Thursday, March 09, 2006

WRITTEN ON THE SKIN

I don’t know how it is in other cities, but in Seattle the young and the hip are tattooed with anything from hearts and flowers to self-designed prayers to sun, moon, god, or goddess; to parlor bought Celtic mazes, or Maori designs. My informal survey revealed that many of these tattoos are fraught with meaning, but a tattooed friend told me whatever information I’ve garnered barely scratches the surface (my pun, not hers.) She told me that tattoos are so personal as to be off-limits to inquiry, and I was something of an ass to ask. Needless to say, she wouldn’t reveal any meaning behind her collection.

Tattoos strike me as desire written on the skin: the desire to claim ownership over one’s body, or to mark oneself as an individual, or, simply, to beautify oneself. Desire entwined with hope - as I suppose desire is always entwined with hope - that the mark made will somehow make life better - a prayer of sorts.

I’m not young, not currently hip, and not tattooed. I’ve never seen an appealing design, have no design talent myself, and have always hated how the color fades. What I have are scars. Not that I’m disfigured, except in a minor key. All my scars can be covered by clothing except for the tiny line on my chin, that I was just reacquainted with while shaving with my glasses on, not something I recommend, but something I can no longer avoid.

I consider scars, and will eventually consider wrinkles, to be life written on my body, and occasionally I lose myself in inventory.

The chin scar was from an auto accident when I was 18 in which my girlfriend flew into the windshield of my Mom’s T-bird, and because of botched medical care came out scarred for life. I think of my little line compared to her lifetime of mirrors...

The beautiful question mark on my left wrist was the result of a kitchen accident that severed a tendon, followed by botched medical care, and a follow-up surgery to repair the damage. The emergency room doctor thought he was living an episode of M.A.S.H., and had a great time cracking wise, but failed to check my hand for range of movement. My personal Hawkeye Pierce later showed up in the NY Times as a “most eligible young surgeon,” and it was then I thought of suing – but didn’t. I told the doctor who repaired the eligible young surgeon’s damage that if he had to cut he should leave a nice scar, and he told me not to worry. I get to look at it whenever I check the time.

The scar from my seventh year: A ruptured appendix misdiagnosed as a tummy ache by a sleepy intern – more botched medical care – followed by a rush to the hospital on the next morning for emergency surgery. This happened a few days after my First Holy Communion. Could it have been something I ate? My folks told me it was from swallowing watermelon seeds, and Holy Communion had nothing to do with it, but I knew I should have confessed playing doctor with Emma in the backyard garden.

Next to that a thin red line from an operation for a rupture. I was twelve, and what the hell, they circumcised me at the same time, about that - enough said.

Surgeries to ankle, knee, and elbow after a car crash in the Cascade Mountains. “The worst winter in twenty-five years,” I’m told. I was lucky to make it out of that one alive, and I remember sinking in and out of dark comfort over and over again. These are my resurrection scars. Ankle and elbow are low key, but the knee scar is a whopper from the original surgery and its follow-up along the same path. A year of recuperation and physical therapy, post-traumatic depression and “suicidal ideation,” followed by a year of talk therapy with a smart shrink who didn’t let me get away with much of anything. All followed by a temporary return, after thirty-five years, to Holy Mother Church, with all her scars.

And the latest, a comma shaped scar, about an inch long, under the little finger of my right hand. I got in the middle of a dog fight, and made out worse than either of the dogs.

In the movie of, “The Little Drummer Girl,” the Israeli agent lies abed with Diana Keaton’s character. She asks him about his scars, and he tells of the battles where he was wounded. He says, “The map of the Sinai is written on my body.” I think it’s the best line in the movie. My scars aren’t dramatic enough to be a map, but they are a familiar trail, a good reminder of mortality and fragility, as well as an unspoken prayer of thanks; and I like them more than any tattoo I’ve seen. I think I’ll keep them.

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