Thank you, Tom Petty

We someone famous dies, we talk about them. Everybody talks about them. If they are like Tom Petty, mostly we just extend our gratitude that we happened to hit this mortal loop at the same time. Tom Petty had a long career and an impressive body of work – listen to the whole catalog – the texture of his work is neither glam-rock smooth like Bowie nor quite as unwashed as Mellencamp.  There’s a earthy, sexy grit to it, a forward groove, and a feeling that everything will be all right.

There are gems like “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, arguably the best driving song since Golden Earring’s “Radar Love”. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” stands out with its creepy Alice in Wonderland video. His biggest hit, “Free Fallin'” started out as a way to make fellow Wilbury Jeff Lynne laugh.

But when we praise the work of an artist, it is usually in terms of how their gifts affected us personally. What does the song mean to you? Which one got under your skin and cracked your heart wide open, leaving your brain in the dust?

“American Girl” was released in 1977.  The urban myth states that the song is about a college girl from Petty’s home of Gainesville, Florida who took LSD and jumped thinking she could fly.  I never read that part of the story til a few days ago. I’d heard the song hundreds of times, sang along, knew the words.

In the summer of 1989, on my first night in Paris, I was standing alone on a balcony at 3am. It was quiet, rainy and cool.

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My balcony at Hotel de la Cite Rougement in Paris.

 

Earlier that night, I had struck up a conversation in a cafe with a boy named Karim. He was swarthy and beautiful and looked vaguely like Jeff Healy’s drummer. We were both 20 and far from home – although he would not talk about his home. He asked if I would like to go to the Eiffel Tower.  Well, of course!  He had a car and we could be there toute de suite!

He was a very fast, very terrible driver. Worse than me when I started driver’s ed and nearly took out some trees. It was after midnight though and the streets were clear. He bolted down close alleys and jerked the gearshift. The little orange Citroen hopped and screeched. And then suddenly, there we were. We parked on the Seine side and got out. 1989 was the 100th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower (from the 1889 World’s Fair).  “100 ANS” was spelled out in lighted letters down one side. I had showed up in Paris at an auspicious time.

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The air was heavy and sweet. And Karim kissed me and the clouds opened.  The rain drenched and pounded us, but we did not move from our place. We kissed and kissed because the moon was full and the tower was lit and the rain gods couldn’t stop us.

We both started to shiver. He drove me back to the cafe like a maniac.  Except now, he was a chilly, excited maniac. We agreed to meet for lunch in the same place. He kissed me goodnight and I didn’t want to let go, but I did.

I walked home slowly, cool insistent droplets pattering my head and hands.  Back to my hotel. Back to standing alone on the balcony.  Back to when I did everything I could just to be here.  I couldn’t help thinkin’ that there was a little more to life somewhere else. After all it was a great big world.

I stood there, stopped shivering, tasted the warmth of his kiss lemonade beer and Gauloises cigarettes.

I knew I would never see him again. Not my choice. My group was leaving for Alsace in five hours. I breathed in the night deep as I could.  God it’s so painful/something that’s so close/still so far out of reach. I wanted to make it last. Make it last all night.

I don’t play the what-if game. Life happens the way it is supposed to.  I am exactly where I need to be. Wherever Karim landed, I hope he is happy.  Whenever “American Girl” comes on, I sing along. It’s not about me, but it is. I appreciate what it means to me.

It got under my skin, cracked open my heart, left my brain in the dust for 3 minutes and 33 seconds.

Thank you, Tom Petty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Art Makes Family: A Book of Love

Every year for Daz’s birthday, I try to make something original that expresses the way he makes me feel.  I made this little book for him, but I want to share it with everyone.

Art has become the catalyst for me – whether it is drawing or painting or writing or cooking or singing. It is my WD40 AND my duct tape. It smooths the edges and keeps us together. I have typed the wordss out under each picture, Please enjoy!

 

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Art: noun, The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.  But what if ART is more than what we make? What if ART is what we are? What if WE are the medium – pulled together in a cohesive torrent of creative LOVE?

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ART brings us together in a masterpiece of the human tapestry. Our history in every language.  Our skin in every color. Our truth in every version. Our story whether small or epic.

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Our perspective at every angle.  Our memories at every age. Our love in every expression.

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We see ourselves woven and folded and part of beauty and the living tableau of ART.  We see with our eyes and mind and heart.  We feel color.  We hear texture.

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ART makes beauty and life and love and home. ART makes FAMILY.  Thank You for being my family, my partner and helping me create this life everyday!

Love, H.

No Love in Things

So this is a ghost story about how we are haunted by things.

In the mid-1980’s, my mother was a cross-stitch artisan. She made some absolutely flawless work. We had even tested out several design software packages to create our own patterns for images. I also created some pieces, but nothing as intricate or challenging as the pieces she made.  For my grandmother’s birthday, she had a brilliant idea of making an entire cross-stitch quilt.

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The quilt design was 25 squares, each with a different rose picture. My grandmother LOVED roses. I was to make 12 and my mother would make 13.  Once they were completed, we would have it sashed with green ivy fabric and quilted by the ladies at The Neighborhood House for a donation.

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Whatever else was going on, we made that happen. It was a beautiful quilt.

And this was a big deal to us.  My grandmother, the quilt’s recipient, had made a masterpiece of her own that had hung in a couple different fabric/quilt shows and museums.  She had make a double-embroidered quilt of all the birds and flowers from all 50 states in alphabetical order.  It was enormous! Five years of work, countless episodes of All My Children, holding her mouth just right while threading the needle.  She had a bent fingernail because of the constant pressure against the fabric to get the stitch just right.

My grandmother loved our gift. And being from the generation who lived through the Great Depression, she wrapped it up and put it away for safe keeping. I would not see it again for 30 years.

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When my grandmother died, my mother moved into her house. She quietly gave the quilt to a childhood friend of hers. The quilt was still new – wrapped up and folded neatly in plastic. And in exchange, he gave her a lamp.

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It was no ordinary lamp. He had lovingly made a Tiffany-style pink and white lampshade just for her and attached it to an ornate metal base. It was a table-lamp and it suited my mother and all her pastel belongings to a tee.

Now these were two specific, unique and priceless things.  A great deal of feeling and sentiment were attached.  A great deal of creative work (including my own) transpired to bring them into being. The trade between my mother and her friend was one of equality and mutual admiration. And yet, they were THINGS.  Not people. Not loved ones.  Things.

When my mother passed in 2010, it was a chaotic time.  I am an only child and there was no will. I did my absolute best to put the nuts and bolts of her life in order and try to honor her in a way that would suit her. I did not allow myself to grieve in public or at all for at least another two months. I had help.  My mother’s friend Shirley and her close neighbors, Sonya and Emilio helped me immensely.  We sold as much as we could to take care of funeral expenses and set up a memorial service.

I held my breath for two months. I dealt with releasing her house to the bank and sending out death certificates to creditors. I felt loved and supported by people who just showed up and pitched in. Because we all loved her.

 

I held my breath and when I exhaled, I was alone. One night at 2 a.m. I just sat up in bed.  Her dog Doc, who became my dog, laying on the end of my bed staring at the closet.  Her ashes were on my top shelf. They had handed me her remains in a green velvet bag. I awoke and began to really feel the empty space in my life where she had been. We had talked daily often more than once. She made me laugh. She was the best grandma to my son. She was gone.

And there was not a THING that I wished to hold on to. None of it contained her heart, her soul, her spirit, her light. I didn’t need any of it because I carried the best of her with me. Always.

I had neither the quilt nor the lamp. And I was grieving and healing.

And it slowly got better. I miss her now, today, this moment. So does everyone else. And we live on connected by that.

So this is the haunting part, the life lesson:

A few months ago, my mother’s childhood friend showed up and found me.  He had the quilt. Honestly, I didn’t know it still existed.  But there it was, still folded immaculately in pristine plastic. He wanted to give it back to me. And, just for kicks, he wanted to know if I had the lamp. Because in his eyes, I had not been a good steward of my mother’s THINGS.  Because at some time while I was holding my breath and THINGS were being sold, I let the lamp get sold too.  Because when I was dealing with the tidal wave, I did not happen to grab his lamp and anchor it to myself while I withstood the storm.

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I was polite. I understood his point of view. I told him honestly that I did not know here it was or whom had it.  He talked on in a very heavy-handed way about disrespect.

“I’m giving this back to you because I know where things go.”

He was trying passively to shame me for not possessing HIS lamp. A lamp that was his then my mom’s, but never mine in the first place. A lamp that was so important to him still, that six years after my mother’s death, he found me just to emphasize its loss.

I remained polite. I much prefer people who speak plainly if they have an issue with me. But it was apparently that HIS lamp and HIS loss were not MY lamp nor MY loss.

I never wanted the lamp.  I never wanted the quilt back. It was given as a gift.  And my understanding of a gift is that once it is given, you do not take it back.

His attempt to hang six years of guilt on me for a lost THING didn’t work. In fact, it made me very sure that I will never charge another person with curating or keeping my THINGS.

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Jacob Marley wearing his chains of THINGS

I have the quilt, but I am donating it. The quilting is still crisp.  The stitches still look fresh.  In its 30 year existence, this quilt has never warmed anyone. It has never been loved. Its beauty has been made bitter by those who buried it away, suffocated it in plastic in the back of a closet. I am hoping that donating it allows the magic to finally grow. So much care and love went into it.

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My real hope is that whomever ended up with the lamp truly finds joy in it. Maybe it’s a beacon for a little girl reading stories. Maybe it’s the perfect source of light and comfort for someone who is alone. It could not be any of those things for me.

It was never my lamp.

Practical Magic for Ugly Children

I was raised by my maternal grandparents from ages 2 to 7, and then from 11 to adulthood.  My grandmother’s mother, Gertrude, did not like children. She had had six of them. And now had to put up with her offspring’s offspring’s offspring. It was more of a have-to with me. My grandparents lived close to them and took them to doctor appointments. Gertrude got to visit with me more than she would have liked.

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Chet and Gertrude

When I was six, I lost my top right front tooth as normal kids do. However, the tooth that took its place, came in twisted like a corkscrew. Gertrude bestowed the pet name of “Snagglepuss” on me.

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She was the only one who called me that, but she did it as often as possible. I had the tooth pulled and actually had an extra tooth bud that came in straight. I smiled at her broadly every chance I got, hoping for release from the vile nickname.

Alas, Gertrude was 4’6”.  I was already nearly as tall as she was. And in retrospect, it must have seemed threatening to have a child your own size constantly grin at you like a homicidal monkey.

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As I got a little older, I began to talk more with my great-grandpa, Chet. He was quiet. Never said more than was necessary. I know more of what was said about him that I knew him.  From my grandmother’s stories (his daughter), I knew he had a bad temper. I knew he kicked the shins of people who were rude at dinner with hobnailed boots. I knew he was part “Indun”, or Native American and knew some magic. I knew he was a cutthroat Pinochle player.

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Grandpa Green and me (in my lump state).

It was a beautiful thought for an ugly kid. I came from magical people. Somewhere under this pasty nearsighted, greasy-haired lump, there was a continuation of a magical bloodline. Not a passing on of a cheap card trick or sleight of hand, not some $8 Bill Bixby linked rings nonsense, but real magic. Something that I could like about myself that no one could really see.

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The summer I was 11, sent back from my feral days in Ohio, I went barefoot every chance I got. My grandparents were supremely overprotective and forced me to wear shoes. With the damp and the heat and the wet socks and closed shoes, I ended up with plantar warts all over my right foot. I hid it at first, embarrassed and scared. But it spread and the toes began to look webbed. The pain of taking a step and desperate willingness to cut my toes off just to stop the infernal itching made me stay in my room.

They found out. My grandfather caught me without my socks. They took me to the doctor. Then to a dermatologist.  Dr. Dickinson prescribed a smelly, burning lotion that smelled bad and burned worse. Then Dr. Dickinson spoke about burning them off or freezing them off.  I’m sure he was a respected doctor, but to me he was a bald barbarian heaping fear and discomfort on an itchy foot wart volcano.

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And he never spoke to me or looked at me. In fact he was examining my foot and reached up with his gloved hand and separated my hair. He looked at my grandmother and said “I can give you some topical lotion for this oily dandruff.”  He then scheduled an appointment with them for a month later to either have my foot burnt or frozen.

I spent the next week crying. The idea that the oily, dandruffy, lumpy girl was now also going to be the limping, half-footed, clumsy girl too was crushing me. The burning and itching had not subsided. My foot seemed alien. Did I even care about it being burnt or frozen? Was it part of me still?

Enter magic. During a Pinochle game, the situation of my foot had come up in conversation. And my great-grandfather, supreme car shark and “Indun” had a trick up his sleeve.

He told me to take off my shoes and walk to the back of the yard with him. He told me to follow directions.  And he told everyone else that it was none of their business.  So I did.

When we got to the lot line, we sat down on the grass.  He took my foot and held it and looked at it. He took a large, dry navy bean out of his shirt pocket.  He considered it. I didn’t know that old people carried dry beans in their pockets. So I also considered it.

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He looked up and the sky and then at my foot. He rubbed the dry navy bean over the warts, humming a bit. I watched him, thinking that I was never going to eat navy beans again. Thinking that this was too simple to be magic and too weird to be anything else.

When he was done, we stood up.  He handed me the bean.

“Throw this over your shoulder and don’t look back to see where it falls.”

So I did.

The pain was gone.

Within three days, my foot was clear.  And magic was real to me.

I have never had a wart since. I have never eaten a navy bean in my life.

My great-grandfather, the magic “Indun” died at 93. In the years between, I was his friend and lucky Pinochle partner. He came to Thanksgiving a couple times. Gertrude passed before him and he married a lady 30 years younger than him about 6 months before he died. They traveled a lot. She took him to see the world beyond the Midwest. I was happy for him.

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Chet dancing at 93 with his new wife Ruby.

A tiny bit of belief, the smallest bit of magic can heal anyone. Everyone has a spark of divine within them, even old people, even ugly children. Don’t let it be lost to the mediocrity of every day. Allow it to be part of you, fight to keep it. Use it to do good.

Imperial Ham: The Wondrous Alchemy of Childhood in a Semi-Rural Township

In the summer of ’79, I came to live with my grandparents. The Greens owned 1/3rd of an acre in the small Limestone Township in Illinois. They had bought a tiny house with three rooms in the mid-1940’s. Over the years, my grandfather, the oldest of 12 children from a rural Kentucky family, added a large kitchen, am indoor bathroom and a back bedroom. The houses in the neighborhood were mostly larger with two stories and nearly all of them had large families. My mother was one of the few little girls on the block and held her own with the gang of boys who ran and played and shot arrows and bb guns.

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My mom with the neighborhood kids, second from left.

Every house also had a backyard vegetable garden. While the neighbors to the immediate right had corn and beans, my grandparents had a brilliant, strong nightshade patch. Bell peppers, okra, eggplant and some of the largest and sweetest beefsteak tomatoes on the Earth.  That summer we also added cucumbers. My grandfather could grow anything he put in the ground.

He worked at it, he watered and weeded and whistled parts of songs.

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Grandpa Alvie Green with my uncle and my mom.

And in late June, we would walk back to the further edge of the yard, across the swath of thick, Kentucky bluegrass. We’d pick one of the 3 to 4 pound scarlet gem tomatoes, rinse it with the garden hose and bite right in. There was a magic in the ritual of it, to the true reward of working with nature, There was a bliss and comfort to it.  A heaven that did not come from some store. It came from the dirt where you grew up. It came from the plot of land chosen by a WWII veteran who decided to migrate from his home in Kentucky and make a life for his wife and children. That tomato was a manifestation of love and home and family.IMG_2887

We’d make glorious sandwiches of Wonder Bread, Miracle Whip and thick tomato slices. We’d make pepper relish. My grandmother would marinate the cucumbers with onions in vinegar, salt and sugar. When I was sunburnt or started to break out, she would pulverize a cucumber and put the juice on my skin. We would trade our extras with neighbors. There was an unspoken connection and wealth in the ability to share.

That summer, my grandmother asked my grandfather for a meat grinder. And he bought it for her. It was huge. It was supermarket-deli huge. It had a lot of sharp, shiny parts which I was told not to touch. It was loud. I immediately hated it.  She bought it for one thing: Imperial ham.

Not to grind beef or make sausage. We raised no animals except the baby squirrels that my grandfather trained to come and take walnuts from his shirt pockets. They were friends, not food. Imperial ham.  What is Imperial ham?  Well…

It’s baloney. And mayonnaise. And onion. And sweet pickles. And it’s somehow suddenly a royal delicacy. Apparently, if you put baloney through a meat grinder and add these things in the proper amounts, a certain kind of alchemy occurs in which it is now both Imperial and Ham. There is nothing like it. It smells weird and it tastes like summer and it’s amazing on white bread. And especially magical topped with a tomato slice.  And a side of marinated cucumbers. We would put it all on white paper plates, sit outside in the big swing together, watching neighbors and squirrels.

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I remember it clear and precious, because we have had nothing like it for so long. Everyone I shared that with has died. My grandfather in 1997, grandmother in 2001 and my mother in 2010. I am heartened because I am seeing a renewal in the importance of local family gardening. Small farms that have grown to bring their organic bounty to market.  People who can grow anything and what they produce is beautiful and healthy, fresh and practical food to share, tokens and totems of home and family and love.

I dream of having the right and proper place to do the same one day.

 

LOVE: The Losing of a Breast; The Finding of a Belly

I was in the middle of a great love.

My mother and my son are both Geminis. Her birthday was June 13th and his is June 20th. They were, for a time, my twins. I watched my mother become the best grandmother and friend a boy could have. Like me, Connor has Asperger’s Syndrome. He does not open up to many people and he is very quiet. Mom was only 4’10” and she would get right down on the floor with him. Their connection was deep and true and full of laughter.

I moved back home in 2008 when my mom’s breast cancer had returned. She had had a radical mastectomy in 2006, followed by chemo.  Although she had somewhat accepted all the accoutrements of the disease, she never really embraced them. She had wigs, hats, shirts with allowances for drains, post-mastectomy bras, and even weighted falsies. She had all the necessary crap that they dole out to women who lose a breast in an attempt to make them acceptably normal to society. It wasn’t her and it wasn’t comfortable.  And it all ended up stuffed in her sock drawer while she sat bald, braless and comfortable binge=watching The Sopranos.

One day though, one special day of birthday magic smack in the middle of June, a miracle happened. We always celebrated their birthdays together.  I had brought Connor over for his 8th birthday, Boston cream pie, candles, flowers, little gifts for both.

The oven was on, and the air conditioner was going full blast.  Although she was sweating, her tiny feet were like blue ice.  She asked Connor to go grab a pair of socks for her. He headed into her bedroom.

“HEY!” he exclaimed.  “HEY!”

“What is it, Sugar Booger?”

“Granny!  I found a belly!”

“WHAT?!”

“I found a belly!”  Connor darted out of her room and ran into the kitchen with his shirt hiked up and a heavy flesh-colored false boob slapped on his stomach.  He pushed his stomach out proudly.

My mom and I burst out laughing. Neither one of us ever would have thought of it. Connor wore the magic “belly” the rest of the evening. He fell asleep on her couch full of lasagna and cake, clutching a stuffed Pikachu with one hand and the “belly” with the other.

It was magic indeed.  This was love, laughter and true imagination holding fast against loss, pain and the precious knowledge that life is finite.

When the cancer came back, it came back everywhere. My son was 10. He was so open and caring and happy with her.  He would stay with her while I ran out to get her groceries.

When she was hospitalized, I would watch them walk down the corridor together. Both blonde, the same height, sharing knock-knock jokes.  Because between them nothing was about cancer or autism. It was about love. No labels, no expectations, no prognosis. Just love in its most honest, accepting expression. And I was in the middle, watching in awe, as both their halos shone bright.

My mom passed in late July 2010.  My son turns 19 on Tuesday.

He has grown into a wonderful, smart, and loving human being.  He’s a responsible young man who has a good job, attends school and takes good care of himself. He is a brilliant artist in the middle of producing his own comic book.  He is a grown version of that child who sees people without limits and finds laughter in unexpected places.

I am still in the middle of a great love. And so incredibly grateful to be his mom.