Tattoos – Those Chosen and Those Not

 

tattoo work by Keith Killingsworth

tattoo work by Keith Killingsworth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tattoos have always been a source of curiosity and conflict for me.  Not so much the little cross or anchor simply and strategically placed covertly on an ankle or elsewhere; more so the multi-colored tattoos covering major body surface areas.  Why would anyone consciously and mostly irrevocably deface themselves?  It seems I am naive about the burgeoning tattoo, or shall I say ‘body art’ business, but I stand firm in my confusion about and quasi-revulsion of it.

When I saw the tattooed trucker sitting across from me at the communal hotel breakfast at the Burlington, Wisconsin Hampton Inn this morning, I wondered again about tattoos.  Colorful and large, they dominated his forearms as far as the eye could see, jutting out from his short-sleeved shirt.

He struck up a conversation about this and that and I asked him, “Tell me about your tattoos.”  He seemed not-at-all-off put and happily explained that each of his tattoos signifies a life event such that he is now a living canvas.  “Every time I look at any of these tattoos, I remember a special event from my life.”   He explained that his tattoos were not born of rebellion but of careful thought and planning.  He also chose piercings in the same way, and I saw the studs on his ears and eye brows.  I did not ask to see the ones he said were on his nipples because I believed him when he said that they were there.

“Couldn’t you just keep a scrap-book of life events,” I asked.  He laughed.  “I prefer to be the living scrap-book of my events,” he said cheerily.

When he got the first of his tattoos he was in the Army.  Regulations required that he wear long sleeves or face penalties.  When the tattoo was in fact discovered, the Army docked him two pay grades among other disciplinary measures.  “They were that important to me,” he said.

“Are you thinking of getting a tattoo?” he asked.

“No, not really.  I have something like a tattoo.”  I paused.  “I had a serious burn when I was young and when I look at it, I think about how I didn’t want it.”  We got up to refresh coffee and I pointed out my leg injury.  He assessed it with a slow and careful gaze.  “I worked in the hospital unit in the army.  I can understand what you went through.”

He told me there were any number of reasons the people he knew got tattoos, from rebellion to personal statements, from feeling special to receiving attention.

“You know what’s funny?” I asked.  “When you have an injury not of your own making, people avert their eyes when they realize you see them staring at you.  I guess when you custom-create your own spectacle and you see people staring at you, you feel special.”

“Do you know what the current tat trend is now?” he asked.

I had no idea.

“They call it branding.  They take a fire-hot poker and create customized burn scars.”

I must have looked absolutely horrified at the thought, because it did horrify me.  Who in their right mind would purposely scar themselves?  Would they have any idea how painful the burned area would be?  Would it matter?

“It’s all along the same lines as a tattoo,” he continued.  “People like it because it might have a personal significance and because they create the scar themselves.”

He looked at my burned leg.

“I know,” he said.  “I don’t really get it either.”

 

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Chance Encounters

May is a uniquely busy month for parents with school-age children.  As the school year ends, there are celebrations galore – from the athletic banquet to the spring concert, the father-daughter dance, the girl scout bridging ceremony and the end of the basketball travel team league.  At a certain point, any sane adult simply starts going through the motions.  My mental state was precisely there as I joined the line cascading around the corner for entry to the Spring Show, the annual song-fest where each of eight grades and kindergarten sings a couple of numbers.

Directly behind me in line stood R and her daughter M, the teenage girl burned in a home accident just weeks before.  Thick white burn tape provided a necklace around her neck and her arm was tightly bandaged in the same special tape.  Before I knew it, I had re-introduced myself to R and told them I too was burned as a child.  As I said it, I like itching myself.  It seemed to come from my stomach, which turned itself slightly at the thought.  As we talked, M shared, “I itch all the time.  It’s constant.”  I remembered the feeling well.  Insatiable itching that seemed to crawl inside with no good way to relieve it.  M also said that her burns were second degree, which immediately relieved me and I told her how well she would heal.  It’s the 3rd degree burns that leave the nasty scars — 2nd degree can heal with nary a reminder.

When they asked what happened to me, I told them about my burn accident, then gently rolled up my pant leg to show them a little of the scars.  “Yours seems so much worse than mine,” M said and I immediately felt bad that she focused on my injury when hers was so recent and raw, itching as it healed.  Her mother R looked and me, her eyes brimming with wet and said, “See M, look at Anne.  She’s successful and pretty.  We can make it through this.  It didn’t stop her.”

Like me, M didn’t like it when people stared at her.  We talked about “to tell” or not to tell strategies, to make eye contact or not to.  M seemed remarkably mature for a teenager.  She had a presence.

“M, it may not feel like it right now, but your burns are a gift.  Look how they help you teach other people.”  I believed it as I said it.  It would not have been the gift I’d chosen for myself, but I always felt right with it.

The line began to disperse as we entered the school gym for the Spring Show.  R hugged me tightly whispering, “thank you” as they wandered off to their places.

As the 4th graders began “Getting to Know You,” from the Lion King, I wondered:  How much more difficult are these burns for a parent? R was there when M’s leaned over the gas stove and her scarf caught fire.  She choked up as she told me about it.  They are replacing the stove with a smooth-topped electric model.  I understand.

Making Sense of Stories

Paperback book cover illustration, I Know Why ...

Image via Wikipedia

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou. http://www.mayaangelou.com 

If you’ve ever read any of Maya Angelou’s books, you gain an incredible perspective into the courage of telling a life story.  “A bird doesn’t tell a story because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song,” she wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of her autobiographical series.  Her books captivate with their beautiful prose and at the same time made me squirm with the honesty in which she recounts her life, particularly her days as a prostitute.  I’ve heard her speak live and it’s amazing — she brings her books to life with her spoken voice.

I thought of her courage this week as I heard two burn stories.  My friend Renee’s aunt, on an oxygen machine, lit a cigarette and suffered second degree burns over her face.  Within days, I heard the story of a teenager from the kid’s school, who bent over a stove and her scarf caught fire torching her chest and neck.  Both are in the hospital.

It’s hard not to think of their searing pain.  It’s harder not to think about how they and their families handle both the emotions and the re-telling of the stories.  I know from my own experiences that until I can put the emotional framework in place, I can’t tell a story.  It always takes time for the “shock factor” to process and events to become clear before a story unfolds.  I wonder if it was the same for Maya Angelou — that the time that passed before she told her stories gave her the perspective to truly see the context of the events.

Maybe this is just the way we tell stories.  Even this week we saw a glimpse of it with the Osama bin Laden storyline.  Quickly we learn the news – bin Laden is dead.  Then, the next day we receive a new update, a revision as the true facts become clearer – yes dead, but he had no human shield as previously reported.  Then, each of the next days of the week, we find out a little bit more – he has been hiding in plain sight, there are the makings of another terror plot, this time using the US rail road system.

Life comes at us in pieces and parcels.  It’s our job to make sense of it all.  It’s a big job.  Story telling might just bring it all together.

Swim Suit Secrets

Magic Kingdom Fireworks

Image by d4rr3ll via Flickr

Renee and I had taken our daughters to the Magic Kingdom and after two action-packed days at the Disney Parks, we chose Sunday to lounge by the pool while the girls swam.  She knows my story well and so my scars were nothing new even in bathing suit format.  But hers, well, she had never told me about them and the plot thickened.

Renee was 12 and boiling water to make hot dogs.  Somewhere in the transfer to the counter, hot dogs still boiling away, she jiggled the pot.  Hot oily water gushed on to her thigh.  Renee watched as the boiling water seared her skin, sealing her tights to her upper leg.   The times being the times, Renee tried to self treat second-degree burns.  “More than anything else, I remember the pain.  I had to peel the fabric of the tights off my leg,” she said.  Over time, the skin on her thigh turned an unsightly black.  Horrified she peeled it back time and time again.  It took a year to heal.  She used home remedies to speed the healing because her family didn’t take her to the hospital for treatment.

Now, the scars on her thigh healed to a faded pattern of reddish blotches. Renee needed to point them out to me.   I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.

As we lay by the pool, I couldn’t get Renee’s story out of my mind.  It consumed me for hours.  Was it better to remember the searing pain so vividly as she did?  Was it worse to remember peeling blackened skin from your leg?  Was it more common than not that families in the 70s didn’t rush to hospitals for home accidents?

Much as I have tried, I have yet to find anyone who can tell me the blow-by-blow details of my accident.  I don’t remember the pain of the majority of the surgeries, only the one I had when I was 18.  I don’t remember blackened skin but surely it was there.  My burns were third degree, a notch up from Renee’s.  It amazed me to see how her burns had healed, how they were all but hidden.

It seems to me that everyone has at least one vivid childhood story.  An accident.  An incident.  A hurt that may not have yet healed.

It feels good to hear someone else’s story, in this case a poolside secret, a swim suit story.  Do you have a secret to share?

Waiting for Critique

In the memoir genre, about 70,000 words forms a standard book.  As I cruised past 40,000 words on my project, I thought about the haphazard content I’d typed in double-spaced format.  It was likely time for a professional review and I turned to my cousin Cindy in Los Angeles, who had mentioned she had some writing contacts if I were ever in the market for them.  Cindy dutifully sent along “M”‘s name and put us in touch. As it turns out, M had an intimidating writing pedigree, schooled at a well-known college under the tutelage of a renowned American author, as well as having several published titles to her name.  When I laid out my story, an amazing thing happened.  M told me that she too had been burned at a young age, a casualty of trying to be cool by smoking in a closet.  “Unless I wear a short sleeve top, no one notices,” she said referencing the burns on her arm.  What are the chances that I’d so quickly find a writing professional who would understand the very personal nature of burns?  As luck would have it, M’s plate was full and she did not have time to serve as my critique professional.  Instead, she put me in touch with her similarly pedigreed writing friend “K”. Eagerly I contacted K, who did not have a burn injury to share but rather a witty life story of life as an outsider of sorts in southern Indiana.  More importantly, she had time at hand.  After some hand-wringing, I looked over my project, divided it into 3 parts, packaged up Part I as ready fir review, closed my eyes and hit the “send” button.  And now I wait.  Wondering if my book, or at least the initial piece of it, might pass professional muster,  might have story enough to be told that it has a literary life.  And I wait.

What’s Your Fire?

The other night a friend, Kay, who has been reading this blog told me her own story. At 4, she was involved in an accident that left her back and neck burned with collateral damage to her ear. It had all the clear markings of a very bad burn. Yet she didn’t know the details of the accident. When she asks her dad, “What happened?”, she is referred to her mother. When she asks her mother, the story she’s told doesn’t add up. So she’s left in a quandary of sorts but has found a way to make peace with it. Being of the spiritual mindset, Kay believes everything happens for a reason and the resolution we DON’T find in this life carries with us to the next — call it karma, call it reincarnation, call it the law of cause-and-effect — we choose to let history repeat itself until we address it. That’s great motivation to explore the fires that rage within us and can counter the nagging downside risk, “What’s the worst thing I can find out?” What’s your fire?

Defining Moments

Without question, I believe everyone has defining moments in their life. For me, my burn injury was one of these moments but I never felt it was “the” thing that defined me. After my last post, a couple high school friends independently sent private emails essentially saying the same thing, “When we thought of you, we didn’t think of your injury.” Understanding the accident decades later is not the reason I’m writing the blog. It’s just the starting point for the storyline. When my own kids asked me, “What happened to your leg, Mom?”, there was a story to tell. Since my parents didn’t talk about the accident while they were alive, there were some missing pieces and I wanted to see if the story I thought I knew was the one that actually happened. Added to that was the fact that I thought my parents were sending some signs from beyond for me to explore the past further. And thus I began putting together the pieces of the puzzle.

Have you had a defining moment that became your starting point?