My Life in Tattoos

I recently received Tools of Titans as a gift from a friend. This book is a compilation of the great thoughts, habits, and ideas of successful people. Each person’s chapter is accompanied by a thumbnail of their spirit animal.

While there is no phantom animal guiding my way, each period of my life has been accompanied by a totem. I have a tattoo marking those gateways; my skin is a canvas that tells the story of my progression into the person I have become.

Many decisions in my life have not been made in the face of opposition, rather have been a result of the opposition within myself. My first tattoo was no exception.

I was young — too young to be engaged to be married, but trying to tell me anything during that period of my life would only give my decisions teeth and sink them in further.

I wasn’t really considering a tattoo, but I mentioned getting one to my fiance  in a random fleeting thought. His reply, “If you get a tattoo, we aren’t getting married.” And all of a sudden, that thought lingered and took hold.

Within a week, I was sitting in a chair looking out over the passersby, donning their Birkenstock sandals and carrying home treasures from the coop. The image of a Pegasus was etched onto my ankle. It was more than a symbol of defiance; it represented the survival mechanism used as a child and into my years as a young adult — escape.

Escaping into my imagination, reading books, writing stories, and most recently drinking alcohol — in many ways fantasy seemed easier to control than my actual life.

Years passed with that solitary Pegasus marking my skin and becoming a symbol of identity and inner struggle, until I discovered education.

Now, as a single parent, I went back to school to take control of my life and to dream of something better for my son. The years that followed were adventurous, sometimes lonely, but always focused on my wolf pack of two. Cody and I were in it together, and it was up to me to lead the way.

Required reading in my Environmental Science coursework, “Of Wolves and Men” opened my eyes to the struggles of a noble animal, and I could relate. The wolf has been both persecuted and revered, forced to live a double life of survival in the real world and in lore. It is a social animal that has an air of strength and independence. I had found my next tattoo.

My life evolved and as it did my pack grew. I accumulated friends and family along my journey to become a teacher. I became established in the school community and was no longer that lone wolf. As a teacher, I was able to pursue my dream of giving back to the larger community by implementing change within my classroom.

The 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, also known as Governor Walker’s Budget Repair Bill, hit hard. Our governor was taking direct aim at teachers, public schools, and labor unions. I could no longer believe that simply working hard within my school building was going to be enough. I felt compelled to get involved, to fight for something larger than myself. To do so meant adapting.

And as I adapted, I found myself back in the tattoo parlor.

We can learn a lot from animals. They live in the present. When a fox chases a mouse through the snow, it dives in head first. There is no room for hesitation, rumination, or self doubt. The fox knows when the time is right to make its move and doesn’t hold back when it does.

What makes the fox even more remarkable is its incredible ability to adapt. A fox is a fox, whether it is in the city or the country, but it does not go about survival the same way in each environment. It uses its surroundings, whether that be making a den underneath an underutilized porch or in a hollowed out tree.

With this amazing animal running along my forearm, I knew that I needed to also adopt its motto, “no excuses.”

The next several years were full of political battles, speeches, and many calls to action. I went from being someone who kept to themselves to a person with an intense social network. I ran campaigns, knocked on doors, and was jolted into a life of activism. As the world shifted underneath me and public education found itself under attack again and again, I fought back.

I had found a purpose, but something was still missing. Long hours working, knocking on doors, writing, and engaging in political discourse left me drained. I needed something for myself, something to set all else aside and allow me to exist in the moment. I needed to refuel.

That was when I found a new passion — Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu taught me to be tough both on and off the mats. It taught me to think ahead and not to underestimate myself. On the mats, everything else goes away, but it isn’t escape. It is being fully present, living in the moment. Most importantly, I realized my own value, the need to do things for myself, to learn, to struggle, and to grow.

For the first time in my life, I shrugged off the need for a spirit animal and began believing in myself. With this in mind, I crafted my last tattoo. It is a symbol of my own strength, no longer needing to draw it from an outside source. An impossible triangle, my Jiu Jitsu submission of choice, perched atop a chessboard showing infinite possibilities.

My journey has not always taken the simplest or the shortest path, but every leg has strengthened me. That is what life holds for me, infinite possibilities.

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