A midlife tattoo confounds his friends and family, but for writer Steve Lewis it provides an indelible sense of place.
Circus Performer by Maria Pace-Wynters
“What happened?” my wife exclaimed. She was pointing at the gauzy white bandage on my forearm.
I shrugged and offered a sheepish one-word explanation: “Tattoo.” Followed by a meager one-word addendum: “Hatteras.”
“That is so cool!” my son Bay, then 16, blurted into the silence, instantly chilling the warm kitchen.
So it went: my oldest son, Cael, a father himself, glanced at the anointed arm and shook his head at the aging hippie he sometimes ruefully calls Dad. “It’s going to look like a scar!”
Next, after one colleague spied the tattoo at a faculty meeting and sputtered, “What the hell?” another admitted that she thought it was a blade of grass stuck to my forearm. Eventually, like all things around the spinning globe, it came full circle as an artist friend took one look and sneered, “It kinda looks like a scar!”
It is not a scar. “It” is a three-inch tattoo of Hatteras Island, a narrow barrier reef off the coast of North Carolina where my family and I have found respite from the concerns of daily life for the past 35 years. An outline of the island shows a jagged left hook near the lighthouse . . . which, OK, just might look like a scar.
So what drives a moderately stable father and grandfather up to Pat’s Tats in legendary Woodstock, New York, for a young man’s rutting ornament?
I’m tempted to just shrug my shoulders like I did with my wife—the shrug of a teenager asked to explain a missed curfew—because, frankly, I’m not sure. I wasn’t trying to be Jimmy Buffett, drunk on margaritas; and I certainly wasn’t goaded on by a roving band of late-middle-aged buddies whooping it up while the wives were out of town. I drove up to Woodstock alone (and sober) after teaching one Friday afternoon.
The procedure stung considerably more than I expected, though not nearly as much as I feared. And when the buzzing was done and the excess ink wiped away, the well-pigmented Pat herself shook my hand and told me my life would never be the same.
Of course I had to learn to withstand with some grace all the smirking speculation in the upstate New York college town I call home. Practically everyone who noticed the “too” seemed to consider it just another mockable item on the well-laundered list of ways that older men attempt to colorize their fading virility. And as William Butler Yeats once warned, I’d be an old fool, a “tattered coat upon a stick” to tell them they’re wrong. They’re right.
But that’s not the whole story. This tattoo is more than the product of an aging man’s teenage fantasy. It is a talisman, a token, a cave drawing. The sacred place of my soul.
Twelve years ago, at the ripe age of 55, I was finding that life was far more complicated than I ever thought possible at 35, when I arrogantly figured I’d have the whole world in the palm of my hand within the next 10 years. I was not unhappy—not at all—but I felt I was in danger of getting lost amid the chaos of a busy life running away from my control—or at least the illusion of control. This tattoo was the answer to a question I didn’t know how to ask.
And over the past 12 years, as my already large and complicated and loud and beautiful family has added two new spouses and 14 new babies to our already shoulder-crowded dining room table, my crooked tattoo has become an indelible reminder of who I am, wherever I am: alone, just me, in the thick of this beautiful chaos; through all the birthdays, anniversaries, soccer games, swim meets, school concerts, movie matinees, Sunday dinners, arguments, doctor appointments, tooth extractions, surgeries, dog deaths, house repairs, lawns mowed, gardens dug, taxes paid.
It’s not that I don’t love life in this funky upstate New York college town, this modest paradise off the beaten path that one can slip into as easily as a flannel shirt. But in the flurry of this extraordinary, ordinary existence, Hatteras is a sanctuary, an island at the precarious edge of the Graveyard of the Atlantic, a place that demands almost nothing—and expects so much less.
On Hatteras, shoes are impediments and (speaking for myself here) underwear an anathema. On Hatteras, gathering every Monday at the Rodanthe Hotline Thrift Shop is the social event of the week. On Hatteras, with its boxy beach cottages rising up on pilings, shrimp hauled off the trawlers in the morning will be steamed and piled on plates out on your deck that same night. On Hatteras, blue crabs, covered with so much Old Bay that your lips burn in anticipation, provide an evening’s entertainment. On Hatteras, a giant mosquito is the symbol for Debbie Bell’s surf shop and the slogan at Jobob’s Trading Post is “If it’s worth buying, we might have it.”
Well, I have it, right here on my forearm, as enduring as a scar. With this graven image, just below the crook of my elbow, I am brought back to the place where I must always return. Right there at edge of the endless ocean, where I am nothing but myself. Myself.
And over the past 12 years, whenever I have run out of breath in this busy, crazy, unimagined life, all it has taken is a quick turn of the wrist and I’m sailing off to Byzantium, to my Hatteras—the heavenly arc of azure sky and green water, brown pelicans soaring a few feet over the breakers, sandpipers skittering at the edge of the foam, the shifting shoals beneath my slowly treading feet. The place in the middle of it all. The Om of Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh.