I’ve wanted a tattoo for a long time. I think my interest got sparked in seminary (everything happens in seminary!). I have a tattoo pinterest board and saved instagram posts. A potential idea comes to me, and I obsessively look for examples and imagine what my version could look like.
I still don’t have one for many reasons, but I haven’t quite been able to let go of the idea either. One of the images I return to repeatedly is a compass rose. As a female private pilot, it reminds me of friendships, adventures, and “aviatrix” pioneers. It’s also a literal and metaphorical symbol of journey and following (or finding) a direction — themes that have been important in my life.
But despite the compelling case for a compass rose, I haven’t committed to it (or anything else) being a mark on my body. It’s not really about changing my mind or fear of regret. It’s about what something embedded (like ink into skin or beliefs and ideas) can mean or say.
Earlier this week, I attended a workshop hosted by the Kaleo Center for Faith, Justice and Social Transformation. The guest speaker was Jim Bear Jacobs, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation, an American Indian tribe located in central Wisconsin far from its ancestral home.
During Jim Bear’s talk, he drew two pictures on a sheet of flip chart paper. One was a compass rose, with the standard criss-crossing arrows shaped like a plus sign. The other was a medicine wheel, where the intersecting lines are drawn on a diagonal like the letter x.
For the compass rose, he asked the audience what directions should go on the ends of the arrows. The simultaneous response: north, south, east and west. He then shared the flow for the regions indicated on the medicine wheel: east, south, west and north.
One is linear and oppositional. The other is circular and harmonious. Each represents a fundamentally different worldview from the other.
Jim Bear asked what changes when we remember that sunrises and sunsets aren’t bookends to a day but parts of the never-ending circling of the earth around the sun. Or that inhales and exhales aren’t discrete actions but aspects of a continuing flow of the breath.
When presented with the compass rose, I dutifully called out N-S-E-W without any thought.
But let’s think and pause and reconsider what may be rote or universally understood or taught or created.
What can shake out when we pay attention to the particularities, to what seems permanently inked, but is more fluid after all.
Lovely. Like you, I immediately thought N-S-E-W. To be reminded of the circular nature of life is powerful indeed.