“What’s that on your neck?” my mother asked innocently with the lightest tinge of alarm. My 24-year-old self was walking in front of her down the hallway of her house, heading from the guest bedroom where she woke me up to the dining room. I had been extremely careful to wear my hair down any time I was around her for fear of this question coming up. Yet in the early hours of the morning, I mistakenly wore my hair up in a bun thinking my hooded sweatshirt would cover the delicate ink that began at the top of my neck and grazed down my spine.
“Um,” I stammered uncomfortably and quickly threw my hand to the back of my neck, rubbing it as though it were sore. I continued walking in hope that for whatever reason she’d forget about it and we could just enjoy a normal quiet morning drinking coffee and laughing about my idiot family.
No chance. She authoritatively removed my hand from my neck and pulled the back of my sweatshirt out, revealing the 6-month old tattoo on my back. “Joni…” she breathed, taking in the information, “why would you do that?” Her voice sounded disappointed, but I was relieved the reaction was nothing like when I was 19 and pierced my eyebrow. I had walked into my grandmother’s house proud of my new adornment and confidently walked up to the kitchen table complete with all of my aunts and mother. When she first saw it she didn’t skip a beat, and in front of everyone screamed angrily, “What the hell is on your face!? You look like a CLOWN!!”
While this was nothing like that, it was still terrifying. No one in my family had a tattoo, and although I’ve never been ashamed of it, I didn’t need to seek their approval nor did I want to bother them with it. “Why did I do it?” I repeated collecting my thoughts and trying to come up with a reasonable explanation. “Because I like it.” The words fell as flatly as they were delivered.
I turned around in one swift movement, freeing myself from her grip in order to face her honestly. I looked at her bright blue eyes and genuinely concerned brow, then relaxed realizing how silly of a thing this was to be concerned about. I looked down at her hands which were decorated with rings, supported by her wrists which both wore delicate gold bracelets.
“It’s a decoration,” I said inspired by her personal choices. “I think it’s pretty,” she still wasn’t buying it although this did seem to relax her a slight bit. Then it hit me, “It’s like jewelry.”
That was the magic word. Her tense shoulders fell and the furrowed brow eased. “Oh!” She took a moment to think about it and observed her hands donning jewelry of her own. “Well can I see it again?” she asked politely, a big change from the forced observation just a moment ago.
“Sure,” I said trying to sound enthusiastic and carefree, but there was still a hint of concern that her understanding was fleeting. I took off my sweatshirt leaving me in just a tank top, exposing the tattoo in its entirety.
After inspecting for a few moments she touched it gently, grazing her fingers carefully down my spine as if the ink would be elevated like puffy paint or brail. “So what is it?” she asked.
“It’s Hebrew,” I answered, “It’s from the Old Testament. I chose Hebrew because that was the original text.”
“It’s from the Bible?!” her Christian self sounded surprised and even more confused.
“Yes,” I confirmed turning back around, “these last forever, and there are few things that I know I’ll love forever, and one is God.”
“What does it say?” I felt like I was educating a student now.
“It’s Exodus 15:2. ‘The Lord is my strength and my song; He is my salvation.’ I chose it because of how much I love music and that it’s a permanent affirmation of my faith.”
She stood there digesting this information, my words hanging in the air. Without a word, she walked past me and into the kitchen. “Ah shit, now I’ve done it. She’s pissed,” I thought to myself.
She emerged from the kitchen 30 seconds later with a highlighter, and walked over to the podium that stood in the corner of the family room. This podium was in every house we ever lived in, and one of the oldest pieces of furniture I remember. When I was little I couldn’t wait until I was taller so that I could preside over it and pretend I was the President or a Pastor, giving a speech with ultimate authority.
On top of said pedestal was the family Bible, laying open and still to this day the biggest book I’ve ever seen. She flipped through the giant pages and asked, “Which verse is it again?” her eyes remaining in the text and flipping pages aimlessly. I repeated myself and helped her find the book, as my knowledge of their order was greater than hers. Once we arrived at the verse, she popped the lid off the highlighter and I couldn’t believe what happened next. She placed the inked utensil on the page and highlighted the verse, slowly and carefully. We NEVER were allowed to write in the book! Such an action was taught to be just as sinful as stealing.
She looked up at me and gave a small smile. “I want to remember what it says. If it’s important to you, it’s important to me.”
That was one of the biggest moments of my life, and absolutely a game changer. My family always bullied me into behaving, doing, pursuing certain things. I gave up on all of them around 15, but never were my black sheep choices very well received (see piercing example). But that day my mother, while she probably still cared and it likely took her getting used to, decided what was done is done and she chose to accept my choice for what it was rather than reject me for my choice. That was honestly the first real moment I understood unconditional love. I finally felt free to be myself.
It’s interesting how we can change our minds about anything when presented with the opportunity by the right person. I was always taught to be anti-gay, that homosexuality was a sin, all that yackity-yak. I never really understood why, nor did I give a shit, so I basically didn’t take a stand either way so as to not piss anyone off. Then when one of my cousins came out, I quickly took his side and made it clear I loved him. Then another one of my cousins introduced me to the person she was dating, and much to my surprise it was a woman. My reaction was of course a little shock, as this cousin had always been a carbon copy of me and we grew up talking about boys. Then (hopefully, I sincerely hope I didn’t make them uncomfortable by standing there forever) only a short moment later, I smiled and hugged her girlfriend in an effort to welcome her trying to make damn sure both of them understood I was happy for them. My cousin was clearly very surprised, and later told me how scared she was to come out to me.
My immediate family is by far the most conservative of our extended family, and that has not always been a good thing – which I realized that day. I am sickened when my asshole brothers make fun of my cousins, but I am happy to be the ambassador for unconditional love for my family, and extend to the rest of our family peace and understanding.
God I sound like such a hippie right now. I am absolutely behind all of these words, but I sat down to write something pretty silly and light. I guess what I want to communicate today is that it’s important to remain open minded, because in that open mindedness you could be freeing someone else. Yes, it’s important to have beliefs, ideas and to stand behind them. But when presented with the opportunity to show unconditional love, I suggest we choose that before rejecting someone outright.
For example, did you ever think you’d see The Little Mermaid tatted up?! I’m sure there’s people who love the way Ariel and Eric traditionally look, and are pissed off as this is to them is blasphemy. While I was surprised, I loved these images when I stumbled upon them, appreciating their stark contrast to what we are to believe about these wholesome characters. They definitely made me think carefully about what we believe princesses and princes are, and how to me these images still represent my favorite childhood characters – actually even more.
To me they represent the challenge I present to you today. People are going to surprise you as they grow and change, and I want to encourage open mindedness and understanding, and living a life that exudes that. Who knows, maybe someone is hiding something from you for fear that you’ll judge them. To me it’s more important to allow people to be themselves. I never want to be the person whose convictions hold people away or cause them to hide who they really are. At the end of the day, our job is to encourage each other in our lives, and by exuding a presence of unconditional love, I think we will free each other to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be.