Marked

Afternoon has settled long and heavy on my shoulders,” Sarah Bareilles sings about December, and I listen to it the same way one bites down into a lemon wedge.

December has a way of leaving things raw. It has a way of sharpening the lines and heightening everything on one side and the other.

December has a way of making you feel like you’re about to pick up a heavy weight — or perhaps more like you’ve just been reminded of the weight you’ve been carrying all along. And I still don’t know if all the White Christmas and Jingle Bell Rock help push back against it or if it creates a glare with their tinsel and lights.

It’s a heightened time. It always is at this point in the year. The sun seems to shine brighter, more sharply. The overcast days bring more of a sense of gray. The darkness from the setting sun is saturating and dominating. The music pings a little more at the soul, the resonance lingering in the air just a little bit longer. The wind cuts a little harder than its January and February counterparts. Every sensation is just a little more alive, for better or worse.

May all be heightened and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.

My first tattoo was ten years in the making.

Everything was agonized over. Agonized over placement, shape, size. I spent years deciding if this was really what I wanted, if I’d be okay with this ink on me, if I’d ever change my mind, if I would end up not wanting this mark on me, and so on, and so on, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam.

My second and third tattoos practically introduced themselves to me. Both I stumbled across — one during my sporadic spells where I try to read Neruda in its original Spanish, one while doing homework for a yoga teacher training — and both had me blurting out with absolute certainty: “This is my next tattoo.”

My first tattoo was ten years in the making. My next two were months, if that. It was like I had opened a door somehow. Peeled back the seal.

You could say I got less afraid. Or maybe more impulsive. But I think it’s something deeper. I stopped letting hesitation dictate what I marked my skin with. I stopped seeing my skin like something to keep impeccable and pristine and started seeing my body like a canvas — and instead of worrying about each brush stroke, I started seeing what images could emerge on their own.

It’s a simple Saturday afternoon in December. My husband and I are talking about families, shifting dynamics, mistakes.

“They can’t be blamed — it was the first time they ever dealt with that,” says my husband. “But, then again, almost everything in life is something we are dealing with for the first time.”

“Life is one gigantic trial by fire,” I say.

We’re organizing and putting together and discussing gifts for those we love. Afterwards, we hang up a few prints I got while in Chicago — little sayings that pinged at me while my best friend and I perused a store in Logan Square. “Forever is composed of nows.” “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”

I was supposed to get my fourth tattoo in San Diego.

It had been a week of adventure, of seeing what other doors could now open for us. We decided during our drive from Vegas to San Diego that we would cap off our vacation by getting tattoos that we had been thinking about getting.

I was in. I scrambled to find pictures of Fraconia Ridge — a section of the mountain range that carried sentimental value as heavy as mountains themselves. I scrambled to find the style I wanted the tattoo done. We researched a few parlors in the area.

But plans got ahead of us. And in the end, it got scrapped for other adventures, time spent elsewhere.

Instead, I got my tattoo at the end of the year. Perhaps closer to the end of the year than I meant to — my inability to predict how in demand my artist would be had me picking a date in December, just two weeks before the year would end.

But the timing was perfect. A canceled San Diego tattoo meant a summer in the mountains before getting said tattoo — a chance to take my own picture of Fraconia Ridge, to deeply appreciate the mountains in a way I hadn’t before tackling New Hampshire’s highest peaks.

It meant my tattoo capped off the year I decided to hit all the 4,000-footers, to finally bite the bullet and solo hike the Whites and see where that adventure took me.

And these are the things I remind myself of, when it feels like plans have gone awry and curveballs fling wildly to my temple. Trust the timing. Trust the tapestry being created.

I learn pretty quickly, come time to actually get the tattoo, that my original idea is not going to work.

One of the ideas had to be scrapped: either Fraconia Ridge or the style I wanted it tattooed in. The range was too delicate, too uniquely structured, to make it work. I put myself into the artist’s hands as he gives me suggestions, maps out what he could do. I trust him to do what will look right — there’s a reason he was so hard to book, why I had to grab a random Tuesday a month later than planned.

The result is the range coming alive on my ankle, one of the most accurate representations one could ask for. But it’s a lot more ink than I was planning — a lot. Gone are the simple, minimalist lines, the inconspicuous mountain range. In its place is a masterpiece.

I’m way more inked up than planned. But I love it. I love it despite it not being what I expected.

“It’s a metaphor!” I say to myself with a self-effacing chuckle. The Saturday before, during a Christmas party, I talked about the musical Rent and how I always end up quoting Maureen: “It’s a METAPHOR!” The scene she shouts it in is silly and the line is supposed to show how over the top an artist Maureen is. And I use it, constantly, to deflect the parallels and symbolism I find in life.

And here I am again. Deflecting yet again with, “It’s a metaphor!” Because I can’t help but draw the parallels. I’m marked up in a way I wasn’t planning. But it’s beautiful and I wouldn’t take it back, even it is goes against the original plan, even if it’s not what I was expecting.

There’s a passage in an Amy Cuddy book, where Amy talks about a friend who will get a new tattoo every few months. She’ll hit the parlor not even knowing what she’s going to get, and decide something on the spot.

“I don’t know how you do it,” says Amy.

“Well, it’s all temporary,” says the friend.

“The tattoos?”

“No, the skin. This body. It’s all temporary.”

There’s something freeing when you stop treating life like the collector’s item, something to be kept pristine as possible, unopened in its box.

It’s all too ephemeral and temporary to try to keep it protected, to not let yourself get marked up from time to time. You are given borrowed time, a borrowed body. You don’t get to keep it so you might as well void the warrantee.

Maybe I’d feel different if every tattoo didn’t have some sentimental meaning to me, but I’ve yet to regret any of them. And I hope I never do, even if the design grows out of favor with me, even if it starts feeling cliched and banal. Those marks are representations of things I wanted, little reminders of things that once set my soul on fire. And there can never be regret in those moments.

Let myself get marked up, even if it doesn’t always go according to plan, even if it doesn’t always pan out the way I wanted it to. This body will be given back to the earth soon enough; let it be a temporary shrine of the times I gambled and won, gambled and lost, took risks when I knew the stakes, knew what was at stake. And let my soul carry the meaning of every moment as it carries on to the next phase, the next chapter. Let my forever be composed of nows.

I’m already planning my next one.

I know a tattoo is right when the inverse feels empty. It’s how I can tell the difference between a passing idea and something that is just right — when I can look at my skin and where the tattoo will be, and not just feel excitement over the tattoo, but a sense of emptiness because the tattoo isn’t there already. I know it’s time when I can look at that spot on my leg, my back, my shoulder, and see nothing but a vacancy that the tattoo is destined to fill.

The space on my shoulder blade has felt empty since the moment I got my first tattoo. I went through countless different ideas, all that seemed nice in theory but didn’t give me that same feeling, like this was the mark my skin had been waiting for.

Every idea had a novel feel that didn’t stick. Nothing made me blurt out, “That’s my next one.”

I ended up playing with a few temporary tattoos, just to get an idea. None amazed me. I decided to try out simple outline of roses — partly as an homage to my last name that no one ever gets right on the first pass, partly for the symbolism that roses and their thorns bring, partly because it just feels right.

I put the temporary tattoo on my shoulder blade. It’s smaller than I expected, and not exactly in the right place, but everything else is there. Everything that makes my soul rise up from the slumber of a melancholic December and go, “This is your next tattoo.”

There are always flowers for those who want to see them.

December is a fight between the crisp, sharpness of being alive and the tantalizing siren of hibernation. It calls to be lived to its fullest spectrum of emotions and it calls to slow down. And life has done both in winter’s wake. It’s not the manic days of this year’s summer nor the whirlwind days of this year’s fall. But it still has its sense of adventure, sense of peril, moments where both my husband and I laugh as we turn to each other and go, “This is our lives right now.” Moments that mark us in permanent, unexpected, but still beautiful ways.

It’s still a trial by fire as the weather gets sharper and colder. But I’m also okay cozying up to that fire, all these fresh marks on my skin, my soul, my mind, my heart — my hands and cheeks turning pink from the flames, my back to the cutting winds of winter.

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