August 27, 2013

"There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation." Madeleine L’Engle

It is the first meeting of the needle to skin that surprised me the most. It didn’t pierce, like a blood draw or an injection, it was more a scratching, a scraping along the first few layers of the epidermis. The first meeting of the needle to the skin is the outline, the needle moves quickly sketching out the image. Over time, the vibration becomes relaxing and familiar. The sound of the needle is jarring, annoying, buzzing, intermittent with the lines that arc and bend but settles, eventually, into the background, blending with the traffic noise and casual conversation.

The tattoo artist I hired was young, twenty-five at best, but the canvas of his skin was already covered with ink. He wanted to talk about Jesus because he was a Christian and he could tell from my design that I was also a Christian. He asked about the Celtic cross and about my faith. He railed about the organized church. He talked about grief and about abuse and I listened. I tried to find common ground in his complaint and in that moment I realized how old I felt. It was my fortieth birthday and this was my first tattoo, my mid-life crisis tattoo. It had taken me this long to decide on a design and placement, to work up the courage to make the call, to work up the courage to have someone draw on my skin with a needle and ink.

My second tattoo was the Tree of Life and it took shape on my left shoulder a few years later when I became a catechumen in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I held to this notion of embracing the lost part of us, the part we were made for, the part we had turned away from in the garden. I held to this notion that somehow representing this on my body would help remind me of the daily turning away from death, the daily turning toward the life offered. I wanted blue flowers, for the Theotokos, the mother of God. I wanted the symbol of the Trinity woven into the leaves. I wanted it to be wild and beautiful, branches reaching. The artist this time was a woman I had met through a friend. Like the first artist, Serena too wore skin decorated with images, inks running into inks, on her hands, her feet, her neck. She had kind eyes, a gentle spirit and skilled hands.

My first tattoo was hidden away, in a place that even a bathing suit would cover easily. My second would show only if I let my arms and shoulders go bare but my last tattoo resides on my left wrist. It was a butterfly, originally meant to hover around the Tree of Life on my shoulder, representing beauty, truth, and goodness, representing rebirth and renewal. We had run out of time to add it on my shoulder so when I returned to have the shading done on my tree I decided instead to have it placed on my wrist. I imagined it would be small and inconspicuous, someplace that would not stand out but a place where I could see it at anytime. It brought to mind the ashes I wore each Lent on my forehead when I was a Catholic. But while the ashes of my youth reminded me of grief and longing, the tattoo here was meant to remind me of life and the start of new things, the promise of hope.

Serena scaled the butterfly up to a size she deemed appropriate for my tiny wrists and placed the stencil. It was larger than I’d expected. I stared at the stencil on my wrist a long time as she worked on adding some shading to the tree of life on my shoulder. She said she saw it in blue and I, too, saw it in blue, Mother Mary Blue.

The tattoo on my wrist was far more painful than the other two since there was little between the skin and the sinew, tendons and bones—the less padding offered, the more the nerves respond, messaging the brain that injury is happening. I breathed through the pain, ready to quit. I kept thinking it must be the halfway mark but I had no way to know how far we were in the process. I could not stand to watch the tattoo needle greet my skin; I could only wait for the breaks that Serena would take. I would grab a peek at the fresh, bleeding wound to gauge the time. When at last I’d think she was done there would be more so I’d grit my teeth, trying to make conversation to distract myself without taking her attention from her work. I breathed, reciting the Jesus Prayer through gritted teeth and spirit, letting the jarring sound and gripping pain of the needle do its work.

When I did see the progress, I was struck by how big it was, how bright, how blue. I worried that it was too big, too bright, too blue. I worried that I might regret later this choice and I worried that it was too late. I was already too far committed on this road. The butterfly on my wrist, being sewn into my skin echoed my fears about my journey into faith, into Orthodoxy, was it also too big, too bright, too blue? Will I live to regret this after all the pain and struggle and planning?

“It’s a little like getting married,” I said, when asked about my conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. People asked why it seemed to be taking so long, because it did seem to be taking a long time, at least three years from the start thus far. I thought to blame my shifting circumstances, my inability to remember key things about the tradition, the Liturgy, the fasting and prayer, but instead I simply said that it was a little like getting married. I was headed to the altar but there was still work to be done, caterers to book, invitations to pick out, pre-marital counseling to arrange. Once I was chrismated I intended Orthodoxy to be the last stop on my organized religion tour. I had already been Catholic and then had dated as many Protestant churches as I could while remaining intact.

I kept feeling that if this Orthodoxy thing didn’t work out I was going to have to cloister myself where religion was concerned. I’d hide myself away, like Julian of Norwich, and wait for God’s revelations while sealed in an anchorite’s cell. I’d write deep into the night in a kind of fever, scribbling down my inspired insights. I’d witness the action of the church through the window on one side of my cell—the chanting, the words, the incense. I’d witness the action of the world through the window on the other side—ready with a word of encouragement against the dirt and filth of life from my clean, protected cell, my self-imposed, solitary confinement.

The skin’s reaction to the needle and ink is to seal itself, to create the protective cover and scab itself over. After the pain and vibration of the needle comes the healing. The skin wants to heal, it wants to force out the ink and find itself again. The process of the tattoo is to guide the skin to heal while taking in the new information of the ink. The ways of healing vary from artist to artist, person to person. Serena instructed me to give the skin a short time to regroup after the initial event then to offer it a kind of cauterization, sealing with hot water to rinse away the lotion, the dried blood, the remains of the stencil, the attempts to scar or scab. The skin wants to heal. If the artist goes too deep, too quickly, the ink is blurred, spreading out and destroying the image over time, fading into some unknown or unintended version of itself. If the artist does not go deep enough the ink will fade and peel off in the healing process, leaving gaps in the image. Over the course of the weeks that follow, the skin will heal; it will take in the ink. The skin will make the ink a part of itself, healed softly with time and care.

Even now, a year later, the butterfly on my wrist catches me by surprise each time I see it. I worry that perhaps it is too big, too bright, too blue, still, I know it is mine. It has grown into me like the Orthodox Liturgy has grown into me over time. When I am away from Liturgy for too long I find I burn for it now, for the steadiness of the calendar, the words that ring out in repetition, the heavy scented air. When I return each week I am coming home again. Liturgy is written into my flesh, sinking into my skin and my spirit. The fear of regret is still present and may always be present, is it too big, too bright, too blue? But the butterfly on my wrist reminds me of truth and beauty and goodness, the start of new things, the promise of hope and like the tattoos I wear, this new journey is being knitted into my skin, healing softly with time and care, becoming part of me.

This excerpt is from Angela Doll Carlson's upcoming book, "Nearly Orthodox—On being a modern woman in an ancient tradition," due out from Conciliar Press in Summer 2014.

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