Invisibly Close: Why I Won’t Get a Tattoo

by Tania Runyan

Last weekend the “if-I-were-to-get-a-tattoo” topic came up again, this time among members of the church worship team, many of whom sport whirling trinitarian symbols on their biceps.

“I keep having this conversation,” I say, scooting forward in my chair, already feeling younger and edgier for even addressing the subject. “Maybe one of these days.”

“What would you get?” Elizabeth, the bass player, asks.

“I don’t know. Maybe a stingray?”

A blank look: “Oh?”

“It’s my favorite animal,” I offer. “I’ve pet them before.”

Elizabeth then describes her experience swimming with stingrays off Grand Cayman Island. “They surround you like puppies when you have food,” she says.

I nod. I’ve never actually seen one in the wild. I’ve reached into a tank and tickled their slimy skin a few times at the Milwaukee Discovery Museum. Suddenly, I feel like my third-grade self who told her friends she’d stayed overnight at Disneyland when she’d really just left at 9pm and fallen asleep in the car.

“Well, I’ve seen some intricate designs online,” I say. “Like Celtic patterns on their fins.”

The fact that i’m not Irish is irrelevant.

The real question is why a tattoo? If I loved those undulant sea creatures so much, wouldn’t I invest in a coastal swim myself? Or at least get a stringway charm or T-shirt?

What do I, a woman who had a panic attack when a nurse poked around a few times to get an IV in, love enough to print on my body? I’m lucky enough to live a life in which everything I cherish is close to me. I kiss the most important faces, turn the most beautiful pages. I feel the strings of my beloved violin under my fingers every day. An image or description of these marvels would seem redundant. And my faith? I’ve made invisibility somewhat visible with my chi rho necklace, which I’ve worn every day for twelve years.

Maybe if I ever lost that necklace. Maybe some ink then.

But I’m a person who already wears so much–emotions, opinions, successes, and failures– closely and honestly. I’ve rarely succeeded in hiding my feelings. And, as an apparent Enneagram 3, or Achiever, who finds value in how an audience perceives me, I wonder how much a tattoo would contribute to my angst. I love staring at my friends’ tattoos: bright tapestries of birds, vines, flowers, and script that appear with a simple removal of a sweater. But if I were to get a tattoo, would I derive more joy from looking at it or from wondering what others see? Am I looking for some kind of affirmation, a last hold on youth? And what, exactly, would people be looking at? As another friend of mine commented recently, “If you have to think up an idea for a tattoo, then you probably don’t need one.”

These days, amidst some of my midlife struggles, I’m starting to realize that rather than make more statements, I should hold some things invisibly close.

In The Naked Now, Richard Rohr explains how the Sacred Tetragrammaton YHVH, the ancient Jewish name for God, was breathed, not spoken, “in an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation.” We rarely notice our own breathing, but it is always there, invisibly creating and recreating us.

Every day, somewhere around twenty thousand times, I speak the name of God. I could get his name printed on my skin, but he is already on, in, and under it. When everyone and no one is looking, it’s always just the two of us, breathing together, his name written in my cells.

Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky, A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was released in 2014. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, Willow Springs, Nimrod, and the anthology A Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011.

Image is from here.

One thought on “Invisibly Close: Why I Won’t Get a Tattoo

  1. Reminds me of the oft-quoted quote from the Qur’an in John Updike’s Terrorist. God is closer than the vein in my neck.

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