Tattoos are a way people choose to mark their bodies. But our bodies don’t need ink to tell stories. I can walk into a room and know a lot about a patient in 3 seconds:
A patient in their 30’s with well-creased skin?
Years of smoking.
Missing, or rotting teeth?
Meth addiction or years of poverty.
Red face/nose covered with telangiectasia?
Years of alcohol abuse.
Possible endocrinopathy like diabetes.
Severe malnutrition/HIV medication/cancer.
Clubbing of fingers?
Our bodies are not only marked by chronic conditions, but also by trauma that takes only seconds. I have a scar on my face from a flying stumble into the corner of a cement cellar in a neighbor’s yard, a scar on my thumb from where a rabbit bit it half off, and a scar on my other thumb that reminds me of a New Year’s Day spent in the ED after jamming a pair of scissor under my skin trying to open a Christmas gift.
Our bodies tell stories. Tan lines from wedding rings no longer present. Track marks from IV drug use. Nails bitten. Clean hands with creases still blackened with grease. Scars on wrists from serious attempts to take one’s own life – and innumerable scars on less vital locations from cutting to release pain.
Our bodies are remarkable. They are living histories. They are maps.
My favorite quote from The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is this:
“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.
I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books.”
This quote reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s quote, “I am still every age that I have been.”
I live in the same body I had when I was four and that rabbit nibbled through my thumb like a carrot. My body marks that event even though I have no memory of it.
While there is no beauty in “meth mouth,” there is beauty in our bodies being marked by history. A beauty in accidental permanence, in truths we cannot erase. We are all the ages we have ever been. Our bodies are story books.
Please share your scar/tattoo stories in the comments.