I’m lying on my side on what looks like an operating table while a young woman, wearing a surgical mask, periodically wipes blood off my body with a soft cloth. As she applies pressure and burns an electric needle into my skin, pinpricks of tears threaten to spill from the corners of my eyes. But I don’t let them fall. I’m putting on a brave face for my 17-year-old daughter Lucy, who is sitting across from me.
“Does it hurt?” she asks.
“Nah. Nothing like childbirth,” I say with a wink.
“I can’t wait to get one when I’m 18,” says Lucy.
“Hey, I’m 55. You’ve got plenty of time,” I tell her.
“. . . and Lucy?”
“It hurts. A lot.”
She smiles, and so do I. It’s a lovely mother-daughter moment here at Grey Harbour Tattoo, in my hometown of Hamilton, where after years of dithering, I’m finally getting inked. It seems to be a fitting wrap-up to “My Year of Living Spiritually.” I want this past year to be forever seared on my body. After all, it has been packed with soulful adventures that have left a lasting impression on both my spirit and my psyche. The words of the poet Sylvia Plath seem apt here: “Wear your heart on your skin.”
Tattoos are personal history made manifest — an indelible imprint that you take with you to your grave. They’re also evidence that you have a few stories to tell. Once the preserve of sailors, bikers and inmates, tattoos have lost most of their outlaw status. But they still show a hint of defiance, proving that you can be a bit of a ‘badass’ — even in menopause.
Exactly a year ago, I decided to try and live my life as a more spiritual person. I cut my regular workload in half and devoted myself to, well, being more devotional. I didn’t enrol in theology school, trek the Camino or dance like a wild woman at Burning Man — all things that I would love to do one day but which my domestic responsibilities (teenagers to look after, mortgage to pay, pets to care for) don’t allow for currently. Instead, I stuck close to home and sang Beatles’ songs in a secular choir; did the downward dog during goat yoga; danced around a blazing bonfire with 50 witches; learned “the pleasure of presence” while forest bathing; hired a soul coach to kickstart my spiritual mojo; gave up booze for the 40 days of Lent; joined millions of others at the Women’s March on Washington D.C., had an out-of-this world trip while on magic mushrooms and another with holotropic breathwork; set up a home altar; used one app to meditate and another for a digital gratitude practice; visited a psychic, wore pretty — and maybe even powerful — crystals, experienced the laying on of hands during reiki and hosted a death dinner, as well as picked out my own coffin and visited a green burial site, where I expect to be buried in what I hope will be the much distant future.
I spent most of the last 12 months with my head in the clouds — sometimes literally — like the time I lived alone in a tree house in the woods for a few days as an experiment in solitude. And I’m not sure that I’m ready to come back down to earth. That’s partly because my spiritual to-do list remains unfinished. There are a bunch of activities that I didn’t fit in, including undergoing sound therapy, in which you crank up your body’s vibrational energy with crystal bowls and tuning forks, and trying out one of those sensory-deprivation float tanks, where you drift like a gently bouncing fetus in an amniotic-like pool of saltwater. I wanted to venture beyond birth, too, and give past life regression a whirl. (My husband thinks my monarchical tendencies stem from being a queen in a past life, and I could have proved him right!) As well, I wanted to practice trying to still my tongue (all of my grade school report cards said the same thing: “Anne talks too much in class.”) and sign up for a seven-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat. A croning ceremony was also on the list. It’s an affirming rite of passage into older age for women over 50, and I longed to wear ribbons in my hair, frolic through a field of wildflowers and ceremoniously toss my Spanx into the wind.
Of course, some things didn’t stick. I’m glad that I demystified tarot by learning about the symbolism of these ancient cards, but I don’t think that they can provide me with any real answers. I splurged on spiritual merch, but now I question buying the Buddha figure that sits in a corner of my living room. It feels too trendy and trite, especially because I know zilch about the Noble Eightfold Path. Ditto the prayer beads, the sweet grass for smudging and the Himalayan salt lamp. One item that I’m glad I bought, though, is a $12 shaman rattle. It’s supposed to call forth spirits and unblock negative energy, but I pick it up mostly to bug my kids, who roll their eyes every time I give it a playful shake in their direction.
Now that my yearlong experiment has come to an end, people ask if I feel more spiritual. Sometimes, they even look at me suspiciously, as if I’m sizing up their aura. But though I drink less wine and binge less frequently on Netflix, whenever I spend the night on the couch — with the remote in one hand and a glass of Shiraz in the other — I feel like a spiritual fraud. I berate myself for watching Better Call Saul instead of contemplating the state of my soul.
I certainly haven’t figured out all of the answers to living an ecclesiastic life. I don’t start each morning by getting up with the sunrise to light a chalice, om my way through hatha yoga or gently wake my children with the ping of meditation chimes. Nor do I spend my days floating from one supremely life-enriching task to the next. I expect that I’m much like you, living a life that can sometimes be messy and complicated, and far from perfect. I have days when I feel sad — not so sad that I can’t get out of bed in the morning, but sad enough to make me wonder how on earth I can feel that way when I’m alive and well, and have a pretty privileged life. Maybe these occasional pangs of melancholy are just the inevitable state of the human condition, or an unlucky toss of the genetic dice. Carl Jung said that “the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” I think he’s right.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian, once said that the goal of life “should be to live in radical amazement — to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.” Heschel added: “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
Although I didn’t realize it at the start of “My Year of Living Spiritually,” that’s exactly what I was searching for: amazement — a rekindled feeling of wonder and a sense of meaning in a world that seems to have gone rather mad. These days, it’s tempting to be cynical rather than spiritual, especially when the political leadership of the free world seems intent on destroying the planet, marginalizing the oppressed and glorifying greed. Maybe one way to fight against the inevitable disillusionment, disappointment and despair this causes is to cultivate an inner spiritual life — a reservoir of hope and faith in oneself and humankind to draw from whenever you feel depleted. Maybe, this can help amplify a determined outer life so that we can be of better service in the world.
There’s a holy host of practices that can help with this if you just give them a try. At first glance, some may seem “woo-woo,” but then they can turn out to be quite wonderful.
That brings me to my tattoo.
It’s a simple black-and-white barn swallow, perched at the top of my right shoulder, and fashioned in the old-school “Sailor Jerry” style. It’s a favourite symbol for sailors, who have it emblazoned on their body when first setting out to sea and then get a new one for every 5,000 nautical miles they travel. Swallows return to the same location every year to mate and nest, and it was once believed that the bird would protect sailors from storms, shipwrecks and drowning to guide them safely home. If the sailor died at sea, the bird would carry his soul to heaven.
I’m no seafarer, and I’m not sure where my soul will go. I was raised to believe that there were only two options, but I prefer the idea of it being carried aloft — forever in flight — heading in some mysterious direction, even as one day, this marked body of mine is laid to rest.