A pair of plump, skinny-legged women, late middle-aged and top heavy, balance in the belly-high seawater, yards from shore. Each holds raised in their right hands a beer can, and in their lefts, a cigarette. They are offset mirrors of one another, their cheeks abused by the sun, and they stare glumly at the beach. The sand-clouded, yellow-green waters washing around their expansions and crevices, their tumescent and skirted one-piece bathing suits, have surged and sucked and trembled and roared for millennia and are just as likely to do so for millennia hereafter. The indifference of the sea is pure. Few places preach the passing of time like the beach. Few things taunt us with death like the ceaseless pummel of waves upon our eroding shore.
On occasion I think about what kind of tattoo to get . . . if only I were a tattoo person. I 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.
*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 sequence of modern sonnets. They actually constitute what’s called a crown: each poem begins with the final line of the previous one, and the final poem ends with the first line of the first poem. Thus, the crown–a completed circle. Read these aloud!
The kind of people who flock to this beach
Are those attracted to distractions, like
Infants, spellbound by color and bright lights.
Skeeball machines and go-kart tracks across
The street. A few blocks down, a video
Arcade with its wraparound marquee
Covered in thermoformed plastic carnival
Signs. “Life is Good,” a club’s billboard insists.
(Why the errant capitalization?)
Sunburned arms from playing miniature
Golf. Oh yeah, did I mention that there’s
A beach? // Adolescence brings disdain, and
Like a sugar rush yielding to ennui,
The beach became lesser: a sordid strip.
The beach became lesser—a sordid strip
Of sand set aside for intemperance
And little else. A sense that, somehow,
The water had waxed inane. Laughing gulls
Had yielded much, forfeiting feeding ground
To scavenging herring gulls who, in turn,
Forced them to beg for breadcrumbs: the oppressed
Of the postcolonial bird world. Lost
Innocence, dead like the shredded, viscid
Chunks of sea nettle and moon jellyfish
Punctuating the beach’s declination,
Rotting in thick and pungent coastal breezes.
By the time I returned, bearing sorrow’s weight,
The beach had become a locus of despair.
The beach had become a locus of despair
At its worst, and at its best, a kitschy
Relic of working-class ambition, like
Coney Island without the irony.
My parents leased a condominium
For one whole month but only stayed three weeks.
Why not, we thought, and drove I-65
South to finish what they’d started. Bright
Yellow ginkgo leaves at the state line;
Rocket at the rest stop. Oak and maple
Yielding to pines. Gaudy clapboard oyster
Shacks shuttered for the annual desertion.
Sunset on an empty beach is just like
Standing alone at the edge of the world.
Standing alone at the edge of the world,
Watching waves, rolling mirrors of the deep,
Rich copper dusk—against a sliver of
Protean coastline, stubborn yet yielding
Has its day. Distant depths register in
The chest, like a savory homesickness.
Salty wind stirs longings—a mystery.
The restaurants have no wait. Pesticides
Create dead zones; sea life at risk, reads
The article. Tell that to the eagle ray,
Whose joyous leap eludes the fisherman.
I don’t feel like a redneck. They say that’s
The kind of people who flock to this beach.