Monday, March 22, 2010


In this month's issue, Glamour magazine reveals the winner of its annual essay contest. I thought this piece by Maia Morgan was so beautifully written, and wanted to share it despite, and because of, its disturbing subject matter. I was very moved by her eloquence and sincerity, and I marveled at the incredible resilience of her spirit as a child. Myself an avid reader since childhood, I was touched by how Maia found solace in books, history, and writing throughout her life. Despite never having to go through the trauma Maia has, I could relate to her poignant desire to be brave and good, and her quiet dedication to studying her way out of her "fog". Maia is a survivor of terrible abuse that I cannot even imagine, and her strength is truly inspirational. (P.S. The major motif of the piece is birds, and you know how I feel about birds, but I absolutely love the way Maia uses the imagery in the piece). Here are some excerpts of this lyrical piece:

by Maia Morgan
I thought about the tattoo for a year or so before I booked the appointment. It was going to be a bird, and it would be on my left arm. A bird to signify hope, joy, a rising; my left arm because it’s weaker, shadow to the sun of my stronger right. The bird would remind me that pain fades, sorrow passes. When I got stuck imagining what it would be like to slice open the pale loaf of my forearm, there it would be—inked above my wrist, across that narrow blue-and-white highway of tendon and vein—a talisman to keep me from harm. I needed it to remind me that I would be OK. Because I wasn’t sure things would turn out that way...
On the last leg of our trips to our grandfather’s house, we’d always stop for lunch, usually at the Dutch Pantry; there was a poem about a bird on their place mats that won you a free meal if you were 12 or under and you learned it by heart, and I had learned it by heart. The Distelfink’s a cheerful bird/As golden as the sun—
I would trace the yellow bird on the place mat with my fingertip and repeat the lines in my head. 

Good luck and happiness he’ll bring/As he has always done...

In the booth at the Dutch Pantry, my fingertip traced the outline of the sunshine yellow bird, a bird with no feathers, a paper bird that could never fly away.
A few months before my thirtieth birthday, I decided to get the bird tattoo. First, I went to the library. Being surrounded by books lifts my spirits. As a kid, I used to take my favorites from my shelf and line them up in a circle around my bed. Someone may cross the circle, I thought, and hurt me anyway, but then that person is cursed forever. He’ll bring the curse down on his head, and there will be nothing he can do to escape. Now I sat on the floor in the library stacks and read about bird lore: the raven or crow is often portrayed as a trickster; kites and gulls are the souls of dead fishermen who remain to haunt the shore. I decided I liked swallows. I remember reading that clergy in medieval Europe called them “witch chicks” because of their forked tails, but that country folk considered them sacred. I figured the witches were probably medicine women, wise crones who knew about curses... A witch would understand the way I was burned by his wickedness, how pieces of me withered into ash and blew away. A witch would be the mother I needed and didn’t have, a fierce mother who would have delivered me from evil...
It was January when I got the tattoo—one of those frigid Chicago days when the street grit gets on your hair and skin and you track it all over the floors. I brought Kim, the tattoo artist, a Xeroxed illustration from a birding book, and she did some drawings. She had me lay my arm palm up on a Naugahyde rest as if she were going to draw blood...
“OK,” she said. “Ready?” ...
In the weeks, months, years after the abuse ended, I did ordinary things. But it was with me all the time. I put away the pictures and feelings from that time in my life in a drawer in my mind. I got straight A’s; read book after book.
The thump of knobbed fingers across the nape of my neck.
I auditioned for high school musicals; lifeguarded at our neighborhood pool.
My sister’s face, crumpled and wet with tears.
I suntanned; made out with boys. I went to college. To Europe.
Twisted nightgown; stubble-scraped skin. No air. No air at all.
I fell in love.
Infested. It was with me all the time.
The needle buzzed like a dentist’s drill... Ninety minutes later I had a tattoo I would carry with me for the rest of my life. Only 90 minutes for everything to irrevocably change. The truth is, I already knew things can irrevocably change much faster than that. One minute, a few seconds, even, can change your life forever. At least this was pain I chose. Still, I was astonished at myself. The whole thing felt surreal—unbelievable, in fact, like my [abuser]’s nighttime brutality. I’m not a tattoo person; I grew up in the suburbs. I’ve never even had a crazy haircut.
Kim placed hot-pink Saran wrap on the tattoo, then taped white gauze over that from my wrist to halfway up my arm... I had expected to feel strong and brave and cool after the tattoo. But the bandage threw me. I felt wounded and weak. Outside it was cold and dark and there was no one to take care of me and I was too old for that anyway. I got home and fell apart. I just wailed. I hunched on the bathroom floor. I had painted the walls a brilliant shade of blue: It was like being underwater. I lay on the tiles like I was drunk or sick, pounded by sadness and regret. The tattoo was a mistake. It was just going to remind me how messed up I was all the time, every day. I couldn’t change anything, couldn’t fix anything, couldn’t get over anything.
Throughout my twenties I’d go for a while with things being OK, and then something would happen—a setback, a breakup, a loss—and I’d be back in the fog, everything warped and shivering and wet and nothing to hold on to. I worked on it, good student that I was. I read the books, I journaled...
I wanted to choose to live. I wanted to be brave enough, strong enough. I kept dating lost boys, birds with broken wings. I wanted to save someone. The person who needed saving and the only one who could do it was me, but I was still six, barefoot in my nightgown with my sister... I was still 11 with a retainer and shorts with an elastic waistband...
The day after the tattoo, I got on a bus in a twilight heavy with unfallen snow. By this time the bandage was off and the tattoo was a small sore spot on the inside of my left forearm. It still felt like a mistake, not a symbol of joy but a scar, a persistent and miserable reminder of pain. My eyes wandered to the advertisements overhead. One panel, directly across from me, featured a poem. It was by Emily Dickinson:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Hope. Is the thing. With. Feathers.
It was “the strangest sea”: a CTA bus, a winter twilight; and a nineteenth-century poet was my nurse, my wise woman witch mother, taking care of me, pulling me out of harm’s way. It was right in front of me, all around me: hope. Life.
I can’t tell you that I got off the bus and strode blissfully into my future. But I did get off the bus and buy groceries and go home and cook dinner and wake up the next day and the next one after that. I kept on making friends and falling in love and working and writing and dreaming. People used to think that when a child died, swallows carried its soul to heaven. That is what made me decide on the swallow tattoo. It would serve as both a remembrance of the parts of me that didn’t survive and an acknowledgement of my capacity to rise above, away from the painful past...
Sometimes the damage is not apparent to the untrained eye.
In muted blues and greens with a pop of peach-colored belly, the swallow flits across the white underneath of my arm—accompanied now by two others. Sometimes it startles me still, to see it there. It’s a bold mark. But I suppose it is beautiful. And it’s mine now: remembrance of pain, acknowledgement of strength. With the swallow tattoo, I wanted to mourn my losses, bury my dead and then move on. But here’s the thing: I don’t think you move on, really, from the past. You do, but you don’t. You carry it with you. You make it as light as you can.
[For more information on child abuse and how you can help, click here]


  1. Hi,
    Someone stumbled across this and emailed it to me. Thank you for your nice remarks about my essay in Glamour. I am working on a full length book that will include that piece among others and have started a little blog myself. Stop by if you get a minute. Thanks again!

  2. Hi! I'm so thrilled that you found my post and liked it. The essay was incredible and I can't wait to visit your blog! Good luck with your book, I look forward to reading it and am sure it will be met with wonderful success. Thanks for stopping by. x


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