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Ink Between the Lines

Not a day goes by that I don’t look down and see it. Every day, at least one person asks about the symbol tattooed on my arm.

“What’s your tattoo mean?” I never know how to answer that question. Well, that’s kind of a long story . . . it’s from this book I read . . .

Fin Button (the protagonist in Fiddler’s Gun and Fiddler’s Green) is an icon of my own passions and fears, my own wounds, my own desire to voyage out into the world to do something with my burning heart. She embodies some of the most fundamental aspects of our human existence: the need to love and be loved, the yearning for a place to belong, the burning desire to be who we are in the world and to nurture and protect the places and people we hold dear. Every time I return to Fin’s story, I hear the last stanza of Christian Wiman’s poem, “And I Said To My Soul Be Loud”:

For I am come a whirlwind of wasted things and I will ride this tantrum back to God until my fixed self, my fluorescent self my grief-nibbling, unbewildered, wall-to-wall self withers in me like a salted slug

Fin’s journey through pain and into beauty is, like our own, dizzy with light and darkness, joy and suffering. It follows no pre-determined formula for traveling from Point A to Point B and takes on the non-linear and wildly free traveling pattern of a ship at sea—destination in mind, but swept along by the breeze of life. There are enemies and allies, tragedies and victories; mistakes are made, and lives are taken. The smell of gunpowder is strong, but there is music floating across the deck of the Rattlesnake. In the transformation of pain into beauty, what is calcified in us is softened; what is artificial and grief-stricken finds its way to joyful authenticity; what is confined and lost in wonderlessness recovers the innocent eyes and imagination of childhood.*

It’s been a couple years since I read Fiddler’s Gun from cover to cover, but it’s never far from my reach. The cover is completely shot, folded over and stained and torn. It’s beautiful. I open to dog-eared pages bearing a beloved typeset, offering a story to the world—the story of a young girl in pain, learning to turn that pain into beauty. Turn it beautiful. Those pages also bear my own scribblings, black ink from the only kind of pen I ever use: a Pilot Precise V5. My story in the margins of Fin’s story. We understand each other.

Turn it beautiful. 

How these words have haunted me. They’ve taken up residence in my soul.

I wasn’t sure about getting a tattoo. I didn’t know if I wanted to be that old lady, the one with the withered ink. But the more I immersed myself in Fin’s story, the more I knew I wanted both the visceral experience of pain being turned into beauty and the visible reminder of this deep truth, this grace: Turn it beautiful. When I found myself sitting down to a meal in Santa Fe, New Mexico, next to poet Luci Shaw, whose right shoulder was boasting the sharp lines of a new tattoo, it was decided.

The tattoo was intended to provide a permanent reminder of the meaning I long for my life to inhabit, the meaning I hope inhabits my life. I scribbled the words on a scrap of paper and sat down in a reclining chair tucked into the back corner of a tattoo parlor in a tiny Northwestern Michigan town.Turn it beautiful. As I watched the needle alter the color of my skin, I held the words close to my heart. Black ink from the tattoo gun** mingled with specks of crimson from my own veins. I felt the story take up residence in my blood. In the pain of the experience, I felt the pain of my own story, this whirlwind of wasted things, enveloping me and making itself available to me as raw material.

Shortly after this experience, a friend texted me a picture he’d snapped of the final stanza in Luci Shaw’s poem “Stephansdom Cathedral, Vienna”:

So much of life happens between the verses of the psalms. When I got the tattoo, the pain subsided as the image grew, the duet of flesh and ink branding me for the ages with a flower-cross. The likeness, on the skin of my right shoulder, will someday toughen into leather. But why, they’ll speculate, did she do it? What in her life was like a flower? A cross?

So much of life happens between the lines of a good story. When I got the tattoo, the pain subsided as the image grew, the duet of flesh and ink branding me for the ages with a fiddle-gun. The likeness, on the skin of my left forearm, will someday toughen into leather. But why, they’ll speculate, did she do it? What in her life was like a fiddle? A gun?

*For a musical interlude, listen to Ron Block and Rebecca Reynolds’ song “Let There Be Beauty.” 

**For the Star Wars fans among us: The artist had attached a Darth Vader head to the end of this tool of his trade and dubbed the tattoo gun “Darth Shader.”


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