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!

Seeing Is Being

     As an idealistic undergraduate student, some twenty years ago, I held capital-r Romantic ideas about nature. I identified with William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson and their spiritual, transcendental writings; I took walks in the woods, believing humankind to have some kind of symbiotic relationship with the earth. Stopping short of worshiping nature, it nevertheless seemed that there was something spiritual at the back of it. There was something that my soul needed, embodied in the dusk: orange light sifted through bare branches; mystery descending in the cool air; the way that near-darkness teases the eyes. Dusk was (and is) the most magical time.

CAMBODIA, Siem Reap. Doorway at Prasat Bram temple, several brick towers enclosed by tree roots, part of 10th century Ankorian site at Koh Ker.
CAMBODIA, Siem Reap. Doorway at Prasat Bram temple, several brick towers enclosed by tree roots, part of 10th century Ankorian site at Koh Ker.

     I still feel those sensations, but now something else has settled into my bones, a feeling unshakable: nature does not need us. Nature accommodates us, but she doesn’t need us. If a plague rubbed us all out of existence, she would go on. In other words, nature is indifferent to us. Sure, certain plants benefit from our care; certain animal populations thrive because of conservation efforts. But on the whole, nature was fine before we got here and she’ll be fine when we’re gone.* And haven’t I always suspected this? Haven’t I always known that this affection only traveled one way?

Yet I won’t end on that dreary note. A greater realization has replaced that earlier longing. Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Architecture is the triumph of human imagination over materials, methods, and men to put man into possession of his own earth.” If you substitute the word ‘art’ for ‘architecture,’ then you’ll begin to get what I’m driving at. Taking ownership, i.e., creating order, i.e., creating meaning, or what Wright calls “the triumph of the imagination,” is a way that we humans excel. (We also excel at creating chaos, but that is not what this post is about.)

The way that this ties to nature lies in the way we look at nature. It’s the very thing that I didn’t realize I was doing as an undergrad: I was seeing in nature what I needed to see. In a world that can be hostile to the imagination, and that values efficiency,productivity, and economy over art, I needed mystery and beauty. And I still do. Nature, with all her forms and textures and colors–her caprices, excesses, and austerity–is the perfect canvas on which to project these needs.

     So this is what we do, I’m convinced. We project onto things, and by projecting, we create meaning. We have this ability to see what we need to see. And this faculty of ours is a glorious gift. It helps to smooth abrasions and to intensify that which already shines. It swells our capacity for hope, and it renders us more humane. It is an overflow of the very consciousness within, a flicker of the divine, and we would do well to embrace it. We can be what we choose to see.
*Photo of Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia courtesy of Grant Dixon Photography (http://www.grantdixonphotography.com.au/). Check out his stellar work!

Life among the Treetops

As a boy I dreamed of living among treetops, whether in elaborate tree houses or simply as some humanoid primate perched on the uppermost branches. As a forty-year-old man, however, the treetops don’t seem quite so high; I now dream of flying above them. Which gets me thinking about the way perspective changes with age. It’s not that some arboreal existence wouldn’t yield its share of amazing sights, but it’s that even the big things seem smaller now. Part of this is geographic in nature, by which I mean that a huge perspective shift occurred when I moved from Union City, Tennessee, to Nashville almost fifteen years ago–two towns only three hours apart, but worlds apart demographically and size-wise. As a child, the drive across Union City felt endless. By contrast, my morning commute these days would encompass at least five of those crosstown drives of yore. Nevertheless, I feel that this shift in perspective has to do with more than just moving to a new address.

Distance and time haven’t changed. My eyes have. And I don’t even know what to attribute the change to other than age and the unavoidable broadening of understanding that accompanies it. So there are no life answers embedded in this post, just observations. Just an excuse to write. It is true that I am writing a book, and it’s what I am most excited about. But I also have a compulsion to maintain this blog. To air out random ideas from time to time. To you who have chosen to read it, bless you. Maybe across the digisphere we can reminisce together about those dusky childhood days of climbing trees and feeling like another world had been entered. I used to climb trees with my friend Bobby. He always seemed to climb a little higher. Perhaps he was more at home in those heights. In the innocent way of children, I admired his tendency to climb higher–jealousy wasn’t a thing back then. Those trees we climbed and the house that stood nearby are all gone now, but when I think of those days, I always picture the trees. No doubt they are taller in my imagination, but so what? The trees and houses of childhood are permitted to loom as large as we need them to. The survival of the memory is what matters, not the accuracy of it.

My boys love being outside. In spite of the allure of televisions and iPads, they are drawn out-of-doors. They seem unable to resist it. I sincerely hope that they are dreaming up their own little worlds in the treetops that they see. Maybe by the time Arthur is of a solid climbing size, one of the trees I’ve planted will support a little weight (I’m counting on those fertilizer stakes I hammered into the ground a few days ago). Perhaps he will imagine elaborate tree houses, or some primordial age of tree-dwelling human life, foraging among the leaves for nuts or raining down death from above on unsuspecting prey, marking out his special place in the great chain of being. Let him imagine these kinds of things.