I have lived many lives. And I have carried a lot of guilt for believing that I abandoned them.
I was a tattoo artist for many years, and had wanted desperately to become one for even longer than I lived that dream. I worked for over ten years to muster the courage, to get better at drawing, to risk failure and rejection looking for someone to teach me, to suffer through the hazing and humiliation of an old-school traditional apprenticeship. I invested a lot of money into my dream, before I even knew I would make a dime. I worked long hours, I was uncomfortable, I was insecure and terrified, and I kept pushing through. And then I had a nice run, living the dream, mostly. Except I was always high and/or drunk. And the dream job blew up in my face.
Eventually I got sober, but I wasn’t right-away-ready to try tattooing again. I needed an easy job in early sobriety, and for the first year of my recovery, I made sandwiches for minimum wage. The shreds of my self-esteem weren’t woven together strong enough yet to attempt to get back into tattooing. And my intuition had taken a beating; I felt a lot of confusion around if I even liked tattooing, and if I liked it for the right reasons. It didn't seem like it fit anymore. All I knew for sure was that I needed a break, and so I went and became a social worker.
I was hired as a peer mentor, and then a case manager, at a non-profit serving individuals experiencing homelessness, mental health challenges, and substance use issues. And here was a dream I had forgotten I’d even tentatively considered. It wasn’s something I consciously pursued with grim stubbornness, but it had more been this burning coal of a wish as I was struggling through my miserable addicted life; In my darkest times I desperately wanted to believe this would all mean something someday. I figured if I could just hold on and get through this, maybe I could help someone else. And sure as shit, I found a job that said all my dismal failures were actually the requirements for this gig. I fought for this job as soon as I read the posting, and I have felt like on some level I had been looking for it for most of my life. Now I’m growing weary, and looking for new paths, new direction, and it feels like a betrayal of sorts.
I’ve heard it said that the ego’s job is to convince you that you are what you do, what you have, what others think of you. Of course this is not the real You at all. And I thought I was on to that. I was an angry, activist teen. I was smarter than the rat race, I saw through the bullshit, I rebelled against “the tyrrany of the 9-5”, corporate America, capitalism and mindless consumerism, schools and other institutions whose only real purpose seemed to grind any heart and creativity out of us, devaluing individuality, fearing it, in fact, and pushing us into little cramped boxes to slave away working for someone else’s dream. I though for sure I knew who I was, or at least that I was not my job.
But it turns out I’m not immune to the conditioning. Why was I deeply saddened when I saw my silent tattoo machines, the roller derby gear that hasn’t gotten sweaty in a year? And why am I afraid to think too hard about leaving the best job I’ve ever had to pursue my new interests (and return to some old ones)? On some level I felt like a failure.Like I had given up on something, like I was a fraud, like I never really wanted it in the first place. I’ve struggled with these negative views for a long time. I found some measure of peace when I realized that there could be some mourning involved, like a part of me did die. The illusion, the ego creations, these carry weight and power and releasing them can be an emotional process that takes time.
Plus, on some level, and I’m not proud to admit this, I still care what people think. I got satisfying reactions that fed my false sense of self. When I tattooed, people thought I was cool. When I did derby they thought I was tough. And when I help the homeless they think I’m noble. It is humbling to admit that this does have an effect on me, and can weigh in on my decisions when it’s time to try something new, particularly contributing to that brand of fear that is signalled by the insidious thought- "What will they think of me if I don't do that anymore?"
But hey, it's okay. Thoughts are thoughts, there’s a million of ‘em, and I can let them come and go. What I really want to strive for today is the reminder that’s printed on my AA chips, from Shakespeare…To thine own self be true. I have struggled to even know who I am, and I summoned a lot of bravery as I allow parts of myself to surface that I sort of wouldn’t have planned for, like that I really literally enjoy hugging a tree once in a while, or that I actually prefer clean clothes and color and variety in my wardrobe. That I like heels and lipstick sometimes, and that I prefer to be alone most of the time.
I have intentionally practiced a gentleness for myself, trying to be, in turns, a loving parent, a fiercely protective big sister, and a ride-or-die bitch/ BFF to myself as I have navigated the bewildering wilderness that is sobriety, of living life with consciousness, of staying woke.
This gentleness is working, because the other day I conceded that I won’t be skating any time real soon and I moved the derby gear onto a shelf, next to the tattoo equipment. And I had this nice thought- "this is the museum of me." This little sweet thought opened a door onto a profound depth of compassion and freedom. Before, I would look at these relics of my past and the bitchy chatter would start- “why can’t you finish what you start, you’re just lazy, it never mattered to you, you’re such a flake,…” This time I smiled to myself, enjoyed some fond memories, and felt proud that I had pursued those goals that were important to me back then. I know change is the only sure thing, but I guess I had a hard time accepting that I will change too.
I think of little kids, how they can obsessively focus on a new interest every other week. they can be fascinated by dinosaurs one day, superheroes the next, and in another week or so they are all about space or math or sharks or whatever. And they don’t feel like they are betraying themselves, they are just curious and excited and want to see it all. I want to be like that again. I think I’m getting there, slowly.
So maybe I’ll skate again, but right now I’m super into yoga and am dead set on learning to surf. I will probably tattoo again, at least for my friends, but now I’m stoked on pen and ink mandalas and getting better at the banjo. I will always stand up for the underserved and those who need help, but I also want to start a company and go back to school. And I’m stoked on meditation and astrology and growing flowers and Indian dance and and and…Can it be ok to just keep checking stuff out?
I'm letting myself off the hook, and I'm here to give you permission too, if you need it. Having the discipline to finish what you start is very important. But it’s just as important, maybe more so, and certainly trickier, to let yourself truly become who you are, acknowledging that your identity will change and grow and expand, and allow for exploration and the unfolding of your wondrous, unique self. Let yourself be as big and bright and shiny as you care to be, and don’t get too wrapped up in what anyone else thinks of that. It's ok to be scared, it's ok to feel weird and uncomfortable, it's ok to change your mind. And whatever you do, remember that the REAL you is already perfect and always will be. Nothing you do on the outside can touch it. So go have some fun and get freaky with it all. There's a lot to get excited about.