Fleshy Tablets

I have a tattoo on my left ankle.

A crucifix, blue-black, one inch long. A punk crucifix–anti-religious, if anything. Homemade, in 1988. President Hinckley hadn’t yet made his pronouncement against tattooing, but even if he had, it wouldn’t have stopped me. In fact, I would have been all the more eager to grab a needle.

My kids hate the tattoo. They’ve had a dozen or more lessons on bodies-as-temples, and they’re pretty freaked about the “graffiti” on mine. Every few months or so, they notice the ink on my ankle and remind me that tattooing is wrong. And whenever we pass the Laser Tattoo Removal billboard on I-15, one of the kids inevitably comments, “That’s for you, Mom.”  They don’t like their mother wearing a mark of disobedience.

I can sympathize. Once I escaped the misery that spawned the tattoo, I hated it myself. It was a token of a time I wanted to forget, a time of deep unhappiness, self-destruction, shame. A time when I happily punctured my own skin–needle rapid as a woodpecker, driving ink below the surface–in an attempt to impress my peers, and myself.

I’ve spent many years hiding the mark with socks and band-aids. I’ve made a point to cross my ankles right-over-left, especially at church, to keep it out of easy view. I’ve wished I had the cash to get the thing lasered off, to burn the dark skin and darker memories into oblivion. Even when tattoos became hip, I still wanted mine gone–it’s hardly a nifty little butterfly.

But a few weeks ago, as I drove past that I-15 billboard, I realized things have changed, in more ways than one. These days I can afford a few hundred dollars for a little skin scorching. But I don’t want to do it.

I like my tattoo.

No, I don’t like the way it looks. As I’ve aged the lines of the crucifix have fuzzed a bit, making it appear especially crude; purple spider veins have crawled their way around it, like bloody vines. It’s undeniably ugly. But I no longer want to forget the ugliness in my past. By remembering, I also remember how God grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and lifted me out of that hell. I remember the saviors God sent to me, wearing all kinds of unlikely disguises. And I remember One in particular.

Funny, that I’ve embraced the sole Christian religion that doesn’t embrace the symbolism of the crucifix. Not that I think the Church should. Not that I’m about to wear a cross around my neck. But I’m not sorry that I have one engraved on my body. And I will teach my children why. I will teach them that redemption must be remembered, and not only on Sunday. Every day.

Like yesterday. I was visiting teaching Amy, a single mother, a grandmother, and a heroin addict fresh out of rehab. We wrote letters to each other while she was in her treatment program and began face-to-face visits last month, when she finished. She’s an amazing woman–bright, candid, real. During our visits she describes, sober-faced, the depraved state of being she lived in for two decades, and how God is leading her out.

She just received her patriarchal blessing. “I don’t remember much of what was said,” she told me yesterday, “except for this: ‘You are forgiven.'”

I looked down at my ankles, crossed left-over-right. And I nodded, and wept.

31 comments for “Fleshy Tablets

  1. Yes, forgiveness indeed.

    I too have an ugly, old tattoo…it doesn\’t remind me of sad times in my past, but it reminds me of this: how forever seemed like a very long time away, back when I was 18. An how quickly all the time since then has passed. My tattoo reminds me to cherish each day, as they all will pass too quickly. It\’s my own private way of marking time.

  2. I love the phrase “redemption must be remembered.” This is what Helaman means when he’s talking to his sons in Helaman 5, saying “remember, remember, my sons….” He tells them to remember over and over. He knows it’s easy to forget.

    I don’t have a tattoo, but I love this story. I draw strength from remembering my own need for salvation, from remembering my own invisible tattoos and the ways I have also been healed.

  3. Don’t try this at home, kids. Christ makes beauty from ashes but the peccata isn’t felix.

  4. I love that now that you can afford to get the tatoo removed, you’ve chosen to keep it, but for such different reasons than one would expect.

  5. What a beautiful post, Kathryn! I’m so happy to see you at T&S. (I’m a big fan of Kathryn’s and I adore her mother, Carol.)

    Forgiveness is so precious to me that I am uncomfortable with any joking around the words from Isaiah “beauty for ashes.” Sorry, Adam, but the image is just too dear to be subsumed by a clever, Latinate sentence. I’ll joke about a lot of things in Mormondom, but I could never joke about what is so essential and so beautiful in the Christian experience.

  6. I wasn’t joking, Margaret Y. Christ and Kathy have made something beautiful of her tattoo, but woe betide the one who gets a tattoo so Christ can make something of it. Christ makes beauty from ashes but don’t you burn things down. Etc.

    I liked Kathy S.’s post and certainly have no objections to any part of it but one comment sounding a measured note of caution was not out of order.

  7. Amen to that. We don’t need to go looking for trouble–it finds us all to readily. Thankfully, grace finds us as well.

    Hello, Margaret! So nice to hear from you.

    And thank you to everyone for your feedback.

  8. Thank you, Kathryn.

    “Survival housekeeping” made me want to read your posts, but I didn’t expect the power of this one. It made me cry, and I appreciate that. I don’t have the rebellious past you describe, but I understand the Atonement better through my efforts to help those who do – especially a foster son who no longer lives with us. I hope and pray he lives long enough to feel the forgiveness and acceptance you describe so beautifully.

    Thank you, from the depths of my soul.

  9. Ray, thank you. You’ve made me think about my brother, who is currently on the run from the law, and from God.

    You made _me_ cry. So we’re even.

  10. Hey, Kathy.

    Yesterday I sat at church next to a young couple with a new baby. I had never seen them before and, consumed as I was with preparing for sharing time and helping a friend with her twins, I might well have blocked them from notice. But she had a beautiful tatooed anklet. And my instinctive thought was, “She has a story to tell. I want love to know her story.” Not the story of the tatoo, but just . . . her. In fact, I spent the meeting consumed with the desire to introduce myself, but she was in and out with the baby, and then I was up in Primary, and I never had the chance. I imagine, if I didn’t know your from the blogs and you visited my ward, your little marking would push me out of myself to discover more about this mother of seven with a cross on her ankle.

  11. Yeah, it’s a pretty incongruous sight.

    I used to want a pretty anklet!! Sometimes I still do. But don’t tell.

    I wonder how different society–esp. church society– would be if more of us had visible signs of our “stories.”

    Thanks, Deborah!

  12. Kathryn, FWIW, I think many of us do have “visible signs of our stories” – but we usually aren’t in tune enough to recognize them as such, either in ourselves or others. I think this is true particularly for those of us who see each other at least once a week – who often miss the visible signs of our most recent stories and the opportunity they provide to forge a deeper unity with each other.

  13. Good observation, Ray. In my MTC role, I am invited to meet with the sister missionaries in our branch weekly. It is so easy to engage in superficial conversation. “How’s the French going? Are you enjoying the MTC? Is the food okay?” I’ve felt such a need to be sensitive to what I NEED to see and hear.

    Last Thursday, I tried hard to really listen. I asked one sister, “How’s the French?” With a pleasant smile and a little laugh, she answered, “Oh, that’s the least of my worries!” I looked at her longer, but still with a friendly expression, feeling there was something I needed to pursue. “So what else is going on in your life?” I asked.

    It turned out that she had spent the day at the doctor’s office, and had been given a frightening but incomplete diagnosis. (It is still unresolved.)

    This must be the gift of discernment available to all of us. The question is, how many of us really want it? Once we really delve into another’s life and issues, we become more responsible for them. It can get uncomfortable. But how can we NOT want it, if we claim to be members of Christ’s body?

    And for futher reading after Kathryn’s wonderful post, try Marden Clark’s _Liberating Form_ and his profound discussion of O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back”–a story involving a man with a predilection for tattoos. Parker ends up getting a back-covering tattoo of Christ, which becomes his burden–and a mark of heresy and idolatry to his very critical wife. Though he has gotten that particular tattoo because he knows his wife MUST respect it, she rejects him even more thoroughly than before. Clark says, “Poor Parker! He may not please his wife with his tattooed Christ. But he must have pleased his Christ: he voluntarily takes upon him the burden of Christ. For some of us that burden may be light, but not for Parker. He will bear it, inescapably, throughout his life.”

    The question is, can a Mormon read that story and see it for what it is and what it implies, or will we side with the fault-finding wife?

  14. I too bear a tattoo, though mine was received against my wishes. In junior high, a boy–unprovoked–stabbed my leg thrice with a sharpened pencil and walked away. The incident left me with three blue dots forming the vertices of an equilateral triangle on my left calf. The marks don’t really bother me; I’ve never considered having them removed. I don’t have any ill feelings and understand that the boy acted in the context of junior high where most social situations don’t make much sense. I suppose his marks on me may represent forgiveness.

  15. To me, Kathy’s story wasn’t about tattoos, it was about self-love. I think there is a time and place for the self-loathing and “turning away” as required by the the “broken heart and a contrite spirit” part of repentance. But, there is also a time to let that pain go, to learn from your experiences, to truly take the beauty from the ashes and move on….without the self-loathing. That’s the hard one for me.

  16. I can only chime in that it’s a beautiful post.

    #10 “woe betide the one who gets a tattoo so Christ can make something of it. Christ makes beauty from ashes but don’t you burn things down.”

    This was an odd feature of historical Russian Orthodoxy, where the worst sin was always deemed to be pride. There evolved from this the notion that anyone too righteous might be guilty of it, and thus ‘sinning to get closer to God’, sinning in order to experience his grace, became the primary feature of many fringe sects. Holy Fools in particular would utter obscenities and blasphemies, as they trudged around in chains, sackcloth and ashes. Being continually in need of forgiveness, they were perforce in a perpetual state of humility. Leaving aside modern theories that they were mentally ill, the people at the time felt they’d been ‘touched by God’ and they were sought out for their truth telling.

    Not really recommending this method, nor in any way comparing Kathryn’s experience to it.

    You’ve got a wonderful way with words Adam. Please don’t ever stop.

  17. I am reminded of the cursing inflicted upon the descendants of Laman, because of their iniquity. Thankfully, we can once again be made “a white (er, pure) and delightsome people.”

  18. Margaret, you’ve piqued my interest–do you have a link to that Clark article?

    And Ray and Margaret, you’re right. We can see the “marks” on others(“invisible tattoos,” as Emily called them)–if we are open to that vision. I often have my eyes closed because I’m already consumed with my own issues. I forget that attending to someone else’s is often the best mode of relief.

    Maralise, well said. I didn’t realize that’s what I was trying to say–but you’re right. I wanted to highlight the peace that comes from accepting healed wounds as evidence of divine reality/power, rather than continuing to mourn the fact that you were wounded (even if by your own hand).

  19. Thanks for sharing this!! There is so much to say about this topic..

    As far as visible versus invisible signs of our stories, our past—I wonder about how ready we are, how ready I am, to accept and embrace whatever a person could reveal.

    My husband tells me that he wishes he knew if other people in the ward, or people he knows, bears the deep internal struggles of pornography temptation and sexual addiction that he faces daily. When he tells me this, my first thought is, \”Are you crazy?\” He admits it would be embarrassing, humiliating perhaps—but he longs to feel understood more than he longs to keep his secret from being found out.

  20. Kathryn–I’m afraid the title essay of _Liberating Form_ is available only in hard copy. But there are LOTS of hard copies around. I’d guess Benchmark Books has a bunch. Marden gave many copies away before his death. You know how to reach me. Send me your address and I’ll xerox the essay and mail it to you. (I’m a bit pressed for time at the moment, but I’ll do it as soon as I can.)

    Maralise (# 22)–thank you for that beautiful comment. I find that as a mother, one of my main tasks, now that three of my four children are “officially” adults, is to help them forgive themselves of anything in their past they might want to use as a negative self-definition, and to be a refuge for them as they negotiate their current issues. I have a relative who asks me about my children according to their problems. “Has your son lost weight? Does he know about that new stomach band? Has your daughter finally realized she needs to go to college? Does the youngest one ever smile?” My response (not always spoken) is that nobody with a weight problem needs to be reminded of it, that my children do understand the importance of education, and that my youngest child smiles all the time–when he’s comfortable and not feeling judged. My job as a mother is to gracefully cut the cords which bind me to my children in unhealthy ways, but not to cut the cords “too intinse to unloose”–those bonds of love and acceptance which should embrace every aspect of my motherhood.

    ALL of us have some kind of tattoos. Forgiving ourselves, and understanding the place of the atonement in that process, is one of the most important things we will do in this life. Forgiving others can be harder, because we don’t know their full stories in the way we know our own. Teaching our children to forgive themselves is a heritage with eternal implications.

    Thanks again for this post, Kathryn.

  21. Michelle – #26:

    the best thing your husband can do is to talk to more empathetic people about his problem. The best thing you can do is to talk to him every day about it. 100% open, honest, loving communication is the only way to cure that disease. It feeds on fear, guilt, and secrecy.

    I highly recommend an LDS Family Services workshop (for him). It\’s conference call-style weekly meetings, specifically tailored for that need. My bishop encouraged me to participate. I called in the first week and I was shocked and horrified (for myself) to hear a friend from my same ward join in the same call. It was impossible to mistake his voice and I knew he\’d recognize mine instantly too. I sat frozen for a few minutes before revealing myself with my introduction, but I\’m glad I didn\’t hang up. We outed ourselves in a way we never thought possible. The moderator said he\’d never heard of such a thing happening. I stayed on the call that week and throughout the course. We are both stronger for it. Other than me and my friend, none of the men on the call ever met in person, but we felt a close bond in the end with our new brothers and wished the course were longer. We only knew each other\’s first names, but we became very close through our extremely personal stories that we shared with each other.

    Obviously I\’m not ready to go public to complete strangers on some blog, but my experience forced me (and him) to become more open and honest with myself, my wife, my friends, and my God. Addictions are nasty. Talking helps. It really does.

    P.S. some links, if he doesn\’t already know about them…
    LDS Addiction Recovery Support groups in N. America:

    The Church\’s excellent Addiction Recovery Guide in PDF form:

    p.p.s. if someone out there is thinking this isn\’t a real addiction, there was a guy on the call who had kicked smoking, alcohol, and meth (the nastiest of drugs), but this one wouldn\’t let him go – it\’s real and we need help and we thank God for every friend we have who will stand with us

  22. Margaret–Wow. I once asked a woman with grown children what she would do differently if she could raise her children over again. She said, “I would teach repentance and forgiveness as much as I taught obedience.” That really struck me.

    The spirit tries to remind me of this all the time. When my kids screw up I tend to behave as if I am their conscience, magically embodied. My first inclination is to point out all that they’re doing wrong. When I listen to the spirit I hear, “He already knows he did something wrong. Help him know what to do next.”

    Michelle, thank you. Your remarks warrant a new post–up shortly.

  23. Loved this one! I too have passed many times by the “Tatoo removal” sign on I-15, my husband and I both have Tatoos, we got them together. Mine is a “tramp stamp” so no one knows I have it… at church. I would never remove it. It is like a scar, something that you carry with yourself that reminds you of who you are, how far you’ve come and were you want to be. It is a part of me, a part of my life experiences, part of my spirtual growth.

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