For me, transitions tend to invite introspection—first at the time of the transition itself, and often again at anniversaries of the original event. These reflections take on multiple forms, such as journaling, personal retreats, or planning rituals with friends. Other times, the reflection is intertwined with embodied expression: cutting off my hair, adding holes to my body, or inking up my skin.
Recently, I crossed a milestone anniversary of a significant transition – one that was, in fact, marked by fresh ink on my right forearm. It is this experience, the art and the personal growth, that I reflect on below.
The chaos felt violent, unnecessary, and soul-deadening. When I finally found a shred of Center, something deep had shifted within me, and I began pondering my first steps out of the swirling mess.
Stepping out of any tumultuous experience is a significant transition, a liminal space to be named and honored. And so, I commissioned an artist-friend to draw a tattoo for me.
The instructions were basic: it should be based on a Celtic tree of life (a symbol that connects with my spirituality); with a nod toward a water-loving tree, such as a weeping willow (connecting to my natal watershed); and, I wanted the full spectrum of color represented.
My friend took these instructions and mocked up a couple of options. I was immediately struck with one where she had intuitively transformed the trunk into a feminine figure, such that the roots became her feet, and her arms and head stretched up to form the bottom branches. This was it. This was the one. The image spoke to what had shifted in me and, in turn, marked my stepping out from the shadows.
Part of what shifted within me, you see, was a new unwillingness to be boxed in.
An unwillingness to put my head down, to be veiled in silence, to take up less space.
An unwillingness to be complicit in the unconcealed, deliberate stifling of my very essence.
As I was reminded countless times, I had agreed to this. I had initially consented to The Box,* diminishing myself in some vague, perverse form of Gelassenheit. I settled for the self-silencing. I optimistically trusted that this was rooted in something theologically sound and that I would grow to understand it. Instead, I found it was rooted in the tired, old forms of patriarchy and sexism, and every time I mentioned this or stepped out of my box, institutional denial emerged with scapegoating hot on its tail.
At a point, I had enough. (Part of my reflections now, many moons later, include an incredulity that I stayed as long as I did.)
The tattoo, then, was a way of saying, “no more!” – a visible, physical reminder that life is too short to be boxed in for a “greater cause,”** when in reality, The Greater Cause desperately needs our full, flourishing selves.***
Part of my call is not only to believe that I deserve this for myself, but to actively advocate for the flourishing of others. That’s partly where the full spectrum of colors in the tattoo comes in.
This image on my arm has become my symbol of commitment to resisting dehumanization, both my own and others’. She represents our freedom from the lies of systemic oppression that restrain the fullness of life and loving expression.
In flinging wide her arms, the Tree Woman is not only freed from her shackles, she is freed to love and to be loved. Songbirds land in the safety of her weeping branches, and she sings along with them. The life-rich soil on the banks of her stream, she firmly holds in place with a steadfast resolve. Travelers of all sorts find under her canopy a safe haven for rest, arms stretched wide to hold and be held. (She loves to be held as much as she holds.)
In a recent worship planning meeting at Madison Mennonite, our chairperson opened the gathering by sharing the following poem of Hildegard of Bingen. As he read, I saw reflected that while this tattoo is on my arm, it represents the experience and blessing we all need in milestone moments and in their anniversaries. As we find our roots and shake off the shackles that bind us, we are freed to be “encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”
Most royal greening verdancy,
Rooted in the sun,
You shine with radiant light,
in this circle of earthly existence
You shine so finely,
it surpasses understanding.
God hugs you.
You are encircled by the arms
of the mystery of God.
*I was told The Box would grow and change its shape, according to the person inhabiting it.
**A scarcity mentality leads us to accommodate the “greater cause.”
***Becoming our “full, flourishing selves,” does not include the “freedom” to trample on the potential growth of others. It may, in fact, involve the surrendering of certain “privileges or preferences” to enable the thriving of others. In this vision of Freedom, my flourishing is directly tied to your flourishing; if you are chained, then I cannot be free. (…to adapt the quote generally attributed to Lilla Watson.)