When I turned 60 I wanted two things. A party. And a tattoo.
We did the party – a painting night with 60 guests. It involved painting, wine, snacks, dancing, dear friends and a shared experience. Six of my favourite things – one for each decade.
My painting was crap (but no judgement, right? Process not product! It was all about the fun). But the night was stellar – and the memory of it is one of the happiest of my adult life.
The tattoo took much longer. It’s one thing to know I wanted a tattoo. It’s quite another to settle on what I was willing to have inked into my skin for the rest of my life.
I’d been delighted when writer Pat Schneider, who’s been very influential in my life, told me that at age 70 she decided to get a tattoo. She pulled up the cuff of her jeans to show me an elegant grasshopper on the side of her ankle. “When I was a kid I used to walk through the field and there were a million grasshoppers flinging themselves in every direction,” she said, her fierce blue eyes fixed on the middle distance of the past. “I loved them.”
What did I love enough to etch onto my body? For I while I thought about a hummingbird dipping it’s beak for some nectar, and maybe the words Carpe Dulcedo (Seize the Sweetness). It resonated, but it didn’t lift me and ring my ribcage like a bell. Besides, the mindfulness I aspire to teaches me to seize it all, notice it all, maybe even savour it all. Not just the sweetness. All of it.
* * *
Given that this is the age of body ink, it’s odd how few people in my immediate circle have them. Or if they do, they’re not telling, and the ink is well hidden. My massage therapist says she’s always surprised when her clients undress for the first time and their tattoos are revealed. She laughs. “And then I wonder why I’m surprised.”
My bookkeeper has two. One on each wrist. I was surprised when I saw them. She’s petite, a dancer, a mother of three kids. She has a short, suburban pixie cut. She’s a bookkeeper, a no-nonsense numbers girl. I know I’m wrong, but I still think of tattoos as edgy, rebellious. She didn’t fit my mental profile.
She held them out to show me and then drew them in towards her and looked down at them. Her left wrist holds the words, Relax and her right, Breathe. “I put them there to remind me all the time, in a place where I’d see them every day.”
That impressed me. On the wrists. Cool. So what did I need to remind myself of every day?
* * *
In the end it took almost three years and feeling my way through with my body. Appropriate, given that it was my body that would bear the words.
* * *
There’s a poem that I’m haunted by. It’s by Anne Lamott’s dog, Sadie Louise. Yes that Anne Lamott. I first heard it on a recording, put out by Sounds True, of a writers’ workshop that Anne Lamott gave. The woman who introduced Anne decided to introduce her through Anne’s dog’s poetry.
It’s a long poem, but there’s one part that gets me every time. I was driving in the car the first time I heard it, and when I heard that part I started to cry so hard I had to pull over. Here it is. (Remember it’s spoken in the voice of the dog).
Sometimes I am there in the backseat and she is
hurrying to get all our errands done before the boy
comes home; like he is the Last Emperor;
and she ends up forgetting me in the car
and only remembers me much, much later.
I always pretend not to mind,
because she is my girl, and
there are many moving parts to her life;
and God knows
she is doing the best she can.
There was something about that sad forgotten dog forgiving Anne because “she is doing the best she can” that gutted me. I heard this poem 20 years ago, and every time I try to tell someone about it, I still cry. Even now, as I inserted it here, I choked up. Clearly it’s very charged for me. But for 20 years I didn’t know why.
* * *
I’ve been training in Hakomi for the last few years. Hakomi is a body-centred, mindfulness-based system of assisted self-study – a method of psychotherapy where the nexus of power stays solidly with the client. My trainings have been conducted by some very gifted Hakomi teachers. The sessions are experiential – we’re not just learning the techniques, we’re participating in them using our own material. There are always lots of tears and lots of tenderness in each session. Every once in a while there’s a particularly difficult relationship issue. People are so messy.
Partway through one training I was trying to claw my way back from one of these charged and messy encounters. Georgia, one of the trainers, was holding space for me. I told her about the poem, cried as I spoke the charged line “she is doing the best she can.”
In a Hakomi session, often the therapist will, with the permission of the client, offer little mindfulness-based experiments. That afternoon Georgia asked, “Sue, what comes up for you when I say, ‘You’re doing the best you can’?”
I breathed and watched what happened inside. Which wasn’t much. A squib. A fizzle. I was surprised, but there’s no arguing with the truth of the body. I shrugged. Of course I was doing the best I could. I always do, sometimes till I’m stretched so thin you can see light through me.
* * *
Two months later I was doing a meditation retreat with two tremendously gifted Hakomi trainers – one of them is also a Zen Buddhist priest, Flint Sparks. One morning during the early morning meditation sit, Flint offered this story. “A man asked a very wise minister, “What’s the most effective prayer there is?” The minister answered, “Oh that’s easy. I have it right here. It’s from an eleven year old boy. ‘Dear God, I’m doing the best I can.’”
My neural circuits lit up. The same words. The same message.
Flint looked around the circle, meeting our eyes one by one. “And it’s enough,” he said gently.
Tears streamed down my cheeks. That was it. That was the missing piece. That was what my body was waiting to hear. It’s enough.
Enough. Enough – stop doing more, taking on more. Doing the best that I can is enough. I am enough.
* * *
That same retreat provided another central concept as well. Toward the end, I thanked the two leaders, Flint and Donna, for the spacious environment they’d provided. Lots of focused engagement, but also lots of time to loaf, and read, and nap, and think, and write, and experience. The next day I used the word “spaciousness” again in conversation with Donna. She smiled her trademark smile, luminous and soft. “It seems you’re really engaged with that concept of spaciousness,” she said.
That’s what she said.
What I heard was that my vocabulary was limited, maybe even my mind, the scope of my thoughts. Immediately I felt shame. It took days before I was able to play back her words and hear them at face value. And then the truth of them flooded me. I was engaged with the idea of spaciousness – what was it, how to create it, how to protect it. In fact, the lack of spaciousness in my mind and my life had been a major problem for a long time. That word became a central focal point for me – a lodestone that drew toward it or repelled appropriate situations and experiences.
* * *
It took more than a year from that retreat before I decided that spaciousness was so central to me that it deserved a place on my body. Not long after I remembered “Enough”, and wondered if it could be the other word. This time I did feel like I’d been lifted like a bell and struck. I rang. My bones thrummed the rightness of the messages.
Each of them contains a universe of meaning for me. Each of them is a mantra, a state of consciousness I aspire to. Each of them is something I need reminding of every day. Many times a day.
About a month and a half before my 63rd birthday, I designed the words in a beautiful script, made an appointment at the tattoo parlour, and after about 2 minutes each of feeling like a hive of wasps was stinging my wrists, it was done.
* * *
The tattoos are healed now, but they’re still new. They draw my eye and my thoughts many times a day. I’m a long way from having attained any kind of perfect relationship with these two challenging concepts; they are so central and so charged for me that I’ll probably be wrestling with them till the day I die.
How right it feels that my new body art will accompany me the remainder of that journey.