What I Think about Tattoos

On occasion I think about what kind of tattoo to get . . . if only I were a tattoo person. IMG_3354I rather like them, actually. Especially the really colorful sleeves that some people are bold enough to wear.* Is that the proper lingo? Do people wear tattoos? See, I’m not even really sure how to talk about it. Nonetheless, I find them fascinating on some level, and periodically I kind of want one.

The reality, however, is that there’s a disconnect between my notions about tattoos and my notions about myself, and it seems to be rooted in this: tattoos are permanent, and I am not. I don’t simply mean that I am mortal (in case you wondered); I mean that I am forever changing. In my forty earthbound years, I feel like I’ve been at least ten different people. My wife probably sometimes wonders who she married. And I’m not bold enough to say that I won’t be a couple more people before it’s all over. I just hope that a constant enough thread ties together all the rambling parts, so that my loved ones can recognize me.

On a recent beach trip, standing on our fourteenth-floor balcony, I couldn’t resist the notion of impermanence. It radiated from every rippling color field, the waves ever trudging landward–rank upon endless rank of swelling and ebbing and lapping seawater, mocking our human vainglory, our desperation to hold onto anything. It was in the air: laughter, inaudible and implied–even seen–in the spiraling bullet dives of terns; the aloofness of brown pelicans, gliding in groups or bobbing in solitude just beyond the breakers; the sand itself, lying dumb on the damp declination, yielding itself to the tide’s relentlessness.

It’s as if all of nature–the ocean, the beach, the birds, the breeze–knows this secret at which we humans can only guess. It goes about its business in full knowledge, and it pities us, watching from the shallows and deeps while we erect temples of impermanence. It was born into searchlessness, while we, grasping, were born into questions, with the consciousnesses of gods but the bodies of beasts, pulled in two directions always.

Art is our brush with permanence, the closest that we come in this life. It’s why we know the name Achilles, 3,000 years after it was first spoken. Because something of the immortal hides in Art–some distillation of the permanent; an echo of the angelic realm, sounding in perpetuity, as though it had a form and could be touched.

Perhaps a tattoo, in being art drawn on the skin, is a way that we can approach earthly permanence. Yet this feels ultimately futile, too, for even the name Achilles will pass some day. Earthly permanence is simply not one of our options (though we may crave it). It makes far more sense to get one merely because you like it, regardless of permanence or impermanence–that’s reason enough. After all, I do love looking at the tattoos of others–their colors, their details, their artistry. But for some reason, when it comes to my own skin, I just can’t seem to do it. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I become one of the other two people I mentioned earlier.

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*Liza Nordqvist is a tattoo artist in Gothenburg, Sweden. I discovered her work on Instagram (@filthyswede) and fell in love with her colors and imagery. You should visit her Instagram page!

A Message from the Portal

Of all the views afforded by beach and sea, the one that enchants me most is that of crashing waves.  Whether they be large, small, or barely existent, waves are always there, and that is where I fix my eyes most often.  At the time of this posting, we are there.

 

Hours are being spent in a flimsy chair, under a flimsy umbrella, staring at the incessant inflow and outflow of briny water.  Sometimes the waves crash with a deep, hollow-sounding thud, which hints at their power; sometimes they lap against the sand with a liquid whisper, showing their gentility.  But always, they are coming in and going out—for eternity, as far as I can tell.

 

The consistency of waves gives us a sense of the passage of time and a feeling that our lives are but a hiccup on a continuum.  If this makes us feel insignificant, though, it is soon countered by a profound sense of wonder at nature’s timelessness and vastness.  We just as soon feel a part of it.  For the meditative, there is an attraction found in this dichotomy of insignificance and participation.  As regards meditation, it is worth saying that the off-season invites this very state of mind.  If soul-searching is on the agenda, few settings are as conducive as an abandoned beachfront, a few feet from the water, watching a red sun emerge from pink-orange clouds and then drop beneath the horizon.

 

Some time during my meditations on this border between land and water, I had the notion of crashing waves as portal.  The portal exists in the imagination.  It inhabits the quiet and reflective corners of the mind.  It blossoms upon the minutes and hours spent staring into that rollicking, roiling churn at the beach’s declination.  The crashing waves are a passageway between this world and another—not necessarily the afterlife, but a parallel world.  We can play in the waves, but we cannot cross over.  The other world can be known only in dreams, where the soul swims through coral caverns with wondrous and mysterious creatures in a bottomless, aqueous vacuum.

 

After lengthy spells at the water’s edge, watching and listening, it becomes possible to feel transported, like the soul has been sparked.  It is similar to the sensation one gets before certain paintings or in a balcony at the symphony, when a rare lucidity grants us heightened awareness of the finer points of art and nature.  It is as though, all of a sudden, communication has been achieved with another realm, with the unknown, with God.  This is an effect of the portal.

 

Why the Beach in October?

“He did not know why, but he had suddenly an irresistible longing for the sea.” –W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

 

A twin dislike for heat and crowds are legitimate explanations for the attraction of the off-season, and probably the reason I have never tried to go to Bonnaroo, but there is more behind what has become a Fall beach obsession than that.  Driving to the beach at this time of year may seem anachronistic to many, including myself the first couple of times we did it.  It felt unnatural for a Fall-lover to be leaving home at a time when the season was in its full glory.  It is like leaving one world to go to another, a world in which the Halloween and harvest decorations we see serve as emissaries of the world we leave behind.  So Fall is still the setting, in a sense.

 

But why the beach?  Why not the mountains, or any number of cities?  A compelling argument is that I am drawn by the beauty of beaches.  A sunset over the water rivals any breathtaking phenomena that may occur in nature.  Sitting at the water’s edge at dusk, with eyes drifting up and down between the red setting sun and the steady waves washing onto the darkened sand, is a moment relished each time I am fortunate enough to be there while it is happening.  It is a moment that insists on reflection—reflection on art, self, God, and the universe.  It is a moment that tends to clear the mind and make you feel at once intensely alive yet fading into oblivion, like the sea will eventually claim your spirit if you sit there long enough, and it will be a transcendent thing, not a fearful thing.  But if it was beauty alone that draws me to the beach, it could be argued that beauty alone draws me to the mountains, or to the desert, or to any number of naturally beautiful places in our world.  It is not that beauty is not part of the picture, it is just not the whole picture.

 

In The Moviegoer, Walker Percy refers to the sense of a place as its “genie-soul”.  It is something “which every place has or else is not a place” (Percy 202).  He goes on to say it is something to be mastered or else it will master you.  The genie-soul that is found on the Gulf Coast in late Fall is a sort of deserted loneliness, and it will control you if you let it.  I have felt this most acutely at sunset, which is simultaneously luxurious and lonesome at the end of October.  The sadness that can overtake you is real.  The days are getting shorter; people are becoming scarce.  A sort of communal empty nest syndrome hangs in the salty air.  The feeling of being at the edge of the world is at its strongest during sunset on an empty beach.

 

There is something beyond this sadness, however.  There is a reward for acknowledging it, getting past it, and embracing the melancholy.  There is a sense of longing that a lonely beach seems to nurture, and this is somehow attractive to the more pensive among us.  In spite of my wordiness, I find it difficult to put this feeling into words.  I only know that it exists, perhaps as some psychologically necessary quality of the human soul–an essential counterweight to the joy we feel at other times, providing balance.  The sweet spot for the off-season beach visit seems to be late October, when it is still comfortable enough to sit in a beach chair for hours yet a little chilly by the traditional summer-loving beachgoer’s standards.  Crowds will never be an issue at this time of year, for regardless how compelling mine or anyone else’s arguments for the off-season may be, they cannot compete with popular opinion.  For this, the few of us who have fallen under the spell of the off-season should be grateful.

 

 

Works Cited:

 

Maugham, W. Somerset.  Of Human Bondage.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1963.  Print.

 

Percy, Walker.  The Moviegoer.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1998.  Print.