Excerpt from “Inking In the Myth” published in Sleeping with One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival, ed. Marilyn Kallet and Judith Ortiz Cofer, The University of Georgia Press, 1999.
In two days I will be going in for surgery, surgery that I have been dancing around for nine months—although “dancing” is the wrong metaphor here, since it is back surgery I will be having, and I can hardly walk, let alone dance. I want to tell you the story of my back, not of the operation and the three-inch vertical scar soon to be there. There are many scars on my body, each another story for another time. I want to talk about myth and the tattoo on my back. It’s a Pegasus designed for me by the “Tattooer of the Stars.” At least that’s what the newspapers called him—Kevin Brady, tattoo artist of Mellencamp and McQueen, who lived in southern Indiana for a while before the county fathers made life more than difficult for him in the name of “family values” or “Indiana virtue” or whatever epithet they use down there for rigidity. But that, too, is another story.
Nowadays, many young women get tattooed. A bud on the inside of an ankle, a butterfly on the breast, a well-placed shoulder rose for kisses. Tattooing has become such a fashion statement that women are buying false ones—rub-ons, like the ones boys used to apply with spit to shock their mothers. But I am sixty now, fifty-one when I had it done, and in my family there was no such thing as tattoos. I was a child of the Great Depression, WW II, savings bonds, ration books, saved balls of tinfoil peeled from the inner wrappings of cast-off cigarette packs, all for the war effort. In college they called us the “silent generation”: take good notes, keep your mouth shut, graduate, marry in short order, and decorate your living room in pinks and grays. (Colors to my dismay I see coming back in vogue. Look in any doctor’s office or hospital waiting room—the colors of death.) Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were no tattoos, not in my circles anyway. We were the “good” ones—responsible, well-behaved.
I can remember when the realization came to me that I wanted a tattoo. At first I figured it was a joke my subconscious was playing on me, a variation of its old trick of I want I want, but this time the I want was for the inconceivable. It was as if at the age of forty-nine, I had suddenly found myself expectant. I tried to dismiss it, an obsession
surely beyond the adolescent’s wish to shock Mama. You must understand, the idea was as incongruous to me as running away to join the circus.
I am a lover of mythology, have been since that day in sixth grade when I looked over the shoulder of Maye Critzas and saw a picture of a flying horse in her Greek mythology book and knew that whatever that was, it was mine. I’ve hiked Olympus, wandered the ruins of Knossos, sat hours under the oak at Dodona, planted in the same holy spot where twenty-five hundred years ago the sacred oak of Zeus whispered the garbled message of the god. And I have made my pilgrimage to Delphi. I’ve taught mythology and thought I knew it; I’ve used it in my own poetry for years. But except for the times Aphrodite picked me up by the scruff of the neck and slammed me against the wall, I never felt or experienced the power of myth as strongly as I did those three years before I finally got the tattoo. And I am convinced that’s what the obsession was: something struggling to be born and inked in. But what? And why?