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vinegar and valentines

February 14, 2013

Yesterday I didn’t commit to making valentines today because I knew I would need a very particular kind of mood to revisit them and enjoy the process. I wasn’t going to do them otherwise. Moods are fickle , though. So, no promises.

Today I woke up full of energy. I immediately did something I’d been sitting on for a few days, which necessitated me walking over to the neighborhood mailbox, to send something. We still had a lot of yesterday’s lovely snow, albeit melting. Since I bring my camera everywhere — even to the mailbox — I took photos.

I suddenly thought of skunk cabbages. They are currently flowering in our local woods. I first learned about skunk cabbages by reading about them in a book, which contained photographs of them, amidst snow. But that was in Indiana, where it snows a lot more often in the winter. Here in Maryland, skunk cabbages and snow rarely coexist. Wouldn’t it be great to get some photos of my own, with skunk cabbages and snow?

If I had planned that excursion all along, I would have worn snow boots. I might’ve brought a snack. But I like to do things on the spur of the moment. And Hibby loves it! So we set off.

Since I had Hibby with me, I decided to enter the words from the back way. With all the snow, everything looked really different. I hardly recognized the trail. I’d never before noticed how steep the hill is when you’re going down it (and trying not to slip or slide in snow). I found skunk cabbages in snow!

I personally like the smell of skunk spray. But to me, the scent of skunk cabbages is nothing like skunk; it’s a lot like vinegar. Which I also like the smell of. When I’m in the woods with the flowers, I waffle about what to call them. Both ‘skunk cabbage’ and the Latin name, Symplocarpus foetida, reference the scent by describing it as disagreeable. Both names are kind of insulting. And I have a firm policy of not calling people by names that are insulting. (All year long, but especially in the winter, our apartment receives visits from insects locally known as ‘stink bugs’. Apparently when they’re agitated or stressed, they spray something stinky. I’ve never experienced that. I kind of like them. They often inadvertently keep me company while I’m writing or reading. I call them ‘shield bugs’ for the shape of their carapaces. Even though Spouse finds them annoying, he’s also begun calling them ‘shield bugs’.)

The swampy lowland area where most skunk cabbages reside lies slightly higher than the stream, and its bridge, where I tend to spend the most time when I’m in the woods. I could look at water, flowing past rocks, with or without water critters, all day. I could take photographs of it all day. It never gets old.

I was staring at patterns in the water. If I was thinking anything at all, and I’m not sure I was, I might’ve been feeling (aware of) Hibby. And then I had a flash of insight.

I’ve long been troubled by how to feel about my maternal grandfather. When I was Hibby’s age, my grandfather and I, just the two of us, went for walks to a park near his home, or sometimes, a forest preserve near a lake. The birds sang in the trees, and he whistled back to them. He knew all their calls, and who they were. He recognized all the little mammals and amphibians, and taught me to stand still enough that they would forget we were there. I still do that. He’s the reason I love the natural world the way I do. He’s why I got interested in ecology and natural history. I loved him very much.

But there were very problematic elements in his relationship with girls and women — the patriarchy hurts men too! My head has been telling me, since forever, that I should repudiate him, and our relationship. I’ve never been able to bring myself to do that.

Walking in the woods in December 2012, I had a flash of insight about my grandfather. But I wasn’t ready to write about it or him.

Now I think I am. Because of Hibby. As I stared into the water, I felt how my grandfather would’ve done the same thing. Not just the mature man I knew, but the boy he was, circa 1913. When he was Hibby’s age. At that point, I believe his family was living on a farm near Cairo, Illinois. That’s where he learned all the bird calls. I think that was perhaps the happiest time in his life.

It didn’t last very long. No one alive remembers why. But they packed up and moved again, this time to Chicago, where my great grandparents eventually owned a tavern, then the entire building. During that phase of his life, 2 terrible things happened that changed his life forever. One day he was watching over his favorite younger brother, who fell into some horrible cesspool (locally famous for being utterly toxic), and drowned. A year or two later, his father refused to pay protection money to Al Capone, and was murdered in his tavern. At age 15, my grandfather became ‘man of the house’. But I think his childhood, such as it was, had probably ended on the farm in Cairo.

Today I felt certain for the first time that my grandfather had his own version of Hibby inside him, and that’s who took walks with me.

That little boy was no doubt dreamy and ‘too sensitive’, like us. Maybe he chattered a mile a minute with questions that no one could answer. Maybe he drew pictures of the birds he met and spoke to. Maybe he dreamed of an impossible life.

His adult life was full of disappointments. His adult self was bitter and uncompromising. His adult self didn’t like girls or women very much.

But his inner Stash (or however he thought of himself) still felt joy and hope. Was silly sometimes. Was just a kid.


As I walked back to our apartment, I invited young Stash to join me, making valentines. Then I invited the younger self of my grandmother, and then, one by one, the younger selves of all my beloved dead. I felt lighter and happier, thinking of all of them as children, with their whole lives ahead of them. Those who married, were not yet acquainted with their spouses. They had hopes and dreams that I never knew about. They had a crush on a pretty girl, or handsome boy. They really liked one teacher. Or imagine sailing away into the wild blue yonder. Why not make valentines for whomever they liked? Or maybe just themselves, as I would do.

And so I did. (And perhaps they did as well.)


I began by cutting out hearts, first from art papers, then from wrapping paper I’d saved. I did try laying the hearts , looking for pleasing configurations. But it was way more fun to cut out more and more hearts from more and more papers.

My very least favorite part of working with papers (and also working with fibers or fabrics) is figuring out how to affix them. Do I have glue? Do I have enough glue? Is it going to dry clear? Is it going to stick to my hands and everything else? Is it permanent? Is it toxic? Does my finished piece ‘need’ varnish or some other coat of something? (Except that all of that stuff is toxic.) That’s why I never got very far with Artist Trading Cards, despite loving the idea of them. I refuse to buy or own any of that finishing stuff. Which means my pieces aren’t really permanent. The glue, and whatever it was used to affix, flakes off over time.

So I had all these hearts. Whenever I thought about gluing them down, that aspect felt like an icky old chore. Not fun at all.

Instead, I covered a plate with pink tissue paper, then piled the hearts on top. And took photographs. Then I added paper I’d cut hearts out of, giving the pile a sculptural element. I added hearts to that. I took the hearts off, but added one of my pleated strips from artist date 1a & 1b. Took more photos.


Something I know about myself that Hibby did not know. I am process oriented. ‘Results’, to me, are way more interesting when the process is still ongoing. That is where I am most creative and imaginative and engaged. That’s where flow happens.

‘Finishing’ things? It’s boring. It’s often dispiriting or even depressing, because it means everything has stopped evolving.

Hibby didn’t have any choice about finishing things. Other people made her finish. So she made the best of it. Mostly. And when she tried stopping while the fun was still happening, but without ‘finishing’ anything, she was called a quitter, and a baby, even a cheater, because she wasn’t playing by the rules. She was shamed for it.

But I’m an adult. I already have at least 3 sets of art photographs on Flickr that show ephemeral art, that is, art that is never ‘finished’.

I can declare that the valentines are the configurations that I photographed: I have records that they existed. I can keep playing with them.

I don’t have to stop them in time. I don’t have to figure out what I’m going to do with a whole bunch of valentines that I made for myself in 2013. I don’t have to find space for them. I don’t have to worry about preserving them.

I can just enjoy them. So I am.

(See valentines here.)



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