My New Tattoo

My new tattoo. My first tattoo. I admit, I’ve talked it up since my 60 th birthday when I made a commitment to a tattoo because I thought sixty was a good marker, but I’d been thinking about it for a good decade previous to that. I’ve been talking about it for so long that friends roll their eyes. Yeah, sure. I’ve been asking for advice on what this tattoo should be for so long that people duck out to avoid poring over terrible pencil sketches that are just badbadbad for tattoos. I even announced at one point I would have a tattoo of the vowels. The vowels, not the bowels. I may still get that one because I love the vowels: they are the emotional center of the sound of language. But yes, maybe that’s just too esoteric for words—but isn’t that the point? To choose an image to stain your body permanently in order to make a visible statement to/on yourself—as much as to anyone else? But still, I didn’t do it. I interviewed three tattoo artists, and each time, I would cancel or put off the appointments. It seemed like such a big deal.

Then November 8. Something shifted that day, and I was thinking deeply, worrying about my friends who are facing being ostracized, repressed, who may actually be in danger. I was thinking about how to make it clear that things were not what they were on November 7. I was driving back from speaking for the Contemporary Writers Series at Aquinas College where I had read to a crowd of 200 about the assassination of John F. Kennedy as an example of other hard times we have survived.

I had felt both gratitude and animosity from the crowd. Afterwards, I had been told by a Jewish member of the audience that the 614 th commandment is “to survive.” I had talked with a Latina student who said she longed to read the rest of Love, Sex and 4-H but couldn’t afford it. I bought her a copy. I had spoken with the newly arrived Fullbright scholar, Dr. Shamsul Mahmud, from Bangladesh about the need for open dialogue. My friend, the poet Fleda Brown, says we should do nothing until we are absolutely impelled.

She says we know when this moment strikes and we can no longer resist. On the way home from that first reading after the election, thinking deeply about the last week, I knew. I drove into the parking lot of an unassuming tattoo shop in Muskegon. I walked in among the leather jackets, skull images, nose rings, and asked if an artist was free. Justin was. We agreed on a price. He helped me choose the font, explaining that I needed a larger font because my older skin would absorb differently than younger skin. I was grateful. He set the image. I stared at it in the mirror. I said yes.

Just as he was launching the first word, I realized “life” was misspelled as “live.” I gasped, told him we’d missed it, came almost to tears. He leaned over, said, “Don’t worry.” And he fixed the “v,”changing it to a very fancy “f.” It looks like it has little wings. I let go of the panic. It was right. I knew that moment was right and life and live blended in a soft and fancy consonant.

In the end, the sentence I chose was obvious and clear. I was impelled: Mary Oliver’s line “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” No image. Just text. An iconic line from a poem titled “Summer Days” that signals urgency, passion, and paradoxically a call for order. In this sentence I ask myself, and I ask others. This sentence will not let me be complacent. This sentence is a commitment to asking every time I read the open font slanted across my forearm. What will I do? My wild and precious life? You wild and precious life. What will we do starting now.