There are few people that I have clicked with as easily and as well as I have with Erin Lane. We bonded (after meeting in person at the Festival of Faith and Writing) over an piece she wrote in Talking Taboo (a collection of essays that she also co-edited). Since then, I've loved getting to know her, and to know her writing (she is one of my must-reads, so do yourself a favor and subscribe to her blog, and watch out for her forthcoming book). I fell in love with the essay that she is sharing today, and I hope you will, as well.
I could see the irony of it: a commitment phobe at a tattoo parlor. Even so I was surprisingly calm for someone whose greatest fears in life include regret and a strict return policy. Maybe it was the two glasses of chardonnay I downed at dinner.
“Have you told your mom yet?” my husband asked while we waited outside the parlor, side by side on a wood-worn bench, the taste of engine exhaust in our mouths. We were both getting inked; it would be my first, Rush’s second. It had taken him seven years to confess the first to his mom. She cried.
I thought for a beat without turning my gaze from the four-lane highway in front of us. “Uh, no. I guess I haven’t. Should I?”
It’s not that my mom and I weren’t close. We were thick as thieves. A divorce can do that to a mother and daughter, level the boundaries between parent and child until you’re partners in survival. Partners don’t seek permission for things like tattoos.
She picked up on the third ring.
“Hey, mom. Guess where I am?”
“I don’t know, but bet you can’t guess where I am,” she countered.
I looked at Rush and shook my head. “Alright, you go first.”
It took a few minutes, by way of tangents and words split by laughter, to find out that she was at the mall. In a novelty shop. Looking for a vibrator. Apparently, hers broke.
“Your vibrator broke?” I asked, loud enough so Rush could hear. His eyebrows lifted.
“Oh, c’mon, honey. I’m human,” she laughed. And I knew this. I knew my mother was human before most kids knew cursive. “Now what was it you were calling about?” she continued.
“Well, I’m sitting outside a tattoo parlor right now.”
“Tell me you’re not getting a butterfly on your ankle.”
“Please, mom. I’m getting wings.”
As far as tattoos go, wings are as clichéd as butterflies, trees, or scripture writ in swirling font. I knew this, too. But I had made peace with being a cliché. Commitment is wrought with clichés, like the woman who vows to her friends, “I’ll never become that kind of bride,” or the mother who says of her newborn child, “I’ve never known a love like this.” Then there’s the child of divorce panicked by commitment itself. The mark of maturity is to forgive yourself for being a cliché when it fits. The wings fit.
“What kind of wings?” my mom pressed.
“You know those airline wings Charlie and I used to get when we flew back and forth between you and Dad?”
“Those plastic ones?”
“Yeah, the ones they gave us for being unaccompanied minors.”
Unaccompanied minors, in flight and life. My parents divorced when my older brother and I were ten and eight respectively. Soon after Dad moved back to Detroit and we hopped a plane out of Chicago every other weekend to see him. Wings were our reward. And so we came to love them.
You learn to love what you have to survive. You tell yourself kids with two parents live a boring life. You tell yourself kids with two parents aren’t as close to each other. You tell yourself kids with two parents have to ask permission.
It felt right committing to a tattoo that honored my story, a piece of my identity made plain for all to see and ask, “What does it mean?” Everyone who gets a tattoo must prepare for this question. If you’re Rush, you might say of your woodcut ink, “It means I like trees.” If you’re me, the answer will be slightly longer. “It means that wherever I go, I’m home.”
Maya Angelou said something similar once: “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”
“I like it,” my mom said when I explained. “Wherever you go, you’re home. You never did like to stay in one place.”
The sun had just disappeared when the flame-haired receptionist came to get us. My mom wished me luck. I wished her luck, too.
In the end, I got the tattoo on my forearm. The outline of wings spans from my elbow pit to where the veins come pressing up against the skin of my wrist. Only a few times did the tattoo artist tell me to stop bobbing my feet and stay still.
I have heard the wisdom of stability. But it has never been my wisdom. I tell myself there’s wisdom in the wings, too.
Erin S. Lane is author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe (forthcoming, February 2015) and co-editor of Talking Taboo, an anthology of writing by young Christian women on the intersection of faith and gender. Confirmed Catholic, raised Charismatic, and married to a Methodist, she facilitates retreats for clergy and congregational leaders through the Center for Courage & Renewal. You can find more of her writing at www.holyhellions.com.
You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.