Not a day goes by that I don’t look down and see it. Every day, at least one person asks about the symbol tattooed on my arm.
“What’s your tattoo mean?” I never know how to answer that question. Well, that’s kind of a long story . . . it’s from this book I read . . .
Fin Button (the protagonist in Fiddler’s Gun and Fiddler’s Green) is an icon of my own passions and fears, my own wounds, my own desire to voyage out into the world to do something with my burning heart. She embodies some of the most fundamental aspects of our human existence: the need to love and be loved, the yearning for a place to belong, the burning desire to be who we are in the world and to nurture and protect the places and people we hold dear. Every time I return to Fin’s story, I hear the last stanza of Christian Wiman’s poem, “And I Said To My Soul Be Loud”:
For I am come a whirlwind of wasted things
and I will ride this tantrum back to God
until my fixed self, my fluorescent self
my grief-nibbling, unbewildered, wall-to-wall self
withers in me like a salted slug
Fin’s journey through pain and into beauty is, like our own, dizzy with light and darkness, joy and suffering. It follows no pre-determined formula for traveling from Point A to Point B and takes on the non-linear and wildly free traveling pattern of a ship at sea—destination in mind, but swept along by the breeze of life. There are enemies and allies, tragedies and victories; mistakes are made, and lives are taken. The smell of gunpowder is strong, but there is music floating across the deck of the Rattlesnake. In the transformation of pain into beauty, what is calcified in us is softened; what is artificial and grief-stricken finds its way to joyful authenticity; what is confined and lost in wonderlessness recovers the innocent eyes and imagination of childhood.*
It’s been a couple years since I read Fiddler’s Gun from cover to cover, but it’s never far from my reach. The cover is completely shot, folded over and stained and torn. It’s beautiful. I open to dog-eared pages bearing a beloved typeset, offering a story to the world—the story of a young girl in pain, learning to turn that pain into beauty. Turn it beautiful. Those pages also bear my own scribblings, black ink from the only kind of pen I ever use: a Pilot Precise V5. My story in the margins of Fin’s story. We understand each other.
Turn it beautiful.
How these words have haunted me. They’ve taken up residence in my soul.
I wasn’t sure about getting a tattoo. I didn’t know if I wanted to be that old lady, the one with the withered ink. But the more I immersed myself in Fin’s story, the more I knew I wanted both the visceral experience of pain being turned into beauty and the visible reminder of this deep truth, this grace: Turn it beautiful. When I found myself sitting down to a meal in Santa Fe, New Mexico, next to poet Luci Shaw, whose right shoulder was boasting the sharp lines of a new tattoo, it was decided.
The tattoo was intended to provide a permanent reminder of the meaning I long for my life to inhabit, the meaning I hope inhabits my life. I scribbled the words on a scrap of paper and sat down in a reclining chair tucked into the back corner of a tattoo parlor in a tiny Northwestern Michigan town.Turn it beautiful. As I watched the needle alter the color of my skin, I held the words close to my heart. Black ink from the tattoo gun** mingled with specks of crimson from my own veins. I felt the story take up residence in my blood. In the pain of the experience, I felt the pain of my own story, this whirlwind of wasted things, enveloping me and making itself available to me as raw material.
Shortly after this experience, a friend texted me a picture he’d snapped of the final stanza in Luci Shaw’s poem “Stephansdom Cathedral, Vienna”:
So much of life happens between the verses
of the psalms. When I got the tattoo, the pain
subsided as the image grew, the duet of flesh and ink
branding me for the ages with a flower-cross.
The likeness, on the skin of my right shoulder,
will someday toughen into leather. But why,
they’ll speculate, did she do it? What
in her life was like a flower? A cross?
So much of life happens between the lines of a good story. When I got the tattoo, the pain subsided as the image grew, the duet of flesh and ink branding me for the ages with a fiddle-gun. The likeness, on the skin of my left forearm, will someday toughen into leather. But why, they’ll speculate, did she do it? What in her life was like a fiddle? A gun?
*For a musical interlude, listen to Ron Block and Rebecca Reynolds’ song “Let There Be Beauty.”
**For the Star Wars fans among us: The artist had attached a Darth Vader head to the end of this tool of his trade and dubbed the tattoo gun “Darth Shader.”
I’ve been reading a lot of the Psalms lately and I love the line, “So much of life happens between the verses/of the psalms.” That, I suppose, it where it turns beautiful. Where David moves from repentance back to relationship. Where the gun and the fiddle meet.
Thank you for these words.
ahh! Luci Shaw – that line has been making a pilgrimage in my head & heart since I read it a while back – “so much of life happens between the verses of the psalms…” – oh yeah – so much of life – the humdrum, daily routines – the brilliant explosions of joy, delight – the slivers of searing pain – precipices – shadows – sunrises – people, places – the abundances of life – the emptinesses of life – so much – “so much of life happens between the verses of the psalms…”
Brother Bartimaeus still confounds me with his simple charge.
From time to time I must print out certain posts from the Rabbit Room for my special “keeper” file. Thank you for this one, Barbara. Looking forward to more from you. Grateful that you write.
This whole post feels like poetry…Fiddle on Barbara!
I found myself having to pause and chew from sentence to sentence. We need to pause more when we read to consider the life between the verses. With being a slow reader, it’s one of the glories of naturally savoring a text. It hasn’t helped with Seminary however…
“So much of life happens between the verses / of the psalms.” This is literally true for Psalm 51. Between verses 12 and 13 is a prophet’s (Samuel) confrontation of adultery, of murder by executive order, the death of a child of a King, and real repentance. We can’t really get to verse 13 from verse 12 unless we’ve actually lived out repentance and reconciliation.
 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
You made me want to eat, chew, and savor a Green and a Gun…
Thanks for the reminder of the beautiful poem by Luci Shaw. I have on the Block/
Reynolds song right now. Yes, so much happens between the verses of the psalms.
That is life. So much happens between the cracks, the lines, the looks, the pain,
even the spaces. Now to pick up my copy of the Fiddlers Gun!
If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.