18 October, 2021

Gimbling in the Wabe | The Words I Have Etched on My Body

In 2012, LitStack Editor-in-Chief Tee Tate asked me if I would be interested in writing a weekly feature for the site. “Write whatever you want,” she told me. So for almost five years and close to 200 essays I did just that, calling it Gimbling in the Wabe. Those five years were some of the most indulgently creative ones of my life, and I will always be indebted to Tee for giving me that opportunity.

I admit, I miss it. I miss the spontaneity, the challenge of coming up with a topic, the genuine joy of putting pen to paper (or rather, fingers to keyboard), and letting the heart take over. So when Tee asked for ideas celebrating LitStack’s milestone anniversary, I selfishly volunteered to write a Gimbling in the Wabe because I’ve missed it. And because a while ago I had something that occurred to me as “this would have made a good Gimbling in the Wabe.” So here I go one more time.

You see, these past few years have been hard on me personally. Not just because, you know, pandemics and layoffs and political turmoil and the like, but because I lost both my parents. It’s hard not to feel adrift when the tethers holding you to the ground keep getting cut.

So when I got an unexpected check from my dad’s insurance company, I made an impulsive, bold (for me) decision. Yes, most of the funds went to paying down debts, but a bit of it I kept aside to do something I’ve wanted to for years, but just couldn’t afford to: get a tattoo.

It’s not like Dad would have approved (although Mom might have); he was wonderful and generous and open-minded – but also pretty traditional when it came to cultural norms. Still, while he may not have approved of me getting tattooed on principle, I think he would have been okay with the outcome. (After all, whenever I veered from the direction they wanted for me, my parents’ response always was, “This isn’t the path we would have chosen for you, but it’s your path, and no matter what, we’ll love you and support you.” Yeah, they were that kind of parents.)

When I went into my pre-session interview, I had four ideas I assumed I would have to pick from, but my tattoo artist, Mackenzie, said she could do all four in one session, and the cost was within the realm of reality for me. So… I went for it. Them. All of them. Not just one tattoo – four of ‘em.

Two are small tributes to each of my grown children, paired versions beyond my inner wrists, pointed towards my heart, which everybody – everybody! – declares “sweet” and accuses me of being sentimental. Guilty as charged, when it comes to my kids.

But the two remaining are ones are just for me. They are quotes that are near and dear to my heart, and ones I have always tried to live my life by. At least tried.

The first one is a no-brainer: Shakespeare’s “This above all, to thine own self be true.” It is placed just below my right collarbone and is paired with a small silhouette of a wren – a bitty butterball of a chatterbox critter that has been my touchstone for many years. The end of the quote peeks out from scoop necked shirts, piquing interest but not pulling focus. (I am, after all, of “mature age.”)

The other one may seem obvious, but it’s got a deep meaning for me. It is from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, specifically, in Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo reminiscences at what Bilbo used to tell him about leaving the staid safety of home: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

At first glance, this is both a caution and an enticement – after all, Bilbo certainly got swept off into an amazing adventure when he stepped out his door! And it’s also a reminder that with each new step into the unknown, the possibilities are endless. You never, ever know where the next day will find you, what will come into your life just around the corner. Not an uncommon theme in literature.

But as I have gotten older, this quote has taken on a deeper meaning for me. It is wisdom passed down from an elder statesman, as it were, from one who speaks from experience, yes. Yet Bilbo, speaking from experience, had no idea just how far the road was going to take Frodo. While Bilbo indeed had an amazing adventure – so unlike nice, respectable hobbits – Frodo’s “adventure” was so much more: more exciting, more far ranging, more dire, and yes, more wrenching. Bilbo speaks the truth to Frodo, but even Bilbo, with all his experience, had no clue just how true his advice would prove to be.

And that is the thing we elders need to remember – no matter how well-meaning or even true our advice to our children may be, we cannot expect that advice to be taken or realized in the mien that we meted it out. It doesn’t diminish that advice, but once dispensed, we must relinquish it to whatever fate draws our children, our youngsters, our padawans, our tribe, our audience towards their own path, their own interpretation of that advice. And that, in and of itself, is also a not knowing of where “you” – your influence – may be swept off to.

For me, that’s a very affirming and hopeful thing.

“Sure, my adventure may have taken me into the dragon’s lair. But the road you take my son, my daughter, my co-worker, my acquaintance, my friend, may lead you to the destruction of evil in a mountain of fire – or may simply bring you back to your door again after a nice jaunt on a sunny day. Neither diminishes my dragon. The advice remains.”

And that is why I wear those words like a badge on my right arm. A talisman, borne in my heart and now inscribed on my flesh. Something that I believe deeply, not just for me, but for each of us: no matter how dark life may get, you never know where the road may take you. No matter how boring life may be right now, you never know what the next day may bring. No matter how glorious life may seem, there may be something even better around the corner. Or perhaps not. But if not, there’s always another road just there, right outside your door. You simply have to take that first step and see where you might get swept off to.

Hope that was okay, Dad. Miss you both.

—Sharon Browning

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