When you were younger did you ever write on your hands or arms? It probably tended to be something so important that it could not be allowed to be forgotten. A classmate you had a crush on finally gave you their phone number, or a homework assignment that had to be turned in. Or did you ever doodle on your binder in school or the inside-out grocery store paper bag covering a textbook? (Do not tell me if you doodled on the book itself, I don’t want to know that about you.) “I heart [insert name here]” or “JK + GC TLA.” (Jennifer Kaplan + George Clooney True Love Always, in case you don’t know the lingo…) Something that was just so true that it had to have a physical presence in the world. It didn’t matter that a few weeks later [insert name here] would be replaced with a new name. At the time the strength of your passionate young emotions made this statement the most important thing in the whole world.
Well, it’s sort of the same thing with my tattoos. I enjoy well-done tattoos and I like people who have and appreciate them. It is art that you love so much you have it marked permanently so you can carry it with you forever. I’m not against getting a tattoo on my shoulder or back or ankle, a picture or symbol that I love enough to make permanent, but my tattoos are on my wrists. I need to get a million glimpses of them throughout the day. I need to be constantly seeing them, even if only subconsciously. It’s not really any different than writing a reminder about math homework on my arm or writing something true on my binder. Did I say sort of the same, I meant exactly the same. My tattoos are things that I know to be true, but I need to work at remembering.
From a journal entry dated July, 2008:
I’ve been wanting a tattoo for somewhere around 10 years now, but I could never decide what I wanted and where I wanted it at the same time. Well, the last two or so years I’ve known exactly what I wanted and where, but for some reason I’ve been dragging my feet and never got it done. This morning while I was zoning out at work a new tattoo popped into my head. It’s not something I was really considering, design or location wise, but it just feels SO DAMN PERFECT and all of a sudden I find that I can’t wait to get it. I know the responsible thing would be to wait and make sure this is really what I want, but I think I’m just going to say what the hell and do it this weekend.
I actually ended up researching local tattoo places at work that day and getting the tattoo later that night. It’s the most impulsive thing I have ever done, I think. Nothing has ever felt so right.
It says “I love you because I know no other way.” It is a line from a Pablo Neruda poem:
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
It has a deep meaning to me. First of all I love the poem, but there are a lot of poems I love and wouldn’t necessarily tattoo on my body… I love that line in particular because it speaks to me about the nature of love. There have been people in my life that I loved who caused me pain again and again. At one time I spent a lot of energy either beating myself up for loving them or trying not to love them at all. It became this weight I was dragging around, something I knew I needed to “fix” but didn’t quite know how. It was quite freeing when I finally learned that I can love someone and not allow them in my life. I can love someone and not allow their toxicity to pollute me. I can love someone without giving them control over how I am treated. I can love someone freely with my whole heart, my love not lacking in any way, and still choose what is best for me.
There are people who, for whatever reason, genuinely love me but cannot participate in a healthy relationship with me. Instead beating myself up for things I cannot control, or feeling that my emotions were somehow “wrong,” I can look at the situation with a whole new perspective. I can let go and move on. It may or may not be what Pablo Neruda intended to say, but it is what I hear, it is what that passage means to me.
Now this all sounds great, I learned something and now it is ‘known’ and life will be all cotton candy and unicorns, right? Well, not so much… Maybe other people are better at this than I am, maybe they can learn lessons like these and, like a light switch that is been turned on and they can now see. With me it’s less of a light switch and more of a skill set that must be practiced. Kind of a ‘use it or lose it’ situation. Sometimes I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that it’s okay to look out for my own needs. It’s okay to surround myself with people who don’t expect me to prove my love for them in painful ways. Nothing about my feelings are “broken” or “wrong.” In the moments that I’m struggling with that, all I have to do is look down and there it is written on my wrist. A reminder I take with me wherever I go.
Fast forward to September 2009. I knew I wanted to get a second tattoo. Just like the first time I was carefully considering many things, even made a few decisions, but nothing felt right the way the Neruda quote did. I knew what I wanted this one to express, but not what I wanted it to say. I actually spent a few months looking up quotes online by subject, finding a lot of things I liked, a few things I loved, but never the one thing that I knew I would know when I saw it.
If you know me in real life you know that I have loved the band Venice for a very long time. I can’t even count how many times I have seen them in concert. Their songs are buried so deep in my brain that I’m not always aware of when I’m singing along with every line and getting every word right. (Let’s not discuss singing the notes correctly, that is something I’ll never be able to get right!)
I was at a Venice concert with a friend; we were sitting in the back instead of dancing at the front of the stage like usual… The band started playing an old favorite of mine, but it was like hearing it for the first time. My shiny new perspective changes things around me even when I’m not aware of it. Sometimes even I am surprised.
Here are the lyrics to the song Cool Me Down by Venice:
You say you wanna get away
Feel the sun on your back
Forget the race Just get off the track
Well that’s alright…
‘Cause I feel that way too
Yeah, I’ve been there before
You don’t have to go far
To lose what you do
And find who you are
Yeah that’s alright…
Start livin’ the good life
Just wanna feel right
And it’s cool coming down
Cool coming down
This is the real life
Forget the headlines
And it’s cool all around
Cool you down, cool me down
So now you got it in your head
But you’re wondering why
You’re still so afraid
Well that’s part of the high
Yeah that’s alright…
Losing the war in the battle somehow
Look for yourself in the here and the now
The love of our lives can escape us it seems
Where is the life that we live in our dreams?
There are so many beautiful lines in that song, “you don’t have to go far / to lose what you do / and find who you are” is probably my favorite line in the song. The lyric that grabbed me so abruptly though, was “look for yourself in the here and the now.” It was expressing exactly what I had been scouring the net looking at all those other quotes in hopes of finding. I remember stopping. Stopping singing, stopping “chair-dancing,” just stopping everything. I remember turning to my friend and telling her “That’s my new tattoo.” In a flash I knew, it just felt right, the same way my first tattoo had felt.
I didn’t get the second tattoo as quickly as I had gotten the first one, the font and placement had to be perfect and I wasn’t satisfied until I found the magic combination. It was early October when I finally sat down in the tattoo artist’s chair.
I call this one my “diagnosis tattoo” because the way the first tattoo was a direct result of growth due to a bad relationship, this one was a direct result of growth due to my diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. In many ways finally getting the MS diagnosis was a relief, but that’s a topic for a different post. The other thing my diagnosis did was really kick the-obsessing-over-the-future up a notch. I’ve always been a worrier. I can worry about anything. If you gave me a free mansion I could live in the rest of my life, I’d immediately start worrying about who was going to clean it and how I was going to pay the gardeners. It’s just a thing I do, I go to the worst-case-scenario in my head first thing and start trying to figure out how to deal with it. It makes me a great person to have around in case of an emergency, but it’s not conducive to happiness or calmness. It’s something I’ve known about myself for a long time. It’s something that can bring enormous positives to certain situations, I’m not saying it is a bad thing. I’m usually the most organized person in the room because of all the preparation I do trying to make sure things don’t go wrong, but it’s something I have to work to keep in check.
Take a person who can’t stop worrying about things, tell them that they have a degenerative disease with no cure, then stand back and watch the implosion, it’s going to be impressive! Every person is different so every reaction is different, but in general there are only two directions to go, positive or negative. In researching MS I learned that a significant number of MS related suicides occur in the first year after diagnosis, presumably by people who are not yet experiencing any major quality-of-life issues. I’m no mental health expert, but I think those are people who are so focused on what might be coming down the line that they are trapped in a sort of cycle of despair they can’t get out of. As a worrier I totally understand that, but my instinctual reaction was sort of to take it in the opposite direction.
Barring any miracle cures or revolutionary new treatments, MS doesn’t get better. The attacks often resolve themselves, yes, but it is a disease of cumulative damage. Think of coastal erosion, and think of a hurricane. When the hurricane passes things can get back to normal, but MS is still “eroding the coastline” by taking away the body’s function a small piece at a time. Over the years it adds up. I am now in a phase of the disease where I have a significant amount of damage that isn’t going to go away. It would be so easy to focus on that and obsess about what I will do when things get worse. I’m not going to lie, there are times when I still lay in bed and my brain spins ’round and ’round with possibilities, each one worse than the last, but those moments are few and far between.
Mostly I look at it this way: my disease is just going to get worse. No matter how bad I feel today or how frustrating my level of disability, some day down the line I am going to look back on today and consider it the “good ‘ole days.” In the future I am not going to be able to do some of the things I can do today; it’s a fact. When that day comes, do I want to look back on today and regret that I wasted my time worrying and being unhappy, or do I want to look back and smile at how I enjoyed every minute as much as I could? It’s the same way that I can look back now and smile at the memory of dancing in the front row of a concert. I can’t dance in the front row anymore, but those memories still make me happy.
I know you’ve probably heard “live for today” or “one day at a time” in one form or another many, many times. It’s one thing to hear it and say “yeah, yeah, sure, whatever.” It’s another thing to really know it in your head and your heart. Well, I know it now. My life is far from perfect, a few less challenges in life would certainly be welcomed, but if I stop and look around, really take in “the here and the now” my life is pretty damn good. I have things I am passionate about, I have so many wonderful people in my life, and even though my body doesn’t always do what I want it to do, I can still go walk up the block on a beautiful day and appreciate what I see. And on the days I’m having a little trouble remembering that, I only have to look down, I have a reminder written on my wrist.
When I got my tattoos the tattoo artist (same person both times) wanted to make sure I understood that I was getting them upside down. I would easily read them, but other people would have a hard time. That’s ok, I told him. I got them to make myself happy. If you happen to think they are cool, I will smile and say thank you. If you don’t understand or like them, I’ll tell you that’s okay, tattoos are not for everybody. But the fact is that neither scenario makes a difference to me, my tattoos are for me and me alone. I can honestly say that I love them even more now than when I first got each of them.
They are my reminders. They are the lessons that are so important to me, I need them to have a physical presence. They are my tattoos.