Saturday, January 12, 2013

Re Entry: Becoming a (more) tattooed lady

In all the literature about sabbaticals, there is a good deal of angst spilled around the dreaded Re-Entry—coming back to work with all the same problems and all the same personalities. You feel that you’ve traveled so far, and here you are, back where you started. Surprise! You’re the same person! And treacherous icicles still hang down from the gutters. “Re-Entry” after international travel is another category as well, so I get two.

Still, the point of pilgrimage is to come to see the place you started from for the first time, as the TS Eliot poem goes. You are you, but you can see better. And I’ve been entering the water pretty slowly, with one Sunday visit the day I left for Africa, then back to the office for a week to do the pageant, Advent 4, and Christmas Eve, and then on to family vacation for a week before coming back to a one-day workweek before Sunday (clergy weekend being Friday-Saturday).

So I was back working—really working—for not very many hours before trekking over a week ago to Watertown, for a long-planned tattoo appointment.  I have four other tattoos, mostly simple line drawings—a tree, a tiny snake, a female symbol, and a labyrinth (my most recent one, gotten 8 years ago for my priesthood ordination). I had thought I was finished with that one, but after my kids were born, I still wanted another, and they seemed like a good excuse.

I started thinking of having their names—both Hebrew—incorporated into some kind of design. And maybe some flowers. And I don’t remember when it occurred to me to desire a swallow tattoo—and suddenly it started to get pretty big. Swallows are an old sailor image, when (Wikipedia tells us) they’d get a swallow for each 5000 nautical miles of travel.  My only claim to sailing is that I tend not to get seasick, but I do like birds an awful lot. There’s something compelling about how they manage to be wild but also have a certain domesticity about them. 

Still, names and birds—doesn’t a suburban mom with sailor tattoos kind of scream “desperately aging hipster?” Sure.  But swallows of all kinds are also everywhere—canoeing down the Mystic River to the Boston Harbor last August, my husband Noah and I saw bank swallows swirling around the water on this side of the locks. Earlier, in Sweden while visiting the old megaliths at Alestenar when I was there when my aunt died, swallows.  And they have those adorable crossed tail feathers. 

So I put my reservations aside and thought a little bigger, and a little bigger.  My favorite color is purple, and I love the wild pansies that creep up everywhere and all over.  It’s the flower for Angermanland, where my Swedish grandmother’s family is from, and I thought of linnea flowers, another Swedish one (and her middle name).   Finally I decided it was time when I was on sabbatical. I met with Holly from Always and Forever tattoo shop in Watertown and was talked out of both Hebrew for the names and incorporating my existing tattoo into a new design, and staked out my right arm. I’d thought of sort of a little cap sleeve design. Birds, flowers, names. Compact.

When I met Holly to talk about the tattoo, she had other ideas. I came in last week and saw something that goes almost down to my elbow, including the names which I finally decided to have in English.  The whole process has led to more introspection than I’d ever expected. First, the images I wanted, of course. But the questions along the way as well. Holly first suggested we just cover up my old female symbol tattoo. It’s done with very fine lines which have blurred over the years (it’s 15 years old, almost to the day), and it slants in kind of a funny way. But it’s still my tattoo. You could see it in the pictures from Noah’s and my wedding, when I am holding each of my children for the first time—it’s not perfect, but it’s mine. It reminds me of when I got it, when I was as radical a feminist as anyone at my crazy hippie college was, and reminds me of those radical commitments—always to go to the root, look deeper. So, no, I wasn’t covering it up, dilapidated as it was. Plus my mother drew it for me.

And I wasn’t going to go to a different artist. I’d been internet stalking Holly for months, since she opened her shop. I found her by just looking at bird tattoos online; I loved the way her designs worked with the body, over curves and bones and soft lines.  So this tattoo is my project, but it’s also hers. It’s her artistic vision that gave me the beautifully variegated blue and purple in the flowers and not the almost-black purple I’d thought I wanted. It’s her vision that got the linnea flowers the perfect shade of slate blue instead of the pink that’s actually found in nature. And it will be her vision, combined with mine, when I go back in 7 weeks and finish the shading and coloring. So walking into Always and Forever last Thursday, I knew that I was trusting her a lot, and trusting myself, too, in getting another tattoo that wouldn’t be quite so easily hidden.

I've been going back and forth in my mind: what is the line between what you do to be “you” and what you do to conform.  When I was younger, it was an easy choice: all "me" and no conforming at all (or so it seemed to me...a sixteen year old girl with a shaved head conforms to a certain image of something, for sure). In seminary I remember when I took out some of my earrings (at that time I always wore six on one side and three on the other) and it felt like a cataclysmic shift in identity. Of course it wasn’t, but it was a shift.  Maybe I’m a little behind the curve in still thinking about these things at age 34.  Even being part of an entire book about the reconciliation of feminism to Christian faith (My Red Couch—I wrote the title essay in 2004), I can say that while it doesn’t bother my own conscience to generally be part of the institution of the ur-patriarchs, I still have moments where I wonder about how to walk the line between the counter-cultural impulses I’ve always had and the social conformity that “church” has implied pretty much since the Emperor Constantine. Too political? not political enough?  In any given sermon I could feel like entirely betraying my radical view of the Christian faith or entirely alienating those who come to church just wanting to feel a little better about their already-hard lives, whom I am loath to blame for that desire.  I've met elderly church ladies who are more on fire for the radical  Gospel than any self-styled activist with a nosering.

And then there’s my faith and vocation; as a priest, I’m called to preach the really hard and radical truth of the Gospel. Love everybody, all the time, forgiving them and yourself, and look relentlessly for the presence of Jesus in everyone. Bring greed and corruption to its knees and fight for the peace and justice and wholeness for every person. It’s one thing to fall down and ask for help to do the right thing the next time.  But if I’m silent because I worry about people getting mad and leaving (as has, actually, now happened more than once, mostly about GLBT inclusivity) I might as well get a job selling expensive lawn pesticides.

So here is my tattoo.  It is enormous.  It is a radical change. It is a shift, a before-and-after, of how I get dressed every morning and whether I decide to wear short or long sleeves.  It’s going to be visible. Not like my little labyrinth poking out the bottom of a long skirt once in a while, but really, really all the time, unless I plan to be very hot all summer.  When I saw the huge design Holly had made, and saw her trace out “Isaiah” in huge letters just above my elbow and “Adah” over my shoulder, I felt like I was daring myself to misbehave, daring myself to stop worrying about being so offensive at the same time as I want to rebel so badly.   A month after my Africa trip, it seems like an awfully superficial thing to worry about.  When you live in a village in a mountain-top in Tanzania with no health care, you have much bigger fish to fry. If there are fish at all.  

But here we are.
Having a big tattoo doesn’t make me more or less faithful to the radicalism that Jesus asks of us. Sitting for 3 ½ hours while someone pokes you with needles does not have to be a moral experience (it may be a moral question that the money I spend on it could send two kids to primary school for a year in Uganda).   Still, I hope that it will be a reminder not to be so worried.  As the rector of Christ Church, it’s not my job to please people, it’s my job to love them.  It’s our job together to show each other how God loves.   Now let’s get on with it.

The icicles are still treacherous. I’m still going to space out during announcement time and forget to invite people to coffee hour.   The next time I get up into the pulpit and pray for an end to gun violence or war or any constellation of difficult topics, my palms will still sweat. But we’re here together, and God will be too, no matter what. And you definitely can’t see my tattoo with my chasuble on. 

 The stencil before we put the names on

before the color went in--facebook status: "More is more, friends. More is more."
Baltic Wheel Labyrinth, Ankle
Snake, Monica Irwin, Right foot (1997)
Tree of Life (after G Klimt--also drawn by my mom!)

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