The Nautilus


Confession: I found my tattoo on Pinterest.

As my friend Melody said, it could have been “the biggest Pinterest Fail ever.” It wasn’t.

I saw the picture about two years ago, a nautilus tattoo on the inner side of a woman’s heel. The caption grabbed my attention: “The nautilus shell consists of ever-larger chambers in which the sea creature lives for a while until it outgrows them. Once it grows a new, larger chamber it cannot go back to the previous ones; they no longer fit. It has no choice but to move on. Yet, the old chambers are still a part of who they are.” I liked that so much that, even though I was sure I could never commit to having one image on my body for the rest of my life, I pinned the picture. Once in a while I’d go back and look at it.

Over the course of this year, my Year of Alive, I’ve warmed up to the idea of a tattoo. I can’t articulate all the reasons why – it just seemed like a natural next step. Still, I doubted I would ever actually do it. So permanent! But at the end of August in the Keys, I discovered that my aunt (previously ink-free, like most of my family) had gotten a large cross tattoo on her shoulder blade. As I talked to her about it, I suddenly knew I wanted to take the plunge too – and I knew when and where I wanted to do it. From the bow of a boat, several miles off the Seven Mile Bridge, I texted Bethany, “Crazy idea: do you know of any good tattoo parlors in Hawaii?” She replied, “I HAD THE SAME CRAZY IDEA.”

During the few weeks between Miami and Hawaii, I played devil’s advocate with myself about the tattoo. But the more I thought (and prayed!) about the meanings of the nautilus, the more sure I was that I should get it. As I’ve mentioned before, my “life verse” is Philippians 1:6: Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. I chose this verse, or it chose me, when I was eighteen. (There’s a stepping stone in my parents’ backyard with “Philippians 1:6” pressed into it as proof.) Through all life’s changes since then, no Bible verse has been more applicable. More often than not, I feel like I’m falling behind, losing ground in faith and as a person. My progress is never good enough for me. But this verse reminds me every day that God is on the case and will never give up working on and in me in this life. Onward and upward. It hit me one day as I drove to work that the nautilus shell is the perfect symbol of that concept. It’s also a symbol of the strength and independence I’ve gained, a reminder that I don’t have to and in fact cannot force myself back into chambers I’ve outgrown. I will continue to need new, bigger chambers until the day I die, and it’s a good thing.

Plus, you know. The ocean.

In Oahu, we stayed on a Marine base. I was counting on Bethany’s Marine friends to recommend a good tattoo place, and the group consensus was 808 Tattoo in Kaneohe. On the last day of the trip (planned so I wouldn’t miss any swimming time), I called to make an appointment and no one called me back for hours. Then I was sure I wanted to go through with it, because I was so bummed that it might not happen. I knew if I went home without this tattoo, I would never get it. Who gets a shell tattoo in Memphis? It wouldn’t make sense. This was meant to be part of my Hawaii experience.

Thankfully, they were able to work me in that evening. Originally Bethany and I were going to get inked together (she already has one piece, a purple bird on her foot), but she left her sketches at home. I was still glad to have her there as my advisor and moral support. When we arrived at 808, I showed my artist the picture I’d saved from Pinterest and he printed a stencil. I felt a little dumb for wanting the exact same tattoo in the exact same place, but all the nuances worked for me. I wanted it on my left foot, not my right… because in marching band you lead with your left foot, and I will always be a marcher in my heart (dorky but true). And I wanted the end of the shell facing up, not down, for the same general reasons you hang a horseshoe upside down. It seemed more positive.


The actual work only took ten or fifteen minutes. I’d been warned that this part of the foot (and the foot in general) is one of the most painful places to get a tattoo, and I won’t lie: IT HURT. I may or may not have been repeating Eowyn’s “I fear neither death nor pain” in my head. But I also won’t lie: I felt like a badass. I didn’t cry, I didn’t make a lot of noise, and I only sort of crushed Bethany’s hand. And when it was over, I had exactly what I had wanted for a long time!

"NOT A JOKE!" I advised on Instagram.

“NOT A JOKE!” I advised on Instagram.

I’ve been home for two weeks, and I’m loving my tattoo more and more. I am so happy I did it. In addition to all the reminders I chose it for, I’m finding that it also reminds me who I am. When I hang up a frustrating call at work, for example, I glance at the shell and it seems to tell me, This does not define you. You may be compliant on the outside, but you are tough, and your spirit is still free.


People are already asking me if I plan to get more ink, the same way they ask if I’m going to get another second cat. In both cases, my answer is the same. I have no current intentions to do so, but I won’t absolutely rule it out.

About Brenda W.

Christian. Memphian. Reader. Writer. True blue Tiger fan. Lover of shoes, the ocean, adventure, and McAlister's iced tea. View all posts by Brenda W. →
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10 Responses to The Nautilus

  1. Bethany says:

    Love, love, love! But I suppose you already knew that. :)

  2. Caroline says:

    I love that you did this – so you! Love you!

  3. Carol says:

    I love the story behind this tattoo.

  4. LOVED reading this!!!!!! I’ve been contemplating another tattoo for quite some time… for similar reasons. Something that is a constant reminder that you know you’ll need, want, and cherish for the rest of your days. Thank you for sharing your story! And mine is Romans 5:3. =)

  5. Kathy Russell says:

    “Plus you know. The ocean” :-)

  6. I love that you have a reason behind your tattoo and that it means something important to you. I’m glad it makes you happy.

  7. Pingback: What I’m Into: October 2014 | Don't Stop Believing

  8. Sarah says:

    Your tattoo is beautiful! I love it. I’ve never been able to think of something that I would want on my body forever — like you sort of mentioned — though I’m sure if I ever came across that one thing that fits perfectly, I’d do it :)

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