In the year following my divorce, I found myself wrestling with ways to shape words around the excruciating experience of life unfolding out of a place of death. In sorrow and lament, the day before my then-spouse moved her belongings out of our home—a space where I would remain—I used ash to write these words across my walls:
“I will not abandon you to the grave
nor will I let my holy one see decay.”
I reached back for ancient words—a psalm of both promise and lament. I needed the chiastic structure of Hebrew poetry to hold the weight of naming the truth of death and its being taken up and transformed into life. In the words of the first line, there is an acknowledgement of God’s presence in the reality of death. In the second phrase, the one who is dead is renamed—called holy, and God lays claim on them, promising to intervene against ruin.
I needed these words.
I needed images, and story, and a place to lay my grieving heart.
It was during this time that I was reading a book entitled, Here All Dwell Free by Gertrud Mueller Nelson. The book is her close reading of the fairy tale of the Handless Maiden, in which she offers a spiritual and feminist reading of this ancient tale as a story by which we might begin to tell our own stories of redemption.
I experienced it as nothing less than a story of gospel.
During the same time that I was reading this book, I was writing an icon of Julian of Norwich that I would give to Jocelyn as a gift of blessing upon our divorce. Like the maiden in the story, Julian is a strong woman who, out of her own spiritual journey offers spiritual care to those around her. In my mind, I can imagine Julian’s anchorage doorway lentil marked with the same words as the cottage in the fairy tale, “Here all dwell free.”
The full story of the Handless Maiden can be found in collections of the Grimm fairytales. The story, however, has existed in many cultures with a number of variations. Its persistence speaks to the compelling engagement with questions of human (and particularly, feminine) agency.
In the story, the daughter of a woodsman is bargained off to the devil and—though versions differ on the plot points—eventually escapes with her life, but loses her hands (usually as the result of a male relative’s desire for self-preservation). She finds herself, eventually led by an angel into a garden where she eats fruit from trees belonging to the royal family.
This eventually lands her married to a prince who, out of love, fashions for her a set of beautiful, though non-functional, silver hands. Somewhere along the way, the prince goes off to war and leaves the maiden who is pregnant with child. Letters are sent back and forth between the two, but are intercepted by the devil and through confusion, twists, and turns, the handless woman is forced to flee for her life with her new child—whom she names “filled with grief.” Upon returning from battle, the prince learns of the devil’s trickery and begins searching for the woman and child.
Meanwhile, she has been led by an angel into the woods, to a cottage which, over the door, is marked with the words “Here all dwell free.” It is in this place that she learns to care for the child on her own until, one day, the child’s life is at risk. In the moment of need she is told by the angel to reach out and rescue the child, and in that instant, as she acts out of love, despite the impossibility of the situation, her own hands of flesh are re-grown.
The chiastic mirroring structure of the story is poignant. Where her own father removed her hands to save his own life, the woman re-grows her hands through the act of saving her child’s life.
It’s only after this transformation that her husband finds her living at the cottage in the woods where she declares herself to be the maiden, but no longer in need of the hands he had fashioned for her. And it is from there that they begin their life together as a family.
There is something mysteriously holy about this story.
There is something of gospel in the notion of life unfolding; re-growing, through the increase in capacity to love in the very place where harm has wreaked havoc in one’s life. I could not escape the sense that this woman was a picture of human thriving—of becoming more whole.
A phrase I had scribbled in my bedside notebook, months before, returned to me:
“I am more myself in every way.”
What other way is there for humans to live into the phrase that the bible’s genesis account places in the mouth of God, upon gazing at all of creation—“It is very good.” Irenaeus famously said it this way:
“The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”
Learning to tell our own stories along the arc lines of stories that move towards wholeness is the heart of spiritual practice. We lay claim to that which we are becoming and that which we do not yet fully see. It is an entryway into life that only comes through the full acknowledgement of loss and death, and through the movement to give and receive love in the places of greatest harm.
As a man who has carried in my body the anguish of family and religion that flung the word “abomination” like an arrow at my soul, I know something of the sensation of being cut off from my body and my agency in the world.I know something of what it means to be bargained off as a sacrifice for the sake of self-preservation by social and familial units that are supposed to exist to offer protection and blessing. And I know, only in part, some of what it means to have to flee in order to have space for feminine agency to flourish under a culture of harmful norms of masculinity.
Growing up gay, I was led to believe that the wounds I bore were a result of my difference, rather than a result of the harm inflicted on me by those who could not bless my difference. I desperately sought ways to live in that world—wholeheartedly loving and engaging as best I could. This led me into a beautiful and complicated relationship with a dear woman who, through our marriage and divorce, offered me the space and experience of grace necessary to face my deep wounds and awaken the deadened limbs of my human desire.
When I married, I never could have imagined divorcing. Primarily, because I had no imagination for my own human flourishing—I had no vocabulary for my own humanity being “fully alive.” I had grown up in a culture that taught me the best that was possible was to accommodate the harm I had endured—to learn to manipulate my silver hands in predictable ways, and forget about the desire to feel my own skin lead me into my work of love in the world.
When I began to believe in the goodness that might lie ahead of me, it did not alleviate the sorrow. Indeed, the grief of grave and abandonment have never been eclipsed, simply met with just as much fullness of life and love. I cannot explain such goodness. I can only following the arc-lines of a narrative that draws me further into the story.
As I approached my 29th birthday, I began to contemplate what it would look like to mark my body—to lay claim to myself in a way that said:
“I belong to me. My life is my gift in the world and this is the trajectory upon which I am set.”
So this, is the story of my ink. It is a story of marking my body with a promise to myself and a commitment of the kind of audacious love which I hope to fail towards accomplishing during my time in this world.
The tree is reminiscent, in shape, to a tree of life—but its roots and branches have not yet touched, as I am still, yet unfolding. It is a hazel tree—to go with the hazelnut on my wrist—the seed and fruit on my outstretched hand never disconnected from the source at my heart.
The tree represents the place where transformation and re-growth occurs, and the hazel grows fractally, always becoming more itself in every way as it extends into the world. Traditionally, the hazel tree is associated with wisdom and thin places where the spiritual breaks in as a source of life in the world.
In Celtic myths it is associated with the source waters of life, and it is said that seven hazels stand over those waters, where their nuts drop into the water and are eaten by salmon, and those who eat the salmon are gifted with wisdom.
Over the tree are the words from the fairytale of the handless maiden,
“Here, all dwell free.”
For the tattoo, I debated for months about the punctuation of this phrase.I realize that tattoo punctuation is a topic of great debate. As someone collegiately trained in English grammar and linguistics, I can make a clear case for and against the comma. For such a short phrase that stands alone, the comma is not essential. Indeed, many versions of the fairytale itself do not include the comma.
However, given my own story and the realities of living in this world as a gay man, I know that existing freely is not something that is simply given in any particular social setting or relationship. Thus, including the comma, I am making a declaration of my own agency to act out of love and extend to myself and others the human freedom I deserve and require.
While I cannot say with certainty how I will be received by others, I am assured of my welcome in the world and within my own skin. I chose to emphasize the placedness of belonging for myself and the open handedness with which I seek to love others in my life. Written across my heart, these words are a prophetic call and promise to all the parts of myself and my desired stance to all who wander within reach of my limbs, that here, all dwell free.
This is an impossible confession of love that promises to expand and break my heart, and yet, I know it to be true that my capacity to love can be expanded even in the places of greatest breaking.
Finally, the hazelnut on my wrist came from one of the 14 ecstatic visions of Saint Julian of Norwich. In her vision, she sees a hazelnut in her outstretched palm and asks God what it means. God responds that just as Julian sees the hazelnut in her hand, God sees the entire world, exactly as it is—and God loves the world exactly for what it is.
After choosing the hazelnut and the hazel tree, I then learned of a Welsh saint named Melor (also called Melorius), whose hagiography (story of a holy person) shares mythic origins with the story of the handless maiden.
Melor’s parents were rulers somewhere in Britain or Wales around 500 C.E. and his uncle, seeking the throne, had the boy’s parents put to death. To keep him from inheriting the throne, his uncle cut off Melor’s right hand and left foot. However, the people of the kingdom loved the boy so much that they fitted him with a silver hand and a brass foot.
There are multiple versions of Melor’s silver hand re-animating, several involving hazelnuts. In one of them, the boy is out in the woods with a companion foraging and when his companion places a hazelnut into the silver hand, it becomes animated and begins to function fully, like a human hand.
When I came across the story of Melor, I was astonished and pleased that, somehow, my intuitive connection between the handless maiden and Julian of Norwich seemed to have circled back around through this third story of regrowth and blessed givenness of humanness—in a way, its own chiastic mirroring and intensification.
While I was designing the tattoo, I wrote this song as a persona piece, telling my own story through the story of the Handless Maiden (who I call the Lizard Handed Maiden, since the regrowth of her hands does seem to be the most important plot point of the story).
For all that this tattoo is to me, I owe a debt of gratitude to the following people, both dead and alive. I am grateful to have my story witnessed and my body marked by each of them:
Don Bowdle and Sabord Woods: For introducing me to the ancient literary structure of chiasm.
Julian of Norwich: For her conviction to love and offer herself to the world and model the vocation I find I myself drawn towards. “And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Gertrud Mueller Nelson: For introducing me to the story of the handless maiden. For your gift of reframing the world through liturgical arts and thoughtful spiritual engagement with stories of gospel. And for the personal kindness that extended to a dear one in my life when that person was in need of a compassionate witness.
Saint Melor: Because whether or not they’re historically accurate (whatever that means) the stories about you bear truth about what restoration can look like when we give and receive love in a community.
The hazelnut trees of West Seattle: For offering me the opportunity to witness wild fractal growth firsthand and for giving me a chance to grow to trust that a place can bring forth nourishment where I did not expect it.
Phil Nellis: For your beautiful artistry in designing the tattoo. Your work communicates lightness and gravitas with the sincerity of one who knows what it is to suffer both sorrow and love. And for the enjoyable collaboration around my finicky insistence about the growth structure of wild hazelnut trees.
Suzanna Fisher at Damask Tattoo in Queen Anne: For your speed, skill, and excellent work as an artist, translating Phil’s work beautifully and adding your own touches. And for your guidance on finding the font that spoke to the spirit of the tattoo.
Ashley Van Otterloo: For listening to me process and reading my ramblings while I was designing it.
Jesse and Jeffrey Batstone: For helping me process through things as I was changing my mind to put the hazelnut on my right wrist—a choice to step into my own balance and boldness of offering myself and the fruit of my heart into the world.
Jarred (my therapist): For bearing kind and compassionate witness along the way with me as I have been filled with grief and have experienced deep-rooted unfolding of growth.
Jocelyn Tidwell: For more than words will ever say; for modeling what it is to embrace life more fully and love more open handedly than the vast majority of humans I have ever encountered.