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It’s spring again, and I’m still here, still sitting, still inside. At my desk, I gaze out the window at sparks of green, glimmers of yellow and purple, as daffodils, crocuses, new grass make their way into the warming world. Spring makes me want to get out and move – to go for long walks, to travel to new places, to see old friends, to roll around in a meadow. But instead, I’m sitting still, because I know that is what I need to do to help myself and help others. Being still sometimes feels like giving up. Being still feels like acting helpless. Being still doesn’t feel like enough. I usually think of helping as an active gesture; the words “action” and “active” have the same root, the Latin verb for “do.” But sometimes, I’ve learned, you can take action by doing nothing. Sometimes you can help by simply being still.
My aunt Christine was never still. She was always hiking, kayaking, walking her giant dog, volunteering at the library, working half a dozen jobs, painting watercolours of flowers and trees. Christine’s birthday is one of the first full days of spring. Not the equinox itself, but the day or two after – March 22 – a day not about the transformation, but a day to just exist in this new life. I always associated Christine’s birthday with the beginning of spring, that active time of growth, and called her on March 21 to say happy birthday.
“Thanks,” she’d say, over the phone. Down in Boston, I could hear her smiling, and I imagined her glancing out her window, studying the snow still melting in her part of Maine. “But try again tomorrow.”
We’d laugh, I’d apologise, and I’d call her back the next day. Next year, I’d always say, next year I would get it right. Christine would laugh and say she was just glad she got to talk to me twice. I was glad, too. I didn’t get to see Christine as much as I would have liked – she was six hours up, near Acadia National Park – but I was grateful for the magic of cell phone connections and hand-painted notecards and emails with recipes. Our lives may have seemed separate, but we were woven together, in our own way.
We’d like to think we each exist in a vacuum, that our lives are our own. But your story always bumps up against and bleeds into the stories of others. We are bound and tied up with people we love, people we hate, and people we don’t know or think about – perfect strangers. We touch, transmit, transmute, transfer, and trickle into each other. In order for you to be in the position you are in the world, others have to be below you, above you, and by your side. You can’t draw a clean circle around any one life. If you think you can, it’s an illusion. “Women are masters of illusion,” said famous female tattoo artist Vyvyn Lazonga. “They always have been with makeup and clothing. A tattoo is just part of that illusion.”
A couple of months after I turned 20, I got ink across the veins on my left wrist with the Russian word живая, meaning alive. The word was taken from a quote from Anna Karenina, in which Anna defends her decision to have the affair: “…I am alive, that I am not guilty, that God has made me so that I must love and live.” At 20, I felt alive. At 20, I was in love with the idea of living without guilt. I had realised I could make these decisions without consulting anyone, so I just went to Harvard Square and got a tattoo. With the word on my wrist, I felt inoculated with independence: I was about to depart for fourteen months abroad in St. Petersburg, and I was sure that I didn’t need anyone else. At 20, I saw myself as fully autonomous. I felt a lot like my aunt.
Christine always gave the illusion of independence. She seemed to reject stillness, other people’s expectations, suggestions, guidance. She was constantly in motion, doing exactly what she wanted, regardless of what she was told, at least that was how it seemed to me. She wore the clothes she liked from L.L. Bean and ignored the feminine outfits my grandmother encouraged. She brought her Rhodesian Ridgeback with her everywhere regardless of rules about dogs. She moved to Maine with her husband, even when the rest of her family was in Massachusetts. To me, she exuded independence, confidence. I always thought of myself like Christine – we were both a little bit rebellious, the marching-to-our-own-drummers-types in the family – or at least, I wanted to be like Christine. She did what she wanted. She didn’t need help from anyone. She lived in a state whose abbreviation is ME. Christine took care of herself.
In the earliest part of the 20th century, one way a woman could take care of herself was by being a tattooed lady. “These were independent women who made the decision to take care of themselves, on their own terms,” writes Margo DeMello in Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. “Both Betty Broadbent and Artoria Gibbons, well-known tattooed ladies from the 1920s through the 1960s, became tattooed as a means of earning an independent living in an era when it was difficult for women to support themselves.” Choosing to be a tattooed lady, though, was a risky, big choice – to live outside accepted societal norms, making her own rules. She took care of herself; she did what she wanted.
During my year in St. Petersburg, I was wildly free – often recklessly so. I shared bottles of vodka with friends by the canal. I walked home from bars alone in the early morning. I flagged down gypsy cabs. I took late-night trains to the Baltics. I didn’t wear a warm-enough coat. I ate ice cream whenever I wanted. I petted stray dogs. I smoked unfiltered cigarettes. I made out with both Russians and Americans. I took a swig of cognac and plunged into the icy Neva River in February. Perhaps I wasn’t always making the wisest or safest decisions – I was 20 – but I felt independent and self-sufficient. I was like one of those tattooed ladies. I took care of myself; I did what I wanted.
But it’s hard to support yourself – financially, yes, but also emotionally, spiritually, physically. Even when “independent” and “on my own” in Russia, I relied on so many people. My host mom fed me. My host siblings explained Russian culture. My language teachers taught me idioms and slang. My program director coordinated my visas. My college professors checked up on me. My parents sent me money – so much money. My whiteness protected me from xenophobia and racism. My femme appearance protected me from homophobia. My American passport was my safety net. You may think you don’t need any help, that you’re an individual, separated from everyone else, but that’s not true. Even something like getting a tattoo – one of the most independent-seeming actions – connects you to others.
When I got my first tattoo, I couldn’t do it on my own. Ellen, the tattoo artist at the Harvard Square shop, had to do it for me: She penetrated my skin with her needle, she poured ink into my cells, she held her hand steady as she carefully drew each letter. The act of tattooing is an intimate gesture; I felt close to Ellen when she was done. I felt the same way when I got my second tattoo by a woman named Siobhan while I was on vacation in the Pacific Northwest. Even though I was 3,000 miles from home, I happened to stumble on the one tattoo artist in the neighbourhood from the Boston area. As Siobhan filled in the details of the little permanent turtle illustration from a favourite children’s book, we chatted about Massachusetts, and I felt bonded with her – she may have forgotten me as soon as I walked out of the door of her shop, but I would always remember her. She was helping me. And the best way I could help her, as the one getting tattooed – besides tipping generously, of course – was by sitting still. Getting a tattoo may feel like an active action: an act of rebellion, going out and getting inked, dammit! But actually, getting a tattoo is extremely passive. Lay back, sit still. The best way you can help is by just being. And, as much as you try, no one can really do anything alone. You are never truly, completely independent.
Christine relied on her husband, my uncle Ed. She had a close network of friends in her small Maine town. She was deeply involved in the community of the local library. At the end, Christine needed the doctors and nurses who made her comfortable. She could not insert the IV for the morphine drip herself. She could not cut out her own cancer. But before that: Even up near Acadia, Christine talked on the phone to my mom every day.
My mom always answers her phone. If you need something, or just want to talk, she will pick up. My mom is an active helper: She looks around, assess what has to be done, and takes action. She volunteers for tasks, runs errands, drops off soup, drives my grandparents to their appointments. She smuggled our dog into the hospital in Maine when Christine was dying, because she knew it would bring her little sister some final moments of joy. When I left for Russia, I had felt stifled by my mom’s help – part of why I went to St. Petersburg in the first place was to test to myself, to see if I could survive without her always jumping to the rescue. But over the course of fourteen months, even 4,000 miles away, as I opened her care packages with Annie’s mac and cheese, jars of peanut butter, months’ worth of prescriptions, and sweet notes, I started to realise I could never really be independent, nor would I want to be. We all need each other. Freedom and independence are not the same thing. We are all interconnected, whether we like it or not. It’s all a web; even the things we think affect only us. Sometimes you don’t even have to do anything to connect with someone else.
For all my mom’s activity, she also knows that sometimes the best help you can give is just by being there, by always answering your phone, by being consistent, reliable, still. My mom spent hours reading to me when I was a child: both of us curled up, the flipped pages the only movement. One book we both particularly loved was Miss Rumphius by one of Maine’s most famous children’s authors, Barbara Cooney. The story of Miss Rumphius states that the three things everyone should do in their life is travel the world when they’re young, live by the sea when they’re old, and do something to make the world more beautiful. Miss Rumphius accomplishes these first two tasks easily, but, as an old lady, Miss Rumphius still had not done her part to make the world more beautiful. Finally, after one hard year, Miss Rumphius notices how the lupine flowers outside of her window gave her joy and comfort, so she begins to scatter lupine seeds all over the coast of Maine. She wants to give everyone these flowers that helped her so much by just being.
Lupine flowers are tall and straight. Their stalks stand anywhere from twelve inches to five feet tall. They aren’t known for blowing in the wind, like the 15,000 seeds on a dandelion plant, or the way maple seed pods spin and dance their way to the ground. But lupines do more than look beautiful – they do powerful work just by staying put. Lupine flowers encourage bee and butterfly populations. They provide pollen for honeybees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, swallowtail butterflies, clouded sulphurs, Karner blues, beetles, ants, and thrips. Lupines attract hummingbirds; their deep roots prevent erosion and fix nitrogen, returning it to the soil. The lupine is not native to Maine, I learned recently – I guess Miss Rumphius was inadvertently encouraging an invasive species – but naturalists are hesitant to remove the flowers, because of all the good they’ve done. They are a major draw for tourists in the spring. They help just by being.
A tattoo can help just by being, too. Getting a tattoo itself is a passive action, and then, once it’s there, what does it do? Just sits on your skin, slowly fading and blurring, letting time have its way with it. Tattoos themselves are still – but, in a way, that is their beauty. They are steady, dependable. They will always be there in the same place, and they will be there until you die. There is a comfort in that: A tattoo isn’t going anywhere. They’re all a part of you, too. I may not be quite as reckless or wild anymore as I was during that year in St. Petersburg, but my живая reminds me that I am still alive. The little turtle reminds me of the books I have loved. And a tattoo can make someone who is no longer around feel not so far away.
After Christine died, at age forty-nine, I knew I wanted to get a tattoo to honour her, but I couldn’t figure out what felt right for a long time. Then, one day in Maine, almost exactly seven years after Christine’s death, I saw a white cabbage moth – its wings the colour of good watercolour paper, the kind Christine liked – flitter and stop to rest on the stalk of a purple lupine. And there it was: The moth was my aunt Christine, the free spirit, the painter, who moved to Maine, and she was being held up by her older sister, my mother, the lupine – strong, encouraging, unwavering. Helping by just being. Looking at the moth and the lupine I knew this was it. I could see the tattoo on my body before a sketch of it even existed.
I made an appointment at a tattoo place down the street from my apartment called Redemption. I shook hands with Deirdre – because, back then, you could still shake hands – and she showed me the sketch she had made in the time between my consultation and appointment. A delicate cabbage moth sat perched on the top of a purple lupine flower. I felt as though Deirdre must have been with me that day in Maine, had seen the same moth, the same flower.
For the two hours that Deirdre worked the drawing of the lupine onto my right ankle, we talked about our pets, her son, my writing projects, her trips to Costa Rica, and the animals she saw there. We listened to the punk music playing in the shop. Sometimes we were quiet as Deirdre worked on a tricky part of the design. I took pleasure in focusing on my breath and my body, meditating through the flashes of pain. I didn’t look at my phone once. It was just me and Deirdre, ink and needle, moth and flower. I felt safein Redemption, with Deirdre. I felt protected. Deirdre helped me stay in the moment. She helped me remember my aunt. She helped me focus on the being. I sat still, because that was the thing I could do right then, and listened to Deirdre. Often, when taking action, you need to move, protest, yell, scream. But sometimes you need to be still; sometimes you need to listen. Look around you and figure out your place in the web and what is best for you to do – or not do – to help. Now in our second spring of stillness, I’ve been thinking a lot about our interconnectedness. So many think that they can make choices that only affect themselves, that it’s about individual choice and freedom – but no one lives in a silo. Our responsibility, our connection to one and other, is more evident than ever before. But when I get frustrated or sad by those who ignore the rules, or when being still doesn’t feel like I am doing enough, I look to the lupine on my skin and remember. Lupines do an awful lot by simply staying put. We can, too.
Last week, Facebook asked if I wanted to wish my aunt Christine a happy birthday. Startled, I clicked on her profile to see it was still up and running, though it had been long-neglected in the decade since her death. I briefly wondered if I should try to petition Facebook to take it down, but then I saw the messages some of her closest friends had left on her timeline: year after year, wishing her a “happy birthday in heaven” and telling Christine how much they missed her. I guess Christine’s Facebook profile was helping others by being there. After scrolling through the messages, I squinted at the profile picture – not an image of Christine’s face, but a Maine landscape. I clicked to enlarge and there they were: the sharp blue ocean, the tall green pines, and dozens and dozens of purple lupines. I reached down and squeezed my right ankle. It felt good to know I had a matching lupine – we were still connected, in our way.
Barbara Cooney’s obituary reads, “After growing up on Long Island and spending cherished childhood summers with her family in Maine, she took every course offered in studio art and art history at Smith College. Miss Cooney’s mother, herself an artist, took her daughter’s painting seriously, giving her the encouragement she needed to make art a lifelong passion.” Sometimes help isn’t anything big or grand. Sometimes helping looks like being still. Sometimes helping looks like just being there. Sometimes just being is enough.
E.B. Bartels is a writer, editor, and teacher from Massachusetts. She has an MFA from Columbia University, and her work has appeared in Catapult, The Believer Logger, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and The Toast, among others. E.B.’s book, GOOD GRIEF: ON LOVING PETS, HERE AND HEREAFTER, about the ways we mourn and remember the animals we love, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in August 2022. E.B. is an instructor at the creative writing center GrubStreet, and she lives outside Boston with her fiancé, Richie, and their pets.
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