I fancied myself a writer of sorts when I was in high school. I dreamed of publishing a best selling novel, of going on the talk show circuit, of having my name recognized. My AP English teacher, though, had different ideas.
"What are you planning to major in?" she asked politely, when I told her I was planning to go to UNC-Wilmington for college.
"English," I said. "I like to read, and I like to write." I laughed self-deprecatingly.
"You might want to rethink that," she said, looking through her large semi-circular bifocals at me, appearing to look down her nose at me, even though she was sitting. "You're not a very good writer."
It hurt, though I never would've let her know that. I'd never been told I wasn't good at anything. I was one of those straight-A students who teachers liked. I was quiet and rarely took risks. I just kept my head down, did as much of the work in front of me to earn the A, and faked being pleasant and happy. I had potential, I'd been told, again and again. I could do anything, be anything. So long as it wasn't something to do with music. Or athletics. Or probably visual art.
Add to that list, Mrs. Sellers implied, writing.
I saw Mrs. Sellers at the visitation for my mother's funeral.
"Hi, Mrs. Sellers," I said. "Thank you for coming. I work as a writer now. For a university."
She nodded and smiled vaguely. She didn't remember me. She certainly remembered my grandparents. She remembered my mother, who had been her neighbor for a while. She might have remembered that my mother had a daughter, but it had been 15 years since she taught me. She had no idea that she'd convinced me that I shouldn't think of writing as a career. She had no idea that a toss-off comment she made to a socially awkward and immature 17-year-old influenced the way I viewed myself.
But, I owe it to myself to tell stories. I trust my story, and my ability to tell it, whether it's the writing I do for fun, or when I help researchers tell their stories well so they can convince their peers to give them money. I trust the ghosts who whisper ideas in my head, and I do my best to translate the flashes of memory and inspiration into words.
I am a writer. I am a teller of stories.
As of Friday, I have four tattoos. I first started wanting a tattoo when I was in college, when every freshman girl in my dorm, it seemed wanted to be a marine biology major, and to demonstrate their devotion to the field, tattooed a dolphin on their ankle. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I never said that the stories I told are true. They are one truth. They're as accurate a translation as I can make from memory and emotion to mere language. But they aren't recitations of fact. They are stories, translations, representations of the wordless. They are the thing reduced to text, and expanded to imagination.
I really started wanting a tattoo when I first met S. She had a number of tattoos by that point - some visible, others not for my eyes. She had a memorial of her late husband, and a line from "Bartleby the Scrivener." After we broke up and I began dating AC, she got the Chinese characters for "woman" and "courage" and "strength" tattooed across her lower back, in the days before that was called a tramp stamp. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.
I waited until I was 29 to get my first tattoo. I'd promised myself, way back when I was 18 that I'd wait either until I'd received my PhD or until I was 30. Whichever came first. I dropped out of my PhD program after a year, and waited tables for a few years until I decided, suddenly, that I needed to figure out what to do beyond the next rent payment. I felt a wave of guilt, as if I'd betrayed 18-year-old me by not waiting an extra year for the tattoo, but it was time. I was not going to wait until I was 30 to figure out my life, and for some reason, the tattoo seemed the first step, before sending out dozens of resumes, before figuring out the career path I wanted, before I took one step toward a life of responsibility and middle-class-dom.
"I want a tattoo," I told my then-girlfriend Ingrid. We had nothing in common but our incredible sexual chemistry, but we hadn't yet discovered that. "I think I'll get myself one for my birthday."
"What do you want?" she asked.
"I've been thinking I want a lotus flower," I told her. She began to tease me. Lotus flowers were not cool, she told me. They were common. They were the sort of thing that 18-year-old college students got as tramp stamps. Surely I didn't want to be like every other girl in town.
I'd researched lotus flowers. I knew what they symbolized. They grew out of mud and became something beautiful. They floated on the muck of still waters, and they opened to the light.
But she convinced me I didn't want a lotus flower. For my birthday, she made me a mix CD of various songs she thought I'd like. She named it "Lotus," and she laughed as she gave it to me. I looked down, a little embarrassed that my imagination had failed me.
I searched the internet, looking at Celtic symbols and designs, since at least the Celts are in my ancestry. I'd be stealing from my own unknown culture, rather than from a culture I had no real connection to. I settled on a design the internet said symbolized the Maiden-Mother-Crone life cycle. I was, I decided, at a transition. Whether it was a lotus flower rising from muck, or simply being at the border between child and woman, I was in transition.
I picked a design. I went to the tattoo shop. I sat through a couple of hours of pain, especially as the artist outlined the design on my very thin body, hitting the spine near my neck with a nearly electric jolt, and walked out with the design between my shoulder blades.
The art is not the best I've seen, but I love the tattoo anyway. When I was 29, I began stepping from one world to another. I am still moving, and perhaps I always will be, toward adulthood and responsibility and independence. Ingrid stopped into the shop while I was under the needle. She smiled and approved and told me that I was tough. I grinned and hid the pain and longed for a smoke.
Each of my tattoos are something internal, something near wordless, made concrete on my skin. Even for that first tattoo, I've taken my time, deciding and reshaping and considering, before I'd shyly make an appointment with a tattoo artist and bring in my printed out digital photo or bit of poetry. My tattoos are all black & gray (except the poetry, which is just black, outlining the letters on my skin).
In 2006, I had the Tree of Life, taken from the base of the Rood hanging in mine and ana's church, tattooed on my upper right arm. The tree in the church was gold, growing up from nothing, a snake twined in its ball of roots. It stretched toward the crucifix above it. On it, rested the saints and the savior. It bore the cross and all that the cross represented.
Every Sunday, I'd stare at that tree, and I'd think of the other trees in mythology. The World Tree, upon which Odin hung for 9 days. The Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Trees run through the mythologies of the world, through East Asia, Africa, various parts of Europe, Mesoamerica, India, Turkey, the Middle East.
The tree is, for me, an expression of my inarticulable internal spirituality. It is connectedness. It is my place as a part of a larger universe. It is my wordless acceptance that I'm part of the world.
I told myself stories when I was an undergraduate. I rarely wrote them down. They lost something essential in the translation, what I now see as a failure of experience. I'd not had the time to hone my skills, or the years to gain perspective and language.
In the dorms, we'd have these ridiculous - stereotypical, really - philosophical discussions fueled by vodka and cigarettes and pot, and, as is the nature of these things, reincarnation came up periodically.
"Who were you in a previous life, do you think?" someone would say.
Joan of Arc was a popular answer. Einstein, someone would say, laughing. Freud, someone else would say, and make a sad Freudian allusion while overtly sucking very hard on a very thin and stubby cigarette.
VaginaVirginia Slims had a certain retro popularity among a segment of my classmates.
"I was," I said slowly and seriously, "a tree." This was years before I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I more or less imagined myself as an Ent. I imagined in vivid detail what it would be like, experiencing life as a tree. I was old, in these memories. I'd seen my neighbors die, or be cut down. My thoughts and experiences were slow. I felt the gradual rise of sap in the spring. I shed my leaves, a bit sorrowfully but with great exhaustion, in the fall before settling down to enjoy the cold rain and the peace of sleep. The flitting about of humans meant nothing at all to me. They were minor annoyances only when they pierced my trunk, carving their initials a bit deeper than they needed to be.
The insects bothered me more, and I was grateful for the occasional woodpecker. I had no other way to scratch away the insects boring into me, turning my bark and cambium into nothing more than a useless sponge. Not enough to kill me, not after more than a hundred years. I'd survived a lightning strike, after all. And the harvesting of timber countless times. I'd stood here, patiently, thinking slow and profound thoughts about the glory and warmth of sun, and the dark sensuality of soil, of the winds and rains of hurricanes that almost made me feel as if I could leap from the ground and walk.
I had no words, not in my semi-altered state, high off the second-hand smokes and the first-hand - and, new to me - companionship, to describe what it was like, being a tree. I laughed with my friends, as they teased me about not being a famous person in history. But every now and then, I'd close my eyes, and I would be the tree again. The world would slow, and I would feel my roots and my leaves and the barest breeze.
My earliest memory of trying to impress a girl was when I flipped off the branch of the tree in my front yard and landed hard on my back, knocking the breath from me and dashing up, in pain and embarrassed, to find my mom. I was the sort of kid who, until I was in middle school and too old for such things, spent as much time as I could outside. Sometimes I'd sneak a book out. Other times, I'd explore the yard, turning over stones to see what was there. I had no fear, though my mom tried to teach me a fear of snakes and spiders and other creatures that might bite or sting. I always imagined, though, that if they just knew me, even the most dangerous animal found in our rural backyard would choose to be my friend. Other kids, I wasn't so sure of, but insects? Why not? Lizards? Absolutely! Baby possums? So cute! I was a very small naturalist in some ways, but I my imagination provided better stories about the lives of the small creatures found under rocks and in the back corners of the garage than the age-appropriate, more scientifically accurate books my grandmother gave me did.
I discovered, early in my life, that my delight in all things living was not universally shared.
"Look, it's a green garden snake!" my mom said, when I was maybe 5. She caught it carefully behind its small head, and held it out for me to touch.
"Is it slimy?" I asked.
"No, just kind of dry," she told me. "I used to catch these when I was little and chase my sisters with them. They hated snakes. I thought it was funny, though." She let the snake climb and twirl across my little body, and warned me not to hold it too tightly.
"Can I keep it as a pet?" I asked. I know that my mom had to have grown tired of that question about a month after I started talking. I always asked. She always answered the same way.
"You can't keep wild animals as pets. It's not fair to them. They need room to move around and be themselves."
I told the story the next day to my teacher, and she shuddered. I watched her reaction and I remembered.
By the time I was in the 4th grade, I'd begun to rebel against the teachers, just a bit. I'd thought they were my friends, sort of, a kind of grown up who cared about me, as an individual. I wanted so badly to impress them when I was small. But then I realized that they saw me much the way my peers did - as a strange little girl, a bit too intellectually smart, and far too socially inept. I was angry at Mrs. Bowen, my 4th grade teacher. During story time that day, she skipped a chapter in my favorite book in the classroom - an abridged version of The Call of the Wild. I raised my hand.
"You missed a chapter," I said. "The one that starts…" And I quoted the lines at the beginning of the chapter. I thought she'd be pleased. I thought she'd just made an honest mistake, and she'd be grateful that I'd noticed so she could go back and share with the rest of the class why this book was so amazing. She rolled her eyes and then glared at me, hard. Even my mother didn't look at me like that when I'd done something particularly bad.
"I guess I did," she said. "I don't think we need to hear that part of it - it's boring." She looked at the rest of the class, and chuckled, signaling to them that they should laugh as well. My cheeks burned. I was angry.
At recess, I wandered far into the ball field, picking strands of the red sour weed that grew there.
"What are you eating?" asked a girl, curiously.
"Sour weed. It's good," I told her.
"It's sour because dogs pee on it!" said a boy, and the girl squealed with revulsion.
"How," I asked calmly, not taking the weed from my mouth, could a dog pee on every sour weed in the world? They all taste the same."
"Dogs pee everywhere," the boy said. "You're eating dog pee." He and the girl ran off, and I promptly forgot about them, as I continued to search.
And there it was. Perfect. It was a largish specimen, but not too large. It was brown, with darker brown stripes on its back, and its little mandibles worked back and forth as it traveled through the thick weeds. I carefully scooped the spider into my hands. They were soft, delicate. And, on the off-chance that it was a female spider, I didn't want to crush its egg-sac, sending tiny baby spiders all over my hands. Even I had my limits.
I cupped my hands around the spider. It stayed perfectly still, barely twitching as I walked to where Mrs. Bowen was gossiping with Mrs. Rivenbark, one of the other 4th grade teachers.
"Look what I found!" I said to her, happily. She looked at me and smiled. She probably imagined I'd found a pretty flower, or maybe something nice, like a toad. I opened my hand, and the spider nearly covered my tiny palm, its legs stretched out, waiting.
"Put that down!" she screeched. "It'll bite!"
"Not unless I smash it," I said reasonably. "These are nice spiders. They carry their babies around, and everything."
"Put it down!" she took a couple of steps back.
"I need to take it back over there, so it won't get stepped on," I said.
"Now." Her voice had that absolute authority that didn't much allow for disobedience. I carefully sat the spider down, and watched it carefully, protecting it from anyone who might want to harm it. It had done nothing wrong. It wasn't my fault that Mrs. Bowen was scared of a little spider.
On Friday, one of the two tattoos I got was an orb-weaver spider, also known as the common garden spider. In my garden, when I found these largish orange spiders with their beautifully ornate webs, I called them Clyde. In all honesty, by this point, spiders kind of gave me the creeps. My heart pounded if I ran into a web. I carefully stayed away from them. I remembered liking spiders, but a nightmare in graduate schools of being attacked my black widows all over my body (and no one around me believing they were there) had made me a bit uncomfortable around spiders.
But the spiders were beautiful. Each night, they eat their webs, rest, and build again the next morning. The dew highlighted the intricate patterns. Spiders are storytellers, creators, tricksters, and artists in myths. They're clever. They win, not by strength but by trickery and cunning. Anansi stories are some of my favorites - not the ones doctored up for American children and renamed the Brer Rabbit stories. The real Anansi stories. The ones where he's a spider, not a cute rabbit covered in tar. But there are other spider myths, too. Arachne, the weaver, who embarrassed Athena with her skill and cleverness. The Spider Woman, who created the world. The spider who shielded the prophet Mohammed in a cave and protected him from his pursuers. Spiders aren't always nice, but they win.
The spider on my arm is me, a storyteller, someone who wins, much to the surprise of most, I think.
My favorite spiders when I was small were the black and yellow striped garden spiders that wrote thick white zig-zags in their webs. I was disappointed that Charlotte, in the E.B. White book, was a grey barn spider. Had she been black and yellow, I would've bought the idea that she could write in her web much more easily.
"They say that if you see your name written in their webs, you're going to die," my grandmother told me, as we admired a writing spider out of the window of her old house. It was shortly before my grandparents announced that they were going to move to a new house, at the end of a dead-end road.
"Won't you miss the spider?" I said. I carefully looked at her web, trying to make out letters in the zig-zag pattern of her writing. She hung, perfectly still, gleaming in the sun.
Grandmama laughed. "There'll be spiders at the new house, I expect," she said.
But it wouldn't be that one. I felt attached to the one outside her kitchen window. She might get lonely if I wasn't there to visit her. She might write someone's name in her web, and I wouldn't be there to know who was going to die.
There were spiders at the new house, though, and my brothers and I carefully avoided breaking their beautiful webs as we picked lima beans and tomatoes. I found that if you got too close to their webs, they'd bounce the web up and down, bending their long legs and springing up.
Granddaddy said they wrote in their webs so birds would see them and not fly through the webs. Even so, I checked each one for something legible, just in case.
The Clydes in my yard, the plain orange orb-weavers, didn't write. I missed the black and yellow garden spiders with their cryptic messages in a script I didn't read, but Clyde was enough. Each spring, I'd start looking for them to show up. I watched them spin and weave, and occasionally, I'd toss a fly into their webs and watch them efficiently package up the food. It was a comfort, knowing that Clyde was there, spinning, creating, tearing down, and creating her world anew.
We owe it to each other to tell stories, wrote Neil Gaiman in his poem "Locks," and, I would add, we owe it to ourselves. And so I do. Again. Again. Again.
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