Bill and I recently celebrated twenty years of being a couple. So we did the standard thing — we threw a backyard potluck barbeque. And then we went out and got matching tattoos.
I know, Jews don’t get tattoos. Just like godless, Atheistic, unbelievers don’t have the family values that lead to happy, successful, long-term, child-rearing, home-owning, community-serving relationships and lives.
Except when, like Bill and me, they do.
Coming from a Jewish-Atheist-Marxist-Feminist (JAMF) family of artists, labor leaders, bohemians, teachers, and hippies — in the wild and woolly San Francisco Bay Area, no less — the religious right would have you believe our family racks up a huge rate of divorce, drug addiction, and crime.
Actually, no. Like most Atheists and Agnostics, my extended family’s divorce rate is extremely low. Lower than among many born-again Christians espousing “family values.” We’re not wild partiers — unless you count sitting around singing protest songs. While many of us have been arrested for political action (Me? Two days in Santa Rita Jail for protesting Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in 1982), we’re not real big on crime. Actually, my extended JAMF family is kinda square, in our woo woo way. Prudish, even. Does this come from our lack of religion? Some say that without God to compel us into morality, the Atheist has a stronger sense of personal responsibility. Our excesses tend toward food, and toward workaholism — usually in service organizations like teaching, organizing, non-profit work, and the arts.
We are your prototypical good citizens, godless heretics or not.
But even godless heretic JAMFs don’t get tattoos.
Back when I was 23, I wanted a kaleidoscope of butterflies down my back. I asked my dad if I could borrow his book of Japanese woodcuts to serve as a model for the butterfly tattoos. My dad was so devastated that I nixed my plan. “It’s irrevocable,” he said. But I think he was thinking of other tattoos, too — the numbers carved on six million distant relatives’ arms during WWII. “It’s a decision you can’t go back on. It may seem great now, but how will you feel about it in twenty years?”
Some might ask the same thing about marriage.
With less than half the US population married now, with divorce rates soaring, here I am, twenty years into a relationship, seventeen years into the marriage, still living with and loving my husband with no end in sight. Without God and Church to hold us together, how do we make it?
It’s not religion holding us together. That old saying, “The family that prays together, stays together” doesn’t apply to us. We don’t pray together. Actually, we don’t pray.
It’s not a vow holding us together. When Bill and I were planning our backyard wedding (our wedding certificate signed by my cousin, a circa-1972 mail-order “Reverend” in the Universal Life church) I drew the line at “’til death do us part.” At twenty-nine, I was still too scattered to know what I would be doing in one year, let alone a lifetime. And I don’t make promises I don’t think I can keep.
It’s not children holding us together. We do have kids, but I don’t object to divorce with kids involved. Many close friends have been through the wringer getting out of relationships they never should have been in, or which have run their course. I don’t believe in staying in an unhappy relationship for the sake of the children. Living in a climate of parental misery can damage kids far more than watching their parents model the strength and courage to end an unhealthy relationship.
And while I know I was fortunate that Bill and I found each other, I don’t think we’re just lucky.
Maybe we’re just too stubborn or stupid to quit. Sometimes I hate my husband. Sometimes he hates me. In twenty years, so much has happened: trauma with his kids, our kid, his father, my family. We’ve made it to the other side of debt and unemployment. We’ve been through hernia and stomach surgeries and back injuries and high risk pregnancy and abortion and childbirth. We’ve been through screaming arguments and depressions (both of ours) and infidelity (mine). We’ve made it through thousands of dollars of marriage counseling. I am not always an easy person to live with, and neither is he.
We’ve been through so much together, and we’re still Unbelievers, Doubters, Skeptics, Rationalists, Secular Humanists. We haven’t turned to religion to make it through. Perhaps we’ve turned to each other instead.
We’ve made it through.
Chuck, our tattoo artist, looked perfect for the role — covered in tattoos, mustached, gruff, and kind. We sat and waited in a state of terror. How much would it hurt?
A guy came in while Chuck was autoclaving the tattoo needles. The guy’s girlfriend — or wife — sat in the car at the curb with the motor running.
“I wanna get a script all the way down my arm. How much for “‘Til Death Do Us Part?”
“All the way down your arm?”
“Yeah. Big letters.”
“That’ll run you ’bout three fifty.”
“Aw, man! That much?”
“That’s a pretty big tattoo you want.”
“Okay, thanks.” The guy turned and left.
“He loves her ’til death, but not ’til three fifty,” I said.
Bill laughed, but he was white with fear.
Bill went first — I was afraid he’d chicken out, otherwise. Fifteen minutes later: “Are you doing the tattooing now, or is this some kind of prep thing?” Bill asked.
“Actually, I’m… just about… done.”
“I would have to take a chainsaw to you for it to be as painful as you thought it would be.”
“Did it hurt?” our daughter Annie asked us as, beaming, we walked back in the door.
I looked at Bill. He mouthed at me, “Don’t tell!”
I didn’t want to lie. But this kid is counting the days until her eighteenth birthday when she can get her first tattoo.
“Well, it’s not real comfortable,” I said, cagily.
“And they’re very small, ” Bill said. “Very small.”
“And in a place that, I guess, isn’t that bad.”
“Oh wow, I can’t wait!” Annie said.
Then we went into the other room and laughed helplessly into our hands. “I didn’t want to tell her it hurts more to get my legs waxed!” I said.
I love having a tiny tattoo that matches my husband’s. It’s really sexy. “Branded!” I whisper in his ear. “Wanna bump tattoos?” he asks. And then we admire them. Dime-sized. Near our hip bones. In American Typewriter font, one word, made from our two first initials:
As a recovering workaholic, that affirmation — BE — is a spiritual sentiment I can get behind.
I’ve had a successful relationship for twenty years, without the blessing of a god or church, and I want those twenty years carved on my body. In this way I commemorate that no matter what happens between Bill and me in times to come, these twenty years have mattered. This experience, this man I’ve laughed seven thousand three hundred days with, is irrevocably a part of me. This tattoo will stay on my body.
‘Til death do us part.