Thursday, March 26, 2020

My Year of Tattoos

My principal was waiting for me in my classroom. It was a week before school started and she was sitting on a student desk. I had a bulletin board of personal photos--my family, friends, experiences I'd had recently--and there was a picture of my sister Colleen with a tank top on, tattoos exposed. She told me she wasn't going to tell me what to do...but another teacher had walked in and seen it and reported it to her. This really wasn't the family-friendly kind of photo they wanted on a teacher's desk.

I took it down in front of her, along with the one of my other sister with a nose ring. I couldn't even believe I was being censored. I wasn't used to this level of scrutiny.

That October, for my birthday, I got my first tattoo. I was 39. It was in typeface, simple, on my foot, reading "It's fine."

A couple of months later I followed with the other foot: "Let them be."

Sophia's godmother out in Kansas City had told me that summer before I went back to teaching, the summer John and his son lived with us, that I was really good at just letting people be. I loved this insight into myself, and I reveled in the idea that I let people be. But I needed the reminder.

I followed this quickly, so quickly, with a wrist tattoo that said, in Russian, ничего. It's the Russian word for "nothing," pronounced nichevo, but is used for a variety of purposes. It's what you say when someone thanks you for saving the child from running out into traffic. Nichevo. It was nothing. You also say it when asked if you like something. Is the jacket ok? Nichevo. It's fine. I found myself thinking about this nichevo a lot when my house was a hostel for wayward laborers, just a "hey, you can't repay me and don't try, it's totally fine." An outward facing version of the "It's fine" on my foot.

Then the golden spiral on my back followed that spring, the Euler's line on one calf and a stylized version of my family's crest tweaked with arrows and some hobo signs on the other. "Don't give up" reads one. The other? "You can sleep in my hayloft." Because you can.

I rounded out the year finding out that I had a tumor in my right breast and went through an admittedly simply procedure that was fraught with uncertainty at the time. What if it were cancer? How would every damned thing change? How could I be the person I needed to be for everyone else if my health wasn't what it needed to be? I realized I needed to care for this person before I reached too far outside my grasp for others. I didn't retreat, but I stopped putting myself off balance for those who wouldn't do the same in my position. I balanced a bit. I thought before I volunteered. I didn't overextend. I started thinking about Bridgett.

The whole time I was in the uncertainty of "it's a dense area" followed by "ultrasound" followed by "it's a tumor" followed by "if it's cancer...." the health care professionals kept saying it was about the size and shape of an olive.

An olive branch was the only thing that made sense.
Actually longer than a calendar year, about 18 months all told, and I was done. I only got one more tattoo after that, an intricate classic design of a compass and the words "finding my way" because by the time I got that one, I was inextricably on a path to find my way.

The time wrapped up and although I think about getting more, I haven't. It's been 4 years since my last and I might be done. For now at least.

Here's the others, minus Euler's line, which I can't find a picture of and I'm too lazy right now to set up the camera to catch the back of my other calf:


  1. Wow. I remember when you got some of those, but I don't think I knew about the one on your arm. I really like it - and I'm not usually one who likes detailed tattoos.

    1. Andy, who did all of mine, is a classic tattoo artist. The compass was totally his style and I love it. :)

  2. I remember you getting the tattoos on your feet, and maybe a couple others, but I knew nothing about the olive branch or why you got it. Glad it ended up being fine.

    Have you read John Irving's Until I Find You? I have not finished it (started it over 10 years ago) but it talks a lot about tattoos.

  3. These are all great. I've told more than one person about the ones on your feet. Excellent post. (And Colleen's tattoos look great!)

  4. I love the stories that go along with tattoos. They must be great conversation starters (or conversation continuers).