“You did WHAT?”
These are the questions I have been getting, the questions I expected to get. Getting a tattoo was kind of a big move for me, but not a rash one. I have seen some beautiful and meaningful tattoos on people “like me,” forty-something and entrenched in family and career. I had seen a lovely tattoo on the arm of a woman I know from church who is 20+ years my senior. About ten years ago, I thought, “If I ever come up with something I’d be happy about having on my body for the rest of my life, and can figure out where on my body I’d want it…I would absolutely get one.”
Years passed and I couldn’t think of anything I thought I could be happy with permanently. I knew some things I didn’t want: no jokes or cartoons, no butterflies (nothing against butterflies, they just don’t speak to me), no symbols of other cultures or letters from alphabets I don’t use. I didn’t urgently want a tattoo, so I didn’t worry about it: I just let the idea drift in the back of mind. Then one day, I was browsing through Pinterest and saw some tattoos that were quotes from books and my interest was fired. Words were a natural choice for me, a writer, and they could be so beautiful in form and meaning. But, what book? It took a surprisingly long time for me to realize that the Bible was the best source, considering I have been reading from the Bible since I was a child, had taught from it in Sunday school for years, and at that point had been reading it almost daily for nearly a year.
There had been a significant shift in my outlook, my focus, and in my direction in life that started as I began reading from the Bible and doing daily devotions. While I never stopped believing in God, for a long time I believed that I was a mess, hopelessly letting God down, and the best I could hope for was to try to convince everyone else that I was fine and try not to bother, or rely on, God too much. I wasn’t fine. I was panicked and numb, angry and grief stricken. My life was awesome by the standards of many and all I could see was my epic failure to realize my potential, or to connect meaningfully even with the people I loved the most. Not fine at all. My sister (who thought I was doing okay,) suggested I check out Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. It was a revelation of reassuring scripture and interpretation that challenged and transformed my faith journey. I have read critics of Jesus Calling who describe the devotions as “New Age-y” and not biblically sound, but my experience was that those messages helped heal some very hurting parts of me. Leaning on scripture and faith that what I was reading was really true, I took some risks in work and relationships. I relaxed my grip on my impossible standards for self. I trusted. I edged toward wholeness.
If the Bible was helping heal me, then what words would I choose from it? At first I thought “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” a fabulous contradiction to the awful story I had been telling myself for a long time. Knowing I was choosing something forever, I played with it. I wrote it on my forearm. The location was good, I could look upon the verse easily, and share openly, but wouldn’t be obvious. I didn’t want my tattoo to be the first thing people noticed about me. I liked “fearfully and wonderfully” a lot, but decided it wasn’t my forever verse. Romans 15:13 is one of my favorites, but it was too long for the location, and I couldn’t come up with a short cut I liked well enough. Same with “For I know the plans I have for you…” “Be still and know that I am,” is awesome and meaningful but didn’t feel right. Then it came, a message that is repeated many times in many ways throughout the Old and New Testaments. “The LORD your God is with you” In these words I know that I am never alone, and that with God’s presence comes power: power to forgive, pray, act, give thanks, rejoice and love, even when I don’t feel like I can or want to. These were the words. And with the words, all at once, came an image of a dark bird perched on the branch of a tree. The living tree symbolizes the living God, and the bird is me, choosing rest and refuge.
Finding the studio and artist was almost a comedy of miscommunications and awkward connections, but finally there was a click when my vision met the skills of Stephanie from Electric Dragonland in Hopkins, MN. I had to wait three months to see her rendering of the art, and another month after that to actually get the work done. It took two hours on a November afternoon in 2015. It wasn’t as painful as I had thought it would be, but then I had imagined myself bursting into tears and running out the door a few minutes into the work, too. I love it.
I get a mix of reactions to this thing I have done. Most people are indifferent. A few shake their heads. Many admire the delicacy of the art and wording. I am delighted that I really don’t care what others think, good or bad. It feels like something I have always had, under the surface, now revealed. It has given me an opportunity to share my faith. It has reminded me to calm down, when my thinking has shifted into bad old rutted tracks.
I got a tattoo.
It is a reminder to me and a message to others.
I got it now because I have come through some trials and can claim the enduring truth that God is with me. And also with you.
“Good boy, good boy, good boy…” The man’s reassuring voice filled the air, as it had many times before. “Good Boy” had been his name ever since that long-off day of pain and fear. The man, then a stranger, had coaxed him, limping and torn, into the man’s car and taken him to the vet, ultimately giving him a home. The man had called him “Smithers,” and other names since then: “Young Man” in casual conversation, “Bad Dog” when he’d sprinted off in irresistible chase through the weeds or peed on his sleeping arch-enemy, the cat.
But he knew his real name was “Good Boy” by the way the man murmured it during years of friendly hugs and scratches, and, after a good long life, the way it was voiced with concern when merely walking across the room became a difficult task, and then with more urgency during those distressing times when his muscles locked up in spasms and his bladder loosed uncontrollably.
Always the stroking hands and the reassuring voice of the man were there. And now they were back in the vet’s office, as they had been in the beginning, and Good Boy heard the sadness in the man’s voice and wished he could in turn stroke the man’s fur gently and call him “Good Man” to reassure him that everything was all right. If sadness was being apart, then joy was in being together, in the now, in the final breath, in feeling the touch and hearing his name, “Good Boy.”
My first memory is of being carried up the center aisle of the United Methodist Church in my small home town. I was a three-year-old girl in my daddy’s arms, and my eleven-year-old sister walked up that aisle with us, next to my mom who carried my baby sister. I come from what, in the midwest at that time, might be considered a religiously diverse family. My mom grew up in the Baptist church, and my dad’s parents were Christian Scientists. Through friendship, my mom began attending the Methodist church in the small town that had become their home. On the day I was baptized, so were both my sisters and my dad, we all became members and that place became our church home.
I went to Sunday school there every Sunday, and in third grade received my first real Bible, a Revised Standard Version covered in pebbled red vinyl, with a scrap of gold leaf that I used to inscribe my name on the cover. I was in many children’s Christmas programs and occasionally got the nerve-racking job of page-turner for my mom as she played hymns and special music on the piano. I went to church camp and found in Jesus the friend I needed to help me survive some turbulent years. I was confirmed in that church, wearing a dress of my mom’s and with my hair in French braids, feeling very grown up. There were annual Christmas eve candlelight services, where we sisters would inevitably get such giggle fits that suppressing them was painful and we shook the pew as we wept silent tears of mirth and pain. There was youth group on Wednesday nights and when I was a senior, a cake for the graduates.
I had a bridal shower and a wedding in that church, and about a decade later I brought my husband and my sons, ages 5 and 3, to my dad’s funeral. My mom, sisters and I gathered up there at the front of the church and walked dad back down that aisle, the same one we walked up on the day of the baptism. I read some poem that day for the service, but now I wish I’d told this story, because this story is about family, love and the kind of faith that is built on simple acts of caring repeated often over time. It is a story about knowing what belonging is in a father’s arms, and about finding belonging in a place of faith.
This sounds idyllic, but it wasn’t always great. There were cranky people and scoldings and judgment and the same petty human problems inside those walls that you find inside and outside any church of any denomination anywhere in the world. My own nature prompted me to a very cliché rebelliousness in my later teens through my twenties. My early ideas of God were simple ones, the kind Jesus said everyone should have. Thinking about faith got more complicated over time, just as life did, but the Sunday school lessons, and the hymns, the messages and the scripture were all woven right through me and held me together for the most part, even in the very bad times. I prayed, and often those prayers seemed unanswered, but they never felt unheard. By the time I had children of my own, I knew that faith is linked to survival, and that a spiritual home is a good thing to have. I wanted to give my children some of that same experience I’d had, and as babies they were baptized in a small Methodist Church in their own home town. To this day I continue my faith journey in that community and in the world at large. I am grateful for the support I have had along the way. In last Sunday’s sermon we heard the message of John’s baptism of repentance and Jesus’s baptism of Holy Spirit, and we heard the words from the confirmation service, “Remember your baptism, and be glad.” I do remember and I am glad.
It had been a strugglesome week at work and I was feeling rushed and dejected when my husband suggested we go outside and have a few practice swings with the clubs. A few days before, I had reluctantly agreed to join an outing of four couples for nine holes of golf. Let me tell you something about golf. I don’t care for it. I find it full of aggravation and without reward. I was dreading spending my first opportunity to relax feeling like a total failure surrounded by people who play regularly. But I am a good sport…sort of. “Fine,” I had said, sounding more like “Why GOLF?”
The last time I had played was four years before and it had ranked among the worst leisure experiences of my life. I don’t know how many years it was before that I had played but it was more than four. Last Friday out in the yard, I picked up my driver with poor grace and assumed the position. Instantly there was a blaring chorus of voices in my head. Some were telling me what a bad experience I was about to have, some were telling me what a lousy golfer I am in general, and others were critiquing every single aspect of my swing (SO many ways to do it wrong). It was both deafening and oddly familiar. They sounded just like the voices that used to hound me when I was writing. I couldn’t believe how awful it felt, and I couldn’t believe I had persevered with writing as long as I had, clinging to a certainty that I had to battle through the noise and the unrelenting negativity. As I said in my last post I eventually did give up, and rebooted my writing in Safe Mode, which for me was to only write when I felt like it and to only write for myself. I chose to share my writing when I wanted to with a supportive group of friends who also write, but I absolutely gave myself permission to not do our writing prompts at all, or to write about something else if I wanted. I gave up overthinking and trying to be perfect, and in doing so had made peace with my writing. The voices quieted to a manageable murmur.
Out there in the yard, facing down a leaf in substitution for a dimpled ball, I decided that If I could do that with writing, when I really, really care about writing, I could also do this with golf. Some of the advice my husband offered made no sense. “Position your club face so it impacts the leaf like this.” “Aim so you hit the leaf right at this point.” Incomprehensible concepts which I rejected. Some of the things he said resonated. “Plant your feet.” Yes, this I had experienced in yoga and Pilates, feeling my feet connected with the earth as though my body was an extension of the planet. “Slow your swing.” That I understood, even if I didn’t like it. I just wanted to get the game OVER, but when I slowed down, my swing felt more controlled. Out on the course with an actual ball and an adjusted attitude (less competitive, more experimental and compassionate toward myself) I had a not-terrible time. I had a few (feet planted, slow tempo) strokes that were pretty decent, and the rest (which were absolutely consistent with my status as a perennial beginner) didn’t bother me. Best of all, my inner critics were silent. Nine holes wore me out, and I ended up with a blister on my thumb and some sore muscles the next day, but I also found I had been able to call a truce with the sport. I would be willing to golf again…you know, once my back loosened up.
I even learned a few things from golf that I can apply to my writing. If my metaphysical feet are planted, I have strength and balance to write from. If I don’t rush my message, it comes at its own pace and makes more sense. More peace, fewer voices seems like a good direction to keep moving toward. Fore!
I happened to catch up with an old wordpress friend, lahikmajoe, today (“old” as in haven’t interacted in a very long time, and “catch up” as in I saw his post on Twitter, followed the link to his blog, commented, he commented back and visited one of my old posts and commented…it’s the digital-age version of catching up and reminiscing over coffee.) It has been nearly a year since I have posted anything, and well over a year since I posted any of my so-called “normal” material. I was knocked out by how much I have missed this blog and you people (assuming you are still out there.)
Back then I was fearful and busy and struggling to find something to say. The badly-fitting job I tried so hard at collapsed, but more time didn’t mean more writing. There was a long dark night of searching my soul, a reboot of my writing in “Safe Mode,” and finally another iteration of me as a working person. Now I am working furiously (figuratively, but sometimes literally also) and taking a class and doing a project, and all the family and church stuff, and still searching. Now, however, I am searching more hopefully, gratefully, and with more of an attitude of acceptance and interest than fear.
I ask myself, do I have time for one more thing? Do I have time to formulate my crazy spinning tangential thinking into a coherent message on a semi-regular basis? Probably not, but I am not sure coherent messaging was ever my strong suit. The real question is, will I have time later? No one knows. I am feeling a little fragile upon hearing of Robin Williams’ death today, and maybe that too is moving me back into this space. We can’t definitely say that me catching lahikmajoe’s tweet in that brief moment before it rolled to the bottom of the feed and off the edge of the earth is actually a sign the universe is beckoning me back to the blogosphere. But if it feels like it, a little, that tells me something.
So, I am back, and really curious to see what I have to say. Thanks for visiting.
I can still feel the thrill that went through me the first time I laid eyes on a horror comic at the tender age of nine. A skeletonized hand reached from a grave toward a beautiful woman, her eyes and mouth wide in terror, as a rotting zombie looked on. There was a visceral tug of war in my soul at that moment: feverish desire to know what the story was about, battling with fear of the fright that would accompany the story and inevitably linger on to haunt many bedtimes to come. Later, writers like Poe, Bradbury and King entertained and tormented me into losing sleep, jumping at things half-seen from the corner of my eyes, and racing up the stairs in the darkness while the breath of some imagined demon whispered at my heels.
In Glinda of Oz, Baum tells a story of two young girls who go off alone to stop a war between two communities, the Flatheads and the Skeezers (no, I am not kidding.) They journey through alien territories and are imprisoned no less than three times, including once by a giant despotic arachnid. Sure, Ozma is a powerful and wise fairy, and Dorothy has a few protective items, but they are not invincible. For instance, Baum writes that although Dorothy could not be killed or suffer any great bodily pain as long as she lived in Oz, “[she] was a mortal, nevertheless, and might possibly be destroyed, or hidden where none of her friends could ever find her. She could, for instance, be cut into pieces, and the pieces, while still alive and free from pain, could be widely scattered; or she might be buried deep underground, or “destroyed’ in other ways by evil magicians. were she not properly protected.” Yikes. So Glinda gives Dorothy a ring she can use to summon her in utmost peril, presumably if Dorothy can use it before her hand is severed from her body. Remember, this is the last of the Oz books (completely written by Baum,) you can’t assume they all emerge unscathed. What would we do without wicked witches, enslaved winged monkeys, zombies and silver-eyed clowns? Just remember that in Oz as in our world, a freakish and unlovely exterior might house the heart of a hero, and the loveliest person might be gripping a knife behind her back. So stay on your toes.
HAPPY HALLOWEEN FROM OZ!
In my last post, I introduced some of the Oz characters brought to life by the penstrokes of John R. Neill, illustrator. Most of the inhabitants of Oz are strange and many of them appear downright sinister–some of them could DEFINE sinister. But Neill has drawn some beautiful characters as well. Glinda, the good witch, is the lovely mom of Oz, taking care of business and solving problems. She has an unfortunate preference for hats that resemble the old cup-and-ball toys, but other than that seems sensible. Here she is:
Then there is Dorothy Gale, honorary princess, and Ozma, young fairy Queen of Oz.
And, finally, the three together…
So here we have the whimsical, not the frightening. But because scary is often fun, I will return to some of the more nightmarish images in the next post.