Planting the Z flag: One writer finds her version of home

Something about being bilingual and bicultural — wherever you are, you are never fully there. A part of you remains behind an invisible wall. Press your nose against the glass, and you remain an outsider.

Latvian was my first language and the only language spoken in our home. It remained the only language I ever spoke to my parents. I didn’t learn English until I began to attend public school, even as I attended Latvian school on Saturdays and through summers. It often felt like living a double life, straddling two communities. 

Zinta AistarsScenes from Z AcresMy parents had come to the United States during World War II when the Soviet army occupied the Baltic States. They escaped mass deportations during the night, with only what they could carry along with them. Their every intention was to return home as soon as the war was over, and the Russians were beaten back from their borders — only it never happened. The Iron Curtain came down and they were forced to begin a new life in a new world, eventually transported from refugee camps in Germany to Chicago, then moving to Kalamazoo, where a large and vibrant Latvian community thrived. 

I was raised to think of Latvia as home and our life here as exile.

Someday, they said, someday … 

Zinta AistarsBut half a century passed before the Iron Curtain lifted and Latvia at long last regained her independence in 1991. I had traveled to my ancestral land many times from age 15 and throughout the coming years, a witness to the changes from the gray devastation of Soviet rule to the rejuvenation of one of the world’s oldest cultures come back to life. 

Yes, I felt myself at home when I crossed the ocean to that land. We spoke the same language, we shared a history, and I met family members whose features and mannerisms resembled mine. I visited grave sites of previous generations, and I traced the paths my parents had walked as children and as youth. And yet. As conversations unfolded, I would often hear — ah, you are from America. When I returned to the United States, at every turn, at every introduction of my name — ah, you are from … where? 

Zinta AistarsScenes from Z AcresOver my lifetime, I have lived at more than 30 addresses and in more than one country. I have been driven by wanderlust, traveling at every opportunity, visiting 49 of 50 states in this country, and carrying my passport across other borders. It occurred to me at one point that my wanderlust was born of a need to find home — the place that would hold me, where I belonged, where I could set down deep and lasting roots. A place where I could plant my flag and be an insider. 

I had been searching for home for several years with my real estate agent, Ingrid, alongside me. I told her of my childhood dream. All I ever really wanted: a cute little house secluded in the woods where I could live a peaceful life making my living as a writer. It was my dream as a little girl, my only dream, and it remained with me lifelong. 

Zinta AistarsScenes from Z AcresOur years-long search went nowhere. Until I came across a listing that leaped off the page and made me catch my breath. I called Ingrid and asked her to meet me at this address right after the workday. The listing described a 10-acre plot of land, middle of nowhere, century-old small house set in a valley, a writer’s cottage on a wooded hill (the listing actually referred to it as a writer’s cottage!), barn, shed, pond in the front yard, cornfield out back. 

I was there before Ingrid. A December evening was turning a deep lavender and the first gentle snow had begun to drift down from the skies. I parked halfway down the long drive and walked to the pond, covered with the thinnest sheen of ice, then out back, past the barn, to stand in the middle of that harvested corn field, corn stalk stubble sticking up in neat rows through the snow. A redtail hawk circled overhead, calling a greeting to me. 

Zinta AistarsScenes from Z AcresI met Ingrid in the drive, under the cover of snow-laced trees, when she pulled in. 

“Did you bring the paperwork?” I asked. “I’m ready to sign.”

Ingrid’s eyebrows shot up. “You haven’t seen the house yet.”

I shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I’m home.”

Zinta AistarsScenes from Z AcresWhen I signed on the dotted lines on the impossible stack of papers that are a mortgage three months later, in March 2012, I also walked away from my job in the communications department of a large hospital in Grand Rapids. With a new mortgage, and suddenly unemployed, I felt a delicious sense of freedom as never before. My dream had come true at long last. 

I would plant my flag, and I would call it Z Acres.

Twelve years later, my roots have grown deep, entwined with the grit of the soil, the tree roots, the open sky. I spend my days here working as a freelance writer, writing for a handful of regional publications, several for former bosses. It has meant a pay cut, a lean living, but I have not for a moment regretted leaving the corporate world, office politics, morning alarms, and endless commutes. I am wealthy in ways most are not. 

Zinta AistarsScenes from Z AcresWhen I need a break from work, I stroll the grounds or go sit by the pond and watch the fish or toss peanuts to the chickens I raise here. When I switch gears from work-for-pay to creative writing, I head up the hill to the quirky cottage with mismatched windows and put pen to paper, computer set aside. 

At the end of the day, my dog Polly and I head out back to walk the pathways I keep mowed in what was once a cornfield but by now is a young forest of sapling trees and berry bushes and wild roses. Part of the pathways carve an immense Z into that field. It is my mark of ownership of this land that I own and that owns me. 

Zinta AistarsScenes from Z AcresThe wanderlust is gone. Why leave? All I have ever wanted is here, at Z Acres. It is my oasis in a mad, mad world. My little red farmhouse, tucked into the green valley, is filled with my father’s artwork on the walls. My grandfather’s twelve novels in Latvian line my bookshelves. They are gone from me now, but never far. My mother’s ashes are buried beneath a blood-red rose, planted next to an evergreen tree under which my father’s ashes nourish its roots. 

A red oak grows on the hill out back that overlooks the new and old forests, in view of the house, barn, shed, and writer’s cottage on the hill. It is my Spirit Tree, where my children and grandchildren have been told to bury my ashes when the time comes. This is my country, all ten acres of it. This land speaks the language of my heart. May the coming generations of my family love Z Acres as I do. I promise to haunt them — forever, a smiling spirit comes home. 

Zinta AistarsScenes from Z Acres

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Zinta Aistars is the creative director of Z Word, LLC. She is the producer and host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK.