In elementary school, the crayon boxes that I liked best had a built-in sharpener. There were multiple boxes in that big box, the top fit securely when it was closed, and there were colors within colors, like red-orange and orange-red. The possibilities for organization were vast, and this was part of the fun. You could always tell which crayons were worn down most, which ones had nearly no paper left on their outsides. Those were the artists’ favored colors. While there were many blues and greens, teal wasn’t added to the Crayola pantheon until 1990.
I never thought I would get tattooed, and this wasn’t just because of the association with the Nazis’ marking of my progenitors, or the rabbinical prohibitions. It just didn’t seem like the right thing for me; that perspective clearly changed. Although it does say that one should not defile the body God gave you—which technically includes ear piercing—nowhere in the Torah is tattooing forbidden. Rabbis since time immemorial have made sure to make their opinions known, and many of the most religious of Jews today continue to feel disgust toward or scorn for those who pursue inking, particularly other Jews. Consequently, my mother expected me to cover my partly teal arms when we met their friends for lunch during Pesach, when she and her husband stayed in one of the last remaining places open in the Borscht Belt, otherwise known as the Catskills.
20 years ago, I got my first tattoo: a turquoise spiral that was later transformed into an apple snail. I have been inked many times since then; the biggest color presence is blue-green. More than just comfort, teal, turquoise, and other blue-greens bring me a sense of safety, wonderment, and joy.
After Adina died, my mother and stepfather wanted me to go to Israel, as I had planned to make this trip with Adina, after my college graduation. They sent me on a tour that summer with the Reform movement, a generous and open-minded thing for them to have done. I went with a pretty big group of mostly hippie college students, all of whom I met for the first time on our journey. I had just turned 21, but was one of the oldest in the group, and only one of two—maybe three—who had already graduated. Crossing the border into Mexico, going to Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto, and that summer trip remain my only travels abroad.
My 110 Keystone camera was snapped in its case, suspended from my belt in nerdy splendor, for the entire six weeks. The day the group wanted to go skinny-dipping, I was the only one who jumped into the sea with my clothes on. I loved lying on my back in the Negev, on top of the sleeping bag. The purple and orange sunset appeared a few years later in the bodies of Santa Barbara starfish, the likeness of which I got tattooed on me in Tucson, to celebrate the completion of my doctorate.
Tsfat, the highest city in the Galilee, has its share of cats on stone pathways, the only example I’ve ever seen of a person’s face on a Torah scroll covering, and teal doors and window frames, aplenty. You’re not supposed to have human faces associated symbolically with Hashem; doing so is considered haughty or disrespectful, even sacrilegious. I have the photo album and the skinny negatives from the 110 camera of a small brown tabby looking up at me from a warm street, a nearby teal door, and a thoughtful human likeness transposed onto a fiery Lion of Judah. I was moved later on in my life by a similar leonine image created by the artist, Ben Shahn. Illustrated big cats forged in smoke and allegory exist on a wholly different plane if I draw a parallel between them and the cow that I found ablaze.
In Chinese astrology, Max and I were proud fire horses. Four months apart, we made our own meanings of the sign, queering the traditional belief that fire horses brought shame and tragedy to one’s family, especially if the baby was born labeled female. We planned our matching tattoos for over a decade, but it was clear that he wasn’t going to go through with it, so neither was I. Then, when the remission was a lie, and he was nearing the end, a fire horse that we designed together was put on me in time for him to see it, before he died.
An ouroboros with its four elementals stopped smiling when healed. That was the one and only time I had a touch-up, because I needed to see the dragon grin again. The same day, I had an octopus arm put around my wrist, a bracelet near the ouroboros. I like to tell people, especially kids, that it’s Hank the septopus’s missing arm.
A lavender planarian chills out with his green, fellow worm companion in a teal waterscape on my left arm. That scene is more blue than green. On the right arm, more green than blue, a star and snowflake are embedded in a cloud formation. The waves and clouds, each added after the original creatures and shapes, were created with respect for the Tibetan thangka tradition. A combination of these blue-greens meets in an amphibious life cycle, close to the snail. Some of the tats have names.
Soon after I met my older first cousin, I learned that her preferred pottery glaze was teal. I called this shade her name. I have one of her chalices and several other pieces in the cherished color. I also have one of her earliest pots, a vase that I admired when my parents and I visited Grandma Frances in Morningside Heights. Perhaps that vase sometimes held the pussy willows. Before I was born, my cousin threw the dark gray, gold, and brown vase, given later on to our grandmother. Aunt Joan had a set of teal dishes that my cousin made, plus mugs galore.