Back to the Future Self

My friend and colleague Jason writes a weekly meditative Medium post that I find 100 percent worth reading and reflecting on. One line from this Sunday’s missive gave me that guttural yesssssss throat-clicking swallow when something feels so true you can’t breathe deeply until you’ve taken a moment to honor it:

I started playing with this ai bot called Replika yesterday. It asked me what I would want to share with my future self. I sat with that question for a while before replying Seek out things that give life meaning

I sat with that for a while.

The answer every time I am asked why did you get that tattoo, no matter which tattoo, is essentially the same. They are all messages to my future self.

I have enough visible tattoos that I am often asked by those without any, especially those who are feeling the call for their first, some version of that question. It’s frequently accompanied by its inquisitive cousin: but how do you know you won’t regret it?

It’s a question worth asking — if you’re really going to get a tattoo you should ask every single question you have before you do, and keep asking until you are satisfied with the answers, if only because by all accounts getting one removed is even more painful and expensive than doing it in the first place.

It’s worth asking but to me it’s not the right question.

I have no idea what my future self will wish I have done or not done with my life, with my body or time or money or love. I don’t think she’ll be that different, but seriously, what do I know? She’s not here yet. I hope she is not consumed with any kind of regret. I invest in that future but there’s no way to know if it will yield the result I imagine.

Instead I ask what she will need to know from the past. One day, weeks or months or years or even decades after the decision is made and the ink is sown, she will need — I will need — to be reminded that there was a truth I felt so deeply the only way I could be sure I never forgot was to commit my skin to it.

Even before my memory and memory-making mechanisms were brutally rewired, I somehow sensed this road map back in time would be necessary. The real reason I got that tattoo at age 22, or 27, or 34, or 40, was because something was so true and real I wanted to be sure I never forgot. Was never able to forget. It didn’t matter if I felt that way at 26, or 30, or 55. I just needed to remember I had felt that way, and to honor that past self the way I must trust in my future one.

These are my tattoos:

  1. A compass rose
  2. A phrase from a Pablo Neruda poem
  3. Woodcut-style mountains
  4. A line from Allen Ginsberg’s “America”
  5. Another line from Allen Ginsberg’s “America”
  6. A lyric by Joni Mitchell
  7. A portrait of our dog, Trip
  8. A postcard illustration
  9. A family motto

The truth of each of these seems so obvious to me but is often misinterpreted based on a first look, even when carefully considered.

Number 2 has been mistaken for a statement of lgbtq solidarity or strength, which is actually what Number 4 represents. Number 3 can look as much like waves, which isn’t wrong. Number 1 is actually two tattoos maybe five years apart, the second overlapping version slightly more ornate than the simple original one underneath, but also modified to expand on the meaning of the first. The line in Number 6 is best known for being sung by another artist that also has deep significance. Number 8 is based on a photo taken of us in Kauai but is equally a warning to my present and future selves, much like Number 5 is equally a pledge and a precaution. Number 7 is as purely about grief as Number 9 is about love, which is to say sometimes.

They all hurt. Some I wanted desperately to. Number 2 I correctly planned and predicted would ache, especially flying cross-country, so deeply that I would be unable to lose sense of my corporeal self. It kept me anchored. Number 7 revealed that I, like many people, am allergic to at least some kinds of red ink, and also that my reaction could have been much, much worse.

Here is how, when prompted today, I would distill what I wanted to remember from each:

  1. A place that lives inside you never leaves, no matter where you are, and you can find your way back when you need and are ready
  2. Words will save you, complete you, help make sense of your life — but you must work for them
  3. Only the rocks live forever, or: don’t overestimate your importance to the universe
  4. You must fight, and keep fighting — whether it’s for a principle, a people, a country, or a final draft that finds optimism where there was once only despair
  5. Make good trouble, but not for the mere sake of it
  6. This marriage is the best thing you will ever do
  7. Grief will have its way with you, and it’s okay to wear that on your arm
  8. You survived, and you have something to live for, so don’t be fucking stupid
  9. People are the point

Today for some reason, while I sat on our new patio in the sun and tied my shoes and got ready to run up my new mountain, I sang some of “Power of Love” to the dog.

“Are you singing Huey Lewis and the News?” Jessica called from the house. I was. I don’t really care about them as a band but I, like most kids who grew up in the ’80s, loved Back to the Future, and that’s where it starts (and ends).

I thought I was singing “Back in Time,” and I’d forgotten the whole middle part of this verse:

It don’t take money 
Don’t take fame 
Don’t need credit card to ride this train 
It’s strong and it’s sudden 
And it’s cruel sometimes 
But it might just save your life
That’s the power of love

Dear future self: you’re welcome.

Originally published November 6, 2017, at