All through the struggles that inspired this blog, through month after month of slog after slog (kindly forgive; I’ve been reading Dr. Seuss aloud for 20 years), I promised myself a reward etched in ink. It wouldn’t be my first tattoo, but it would be my first visible one—which is kind of a big deal for a Long Island elementary school teacher. Or at least it would have been two decades ago when I got my first, which I hid on my hip beneath flowy, flowery nice-girl dresses.
My parents were the first dubious viewers of the college-age tattoo. I reassured them as I peeled back the bandage with a bright, “Dad! You’ll love it because of the planet! Mom! You’ll love it because of the daisy!”
Then, “Oh, dammit! I just got my two parents tattooed on my skin!” In my attempt at self-actualization, I had unwittingly commissioned a permanent bond to the very people from whom I was supposedly separating. We all had a good laugh, and decided I would never have made a very good rebel anyway.
At the 1994 school staff Christmas party, I was one of two intrepid faculty members to reveal their undercover art. There was a lot of whooping and shock, and even a toast to the brave souls who had scratched the schoolteacher sheen and stained it with ink.
Later that school year I gamely signed up to walk in the PTA Fashion Show. It was a worthy fundraiser and I was new and young and outgoing, so it was kind of expected and I was perfectly willing. I did not realize (and how would I ever guess?) that the PTA parents would be assisting with the changing of the clothes.
Yes, you read that right! I pranced off the party room “catwalk” into a roomful of elders who stripped me. Then Johnny’s mom barked, “Arms up!” while Katy’s mom chirped, “Step in!” They pulled a blouse down and a pair of culottes up, meeting at my tattoo—which rated exactly a zero in my thoughts that evening, ousted by “And that brings us to #418 on the running list of things they don’t teach you in teacher school,” and “Why oh why did I not wax my bikini line?”
The next school day a PTA mom stopped in, asking to photograph my class. With a sly wink she whispered, “Should we sneak a shot of your tattoo into the yearbook?”
My…tattoo? How did she…?
“Oh, you’re the talk of the town!”
As May approaches and sleeves get shorter, my new, delicate post-Sandy addition will be easily seen—but this time, that’s actually the point. I need to see the three waves in motion, capped with white and softened with a sunset glow. Even now with my still-long sleeves, I give a little tug several times a day to catch a glimpse and take a breath. My friend Mike wears a Just Breathe bracelet, and now I do too.
Four and a half years ago, a wall of water overtook our home and seemingly, 42 months of our lives. Seven years before that, my mother was swept away. She had managed to struggle nearly to the surface after eleven of the twelve brain surgeries that were supposed to bring her safely to shore.
And my first life-changing swell was one she had helped me through: a slow-moving tsunami that soaked all I’d known with pain, fatigue, and uncertainty. It still occasionally pulls me out toward the open sea. I have learned where—and who—my buoys are, and how to ride back in through (and beyond) the pain.
Waves have, for me, long been symbolic of fear, struggle, power, and transition. In countless dreams a looming, steadily rising wave that threatens destruction surprises me by offering a thrilling ride to the other side of town. I accept, transforming my fear-induced adrenaline into a power surge and finally, a serene deliverance.
I’m standing at shore today, having ridden three incredibly impactful waves through the past 20+ years. My new tattoo will remind me to go with the flow when the next one rolls in. It will help me remember that the last wave didn’t just take my home.
It took me home.
And now, when I forget how to feel at home, in traffic or pain or a deadline crunch, I shimmy up my sleeve to feel the ebb and flow of the ocean and my days. During the downward pulling times, I trace the upward sweep on my arm and breathe into that rhythm. Like the white wave or fair phantom that gave meaning to my name, I can slip in and out of spaces; I can be in any state I choose. The orange glow that skims the watercolor waves send me, any time of day, to my sunset beach where I breathe the ocean and celebrate in color with clouds and crabs and piping plovers.
Sometimes I think I should have let the talented Taryn Elise (http://www.taryn-elise.com) at my arm a couple of years earlier. Maybe I wouldn’t have thrashed about among the churned-up stones when our contractor took the money and ran. I might have swallowed less water when New York Rising informed us they’d be taking their piddling “award” back.
But I’m ready for the fourth wave now. And the one after that. I might tumble, and suck in salt water—but I will know where I’m going. Always, the flow. Always, the shore. Always, the other side.
Now I can ride on.