My friend Joan Sebastian died the other day. He was a singer, a performer, and one of the last authentic cowboys. Most of all, though, Joan was a poet. One of his most famous songs was called, Tatuajes (Tattoos). In it he describes a love affair so profound that it’s forever tattooed on his body, mind, and soul. That song was playing in my head the night he died. I couldn’t sleep, so I stayed up late meditating, looking up at the stars. I sat remembering my friend, humming his song and pondering the impermanence of life … and of friendship. Joan and I had had a falling out – a disagreement over money and commitment. What had once been a vibrant and intimate friendship had, over the last couple of years, been replaced by professional courtesy marked by an occasional text message. It was sad to realize he was now gone. I wondered if I should have reached out more, overlooked our differences, buried the hatchet as they say. But that wasn’t real, for either of us. In friendship and in disagreement, we had been authentically ourselves. The moment, and these realizations overtook me. I cried a bit and then I just sat for a while with the stars. Like the love in the song, the stars seemed to be tattooed to the heavens – so bright and alive, inextricably part of the wondrous experience of the vast sky. I fell asleep looking at them. In the morning when I awoke they were gone … and so was the song.
I wonder if, perhaps, another way of looking at life would be more like temporary tattoos. The ones they sell at the fair. The kind little boys with tender hearts get in an effort to feel like tough guys. I got one of those on my upper arm when I was eight. It was an anchor tattoo, the kind the sailors in the movies had. I came home and showed it to my grandma while flexing my skinny little arms. Grandma June hated tattoos. From her reaction I worried for a time that she hated me too. I was glad it wore off with a good scrubbing with a sponge and a little lava soap… and with it, eventually, went her scorn.
The idea of temporary tattoos isn’t quite as romantic as the permanence of the real thing. It wouldn’t make for a very good love song, I know, but it feels more authentic to our experience of life where things seem to be so certain and right until, suddenly, they seem so utterly wrong. Life surprises us, causing us to doubt our truths, to reevaluate them and then, so often, to grasp onto to a new, improved, and better truth until that one, too, proves to be temporary and fades into something new.
There is a tenet in spirituality about impermanence, the understanding – or perhaps law — that all of life is in flux and changing all the time. That life itself is temporary: relationships start and end, I love chocolate ice cream and then without notice I may prefer mint, the oceans rise and fall, and … our friends die, the stars disappear when the sun lights up the sky, and who I believe myself to be often doesn’t last as long as my being does. And yet, still, I’m asked to brand myself and declare my career, my love, my country and religion and mark it in permanent marker on the inside tag of my soul.
I wonder how this makes any sense. How do I reconcile impermanence with all the ists and isms I’m asked to describe myself as? Why is it reasonable to accept that my body will die but realizing the same about religious tradition is sacrilege? Or why the technology of yesterday is thrown away but as my country changes I can’t question my allegiance or the words contained within its pledge. It’s all changing everywhere I look and yet, I’m tattooed … we all are … and so we stake a flag in yesterday even as the values of that flag seem to morph right before our eyes.
Society’s attempts at permanent tattoos are often marked by pain. Not the temporary kind I imagine one feels in the chair at the tattoo parlor, but the kind of pain so severe it passes through generations of time through the hearts of those affected. These tattoos of our laws and traditions, the ones represented by “that’s the way it’s always been done,” leave a much more damaging mark. They shackle, beat, rape, oppress and withhold the basic freedoms the law was often meant to preserve. We may recognize their faults, and know they must be changed, but like the repentant tattoo recipients who grow weak at the thought of the laser needed to remove the ink, we’re reluctant to endure the pain of starting over again. Instead we’re content to dish out pain on others while we work up the courage to endure the pain of change for ourselves.
I was talking recently with my youngest daughter, who at thirteen is in the squishy middle ground between child and teenager. We were discussing school and life when she proclaimed, “I always follow the rules. That’s the way I am.” I told her that was cool but what about the laws that weren’t in sync with her heart? “Like what?” she asked.
The laws that put shackles on people of color. The ones that prohibited women from voting. The laws that take away our right to know what’s in our food. The laws, so many of them, that violate the very idea of laws meant to protect us. “Would you be proud to follow those?”
“I don’t think we should follow those,” she said. “That’s not right. Who would do such a thing?” she answered with the lingering innocence that marks the passage from youth to adulthood.
I thought about that this week as I read the story of the county clerk in Kentucky who went to jail for refusing to issue a marriage license to a gay couple. It was easy to not like her. All I had to do was remember the protestors outside my mom’s wedding to Kim long before the politicians saw their positions evolve and the Supreme Court ruled their love legal. But I also saw another side. One that required a little compassion, a deeper look into the place where I still want things to be the way they were, where I too cling to traditions, where we all do, and where we’ve adhered our own goodness to those traditions. We say the clerk is on the wrong side of history, but she’s not, she’s actually right in line with history – the history of our flat earth that’s now round, the history of people enslaved who are now free, the history of women who can now vote, the history of gays who can now marry, the history of my once vibrant friend who is now dead. Like that clerk, right now, all of us are sure we’re sure about something. And yet history has shown us that the only thing certain is that one day those beliefs will change and with that change will come a lot of fussing and suffering as our fingers are pried off of that old belief one by one by the winds of change. It’s painful to pretend, with such drama and flair, to hold the earth in place. And yet we do.
I wonder what would happen if we let go a bit. You know? If we took a breath and stopped clinging so hard to life … just a little. What if we didn’t need such certainty? If we allowed life to be a little more alive, active and, well… life-like. It would raise a lot of questions, I think … perhaps too many for our busy schedules. Like who am I, really? Why do I feel so scared? What’s life all about? The kind of deep, intimate questions that shake our foundation a bit and make us feel a little less certain about our role in it all.
And maybe this is why we engage in this charade … of being certain until we’re not and then being certain again, and again, and again, until we die. It makes us feel safe as we go about our lives. Sure, there are moments of doubt – the times when the certainty converts to change. But those are moments, temporary. We call them crisis, or drama, or the worst day in American history… and then we move on and are sure and safe and certain again. And that feels good. So we keep our blinders on and pretend the stars will still be there in the morning.
What if we decided not to live like that any more? To be more direct — what if we decided to actually live, instead of pretending to live with such certainty and then one day waking up and realizing as we died that we’d been so afraid of change that we hadn’t really lived at all? What if we decided to venture out of the illusion and explore a bit inside, and ask some of those big questions, the kind that make you quake in your boots, as my grandma used to say? What if we didn’t stop looking until there was nothing new to find? In my life, I’ve found a bottomless chest of temporary tattoos I used to think were real. In moments of courage, I’ve peeled them off, slowly, one by one. Some have made me cry, while others have made me laugh at their audacity and ridiculous nature – how could I ever have believed that? Where I once was a steak-and-bottle-of-red-wine kinda guy, a work ‘till I die man, without much time for contemplation or my family — now I’m a vegan, a green juice drinker, a meditator and writer, a husband, a father… but beyond all the temporary labels, deep inside, I’ve grown comfortable with being the little boy with a tender heart poking his toe in the water of life to find what it means to be me… now… and tomorrow again.
This week I invite you to join me in viewing life as a temporary tattoo. Come with me as we look past the superficial for-sures and take a glimpse at the who-knows. Let go, just a little of who you think you are and crack the door for the possibility that there is more — more love, more discovery, more joy, more adventure and a little less of the familiar clinging to struggle and drama. This requires that you believe a little less in tradition and a little more in yourself. That your faith be objectless and that you trust in your own innate goodness. Breathe now and dip your toe in with me. That’s what life is all about… poking around inside and seeing what you find.
Big hugs of love,