Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Arrow on My Arm (A 5 Step Meditation)

Sometimes we stop. Other times, we pause.

The semicolon tattoo project centers on pauses. It is symbolic of being faced with a choice to end one's life sentence (so to speak) but opting to pause, reflect and connect with the future instead. Per its Facebook page, Project Semicolon is “a global non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and love for those who are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction and self-injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love and inspire.”

I relate to that. I know many other people who relate to that too.

I also know an overwhelming number of friends who have chosen an absolute ending, and I have been haunted by the similarities and differences between their thinking and mine for years after their deaths. Ultimately, I think suicide is like any other display of absolute power: It leaves an impact spanning the entire emotional spectrum and its judgment will always vary widely according to individual perception and circumstance.

Personally, I choose to live my life, recognizing each moment as a rare privilege and trying to embrace it as such. At the same time, I believe people have the right to risk, embrace and even be the hand of their own deaths. Saving people from themselves is beside the point, an ignoble pursuit if I may be blatantly honest. A more honorable practice is to spread knowledge which will help people become empowered in the choices they make.

Another way to say this is: While I feel people shouldn't take away a person's right to choose death, I also feel people should strive for a world in which death never feels like the only option. In my opinion, one way to do this is through the stories we continue to tell. When creating new stories, I want to focus on those which acknowledge there is no one right way to anywhere. Likewise, I want heroes whose main triumph is not a singular achievement, but rather an ability to recognize life's many paths and to navigate these with a striking sense of grace.

My semicolon tattoo & tea @ The TapRoom
Tattoos are an interesting way to tell a new story. I grew up regarding them with wonder. As with many things, I felt encouraged in this. It was safe for me to want a tattoo just enough to complement other people on theirs. However, it was dangerous for me to want a tattoo enough to actually seek one for myself. At the point desire tipped toward reality, the fear of lasting, permanent change took hold. At least, this is how it felt until my 30s.

When you cross 30, something magical happens. You gain perspective. You are finally old enough to look back at yourself and decide if the person you've been is the person you will continue to be. You can then step into your life with a sense of ownership. I've found that, once you own your life, it becomes difficult for anyone to threaten you. There is security in your sense of self, if you claim it.

My thirties are a time of tattoos, beginning with the semi-colon arrow on my wrist. I chose the arrow because it holds power for me. An arrow means moving forward, waiting for the right time, and trusting your aim. It feels just a little bit dangerous, showing up in all sorts of myths (from Robin Hood to Brave to The Hunger Games) as the wise weapon of choice for the rebel with a cause.

I laugh as I say it, but it remains true: I am a rebel with many causes.

My Children 
One of my overarching causes is simply the removal of stigma.

Recently, I met a young man in a coffee shop who literally didn't know the meaning of the word. About 10 years my junior, his peers were once students in my middle school classroom. I think I often assumed they knew more than they did. In a concerted effort to avoid giving them too little credit, I sometimes gave them too much, speaking about concepts they couldn't understand because they lacked the vocabulary to do so, missing opportunities to teach them words, the simple building blocks they needed most.

I didn't understand this failing until I gave birth to brilliant children who struggle to read and to speak.

It has also been through exploring my children's autism and sensory differences which I have come to better understand neurological divergence of all stripes. From this, a few mantras surface:

I will meet you where you are. Just say KNOW. We will do this one step at a time.

My Shadow Selfie
I think the next step is to answer some questions:

1. What, after all, is stigma?

According to Merriam Webster's Dictionary, stigma is “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.”

2. What exactly is neurological divergence?

According to the Urban Dictionary, it is having a brain which functions differently than normal.

You may think of “neurological divergence” as another way to say “mental illness.” However, mental illness carries a stigma which can get in the way of genuinely understanding mental health.

3. What else carries a stigma?

According to a lifetime of lived and documented human experience, stigma is attached to anything which separates us from what our society considers to be ordinary regarding our appearance, spiritual beliefs, medical choices, diet, general health, parenting preferences, sexual preferences, relationship dynamics, gender identity, race, financial standing, politics, employment, entertainment, education, morality, living environment, birth plans and death arrangements—to be brief.

If you are different, prepare to be judged. If you are human, prepare to be judged.

What I'm after is judgment which exists outside condemnation and comes with no price. Looking directly at something and accepting it both as it is and as it can be feels like mercy.

Sketch of a future tattoo, design by Aliya Smith
Mercy, as I see it, walks hand in hand with gratitude. At this intersection of gratitude and mercy, is grace.

The arrow on my arm is a sign of grace to me.

So are the other symbols and totems which will mark my skin one of these days.

Funny, isn't it? How so much insight can come from contemplating a simple tattoo?

This is why art matters, by the way, especially now in these days of Trump, Putin, China's looming digital dictatorship and the fall of Aleppo. Art makes us pause. Within those pauses, we have an opportunity to think, to feel and to recognize that we have options beyond destruction.


  1. Love your words here Kelli! I lost two friends to suicide last year (one of these friends we shared) and have lost more than I would like to count out right now as I drink my morning coffee. On a lighter note I also like what you wrote about getting tattoos! I am so glad I never covered myself in tattoos I wanted as a teenager and in my twenties... I would without a doubt have at least a big ole Blink 182 tat somewhere on my body.
    - Ginni