It is the tradition of sailors to use swallow imagery in tattoos to represent their travels, one for every 5,000 nautical miles, showing others their experience. Swallows may have been chosen for the fact that they are travelers, migrating to escape the cold and returning to the warmth. But, more likely, because they are a beacon to those out to sea. When all that can be seen is water in every direction, a swallow sighting is a sure sign that land is near. I haven’t spent any time sailing, but I feel a similar connection to these travelers.
The fourth in my tattoo, this bird began appearing in my life during late spring ’18. The first instance was when I wore a dress to work one day and someone complimented the beautiful swallows in the pattern, and after that I began to notice some near my home. They had probably been there all along, I just hadn’t noticed them before. They were my beacon; my sign that I was nearing land after being lost at sea for several decades. Around that same time I became aware of the literal journey I would soon take, that the swallow in this tattoo now represents – kayaking in Montana with First Descents. My experience there was ineffable. I felt the exact moment my walls crumbled and my heart burst open, drawing a line of demarcation in my life’s story – the struggles, pain, turbulent and absent relationships in which I had lost myself became cinder blocks in my foundation, no longer an encumbrance, but occupying space in a purposeful way. It was the completion of a journey I hadn’t realized I was on, finding the way back to ME. I earned my swallow and I don it proudly.
With the end of one journey came the beginning of a new one. Fortified and freed, green and full of promise, I entered the spring of my life. Enter the robin – bird number five.
I’ll be frank and say that it was not all sunshine and rainbows. Transitioning into this new phase meant making difficult choices and letting go of a lot. As much satisfaction as I had felt achieving the milestones of adult life, there was always something missing. On paper everything was great, but deep down in the core of who I am, the tiny voice of my authentic self was using its last breaths before suffocation to cry out and be heard. It’d been so long since I buried myself in order to survive that it was going to take something drastic to get my attention. Though scientists may not agree, I believe this was a contributing factor to the development of Multiple Sclerosis. The dis-ease I was experiencing led to physical symptoms of disease. My body literally began attacking itself. I was forced to accept my mortality and evaluate the quality of the life I’d been living.
I realized that changes would need to be made, and in order to make space for what was lacking, things no longer serving me would have to give way. This meant the end of my career and the end of my marriage. Along with those went a regular pay check, health insurance, the house I owned, seeing my children every day, extended family, and many friends. It was painful. It still is. But it was my choice, and I remain confident that it was the right one.
What has since been added to my life has brought a sense of fulfillment and purpose I’d not known before. The short list includes practicing yoga as a student, teacher, and way of life, exploration of my faith and spirituality, friends who are kindred spirits and inspire me, an investment in community and being of service, time to dedicate to creative outlets, and an increased desire to simply take care of myself. As if by magic, the veil of self-consciousness and fear I’d worn most of my life dissolved. Instead of experiencing the world as a critical observer taking it all in, I became a participant, being led by my heart to connect. I used to make mental note cards of potential conversation topics when I knew I’d be spending time with someone I knew; making conversation was awkward and difficult. Now I happily and easily make conversation with strangers. I still surprise myself sometimes. However scary and difficult it was, choosing to be true to myself and pursue those things that, in my gut, I know are good for me was an act self-love. And by choosing to love and honor myself, my capacity to love the rest of the world grew exponentially.
Bird number six is my cardinal. I know a great many people who have incorporated the symbolism of the cardinal into their lives as a remembrance of loved ones who have passed. I find this quite beautiful. However, my cardinal represents something much different.
Cardinals are singers. Their song is a string of loud, clear whistles (sometimes sounding like they are saying birdie, birdie, birdie). They sing all year long, but are loudest during the spring and early summer.
I kept quiet for a long time, aiming to fly under the radar. It was an act of self-preservation; if I didn’t do anything to draw attention to myself I would blend in and be safe from judgement and rejection. I was very good at it. But I had an epiphany. Silencing myself out of fear of rejection was not saving me from it. I was subjecting my own self to that rejection every day and creating the feelings unworthiness. I was in an abusive relationship with myself, making myself small and taking away my own power.
I am learning to be more like the cardinal – to sing freely, loud and clear. I have a voice that is unique. I can use it to add something beautiful to the world. Hearing my own voice was uncomfortable at first. I was fearful of the power. Setting intentions and committing to heart-centered communication helped me to feel more confident in owning it. In relearning how to use my voice I am developing more respect for myself, and am growing beyond the fear the kept me small all those years. Now I have dignity.
The cardinal in my tattoo is in a position of prominence, wings spread wide, soaring upward. It reminds me to follow suit. I will no longer make myself small. I will not hide. I will spread my wings as wide as they will go and use my voice to leave this world better than I found it.