One of the things I’m reminded of every summer is the tattoo on my right leg. During the winter, when my legs are jeaned and socked it’s easy to forget its presence. Once the shorts and sandals emerge, however, the “nice tat!”‘s and “did that hurt?”‘s catch me off guard. Those comments are quickly followed by the ever confounding query, “What is it?” I always thought it was quite obvious that it is a tree.
You’d think after six summers I’d have the story down pat, and in most situations you’d be right. Occasionally I give the terse “I like trees…” If I know that explanation won’t be enough, or if someone asks a probing question like, “Is that a Joshua Tree?” I’ll explain that the design originated on a t-shirt inspired by the Dave Matthews Band Song “The Dreaming Tree.”
Sometimes I’ll slip up and say, “But there’s more to it than that.” Luckily most people don’t really care enough to object when I quickly add, “It’s a long story. I’ll tell you when we have more time.” But I can always tell when one of you is intrigued and as a result is disappointed with my avoidance of an opportunity to tell an important story. So this post, and it’s aftermath, are for any of those still wondering.
Before I forget, I think the objective questions need to be answered. 1. When: The summer after I graduated from college (2003). 2. Where: Los Angeles, in the same parlor where three of my friends had previously been inked as well. I skipped the who (you either already know me or you’ll know more about a stranger than you probably should), the what and why (I’ve already begun explaining those), and the how (that’s obvious and unnecessary). But even these answers don’t really tell the full story. You couldn’t possibly know (before this very second) that that summer I’d worked for a few weeks at the Fayetteville waste water plant to earn money while I decided what do about graduate school. Or that I’d quit my job the day or two before flying out to L.A. with my best friend, who’s previous employer footed the bill for the hotel and most of our meals. These things are important and yet defy objectification, but once again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s get back to the “complicated” response to your tattoo inquiry. So far you know that my tattoo is a tree, that it was stolen from a t-shirt design based on “The Dreaming Tree,” and that I got it in the midst of one of those liberating moments that can’t really be quantified. What you don’t know is why “The Dreaming Tree” resonated with me enough to endure an hour and a half of being repeatedly stabbed and why I’d bother posting that reason online for all the world to see.
You see a couple years before I’d taken a year off of school to explore some future possibilities (yes, I’m being intentionally vague). During that year I became disillusioned with what I’d been pursuing, and somewhere in the middle of that year I’d acquired a dangerous set of tapes. A friend of mine attended this conference in Seattle and brought back the recordings. On one of these tapes, the speaker relates a story told by an Austrian-Israeli-Jewish Philosopher about a tree. It’s been years since I’ve heard the story told, so I’m probably going to botch it, but here goes nothing. This philosopher had grown up spending his summers at his grandparents farm. On that farm was a tree that he’d spend countless hours below, resting in its shade, playing in its branches, and like most small children carving odd shapes in its trunk. As he grew older, the tree became as important as the place. It became so important that he included it as a key example in his essay Ich und Du.
This essay is about relationships and the nature of the other. For Buber this tree became more than the sum of it’s board feet and branches. It was more than the number of pages of paper its pulp would generate. It was Du (Thou or You depending on who’s translating). And if Buber can treat a tree with that sense of radical subjectivity, how then should we treat each other.
So really this tattoo is a reminder to pursue I and Thou relationships, to know people, places, trees, and creatures as more than objects. I fail in this pursuit everyday. Who knows, maybe it’s the constant failure that shames my memory. But I’m well aware that this is a lofty goal, one that is rarely accomplished and never truly mastered.
I was once again reminded of this pursuit the other day at the Arnold Arboretum, and although I dodged telling the full story of the tattoo that day, it burrowed its way through my subconscious as I explored the groves that day. Its roots have reached deep and have inspired me to dust off the jacket cover (actually it’s a paperback) and begin re-reading I and Thou. One of my ideas about the future of this blog is to bring it along to the Arboretum and post my ruminations. I hope that’s cool with you.