On Tatoos and Running in the Woods

by Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello

Spring has finally sprung here in Luxembourg City where I am spending the first half of 2010 as a visiting professor at the University of Luxembourg. It has been a long winter meteorologically and a long winter spiritually and personally for me. With many new challenges and responsibilities of late my need for the blessings of spring have grown day by day. As the gray weeks of December, January, February and March dragged on I found myself wondering whether the massive and spectacular cathedrals built in this part of Europe in the Middle Ages might not have been part of an attempt to inject some grandeur and visual complexity to the landscape. To test this theory and escape from my studio I have often walked downtown to stand under the vaulted ceilings of Luxembourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral. I have enjoyed the stained glass, the statuary and, during liturgies, the sounds that fill the massive space. But I have left each time with a sense of longing for the return of the landscape that nourishes my spirit and my soul….the world of plants and flowers.

I have no recollection of a time that I did not enjoy out the out-of-doors, but I do recall when I began to seek solace there. Somewhere in my teens when life’s pressures began to feel oppressive I took my budding running career into the logging trails and woods near my childhood home in New Hampshire. Here, as my body worked hard, my mid was quiet and I was attuned to the sounds and smells of leaves underfoot, rabbits hopping out of my way, the snow or rain beating down, and the sunlight (or moonlight at times) glinting through the branches. Here I did not feel alone. I felt free to think and pray and question and try to heal psychological and spiritual wounds; I felt closer and closer to my God. Those runs continued into my adult life and no matter where I have lived it is outside, surrounded by nature, with my body in motion that has created a cathedral for my soul.

And here is where the tattoo comes in. In my early twenties during a year volunteering with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps I asked an amazing tattoo artist to place on my body a too I had designed to reflect my feelings about God and nature. The result is a beautiful piece of art that includes a cross, a flower and a wreath of leaves that adorns my body…a body that is still often in motion. There is something about the permanence of this body art that is soothing. It is fixed and it is mine and it cannot be easily shed as seasons or fads or ideologies shift. (This is a topic my friend Tom Beaudoin wrote about in the late 1990s in his book Virtual Faith). But it is also a visual reminder of God’s place in my world and my place in nature. – even when nature is in “winter” mode. Through surgeries, pregnancy, childbirth, marathons, traumas and celebrations, my tattoo reminds me of what makes me whole.

Here in my temporary adopted city the crocuses have FINALLY come out and the trees are unfurling their leaves and while I have not found a way to the deep forests of my childhood in New Hampshire for a while each day that I run by the flowers in the small parks here I am reminded that God is near and that life will and can return… even in the bleakest of times and places. And for this I am grateful. Halleluiah!

Photo Credit: Plum Island, Eliabeth Duclos-Orsello

Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello, professor of American Studies, is sojourning as a Fulbrighter in Europe for the spring learning a bit of Luxembourgish and trying not to indulge too much in the wonders of local cuisine. (A losing battle at this point). She is balancing work in Luxembourg with visits to see her husband and 8-year old son who are in France and is looking forward to sharing more dinners and breakfasts together in the coming months. She has no plans for additional tattoos.

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