Monday, May 11, 2009


When I was much younger, still a teenager—when danger held an allure, and when I thought my outward appearance was the best defense against a vulnerable heart—I wanted a tattoo of an ornate dagger on my arm, up close to the shoulder. And yet, I knew better than to mistake myself for someone ready to make a permanent commitment; I'd have to grow into that mentality. The urge subsided, then returned years later. Older, I became more discriminating, and less defensive. I became a social pacifist. I was intensely relieved I had not inked the image of a violent blade on my body. But I still wanted a tattoo. I began to do what my adult self has nearly always done when confronting a decision: I started researching. I was living in Chicago at the time, and I remember my quest for finding the best (and cleanest) tattoo parlor, though I don't remember the results of the search. I never even got to the point of meeting any tattoo artists, though (the research was by reputation), because I had trouble selecting not only the "what" but the "where" of the matter. A dagger was out, naturally, but so was the upper arm. Something about the arm suddenly seemed too obvious to me. Back? Ankle? Hip? I had pretty much decided on an ankle, but then could not make up my mind what image seemed right. I kept imagining myself as an octogenarian, wondering what would seem interesting but not too far beyond dignity in later years. I remember looking at pattern books, considering something birdlike, remember some attempt to work the Latin words "rara avis" into the design (though I quickly abandoned that; I worried it would come off as pretentious). I fiddled around with the idea of a Greek key image. Nothing stuck. Then, a very good friend revealed the tattoo she'd gotten of wheat shafts on the small of her back. The spot was perfect, and I knew that if I ever got a tattoo (it was now "if" and not "when"), that would be where I'd get mine, too. It took nearly a decade for me to come to the right image, and the right moment, but when I knew, I knew. In 2002, I'd gotten married, gotten pregnant; in 2003, I was thirty-four years old and had a newborn to look after. It had all happened in a bit of a whirlwind—although I'd known the man who's now my husband for some years before we married—and frankly, I was feeling a bit lost. That is, my deepest self felt lost at times, subservient to the new roles of wife and mother—roles that, if I dared personify them in those early months, would oftentimes resemble hijackers who tossed burlap bags over my head and strapped me to a lullaby rocker from Pottery Barn. It was a comfortable rocker, but in it I was very aware of moving without going anywhere. I started thinking a lot about who I had been, who I was becoming, and how to make peace with the differences between these selves. And in the thought of peacemaking came the image: a graceful olive branch. No fruit clinging to it, just the branch with long slender leaves. Of course the olive also worked as a symbol of my Greek ancestry, and I loved it for that reason as well. It was, at last, decided. This is how, a few months into motherhood, I ended up with a babysitter in my apartment, a sketch of an olive branch in my hand, and a wad of twenty dollar bills stuffed in my pocket as I walked, sleep deprived, along West Twenty-Third Street in search of a tattoo artist called Dragonfly. She did a good job. The tat took a little under an hour, felt like persistent scratching, sometimes deep but not too painful, and then it was done: the one Mother's Day gift I gave to myself, a little belated but just right. I still love it, especially if I happen to glimpse it in a mirror, perhaps as I zip the back of a dress. It's a reminder of where I've been, where I come from, and it provides a visual sense of continuity with my pre-parenting persona. It also serves to remind me to keep the peace between my sometimes warring inner factions. None of us is a single self: we all have the "once was-could be-should have been-will I ever" selves inside. The olive branch is my shorthand for treating them all with kindness. A good reason to put ink not only to paper but, finally, to flesh in permanence.

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