savoring the bitter & the sweet
"To be seen is a protest." ~ atiya jones, multidisciplinary artist based in Pittsburgh
A year ago, if you told me I would shave my head & get tattoos in 2020, my mind would race — what traumatic event would catapult me so viscerally out of my comfort zone?
Some would reply "2020."
A week ago, I sat on the floor & used the timer & portrait mode of my phone to take new headshots. Earrings by Blessing Baubles Co. Rose by Marisa Rae at PMA Tattoo.
I couldn't deny the impact this year's events have had on me. They've affected me on levels I have yet to perceive. But for now, I tie the rupture in my appearance to smaller developments:
Being out of school for the first time, without a full-time job.
After graduating from college, I began to build my vision of a portfolio career. Yet I felt the weight of this vision's dissonance with narratives I'd always conflated with a Successful Life: a job impressive to the most judgmental of relatives, a quick ascent out of student debt, a car, a house, marriage, family. Elements of becoming "respectable."
Once I was out of college & living a different narrative, the end goal of "respectable" seemed to mock me for not trying — or even wanting — to be there. A sense of inadequacy & failure breathed down my neck.
Yet what emerged was clarity as to why I chose a creative career. However slow the process, I’ve encountered authenticity and freedom that engulfs bitterness and uncertainty.
In pursuing a career that doesn't fit into any box, I shed my attachment to the endpoint at which I'd finally count as a "respectable adult."
drawing by atiya jones. Last week, when I saw her drawings for the first time, I immediately recognized the doodles I'd covered my notebooks with during college classes.
Spending more time in silence. Thinking about people. Life. Mortality.
A month into my new schedule at the bakery counter, I started thinking about the volume of people I interacted with on a daily basis. Hundreds upon hundreds. I wondered, what a marvel to encounter another human being — no matter how fleeting & impersonal the exchange. What a striking thing, to cross paths with another life being lived.
It sounds exasperatingly simple, yet unleashed wonder and reverence towards every person I passed on the street, every person at work (which didn't last long, as it made every shift unnecessarily exhausting).
Most of our customers are middle-aged or elderly. I began to imagine how long & slow their youth must have seemed to them, the way it now seems to me. Conversely, I suspected time would break loose of its heaviness, rendering me like them before I knew it.
That summer, I spent a lot of time lying awake at night. I couldn't place a finger on why — a sea of underlying causes for anxiety. Believing my parents looked down upon my vision of a career. My toxic relationship with eating & body image. A reawakening to the diversity of lived experience. An awakening to the reality of death.
That's when the idea of getting a tattoo knocked on my door.
Once it entered, it wouldn't leave. I thought about it for a week. Then, another. By the end of a third, I had an appointment booked.
The words translate to "As it was in the beginning." From a prayer in Ilocano, my mom's native language. Thanks to Marisa at PMA Tattoo for her gorgeous work. I had such a positive experience at their shop that I went back the following month.
Its permanence upon my skin expresses an openness, a willingness to diverge from respectability... Across languages, a movement of hope past temporality and into eternity. The things of this world will not last forever.
(from my journal after getting my first tattoo)
Learning to savor the bitter & the sweet of this life.
I'm learning what it means to approach the ugliness of life (dreariness, confusion, pain) not as something to be avoided at all costs, or rushed through sparingly. But rather, as something to be learned from. Something worth living through, with as much presence & intentionality as the moment allows.
Bitterness has taken these forms:
Feeling looked down upon by mostly white, wealthy customers at the bakery counter.
Comparing myself to people around me. In my head, turning their presence — their strength, their beauty — into proof that I am somehow "inferior."
A seemingly hopeless struggle with body image. Out of this hopelessness, shaving my head.
From my journal after shaving my head:
"To be seen is a protest." In the context of this interview, atiya jones was speaking as a Black woman. As a brown woman, I was struck by how eloquently these words captured the inner strength it takes to receive the gaze of others, when I have internalized (to the extreme) how my appearance clashes with how a woman "should" be.
no one who sees me could know the years of bitter struggle & self-loathing that led to this decision. they could not know the sweetness of relief in having done it. they can think anything hurtful of my appearance, then forget, within seconds, about my existence. i can gaze level-eyed into this truth. then, breathe deep. since 7, i have allowed a white-washed definition of beauty to decapacitate my sense of self-worth. why perpetuate this?
Sometimes, I need a reminder to savor the sweetness of life, as well:
In a career thick with uncertainty & instability, every bit of energy is an act of hope. I'm starting to recognize & celebrate the strength in this.
My life has been enriched by the presence of people I compared myself to.
Shaving my head has reset the terms on which I see my body.
Growing at my own pace.
In my previous post, I quoted dancer Remy Young on getting to know yourself beyond your art. Since graduating college, this has been my process of learning who I am, who I want to be, beyond a "flutist / writer / teaching artist."
True to her words, this process has deepened my presence as a performer. Offstage, it created a rupture in my appearance, one I have feared others will find unsettling. Yet I've found no room for regret.
Despite the steady toll of vulnerability — mixed with courage, mixed with abandonment — I find it a beautiful thing to embody these expressions of the ways I have hurt. Learned to hope. Live.