Gypsy Jill has died. I’m sad, so sad, but it’s my birthday. I only celebrate three occasions: my birthday, James’ birthday, and our anniversary. I’m celebrating with a special meditative consideration of age and death.
I’m not a person who meditates on death on her birthday; it seems so melodramatic and morbid. I have tremendous amounts of fun. I pack in moments of joy, looking for every reason to be joyous (and many can be found when walking around the birthday-enhanced world).
Except that I sit, still and solemn, sipping a mocha and typing these words that negate themselves.
Also, I got a job I applied for. I’ll be working for the Baltimore Data Capture Center, processing forms for the 2010 census. I even got a team lead position, so I’ll be making decent money. I have a move to plan and execute, and it will take several days by sail, even if things go well. There’s nothing I like quite so much as pulling up stakes and embarking on a journey. The destination doesn’t matter as much as the fact and moment of motion, but Baltimore has the possibility of being a better place for me. Another reason to rejoice.
And I do. I do. And I’m sad.
I loved Jill from the first five minutes of our acquaintance. She helped me, with a dozen words, two or three sentences, feel hopeful that I’d be able to cover up a terrible tattoo, a blemish on my left hip, of which I was inordinately self-conscious. It reflected badly on me that my judgment had been so bad. I wanted tattoo work, but I had the idea that it ought not to be a crapshoot. That I ought to have been able to better judge the artist and the situation. That I had every right to love my tattoos, every one of them. She vindicated me in those ideas, and empowered me further.
In the process of getting the coverup (a pomegranate, a symbol of fertility for a belly that would never grow a baby, to remind me that I could be fertile in many meaningful and long-lasting ways), I loved her deeper and deeper. We discussed a body plan; I had three tattoos and needed to decide whether I was going to get a collage of unrelated pieces or tie the rest of my tattoo work into a united theme. Jill didn’t seem to be judging either possibility, but she did think that not considering those questions was ill advised.
I learned a lot of my attitudes toward tattooing from Jill. She shaped my understanding of my body as a canvas and shape and color as elements that would flatter and lend meaning to the planes and curves and texture of my skin. I conceived of the idea that I could take my home with me, wherever I traveled, and she designed my backpiece from a tree-branch (which she still had at the time of her death), photos of my favorite Madrona tree, and a small bronze statuette by Chiparus, the model for which was a gypsy woman and the name of which is Shiva.
That backpiece took three years to finish. I moved several times in the meantime, and I enjoyed my visits so much. Though Jill and I spent a great deal of time together in the first year, strongest in my memory are the years after that, which encompassed the completion of my backpiece and that of my cornucopia. The cornucopia is on my ribs and, descending from it, an apple and an avocado begin the tumble across my belly. The apple represents Seattle, Washington, and the avocado represents the Bay Area of San Francisco. My plans are to add a fruit, vegetable, or spice from each place I visit, so that by the end of my life, these bits and pieces of places will wrap around my hips.
Because of Jill, I created a body language that expresses me well. Behind me are lessons of the past and what sense I have of rootedness and home. They contain some lessons I’ve learned and are retrospective. Before me and eventually encircling me is travel, moving and learning and growing, and then also remembering and storytelling.
I’ve had a hard time getting tattoo work from anyone else. I have been completely unable to choose an artist who could continue my work – the cornucopia lacks the coffee cherries from Kona, the chai spices from India, and the corn from Virginia. I’m about to move again and I’ve fallen so behind already, but I am used to falling in love with my artist and it’s too much to expect that I will be able to walk into a tattoo shop and in will whirl a tornado of energy, style, and talent. Is it too much to expect?
Jill told me that I had to fall in love. That I had to find a woman who will have the energy, style, and talent to demand my love, of her work, if of nothing else. And that she exists, that I just need to do it. Because the women who work as tattoo artists need the love, they need the canvas and the thoughtfulness and the passion that I bring to my conception and realization of tattooing. And she’s right.
I am focusing on Jill as the tattoo goddess, and it’s true that she had other interests and strengths as well. But it is her tattoos that I live with, that James cuddles into at night, and that help me be more expressive of myself than I could have been without her.
So many of my best stories come from Jill’s deep well of experience. In Phoenix, where there’s a large population of neo-Nazis, Jill had a standing offer – she would cover up any tattoos of Nazi imagery for free, after hours. She became so skilled at coverups that she won tons of awards (including one for my Rocky Horrible Tattoo). In another story, a tattoo helped a woman reclaim ownership of her body after rape and attempted murder, enabling a new, much changed but powerful, life.
And it goes on from there. I couldn’t possibly tell you all about this woman. Jill lived such a huge life and it was a life of uncompromising authenticity. She refused to pretend, knew there was no reason to be anyone but herself. She went to amazing lengths to explore exactly what that meant. She tried all kinds of things, looking for a spirituality that expressed her experience of the universe, looking for a style of loving that fit the heart that overflowed her body.
I believe that our lives are like books. Once the last page is read, the story is over. Jill has a story that will be told again and again, and that is the only immortality I believe in. I will love her even though that’s all I have left of her. But I will miss her.