“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Outwardly, I may have appeared calm and cool to strangers who knew no better, but appearances are often deceiving. I was a mess. My heart was thundering in my ears, my left knee was pummeling my right, and my palms were sweating profusely. I was understandably nervous and maybe even just a little bit scared . . . but I was also excited and ready to face my fear head-on.
I did not cry as all three of my sons had predicted, and I did not faint as my husband was sure I would do. After all, like so many other women I know, I am much tougher than the men in my life give me credit for being.
And so, this past Saturday I gritted my teeth and did what very few people thought I would ever have the courage (stupidity?) to do: I got a tattoo.
I spent the two-hour ride to the Hearts of Fire Tattoo parlor trying to mentally prepare myself for the experience. Listening to ’70s music on the radio and soaking up sunshine angling through the car window, I closed my eyes and repeated my morning mantra: “I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.” After all, I had already given birth to three kids and three kidney stones–how bad could a little tattoo be, really? I had done my online research and visited with some of my tattooed lady friends, so I knew what to look for as far as safety precautions, and I was pretty sure I knew what to expect as far as pain. If they could do it, then so could I. And besides, I would have with me my husband, two sons, and one of my friends to offer moral support and to record the event.
T minus 60 minutes: I swallowed two Advil–just in case.
T minus 38 minutes: Carly Simon crooned “Anticipation” on the radio. Appropriate.
T minus 35 minutes: Me: “I hope I don’t start hot flashing and my back gets all sweaty!”
Husband: “If I were you, I’d be more worried about hives.” Thanks for giving me something new to worry about.
T minus 24 minutes: Husband: “I think Patty needs to get a picture when you faint!” Me: “Don’t say that! Don’t even think that!”
T minus 13 minutes: Me, with trembling voice: “I have a Valium left in my purse from my last dentist appointment–should I take it?”
Husband: “No . . . you can do this. And besides, if you pass out, I’ll catch you.” Comforting, but not exactly reassuring.
T minus 5 minutes: As we pull into the parking lot, Helen Reddy roars: “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman!” Why, yes, yes I am.
The tattoo artist, Wayne, showed me how he had perfected my design idea from our previous meeting, and after I suggested a few embellishments (and made sure there were no misspelled words), we were ready to roll. Right before I sat in the chair, my youngest son offered a final piece of advice:
“Hey, tell him if you pass out he should just keep going because that would be that much time when you wouldn’t feel anything.” Thank you, sweet child o’ mine.
I was expecting to feel needles piercing my skin, and I hate, hate, hate needles. But the first touch didn’t feel like a needle at all–more like a Japanese, stainless steel carving knife slicing through my shoulder blade. It hurt . . . and it hurt a lot more than my friends had said it would.
Breathe deeply, breathe deeply, relax . . . You can do this . . . You are Woman, remember? Go to your happy place . . . Feel the sand between your toes, feel the wind in your hair and the summer sun on your face, hear the surf singing in your ears . . . ahhhh . . . Ouch, ouch, ouch! Jellyfish sting! . . . Refocus! . . . Sand, sun, surf . . . sand, sun, surf, glass of wine . . .
And just as I was raising a second imaginary glass of wine, the artist announced he was almost done. Really? Already? That wasn’t so bad after all!
I checked out the finished product in the mirror, gave it a “thumbs up” and shook Wayne’s hand (and then wondered later if handshaking was proper protocol in a tattoo parlor–was I showing my age and inexperience?). And while I waited for one of my sons to get his tattoo, I thought about what I had just done–and even though it still hurt a little, and even though I had permanently “branded” my body, I felt good about my decision.
And I felt tough.
I know billions of people have gotten tattoos before me, and most of them have done so with nary a tear shed. I know in the “overall scheme,” my experience was no big deal–a tiny, microscopic, minuscule personal triumph. But a triumph nonetheless because I (a.k.a. wimpy, scaredy-cat, Sissy Girl) took a risk, allowed myself to be vulnerable and faced another fear, and now I’m ready to move on to the next challenge, even though I’m not quite sure yet what that next one will be.
My only lingering issues with the tattoo are the crazy itching (which should last a couple weeks until my skin heals) and the head-shaking disapproval of some of my friends (which may last much longer). When I decided to go through with the tattoo–and when I decided to talk so openly about the experience and even share pictures–I knew I would be exposing myself to outspoken criticism and silent condemnation, and I do regret that some people who are dear to me were disappointed in my decision. But I also knew in some inexplainable way that my decision was necessary . . . and I can’t help wondering how many other tattooed ladies have felt the same way about their decisions.
For the past couple years, I have been reading the blog, “Ordinary Courage” by Dr. Brené Brown, a licensed social worker who is also a research professor, a nationally renowned speaker and a gifted writer. Dr. Brown has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame, and the day after I got my tattoo I purchased her latest book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Within the first few pages I could already tell I’ll want to write more about her book later and about how her writing has impacted my thinking, but for now I want to share just a couple thoughts that seem particularly relevant to this occasion.
From the book jacket: Dr. Brown “explains that when we shut ourselves off from vulnerability, we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.” She defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Yep, that pretty much sums up a lot of the experiences I’ve had in the past couple years–and that “emotional exposure” is scarier than the other two factors combined. But it’s interesting that the more risks I take, the more I venture outside of my very small comfort zone and allow myself to be vulnerable, the more alive I feel. I’ve spent my entire life worrying so much about what others think of me that I have allowed their assessments (both real and imagined) to color my own perception of myself: I’m not good enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not pretty enough. I’m not skinny enough. I’m not nice enough. In a word, I am . . . inadequate. And even though I still haven’t quite mastered that feeling of inadequacy, I’m working on it and making (very) slow but steady progress.
In researching her book, Dr. Brown asked the question, “How does vulnerability feel?” These were some of my favorite responses:
- “It’s taking off the mask and hoping the real me isn’t too disappointing.”
- “It’s where courage and fear meet.”
- “Sweaty palms and a racing heart.”
- “Infinitely terrifying and achingly necessary.”
EXACTLY! My entire tattoo experience was concisely explained in those four little lines–what more is there for me to say? Except . . .
I hope you, too, will find the courage to face some of your fears, to open yourself to the amazing world around you, and to accept the challenge of living a more daring, beautiful, joyous life. And even if you don’t–or it takes you years to find that courage–in the meantime I hope you will still live each day with the most important knowledge of all: You ARE enough.
Check out the facial expression and body language–can you tell I was just a little nervous while waiting my turn in the chair?
(photo by Norman Eubank)
OUCH! Wayne, the artist, told me he had never tattooed a principal before–and with that first “slice,” I wondered if maybe he was exacting revenge on a principal from his past! (photo by Patty Ingalls, a dear friend and great photographer)
The outline–almost done. This is an excerpt from one of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite dead dudes–Ralph Waldo Emerson. The full quote includes the middle recommendation to “swim the sea,” but since I can’t swim–and since that would have been three more words to endure–I decided to shorten it just a little. I don’t think RWE would have minded, and if we happen to run into each other in the afterlife, I hope the fact that I’ve branded his words upon my body will entitle me to a pleasant afternoon of companionship and conversation. In the meantime, this quote explains exactly how I want to live out the rest of my life.
(photo by Patty Ingalls)
And one more–in color and only slightly obscured. The color was my husband’s suggestion; even though he was against the tattoo in the beginning,
he “warmed” to the idea and applauded my courage.
(photo by Norman Eubank)
“Tattoos to me are the outward symbol of the inward change within my soul.”
(Not exactly Ralph Waldo, but appropriate just the same.)