossed for first golden eggs in March.

I hadn't realized how much I would enjoy raising chickens. I had envisioned tossing grain to birds, collecting eggs, that's that, but these little hens are surprisingly interactive and curious and lively. While we have been told it's somehow okay to keep chickens in tiny wire cages in reeking factory farms, their beaks cut to keep them from pecking each other out of stress, in truth, these animals have personalities, show a level of emotion, bond with each other, learn quickly, and enjoy interacting with people.

I've greatly enjoyed watching them grow and develop. When I come into the coop and set down their food--organic grains, warm oatmeal, cabbage, arugula greens--they swarm around to enjoy the meal, but quickly swarm around to check me out, too. When I sit down, they hop up on my lap, walk up my arms, sit on my shoulders, sometimes even perch on top of my head. I cluck at them and they cluck back. I sing, and they tip their heads to listen. I watch them engage each other in play, compete for best morsels of food, dance in anticipation when a cabbage head rolls across the straw.

Gardening and now raising chickens have become an integral part of my life at Z Acres. Working toward a more sustainable lifestyle here is a part of my goal, an ongoing process I enjoy immensely.

Chickens fed, Guinnez and I head out to walk the back field. It's a white field of snow, with the grasses and wildflowers of summer bent over with the weight of snow. I head out, out, still farther, and then stand to look back on Home.

More chores await, pleasant ones, ones that I enjoy doing and that keep my days on task. I glance at the barn, where I keep the wood and use a wheelbarrow to bring a pile of wood for the day to the house. Soon. For now, I just stand in the snow, let my eyes wander across the silvered horizon, and pull back the last dream.

I can't write a book in a few days of holiday. I know that. Most of my work days start in the morning and end late at night. I work through weekends. If I am not writing, I am scheduling research interviews for other writing assignments or digging through notes. How to bring balance into this life I've built?

Somehow, I have to make room for that which does not pay, but which costs ... for there is an unmet need still in me. Dream Three.

Living at Z Acres has been a great leap of faith. In fact, it's been one leap of faith after another. When I resist that process, things get tangled. When I go with the flow, let myself go into that trust, good things happen.

One thing is clear. I wander the white field, snow crackling beneath my boots, thinking. I have to make changes. I have to clear space. I have to clear enough space for the creative writing to find its way back in again.

But how? Give up paying work? The network I've taken all this time to build?

I've been busy adding on, not subtracting. The reality of this holiday, between now and the end of the year is that I am not getting paid for holiday. No work, no pay. That's how being self-employed works. I'm not so steenkin' rich that I can afford to just float along like this to pursue my art ...

Leap of faith, right?

I twirl in the snow, because snow in itself always seems like a miracle to me. Each and every snowflake so tiny and intricate and perfect. Guinnez and I head toward the pond, and he plops down into the soft snow and makes doggie snow angels, kicking his paws up into the air.

Dogs live entirely by faith, I think, watching him. By faith and in the moment. When there is joy to be found, a dog finds it and relishes it fully.

Every step I've taken here at Z Acres has had to be taken on trust. Trust and hard work. Relished with joy. My task for this new year will be to find balance. Balance between paying work and bliss work. Balance between work and play. Balance in my accounting books, taking a hard look at what work makes sense to meet my budget, and what work just doesn't anymore. The hard part is that some of the work I love most pays the least. How do I balance that? The tentative balance between one joy and another.

Think too long on this and I get tangled again. Make room, make space. How? Where?

One painful thought has been to close down the online literary magazine I've managed since 2006, The Smoking Poet. It takes time and it takes funds, with no financial return. While not a huge expense, it's a steady drain on my personal finances each and every month. Can I keep excusing that expense? While dropping a paying client? While not finding the time to pursue my own art?

Recently, a friend suggested a fundraiser, one of those crowd-funding efforts like Kickstarter to raise the money to keep the website alive for another year. Not a bad thought. Although, of course, running a fundraiser ... takes time.

I walk the snowy field. I walk the snowy woods. I walk up and down the snowy drive, below the tall pines, and I listen to the ice of yesterday crack and tinkle, as the tree branches wave in the breeze and shake off the icy coating. It sounds like crystal falling.

I walk around the pond and listen, not sure for what. I watch Guinnez play in the snow, in complete abandon, with no worries for tomorrow.

Simplify. Minimize. Improve efficiency. Cut away waste. Balance. Make room for another dream to enter.


Put it out to the Universe, send it up to that silver sky overhead, let it bounce around in the snow clouds and come back down to me in its chosen shape.

Open my arms to whatever comes to me. Accept it with trust. Take one more leap of faith. And trust that the sun of Z Acres with all its many blessings will continue to shine over me.

Merry Christmas from Z Acres!