Tattoos & Rumors: Why I’m Getting Ink for Homemakers Everywhere

by Kohleun

The rumors of my sordid love life are true, folks.

I am in love with Ted Kooser. Sure, he’s 73 and looks like a slender version of the old man from Up, but age really is just a number (sometimes a very big number), and who didn’t ball their eyes out during that film?

He’s in love with me, too. He just doesn’t know it.

The other rumor, that my summer sun-kissed back will soon host some ink, is also true. Now, before you freak out, Grandma, remember that Luke has, like, three tattoos and Kari designs tattoos professionally (and she’s designing mine!).

In junior high and high school, I toyed with the idea of having a tattoo, drawing Christian symbols on my ankle and my forearm. An ichthus, a dove, a Psalm about hope and singing. I wanted something that was both aesthetically beautiful but also an image that meant something to me and would continue to mean something to me long after I grew old and the tattoo became “just a bruise/ on a bony old shoulder, the spot/ where vanity once punched her hard/ and the ache lingered on,” as my dear Ted might say.

For lack of more precise terminology, my sophomore year of college was a year of feminist awakening. I was discovering my voice as a student, a writer, a person of faith, and a young woman. It was a painful time for me as I felt betrayed by a history that narrowly defined what “women’s work” looked like in one breath and demeaned that work in the next breath. After months of debating how to identify in my new awareness, I told my mom that I identified as a feminist. At the time she didn’t react disparagingly, but about a year ago she confessed while we sliced fresh peppers for pepper jelly, “I was worried that you would judge my choices, because I associated feminism with bra burners and women telling me to get a ‘real job’ and not spend time with my family.”

Christian symbols not included, I supposedly marred my holy temple with a navel piercing long before this feminist awakening. I like to think of my custom-made peach pearl barbell as more of a piece of art not many people see than a defacement, like the beautiful tombstones in the caverns of ancient cathedrals. That’s a generous metaphor, clearly, but whatever the case, my human urge for beauty gained through pain was temporarily satiated several months before I met the amazing Mr. Kooser in a writing poetry class where he charmed me with “A Jar of Buttons.” This poem slowly stowed me away and has stayed with me for five years now, because it holds that tension between respecting women’s histories, communities, struggles, and work, while recognizing the ways women have been written out of history if they aren’t some hard-ass, brazen bitch.

A Jar of Buttons

This is a core sample
from the floor of the Sea of Mending,

a cylinder packed with shells
that over many years

sank through fathoms of shirts –
pearl buttons, blue buttons –

and settled together
beneath waves of perseverance,

an ocean upon which
generations of women set forth,

under the sails of gingham curtains,
and, seated side by side

on decks sometimes salted by tears,
made small but important repairs.

from Delights and Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, 2004.

There’s this saying that “well-behaved women rarely make history.” It’s sad to me how true that is. The women’s movement and continued pursuits for gender equality are just as much mending circles as they are epic battles on the high sea. We are generations of women (and men) coming together to share our lives and work together. And through that work we prove that progress is possible and real. Through that work we make small but important repairs–to each other and to the world around us. And what do we have to work with? Whatever we can get our hands on: pearl buttons, blue buttons. And that’s what my tattoo will say.