When a 55 year old white man says, “I think I’ll get a tribal tattoo”, eyes roll, lips curl, and heads slowly shake. Those are the polite responses. In our home it’s not likely to be that tame; which is why I didn’t announce it. I just did it.
The sunburn-like sting of a fresh tattoo is unlike anything else. It’s not just the physical sensation; it’s a reverberation of the sweet rawness of pure, unadulterated commitment that makes every part of my body tingle. It’s not for everybody, and like any artist knows, revealing an inside story on an outward display is not for the faint of heart.
While the art of a soul’s story-telling with an artist’s ink goes back to 4000 BC, the traditions and meanings of tattoos are as diverse in number as there are cultures they come from. In spite of these different roots, there are common elements which celebrate ancestry, family legacy, spiritual strength, and a warrior spirit that overcomes obstacles. This is a common trait of all existing cultures, an indomitable will to survive. When an individual’s will is tested, a story is born.
I got my first tattoo in 2002. It had been nearly seven years since my cancer had been declared “in remission”, yet I had noticed the fading sting of the harsh lessons of my survival. I had begun to feel disconnected from the experience. Deep, hard-earned lessons dissolved into short, shallow sporadic sentences, like bullet points on a resume. “I had cancer” or “I am a cancer survivor” doesn’t do justice to my own journey, or my family’s. Being told I had a 15% chance of living beyond two years was a dramatic moment; deciding how I wanted to live the rest of my life was a transformational process. In the end, describing my cancer story in terms of a mere physical healing cheapens the richness and the glory of a much grander, deeper spiritual journey.
The centerpiece of my first tattoo is a Cardinal sitting on a budded branch of a dogwood tree. Located on my left shoulder, this bird’s repeated appearances have woven a thread through the fabric of generations of my family, symbolizing the unspoken spirit and courage that has been passed on.
Along with the cardinal there is a rainbow (various healing paths), a sun (Goodness), a cloud (the passing nature of life’s obstacles) and the number ‘919’ (symbolizing unexpected gifts revealed with the passage of time).
In 2006, my mother was long into her terminal dance with cancer and I into my own “middle passage”. (There was a lot of money and therapy getting to that term). The conclusion I drew from this phase was that no amount of material success could compensate for personal loss. There is no equation for success with grief; there is only muddling through. And muddling through we must.
My life was lopsided. I decided I needed to balance the “My Cancer Story” on my left shoulder with the “Rest of the Story”, on my right shoulder.
This tattoo depicts four basic elements: Yin-Yang (balance), Tiewaz (Runic symbol of courage), Kaizen (Kanji symbol for continual improvement), and Fire (passion). All elements I need to incorporate into each and everything I do.
In November 2012, Chris and Lindsey announced that our family would be growing. It was not long before the prospect of being a grandfather took me to another place in the universe and I fell into the name,” Daideo” (pronounced “dadj-oh”). The Gaelic word for Grandpa, it just seems to fit in sound, and in site above the inside of my left ankle. Levi would bless us with his arrival the following May.
In June 2014, Pete and Caity brought Gracie into the world. In “A Little Grace” I wrote about a love that is total and all-encompassing. With Levi in New Jersey and Gracie in Connecticut, it didn’t take much vacation time to realize how deeply and desperately our connection is. The separation anxiety wasn’t just unexpected, it was downright disabling. The changes they went through in just two and three weeks was amazing. Intellectually I knew we would always be connected, but I had a hole in my heart that was only filled when I knew I was near. I wanted them to know that even though they were hours and miles away, they are always close to my heart. So at age 55, I got my tribal tattoo.
I know; a tribe of two sounds like a wolf pack of one. Trust me, I’m praying that gets corrected sooner rather than later! There’s plenty of space on my arm and plenty of love in my heart. Bring it on!
2017 update: The Tribe grows…
There will come a time when my words will not let me speak, and my deeds can no longer show those values of the legacy I’d like to leave as the primary principles of my life: Love, Tolerance, Gratitude.
Good words to spell, to live, to teach. Good behavior to model. I hope my grandchildren recall my life as worthy of these words, these lessons.
The words we speak become the house we live in. Rumi