A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

To Tattoo or Nottoo

With the end of the year approaching, it's time to take a hard look at my resolutions. Every year I make quite a few. Some I'm very determined to accomplish. Others are more like suggestions to myself, things I want to think seriously about. Writing them on a napkin on New Year's Eve and looking at them on the refrigerator every day keeps me constantly evaluating them over the course of the year.

"Get a tattoo" is one of those latter, suggestion-type resolutions. Getting a tattoo is a pretty big decision, after all. Pretty final. The thing other people are always telling you you're going to regret one day.

A tattoo is a message to everyone you meet--unless you cover it up--that you feel very strongly about something or other. About your Mom, or "Johnny," or the Crips or the Bloods or the Marines. Or the fact that you crossed the equator. Or that love or money or motorcycles rule your world. Or that snarling tigers or hooded cobras are the baddest things going, in your opinion.

A tattoo is also a message to your future self...that same self that's going to regret the tattoo in a few years. When you get a tattoo at 19, you're telling your paunchy, middle-aged, loser self that once upon a time you felt passionately about someone or something. That you don't give a rat's ass if that middle-aged self is married to somebody besides "Betty," or regrets going on all those drunken benders and doing crazy things like going to tattoo parlors.

Well, that goes for most tattoos, anyway. Not the ones branded on concentration camp prisoners, most notably at Auschwitz. Those were a particularly degrading form of identification. Most, although by no means all, Auschwitz prisoners were Jewish. Tattooing is forbidden by the Torah: "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:28). So being forced to wear a tattoo was an especially cruel punishment for observant Jews.

Voluntarily submitting to a tattoo similar to those marking prisoners is different, however. It seems to me to be a way to show solidarity with those victims, and with all victims of abuse. Also a way to memorialize them; not to forget. And to take back the stigma, like a black person calling himself a nigger, or a homosexual wearing a pink triangle: a way to take control.

Auschwitz was the only Nazi camp which tattooed its prisoners. Serial numbers beginning with "A" were for women; "B" for men. Anne Frank was a prisoner at Auschwitz, and received a tattoo. Although her exact number seems lost to history, it was somewhere in the series A-25060 to A-25271.

I marked the number A-25060 on my left arm in the manner of an Auschwitz tattoo, just to experience a bit what it would feel like. Pretty creepy. Do I have the nerve to do this for real? I'm still not sure.

Hot Toddies

Tonight was the monthly meeting of the Downtown Book Ladies discussion group. We met at Maggie's to discuss Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra. Sue had suggested the book, so she was charged with leading the discussion. She's a Mt. Holyoke alumna, and it shows.

Sue had taken a trip fairly recently to Spain, and had visited the Alhambra. The record of her trip--photographs and so forth--was neatly scrapbooked, and she brought along her substantial album for us to peruse. Also several pertinent books. She gave an impressively researched talk, placing Irving and his subject in historical context.

Things went a little downhill from there. Maggie was serving hot toddies, along with splendid little cookies and some clementines. Miss Rose and Mr. Lucky, the beagles, chased each other nonstop around the room, knocking things over and trying to make off with treats. The conversation became very animated, if not downright silly at times.

It seemed that everyone present had not only visited the Alhambra, but had driven the exact harrowing mountain roads that Irving describes in such picturesque detail. Every mention of a passage in the book turned into a vivid recounting of one of our own travel experiences. We might have been around a campfire, telling tales...very like the characters that populate Tales of the Alhambra, or that other great Spanish adventure (to which Irving frequently refers), Don Quixote.

I'm extremely fond of Washington Irving; I think he's way underrated as a writer. He certainly knew how to tell a story--viz. "Rip Van Winkle" or "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Rereading Tales of the Alhambra, I was struck by the echoes of Cervantes and the parallels to his masterpiece. I don't remember having noted them before. The framing of the stories--tales within tales, the unhurried pace, the many digressions, the vivid characterizations, etc. etc. Not to mention the setting, and the frequent direct references to the earlier work.

If Washington Irving was looking down from his literary heaven at the Downtown Book Ladies, I'm sure it was with indulgence. Irving loved partaking of good food and spirits, especially in pleasant company. He loved Europe, especially Spain, and most especially the fantastical and romantic Alhambra. Above all, he loved telling a good tale.