Happy November, my friends! Now, before I start, I need to say up front that this post is going to upset my mom, who, as my mom and my first official blog subscriber, deserves special consideration. But you know, I’m over 40 and all, and can decide what to do with my own body, even though my mom always insists on coming into dressing rooms with me and checking things out (don’t deny it, Ma’am–we were in Marshalls together not too many months ago and they ain’t no spacious dressing rooms up in there. I saw what you got hanging out and you saw what I got). AND she was going to find out at Thanksgiving anyway, because my sophisticated world-travelling parents are coming to see us out here “on the prairie,” as my father calls it (i.e. one of them there “fly-over” states, so we’re gonna try real hard to pick the straw out our teeth and kick them chickens out the yard so we can all have a good old turkey day together. But anyway, this is a good story. So here we go.
I have a new tattoo. Normally this would be NOTHING worth sharing (because hello, narcissism alert!! As if having a blog isn’t headed straight down that road already). But I have this superstitious thing about stuff that happens in threes, and this tattoo happened in three parts (completely involuntarily), so I started to pay a little extra attention to it, in case there was a deeper meaning there that I had been overlooking. And I decided there was.
The tattoo is on my right inner forearm, and it says, “Yes I said yes I will Yes.” This is the last line of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses. I fell in love with this line the first time I ever read it, not because I really understand or “get” Joyce, because I don’t, but because he said that he wanted to end his epic with the most optimistic word in the English language, “Yes.”
Joyce also calls “yes,” “[t]he last word (human, all too human),” and “the female word,” and wrote that it indicated “acquiescence and the end of all resistance.”
As regular readers of this blog know, optimism and acquiescence are not part of my default MO. And late this summer, I felt, perhaps with the hint of fall in the air, and the slog of winter looming behind it, that I could use a little extra hit of optimism. Why a tattoo? I really have no idea. The first tattoo I got was 15 years ago and is of a griffin, which reminds me of fearlessness. It was after Martin, our friend Tom and I stayed up all night talking, right before Martin and I went on a bike trip from Portland, Maine to Wyckoff, New Jersey. (I thought I would die from the pain, but now, after three babies, I think I could have my eyeballs tattooed and barely notice).
But this new tattoo wasn’t meant to be a real tattoo; it was supposed to be a lovely, discreet, white tattoo. White tattoos are perfect if you want a tattoo but don’t want anyone to see it. They are very elegant, very delicate, and practically invisible. And they fade over time–as I said, perfect.
So I went to the cleanest tattoo place in town, and a girl named Katie with many, many tattoos said, “Sure, come on back, we can do a white tattoo for you. No one is really gonna be able to see it, though.” “Just what I’m going for,” I said.
Except that it didn’t turn out that way. It looked like I had gauged something on my arm with a pencil. Like the title art for the movie “Nell.” At work, people averted their eyes; at the gym, my trainer said, “Did you write on yourself with White-Out?”
So I went back to the tattoo place and they said that I should “give it time,” and that either it would “heal over,” or I would have to “wait until it faded.” “And how long might that be?” I asked. “‘Bout two years,” said the manager, who then added, “Man, that looks ugly.”
Now, I might look like a conservative middle-aged mother of three, but I’m no stranger to having stuff done to my body (sorry, Mom). I have my share of tattoos and piercings. And I wasn’t about to be fobbed off with the suggestion that I live with four lines of ugly gray text on my forearm for TWO YEARS as if I would just sort of not notice it. I’m so anal that if I have even one overgrown eyebrow it makes me insane. So no way was I going to just pretend that I didn’t have 2 inches of dirty-looking lettering on my forearm. “What are my other options?” I asked the tattoo man. “Well, you could have it removed. We know this guy….” “I don’t think so,” I said. “Or you could have it done over in color. It’ll be nice and sharp and clear,” he said. Exactly what I DID NOT want.
I fumed about it for a while, but slowly, the thing started to grow on me. And the irony of what I was doing started to grow on me: I wanted a symbol of saying, “Yes” to my life, but I didn’t really want to see it, and I didn’t want anyone else to see it. A half-assed yes. A sort of. A maybe.
So I decided to go for it. I went back to Katie the tattoo girl and said that I wanted the tattoo done over in navy blue ink, with the final “Yes” in dark red. That’s what she did. After about a month, some of the old whitish gray ink started to come through so I went back and she went over it again. It only took me three times, but I finally got to yes.
While I was at the tattoo place the third time, I saw this quiet boy, 18 years old at the most, naked from the waist up. He was thin and blond, and he looked so, so young. His upper right side was covered in a purple tribal ink tattoo that he was having worked on, and I wanted to cry for the loss of that pale, smooth, unmarked skin. That clean innocence. I wanted to ask him if he knew what he was doing, but there I was, having my arm gouged with an electric needle for the third time in 3 months, so it was a little conflicting.
I don’t know why people get tattoos. I don’t know why he was getting this tattoo. But I hope, maybe somewhat arrogantly, that it was for a “good reason.” I know why I got my particular tattoo, and even though hardly anyone else really “gets” it, I absolutely love it. It reminds me in every moment that my choice is between yes and no, awake or asleep, myself or some pretend version of myself. It reminds me to give up resisting life at the same time that it reminds me not to give up at all. It helps me remember that I am making a promise to myself to be here, to tell the truth, to be a real person; to make the effort when I don’t want to. I don’t always listen, but it’s still there, reminding me to try.
Some questions for you, my friends: What reminds you to say yes to life? What keeps you from saying yes? What would you like to say yes to that you aren’t? Write in and share, if you are so inclined. And, if I can encourage you in any way to say “Yes!” to something, please know that I do, with my whole, whole heart!
I may have used this poem before, so I could be cheating, but the best poetry is always, always worth rereading, and this one by Rita Dove is a beauty.
Throw open the shutters
to your darkened residences:
can you hear the pipes playing,
their hunger shaking the olive branches?
To hear them sighing and not answer
is to deny this world, descend rung
by rung into no loss and no desire.
Listen: empty yet full, silken
air and brute tongue,
they are saying:
To refuse to be born is one thing—
but once you are here,
you’d do well to stop crying
and suck the good milk in.
Rita Dove, Mother Love, 1995