On September 23, 1995,* my husband took possession of his first Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a pearl blue 1996 Dyna Wide Glide. That purchase was the fulfillment of a life-long dream for him, but for me flying down the road on the back of a “hog” was a new and rather frightening experience. It took a lot of seat time, but I eventually learned how to loosen my death-grip around his waist, lean into the curves (instead of away from them), breathe deeply and just sit back and enjoy the view.
I remember our first ride from the dealership to our hometown to show off the Harley to our parents. His mom was impressed, as was my gearhead dad, but my mom . . . my mom was not. Her face registered her dismay when she saw her 35-year-old, leather-clad daughter hopping off a motorcycle in her driveway, but she held her tongue–and she continued to hold it throughout dinner when the conversation centered around the motorcycle and its excited riders. But when she and I stood at the kitchen sink afterwards and I rolled up my sleeves to wash the dishes, she spotted the Harley tattoo I had strategically placed on my forearm–and she could hold her tongue no more.
She quietly asked to see me in the bedroom, and when I closed the door behind us, my dear mother, with tears in her eyes, blurted out her worries:
“Karen, I just have to ask . . . are you doing drugs?”
I should be ashamed, but my first reaction to her question was to explode into laughter–and then, when I caught my breath, I hugged her and told her, “No, of course not! Why would you think that?!”
“But the motorcycle . . . the leather . . . the tattoo . . . ”
My poor mom. Her only knowledge of motorcyclists was of the televised Hells Angels variety, and in her mind the ingestion of a massive amount of illicit drugs was the only reasonable explanation for her straight-laced, school teacher daughter’s sudden transformation into free-spirited biker chick. I quickly assured her that a lot of nice, normal, middle-class, middle-aged people were now riding motorcycles, and the tattoo was a fake one that I had applied as a joke and would wash off in a day or two. “I would never get a real tattoo,” I told her.
Never say never.
It was only a few years later when the idea of getting a real tattoo started to intrigue me. More and more of my students were sporting them–and even a few of my female friends. Could I overcome my nauseating fear of needles to get something small–perhaps a simple daisy–in a discreet location? But no. NO. My husband was adamantly opposed to the idea, even making a discussion-ending pronouncement: “That will never happen–no wife of mine is ever getting a tattoo.”
Never say never.
I dropped the conversation for the time being, but my fascination was now fueled by the fiery determination of doing something that I had been forbidden to do. (He really should have known better.)
Fast forward a couple more years. Our oldest son Zac (a very talented artist) came home from college one weekend talking about possibly getting a tattoo, one he had drawn himself. “I’ll tell you one thing right now,” said his dad in response, “If you get a tattoo, you’ve just declared your financial independence.”
And when his dad stormed out of the room, a panic-stricken Zac turned to me and stuttered, “But Mom . . . I already got one.”
Needless to say, Conservative Dad reluctantly ate those words, and Starving Artist College Boy went on to enjoy several more years of financial dependence. He also went on to get four more tattoos, only one of which he regrets because it’s “dumb.”
And then middle son Sam, a talented photographer and writer, started inking his body as well. My favorite was his first tattoo, an Adinkra tribal symbol from West Africa. The symbol represents bravery and fearlessness, and it’s a tribute to his fond memories of a college semester spent studying in Ghana. Since then, he has added three more tattoos to his bodily collection, and he isn’t done yet. “For me, my tattoos are a reminder of where I’m from, where I’ve been, and motivation for where I’m going,” said Sam.
Even youngest son Lucas recently bared his back to the needle (see my post, “Control Z” for his heart-warming story). And their dad has softened his stance over the years, realizing perhaps that he has been fighting a losing battle in this family of liberal artists. So what’s holding me back? After all, I’ve been talking about getting a tattoo for almost 15 years now.
In October, my husband and I spent several glorious days touring around New Mexico on his latest motorcycle, a 1994 Electra Glide Classic (a touring bike built for comfort–it’s what the old folks prefer). The weather was perfect, the landscape was breath-taking, and the wind and the sun on my face were exhilarating. By the end of the week, I had logged almost 500 miles on the back of the bike–more miles than I had ridden in the last several years combined. My husband enjoyed the experience so much that at the end of it he announced this biker chick had finally earned that tattoo she had been wanting for years.
And somehow, having his permission to get the tattoo suddenly, ever-so-slightly weakened my longstanding desire. Well played, Hubby, well played. A brilliant piece of reverse psychology, I had to admit–and I almost fell for it. But diminished desire does not necessarily mean demolished, and when I continued to talk periodically about getting “branded” (as he likes to call it), he pulled the ultimate “put up or shut up” move . . . and bought me a gift certificate to an upscale tattoo parlor for my birthday.
Well, now. My bluff has been called. I acknowledge defeat–and I claim victory at the same time.
My husband doesn’t understand my desire to “put marks on a perfectly good body,” and I would imagine that many people reading this blog won’t understand, either–even though a recent Harris poll revealed that one in five adults in the U.S. now have at least one tattoo (and a growing number of those adults are women in my age bracket). I realize some people may be disgusted by the whole idea of defacing the temple, while others may question my decision (and my sanity)–what in the world would possess a woman my age to do something so silly, something so permanent? I can’t speak for any of those other women, but I have a pretty good idea why I’m possessed. So here’s my explanation for all those dumbfounded by this little ol’ lady’s decision . . .
In part, it’s about expanding my horizons and opening myself to new experiences. The older I get, the worse my eyesight becomes–but the deeper my insight grows. And paradoxically, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m really seeing the world around me and realizing all that I have missed–and all that I want to experience while I’m still able to do so. Sure, I could expand my horizons without getting a tattoo, and my recent travel adventures are proof of that, but this is just one more way for me to embrace life and live.
It’s also about conquering my fears. Last year I wrote about empowering myself by facing my phobias, not the least of which is my fear of needles (see “Conquering My Fears in Room 101“). This may be the ultimate challenge for the wimpy girl who refuses to get a flu shot, who has to close her eyes, hold her breath and visualize sandy beaches before having blood drawn, who would rather slam her finger in the car door (on purpose) than sit in the dentist’s chair. So, surely, if I can tolerate not just the pain of the needle but the mere idea of that needle pricking my skin over and over and over, then I can conquer just about anything.
And maybe, just maybe, it’s a little bit about letting some of the rebelliousness that’s been brewing below this calm demeanor for decades to finally bubble to the surface. Maybe this is my way of making a very personal statement about my inner being, my way of saying to the world (or at least to the tiny little world that will ever actually see the tattoo) that I’m not as boring and mundane and predictable as you think I am–that within this quiet shell is a heart that aches with emotion, a mind that whirls with creativity and spunk, and a soul that vibrates with music and passion and beauty.
I think I’ve waited long enough to get the tattoo that I won’t regret it when I’m “older,” and it most likely won’t fade or migrate southward, either. But I still have a few pre-appointment jitters: What if the pain is so much worse than I’m anticipating–what if the artist gets halfway through the first word and I think I can’t take it anymore, but there are 7 1/2 words to go? What if I’m not allowed to move but I get stiff/accidentally sneeze/have to go to the bathroom? Or even worse, what if the artist unexpectedly sneezes, his hand slips and what was supposed to be a lower case “n” suddenly looks like a Volkswagon Beetle? And horror of all horrors–WHAT IF HE MISSPELLS SOMETHING?
My sons tell me to quit worrying so much, everything will be fine, and besides, there’s no backing out now. I’ve already met with the tattoo artist to discuss my design idea, the gift certificate has already been paid for and the appointment made, son Sam has already made plans to meet us there to get his fifth tattoo (which will include elements of mine), and a dear photographer friend is excitedly awaiting the opportunity to record every inky moment.
Today is my birthday, and I will spend this day in quiet reflection (i.e., worrying myself silly) because tomorrow is THE day–wish me luck! If you have any interest in finding out what the tattoo was (and finding out if I was actually able to go through with it!) or maybe even seeing a picture or two, stay tuned for Part II . . .
*The date of purchase of that first Harley–September 23, 1995–is significant only because when I began working on this blog, I incorrectly stated the purchase date as 1996. My husband immediately corrected me with the exact month, day and year. He does not, however, have the same, precise recall of family birthdays and anniversaries. Interesting.
There is a life-force within your soul, seek that life.
There is a gem in the mountain of your body, seek that mine.
O traveler, if you are in search of that
Don’t look outside, look inside yourself and seek that.