Written on the Body

Next month, it'll be ten years since I moved back to the United States.

Of course, it wasn't really about moving "back." I wasn't feeling homesick for my native land, and although I'd visited Philadelphia and liked it a lot, there was nothing about it that felt like "home" to me.

It wasn't about leaving my husband and my life in Italy, either. There were things that weren't great, of course, because I was (and am) a human with flaws and desires surrounded by people with not-always-aligned flaws and desires all trying to live our lives, but nothing specific that pushed me to flee, or anything so dramatic. (Although it certainly felt plenty dramatic at the time.)

It was about going in search of... things. New areas of knowledge (hence the grad school part), new aspects of me that I suspected were there but that didn't quite have a way to work their way to the surface in the life I'd built. I knew some of what I was searching for, and what I needed, but as always happens I ended up with a lot more change than I bargained for. That's kind of the cool thing about human existence, right? It's a constant swirl of surprises.

A lot can happen in a decade. I've wound up with a whole new life, still with flaws, surrounded myself with some new imperfect folks and kept most of the old ones around, too. I struggle and I sometimes kind of give up in frustration, but then I find something new to keep me moving forward. Sometimes the new stuff sticks, sometimes it doesn't and I start over again. I muddle through, figuring things out as I go, just like everybody else.

I've learned so much, things about myself and the world and thoughts and theories and other people and how things work and don't work. That learning will never end, I hope, and there's still so much more to work through. But one of the things I've learned is how important it is to stop and acknowledge what has been accomplished, what has changed and grown. It's too easy for me to stay focused on what's left to be done, where I've failed, where my flaws have proven insurmountable. My new thing this year is to (learn to) stop second-guessing myself, stop fretting about why what I do, what I am, is wrong or broken or simply not enough. This is what I have to work with, and as it turns out, it actually is enough. More than enough. My flaws make some things difficult or impossible, but instead of fighting them I can embrace them, recognize that they are also part of who and what I am, and stop trying to constantly fix myself or pretend that I am something I'm not. Stop hoping no one will notice the woman behind the curtain, small and vulnerable and never quite sure of what the hell she's doing. Because it's okay to be figuring things out as I go, just like everybody else. That's part of how we connect to each other, with the muddling.

This is a hard lesson for me to absorb. Radical self-acceptance is, well, radical.

I have lots of friends with tattoos I've admired. To varying degrees, in all honesty. But a lot of them are great. I've just never felt particularly compelled to get one of my own. Oh, I've had idle thoughts in passing, but nothing that stuck. I didn't feel strongly about any given image, or sense the need to commemorate major life transitions with body modification. (Which I still hold is a perfectly valid lifestyle choice--I have no regrets about NOT getting inked on any of the various landmark occasions of my life.) Mostly, the idea of getting something permanent etched on my self filled me with a paralyzing terror of doing something I'd live to regret. Commitment phobia. Better no tattoo than the wrong one, amirite?
Actually, I think this is true. But "the wrong one" is a lot more malleable a concept than I used to believe.

It was another side to my perfectionism. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of being judged.

One of the many lessons I've learned--or, more accurately, am in the process of learning--is that perfectionism is a trap even more insidious than I used to realize. It's not just a cause of stress and late nights and overwork. It forces you to be small, to take tiny, careful steps, or bigger ones only when you've considered them from every possible angle and there's no other choice. It cultivates an aversion to failing, and especially of failing in public. Perfectionism despises risk.

Which is a problem, because I've always had a risk-embracing streak. Directly at odds with my abhorrence of mistakes, and profound embarrassment at all the ones I've made, including an extra helping of shame for the mistakes I'm sure I've made without even realizing. I love adventure and bold actions, especially if I can approach them carefully and do my best to control the outcomes in advance. It's a paradox.

Lately, though, I've been getting a little tired of subtle. Feeling cramped in yet another cage that I've built for myself, a sturdy contraption of fear and guilt that can hold me pretty tightly within its grasp.

As I've said in increasingly frequent iterations, and with different degrees of conviction over these past few years: Fuck that.

Really, though, it wasn't any sense of rebellion or chafing against the strictures of society or my own mind that led me to the tattoo parlor this week. It was just a random seed of a thought that floated into my consciousness and took hold. Back in January, out of the blue, I was struck with an idea. And it felt right, deep in my veins. I got excited, then obsessed. I realized that not only did I love the idea(s), but the timing was kind of perfect to make a dramatic statement--not to the world, but to myself.

My original plan was to wait, and get the tattoo only if I earned tenure. Once I grasped the planning and scheduling involved, though, I realized that unless I wanted to wait months and months, I needed to talk to an artist and get things set up well before I would know the outcome of my case. I hesitated. What if it was bad luck to plan for a commemorative tat before even knowing whether there was anything to commemorate? Wouldn't that be humiliating?

No, I decided.

The thing is, this past decade--these past sixteen years, if you really want to go back to the beginning, when I started this journal and my master's degree the same year, the year that set in motion a sequence of transformations that would lead to an entirely different life than anything I could've imagined at the time--this decade (or sixteen years) happened. The life I have now, and the life I'm working on piecing together, is evidence of it. Regardless of the official outcome on an institutional level--and I still don't know the answer--those changes are real. It's been a journey, one worth acknowledging. I don't have to wait for anyone's permission or official stamp of approval.

If you hang out in certain corners of the Internet, you may have already read my explanation of the genesis of the image. If not, well, the short version is that it draws together different strands of my history and my identity, while also looking to the future. There are lots of parts to it, and I put together a very nerdy idea book that I gave to the artist back in February. We talked it through, and I could tell she got it. I'd hoped she would, since I'd chosen her because the samples of her work I'd found online really resonated with me. She told me to come back in a month to look at the preliminary sketch, and meanwhile we set three appointments for late spring.

When I entered the studio again in March, I wasn't sure what to expect. It wasn't what I found. I honestly don't know how she did it, but she managed to take my jumble of thoughts and example images and gazillion ideas of things that could be included, but didn't have to be, and create exactly the right drawing. The perfect expression of me, even though we'd only spoken for a brief time. It actually took me a while to take it in, come to terms with the notion that this was going to become a permanent part of me. Physical, tangible. She showed it to me with some color markings, but gave me a black and white photocopy to take home. It's been sitting on my coffee table for a month, and every time I looked at it, I fell a little more in love. I couldn't wait. Late April couldn't get here soon enough.

A few minutes in, I said, "I'm feeling a little light-headed, I don't know if that's normal..." and then a wave of nausea swept through me and I nearly passed out. While sitting in the chair. It wasn't even about the pain (that came later, see below); it was as though my whole body just decided, "Oh, hell no!" and tried to make it all stop. I broke out in a cold sweat, was afraid I'd throw up, and the artist finally moved me onto the table so my head was even with my feet. That felt much better. (Actually, come to think of it, the part she did while I was lying on the table was the easiest for me to handle, relatively speaking. Not that any of it was easy.) After a while, I moved back to the chair. And we kept going.

I didn't expect the crying. Oh, I knew it would hurt--everyone knows that tattoos are painful. You're being repeatedly stabbed with ink-filled needles! I mean, duh.

But the thing is, it really hurt. A lot. Some parts more than others, and there was a sadly brief time when I thought I was kind of getting into the zone and just going with it, but then it went back to being really fucking painful. I tried breathing into it, I tried talking to distract myself, I tried thinking about happy things. I was lucky enough to have a friend there for several hours of the toughest parts, and he let me squeeze the hell out of his arm and showed me funny YouTube videos and read parts of a book on Russian prison tattoos aloud. He also let me hand him my snotty, tear-soaked kleenexes. All of that helped, a lot.

Eventually I abandoned what scraps of dignity I had left, and just started growling and roaring like some kind of wild animal. I later posted on Facebook that I was clearly a tyrannosaurus in a previous life. (Also, the aforementioned lovely friend was so amused by the noises I was making, he posted a video to Instagram. So don't go nominating him for sainthood or anything.) I could hear laughter from the other parts of the shop, but I was so beyond caring at that point. I was ready to do whatever it took to get me through it. I then progressed from roaring to singing. If you know me well, you know that singing in front of people is something I'm terrified of, and need to psych myself up for well in advance. And I still might chicken out. Fear of making mistakes, public failure, hello again! But I sang tuneless melodies at the top of my lungs, in a place filled with strangers I couldn't see, to combat the buzzy needles jabbing my spine and my ribs and my shoulder blades. There were no mistakes anymore, no shame, everything was okay. Whatever it took was, by definition, good.

After nearly seven hours (not all of which was actual needle time, of course), I stumbled out of the studio, freshly inked and ointmented and saranwrapped. I could muster just enough energy to call ahead for Thai take-out, and collapse on the sofa to eat after picking it up. I'd brought plenty of snacks and had barely stopped eating or drinking all day, but somehow still managed to be hungry. I passed out right there, sitting up, and didn't wake until the next morning, confused at the sun coming through the living room blinds. And with an ink stain on my sofa, sigh. But I looked in the mirror and fell in love with my tattoo all over again. I have a complicated relationship with my body, so this wanting to stare at it, marvel at the way the drawn lines follow the hollows and curves of my muscles and skeleton... it's a new feeling, to look at myself and be filled with admiration.

View from the aid station

Someone I know virtually has, in the past year, become a tattoo aficionado. She waxes poetic not just about the significance of her ink, but the joy she takes in the process. A few months ago she announced her delight at discovering that she had utter tolerance for rib tattoos, that the flowers snaking up her side had been no more painful than those she'd had done in "more comfortable" areas, that she found the whole experience spiritually enlightening and relaxing, even meditative.

That is very much not like me. At all. But you know, I am really and truly okay with that. Despite the pain, the almost fainting, despite the crying and the roaring and the (oh god) singing, never once did it occur to me to say, "Stop." To change my mind. The only way out was through, even though it was not in any way pretty, and was in fact a giant mess of smeared mascara on sheets and lip-biting sobbing and having to pause because I was squirming too much. A cacophonous symphony of unladylike noises. All of that happened and it was not just okay, it was glorious. I didn't have to be a pinnacle of Zen enlightenment to do it right. My own chaotic, imperfect way was, well, mine. The experience belonged to me, just as it was.

I go back in a few weeks for the first of at least two coloring sessions. I can't wait.