Yesterday, I got a tattoo.
I saved my babysitting money and spare change for well over a year because I knew it was going to be expensive and I didn’t want that kind of frivolity to come out of our savings. By April, I had $800, $270 of which was from change.
For my birthday, we went for a consult in Richmond after sourcing around for a good month for the right artist: reading reviews, interrogating my learned tatted friends, looking at dozens of artist galleries, and finally talking face-to-face with the artist about my design. The artist I chose was booked nearly a month out, but he managed to find an appointment for me on a Thursday afternoon, which was perfect. Except that Buddy had to work. This was going to be a solo endeavor. I was incredibly nervous.
What if I didn’t like it? What if it cost more than I had? What if it hurt too much? What if I did like it but in a year or two, stopped like it. My inclinations change over the years, as do everyone’s. Ten years ago, my go-to colors were blue/black/silver and I despised pink. I was going to get out of the Army one day and be a costume designer. I was super into Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I idolized Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I was surrounded by people who had tattoos. But even then, I knew that my tastes were too fickly to permanently stab something into my flesh.
Since then, my favorite color has shifted to purple. And my job of choice has shifted quite a bit as well, settling somewhere between writer and book editor. I have delved deeper into literature through my English degree and expanded my skills as a baker. I’ve even picked up new hobbies, like sewing and crochet. I am still super into Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and Gaiman and Pratchett are still my writing gods.
None of these things are etched into my skin. No beautiful quotes or Biblical text. No runes or Elvish scripts. No Deathly Hallows or crochet hooks or yarn or cookies or the faces of strangers whom I love for their work but wouldn’t know me from Adam. I went with cherry blossoms.
And it hurt. The shoulder part was fine, like scratching a light sunburn, an experience I’m well versed in. It wasn’t much more painful that picking a scab. The spine was much more needle-like, not in sharpness but in depth. It felt like a longer, sharper needle sticking straight into my nerves. It hurt, but was bearable. The petals on my lower back were excruciating.
I feel awful about looking down on women with “tramp stamps.” I know biker guys with sleeves and devils all over their arms and shoulders look tough, but anyone willing to do their entire tat on the lower back has got ovaries of adamantium.
Some of you might have heard the story I told a few weeks ago about a wasp that mysteriously ended up in my bedroom and woke me with a friendly sting right on my earlobe. If you have ever been stung by a bee or wasp, you know that pain. It is hot and deep and nothing you do alleviates it. This is not a flu shot. This is an anthrax shot. Every petal was a set of bee stings. And he had to keep going back to add details. He was as merciful as possible, taking breathers when I started swearing, asking if I was okay. Yes, I’m fine. It hurts, but as soon as you stop, the pain stops. I can do this. I will bite my knuckles and kick my feet, but if you keep going so will I.
It took just over two hours and cost only $300, with tip. I went to a neat shop down the street and bought an umbrella with a katana handle as a reward. I also picked up a couple of pastries from a bakery because I had been too nervous to eat all day and my blood sugar was tanked. It took me most of the drive home to come down from the adrenaline, which had me shaking and jittery. I spent the rest of the night eating yogurt and drinking lemonade to get balanced. When nerves get to my stomach, that can take a long time.
I chose the cherry blossoms for three reasons.
First, cherry blossoms have become synonymous with my relationship with my husband. We both share an appreciation for Japanese culture, though he’s the only one of us lucky enough to get stationed there. We spent most of our early relationship long distance and when he came to visit for R&R from Iraq, we went on deployment-money adventures. This included a week stay at the Animal Kingdom Resort at Disney World and a week-long visit to see friends stationed in Japan. I don’t have any pics from the Japan portion of that trip because the flash drive I put them on got left at Disney. What I do know was that most of my first days in Japan I was sick from Jetlag. But then there were the cherry blossoms. When we went to see the big Buddha, they were still out.
That was from the second time we visited. Or rather, I got to visit Buddy while he was stationed in South Korea and we took a 10-day jaunt to Japan. That site reminds me of visiting the Grand Canyon with my family. You can take a million pictures (and believe me, I did), but never capture the majesty of something so huge. You could say that my first Japanese vacation made me enamored of cherry blossoms and in the years since, they have accompanied the happiest adventures with my husband. They were even on our wedding cake.
By themselves, cherry blossoms are enchanting and my favorite thing about spring. Symbolically, they represent renewal and rebirth, which is why there are festivals that celebrate them every year. Something about the blankets of delicate blossoms springing forth so unexpectedly after winter just renews the soul and brings hope. At least for me. This is the second reason for choosing them. I could have gone with any flowering tree and called it a day, but cherry blossoms remind me of the hope of spring. And sometimes I need that.
The third reason has to do with falling blossoms. It’s funny how seeing the blizzards of petals is both inspiring and a bittersweet melancholy; it’s a reminder that all beauty passes away. Trying to hold tight to the blossoms only bruises them. And those that linger on the branch merely wither. This last year we lost a lot of people in our families. I was going to do a petal for each person I have lost in my life, maybe updating it every time someone else passed on. But who to add? Just family? Close friends? My cat? By the end I would have a massive flower pile on my hip and would have to add a little guy with a rake to keep them neat. (Also, considering the amount of pain those blossoms would individually cause, it turns out I’m not that much of a masochist.) It is enough, I think, to recognize that the falling blossoms represent loss, but a loss that isn’t always an evil. For some it is just their season and for others a mercy. It is still sad, still causes grief and pain. But it is and shall always be the Truth of life. Beauty fades and all living things die. That’s also why I decided to stick with the watercolor style for the upper blossoms after learning that the ink will fade faster. I can touch it up if I want, or let them fade as nature intended.
So that’s why I chose the cherry blossoms. Yet some of you, might still have the burning question of WHY ruining my Zen.
Look at the top two photos again. Now look very closely at the second one of just my shoulder. If you have sharp eyes, you might notice that there are scars all along my trapezius muscles. Tiny little pale circles, dozens of them. You see those? Good. Now imagine them all along my other shoulder and along my collar bone. I have compulsion issues.
I sucked my three middle fingers until I was 5, despite everything my Mom did to stop me, including soaking my fingers in tabasco sauce. I had a sharp corner on my pinky nail once and sucked on my fingers despite it gouging a hole in my cheek. I remember the exact moment I stopped this habit. Heather looked over at me in kindergarten and with the utmost derision of a 5-year-old, told me to stop. So, ashamed, I did. Thereafter, it was chewing pencils.
And I know some people gnaw on pen caps and the like. I did that, too. And I chewed the ends of pencils until the metal end with the eraser came off, totally deformed. I would bite down pencils like they were corn-on-the-cob. I don’t remember when I stopped doing that, but it might have been around when I started getting nicer pencils. As for nail biting, well, that’s another story.
Nail biting was twofold. If I was anxious, they were goners. I took to taking extra straws into movies to make sure I had something to worry on besides my nails. However, if I found a snag in a nail or a rough edge, I would have to fix it. So I’d keep tearing off a piece, trying to clean it up somehow, unable to stop despite knowing that I was only making it worse. Have you ever chewed your nails down to the beds? You don’t realize how much it hurts until later when that exposed skin starts aching. And you still have to fight that urge to mess with the rough edge.
I have mostly defeated that nasty habit. What happened was, I was in Basic Training during a field exercise. I had spent the last month or so stressed so far beyond normal that I hadn’t even thought about my nails. You really don’t have the mental space for fiddly little nervous ticks. I was finally getting to a mental place where I could relax and in that moment, I went to chew a nail. However, upon looking at said nail and seeing all the nasty that was under there, I swore off nail biting for good. The first time I ever, in my life, trimmed my nails was at AIT a month or so later. I still do chew them sometimes, but not out of nerves. It’s that compulsion to fix that edge that still gets me. Which is why I have nail files hidden everywhere.
My last tick is picking. There was a time when I thought it was just a bad habit, one I should be able to stop whenever I wanted. And, typical as this seems, I thought I was alone in this nasty habit. Picking is related to my nail biting in that it has to do with smoothing rough edges. A scab is a rough edge. Remove it and the skin is smooth, if only for an instant. Logically, it’s dumb. You lengthen healing time, risk infection, cause pain, AND increase the likeliness of scars. But logic doesn’t come into it.
Mom saw spots of blood on the back of my shirt once, maybe 5 years ago. I told her I pick scabs. She said, “Well stop it.” And I replied, rather rudely, “It’s a compulsion, I can’t.”
This is not entirely true. I can redirect my compulsion (as I’ve apparently been doing my whole life from finger sucking to pencil chewing to nail biting). If I keep my hands busy, they can’t find those little blemishes and worry at them. It’s an indirect benefit of taking up crochet. Unlike my other hobby, reading, my hands are in full use with crochet so they can’t wander. I suppose I could get on medication. I have a friend who is also a compulsive picker, which is how I found out that I’m not just a freak with a gross habit. She got on medication which helped curbed her picking. I just have a problem with doctors, especially Army doctors, who always seem to look for the fastest way to get rid of you.
But I digress. People look in the mirror and see their flaws first. When I am dressed, I like how I look. It is when I undress that all the ugly comes out, all the stretch-marks and cellulite and scars. I look in the mirror and worry that I’m getting fat (just LOOK at those THIGHS) or my face is the wrong shape or my teeth are crooked. These are all little, daily things, the diatribe built in by an image-obsessed culture. I also see blemishes and scars. On bad days, that’s all I see. It hurts. It hurts that I can’t always stop myself. It hurts that there are bloodstains on my nice clothes because I couldn’t help it. It hurts that I shy away from parts of my closet depending on the state of my shoulders and back. It just hurts. Lying on the tattoo table, when the needle first started in my shoulder, it felt no worse than what I do to myself. I knew then it was the right decision.
I got a tattoo because for once I wanted to look at a self-inflicted scar that was beautiful. And if that is vain or selfish, fine. I am vain and selfish. I dye my hair because it looks good on me. I wear clothes that flatter my figure. I don’t wear makeup because it is a hassle. And now when I look at my ugly naked body, I can turn my shoulder, not to see the damage I’ve done to myself, but to remember that scars can be beautiful.