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Good Letters

Getting a tattoo is not only about deciding what to etch onto one’s body forever, but also about deciding what brief monologue will be uttered any time someone points to the ink and asks: “What does it mean?”

The expectation is universal: people want something succinct, a response that suspends their judgment, an answer that elicits both empathy and admiration.

Until recently, I had three tattoos, which meant that I had three mini-monologues with interchangeable elements depending on the age, faith, and literacy of the inquirer.

The first is a stick-and-poke jar on my left ankle. The second is a six-inch outline of a hazelnut plant on the length of my left forearm. And the third is a circle with a line through it, the size of a pencil’s end—housed in the bend between my hand and wrist.

What I tell a stranger at a party, when my tattoo serves as a silence-breaker:

  1. It’s from my favorite song by John Mark McMillan, have you heard of him? The song talks about a broken jar, which is a biblical thing. My friend actually did it in college (after we’d shared a bottle of Shiraz) with a pencil, needle, string, and pen ink. It took two hours. Yeah, it hurt.
  2. It’s weirdly specific but there’s this ancient [air quotes] mystic who is considered the first female author of the English language, and she recorded a bunch of visions she had, and one of them is about a hazelnut which is admittedly very odd but she’s cool and so I just got this. I was going to get just a tiny nut but it looks kind of vulvic somehow so the tattoo guy designed this himself, and it was bigger than I expected, but I like it.
  3. This one’s kind of a joke because I did it myself which is super hard to do and now its ugly and faded and I’ll probably just tattoo over it. But it means a sun rising over the horizon or something. I googled symbols.

What I tell my grandmother:

  1. I’m sorry.
  2. I know.
  3. I’m sorry.

What I tell my father:

  1. It’s the alabaster jar from Luke 7. You know, the story where the prostitute comes over to the house where Jesus is and washes his feet with her tears and perfume from the jar that she breaks at his feet. I always liked that story.
  2. It’s a hazelnut plant based on Julian of Norwich’s vision about God holding all of creation as if it were a hazelnut in his hand. She had such a personal relationship with Jesus and I really connect to it.
  3. I know you hate it, I know its stupid, but just trust me: it means something.

What I don’t say:

  1. I remember sitting in the cafeteria with a headache of unknown origin: either tequila or the morning’s tear-shed. I sat alone, by a window that looked out onto the square, and unfolded my Bible with the prayer all too familiar to lazy charismatics: “Show me something.” I laced my hair into my hands and said aloud this time: “Speak to me.” I breathed in and out, sunk ear buds into my shallow ear canal, pressed play on the device that the chord snaked from, and read the first line my eyes met. The section head read “A Sinful Woman Forgiven.” I had a brief mental montage of all the eyes, all the sweaty hands. I felt a wave of shame and then a far-reaching tide of forgiveness. The song became my anthem, my swan song; the verses became my autobiography.
  2. My first college English class entitled “British Literature: Beginnings Through Milton” introduced me to the erotic spiritual writing of mysticism. I encountered a series of embodied metaphors: receiving the Holy Ghost like penetration, menstruation likened to the blood of Christ, and about seeing God as if he were right there, at the foot of your bed, saying all things were well and compared to him everything that seems huge and terrible is really like a small, fragile, insignificant nut. I felt a sudden kinship with these women who participated in a consummation with Christ that far transcended the physical.
  3. My housemates called my room “the tower” because it was on the third floor and because I would lock myself in it and because sometimes they wouldn’t see me for days, dishes piled up as a doorstop. One Friday evening I retreated there and each hour brought more depression until the X-ACTO knife from my art kit seemed to pulsate from its place in my bottom desk drawer. After my forty minutes in the desert I opened the top drawer instead and pulled out a pencil, needle, string, and ink. I pressed the eraser into my flesh to make a pink-ringed outline and then I dipped and poked and bled until the ring was made permanent. I felt no pain. I vowed I would look at it, will my mind to mediate on a sun that ceaselessly rises, and never cut myself. Now, when I give into the beckoning of the bottom drawer I always slice along the middle of that tiny circle and break every promise.
  4. Recently I got a new tattoo. As I prepare to leave Seattle indefinitely, I am hoping to leave behind the school-shooting-that-killed-my-friend PTSD, the loneliness, the symbolic rain that for years has made me feel confined, and the (scars of) sins committed. When I read the word “petrichor” for the first time, it seemed to—in a single word—sum up this anticipation. It means the smell of the earth after it rains. I wrote the word in capital letters on my right arm; they tattooed right over my own handwriting.

I am ready to inhale and smell new life springing up.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Claire Pearson

Claire Pearson is a recent graduate of Seattle Pacific University with a major in Creative Writing. She interned for Image during her junior year after studying abroad in Canterbury, England. She is returning there in the fall and hopes to pursue freelance writing opportunities before attending seminary.

Above image by Holly Lay, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.

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