“All knowledge that is worth anything is maybe paid for by blood.” –All the King’s Men
Though I’ve never gotten a tattoo, I’ve never really had a problem with them, either. Maybe when I was a little kid, I would have found them scary (I found everything scary). But for as long as I can remember, I thought tattoos were…all right. I even thought I might get one myself one day. However, I was adamant that I would only get one celebrating a major event in my life. I didn’t want to just get a permanent drawing on myself because it sounded cool. That struck me as an invitation for later regret. So I thought about tats, but figured I would know if and when the time was right.
Last September, Kristin and I found out we were pregnant with our first child. In November, we learned he’d be a little boy. It was a time of great excitement and fear. While we hadn’t been “trying” (we disliked the term), we had reached a point in our lives that was as “ready” as we could imagine. We certainly didn’t go in frivolously, and our fears were, I believe, the right kind of fears. If you go into parenthood without any fear or anxiety, you probably have no idea what you’re getting into.
I had my fears and anxieties, but I also had my landmark, tattoo-worthy event.
The ouroboros, a serpent or dragon devouring his own tail, is a symbol found in many ancient cultures. The ancient Greeks had a version, as did the Egyptians and Norse, to name a few. The ouroboros symbolizes the unending cycle of life and death, infinity, and the unity of opposites as one whole (much like the yin-yang symbol, also circular). This short video has a number of images of this universal concept from around the world.
The ouroboros is also used to symbolize immortality. In E.R. Eddison’s brilliant and bizarre novel, The Worm Ouroboros, an evil witch king dies and continually is reborn. The structure of the novel itself is circular, too, the ending reflected in the beginning. This makes for good fantasy, but of course I know that immortality in reality is impossible.
But is it? Having a child may be the closest mortal man comes to living forever. From my life comes new life that shall outlive me. Someday, my son would have a child to outlive him. Making my first tattoo the ouroboros would commemorate my child, the unending circle of life, and eternal life. I understood.
I was wrong.<
Everyone should have a cool hermit aunt who lives in the mountains, weaves ash baskets, and makes homemade soap. I did. My mom’s sister, Tracy, and her husband, my uncle Jim, lived in the Adirondacks for over forty years. She was forty minutes from the closest grocery store, hours from the hospital. She was an artist who isolated herself from civilization, a loving soul whose car sported a “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?” bumper sticker. For half a century, she blew smoke in the Surgeon General’s face.
In the last couple years, Tracy slowed down a lot. Terrible sciatica kept her homebound, then wheelchair bound. She quit smoking about five years ago in an effort to improve her overall health.
In late February, my mom called me to say that Tracy was in the hospital with back spasms. A few days later, she called with the news that in the x-rays, the doctors spotted a mass in her lungs. The prognosis was very good: radiation would be enough to remove it, no surgery or chemo necessary.
A week later, Mom called to say that the doctors found the growth had spread to her spine. The sunny prognosis became months to live. Then a week later, another call: the cancer was everywhere. Less than a week left. A week later, she was gone. In a month, Tracy went from healthy, other than troublesome back pain, to dead. Stubborn to the end, a rejecter of conventional religion, she insisted on no funeral or memorial, only cremation.
I hadn’t seen my aunt a lot in the past decade. She didn’t make it easy to be reached, though for as much of a hermit as she was, she embraced email and Facebook. So while I had only seen her three times in the past ten years, we connected much more frequently with electronic communication. Though I can’t say we were close (again, she didn’t make it easy to be close), I was saddened, especially that my unborn son (due date was still a month away) would never get to meet his cool great-aunt who lived in the mountains, made ash baskets and soap and had a greenhouse, and lived in a converted hunter’s cabin you couldn’t see from the street.
I found myself reflecting on her passing and the upcoming birth. This led me to reflect more on the ouroboros. The snake must devour something– it devours itself. Life doesn’t just keep begetting more life. Life springs from death. My ouroboros tattoo, therefore, would celebrate a new life, and one that had just ended. Finally, I truly understood the ouroboros.
I was wrong.
Part 2 coming soon…