For years I’ve wanted a tattoo.
In high school, I wanted a Chinese character for something or other. I can’t remember what specifically. Which is why it’s a good thing I didn’t get a tattoo then.
In college I thought about a phoenix or a phoenix feather on fire. I still like that imagery and idea, but it never excited me enough to actually do it.
I’ve always known that I would *know* when I stumbled upon the perfect idea to start me down the slippery slope of inking myself up. And I finally did.
Over the last two months, I kept coming back to the poem INSTRUCTIONS by Neil Gaiman:
Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never
Say “please” before you open the latch,
walk down the path.
A red metal imp hangs from the green-painted
as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat
However, if any creature tells you that it hungers,
If it tells you that it is dirty,
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.
From the back garden you will be able to see the
The deep well you walk past leads to Winter’s
there is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here,
you can walk back, safely;
you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.
Once through the garden you will be in the
The trees are old. Eyes peer from the under-
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman. She
may ask for something;
give it to her. She
will point the way to the castle.
Inside it are three princesses.
Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.
In the clearing beyond the castle the twelve
months sit about a fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales.
They may do favors for you, if you are polite.
You may pick strawberries in December’s frost.
Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where
you are going.
The river can be crossed by the ferry. The ferry-
man will take you.
(The answer to his question is this:
If he hands the oar to his passenger, he will be free to
leave the boat.
Only tell him this from a safe distance.)
If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.
Do not be jealous of your sister.
Know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble from
one’s lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.
Remember your name.
Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
Do not forget your manners.
Do not look back.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).
There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.
When you reach the little house, the place your
you will recognize it, although it will seem
much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden gate
you never saw before but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.
The poem was introduced to me by one of my best friends and favorite people and it has been a touchstone in recent times with chunks of it becoming mantras. It’s technically the breakdown of a fairy tale; it’s also about being on a new path and trusting/learning from others but remembering to be a good human and to trust who you are at your core to get you through. And I love it. So much. I relate strongly to many parts of the piece and if I had the cojones, I would probably get the whole poem on my person.
But I don’t have the cojones.
So about a month ago I had narrowed down ideas and I knew I wanted “Trust your heart, and trust your story.” I have always had a strong intuition and a gut/heart I can rely on – sometimes it’s a freakish sixth sense and there are jokes about the women on my Mom’s side of the family being witches; it runs in the blood. And while everyone has their own stories because we are all our own unique universes of thoughts, feelings, and histories, I am typically able to work to a clear, balanced, able-to-be-trusted story – partially because I over-think, over-analyze, and try to put myself in others’ shoes. I try to approach my reactions to difficult situations from a collection of information and that has always helped lend clarity and understanding in tougher moments. Not to say that I am always correct or that I don’t have moments of dramatic weakness. But on the whole, I can trust my story. And sometimes I forget this. Or – more likely – I let others give me a different story or sway me from my gut. And that has never turned out OK for me. So having this reminder and mantra carved into my skin seemed natural. And I knew I wanted it in my own handwriting.
I also played with the idea of shape and had settled on the idea of a heart with the bottom slightly open, the words creating the shape (still in my own handwriting), as a reminder that no matter what is going on, you have to approach life ready to let love out of your heart and into the world and let love from the world into your heart, too. Because at the end of the day, I want to live my life steeped in love. And I mean that in a much greater way than the day to day – though that is important, too. I want to live with an open, flowing heart because you only get one crack at this life – so why not live in whole-hearted love?
It’s cheesey. But it’s true.
So I had my consultation at Cirque Du Rouge with their fabulous apprentice, Cas Loll, and came armed with a slew of handwriting samples as instructed.
Before meeting up, I had read Cas’ bio:
Like a magical woodland creature, passionate curiosity about the fiddly bits of everyday life and an endless hunger for knowledge fuels me.
I’m obsessed with all things whimsical, mystical, eerie, ancient, good-hearted, and seemingly inconsequential.
Cas also mentions on her website that she’s available for “Petting your cat or other cute small mammal.” Needless to say, I felt good about her. And then during the consult, when I started talking about the poem, she shared that she recently bought the INSTRUCTIONS book for her nephew.
We set October 14th at 6:00pm as the date/time and until then, she would workshop the heart (with a back-up of just the text) in as close to my handwriting as she could get while still having the text tattoo-friendly (size/spacing).
The 14th rolled around and here is what I typed out on my work computer as the hour neared:
5:22pm – I have eaten 2 extra strength tylenol; a thing of mac and cheese; my stomach is queasy and churning and I am sweating like a monster. I am wondering if I should have gotten a second thing of mac and cheese. I have been so distracted all day at work. Nervous and excited to see the final stencil of the tattoo ideas. Am giving myself full permission to walk away if I don’t love the design. Am also downing diet green tea with ginseng and honey. Will leave at 5:30pm. Have done very little focused work today. This is not a personal challenge. This is to prove nothing to anyone. There is no pride in this. “If you turn around here, you can walk back, safely; you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.”
Unrelated – my purse is full of cat food and both my bunny slippers and rainbow eyelashes have arrived today.
I am not afraid of pain. I am not afraid of pain. I am not afraid of pain. I am not afraid of pain.
I was *very* afraid of pain.
I got to Cirque and saw the designs and knew I would need to see the artwork on my body before deciding anything. The heart looked great but was easily distorted with movement and that bugged me. I wanted to love it. And I really liked it. But if I wanted the placement I wanted (left ribs), it was not going to work the way I had envisioned. We tried the shoulder, but still, I wasn’t in love with it. And Cas was LOVELY about letting me take my time and had a zero-pressure approach. She was friendly and welcoming but very clear about this being my decision – and a bigger decision – so she would be happy to re-design or scrap the idea altogether. We were on the same page.
After deciding the heart wasn’t for me, I asked to stencil just the words on my ribs …and I looked in the mirror … and I gasped.
I loved it.
I imagined this must be what some of the brides on Say Yes To The Dress feel when they find their gown. Except I was standing in the front of a tattoo shop in my held-up, unhooked bra and jeans looking in the mirror at a tattoo stencil on my ribs.
Side-note: my comfort with this situation was joked about by the ladies in the shop – they said they could tell I was a theatre person. Hilarious.
Anyway – I got chills and was ready to forge ahead but because I’m a little a-type sometimes, I needed to compare the stencils to my handwriting samples a few more times to be sure it was just right. And after being completely satisfied – I said “Let’s do it!”
I was still *very* afraid of pain.
But I should not have been.
Honestly, it was not bad at all. It was not comfy and at times it “zinged” a bit much, but I used the 30/40 minutes as time to breathe and meditate. And as I was laying there, I started contemplating what my next tattoo will be…because that is how willing I’d be to do it again when I find the next perfect thing. And I think the heart idea is still lingering, taking a slightly different form…
But for now – I’m good. And am instituting a “no new tattoos for at least 6 months” rule. Maybe I should make it a year. Because a little over 6 months and I hit my 30th. Which could be grounds for some new decoration…
Seriously, I’m so thrilled with this tattoo and could not have imagined going to a different artist or shop. So thanks to Cirque Du Rouge and Cas Loll and all those who gave me tips on going in for the first time or helped me workshop my ideas.
And I’m glad that I waited 29 years to come to something that feels just right. It is perfect. And perfectly me.