Scrolling through social media today, I saw a quote from Rumi: “A wound is a place where the light enters you.” It stuck with me all day, because I couldn’t shake the notion that it meant something different to me than it probably does to the person who posted it and to most who encounter it. In the realm of spirituality and, I suspect, in the minds of those I most often see quoting Rumi, light has some particular qualities. It has a connotation of warmth, life, healing. But when I saw “light” in the context of this quote, I made an immediate connection in my mind with the phrase, “the cold light of day.” For me the light entering the wound is the bright spot in the winter sky that ought to have warmth but doesn’t, the harsh glare that bounces off the snow. It is revealing the bleak truth about the things that were easy to ignore before the wound came along and the light came in.
The wisest patriot I know brought this article from the Atlantic to my attention, entitled “Why Many Americans Are Averse to Unironic Expressions of Patriotism.” Never mind the over-qualification by use of adjectives, I suspect in an attempt to not offend anyone by appearing to make too blanket of a statement. I am one of these Americans. American patriotism makes me squirm. Why?
I wasn’t born in this country. I was born an American, by way of my mother’s citizenship, but I was born in Canada. The Canada of my upbringing was a humble, mellow place that seemed to be OK with living quietly in the shadow of the big brother to the south. The backlash of Canadian patriotism that grew out of a beer commercial into a way to provide Canadians with a sense of identity separate from America happened after I left. I didn’t grow up believing that I lived in the greatest nation on earth, but rather that I lived in a great nation, and that other great nations existed. I understood that America was powerful, but I didn’t understand how powerful until I moved here as an adult. The best way I can describe my idea of patriotism to this point might be that I thought of nations like people. I thought that if a nation was going to get along in the world, it ought to be humble, aware of its faults as well as its strengths, and be willing to admit when it was wrong.
The thing that pushed me past slight embarrassment at overt displays of patriotism to downright discomfort and even fear was the huge swell of patriotic expression after September 11th. I saw those expressions so closely related to suspicion of anything or anyone foreign, and I grew mistrustful of those who made them. When I heard “God Bless America,” I heard a whispered “burn in hell anyone from anywhere else” tacked on the end. I still hear it, though I chastise myself for my own closed-minded-ness when I do.
I’m beginning to understand some things that are making me more comfortable with expressions of American patriotism. One, this is a great country, with a unique, nuanced and difficult role to play in the world, a role which I still understand very little about. Two, it might not be practical for a nation to behave like a person in quite the way that I expected in order to survive in this world, though this one I’m still not sure about either. Three, the flag-waving and jingoistic speech-making that might be used to entice the less informed to support a particular side in a debate is not patriotism, and does not make honest expressions of patriotism wrong.
So I roll my eyes less, and I look for the honest and the wise lovers of this country, past and present, to teach me what it really means to be a patriot.
Why don’t I feel the need to have all of my political, moral, social stances worked out and analyzed to the nth degree? I have a spouse, and one or two friends, who study and analyze these things to what I consider to be an obsessive level of detail. Am I just lazy and not wanting to think that hard? For them, it’s not only important, they actually enjoy it. For me it’s hard work, frustrating and seems somewhat pointless. I can never know every nuance of every argument. I feel like the farther I go down a particular path, the less open I will be to other points of view and avenues of thought. I also feel like learning schools of thought from books and/or lectures gives me a sterile, out-of-context set of facts about a particular philosophy. If, instead, I learn about different beliefs from my encounters with people who hold those views, I have a context in which to comprehend it and observe empirical results of those beliefs in action.
I learn by context, by pushing buttons and breaking stuff. My brain doesn’t absorb theory. It observes patterns and uses them to make inferences. Perhaps if I learned about John Locke or Immanuel Kant as a person and what personal experiences led them to their beliefs, it would have meaning for me. But they are long dead, and I am much more interested in learning about those close to me and what makes them tick.
My standard pop-culture news sources, Facebook and Instagram, informed me last week that Stompin’ Tom Connors has died. Stompin’ Tom was a Canadian folk icon. I suppose most would refer to him as a country artist, but I think it would be a an insult to the man and his Canadian patriotism to lump him in with most of the formulaic drivel that shows up on stage at the Academy of Country Music Awards these days. I realized when I heard the news that I haven’t even heard a Stompin’ Tom song for probably a couple of decades. So I turned to Pandora. It actually delivered, playing Big Joe Mufferaw, the first Stompin’ Tom song I ever heard. With my headphones on, realizing I still knew most of the lyrics, I started thinking about the great folk music tradition Canada has. The closest equivalent I know of in the US is the bluegrass and mountain music of the southeast, but there is a variety and uniqueness to the Canadian tradition that is very, well, Canadian, for lack of a better word.
Folk music and CBC radio were the only acceptable non-religious, non-farm-related form of grown-up media allowed in our house. I’m calling it folk music, because I’m not sure what else to call it. It’s music by and about Canadians. In many cases it has elements of sound, whether vocal or instrumental, that are historically Canadian or pre-Canadian. The first records I remember listening to that weren’t Sunday School or kindergarten songs were by Russ Gurr and Wilf Carter. Wilf Carter became popular in the 50s and 60s and was famous for yodeling in his otherwise traditional country tunes. I think the first recorded version of “You are My Sunshine” I ever heard was his version, complete with yodeling. Russ Gurr was known as The Singing Farmer, and on the record I remember, Federal Grain Train, sang especially about Manitoba, farming, and famous Canadian tales like the story of Louis Riel.
The next record cover that sticks in my head is Stan Rogers’ Northwest Passage album. I still know every word of The Field Behind the Plow, The Idiot, Night Guard, and Lies by heart. Unlike the traditional steel guitar country leanings of the previous two, Rogers’ band had a mostly maritime sound, a huge acoustic guitar-based sound driven by fiddle and complex harmony. He sang mostly epic ballads, about every traditionally Canadian tale or problem you could think of, from the early explorers to the failure of the fishing industry, the struggles of small farmers to the oil boom.
As my siblings and I got older and learned to use our own voices, we became enamoured with the Rankin Family, probably thanks to CBC. I think we felt some kindred with these five siblings (though they actually came from a family of 12). The Rankins have a very traditional ceilihd base, even occasionally singing in Gaelic, but managed to translate their sound in some cases to a pop-friendly format powerful enough to hit the Top 40 while I was in junior high. The high, clear maritime-Irish-accented vocals, combined with a fiddle that mourns and dances by turns, are the very definition of the term emotional roller coaster. I can barely listen to Fare Thee Well Love without crying, and singing some of those harmonies, especially on the line “in pauper’s glory my time I’ll bide” with my sisters, or even just with the recording, guarantees that my voice will break.
Before now, if you had asked me about the music I listened to growing up, I would have emphasized the hymns, Sunday School songs and contemporary Christian music, and how we weren’t allowed to listen to the music our friends listened to. I suppose it’s a little sad that it took the death of a legend for me to sit down and thoroughly appreciate the rich musical heritage I was fortunate to experience. If you’re interested, here’s a YouTube tour down my memory lane.
Others I didn’t mention, but that fit into the story:
Last Monday night I was worried I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep. I was supposed to give a big presentation at work the next day, and it is not unusual for me to play through in my head all the morbid fantasies of what could go wrong in such a situation. But I went right to sleep – and I slept well. I rarely have dreams that I remember, and when I do, they are the disturbing stressful kind, where I spent the first few awake minutes afterwards still trying to hide the body or mend the relationship before I realize it was just a dream. But I woke up Tuesday morning remembering a dream that had none of those negative emotions or after-effects. All I remember from the dream is a sense of a person, a personality, and an image. The person is my mother. My mother has been dead for nearly thirteen years. The personality is something like me now, someone who has suddenly discovered herself and is learning to love herself, and take charge of her life. The image is a tattoo, an intricate, mostly geometric design, symmetrical on multiple axes, the kind of art my mother would have doodled while talking on the phone. I remember my mother as a woman characterized by worry and regret, resigned to her fate and fantasizing about what she wished her life had been. The woman in my dream, with that doodle on her bicep and a sense of satisfaction and determination about her is someone I like to think my mother could have become, given the opportunity, and maybe to some extent did start toward before she died. I keep remembering this dream. I can’t think of quite the right word to describe how it makes me feel. It has bits of satisfaction, joy, happiness, camaraderie, relief, and I seem to have lost the sense of resentment I felt toward her. She was just a person, with a lot of the same genes and brains and emotions and personality flaws as me. It is highly unlikely that, had she lived, she would have become the person in my dream, but the idea that the potential was there has had a significant impact on me.
I stopped at the stop sign and waited for the pair of headlights that was coming down the block toward me. After about two seconds, I regretted stopping. The car was moving very slowly, and its orange left turn signal predicted its turn in the direction I was headed. I tapped my boot on the pavement with growing impatience. This did not bode well for the commute ahead. A slow chilly ride was not what I’d had in mind when I hauled my ass out of bed that morning. I kicked the bike into gear and followed the ambling sedan down the street. After we crossed the bridge, I grinned as the driver signaled a right turn into another part of the subdivision. I was home free. I slowed at the intersection with the main road. No headlights showed in either direction, so I hit the throttle. Four shifts in quick succession and I glanced back down into the subdivision and saw the offending sedan parallel to me on the side street below. I looked up at the moon nearly obscured by the smoky haze, then back down at the road.
I was topping the first rise and shifting into sixth when I saw a sudden chunk of tan pop up on the side of the road, illuminated by my headlight. My brain screamed “deer” as the animal moved into my lane. I shut down the throttle and veered left, hoping the mass of meat and antlers would change direction and head back to the ditch from whence it came. “No, no, no!” I could hear my own pleading voice echoing off the inside of my helmet. The deer kept coming, and I saw its shoulder in massive hairy detail as my right headlight slammed into it before I shut my eyes.
I felt my shoulder, then my helmet, hit the ground and heard the scraping inside my helmet. As soon as I realized I was alive and could move, I stood up, knowing it was pitch black and I was lying in the middle of the road during prime commuting time. A flicker of motion caught my eye and I saw the deer dash back down the ditch. I looked back down the road. My bike lay straddling the center line, headlight pointed into the oncoming lane, tail light still in my lane. As I hurried to the side of the road, I heard a motor, then saw headlights coming from town. I waved my arms frantically, but the car barely slowed and barley missed the bike. I began to feel a little pain in my shoulder and knee and thought I must have landed pretty hard. Not the knee again, I thought. I saw headlights coming the other direction and moved to the other side of the road, desperation mounting as I realized I was dressed all in black in the dark, and one of my arms was really not working. I was waving one arm, and imploring inside my helmet, “Stop! Please stop!” trying to think of a way to make myself more visible, when the pair of headlights slowed and stopped. It was a big Ford Super Duty. I hurried around to the driver’s side, flipping my helmet open as I went. I didn’t really make eye contact, just gasped out, “I hit a deer. Can you help me get my bike off the road?”
He got out of his truck and asked a few times if I was OK. I kept saying yes, I’m fine. In the glow of his headlights we looked at the bike. Then we heard the sound of a big diesel coming down the road behind his truck. He went over and waved the school bus around the bike. Then he came back and tried picking the bike up from one side. There was no way to get a good grip, so he went around to try it from the other side. “Let me help,” I said and reached both hands under the bike. I felt ends of bone grind against one another in my shoulder. “I think my collarbone’s broken,” I said. I got a grip under the seat with my left hand, and together we got the bike back to standing. We rolled it into the ditch. “Can you flip the kickstand down?” I asked. He did, but as we lowered the bike it kept sinking in the soft sand. We stood it back up. I looked around and saw a big flat rock a few feet away. I picked it up with my good hand, took it around the other side of the bike and placed it under the kickstand. He eased the bike down onto the kickstand again, and this time it stayed upright. I walked back out into the wash of headlights and picked up half of the right front faring from where it lay in the road, the pretty orange paint sparkling strangely in the halogen beams. I began to have an inkling that, though I couldn’t see much of the damage at the moment, my prized possession with its pretty orange paint job and the hours of work put in by my best friend and me, was probably destroyed. We picked up what pieces we could see and tossed them in the ditch next to the bike. As I walked back and forth across the road I could hear my own slightly panicked breathing.
When it seemed that everything was cleaned up, I asked the mystery neighbor if he could give me a ride back to the house. I opened the door to the truck and pulled off my helmet, no easy task with one hand, then climbed into the truck. He shut the door after me. I directed him the few blocks back to the house, making enough small talk along the way to figure out where he lived and where he was headed that morning. I tried to steady my breathing as the ache in my shoulder grew. I reached into my jacket and felt the abnormal lump of bone sticking out under the skin. I realized I was in more than a little mental distress when I told my chauffeur to turn left instead of right down the alley. When we reached the house, I asked his name and thanked him for the help, then punched in the garage code and went into the house. I set my helmet on the dining room table and walked upstairs. I could hear Lance getting ready in the bathroom. I pushed open the door and saw his face in the mirror looking confused, toothbrush in hand. “I hit a deer,” I said.
I should have written this months ago, but I had gotten out of the habit. After reading back through my own stuff the other night, I decided I really ought to write this down because I like having the memories and mindset to reflect on later.
This story starts somewhere in the last decade or so when I started noticing, admiring and envying tattoos as a form of self-expression. I never just wanted “a tattoo”. I loved the look of full sleeves and intricate single subject back pieces. But in all those years I never came up with an idea I liked enough to permanently etch it on my body.
In March of 2011 I was browsing through Art in the Bar, a local quarterly art exhibition. A number of tattoo artists had booths there, and I looked through nearly every portfolio on display. Several of these artists were also selling paintings and sketches. One in particular caught my eye, an extreme close-up acrylic portrait of a skull on a plainly framed 16 x 20 canvas. Something about it made me walk by two more times to look at it. I decided I should probably buy it, though I wasn’t sure where I would display it. I talked to the artist, Derek Schumacher of Chalice Tattoo, and had him hold it for me while I went to the ATM to get cash. I think my husband thought I was a little crazy but he still gave his blessing.
To make a long story slightly shorter, this painting ended up in the place of honor over the fireplace in our living room. It took me a while of looking at there to be able to articulate why I like it so much. It has no lower jaw, and no teeth, and the colors are more browns, tans and greys, rather than so much stark black and white. This makes it not a standard creepy or evil-looking skull. It has a contemplative, almost lonely quality. It looks like it has a story to tell. The purchase of this painting started me down the road toward a solid tattoo idea. But I didn’t just want the skull. I wanted a tattoo that represented me, that told my story.
The personalization of the skull came, as it should, out of a conversation with the people who know me best. In October, my sister Amy and my friend Steve and I were at a Hell’s Belles concert, an all-female AC/DC tribute band. Before the show started we were discussing me getting a tattoo. I had mentioned wanting to base it around the skull. I think it was Amy who suggested the idea of gears inside the skull. I was immediately attracted to this image. Not only does it represent my penchant for all things mechanical, especially cars and bikes, but it also portrays my tendency to over-analyze everything. After a few weeks of thinking about it, I decided to try photoshopping the idea to see what it might look like outside of my head. I combined a grey-scaled picture of the painting with a picture of the innards of a transmission, and was really happy with the result. However, it is a long way for me from a picture on the screen to a picture on my skin.
I went to the next two Art in the Bar exhibitions hoping to see Derek and talk to him about my idea. His booth was always set up, but he was never there when I was there. I looked through his tattoo portfolio a couple of more times, though, and decided maybe he wasn’t the right artist to represent this as a tattoo. But I didn’t see any others that gave me much hope either. I started looking at websites of other artists in town and came across one that seemed like he might be able to pull off the bio-mechanical style to my liking. I knew that the local tattoo festival was coming up Memorial Day weekend, and I decided I would go and see if I could talk to him about my idea. Around this time I also saw the tattooing process in real life for the first time. My friend Andrew was getting some touchup done and let me tag along. That made the idea start to seem more real to me.
On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend I decided I would go down to the tattoo festival. I talked my husband into going with me so he could see the motorcycle stunting exhibition. We walked around the exhibit hall looking at portfolios. All of the artists were busy tattooing so I was thinking it was probably not going to be possible to talk to the artist I wanted to see. We were looking through portfolios at a booth for a shop I had never heard of, Peggy’s Not So Scary Tattoo Shop, when I saw this. I was oohing and ahhing at the realistic three-dimensional quality of the shading when the guy at the table spoke up. He was young, I would guess under thirty, rail-thin, with a sort-of rat tail mullet hair-do, dark beard and mustache, lip piercings, and big gauges in his ears. Not at all what I was expecting, though I’m not sure what I was expecting. He introduced himself as Jake. I asked if we were looking at his portfolio, and he said yes. I decided to be brave and tell him about my idea, and showed him the picture on my phone. I believe his exact response was, “I would cage fight someone to let me do that tattoo!” I knew then that I was going to get this tattoo and Jake would be the artist. It felt right. We scheduled a time the following week for me to come to the shop and talk about the artwork.
Jake was really happy that I actually showed up for the appointment. He had just had someone else who had scheduled with him at the festival bail, and another no-show. After a short discussion, we scheduled the actual tattoo session for after work the next Wednesday.
The day of the tattoo appointment my best friend was a little worried that I would end up with some bad ink. He said to be sure and send him a picture of the artwork before things got started. Since he had been involved in most of my deliberations on the subject from its inception, and because I’m braver when he is around, I finally talked him into just going with me to see for himself. Jake showed us his interpretation of the idea. He had simplified the gears to make them more conducive to a tattoo, but otherwise it was what I had originally showed him, and it still perfectly conveyed the concept. We figured out placement and sizing, and then he made the stencil. Then it was time to put the stencil on and get started. When the actual tattooing started, it did not hurt nearly as much as I expected at first, just felt like something constantly scraping my skin. Steve made sure the first hour was well photo-documented, posted to Facebook and texted to my brother. Then he took off and I was on my own. There was plenty of activity in the shop and Jake is talkative so he was able to distract me when he got to the more painful areas of the tattoo, the outlines, and the part over my shoulder where the bone was closest to the skin. A couple of hours in, my husband and my friends Andrew and Ethan showed up and hung out for a while. After they left, the endorphins were starting to wear off and I was in a lot more pain. I was also cold from being under the air conditioning and probably in a tiny bit of shock. Occasionally I would have an involuntary twitch despite my best efforts, not ideal conditions for Jake to work in, but he was patient. After about four hours, with a couple of breaks thrown in, he decided we should be done for the day, and finish up on another day after this part had healed up. I was exhausted, and drove home a little jittery. I had texted Lance and he graciously had dinner ready for me when I got home. Nothing like freshly fried croquettes for recovery from the pain and blood loss.
I was surprised at how little the tattoo hurt as it healed. It mostly felt like a bad sunburn. I was careful to follow all the after care instructions, and only lost a little bit of ink in a couple of spots where I lost scabs because I stayed in the shower too long a few days afterward. The best part of it all was waking up the morning after, looking in the mirror and thinking, hmm, that’s been missing for a long time. A month later I was back to the shop to get things finished up. Here‘s the finished product. Now I am on the prowl for the next addition to my collection.