I got a new tattoo recently. I think I may have mentioned it a few posts ago. It’s a fig tree – based on this quote from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
I get teary every time I read it. Typing apparently is no different.
The “figs” she mentions are specific to her life, of course. And mine would be quite different. But the sentiment is the same. And is inked into me body and soul.
My tattoo artist’s name is Matt. He’s my age and covered in tattoos and seems to laugh at almost everything. I’d like to sound a lot cooler than I am and say that it didn’t really hurt and I didn’t instantly think about backing out when we started, but neither are true. He did the outline as I looked away and tried really hard not to cry. Then he laughed and said, “Ok, now we’ll add the ink.”
I thought he was joking. One of those cheesy trade jokes they pull on people. Like my dentist asking invariably for the past 26 years if I want my toothpaste flavored mint, berry, or roadkill. I don’t remember this from my other two tattoos – maybe they weren’t big enough or I blocked it out like a mom does the pains of childbirth – but as he wiped off the little blood already pooling I saw he wasn’t kidding. There was no ink in that needle. No branches or figs to speak of. Just the smooth patch of forearm he’d had to shave before we started in one of my more humbling moments.
“So that was for nothing?”
He laughed again. “Nah, that was the hardest part.”
He explained to me that outlining the image without any ink gave him a roadmap for the rest of the tattoo. The skin would get irritated and red and swell up a little, marking exactly where to fill in or shade without the appearance of an actual outline.
“Keeps the integrity of the art,” he said. The artist marking his way. They call it bloodlining. And its aptly named.
The rest of the tattoo was just as painful. I tried to distract myself by making conversation or gripping the side of the chair as inconspicuously as possible. Still, it hurt like hell. But felt increasingly more worth it as I saw the tree coming to life – the branches starting to stretch across my veins and the figs beginning to form. He’d drag the needle right to the edge of that bloodline and then back again. And though it was excruciating, it ended up (I think) beautiful.
This year has been hell for me. There’s been a ton of change, most of it unwanted, and I don’t think I’ve handled it very well. My therapist termed it “adjustment disorder with depression” which makes me feel insecure in all possible ways. Another one of my more humbling moments. But more than anything, it’s been a huge strain on my faith. And not in the “I’m just in a spiritual desert but I’m sure it will pass while I read Jen Hatmaker” sort of way. More like, “this is too damn much and I’m out.” It’s been exhausting. And at the risk of sounding melodramatic, excruciating.
The last month or so has felt a little different. The anger has softened some, for which I’m grateful. I think I may be coming to the end of my temper tantrum, despite my own best efforts, and I’m feeling a bit more hopeful. So when Matt said that – that the hardest part was over, though there was nothing to show for it – it hit me in the throat.
Pain seems so much more bearable when its merit is obvious. Relationships that end for good reason or closed doors that lead (quickly) to open ones. It’s so much easier to trust the needle when the purpose is clear, when the pain seems worth it, when it leaves a fat purple fig in its wake.
Not so when it seems meaningless. Or arbitrary. Flippant, even. Not so when it feels like you’re bleeding for nothing.
Unless it isn’t for nothing. Unless it’s just the hardest part. Unless it’s the artist marking his way. Unless it’s bloodlining.
I see the flaws in this metaphor. Namely in comparing my tattoo artist to God or suggesting that pain without apparent reason is always drawn by the purposeful hand of God. The latter is a theological debate I just don’t have the energy for this morning.
But still, the sentiment is the same. And is inked into me body and soul.