This semester I did workshop on book construction, which was really pretty fascinating. One of the assignments, inevitably, was to make a book. Specifically, it was to make an artist’s book, which is to say, a piece of art in a book form. Some of the projects people made were truly wonderful – from a leather-bound “time traveller’s notebook” with hand-made paper and all kinds of time-travel related ephemera, to an adorable textile book called animal pizza party, where on each page there was an embroidered animal, and a pocket containing a cardboard slice of pizza. I wound up doing something out of character for me and making something very personal. I am not a terribly handy person (knitting aside) so my book is not a particularly beautiful object, but it’s something that turned out to be very dear to me. I’m grateful to have been given the impetus to make it. Because of time constraints, we were each given only three minutes to present our pieces, but I could have easily spent a half an hour talking about the significance and meaning of my book, so I decided to write it out anyway. The book is called “The Story on My Skin”:
The easy description of what it’s about is that it’s about my tattoo. But it’s actually more about all of the tattoos I don’t have – the ones I imagined and came up with but never went through on. I’ll walk you through it. The book itself is in a modified accordion form, like so:
You read it from front-to-back, and then continue on back-to-front on the other side. Each “page” of the accordion also unfolds up or down. If you unfold the accordion on the ‘front side’, you see:
Unfolding page 1 reveals:
These quotations set the foundation for the kind of serendipity that is ultimately the subject of the book. The Contortionist’s Handbook is my husband’s favourite book, and early on in our relationship he read aloud to me the scene that ends with the quotation I have used. It’s a beautiful scene, and one that is unquestionably central to the book – we own two editions, and in both, that quotation is the last line on the 100th page. I don’t have a favourite (I read far too much to pick just one!), but Anne-Marie MacDonald is one of my favourite authors. The quotation about stories is one of my favourite quotations, it speaks precisely to the way I use my engagement with stories to understand and frame my own life experiences (as I wrote about here. It also relates to what I’m doing with this entire book, in which (as you’ll see) I take other people’s words and use them to tell my own story.
And then there’s the quotation from Fall on Your Knees. This book is on my short list of books that I pretty much need to reread every few years, because they’re so good. But you can imagine the bolt of lightning that went through me the first time I read it after meeting my now-husband (the third or fourth time in my life that I had read it) and came across that line. It became something very central to our relationship – the inside of our wedding bands is engraved with “…But not out loud.”
“What I know now” and “There’s something about the ocean” are lines from a poem my first love wrote about me. These words had a powerful impact on me (obviously) and I continued to toy with getting various forms of her words tattooed on me long after we stopped being together, because she did leave an indelible mark on me. She wrote two poems about me, and neither of them use the word “love”, though that is very much what they are about. They still communicate the love she once felt for me, (but not out loud!)
After page 2, we reach the back cover, which simply encourages the reader to continue on with the story:
The back side of the unfolded book:
“(recant)” is taken from the book The Lover’s Dictionary. I have considered this as a tattoo as well, as a way of reclaiming myself after getting out of an abusive relationship (hence “they’re nothing like the sun”). The phrase “nothing like the sun” has its own provenance, though. If I had gotten a “something about the ocean” tattoo, I would have paired it with “nothing like the sun,” which is a line from the other poem my first love wrote about me. However, it’s important to note that she was deliberately referencing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, which is in keeping with my theme of using others’ words to tell one’s own story.
(The “unspoken rhyme” is, of course, “I love you” – but, once again, it’s not out loud. The line is taken from the same poem as “nothing like the sun”.)
And the inside of this page is where we see my actual tattoo! It is an elephant and a shoe, as drawn by my husband. I got it for our first wedding anniversary, and it was inspired by a similar doodle he had once made on my hand before we were married. It actually wasn’t until after I had gotten the tattoo done that I realized just how perfect it was. The significance of “elephant shoe,” on its face, is that in lip-reading “elephant shoe” is virtually indistinguishable from “I love you”. So it was a cutely coded way of getting our love tattooed on myself.
But the thing is that “elephant shoe” is only “I love you” when it is spoken silently (or, rather, “elephant shoe” is “I love you.” But not out loud.) These things are all so intertwined.
And now we’ve come full circle, and we’d be back at the front cover!