The Tattooed Poets Project: Cheryl Dumesnil

Today's tattooed poet is Cheryl Dumesnil.

She offers up this lovely sand dollar tattoo:


Cheryl informs us that Amy Justen from Sacred Rose Tattoo in Berkeley did the work, three sand dollars on her lower left leg:

"Before my first son, Brennan, was born, I had three miscarriages. After his birth, I packed those losses away in a box marked “then,” and moved forward into parenthood. Or so I thought. Nearly a year after my second son, Kian, was born, old grief began seeping out of that box, coloring my days. While exploring how those miscarriages were still affecting me, as a way of integrating them
into my life rather than denying their impact on me, I had three sand dollars tattooed on my leg."

What folows is an excerpt from Love Song for Baby X, a memoir about Cheryl's circuitous route to parenthood, that tells the sand dollar story:


There is also a poem of Cheryl's over on BillyBlog here.

* * *



Sitting in meditation, I close my eyes and invite grief to appear. Now that I’m safely ensconced in parenthood, I can do this. Now that I know what I’m grieving: not the loss of parenthood, but the loss of three babies, I can do this. There, I said it: babies.



I breathe in. I see a meadow full of ragweed and green foxtails. I breathe out.



I wait.



Will grief enter as a mountain lion, all creep, shadow, and snarl? Will grief enter as a black-tailed deer, timidly nibbling the undergrowth?



I breathe in. I breathe out. I wait.



From the center of the field, something white and winged flickers up out of the grasses, flies like a lazy spring butterfly across the blue sky and lands on my left leg. It presses an image into my flesh then dissolves.



What I see there: three sand dollars sketched on my skin.



“Really?” I ask.



“Yes,” grief confirms, “really.”



“Okay.”



* * *



“I know what my next tattoo will be.” I present this fact to my wife Tracie as she is standing in the bathroom, brushing her teeth.



She spits a mouthful of foam into the sink, “Yeah, the cherry blossoms and humming bird, right?”



“Well yeah,” I say, “that one too, but first I need to get a different tattoo.” I touch the outside of my lower left leg, “three sand dollars, for the three babies we lost.”



Tracie looks at me, blinking, toothbrush held in midair.



When I speak it out loud, the tattoo plan seems weird, a bit extreme. I mean, were they really babies? Were they really important enough to warrant a permanent mark on my body? I say, “I’m gonna sit with it for a few days, to make sure the image sticks. But it arrived in such an authentic way, I feel like I need to do this.”



She’s not a fan of tattoos, my wife. And yet she knows tattoo is a primal means of self-expression for me. This conflict of interests—wanting to offer me her unconditional support, not wanting her wife to look like a circus freak—it hangs in the air. Until we burst out laughing.



A memorial tattoo. A monument to three spirits that passed through this body. A tribute to all I’ve learned through their passing.



* * *



A week before my appointment at Sacred Rose Tattoo, I walk Pajaro Dunes, the beach of my childhood, looking for whole sand dollars. I want to bring samples to the tattoo studio, to present my artist, Amy, with examples of the real thing.



I want her to feel their grit between her finger tips, to trace the gray veins that creep up their sides like fissures in concrete, to see how the five-pointed star is made up of hundreds of needle-thin lines, to break one open and release the three, tiny, porcelain-like doves that rattle around inside.



I know this length of beach like no other. I know where the waves cross over each other, creating pockets in the sand that catch sand dollars, a cache revealed at low tide.



This weekend, for the first time in my life, I can’t find a single whole sand dollar. This weekend, I carry home a small Tupperware bowl filled with bone-white fragments.



* * *



The electric buzz of Amy’s tattoo gun, the burn of ink needled between my epidermal layers, sends endorphins pulsing through me. Lying on her table, I float in and out of the room, memory playing its filmstrip in my brain.



Years ago, while walking along San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, troubling through a life-altering break-up, I recalled something my sister had found on the beach when we were kids: a dime-sized sand dollar. Logic questioned the accuracy of that memory: could that really have happened? I looked out at the Pacific: five tiers of gray and churning pre-storm waves. How could something so fragile have made it from there to here? Not possible. Then I looked down at the sand. There it was, not five inches away from my feet: another dime-sized sand dollar on the beach.



Now and then, Amy’s voice swirls into my dream-state: “How are you doing?”



“Mmm. Fine,” I hum.



And then the dream about my grandma returns—she and I standing in the shallow surf at Pajaro Dunes, sunlight glaring so brightly off the water, I couldn’t look directly at it. Reaching blindly into the sea, again and again, I grabbed up fistfuls of broken sand dollars, wanting the whole ones I couldn’t see. “Keep trying,” she said, “They’re in there. Just keep trying.”



As Amy works, etching the hair-fine, single-needle lines into my skin, I learn what the sand dollars are really about: hope and faith, trying and believing.


~~~~~~~~~~


Winner of the 2008 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, Cheryl Dumesnil is the author of In Praise of Falling, editor of Hitched! Wedding Stories from San Francisco City Hall, and co-editor, with Kim Addonizio, of Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos. Her poems have appeared in Nimrod, Indiana Review, Calyx, and Many Mountains Moving, among other literary magazines. Her essays have appeared on literarymama.com, hipmama.com, mamazine.com and in Hip Mama Zine. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her wife and their two sons. Visit her at http://www.cheryldumesnil.com/.

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