Practice

The Protagonist

Let me tell you about my tattoo.

Yep, that's me. Thanks to designer Melanie Schuessler for digging up the pic!

It’s on my upper left shoulder, and it’s an oshiguma of the kumadori I wore for my first professional dance solo. That was as part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s production of Fighting the Waves, a classic Yeats play translated into kabuki form under the direction of David Furomoto. The story of Cu Culain is not a happy one, but it was certainly a triumphant moment for me. I’d overcome what had seemed to be insurmountable barriers, beaten the odds, and I was dancing, a solo part at the opening of an original play.

It was a very unlikely place for a man like me to be. The tale of how it happened is a whole other story, but the fact is, as I stepped onto that stage I had been through marriage, the Marine Corps, and was smack-dab in the middle of single-parenting my four infant daughters as I worked part time as a preschool teacher and full time as a student. Not exactly the life-track I’d expected, and certainly not the path to gypsy stardom I’d intended, but there I was, wearing a sort of Star-Trekky outfit, Japanese-inspired in dark blue and green, with dark blue and black kumadori on my face..

Ghost Kumadori

That’s the important part: I was playing a ghost. The ghost of Cu Culain, in fact (yes, this was a Celtic myth translated into Kabuki form). In the kabuki tradition, blue was the color of spirits and other magical creatures. In addition,

Blue represents negative emotions such as jealousy or fear; ghosts in traditional Japanese drama are often trapped by their attachment to such emotions. – Wikipedia

Going Thru Stages

But this is about a tattoo, not a dance.

I have some funny personal preferences about tattoos. I never got one in the Marines, because I never had the spare cash (kids eating tend to take precedence over a cartoon bulldog). I didn’t believe in having anything on my body that I couldn’t read, so no strange calligraphy. And I hadn’t really found anything else that I wanted to have on my body permanently.

It was many years later, in fact, before I decided to get one. I wasn’t in a particularly happy place – my second marriage had come and gone, two of my children had grown and flown the nest, and my career as an entrepreneur/freelancer was at an all-time low. I don’t know exactly why I decided that I needed ink at that time, but at least part of it was to help a friend get through her apprenticeship at a local tattoo shop. It made sense somehow, as I talked with her, that I should have the oshiguma of my role as Kabuki Cu Culain – a tragic hero if there ever was one, even in death. So I gave her the original blue-and-black image, so she could create the “flash art” that would end up on my arm.

About a week later she gave me back a small piece of tissue paper with the kumadori on it. Everything looked great, except for one major difference: where I’d had blue, she put red instead. No reason given. No explanation, and I don’t believe I’d ever explained to her the difference.

Matters of Life and Death

See, while blue is designated for ghosts and negative emotions, red is the opposite:

Bright red stripes indicate a powerful hero role…Red symbolizes virtue and power. – Wikipedia

Me & my grandson Harvest Gray Cronin, having adventures in San Francisco

The second I looked at the flash art, I had an epiphany: I had been about to put a ghost on my skin, permanently. I had been ready to embrace the fallen hero, the vanquished, the ennobled dead, and it would have constantly been a reminder of what I lost.

Instead, my friend had (unwittingly or no) given me the chance to be the protagonist. To be the hero, the powerful badass sword-wielding samurai in my own personal Kurosawa epic. It was a reminder that the journey behind me was nothing compared to the journey still ahead.

It was possibly the most valuable life-affirming kick-in-the-pants I’ve ever had. I still don’t know exactly why she switched the colors; but I know that I have never once regretted either the tattoo or the colors.

So here’s the question: Are you the protagonist of your own life?

The fact is, you are, whether you want to be or not. If you use the story metaphor for your life – and I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good idea, mind you, but we tend to do it anyway – then who are your leading roles? Supporting cast? Comic relief? What kind of protagonist are you?

That’s the practice I’m going to recommend this week. Inspired by posts by people like Pamela Madsen and Tyler Tervooren, take a look, critically, at the role you’re playing in your life. It’s a scary process – wait til wednesday, when I tell you literally about the nightmares I’ve been having about it – but it might shed some light on the habits and choices you’re making.

A Word of Caution

Here’s the thing: it’s fun being the protagonist at first. Certainly more than being the bad guy, and probably more than being a ghost of a long-dead mythical hero. But remember that every protagonist that you read about, watch, or imagine, goes through hell before they reach the end of the story arc. 24 was a hit series because Jack Bauer had the worst day of his life…over and over again. Whether the ending is happily ever after or happily for now, remember that if you choose to be the protagonist, you are choosing, at the very least, an interesting time.

It’s worth it, in my opinion. Joyful, even. But just don’t expect it to be easy.

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