I bow to you, heron.
I bow to stepping out of fear.
I bow to patience and focus.
I bow to stepping into my power.
I bow to risk and trust.
– iPhone note to self
I always said I would only get a tattoo when I knew exactly what I wanted. When I learned, at age 38, that my husband had betrayed me, I knew that something profound had shifted. Two years later, I was ready to claim my image. I wanted a feather—a symbol of my searching youth, feathers found along beaches or in forests, feathers doodled in my journal, feathers representing air and flight. In recent years, however, I hadn’t paid much attention to symbols. Now I was ready to ask again how this image could speak to me. What was different now. What was the same.
In my twenties, I often saw herons on my walks along the saltwater shorelines of my favorite parks near the Puget Sound. They stood erect in shallow water, still and poised with one leg raised, watching and waiting to strike at small fish beneath the surface. Focused. Patient. Or they would glide above, their six-foot wing span swooping past as their wings beat slow and deep. I’d watch silently, my own limbs weighted under a long draping poncho, eyes hidden behind thick glasses. They called me out of my human separateness, beckoned me towards greater belonging. Inwardly I’d bow and salute their majestic form, their solitary flight.
When I got married I knew that my husband was the One, a resting ground that I’d long hoped to find. Before him, I’d first been single for seven years and then in two back-to-back relationships for five, and with both of those, I’d chosen to ignore my own knowing that they ultimately would not last. But with my husband, I had no doubt. Even my mother’s skepticism, her frenzied assertion over the phone that it was a bad sign that he hadn’t proposed to me with a ring, couldn’t shake my faith. Sure, a ring would have been nice, but what about the romantic way he’d spelled out in duct tape “Will you marry me?” on the sails of his little boat? Now I look back at my innocence, not with regret, but with wonder at my inability to have guessed then how far we’d travel in seven years.
My feather would be a quill pen, but I didn’t want the pen part to be obvious. This tattoo wasn’t just about my writing path which can so easily become tied to my ego. This was about my greater path, my journey that only I can ever fully know. I wanted the tattoo on my inner left forearm. It needed to be big, nothing delicate or dainty. It needed to announce: I am here. At the same time, I liked that it would remain hidden if my arms were down, how I needed to raise them—to point, dance, lift, or sit close to someone for my tattoo to be seen. I, however, would see it nearly every time I sat at my desk to write: a reminder of my desire to become more visible, even as I so often prefer to hide.
I brought my ideas to Tara, the artist I’d chosen from the all-women tattoo shop. I told her I wanted a pen and ink design, but also color: teal and red. I showed her images I’d found on Pinterest, tried sketching some myself, but I was tired of my old style of drawing. It evoked the past; I sought the new. She took notes and asked me questions. “If I had to pick a bird, I’d want a heron feather,” I heard myself say, almost as an afterthought. I didn’t want the feather to be realistic, but I did want to convey the size and feel of this bird. “I also am considering writing the word ‘courage’ inside the quill,” I said. Tara explained that it would be hard to get the writing that small. “We can try to work it in somewhere, but I think you’ll find that after you get the tattoo you’ll already feel courageous.” I nodded. I’d needed to articulate the words behind the tattoo, but they needn’t be spelled out on my body. Words are too human, too narrow, confining. Symbols are larger than words.
When I first connected with my husband, he lived in a cabin on 56 acres, nestled within forest and wetlands, on the shore of an inlet where we could drop in a canoe and paddle at sunset or walk undisturbed in our own private reverie, eyes noticing fresh coyote scat or ripening buds of Indian plum. Mornings he’d light the woodstove for me before he went to work as a baker. Later I’d wake and stare out the big picture window, sipping coffee and writing in my journal, so grateful to have arrived. I’d spent the previous three years living in polluted China, in a city of nine million where the sky was never blue, the rivers deadened by chemicals, and everywhere it smelled of sewage, cigarettes, and hot grease. During those years, despite reconnecting to my mother tongue of Chinese and settling into a sweet relationship, I gradually grew so suffocated that I had to leave, get out— get back to my solitary self, to the deep inhale of nature.
Tara’s first drafts were not perfect. The colors looked too patriotic, the swirly embellishments too busy; I preferred a simpler rendering. She refined the design and I began to love it. But still, at our final art check, she could sense my hesitation.
“I’m not doubting getting it, it’s just hard to know what it’s going to feel like because it’s my first.” I wasn’t afraid of the pain; after childbirth, I figured, how bad could it be? It was the permanence of the decision, the chance of regret that I feared. Of all the possible images in the world, is this indeed exactly what I want?
“Have you considered putting it somewhere less visible? Or making it smaller?” she asked.
No, it had to be so. I just needed to sit with it a little longer, make sure it was perfect.
What does it mean to want something to be perfect? Is there ever one definitive vision of perfection we can have for ourselves, or are there many variations? Do we simply decide something is good enough, and then after repeated exposure come to love it all the more?
The first time that my husband and I spent a night together, we lay on a floor in separate sleeping bags. We’d been to a show and there was strong energy between us, but I was dating someone else. Nothing had been spoken aloud. We lay next to each other and began to stare. I’d taken out my contacts and couldn’t see well, so I scooted closer, wanting to see inside his eyes. I don’t know how long we stared. We didn’t look away. Eventually, I squeezed his hand good night.
About a week later he said to me while we stood in a forest, “I saw so many faces in you the other night.” “Like what?” I asked. He paused. “Like an old woman, and a child.” He took a breath. “And I hope I don’t freak you out by saying this, but I also felt like I saw my wife.” His boldness did freak me out and all I could say was, “Wow,” before we both laughed awkwardly. I couldn’t accept it then, but somewhere inside I sensed he was right.
I was grateful that Tara let me take the final image home because I needed to sit in private with the closest possible rendering of what would be inked on my body, to tape it to my arm, to draw an outline on my flesh with pen, to assure myself of my choice.
“What if I get sick of it?” I asked my husband. I was already sick of looking at the drawing. “It will just become a part of you, you won’t even notice it after a while,” he said. I still trusted his opinion more than anyone else’s—trusted that he’d encourage me to follow what was right for me. I’d loved this about him when we first fell in love, how he was so in touch with his intuition.
How was it that this man who’d once felt so much more grounded than I, had now become so disconnected from his inner compass? Addicted to technology, to chatting intimately with strangers, yet unable to unearth and hold forth his own vulnerability before his wife?
Now, I just needed to get over this last hurdle. I’d come this far, I’d put down a non-refundable deposit. This tattoo was a rite of passage, an honoring of myself. It was not about my husband’s betrayals, but rather its inverse: a fuck youto fear, an embrace of all that is new and scary. Yes, my husband and I were doing good work together now, surfacing words that had been stifled for years. Yes, I believed in us again, in our ability to get through this and grow. But this belief took effort, an active cultivation of choice, for I also knew that some part of me might never completely trust in us again, not in the same unquestioning way. Some part of me would always remember the pain.
I barely slept the night before my tattoo appointment, restless with anticipation.I’m going to do this. I’ve already decided. Fear is natural, right?I decided to poll Facebook. One person responded with a funny link to bad tattoo mistakes, and I realized I did not want people’s advice, then deleted the post. The next morning, I wrote in my journal, drank coffee, had a protein-rich breakfast, and still had an hour before I needed to leave. I decided to walk through the pond near our home, across the bridge that looks out on small marshy islands and murky polluted water. If I see the heron today, I will know it is meant to be, I told myself. I didn’t tell myself that if I didn’t see the heron, then it wasn’t meant to be; I only wanted to believe in positive signs. I stopped walking when I got to the old birch tree. High on a branch, I saw the heron’s silhouette against the grey sky: dark, large and regal. I put my palms together before my chest, said my own prayer, and bowed. The heron was here. I decided to believe.
I’d hurt my husband too before. We didn’t get engaged until five years after that night we first stared at each other, for I wasn’t ready then, still needed to explore myself with others. When I finally confessed this—after I’d slept again with the other guy I was seeing—he said to me, his voice bitter, “You finally figured out what you want.” And then, “Something about this still doesn’t sit right with me, but I guess I have some energy to move. I just hope you can find happiness in your heart.” I was so relieved to finally be done with the stifling heaviness that cloaked our courtship, the sense of inevitably with which he claimed me, at the same time that something didn’t sit right with me either. I trusted my decision, though I did not understand it. I prayed that someday we’d have another chance.
Years later, I’d learn that after we broke up he took a splitting maul to an old rusty refrigerator sitting out in a field. Yet to my face he never asked me not to go. He simply called what he saw, “You’re shaking in your boots at being seen.”
12:25. The time had come. I walked into the shop and told them I was here to see Tara, then sat to wait. A few minutes later another woman arrived and said shewas here to see Tara. That’s odd, I thought, but didn’t say anything, despite the fact that I’d already wondered why they hadn’t given me their usual confirmation call the day before. After staring at the computer, the receptionist announced that there had been a scheduling error—I wasn’t on the books. She didn’t apologize. A few moments later, Tara came out. “Well, the first thing to do is to apologize,” she said, which made me feel a little better, although her words still felt too passive. Tara said they could get me rescheduled for the next week on her usual day reserved for consultations, and then led the other woman back. I was frustrated. I thought about my night of insomnia, my morning of journaling and ritual at the pond, and the weeks of anticipation, the months—no years—of story invested in this symbol, this act, not to mention the childcare I’d arranged for the afternoon. Back in the safety of my car, the door pulled shut, I took a breath and sobbed.I was ready for this and now you ask me to wait.
If I was superstitious, or if I’d had real doubts, I could have easily viewed this error as a sign: are you sureyou want to do this? Here is your chance to back out. I wondered if I’d go through the same restless deliberation, journaling and sleeplessness next week, but the next time going in, I was much more relaxed and ready. I’d already encountered my fear and pushed through it once and thus committed; there was no more need to anguish. I brought my iPod, signed the forms, watched her shave and wash my arm, then lay the stencil down once, twice, three times until she got it just right. I lay on the padded raised table and listened to the three artists in the shop chat back and forth to their soundtrack of seventies rock, soul, and eighties hip-hop on Pandora. It was all so casual, so no big deal, so like any other moment of my life. I took a breath and smiled as “Eye of the Tiger” started playing just before Tara began. Perfect, I thought. The perfect hint of levity. I closed my eyes and surrendered.
I was surprised, yet not surprised that it didn’t hurt that much. As long as she was inking the longer smooth lines, the continuity of the motion kept the pain from feeling too sharp. It was only when she pressed the shorter strokes that I winced at times while taking a deep breath, but even then it was completely manageable, something I could observe from a distance.
“Just so you know, if I start crying, it’s not because of the pain; it’s my own stuff,” I said to Tara before I put in my headphones; I didn’t want her to stop or worry. She nodded. Tara was not a talker. Perhaps I’d spoken the obvious. Of course, so many people get tattoos to honor their pain.
In my twenties and thirties, before I joined with my husband, my pain had always felt amorphous, not easily attached to one story or trauma. Just a loneliness, a longing for a lover or a community, a hunger to be seen. My pain was private and privileged, mine to mull over in my journal, to angst over yet not be devastated by; to write, cry, and make art about; to transfer into symbols.
But now I’ve been through a new, precise kind of pain: the man I love has hurt me deeply. Refused to speak of his own heart’s longing, turned away from our refuge, found replacements in strangers. In places where he didn’t have to dig deep enough to encounter his own deeper work, his pain that came before me, from his childhood, or somewhere further back.
Now, the man who first saw me no longer saw me as I’d once felt seen. And I’ve cried when I’ve realized that I may no longer be loved like I once thought I was loved, no longer embraced in the holy now of someone else’s steady gaze. I’ve been forced to question again and again whether I can trust this man whom I now realize I’d transferred so much of my old longing into—longing that I’d once placed in my mother, or in God and unspeakable Mystery. In recent years I’d almost forgotten about this longing, because I thought myself safe. Now, I was adrift again with no container to hold me.
Now, I needed to stay open to the possibility that I might someday have to live alone again, to return to the solitary awareness that I’d once identified with as an integral part of my story—a kind of noble yet lonely suffering that I no longer wished to return to. The foundation of my old assumptions—that my husband would be the one great love of my life, that we were destined to be together, that we both would always feel the same—was cracked, for I now knew how much he, too, could hide behind silence.
I didn’t cry during my tattoo; I was surprised by how calm I felt, how relaxed I was once I lay down on the table. The anguishing over making a decision has always been the hardest part for me. But once I decide, then I know how to surrender. Once my mind says yes, my heart can follow.
Or is it the other way around?
My husband and I have been going to therapy and we are slowly, steadily, arriving on more solid ground. I no longer fear that at any moment everything could split open again; I’m starting to trust that we are entering a more mature phase of our love together, and that he is once again committed to being transparent with me. But I am far from being out of the pain. The pain is always underlying, a dull heaviness that can rear up in moments of suspicion, surprising me with its irrepressible force—my body seized, my hands trembling as I search through our computer’s history, ready to pounce on something left behind. Relieved if I don’t find anything, yet also relieved if I do—a twisted kind of confirmation that I am not just paranoid, that my intuition is intact—the certainty of fact more reassuring than the unknown.
After I got my tattoo, my scar was tender, but it healed more quickly than I’d thought. There was no puss, no weeping, no scabbing. But even so, I didn’t want to show it to anyone yet. This tattoo was for me and no one else—I did not wish to seek anyone’s approval but my own. For with this symbol, I seek to honor not so much my wound, but the strengthit takes me to keep turning towards trust in spite of all my fear. I seek to honor the old woman, the child, the ancient bird in me— the witness that has grown complacent in recent years, lulled by the false security of partnership. I seek to honor the wild creature that has the capacity to hurt and be hurt, to hunt and be hunted, to pursue what she wants with a steady eye, yet still be rendered weak in an instant, trembling, vulnerable, a pile of matted feathers and hollow bones.
What is this mark of color, of line, of image, of flesh? Brilliant, for a moment. And then gone.
Anne Liu Kellor is a multiracial Chinese American writer, editor, and teacher at the Hugo House in Seattle. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as Longreads, The New England Review, The Normal School, Fourth Genre, Vela Magazine, Literary Mama, Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally (Seal Press), and more. Anne has received fellowships for her nonfiction work from Hedgebrook, Jack Straw, 4Culture, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods. Her manuscript, Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging was selected by Cheryl Strayed as the 1st runner-up in Kore Press’s 2018 memoir contest and was a finalist in SheWrites/Spark Press’s 2019 STEP contest. To learn more visit: anneliukellor.com
Featured Image Credit: Heron by Anne Liu Kellor.