by Ashley Beth
“There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.” ~ Muhammed Ali Jinnah
It’s funny how circular life is. It’s funny after years of feeling like I had forgotten who I was, that I am suddenly rediscovering who I am by finding myself performing acts that I used to do when I knew myself better. I didn’t plan it that way. I do not plan things like that very well. At least not activities for myself. I have learned, after taking a real, hard look at myself, that for the past decade I have acted purely on the impulse of my emotions. I also possess boundless energy. I am remembering I am the kind of person with enough energy to study cancer drugs for four hours and then move on to a course towards earning a Bachelor of Arts that is conducted entirely in French, and then go to work to midnight, all the while rehearsing and memorizing two pages of a feminist production monologue. Therefore, you can imagine the kind of energy that by default goes into my emotions.
I never understood people when they told me I was intimidating. It was a realization completely blocked to me. Until I realized that I emoted like I produced. That I threw myself into emotions at a moment’s whim, which often would be felt by those around me, with the same level of boundless energy with which I did everything else. Of course that’s intimidating, Ash. Of course that gets to be too much after a while. Here I am, roving through life, picking up men and friends as projects, trying to change the pharmacy profession and be friends with everyone, and I’m wondering why I am always stressed out. Why I always felt like I was in survival mode. Because I was. I was performing triage with my energy. However, in the laws of triage, that is, medical triage, I was, completely, Doing It Wrong.
The triage, as I understand it, is an act of necessity performed in times of catastrophic disaster with limited resources to recover from the disaster. I learned it from ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ On the famed surgeon show, that shit happened all the time. I think that’s one of the reasons people responded so much to that show. People like seeing other people manage limited resources with or even without efficiency. In the case of ‘Grey’s,’ or real-life medical disasters, the objective is to stabilize and save as many wounded bodies as possible. It also means making tough decisions. If given the choice to tend to three minimally wounded bodies in the same time it would take to save one severely wounded body, the most logical choice is to direct energy towards saving the three. In my case of triage-ing, I was spending all of my energy on ‘healing’ things that were so severely wounded or incapable of being healed, and focusing none of my energy on the several, minimal tasks needed to sustain my esteem, peace of mind and relationship with myself.
Things like keeping up with my mail, doctors and dentists appointments, the last time I cut my toenails, shaved my legs, updated my resume. These things just didn’t seem as fun as the Bigger Projects. They weren’t challenging, therefore, I felt, that not performing them would be equally not challenging. I thought that my mail, even the time sensitive ones, would always be there. I would get to it later. I would organize my closet or my filing cabinet, later. They would always be there. They could not possibly move. They could even less possibly come to bite me in the ass later. I had bigger projects to attend to. I had Book Smarts, baby. And somehow, to me, that meant that my Street Smarts, what little I had of them, could fall by the wayside.
That’s right. I didn’t need to take care of myself. Just as much as I didn’t need to worry about my perception to others in my workplace. Or at the bar. Or that I was poor at looking people in the eye, which was a lot. I didn’t feel like showing others my gaze, especially when I was anxious or uncomfortable, which was a lot. Those all fell under the Label of Street Smarts. Interpersonal relationships. They didn’t matter. I could control relationships with people, I thought, with my Words. If my Words were Right, I they would make up for anything I lacked in appearance and perception. Just like my outstanding essays with ground-breaking perspectives on feminist struggle would cause my Women’s Studies professor to ignore that such ground-breaking essays were also two days late. I could control my teacher with my words. I was such a freaking Smarty Pants.
What happened to me once I set out on my own was the slow realization of how completely Stupid that mentality was. Stupid, and disrespectful. I got ‘perception’ and ‘disrespectful’ thrown in my word cloud a lot. I got ‘flaky’ thrown at me a lot. I hated these words. Not because of their negative connotations, although trust me, that definitely hurt my OCD, had-to-be-perfect, Honor Roll, Pharmacy and French majored psyche. I hated these words because I didn’t understand them. Just like the carbon and nitrogen structures in the chemistry classes I had to retake two times. Funnily enough, those subjects would not go away but just get harder and more defeating the more I ignored them. I didn’t like spending time and energy on something that pointed out that I wasn’t smart enough to know everything.
There’s a story about a woman who goes to live with a Guru in a cave and study until she learns to know everything. So she goes to the cave and meets the Guru, who has provided a pile of books. He told her to read those books until she was done, and then she would know everything. Every day he came to visit her, carrying a very heavy cane. Every day he would ask her “Have you learned everything there is to know, yet?” Every day, the woman would answer “No.” Upon hearing her answer, the Guru would then proceed to whack her heavily on the head with the cane. Finally, the Guru came to visit the woman in the cave one day and asked her the same question. When the woman responded with the same answer, the man raised his cane to whack her once again.
Suddenly, the woman reached out her hand and grabbed the cane, stopping it from hitting her on the head like it did so many times before. It was then that the Guru Congratulated her “Now you know everything you need to know,” he said. “How’s that?” the woman replied. “You have learned that you will never learn everything there is to know,” the Guru said. “And you have learned how to stop the pain.”
It’s painful to admit we don’t know something. I think that’s why so many people respect a person who can admit that they don’t know something. It’s also astonishing to see someone control their emotions. Someone who understands that by controlling their emotions, they are actually controlling the energy around them in a positive, productive way.
To me, these past few weeks in international events have been a reminder of this. We have witnessed, on a global scale, the attempt of a sovereign nation to control another’s ability to release a film to it’s audience. We have witnessed one religion’s radical extremists try to control a newspaper comic strip in another country. We are witnessing the same battle that re-occurs as a theme in the Anglo Saxon legend of King Arthur and Merlin. That is, Brawn trying to Reign over Brain. The Sword trying to be Mightier than the Pen.
On a more longitudinal time scale, we have witnessed the changing of what Pens look like, from a singular tool with hand-cramping limitations wielded exclusively by those with the fortune to be educated, to large, costly printing presses available only to the wealthy, to the widely distributed keyboard with access to a world-wide, often freely available network. Slowly and surely, we have become the Media. Now more than ever before can individual people control what is written, what is shared and what is seen. Now more than ever before have large, powerful groups tried to control how things are written, when and how it is shared and when and how it is seen. Now more than ever, is net neutrality, a term which describes the attempt of a few major internet providers to control their clients’ access to websites in their best interest, a topic and a threat.
I have seen award-winning newspaper journalists struggle to come to terms with their lay-off notice, as their newspaper moves more in the direction of online publishing. I see the fear in their eyes and hear the pain in their voice as they blame the internet and mobile devices for their demise. One journalist I knew walked into a bar he regularly frequented, late at night, to find most of the patrons sitting at the bar with their heads down, reading something off their phone. He grew upset and loudly demanded everyone put down their phone and talk to the person next to them. He later said he was kidding. I don’t think he was. He was trying to control the way people see information. He was used to controlling the pen, his pen earned him awards. He was famous, he told me. People had clipped out, framed and hung on their walls articles he had written.
It’s funny to see someone used to having a lot of control, come to terms when that control slips away. And it always does. We weren’t meant to stay the same, the only constant in life is change. We can’t control that, either. We can, however, control our reaction to it. We can control what we know. We can control how we act. But we can never know everything and we can never act in a way in which everyone will like us.
I used to be afraid of expressing art on my body with a tattoo for the same reason. I could not control my skin once that tattoo was drawn. After I made the decision to get one, that was it. I couldn’t flake out on a tattoo. Not without some painful surgery which seemed even more flaky to me. With such real knowledge of the permanence of this decision, and that I controlled the alpha and the omega, came the acceptance of the fact that my ability to control my feelings about the drawing that would remain on my body for the rest of my life, was dependent on my ability to reflect on what I wanted that drawing to look like for the rest of my life. Thankfully, I took my time. I thought about my values. I thought about what I found aesthetically pleasing. I went to the library. I have always friggin’ loved the library. I still do love the library. It’s funny how the library gives us permission to spend time with ourselves. To consider what we want to know, and how and why, without any financial limitations. (Besides operating hours—I always wanted a book on a Sunday….) It’s funny how operating hours have changed over the past 30 years. Nothing used to be open on Sunday. Now, business plans have reflected the natural human flavor of not having to control their time management and plan their errands. It was more lucrative to give people the ability to go to Walmart or Staples at 11pm. Or on Thanksgiving…Moving on…
The tattoo I ended up deciding on was a Pen on my Right Arm and a Sword on my Left. I chose the Pen for my Book Smarts, wielded conservatively on the arm that I primarily wrote with. My Left arm would then be dedicated to the sinister role of the Sword. The Sword was a tribute to the Street Smarts I had discovered during the years I lived alone. The years my friends and family weren’t around to understand the things I did were part of who I was, my development and to tell me if I looked ridiculous leaving the house dressed and styled the way I was.
I knew I wanted my tattoo at 27. I wanted to control the life of my skin the best I could. I wanted to remind myself, forever, how important it was to take care of myself. How important it was the choice of whether or not to take care of myself. I wanted to keep a piece of my 27 year old self alive. I had this theory that a part of us dies at 27. That it often represents a turning point in the modern, Westernized human life where street smarts and book smarts come together. Where the feelings of knowing everything leave our body, often painfully. When the unhealthy behaviors and coping mechanisms of our youth catch up with us and ask us to go left, or right.
I have always been afraid of turning 27. I was afraid I was going to not make it out of that year alive. So many more intelligent, more talented people met their end at 27. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and many others. The 27 Club, they were dubbed. It was too coincidental to be a coincidence, and one of the first things I learned from the first openly non-heterosexual I ever met was that Nothing is a Coincidence. I promised myself if I made it out of 27 alive, I would tattoo a piece of my skin so that it was always 27. To remind myself of the coping behaviors I used to think weren’t harmful, but healthy. To remind myself that my Pen is not mightier than my Sword, that in fact, the Pen provokes the Sword, and that the Sword provokes the Pen. My lesson was that the real object that is ultimately provoked is the Self, and the choices we make and the weapons we yield are all consequences of our Emotions.
I wish I could say I have split paths from my self-destructive coping mechanisms as easy as my skin was tattooed with a Sword and a Pen. I bet Sony wishes they didn’t back down to the swords of hackers who told them not to release their expensively penned movie. I bet the pen master Charlie Hebdo wished he had armed his employees with swords. I wish Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain could be writing songs about it. I wish it didn’t take me so many painful, embarassing years to find the balance between my own sword and pen. But here I sit. 28 years old, laying in the same place I laid when I was 9 years old. With my extensive Beanie Baby collection directly in my view. Next to the Buddha candle holder I bought during a shopping trip for a friend’s Bridal Shower, next to the stick I got in San Francisco with the engraving ‘Too Blessed to be Stressed.’ This is my Self. This is my Life.
This is Where I Am. I am marching on, with that same boundless energy. Emotions a little more in check, a little wiser on myself and what I give to and take from others. Overall, a little older, I guess you could say. I try to forget the extreme emotions of anger, hatred and guilt I have towards some of the people I’ve hurt with my Pen this year, from those who I’ve stabbed with my Sword, although it’s mostly my unemployed, disorganized self who Samurai’d that sucker into my own beating chest. No one else. I know, someday, in order to heal, if I can control my emotions, I will forget these obsessive thoughts. I will forget the feelings of guilt. But all it takes is a couple moments with myself and a full length mirror, and enough slack in my sleeves or privacy to bear the often covered back of my arms, to remind myself of the Power of My Decisions. Of my Sword, of my Pen, and the necessity of the Balance within myself. My Self, who will always be, however small, however blackened, Forever, 27.
illustration by David Pratt from a photograph by Ashley Beth