My heart is a lot stronger than it was when I wrote this essay a year ago. I'd forgotten about it because I'd submitted it to xoJane and never heard back, and as often happens with me, I simply let things go and assume they suck if I don't hear back from an editor and don't try to shop them around. Freelancing can be kindof like dating, and if you let someone else's rejection of you form your sense of self-worth, you're in for a very hard road. So I will let this speak for itself, without giving in to my temptation to go in and tinker with it, posting it here flaws and craziness and all. My heart it still very much like a little girl, as am I, but 37 is so much better than the start of 36 was, and I hope 36's worst, most heartwrenching moments stay where they belong. I still look at my tattoo every day, and I'm still incredibly grateful for all the luck and opportunity and love that's come my way this year. Now I just have to keep being worthy of it. Today I'm thinking about that phrase home is where the heart is, and also its converse. I decided to skip New York this week, after our lovely getaway in New Haven this weekend, and stay at my future home, with my guy, where we tease each other and play on the Wii and cook together and are silly and stubborn and still getting to know each other. My heart, and I, still have a lot of growing up to do. A lifetime, really. Never would I have imagined what the year after my tattoo would bring, because how could I? And maybe that's the real lesson.
I end this essay with a quote from Gabrielle Bernstein, and I'm now reading her new book, May Cause Miracles, because I want to be like her, be someone who believes in and creates miracles. She nails me, or the old me, to a T when she writes: "Special love is based on dependency and lack. The ego convinces us that we're alone, which leads us to desperately seek completion in others. The experience of lack grows out of our profound sense of separation from our real spiritual identity. Believing this state of lack to be our reality, we seek special relationships to help us feel whole." I got the tattoo in part to make me feel whole. I sat in that chair in that city in that state and I cried for so many reasons and yes, it fucking hurt. My skin, my heart. But I got through it, and I think it made me stronger. I figured out that I don't need anyone else, certainly not anyone I thought I needed. I figured out a lot of things, including that I'm still the same raw, stubborn, impulsive, wistful girl I was. Even though my boyfriend does add happiness to my life, a hell of a lot of it, I never want to see love as anything other than what comes from inside me. I spent far too long feeling so lost because I thought I didn't matter, and only when I finally believed that I did did the person I'm with now step into my life. Even then, on our second date I had to tell him something that made me feel like my life was utterly out of control, because it was. That was this wakeup call moment where I realized I was either going to let myself spin completely out of control or pick up the pieces and only focus on the things I can control, to truly live the Serenity Prayer, rather than just aspire to. I'm glad I had all those rock bottom moments this past year, because they taught me exactly the lessons they were supposed to. They told me what and who to value, taught me that I have so much more power than I think I do in my lowest moments. And every day I try to remember that. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I don't get what I want. Sometimes I don't even know what I want. But as Gabrielle Bernstein writes, "...living with an open heart and embracing love as our true purpose is essential to living a miraculous life." And no, she's not talking about any kind of fake, Hollywood-ized version of romantic love, or the idea of some knight in shining armor to save you love. She's talking about the real thing. I'm so glad I have the wisdom to know the difference.
Last year, I deliberately chose to get my first tattoo, the word "open" in purple cursive script, on a part of my body I wouldn't be confronted with every day: my back. I can easily see it if I'm naked and look in the mirror, but most days I'm too busy going about my routine to focus on those four purple letters. I know they're there, and right after I got the tattoo last year, I used to reach behind me and touch them, letting their spirit press its way into my fingers.
Which brings me to my brand new tattoo. After the first one, I was pretty sure I wouldn't get another. I didn't want to be the cliché of someone who "just can't stop getting tattoos," which many friends told I would become. "It's addictive," they said, and since I have an addictive personality, I resisted. I'm the type of person who, if you tell me that I'm going to or should do something, I immediately want to prove you wrong and not do the thing in question, because I'm stubborn and contrary like that. More so, I don't want to feel like what I'm doing is somehow preordained, conformist, not thought out.
But the longer I've lived with my "open" tattoo, the more I've realized that the job I wanted it to do—to open my heart and mind—wasn't happening in part because, like everything good for us that we want to forget about because it's annoying or inconvenient or frustrating or slow or difficult, I was tuning out my tattoo. I liked the idea of being marked "open" but in reality, when anything went awry in my life, I shrank bank into the same old negative thought patterns; I had trouble adapting to change, whether a breakup or a layoff. When things fell apart for the last time with the man I was crushed out on, to put it mildly, instead of trying to make my peace with that, I went into jealousy mode. His wife (it's an open relationship) suddenly embodied everything I'm not, and never will be. In my head she was not just younger, but smarter, prettier, thinner, more successful. Yes, talk about another cliché—the jealous woman—but that was me, and, if I'm honest, still is me on some days. I couldn't figure out how to acknowledge that jealousy without letting it overwhelm me. I interpreted "open" as being allowed to revel in any and all emotions that passed through me, as if they were all equal and thereby deserving of my attention and devotion.
The hard part of being truly open isn't recognizing my contradictory and often unhelpful feelings, but using my vision for the kind of life I want to sort through them and only tap into the ones that are healthy and furthering me on my path. I found that instead of trusting my heart, I was starting to berate myself for making foolish relationship mistakes. Every setback seemed like a blaring sign that there was something deeply wrong with me I'd never be able to fix (public service announcement: don't ever tell someone during a breakup talk that they "deserve" better, that's basically an extremely twisted passive aggressive version of "fuck you"). I let myself return to dating people who'd already told me explicitly they didn't want the same things I want. I was stuck and, well, a tattoo seemed like a start on the path toward getting unstuck.
So, "heart." I wanted this word bold and bright and in my face, because I tend to scorn my heart more often than I should. I blame following my heart any time doing so doesn't lead to mad passionate long-term romance. But closing off my heart can't be the answer; I don't want to freeze out my heart to the point that I don't have room to welcome love—not just romantic—of all kinds into my life. A lot of my heart's travails have related to dating, but I also want to use my heart to be a better daughter, granddaughter, cousin, friend. I don't want to get so mired in my own head and problems that I can't use my empathy and compassion when I need to, while also taking care of myself.
Once I decided to get the tattoo, I did a little Googling and found Sanctuary Tattoo in Portland, Maine, where I was taking a birthday vacation, and chose them mainly because I liked the look of their website. I may agonize over what to order off a menu, but with bigger decisions, I usually make them more quickly. I made an appointment, sending a photo of my other tattoo and explaining what I wanted, and then I didn't let myself think too much more about it, lest I second-guess myself.
The design Ryan had picked out was taller than I'd expected, curving over my inner arm, its swirls visible when my arm is facedown. That was a surprise, but I liked it; I knew I wasn't just making the transition into a person with multiple tattoos, but into someone with a publicly visible tattoo. It hurt, a lot, more than I remember my other one hurting, but what made me cry—not huge wracking sobs, but a few good tears—wasn't the physical pain. It was thinking about the fact that there is still a part of me that wants to impress that same person I spent a long time infatuated with, who taught me so much, good and bad, about what it means to love someone. There will probably always be a part of me that wants his respect, and I couldn't help wondering what he'd think about my tattoo. I let myself go with it, feeling the pain on both levels. When the scraping of my skin with the tattoo needle seemed to much to bear, I reminded myself that it was the visceral equivalent of the times when I felt this extremely profound, painful ache of wanting the love and attention of someone who didn't have those things to give me. And less than an hour (and costing only $125!), it was over.
I described the tattoo before I got it as being an "anti-cynicism tattoo," and that still sounds pretty accurate. When I feel hurt, my first reaction is to retreat, to pull far back from anything and anyone who might ever hurt me again. The problem with that is that self-protection very quickly turns into a misguided sense of self-sufficiency and cutting myself off from the world. I start to think I should cocoon myself away until I'm somehow a better, smarter, prettier, more moral person—basically, until I'm perfect—rather than doing the only thing any of us can do: work through our issues, each and every day.
My heart is like a little girl, imperious, impulsive, and impossible. And while little girls are adorable, especially my friend's 2-year-old daughter who I love to pieces, my heart reminds me of the time I walked into my friend's bedroom and her daughter was tucked under the covers, looking like she was sick, but was instead just cozy and watching TV. She wanted me to leave so she just pointed to the door (a movement translated by her mom), while I tried not to laugh at being bossed around by someone so tiny. She's two, so she's entitled to do whatever she wants whenever she wants. My 36-year-old heart, though, not so much; it gets in trouble when it simply wanders down a path without considering any of the potential pitfalls.
Lest that sound too much like I'm just some girl who's not quite over a guy (which is accurate, in its way), I want "heart" to mean all the best things about me, and about life. At a time when 10-year-olds are committing suicide, elderly people are getting pepper sprayed, and a friend of a friend was randomly shot three times on his block, I know that my problems are quintessential White Girl Problems, but they are still very real to me. I want to wake up genuinely happy and grateful to greet each new day, rather than facing the morning with dread and fear of what it might bring. I want the tattoo to be a reminder that I shouldn't forget my heart, but I shouldn't be ruled by it either.
"Heart" in a way is a substitute for faith—faith in love, in other people, in the future, in myself. I've been reading Gabrielle Bernstein's excellent book Spirit Junkie, and she writes of the clash between fear and love, "We've saved our faith for fear. But deep inside each of us lives a soft voice reminding us that love is real." I believe her, but the loud self-hating voices in my head often run roughshod over the softer-spoken ones, so I hope my loud tattoo helps me keep that lesson real, and, most of all, keep me in touch with my heart, with all her wayward demands, demons, and desires.