My son wants to know why flies are even a thing; he wants to know why bugs are even a thing. They bother him. I get it. I, too, have his sensitivities. On the other side of the world, where our real lives reside, Chicago winters coerce living things to slumber or die—not so here, in Thailand, where life announces itself in its full verdancy and fecundity, unending, its tight and insistent tendrils ever unfurling.
Tomorrow, I will receive the sacred blessing of a Sak Yant, a talismanic, ancient, protective, and mystical stick-and-poke tattoo from one of the most revered spiritual masters in Thailand. This, however, was not a decision I made for myself: my mother said she had a premonition; it was overwhelming. She told me I needed this tattoo for protection. Such tattoos are simply part of Thai culture, especially as it is lived by the peasant class, a class that, without power or money or resources, depends on luck and superstition to bank their hopes and dreams and visions of someday. Superstition or no, my mother says I need the protection. And soon.
So here I find myself, in the country of my birth, on the eve of an eternal marking.
It is more than a mere mark; like baptism or confirmation, getting a Sak Yant is ceremony, a pronouncement that one has made a significant life choice. With this mark, I am making the choice to be mindful of the spiritual dimension. In other words, I will have to believe that there is something to believe in.
I tell my son that bugs are a thing because God made them. My children, who are not brought up religiously, know that I use the word loosely. What I mean by God is something greater, a mystery, a deep unknowing that touches us and perhaps makes the flowers beautiful or worse for wear. My son corrects me: God didn’t make bugs, he says; God made life. According to this worldview, whatever happened after that just happened. Bugs just happened, but life made it possible for bugs to happen.
I know that things just happen. I just happened to lose a pearl earring on the flight here. I took the earrings off in the middle of an awful wake-and-sleep, toss-and-turn, nauseating airplane slumber and just tossed them in my bag without properly securing them. It was a bittersweet loss, because the pearls served as proof, a visible mark, that I, a poor girl, had made it.
I attended a women’s college in the South, where girls from well-to-do families wore their pearls even as they burned off their tiny salads on the treadmills. As a student there, I didn’t own pearls, and even though I eschewed money and what it represented, I thought their pearls were beautiful.
I pined for their pearls. I wanted the luster, the shine they bestowed, but more, I wanted the sense of self-worth, of belonging, of status and surety, even if these things were merely fabrications of my own mind, informed by and easily persuaded by my insecurities.
When I got my first salaried job for $25,000 a year as an editorial assistant for an academic publisher in Manhattan, I bought myself, discounted from overstock.com, pearl earrings, one of which is apparently lost forever, perhaps stuck in a crack underneath seat 64E en route to Hong Kong as we speak.
My son is bothered by all the flies in this country; my daughter seems to be the food choice for mosquitoes. Despite their insect woes, my children are luckier than I was at their age. I didn’t visit Thailand until I was seventeen, going on eighteen; for my family, it was hard won. I had not fully considered that there existed another world to consider. Until my first visit, Thailand and my mother’s sufferings and poverty were mere abstractions. And although my children did not know my Thai grandmother or live in her little shack, or poop in her outhouse into the old-world toilet, or force that poop into the septic tank by pouring water into that old-world toilet, or sleep in sweaty sheets under mosquito netting without air-conditioning, they have so much more to consider here. They have seen the little girl across the street who lives among piles of broken glass; they have seen the little cat eating grass outside the noodle shop, vomiting right there in front of us; they have seen the flies that land on the little shop’s table; they have seen how effortlessly I exchange my bills for baht; they have seen how little little can be.
Despite my mother’s flight to the United States and her hard-earned financial stability and despite my being a professor with a Ph.D., here, I am still of the peasant class. I will always be. I am unsophisticated. I am of the country. I am not the daughter of an educated Bangkok doctor like the Thai girls I met in college. I speak differently. My word choices, my expressions, my way of speech gives me away. Peasant, my Thai words say, no matter what I say.
Or perhaps these characterizations are mere fabrications of my insecurities.
I wear my pearl earrings practically every day. I suppose, however, that I should lean here on the past tense. I can no longer wear what I no longer possess. I should say: Before I lost one, I would wear my pearl earrings practically every day. I wore them almost always. There were, in essence, part of my identity, a part of my very body. My face does not seem right without them. My face then is no longer my face. Losing my pearl means losing what I have held as my identity, as my visage, as my look, for almost two decades now.
Tomorrow, my body will be irrevocably altered.
Things can just happen; things are the way they are. I will trade one identity for another. I will say goodbye to the girl who wanted so badly to be acknowledged, who grew up between nothing and a heartbeat, who felt that she had to try harder, work harder for anything at all. But this, too, I know, can’t be accomplished simply by my banishing the empirical symbol of my imagined status: the pearl, after all, is merely a pearl.
And is a Sak Yant by the most revered master of these numinous tattoos merely a tattoo? Or is it something truly sacred, holy, powerful, endowed?
My mother loves to tell the story of how my little sister, narrowly escaping what would have been a fatal car crash, called on her tattoo, called on the teachings of the Master, and that is why she avoided what would have been certain death. Before my little sister got her tattoo, my mother had a premonition similar to the one she had about me, and she called on something greater to ask what she could do to protect her daughter. My little sister, who slithered into the darkness, who fell into a place where we could no longer reach her, came back to life after getting her Sak Yant.
But why is life even a thing? That is the question that I’m terrified of my children asking.
After my first trip to Thailand, I went to college and I learned what cashmere was. I still didn’t know to wear a scarf when it got cold. My hall mates came back from winter break with beautiful J. Crew sweaters. I took a sociology course, Introduction to Anthropology. I remember one classmate in particular wore pearls so big they were cartoonish; indeed, her pearls were a bit reminiscent of Wilma Flintstone’s. We watched a film in which foragers found bird nests full of baby birds. The girl with the cartoon pearls flinched at the savage scene of the third-world inhabitants collecting their supper. I felt ashamed by her looking away. I felt shame for the world I had just left.
In anthropology, I learned that ceremony is brief, that the buildup is long, that the pinnacle is passed before one knows it. Then it’s downhill, a denouement, a return to the mundane of the everyday. Ritual is sublime, but like all things that radiate sublimity, the experience of it is so otherworldly as to evade memory or even temporal bearings.
I wonder, then, whether life itself is ritual, ceremony. Perhaps life itself is the apex of something greater and unknown. That would mean then, that life itself—and by life here, I mean life with all its platitudes, its housekeeping, its cooking, its child-rearing, its labors and horrors and joys, all—is ethereal.
Life is there, and then things happen.
I admit to having lingered too long in the darkness. I, too, have sewn a black veil over me.
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t fear the premonition that my mother had for me. If my mother has taught me anything, she has taught me that she is always right. I fear that I will need this tattoo.
I have chosen a design by the Master himself; it is a design imbued with powers to give the bearer “Massive Success in Everything.” The tattoo, however, doesn’t just give things to the bearer: the bearer has to work hard, and the harder the bearer works, the harder the tattoo works, too.
Fortunately, for me, being of the peasant class has taught me that life is hard work.
Life, I know, is a made thing. It doesn’t exist without me and my hands and my labors and my ambitions. If the tattoo serves merely as a reminder that I myself have to make it, then I’ll take it. And, so, I would be lying, too, if I said that I didn’t believe that there is something to believe.
Jenny Boully is the author of Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life, The Book of Beginnings and Endings, The Body, and other books. She teaches at Columbia College Chicago and the Bennington Writing Seminars.