“In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act.” ~John O’Donohue

The ink is beginning to settle. Finally. The healing process on the tattoo has taken longer than I thought it would. It’s hit a few snags along the way and I may have to go in for a touch-up in the next couple months. But it’s beautiful.

You don’t know how many friends you have with experienced tattoo advice until you mention that you’ve set the date. Then the advice is abundant and varied. Don’t eat before you go, you might throw up. Don’t go on an empty stomach, you’ll be sick. Drink orange juice to keep your blood sugar levels. Chew on gum during the more painful parts. Pick apart a York mint patty and enjoy it slowly (the objective wasn’t clear to me; I imagine the mint settles the stomach and the strategic consumption is to keep the mind occupied).

My friend Emily drove with me to the studio that day after work. I’d given up trying to find a way to utilize all the bits of advice I’d received. I ate a granola bar on the way and had some orange juice, just in case. Knowing I wasn’t in danger of changing my mind (first, the $50 deposit is non-refunadable; second, there were several friends who had sworn to hold me to it), my only uncertainty was that first moment of needle-in-skin.

Bert (the artist himself) had someone in before me who had made some changes to his design (can’t blame him, it is permanent), so things were running late. Another friend, Stacy, joined us after a while and pondered getting something pierced while we waited (for her and Emily…I figured the tattoo would provide enough pain for one evening). A while later, three others joined us on the black leather couches in the waiting area — Aaron and Melissa and their baby Malachi. I was glad for the wait as it gave me the opportunity to listen, acquaint myself somewhat with the, uh…sounds. My fear was that it would be something like the dentist’s drill; thanks be to God, it was not.

Bert came out, said he was ready for me. By then, I was oddly settled. Kinda weird, actually. I sat down, wondering if I’d be comfortable enough to stay put for the estimated hour and half I’d be in the chair.

Then Bert took over and did his magic. I’ve been fascinated to watch artists at work, at home in their craft and rather lost in the creative moment. I wondered what it would be like with my arm as the canvas.

The design…well, I wrote about that earlier. It was pretty darn good. Bert took it and refined it, then stenciled it on my arm to check the placement. He has been at this for fifteen years. The man knows what he’s doing, he loves it, and it shows. Looking at the design and where it fell on my arm, he pointed out the areas that would be more sensitive – mostly the bottom third of the design that was placed closest to my elbow. Stacy handed me a piece of gum. I hid it away in my pocket, just in case.

Bert shaved what invisible hairs were on that part of my arm and wiped it down with what I guessed to be alcohol to sterilize the skin. As he worked, he let his personality shine – funny and bold, with a sort of what-the-fuck edge to an otherwise sweet and overtly kind way. I mean, how else could he be so gentle and likable as he jabs me repeatedly with a needle?

He held my extended arm to pull the skin tight. I held my breath. The needle didn’t even look like a needle, more like a pen…with a long cord coming out the back to pipe in the ink…and a cord to power the needle that, once the buzzing started, was invisible. The first bite. Searing pain? A pointed sting? Not…really…

More like…I don’t know. It was a sort of like Bert’s personality. Something beautiful with an edge to it. I turned to watch and then I didn’t want to look away.

The design was appearing on my arm in a way reminiscent of how I’d seen it appear on paper as I’d doodled it. Bert was making something beautiful and my arm was the canvas.

Of the five friends who were keeping me company (through the entire process, less a few minutes when Emily and Stacy stepped out for their piercings), three had also read Fiddler’s Gun and Fiddler’s Green. Aaron and Melissa started a conversation about the characters and our favorite parts in the story. Aaron asked me what part of the story did I read and know that it would matter this much to me. My cell phone was resting on my lap, screen lit with a picture I’d taken on the drive to the studio. “This part…”

That’s just a piece of it, though. I wanted to include a more inclusive quote, partly for your reading pleasure and partly because I feel the need to read it now and then, once a week or so. The book is never very far away…
Fin Button, the feisty orphan heroine with a pained past, has stumbled into kindred spirit Bartimaeus, head of the kitchen at the orphanage. He sees her pain and shows her a way forward in it:

“Now, see here, you got to put that hurt someplace, and this is where old Bartimaeus learned to put his.” He lifted the fiddle out of the case and caressed it.
“It’s beautiful,” whispered Fin.
“Aye,” he said and crooked it into his neck. He drew the bow across the strings and the instrument moaned a forlorn note. “Beautiful, that’s what you got to do with that hurtin’, you got to turn it beautiful.” He closed his eyes and began to play. He rocked back and forth on the log and let the song come out of him. He poured all his pain into the void of the violin and gently worked it out, turned it to beauty.
(I can’t say it often enough. If you haven’t read these books, please…please do yourself a favor.)

Bert was kind enough to work on the design in patches, moving to and from the more and less sensitive areas and giving my body the time it needed to get some endorphins running their course. They helped, but there were several fairly intense moments where, I won’t deny, in an effort to pry my mind away from the pain, I sent a sacred/profane text message or two to a friend who was unable to make it to the studio (I did eventually make use of Stacy’s gum). Even in those moments, though, it was hard to look away from what was happening.

On a day-to-day basis, I carry a lot of crap around in my head. Numbers and demands from work, concerns about family, angst over the past, angst over the future, and on and on. In one of the most intense moments, there was this strange sense of clarity. Watching beauty unfold before my eyes, the pain forced all the crap out of my mind and I could just…see.

And in that moment…something changed. I felt it. My friends saw it.

There was awakening. There was surrender. Both.

Some part of me was, in that moment, simply done with the paralyzing fear of giving offense; with the constant feeling of walking on eggshells, ever aware of others’ opinions and seeking to appease the blasted notions. Some part of me was simply finished with trying so hard to manage the various pains of my past.

I surrendered to the pain in that moment, instead of fighting it off. And there was a blast of clarity, some gust of vision for what life could look like with my hands freed from that battle, freed to “turn it to beautiful.”
I wish I could say that the clarity stayed with me. It did not. But with the remembrance of it, there comes a certain measure of courage to live differently. That is evidencing itself in small ways, ways I didn’t really notice at first…
Life looks very much as it did before, but there is a different sort of beauty…with a edge to it.