Sunday, June 4, 2017

Paradox of Permanence

Sometimes I imagine the sheer unbridled thrill that must have accompanied the first charred line on the wall of a cave, the determination to make paint of dried seeds and water and mud, the rush that must have traveled through the hand of the artist scratching lines into soft clay. One of the defining characteristics of humankind is our language of expression. In Art History my teacher's enthusiasm and passion and awe when she spoke about Mesopotamia and the Sumerians and cuneiform stirred something in me.  When she projected slides of marked tortoise shells and cave drawings and tablets carefully imbued with scratches, it called to mind the human desire to document, to leave a message behind.  Perhaps that's the pull to the page -- to leave a message about who we were and what we believed.

There is a power that comes with the permanence of marks or words.  Of labeling and naming. Soft clay, cave walls, and papyrus weren't enough. Whatever is left behind is an expression of the self, so it only makes sense that virtually every culture in the world has some history of the body as canvas. Our word tattoo comes from the Tahitian to mark.  A mark on the human canvas can be done for good or evil.  We certainly have history close enough to show us that -- the marks placed on the bodies of slaves to remind them of their place (and still they found song and dance and laughter, in spite of the horrors).  In the Japanese Edo Period, each time a criminal was caught for a non-violent crime, another mark was added to his forehead, ultimately creating the pictograph for dog.  He was marked.  But most ancient tattoos were oracular and bridging. They communicated a sense of belonging, just as the Cree would mark each of its people. It provided a sense of identity. In 1891 Egyptologist Eugene Grebaut discovered the mummy of Amunet.  Her abdomen was covered with tiny dots; when pregnant, those dots would spread as a net, safeguarding her womb from the world outside it.  Her thighs were marked by Bes, a divinity who served as protector in childbirth.  Sailors, too, marked themselves with such amulets -- anchors and swallows.

I suppose, then, it was in my rich human history to feel compelled to mark my own canvas.  But I did so without much forethought, unfortunately. On my first day of college, I was presented with a college coupon book at the University's book store. Inside, like a siren, was a coupon for a tattoo at the shop just around the corner.  It whispered to me, called me. Perhaps it was the desire to ground. To remember myself. To become.  I was away from home, away from my friends.  Lost.  And so, a few hours later, I found myself there in the tattoo parlor, coupon burning a hole in my pocket.  I quickly sketched out the design I'd doodled in notebooks for years. A spiral with lines emanating outward.  My version of a tribal sun. Why tribal? I can't be sure. Something ancestral not snuffed out through evolution and breeding and modern civilization?

The tattoo cost $10.  He was done in less than 10 minutes.  I'd nervously sketched the image.  The sun was in my own hand, which I suppose is symbolic in its own rite.  He went too deep with the needle.  The ink bled and solidified in thick, disproportionate lines.  My father's joke for years every time he saw it was: "Oh my God! There's a spider on your foot!" There were things I loved about it, despite its clear imperfections.  I like the notion of the sun.  I've always been drawn to that idea. Astrologists tell us that it represents power, influence, energy, and the self.  The sun is about the present, the moon about the past.  The sun rejuvenates, provides vision.  And obviously, the sun is our life force.  Without its light, its heat, we perish.  And its also about consistency.  As Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote, "It just keeps rising and never asks for anything in return."  And I needed that concept at that time in my life, even if I didn't think all the way through it -- to be a light and an energy, to know myself, to be present, to keep rising.

I lived with that mark for 15 years. It became a powerful teaching lesson.  Each year a student would ask about it. I joked that it was a remnant from my time in the slammer.  Some smart-aleck would ask if it was an asterisk, if that was my favorite piece of punctuation.  Did I swear a lot? So it became a lesson in patience and purpose.  It became a lesson in knowing when to use a coupon and when to pay full price. It became a lesson in permanence -- some decisions aren't so easy to sweep under the rug.

I'd toyed with having it removed, but that seemed silly. The mark was a piece of my identity.  It provided a dot on the timeline of my life.  It was, perhaps, terribly similar to a rudimentary mark on a cave wall, but a mark nonetheless.

The process of covering it was as far removed from the experience of my first tattoo as it could have been. This time, I toiled to decide.  When I finally knew, I waited 2 more years before committing.  I sought out an artist, not some dude with a tattoo gun and some ink and a coupon. I booked the appointment -- she had a four month waiting list.

This tattoo is large, covering the length of my foot.  It is emblematic of values that are important to me. It is comprised of 4 prominent images: a stalk of lavender, a coneflower, 2 poppies, and a strand of wheat.  Beside the base is one simple word: be. 

Just as the Sumerians and the Egyptians felt compelled to leave a mark, an experience, a story behind, so too do I.  I feel most at home in nature, most myself. I'm tightly wound.  The natural world reminds me to breathe a little more deeply, to let go.  I'm naturally anxious.  This new image is there as my own amulet of sorts: lavender to remember to breathe and relax, a coneflower to heal what ails, the poppies for creativity and imagination, and wheat for stability and a reminder to give energy to that which nourishes.  The word be works on a series of levels.  One of my favorite quotes is Jane Kenyon's line, "Be a good steward of your gifts."  I think it ties nicely with the symbolism of the bunch.  From Psalm 46:10, "Be still, and know..." -- a reminder that the world is larger than me.  I often struggle to be fully present.  I make lists and count days and think of the next thing and the next. That simple two letter word ushers in the importance of presence.  When Amy Krouse Rosenthal was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she wrote about "Plan Be," not "Plan B." And it reminds me of the sun, that rash act I committed 15 years ago in a hopeless effort to make a mark, to know.  I love that the initial mark, the impetus for this new one, remains underneath.  Others won't know, but I will. And now, beneath it all, that sun is seemingly giving energy and light and love to each of the plants that remind me to be the person I want to be.

Few things in life are permanent. We are in a constant cycle of evolution, of growth.  The permanence of that initial tattoo no longer seems permanent when it can't be seen.  This tattoo will last only as long as my flesh, a nanosecond in the world's existence.  We cannot hope to last forever. We cannot hope to know something in its entirety. I am a child of the universe: small and temporary. But I have the capacity to be large in the time I have.  I have the capacity to be a light, to be a force, to be a vision.  I have the capacity to be gentle and kind, both with myself and others.  I have the capacity to nourish and inspire, to feed.  I have the power to be.  I've marked it; when I lose my way, as I invariably will, I'll be reminded.

1 comment:

  1. <3 Reading your personal essays winds me through your thinking...such fun to be invited into your bright and clever and thoughtful mind! Thank you for writing. Keep it up.