Force Me Bold

abby tattoo

“You really don’t want to go any smaller than this,” she says as she looks at the tattoo print-out. “Any smaller and you’ll lose definition.”

She says something similar about the second printout: “At this size, some of these closer lines will start blending together in about 5 years’ time.”

“Neither of those are to scale,” I had warned in my ultra-cautious, nauseatingly-meek voice.  “I was actually thinking of something smaller?”

Two tattoo ideas — both meticulously researched, although one way more so than the other.  For one tattoo, I spent hours on a design website, agonizing over the perfect cursive font for the words.  The other tattoo had been mulled over for the last 8 years.  One is a line in a Spanish language poem.  The other is a variation of the Celtic trinity knot.  But both shared the same theme: small, subtle, unassuming.

And both were met with the same answer: that’s really not an option.

For both, the random printout size is roughly as small as it can go.  The poem line will have to be about one and a half times bigger than planned.  The Celtic knot variation will easily have to be twice its planned size.  Maybe bigger.

well this was a fun experiment it’s time to go home now sorry to waste your time guess I’m never actually getting a tattoo.

Instead, I press forward.  I’ve wanted the Celtic knot variation ever since my summer in Belfast — a tattoo idea I originally (and whimsically) dreamt of getting upon returning to some part of the Motherland again (which, for me, meant Northern Ireland, or Ireland, or Scotland, or even England).  As the years wore on, such a plan received an asterisk at the end of its statement:

Return to the Motherland*

*or before I turn 30, whichever comes first.

Now, here I am, 4 weeks away from turning 30, my stomach dropping over being told how big my tattoos need to be in order for them to work — and still confirming an appointment date.

No, but it was supposed to be small.  Like, a square inch small.  Tiny.  Like it’s not even there.  Nothing crazy.  No bold statements.

I’m deliberately pushing myself out of my comfort zone.  When we get home, I cut out the Celtic knot’s printout and place it on my back, in between my shoulder blade and spine — the planned location for the tattoo (after wanting it on my ankle, then my shoulder, then the opposite side of my ankle, then back to my shoulder, then maybe on the hip, but, no, definitely on the shoulder).  I use my hypermobile shoulders to place the cutout printout on my back, careening backwards at the mirror to see what it will look like.

I smirk.  It actually looks pretty badass at that size.

*

“Now, I know I’m basically calling you out in front of people, but, remember, if something isn’t right, this is your time to speak up.  This is going to be on your body forever.”

“I know.  I definitely know.  And it’s something I’m already telling myself,” I respond.

My husband is keeping a watching eye out for me as the stencils are applied to my back.  His statements are not unfounded.  I have a nasty track record of just dealing with things.  Forever the Cool Girl, even when it’s a really stupid idea to be the Cool Girl.  Forever fearing making waves, so pretending I’m just going with the flow instead.  Never speaking up or advocating for myself.  Never putting my foot down.  I already know far too well that things have to be outright unbearable before I even dare do anything.  And — even then — I would circumnavigate and rebel in the shadows.

“This is definitely the time to be fussy,” says the tattoo artist.

I look in the mirror at the tattoo stencils.  They are so incredibly close to the location I want, but ever-so-slightly too low on my back.

This is not a time to deal with it.  Take that energy you usually spend on figuring out how you can live with it and apply it to actually saying what’s on your mind.

I turn from the mirror and make a slight grimace, as if it hurts me to actually ask for something different.

“If both could be moved up by, like, a half centimeter, that would be amazing,” I say.
“They’re really close to hitting the mark, but just a little bit too low.”

Without any trouble, the stencils are cleaned off and reapplied.  I look in the mirror a second time.  They’re exactly where I want them to be.  For a split second, I panic and am tempted to just back out.  This is it.  Those stencils turn into ink in about 2 minutes.  No going back after that.

“Let’s do this,” I say.

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*

It forced me bold.  That’s how I explained it to my best friend after the initial meeting.  I was told my little square inch tattoo was going to be an impossibility with such an intricate and interwoven design.  I was told the lines in my lettering would need to be bigger and wider or else they’d lose distinctiveness before the decade was out.  Forced me to go from small and subtle to what felt like a bold statement.

(Although, now that they’re on my back, they seem so tiny and adorable.)

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And because we both speak in metaphors and analogies, similes and symbolism, I quickly see the parallel between my tattoos and the last couple of years.  I don my best Maureen from Rent impression and yelp out, “It’s a metaphor!!”

Because, really, if I could sum up the last few years in three words, it would be: “force me bold”.

Force me bold.  Pry me away from all comforts of routine.  Throw me in the deep end.  Make it necessary to reevaluate everything, because the safety net is gone and there’s nothing for you to fall back on.  Create a trial by fire so that everything that needs to be burned can be burned.  Be told in no uncertain terms that there is no going back to the old way of doing things, that the only way forward is to carve out a new path.

Because I’m the perennial Cool Girl.  Because I’m the girl who’ll let herself drown before she makes waves.  Because I’m the girl who couldn’t leave a job no matter how terrible it was unless she had a sneaky excuse like moving away or returning to school.  Because I’m the girl who wouldn’t leave a profession until her burnout was so severe that it took a solid month after leaving before she could even find her footing again.

I will always need to be forced bold, because there’ll always be reason enough to deal.  Deal with a toxic environment, a toxic person.  Deal with less than desirable circumstances.  Deal with a scenario that wouldn’t exist if I had just a little bit of spine, a little bit of assertiveness.

I got my tattoos in the midst of yet more family shakeups.  More death.  More dying.  More pain.  More muddled & confusing uncertainty and the paralyzing anxiety it causes.  More reason for me to throw my hands in the air and go, “I am done with this phase of my life.”

But these phases force people bold, if they can let themselves be forced bold.  If they can let life pry away what it was going to take away from you anyway and be ready to stand on both feet.  To say what needs to be said.  Reach out when you need to reach out.  Do something that feels like going against character, only to realize you were simply going against outdated programming.

Be bold, be bold, and — yes — too bold.  Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

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*

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Getting inked up becomes a great practice on focusing outwards.  When I’d feel a little antsy.  When the needle would hit an area without much muscle.  Time to look around the room, observe and perceive and make note.  I became very familiar with the tattoo artist’s books, her postcards for tattoo artist conventions, her sketches taped to the walls.

After a while, I notice the clock in the far back.  My eagle eyesight is starting to soften as I close in on 30, but I can still make out the 12 motorcycles in lieu of numbers, with the Harley Davidson logo in the center.  It might seem like obvious kitsch: a Harley decoration in a tattoo parlor, but such a discovery reassures me.  On that bench, hunched over as my designs became a reality, I was not even 24 hours out from my 3-day job with Harley Davidson.  And now I’m staring at 12 motorcycles arranged in a circle.

Even if it’s blind reassurance, it’s still reassuring me that I’m on the right path.  It’s a perfect coincidence.  It’s one of those little synchronicities that gives hint to the bigger plan for all of this.

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Model Me

It’s Day One of a three-day modeling job — my first paid gig in over a year and a half.  I’m working the floor of Harley Davidson’s annual trade show, wearing clothes that won’t even be in stores for an additional year.  No one from the public is allowed in.  We had to sign confidentiality agreements beforehand — no pictures, no sharing, no nothing.  We need laminated credentials on a lanyard just to get through the door.

The floor of the trade show is massive.  I understand intellectually that it’s a big name at a big venue, but I’m not ready for the scene when the coordinator brings us through the glass doors.  The landscape can’t be taken in with just one glance around.  The sites and the sounds, the lights and production and special effects.  Motorcycles and tables and aisles and rows and columns.  A gigantic Harley decal on the glass corridor suspended from the ceiling.  Beautiful and intriguing excess that makes it easy to go blind to the types of hardships that are going on in the world around us.

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I’m surrounded by strangers that I gladly go up to and shake hands with.  I’m full of smiles and a few jokes.  I’m Model Me: an aspect of myself that used to shine only in modeling situations.  It’s as close to an alternate persona as you can get.  The Sasha Fierce to the Beyonce.  Only I don’t believe in alternate personas — only situations where we feel freer to let certain sides of ourselves out.

Model Me is given her main outfit — black tank top, black skinny jeans, take-no-bullshit biker boots.  I station myself by the row of clothes I’ve been assigned to that day, just a stone’s throw from a gray mannequin.  I look over at the mannequin and smirk.  I’m not blind to what my job is, especially on a day like today; the only difference between the mannequin and me is that I move and talk and put the clothes on all by myself.

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The trade show begins with a mass of people streaming through the aisles.  I stand in my current outfit — now with a Harley Davidson t-shirt over my tank top — with my hands on my hips, my chin up, my eyes decidedly not on the ground.  Model posture.  One that exudes confidence and poise.  I meet people’s eye contact and greet everyone.

Representatives from over 82 countries make their way around everything Harley Davidson has to offer.  It is an outright tour of the world as people approach my area of the trade show.  People browsing through the samples, accents from all corners of the globe.  Talking to each other in fast foreign languages before turning to me and asking me in broken English to do a turn in my outfit, or try on a different outfit.  I change outfits and offer to try on outfits and remind people that I’m here for exactly that.  I smile broadly at people from cultures where broad smiles are indicative of fools and morons.

At one point I find myself next to a full-length mirror, leather jacket now adorning my skinny jeans and take-no-bullshit boots attire.  Off in the distance, “Back in Black” is playing.  There are few things in the world quite as badass-feeling as standing akimbo wearing a leather jacket and boots, with AC/DC in the background.  I desperately wish I could take a picture of this, if only to capture the moment.  Instead, I steal glimpses into the mirror.  Badass Model Me, at your service.

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Working the floor as a model leaves a lot of time to get lost in your thoughts.  I bounce around all sorts of things — song lyrics, ideas for the manuscript I’m currently shin-deep in, memories that sing sweetly & hauntingly, random streams of consciousness & thought exercises — as I stand there and offer to try on another coat, another shirt, another blouse.

I think about the idea of Model Me — a concept that is almost as old as my modeling career.  I think about how Model Me and “Real” Me were so different for so long, as if I took the phrases “mild mannered” and “Superman” a little too much to heart.  For so long, there was a meek, shy, small & unassuming version of me — and then there was the exuberant, confident, strides-across-the-room-and-smiles-broadly-at-anyone version of me.  For so, so long, those two never really existed in the same place.

And why?  Was it because modeling gave me a confidence boost?  Now that one, I know is bullshit. This industry is not in the business of self-esteem boosting.  There had been far too many times where I was taken down a notch, sometimes from direct comments, and sometimes from just being in a room where I knew I was the oldest, the least-skinniest, certainly not the most gorgeous.  Plenty of reason to resort back to old ways, even in the modeling world.

Was it because it was a different environment?  I think we’re on to something there.  The modeling world removed me from my usual context and placed me square in the middle of one where being outgoing and social and confident was expected.  Far from any context where — if it even hinted at the idea that me staying small and unassuming would be in my best interest — I dove headfirst into old habits.

And now I’m a decade into my modeling career — and who knows how many years in removing the “Model” variable from Model Me.  I know I’m not that meek 19-year-old anymore.  Hell, I’m not even the meek 24-year-old anymore.  Or the meek 27-year-old.  In many ways, I’ve grown more into Actual Me (not Model Me, not quote-unquote “Real” Me) in the last two years than I have in the previous 27.  But, still, I know I can revert.  Become small, unassuming, meek.  Prove that I can take a 5’11” girl with broad shoulders & muscular arms & gargantuan legs and make her the smallest person in the room.

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I crack jokes with the model who is stationed across the aisle from me.  I watch a man in a blue polo shirt walk the aisles with a black lab dog — the words “Bomb Detection K9” on his collar.  A reminder even in this opulence of the type of hardships that are going on in the world around us.

The day wears on and I lose energy — fast.  After nearly 9 hours on the floor — and with one hour left to go — I’m exceptionally silent.  I find myself engaging less and observing more.  Making noncommittal noises in response to smalltalk.  Exhaustion strips away layers and I’m reminded what rests at the core of Actual Me.  It starts taking more and more work to interact, to be both in the world and of it, not just the former.

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At the end of Day One, we return to our street clothes and I hit the streets.  I fish out my headphones and open up the music on my phone and wander the streets of Boston.  Even after all that time on my feet, what I need most is yet more time on my feet.  I need a walk.  I need to be a pedestrian and talk to no one and observe everyone.  It recharges me, gets me ready for a long drive home — a drive spent alone, with yet more music, weirdly content on the road, even in the midst of the traffic.

Again, a reminder of what rests at the core of Actual Me.  That I can shift the things that need shifting — demolish old defenses and fortify what feels good & proper & right — but, at the core of it all, I know I am Most Me when my feet hit the pavement, when not a word needs to be spoken, when I can watch the world unfold around me with nothing more than the wind in my hair and music in my ears.

*since no pictures are allowed of the trade show, I included a smattering of modeling pictures from throughout the years, almost all from the years 2007 – 2010.

Through the Radio

I.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in the heart of autumn.  I’m driving farther and farther north.  I just need away.

Away from what?  That’s a bit of a story.  And maybe someday I’ll tell that story in full.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and I’ve finished teaching for the day.  Three yoga classes, and not a single student caught on to the fact that I was a burning ball of anxiety and dread.  Or, if they did, they were too kind to say anything.

I’m thinking of one of my regulars telling me that she comes as much for my positive, smiling face as she does for the yoga.  I’m thinking of the night before, teaching a Monday evening class, my mind so clearly not where it needed to be that I end up locking myself out of the studio with nothing but my yoga mat and cell phone in hand — and as I scramble to find someone with a key, I kept thinking to myself, “I can’t tell if this is rock bottom or if I’m just banging off one of the sides again.”

I leave behind all the major cities of New Hampshire for the great, wide wilderness.  I’m desperately hoping the sight of mountaintops and foliage and open road will do something for the soul.  The car’s FM radio is on and I’m desperately hoping to find a song on the radio to reassure me, to lull me, to give me something.  I’m desperately hoping to find something to sing to me.

Always, always desperately hoping.

I’m desperately hoping for a moment to breathe because hot damn I don’t know if I have it in me for yet another hit.  I’m exhausted and weary and anxious and none of the little gold stars I’ve been collecting in my professional life will mean anything if I can’t catch a break in my personal life.

I’m desperately hoping for a break.

I drive and I detour.  I take lefts when I feel like taking lefts.  I turn around to see something whenever something catches my eye.  The weather is cloudy and I can’t see the sun, but — for a moment — I’m at ease.

I pull onto a familiar road — the road that brings me back to my neighborhood — a Top 40 country music station left haphazardly on my radio.  For all my escapism into the realm of music, I forget the station is even on.  I’m lost in my thoughts as I return, the murk of it all muffling my hearing.  It takes the next song to snap me back to reality.

It takes a song that has absolutely no business being on a Top 40 Country Station to snap me back to reality.

It takes a song that I haven’t heard in nearly 20 years to snap me back to reality.

A nearly 40-year-old Canadian pop song.

My parents’ wedding song.

I’m going to get into a car accident.  I’m going to throw up.  I’m going to pass out.

Before Anne Murray can even say, “Dreaming.  I must be dreaming…” I am hysterical.  The road blurs as I attempt to get into my neighborhood, my street, my house.  The tears well up from a place so immensely and frighteningly deep that I am reminded of just how many protective layers I put up just to survive the day.  I think of the last time I heard that song: in the back seat of my father’s truck, the look of simple joy on my mother’s face when the song came on the easy listening radio station, the gentle peck of a kiss they gave each other in commemoration; one of those precious, fragile memories I scoop up like porcelain figurines and cradle close because without them I’ll completely harden up; a naïve little elementary school girl who — despite already having a handful of memories no 8-year-old should have — still saw her family in only the best of lights.

Now, over 20 years later, the song is the very last song I hear on a very long car ride.  I stay in the garage after the song ends — a song so perfectly timed that it plays in full just as I get to my driveway.  I sit there like a survivor after a natural disaster.  I numbly take in what’s in front of me.  I’m not even half sure it happened.  It takes a moment for me to even register that an outdated pop song has just played on a country music station that plays only the latest hits.  It takes a moment for the timing of it all to really sink in.  And, for a moment, I am reassured.  I am filled with light.

This is a sign.  I know it is.

The next morning, barely past 6 a.m., I get the call from my mother.

He’s gone.

A week after they had removed the feeding tube.  Four years after he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  Decades after the body had started its decline.  More than a half century after the start of one of the most common social activities out there that had at some point mutated into one of the most devastating addictions.

My father has passed away.

II.

At this point, I know it’s “Man in the Mirror” from the first two notes.  Possibly even just the first.

When he — our mentor, our teacher, our friend — first recommended it, I had never heard of it before.  Even though I was 15 at the time, I was still — in many ways — as naïve and deaf to the world as that 8-year-old.  I knew the major Michael Jackson hits, but that was basically it.

And that’s all it was: a brief discussion about music, a simple recommendation.  But he had that type of effortless leadership over those teenagers that a solid chunk of us then scrambled after school to hear this song.  In a time before smartphones or fast internet — when music sharing was in its supreme infancy — we became super sleuths to find this song we had never heard before.

Because that’s just the type of person he was.  He spoke and you listened — not out of submission to authority, not out of fear, but because you simply wanted to hear what he had to say.

To hear what he had to say.  That’s all we wanted when, less than a year later, we found out one cold, January morning that he had lost his battle with depression.

It was a battle we had no idea was even being waged.  A battle the adults were so painfully and frustratingly slow and hesitant to talk about.  A battle we’d desperately retrace our steps over in order to see if there had been any sign of it the last time we all had respectively seen him.  All we wanted then was to hear what he had to say.  We thought of every discussion that was now nothing more than a set of memories, and we desperately wished it wasn’t the case.  When we went to war with Iraq, when the Red Sox broke the curse, when life would twist and curve the way life always does, so many of us wanted to do just that: file into a room and hear his thoughts on the world around us.  To listen to what he had to say one last time.

That’s when “Man in the Mirror” took on new life.  That’s when every school dance had a “Man in the Mirror” moment — now as much of a staple as the Electric Slide and Stairway to Heaven — and those of us who had him as our teacher & mentor would huddle around and cry or laugh or just hug each other.  That’s when listening to the song brought a well of emotions that no 16-year-old is or should be equipped to handle.

That’s when I wrote to Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to do a long-distance dedication.  That’s when, a few Saturdays later, as I’m driving my mom and my brother back from some type of event, I turn on the radio at just the right time.

(The timing of all things.)

That’s when I pull into the closest neighborhood and park the car and hear Casey Kasem read my words out loud and play the very song I requested.

To this day, there is no channel-changing when “Man in the Mirror” comes on.  The song is played in full, always.  Bare minimum, a time for reflection — but, because I’m crazy enough to believe in the timing of all things, I pay close attention to when I hear it.  What times the song comes on the radio, and when there’s an uptick of that song on the radio.

And there are upticks — across all receivable stations –sometimes.  I channel surf the radio enough and spend enough time next to my car’s radio enough to notice trends across the dial.  And since I’m crazy enough to believe in the timing of all things, I’m crazy enough to believe it means something.  Crazy enough to notice that the upticks always seem to coincide with when I’m most at a loss.  When this 29-year-old old — 13 years removed from the tragedy and already 2 years older than he’ll ever be in this lifetime — is the most desperate for reassurance that she’s on the right path, that’s she’s not just shooting blindly in the dark and praying nothing ricochets back.

Sometimes the song comes on the radio when I’m way too deep in unhealthy, unhelpful thought patterns — thinking patterns that I know are leading me down a no-good path, are going to put me in the wrong headspace, are going to do more harm than good — and the song snaps me out of my reverie.  It always feels like a gentle chastising.  A reminder to keep your head on straight, from a mentor who’ll never be as old as you are now.

I can think of two psychological phenomena off the bat to pragmatically explain that timing of all things, but it’s not enough to sway my faith — that what’s coming through the radio is preordained and meaningful and exactly what I’m supposed to be hearing.

III.

We sang before we spoke.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve defended the vital need for music with that statement.  We communicated in tones long before complicated syllables.  We sang while sitting around our fires. Before written word, we communicated and transmitted vital information by singing it to the younger generations.  We sang the stories of our ancestors.  It’s the same reason we’ll sing out a little diddy in order to remember a phone number.  The reason singing has a long history of lifting spirits when they were truly at their lowest

Because music connects us.  Because it gets under the skin and strikes cleanly at the soul in a way the monotone never could.  Because there are few things as reassuring as hearing someone sing out your experience or your emotions — as if reminding us better than paintings or sculptures or even the written word that, if art can be created from such a jagged crevasse in the human condition, then the suffering is not completely for naught.

And because I’m crazy enough to believe in the timing of all things, I deliberately leave the car radio on during the countless hours I spend on the road — both for voluntarily and for work.  I deliberately channel surf, throwing it out there to the universe and the powers that be, “Okay.  Tell me what I need to hear.”  — as if I’m two steps away from waiting on the microwave to give me the next set of directions.

There are countless phenomena — exhausting, scientific, psychological, statistical reasons — to explain away hearing the right song at the right time.  That song you swear was written about you, or to reassure you, or to mock you.  A song that pops up at just the right/wrong time and makes you want to go, “Oh, shut the fuck up, radio,” before checking your own insanity (and checking your own mindset that would cause such an easy derailment in the first place).

And the radio gives me exactly that.  Gives me the beat to free my soul when I need it.  Reminds me to be brave when I need that reminding.  Calls out my bullshit when I apparently need to call myself out on my own bullshit.  Reminds me that these feelings, these emotions, these experiences, are completely, 100% valid.  Reminds me that there is life outside of these feelings.  Reminds me that there will always be a reason to dance.

I live a bit through the radio.  I’m nutso enough to believe I’m hearing what I need to hear through the radio.  I am reassured through the radio.  I am reminded what it is to be alive through the radio.

And sometimes the radio goes off and the deliberate playlists — the songs saved to my phone or the Cloud or wherever — come on, because sometimes I’m not waiting on the universe to tell me what I need to hear.  Sometimes I’ll seek out exactly what I want to hear and drift into the cadence, the melody, the lyrics.  Swim inside a world where even the most nuanced experience and complicated heartbreak can be explained in quarter beats and refrains and choruses.  Find that momentary stay against the confusion.  Sort out the world one note at a time.

And dance.  Always, always the chance to dance.