AUSTIN'S SINGING ANGEL
- Part One -
Interview by Paul Johnston 4-17-1999
Kind hearted Sara, Sara Hickman, the very talented singer/songwriter and guitarist, is a blessing to the human race. Not only is she a wonderful and entertaining performer, she possesses a humanitarian quality that stands out head and shoulders above most modern day performers. Yes, other performers may sometimes occasionally lend their names and talents to some big name charitable endeavors and groups. However, after the event, they go back to their own lives and promoting their careers. Sara's caring and love for her fellow human being goes back to childhood. Her concern and kind works have been a integral part of her being for her whole life. Take a look at her touring schedule over the many years and you will find her time and talent donated to numerous charitable events monthly. Austin, Texas proudly claims Sara Hickman as its own "Singing Angel."
What projects are you now involved in?
"Today I start work on an album called ‘Newborn.' It's going to be available at my shows and my web page only. It's an album for parents and newborn children. Then I start work on my new album ‘Spiritual Appliances' at the end of May. It's a collection of songs that deal with being human and how we apply spirituality to our lives."
At the 1998 Austin Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, you were one of the musical performers. You noticed a little baby in the audience. You made special recognition of this and sang a lullaby to him. During the performance, you would make frequent comments to the baby. When the parents got up to leave, you said "goodbye" to the baby and sang a parting song. Being a recent mother, has that made you more perceptive of babies in general?
"No, I've always been pretty aware and excited about children. I went to Romania and worked with orphans way before I got pregnant. I've always had lots of friends that were in every age group. I don't just hang out with people my own age. I have lots of friends that are three, seven, and fifteen. I think the difference in having a child, of course, deepens that love for all children; but I have always been aware of children and whether they were happy or having a hard time.
I remember in high school there use to be some homeless children that would show up across the street digging through dumpsters and stuff. That always tore my heart out. Since we were at a high school for performing arts, most people were pretty liberal minded and aware. We would talk about them. Everybody would see them at some point or another. We were all concerned. It was kind of a hopeless feeling cause you would try to talk to them and they would run away. They were almost like wild children."
How did you become involved with the orphan children of Romania ?
"Well, I have this belief that God taps me on the shoulder, like he taps all of us. I try to stay really focused on what God wants me to do. One day I was sitting in an airport in Colorado getting ready to come home. I was reading the newspaper and I read this compelling article about a woman and her teenage son. They had just decided to go to Romania and work with the orphans.
As I was reading the article, I just knew in my heart that I needed to go to Romania. So, I went back to Texas and I sent out a newsletter to all my fans and said I am going to Romania. Will you help me by donating clothing and supplies? So I took about twenty refrigerator sized boxes of diapers, clothes, shoes, socks, coats, hats, and things that children over there need, and toys, lots of toys. I flew over to Romania and delivered them to orphanages."
What year was that?
"I'd say ‘93."
You read this article that inspired you and collect items to give to the orphanages. Was it a hassle to get all these items to Romania?
"It was pretty fun organizing it. It was expensive. It's not cheap to kind of put your life on hold. I had to pay for the plane tickets and transportation of the items. Once I got there, it was just such an amazing experience."
As an American going through customs, was that a problem?
"When I got there I had to wait a week because the kids did not get there when they said they would. I had to go to the security place everyday and check in and see if they had got the boxes yet. That was a real hassle because, especially in Romania, it is a big deal to find someone with a car. It was pretty far out of the city. I had to bribe the security guards with cigarettes just to get in and talk to the officials every time. It was a little frightening too! I do not think it is now as aggressive as when I went there at the time. They search you pretty hard when you come in. It is not like going through a search here in America. They check you out to make sure you are not bringing in any drugs or money or anything they do not want in their country. When I got on the plane, there were people standing with machine guns. That was pretty frightening.
I always felt a great sense of security. I never felt afraid. I was warned before I went over there about gypsies and bandits. When I met gypsies I just talked to them like I would talk to anybody else. I always spoke English. I would use a few Spanish words because their language is a Romantic language so they could interpret certain words. I never had a problem. I had a really wonderful experience."
Did you know which orphanages you were going to visit before you left?
No. I was at the mercy of the hands of the people we contacted. They were some of the same people who had worked with the woman who had gone over there in the newspaper article because I had contacted her and she faxed the people over there and told them I was coming. I never actually talked to them before I went over there. I just went on faith that she had actually talked to them. When we got to the airport, they had a little sign that said "Sara Hickman." I just got in the car with them. There was only one person that spoke English. It was pretty bad. We just ended up going to this apartment complex. We met a women there we called "Momma." She was probably in her seventies. She fed us our first Romanian meal. Then we met two more people that could speak English a little better and we stayed with them. We were kind of working on faith."
Were you by yourself?
" I was going to go by myself and one of my best friends went with me, so there was two of us."
Once you got to the orphanages, how long did this trip last? Of that time, how much time did you get to spend with the children and what did you do with them?
"I think we were there under two weeks. We would go to the orphanages to deliver the clothes and the toys. Mostly we worked with handicapped children, children who were touched deprived, children who had hepatitis, children who had aides, children who were blind and children who were severely deformed, missing limbs; children who had been in their cribs so long that their arms and legs had atrophied from lack of exercise. Most of the time I would hold the children or sit and sing songs to them, sit outside with them, play with them. One of the neat things we did is that we took Polaroid ™ cameras and we took pictures of the children. They would get so excited. Lot of them had never seen themselves. They don't have lot of mirrors. As they watched the film develop, they would start screaming and shrieking, and hitting themselves with the picture and hugging the picture. It was kind of like this painful joy to watch these children have such severe reaction to just a simple photograph. That was really heartbreaking because we ran out of film pretty quick. We did not realize how moving that would be for them. We did not speak the same language, but this sounds kind of corny, but as long as you were loving, the children were more than eager to accept that.
The first orphanage we went to, I remember we walked in and they said now we just want to know to take off all your jewelry because they will get just very excited. They will want to keep a piece of you. They may grab your earrings out and grab your bracelet and watch. We took everything off and then they said try not to be overwhelmed because they are all going to call you 'Mommy.' I walked in....I would guess....I don't know how many children were out on this, they called it a playground, but it was really like a dirt yard; it did not have swings and things like you would have here. Some children were crawling. Some children were hopping. Some could walk. I was just surrounded by, I do not know how many children, but they were all saying 'Mommy!' They were all touching me and grabbing wanting me to hold them. It is probably the saddest and happiest I have been in my whole life. I could for a second understand how Jesus must have felt when he met the lepers because he just showed such great love for these people. You feel so helpless that you are doing so little. I just thought, ‘ghee!', this is silly! I had this vision I would come over and help children and have to kind of walk away knowing that you may have helped them for the moment or you may have helped them for the week, but they are in such dire straights."
Where in Romania was this orphanage and do you remember its name?
"We started in Bucharest and they had numbers. I think the first one we went to was maybe number 14 and then we went to surrounding cities around Bucharest. I didn't go far ,but the person I went with, he's since gone back maybe nine times now and he has continued to go to the orphanages. I still try to raise money to give to him to take over there. He's actually a godfather to a little child over there now. It's really sweet that he has gone on to get really very involved with Romania. I am really happy for him because I know it's a once in a lifetime experience. It changes your life."
Did you take your guitar with you?
"I was going to take my guitar but then I was told it probably would just get broken; so actually just singing a capella was fine. They loved that. They just ate that up! I remember one day I was sitting outside with a little boy named Ruben and he was laying on his stomach. He was completely blind. He didn't even have eyes. He just had these flaps where his eyes would have been. He had this beautiful chopped off blonde hair....big, big bright smile. I was just rubbing his back and singing little lullabies to him. He was almost as if he was purring like a little kitten. He was so happy to have someone touching him. At the same time I was holding another little person in my lap who was reading "Pat the Bunny," a little book with all the touch sensitive things in there. You would have someone hanging around your neck and other children running around getting ready to come hop in."
Of the two week trip, how many days were spent at the orphanages? Was there more than one orphanages?
"I guess we went to around probably six or seven of them. Then we went out in the country; I don't remember why we went out in the country, but we were talking to people that lived outside in villages. That was really moving too because their homes were very modest. They have very interesting styles. The homes have this paint that has this glitter. You walk in these Easter egg colored houses and they have hardly anything there. I felt like I went into the land of Oz for some reason out in the country. They would have their gardens.....very simple lives. I spent six or seven days at the orphanages and traveling in the country. There was a lot of driving involved. Sometime cars would break down and you had to find rides. That was the biggest hassle, just transportation."
Had you been outside the United States before?
"I'd been to London and I'd been to Canada and Mexico and I'd seen some of the same poverty in Mexico that I saw in Romania but I had not worked with children at that level before."
Where did your religion that influences your thoughts and motives come from?
"Well, I've just always felt very curious and compelled to understand my relationship with God ever since I was a little child. I think I come from a background of very empathetic people. Both my grandmothers were involved in volunteering and working in hospitals and delivering food to the elderly and needy. Very early on I became a candy-striper at thirteen or fourteen and then I started doing sort of simplistic music therapy at fifteen. I'd go in psychiatric units and work with kids my age singing songs to them. As I went on to and out of college I got more involved in volunteering time to work in hospitals, burn units, pediatric wards, geriatrics, and psychiatric wards. I think a lot of that has always felt important to me because in essence that's delivering God's dream. I feel like we are all connected and we are all each other's angels. We have to look out for each other and help one another. I don't know. I've just always felt that. As I have grown as a person, I spend more and more quality time in meditation or prayer or just going to church or reading more philosophical viewpoints about religion and God and the spirit. It's very interesting."
You mentioned your grandmother working with charities. Was this grandmother on your mother or father's side of the family?
"Both of them."
This charity work, was this done within their church?
"Some of it was in the church and some of it was just volunteering at the local hospital. I think that comes from the era when women were through sororities; you became involved in the community and just.... that was something women did. They were much more involved. They had much more time to do that. I always thought that was really neat. I would see my grandmother working in the hospital helping people. I liked that! Both of them, I wanted to do what they were doing."
By their example of humanitarian efforts, is this where some of your main religious beliefs or activities came from versus going to a formal church?
"We went to a Methodist church when I was a little kid. We didn't really go that long and both my parents are very articulate and well read. They are literary people. Our house was always full of all kind of books. Mostly books about art and photography but also books about equality and humanity. I was always kind of pouring through them and reading them. I would have to say the example of my grandmothers was half a cup of flour and all the books and activities around my house were the other cup of flour. That's part of the recipe. I don't think you can pinpoint one thing."
Do you think because your parents enjoyed reading, you picked this up from them?
Oh, Yeah! I remember the first two books I ever read. One was "The Cat in the Hat" and the other one was "Leonardo De Vinci." It was a Time-Life ™ book on Leonardo De Vinci. I must have read that book sixteen times. I loved that book so much! I would look at the pictures, the drawings he had made, his inventions and how he explored the human body to learn about tissue and blood vessels and the organs. I just thought he was amazing."
Some of those people that lived in the past were pretty incredible.
"Yeah, he lived, in what the fourteenth century, and he was already building flying machines or drawing them. He didn't actually put one together. He had the concept of balloons that you could have a basket in a balloon and fly around the world. He had the concept that we weren't just this spirit of the flesh. You were flesh and bone and that you could study that and figure out how human beings ticked and how they worked. I thought he was a man of great intelligence and that made me want to think about things. I didn't want to assume things. I wanted to learn about things and study different things. I wanted to understand why some people believe in Buddhism and why some people believe in Christianity and why some people are atheist and why some people are agnostic. I find that all fantastically interesting."
We may have already covered this but why did you become involved in charities? Would that be because of your grandmothers' influence?
"I would have to say my family was, if I may say this, pretty sophisticated, and not to say the neighborhood I grew up in wasn't sophisticated but there weren't other families on the street that had art books and weavings and a studio where their father was outside painting or their parents were taking photographs all the time. I remember on our back porch we had this big huge ceramic jar full of clay and any time I wanted to make something I would just go out and get the clay and make it. My mom would take it to school and fire it and then we could paint it. It would be ours forever. Most of the kids on the street had parents who went to work from nine to five and had day jobs. They ate dinner together every night. I don't know they had lot of creativity going on in their homes.
Part of creativity is empathy. When you are creating a lot, you have to have empathy to create. You have to understand the human condition and you have to be able to reflect what you are seeing or else you're really truly aren't an artist. That's why great art lives on because you are reflecting something. It's captured a moment or a feeling. So, I think that's part of what lead me to get involved with different groups too because I have a lot of empathy from just my own years of willingness or confusion or depression or happiness. I just know other people have those feelings and I think not only is that part of my getting involved with social services but involves my music because I started realizing that my music can really be a therapy for people. It can help touch people and heal people and move people to get involved or make people laugh and make people cry. I've seen it. I've seen it standing on stage and I've seen it standing on a street corner. If you are talking about things that are real and have affected you, generally, it's affected somebody else. So, I think that's why I got involved. I didn't want people to hurt like I've hurt and I didn't want people to be sad. I wanted to help people to feel that there's a balance and reason and connection for all of this."
Even though each of us are unique, just the fact we're humans we are going to encounter similar human experiences and we can relate to each other that way?
At your recent La Zona Rosa performance, you told a story about witnessing your grandfather crying after the death of his mate. Will you retell that for us?
"Well my grandparents grew up in the same small town in Missouri and their families knew each other and I think they knew each other but I wouldn't say they were like friends. I would say they were socially active and just knew each other. My grandmothers and sisters left the Ozarks and went to New York city in the early twenties. Somehow, I guess because they both were pretty talented, they landed a radio show in New York city. [Sara laughs out loud in the telling.] My grandmother played the piano and my Great Aunt Mary would sing and then they would also play for silent movies and dance hall with sailors and all that. In the mean time, my grandfather was touring around the country playing saxophone in big swing bands. Somehow they started writing letter to each other. I am assuming this was in the twenties. I don't know the exact dates. I know that my grandpa was in touring bands. He would play saxophones in dance halls too and people would come out and listen to music and dance.
They started writing letters. I think they wrote letters for seven years and they finally decided to get married. My grandmother came back and I think they ended up in Michigan together. I'm not sure about that but anyway they were married for almost 60 years. They loved each other. I wouldn't say it was a perfect life together. I don't think there can be a perfect life together but they stuck through thick and thin and brought up two children, had a lot of fun and had lot of sorrow. Towards the end of my grandmother's life, she started getting very ill and then she passed away. I couldn't go to her funeral. She died suddenly. I decided that I would go after the funeral and be with my grandpa because I knew that would be the hardest time and everybody would be gone. So I went and stayed with him for three or four days. I just remember when I walked in the door that first day he was sitting in a big easy chair. He was all alone and he was just sobbing and it was really moving. I went over and sat down next to him, took his hand and held it. He just was crying. I just thought ‘Wow' I don't even know what it's like to spend sixty years with someone yet. I did not know what it was to love someone that much. It was just the sweetest saddest moment. So, the song ‘Take Me With You' came out of that."
Which grandparents were these?
"They were my dad's parents."
You mentioned at your performance that when your granddad was crying and you had not seen him cry before, it was if he did not realize that you were there?
"Well, it was kind of like, he knew I was there. I'm sure at some level it was a comfort to him. It was almost like he had always been this proud Republican religious man. He was kind of a man that when we had Thanksgiving we would all be around the table and we'd all hold hands and he would say a prayer. That was all wonderful, but he was always kind of the joking grandpa but he really didn't let you in. Here was the moment I was getting to see the human side of my grandpa and the frail side of my grandpa and the old side of my grandpa and the elderly side. I don't think it mattered to me whether or not he knew I was there, what mattered to me was that I was getting to see the real person and that really touched me. It really moved me to see how deeply he could feel. That was amazing! I felt really honored that I got to see that side of him and I got to see how much he loved my grandmother. That's what I carry all the time. It kind of helped me see that he wasn't just this ‘all-together' person, you know, that he was vulnerable."
What age were you?
"That probably would have been eight or nine years ago [age 26]. He ended up living in a care managed hospital. He was very ill and had lot of dementia. I made a point to go visit him a lot as he got more and more feeble and fragile."
Is your grandfather still alive?
"No, I went and gave the eulogy at his funeral about four or five years ago."
At your La Zona Rosa performance, you said you would like to find someone that you loved so much that if they died you would not want to go on living?
"I said that is how my grandfather felt. He really did not want to be here any more when my grandmother died. What I was insinuating was that I would like to have someone that I loved that much. I don't know that I'm really saying that I would want to die when they die, more so I would like to have the longevity and the depth of love that they had. I feel like I have that now. Of course, I have that with my parents. I have that now with a partner and I have that with my daughter. I feel like I would do anything for Lily, anything."
As your grandfather's mental faculties were being diminished, what were your thoughts?
"I felt great compassion for him and I felt sad. It's very humbling to watch the life process take place. I would go to this care facility. I remember one time I actually helped practically picked my grandfather up out of his wheel chair and put him in his bed. He was a much larger man than I am a female. He seemed to get lighter and lighter and smaller and smaller. It was almost like tucking a child into bed. It was a bizarre feeling to pick my grandfather up and tuck him in or to help him if he had an accident and to clean him up. He started having trouble towards the end of his life. I mean just things like that or to have to remind him, he'd say something and he would forget and I would have to remind him. Or, he would say that grandma had gone to the store and she was coming right back. After a while I would talk to him like, ‘Yeah, she has gone to the store and she will be coming back,' because I'd realized where his mind had gone. Why torment him? So, it was a lot of feelings, lot of feelings."
The role reversal of the child becoming the adult and taking care of what had been a functioning adult brings out some strange feelings.
"I think it brings out in you what you've been given and what you've been taught. I'd been taught respect and I'd been taught compassion and I'd been taught responsibility by my grandparents. It was my turn to give that back to my grandpa."
On your AOL ( America on Line) profile, you have the statement, "You ask why, I ask why not?" It sounds like something President Kennedy once said.
"I got it from a door. There use to be a door in Dallas, that was part of a dilapidated old building, and the door was pristine. It was this white door and it had these big wooden letters on it that said, ‘Why Not' and a big question mark. The whole door was painted white."
Where did you get the AOL screen name of "Max Pumpkin?"
"I got ‘Max' from a friend of mine. It was my nickname she gave me and I got ‘Pumpkin' from a boyfriend. I had died my hair red and he had always called me ‘Pumpkin'. So when I needed an AOL name I thought, ‘Max Pumpkin, that's good!' "
Tell us about how you go about creating your music?
"I think part of it is being an open receptor to God and Muse, and spirit and life and keeping your eyes open, your ears open and your heart open. I think part of it is responsibility. I think you have to sit down and make a choice, ‘I'm going to write a song today.' Choosing time and space and solitude and just working and letting it come out of you. I think, thirdly, it's just an amazing magical process."
When you decide to write a song, is it an idea that you had been thinking about or has hit you and then finally this is the time ,or do you sit down and say "let me think about these ideas I've had?" When does the spirit move you?
"That's pretty much it. That's true about those things you just said. Sometimes I have them in dreams too. I'll see myself in a dream singing a song and I'll wake up and write down what I dreamed about."
Do you sit down with your guitar to write a song? Is that the instrument you use or do you sing in your mind?
"Sometimes I write it in my mind. I've been playing guitar so long my mind can see and hear pretty much the chords I'm using. I wrote a song ‘Why Don't You?' sitting in traffic and I knew it was in the key of G. I could hear it in G and I saw my fingers on the guitar. I came home and picked up the guitar and sure enough I was singing it in the key of G. So, you know, I've spent a lot of time with my guitar."
Does your guitar have a name?
"I use to name my guitars. I don't name them any more. The second guitar I every had was named ‘Wysteria' after Dan Fogelberg's song [ Album, Home Free]."
Once you get your song written, do you put it down on paper?
"I put it down on tape."
When putting together a new show that requires a band, how often do you practice with the band before performing?
"Most of the people I play with at this level in my career are highly trained and being professional. We might get together for two or three rehearsals. That's about it."
The La Zona Rosa show with the Will Taylor group, how did that all come about?
"Will called me up. He wanted to see if I would be willing to work with him in a club. I said, ‘Yeah!' that sounded like fun and we just did it. We just got together and started doing it."
How many times did you get together before you put on your show and where do you get together?
"At a studio. Sometimes we rehearse at the ARC [Austin Rehearsal Complex] , but the ARC is not going to be there much longer."
THANK YOU SARA !
Birthday : 3-1-1963
Celestial Birthplace: Planet Zook, "A place in my mind, just a planet left of center."
Earthly Birthplace: Jacksonville, N.C., lived there 3 weeks
Moved to Dekalb, Illinois; lived there 6 years.
Moved to Houston in 1969 to 1981.
Ed White Elementary; Houston, Texas
Sharpstown Junior High; Houston, Texas
High School for the Performing and Visual Arts; Houston, Texas
Went to college in 1981.
Colleges - East Texas State, for her first year; University of Houston; graduated from North Texas State University (Denton, Texas) in 1986. Majored in fine arts and painting.
After college graduation, moved to Dallas and stayed with a great aunt while getting her footing.
"My Mom and Dad can do anything!"
Mother 's profession - Renaissanse Woman, Photographer
Father's profession - Art Professor
Favorite Ice Cream- Mint Chocolate Chip
- Part Two -
Sara Hickman - Austin's Singing Angel
Sara's Official Web Page
Drop a line to Paul
Sarah Hickman's Interview : 4-17-1999 : 10 - 11 AM
Copyright - Paul Johnston - 1999