Brain Pickings

Pen & Ink: An Illustrated Collection of Unusual, Deeply Human Stories Behind People’s Tattoos

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Stories that “speak of lives you’ll never live and experiences you know precisely.”

We wear the stories of our lives — sometimes through our clothes, sometimes even more deeply, through the innermost physical membrane that separates self from world. More than mere acts of creative self-mutilation, tattoos have long served a number of unusual purposes, from celebrating science to asserting the power structures of Russia’s prison system to offering a lens on the psychology of regret.

In Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them (public library), based on their popular Tumblr of the same title, illustrator and visual storyteller Wendy MacNaughton — she of extraordinary sensitivity to the human experience — and editor Isaac Fitzgerald catalog the wild, wicked, wonderfully human stories behind people’s tattoos.

From a librarian’s Sendak-like depiction of a Norwegian folktale her grandfather used to tell her, to a writer who gets a tattoo for each novel he writes, to a journalist who immortalized the first tenet of the Karen revolution for Burma’s independence, the stories — sometimes poetic, sometimes political, always deeply personal — brim with the uncontainable, layered humanity that is MacNaughton’s true medium.

The people’s titles are as interesting as the stories themselves — amalgamations of the many selves we each contain and spend our lives trying to reconcile, the stuff of Whitman’s multitudes — from a “pedicab operator and journalist” to an “actress / director / BDSM educator” to “cartoonist and bouncer.”

The inimitable Cheryl Strayed — who knows a great deal about the tiny beautiful things of which life is made and whose own inked piece of personal history is among the stories — writes in the introduction:

As long as I live I’ll never tire of people-watching. On city buses and park benches. In small-town cafes and crowded elevators. At concerts and swimming pools. To people-watch is to glimpse the mysterious and the banal, the public face and the private gesture, the strangest other and the most familiar self. It’s to wonder how and why and what and who and hardly ever find out.

This book is the answer to those questions. It’s an intimate collection of portraits and stories behind the images we carry on our flesh in the form of tattoos.

[...]

Each of the stories is like being let in on sixty-three secrets by sixty-three strangers who passed you on the street or sat across from you on the train. They’re raw and real and funny and sweet. They speak of lives you’ll never live and experiences you know precisely. Together, they do the work of great literature — gathering a force so true they ultimately tell a story that includes all.

Chris Colin, writer

For writer Chris Colin, the tattoo serves as a sort of personal cartography of time, as well as a reminder of how transient our selves are:

I got this tattoo because I suspected one day I would think it would be stupid. I wanted to mark time, or mark the me that thought it was a good idea. Seventeen years later. I hardly remember it’s there. But when I do, it reminds me that whatever I think now I probably won’t think later.

Yuri Allison, student

For student Yuri Allison, it’s a symbolic reminder of her own inability to remember, a meta-monument to memory, that vital yet enormously flawed human faculty:

I have an episodic memory disorder. I don’t have any long-term memory. My childhood is completely blank, as is my schooling until high school. Technically I can’t recall anything that’s beyond three years in the past. I find it very difficult to talk about, simply because I still can’t wrap my head around the idea myself, so when someone talks to me about a memory we are supposed to share I simply smile and say that I don’t remember. Just like my memories, lip tattoos are known to fade with time.

Roxane Gay, writer and professor

For writer, educator, and “bad feminist” Roxane Gay, it is a deliberate editing of what Paul Valéry called “the three-body problem”:

I hardly remember not hating my body. I got most of my seven arm tattoos when I was nineteen. I wanted to be able to look at my body and see something I didn’t loathe, that was part of my body by choosing entirely. Really, that’s all I ever wanted.

Morgan English, research director

For research director Morgan English, the tattoo is a depiction of “a series of childhood moments” strung together to capture her grandmother’s singular spirit in an abstract way:

My grandma died in a freak accident in May of last year. She was healthy as an ox — traveling the world with her boyfriend well into her 80s — then she broke her foot, which created a blood clot that traveled to her brain. Three days later, she was gone.

The respect and admiration I have for her is difficult to articulate. here was a woman who endured two depressions (post-WWI Weimar Germany, from which she escaped to the U.S. in 1929, just before our stock market crashed) followed by a series of traumatic events (incestuous rape, a violent husband, the suicide of her only son). You’d think these things would break a person, or at least harden them, but she only grew more focused. She once told me, “Fix your eyes on the solution, it’s the only way things get solved! Just keep moving and you’ll become the woman you’ve always wanted to be.”

Thao Nguyen, musician

The hardships, joys, and complexities of family are a running theme. Thao Nguyen, one of my favorite musicians, writes:

I moved across the country from my family, not to be far away, but with no concern for being close.

I was a taciturn family friend. Not a sister. Not a daughter. But no matter the distance, a part of me was always certain I would come back to be an aunt.

One week after my nephew, Sullivan, was born, I had his name on my wrist. There’s plenty of space for any of his siblings who might follow.

It’s been almost two years now and I go home to visit when I can, not just to pass through. I listen, I ask questions, I commit my family to memory, how they lighten up, how they grimace. I hate the time I wasted, and I fear the rate of everyone’s disappearance. Now when I leave, the distance between us is not nearly as expansive. Often it is no more than my eyes to my arm. Should I forget that I belong to people, I have Sullivan to remind me.

Caroline Paul, writer

Writer Caroline Paul — incidentally, MacNaughton’s partner and co-author of the excellent Lost Cat, one of the best books of 2013 — inks a kinship of ideals:

My brother had a secret life for twenty years as a member of the Animal Liberation Front. He was finally caught and sentenced to four years for burning down a horse slaughterhouse. I got this tattoo for him, while he was in prison. It’s my only tattoo.

It says “My heroes rescue animals.”

Mac McClelland, journalist

Journalist Mac McClelland, author of For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War, immortalizes the dermis-deep commitment to a different kind of rights cause:

The first tenet of the Karen revolution for independence from the Burmese junta is “For us to surrender is out of the question.” Little kids wear T-shirts emblazoned with it; adults bring it up, drunk and patriotic at parties. After I came home from living with Karen refugees on the Thai/Burma border in 2006, and before I wrote a book of the same title, I got the first tenet and the fourth — “We must decide our own political destiny” — tattooed on each side of my rib cage so I wouldn’t ever forget what some people were fighting for.

Mona Eltahawy, writer and public speaker

An undercurrent of political and humanitarian commitment runs throughout the book. Writer and public speaker Mona Eltahawy shares the harrowing story of her inked indignation:

I lost something the night the Egyptian riot police beat me and sexually assaulted me. I was detained for six hours at the Interior Ministry and another six by military intelligence, where I was interrogated while I was blindfolded. During my time at the Interior Ministry I’d been able to surreptitiously use an activist’s smart phone to tweet “Beaten, arrested, Interior Ministry.” About a minute later the phone’s battery died. I won’t allow myself to imagine what could have happened if I hadn’t been able to send out that tweet. After I was finally released, I found out that within fifteen minutes of the tweet #freemona was rending globally, Al Jazeera and The Guardian reported my detention, and the state department tweeted me back to tell me they were on the case. I knew I was lucky. If it wasn’t for my name, my fame, my tweet, my double citizenship, and so many other privileges I might be dead.

Sekhmet. The goddess of retribution and sex. The head of a lioness. Tits and hips. The key of life in one hand, the staff of power in the other. That paradoxical — or perhaps they’re two sides of one coin — mix of pain and pleasure. Retribution and sex. I’d never wanted a tattoo before, but as sadness washed away and my anger and the Vicodin wore off, it became important to both celebrate my survival and make a mark on my body of my own choosing.

Michelle Crouch, public radio intern

But what makes the book so immeasurably wonderful is its perfectly balanced dance across the spectrum of human experience, where the dark and the luminous are given equal share. Public radio intern Michelle Crouch shares one of the sweetest stories, inspired by artist Steven Powers’s graffiti love letters to the city:

I used to ride the Market-Frankford line [in Philadelphia] all the way west to get to work. After 46th Street the train runs on an elevated track and as I rode to this job I hated, colorful murals began popping up at eye level. They said things like “YOUR EVERAFTER IS ALL I’M AFTER” and “HOLD TIGHT” and “WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS.” They cheered me up. Once, on my day off, I walked from 46th to 63rd Street on a sort of pilgrimage and met the artist who greeted me from a crane as he painted the letters “W-A-N-T” on a brick wall. When I heard he was designing a series of tattoos based on the love letter murals, I decided to get one. A guy I’d just started dating accompanied me to the tattoo shop. I picked out “WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS.” The words remind me to be generous. I try to live them every day.

Now I have a job I like and I’m married to that boy I had just started dating. Marriage strikes me as being a lot like the tattoo — another way of making generosity permanent.

Pen & Ink is absolutely delightful from cover to cover. Supplement it with the project’s ongoing online incarnation, then treat yourself to MacNaughton’s spectacular Meanwhile and her Brain Pickings artist series contributions.

Images courtesy of Wendy MacNaughton / Bloomsbury

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Marcus Aurelius on What His Father Taught Him About Humility, Honor, Kindness, and Integrity

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What it takes to attain “the mark of a soul in readiness.”

Marcus Aurelius is considered the last of Ancient Rome’s Five Good Emperors, but he is perhaps best remembered for his contributions to philosophy as one of the most influential Stoics. His proto-blog Meditations (public library; free download) is as much a portal into his inner life as a record of his “personal micro-culture” — the myriad influences he absorbed and integrated into what became his own philosophical ideas, which endure as pillars of Western thought.

From his greatest teacher, Quintus Junius Rusticus, he learned “to read attentively” rather than skimming and not to be satisfied with superficial knowledge; from the politician Claudius Maximus, another one of his mentors, “a personality in balance: dignity and grace together”; from his brother Severus, “to help others and be eager to share, not to be a pessimist, and never to doubt your friends’ affection for you”; from his mother, generosity and an “inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it.” But perhaps his greatest influence was his adopted father — after his biological father’s death, Aurelius was raised by his paternal grandfather Marcus Annius Verus, whom he came to consider his father and whose values of humility, honor, nonjudgmental kindness, and personal integrity made a lifelong impression on the young man.

Aurelius enumerates his father-figure’s virtues:

Compassion. Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he’d reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence.

Listening to anyone who could contribute to the public good.

His dogged determination to treat people as they deserved.

A sense of when to push and when to back off.

[...]

His ability to feel at ease with people — and put them at their ease, without being pushy.

Aurelius makes a special note of his fatherly grandfather’s dedication to true critical thinking and his refusal to let people-pleasing warp his integrity:

His searching questions at meetings. A kind of single-mindedness, almost, never content with first impressions, or breaking off the discussion prematurely.

[...]

His restrictions on acclamations — and all attempts to flatter him… And his attitude to men: no demagoguery, no currying favor, no pandering. Always sober, always steady, and never vulgar or a prey to fads.

A related virtue, one at least as rare today as it was in Ancient Rome, was that he neither glorified privilege nor romanticized poverty:

Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness

[...]

The way he handled the material comforts that fortune had supplied him in such abundance — without arrogance and without apology. If they were there, he took advantage of them. If not, he didn’t miss them.

No one ever called him glib, or shameless, or pedantic. They saw him for what he was: a man tested by life, accomplished, unswayed by flattery, qualified to govern both himself and them.

Those who suffer from debilitating chronic pain would appreciate this particular superhuman feat:

The way he could have one of his migraines and then go right back to what he was doing — fresh and at the top of his game.

Aurelius summarizes his father’s virtues:

You could have said of him (as they say of Socrates) that he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy. Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark of a soul in readiness — indomitable.

Meditations, particularly the translation by Gregory Hays, is excellent in its entirety. An inferior translation is in the public domain and thus available as a free download. Complement it with Montaigne on how to live, a similarly timeless trove of wisdom some fifteen centuries after Marcus Aurelius, then revisit Seneca on the shortness of life — perhaps the greatest Stoic meditation of all.

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The Artist and the Anguish of the American Dream: Zadie Smith’s Love-Hate Letter to New York

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“The greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization.”

With his philosophy of happiness as a moral obligation, it is no surprise that Albert Camus is intellectual America’s favorite European export. The American Dream is built on the pursuit of happiness, but Camus amplifies it from a mere right to something more, something better aligned with the modern condition of compulsive pursuit — of happiness, of productivity, of self-actualization. Indeed, this is a paradoxical culture where the Self reigns supreme, even though we know it is an illusion; a culture built on hard-headed, hard-bodied, hard-and-fast individualism, even though we don’t know how to be alone. Ours is an era built on the legacy of the age of anxiety, the pathology of which we’ve perfected to a virtuoso degree.

Some weeks ago, I attended Amanda Stern’s excellent Happy Endings literary salon, where writers are asked to read their work. The magnificent Zadie Smith, she of great wisdom on the craft of writing and the psychology of the writer’s mind, read an enchanting essay she had just written — about Manhattan, about our modern compulsions, about the artist and the anguish of the American Dream. The essay, titled “Find Your Beach,” is now published by The New York Review of Books. With unparalleled humor and humility, Smith explores the essential hubris of our age, not without admitting her willful participation as an ambitious cog in the machinery of compulsive self-actualization.

She opens with a view of a billboard across from her university housing in Soho — a beer ad, “very yellow and the background luxury-holiday-blue,” captioned “Find your beach.” Smith finds the text — almost a command — perfectly, tragically emblematic of American culture. She writes:

It seems to me uniquely well placed, like a piece of commissioned public art in perfect sympathy with its urban site. The tone is pure Manhattan. Echoes can be found in the personal growth section of the bookstore (“Find your happy”), and in exercise classes (“Find your soul”), and in the therapist’s office (“Find your self”).

Smith considers the ad’s particular placement in Soho — “home to media moguls, entertainment lawyers, every variety of celebrity, some students, as well as a vanishingly small subset of rent-controlled artists and academics” — at once paradoxical and telling, a kind of self-aware eulogy to those vanishing bastions of culture:

Collectively we, the people of Soho, consider ourselves pretty sophisticated consumers of media. You can’t put a cheesy ad like that past us. And so the ad has been reduced to its essence — a yellow undulation against a field of blue — and painted directly onto the wall, in a bright pop-art style. The mad men know that we know the Soho being referenced here: the Soho of Roy Lichtenstein and Ivan Karp, the Soho that came before Foot Locker, Sephora, Prada, frozen yogurt. That Soho no longer exists, of course, but it’s part of the reason we’re all here, crowded on this narrow strip of a narrow island. Whoever placed this ad knows us well.

Even the language of the caption, Smith notes, is odd — “faintly threatening mixture of imperative and possessive forms, the transformation of a noun into a state of mind” — and reflective of the undulating cult of the Self. Where alcohol ads used to promise the illusion for communal fun, she notes, they now sell the illusion of solitary bliss:

Here the focus is narrow, almost obsessive. Everything that is not absolutely necessary to your happiness has been removed from the visual horizon. The dream is not only of happiness, but of happiness conceived in perfect isolation. Find your beach in the middle of the city. Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if — as in the case of this wall painting — it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go. The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty.

Illustration by counterculture cartoonist Peter Kruper from 'Drawn to New York.' Click image for more

One can’t help but think of E.B. White’s 1949 ode to Gotham, perhaps the finest and most enduring portrait of the city ever committed to paper. White writes of “the essential fever of New York,” a city populated by strangers who have come “seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail,” a city filled with “the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.” For White, writing a decade before social psychologist Abraham Maslow established self-actualization as a cultural fetish, New York’s singular proposition was one of promise. For Smith, it seems to be one of peril — one that, perhaps like the bibulous billboard’s imperative to “find your beach,” is toxic but nonetheless alluring, inescapable. She writes:

In an exercise class recently the instructor shouted at me, at all of us: “Don’t let your mind set limits that aren’t really there.” You’ll find this attitude all over the island. It is encouraged and reflected in the popular culture, especially the movies, so many of which, after all, begin their creative lives here, in Manhattan… Our happiness, our miseries, our beaches, or our blasted heaths — they are all within our own power to create, or destroy…

The beach is always there: you just have to conceive of it. It follows that those who fail to find their beach are, in the final analysis, mentally fragile; in Manhattan terms, simply weak… To find your beach you have to be ruthless. Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment — as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything — not even reality — to impinge upon that clear field of blue.

Once again, White’s Manhattan comes to mind, with its gift of “insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute,” as Smith lament’s Manhattan’s existential imperative:

There is a kind of individualism so stark that it seems to dovetail with an existentialist creed: Manhattan is right at that crossroads. You are pure potential in Manhattan, limitless, you are making yourself every day. When I am in England each summer, it’s the opposite: all I see are the limits of my life. The brain that puts a hairbrush in the fridge, the leg that radiates pain from the hip to the toe, the lovely children who eat all my time, the books unread and unwritten.

This, perhaps, was what 36-year-old Italo Calvino felt when he recorded his first impressions of America, “the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little.”

Smith observes the centripetal force with which New York, every time she returns, pulls her into its vortex of unrelenting beach-finding:

I have to get used to old New York ladies beside themselves with fury that I have stopped their smooth elevator journey and got in with some children. I have to remember not to pause while walking in the street — or during any fluid-moving city interaction — unless I want to utterly exasperate the person behind me. Each man and woman in this town is in pursuit of his or her beach and God help you if you get in their way.

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

But what makes Smith’s essay so compelling is that the Soho tower from which she observes the “Find your beach” billboard is by no means an ivory one — her lament is rooted not in an onlooker’s static judgment but in a participant’s dynamic self-awareness:

I suppose it should follow that I am happier in pragmatic England than idealist Manhattan, but I can’t honestly say that this is so. You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality. “A reality shaped around your own desires” — there is something sociopathic in that ambition.

It is also a fair description of what it is to write fiction. And to live in a city where everyone has essentially the same tunnel vision and obsessive focus as a novelist is to disguise your own sociopathy among the herd. Objectively all the same limits are upon me in Manhattan as they are in England. I walk a ten-block radius every day, constrained in all the usual ways by domestic life, reduced to writing about whatever is right in front of my nose. But the fact remains that here I do write, the work gets done.

Even if my Manhattan productivity is powered by a sociopathic illusion of my own limitlessness, I’m thankful for it, at least when I’m writing. There’s a reason so many writers once lived here, beyond the convenient laundromats and the take-out food, the libraries and cafés. We have always worked off the energy generated by this town, the money-making and tower-building as much as the street art and underground cultures.

And yet, Smith mourns the loss of the underground creative energies that made Manhattan — those of Walt Whitman’s Bohemian coterie and of Patti Smith’s starving-artist circles — replaced now by something more ominous, something sterilized by the relentless pursuit of self-actualization:

A twisted kind of energy radiates instead off the soulcycling mothers and marathon-running octogenarians, the entertainment lawyers glued to their iPhones and the moguls building five “individualized” condo townhouses where once there was a hospital.

It’s not a pretty energy, but it still runs what’s left of the show. I contribute to it. I ride a stationary bike like the rest of them. And then I despair when Shakespeare and Co. closes in favor of another Foot Locker. There’s no way to be in good faith on this island anymore. You have to crush so many things with your mind vise just to get through the day…

The greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next.

What emerges, then, is the notion that happiness is to be allowed rather than attained, a notion closer to Alan Watts than to Camus. But Smith’s essential lament is that such gentle surrender is one of which we beach-hungry moderns, whether New Yorkers by residency or by geographically unmoored temperament, seem incapable. And yet isn’t this awareness — awareness Smith crystallizes with far crisper eloquence than most are capable of, yet one most of us experience in a perpetual cycle of reconciliation — already a dissolution of that “sociopathic illusion”? She concludes:

I can see my own beach ahead now, as the children grow, as the practical limits fade; I see afresh the huge privilege of my position; it reclarifies itself. Under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.

It is such a good town in which to work and work. You can find your beach here, find it falsely, but convincingly, still thinking of Manhattan as an isle of writers and artists — of downtown underground wildlings and uptown intellectuals — against all evidence to the contrary. Oh, you still see them occasionally here and there, but unless they are under the protection of a university — or have sold that TV show — they are all of them, every single last one of them, in Brooklyn.

Smith’s full essay is well worth reading, as is her 2009 collection, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

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