One day, post-grocery shop, safe in the knowledge that my free-range chicken breasts were tucked into a freezer bag and presumably salmonella-proof, I veered off my usual path back to the car and instead went to get a coffee.
The young woman who served me was lovely (as most Melbournian baristas are – they know they are doing God’s work). But more interestingly, she had a big tattoo of barbed wire across the middle of her forehead.
Now as a general rule, I love tattoos. Not that I have any. I love looking at other people’s tattoos. I love asking people what they mean, and I generally do feel that they make people seem 87% more cool. Which I assume, at least in some small part, is the point.
But this particular tattoo threw me for a loop. Partly because it would absolutely not have been appropriate to ask her what it meant, partly because it was a spectacularly bold choice of subject matter and placement, and partly because she had a very sweet face. Even though she had multiple tattoos on and around her facial region, the whole effect for me was still akin to a ragdoll kitten wearing knuckle-dusters.
But there was something else about it that gnawed away at me, well after my skinny cappuccino was gone. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
I thought about that classic anti-tattoo argument (frequently made by my own parents): it’s all well and good for now but what’s it going to look like when she’s eighty?
Droopier, probably. But surely a person who is ballsy enough to commit to a barbed-wire facial tattoo cares not for the ongoing elasticity of said barbed-wire facial tattoo?
And it was during this train of thought that it hit me: she actually may not care what it will look like when she is eighty. She may not even assume she is even going to make it to eighty. Simply put, in the unending boredom of unpacking my groceries, I hypothesised that she probably got the barbed-wire head tattoo because that’s what she wanted to do in that moment and she had very little regard for how she may or may not feel about it in 25+ years time.
The whole thing was a very timely revelation.
This took place a couple of months ago when Hoff (significant other) was in full swing of winding up a 16-year professional rugby league career. It was then and continues to be a huge transition for our family, and a time of serious contemplation of our future.
We were both struggling for what seemed like different reasons but actually turned out to be almost exactly the same.
Hoff was struggling because he wanted to make absolutely sure that he was done, in the emotional sense of the word. As he had been told many times, “you’re a long time retired.” He wanted to know that he’d done enough of the thing that he’d been sublimely happy doing for the last 16 years, and the thing that he’d dreamed of doing since he was five. He was terrified of waking up in the weeks, months or years following retirement and of being overwhelmed by the urge to go back and have another go, with absolutely no recourse to do so.
Meanwhile, I was struggling with the concept of ‘enough’ for a completely different reason.
The thing to understand here is that for many professional athletes, Hoff included, playing retirement represents an inevitable drop in income as well.
So for my relentlessly practical mind, the question was, have we done enough, financially? Have we done enough to set ourselves up and to see us through the minefield of this start-over, and still achieve the financial goals we have for our family?
As uncool as it is for someone of my level of privilege to admit, these kinds of anxieties plagued me no-end once Ryan actually decided to retire from playing. It was so finite. We finally had an answer to that omnipresent question, when is it all going to end? And the answer was, now. There is no more scrambling for that last contract; it was back to a square one of sorts.
And the odd flow-on effect of this realisation was that I seemed to lose all ability to make future-related decisions. Everything felt so unknown. What would life be like post-footy? What am I doing buying a coffee? I can have instant at home! Also why did I buy free-range chicken breasts!? Screw the chickens, I want my kids to go to private school! And so on.
Obviously, the decisions to be made were mildly more life altering than random chicken welfare but the effect remained the same – I had become completely hamstrung in making decisions in my day-to-day life because of my oppressive fear of making the wrong decision and screwing up our future. I had absolutely no regard for what I wanted to do in the present, or what might be best for our family right now. Or for the chickens. I like to think I’m not the only one who has ever faced a period of life-transition and been impacted this way. The future can be a universally troubling subject, whatever your circumstances.
But the day I crossed paths with barbed-wire head tattoo lady and it very nearly changed my life. Well, that and some very useful counseling, if I’m being honest.
Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t completely thrown caution to the wind. I’m aware there’s a balance between living for the moment and planning for the future. If I weren’t, I’d be putting Scotch in my smoothie every morning and cancelling my gym membership with very happy abandon.
But still, every time I find myself catastrophizing the flow-on effect of my day-to-day, routine decisions, I think of tattoo woman. And I think if she can tattoo barbed wire on her present –day head with happy disregard for her elderly forehead, then I can make the decision that is best for the right now too. And I must say, I am much happier for it. Also chickens of the world rejoice.