Wednesday, April 1, 2015

iam iam lapsura cadentique

People occasionally ask me what my tattoo says. If they ask me what it means, I say "it's a long story." And it is. There's a lot of meaning behind it, much of it highly personal, and almost without exception people don't want an actual story. If I'm feeling ungenerous, I'll probably say something like "don't worry about it" or "it's in Latin" or "it says ask me about my tattoo." If I'm feeling literal: "It says iam iam lapsura cadentique."

The meaning is both more complicated than I can easily relate, and more personal than the average person deserves to know. What better day to tell the story behind these words than Whan That Aprille Day?

1. The Origin

Back in undergrad when the world was bright and coursework fascinated me, I eagerly devoured all the Latin classes available at my university. There were four classes listed in the academic calendar, and over two years I progressed through all of them as the class sizes shriveled from 40 in the first class down to just me in the final class. For that solo directed reading, I worked through translating Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid, meeting weekly with my inspiring professor to read the translations I had prepared, do a little on the fly, and linger over the language.

Book VI recounts Aeneas' trip to the underworld, where he glimpses all kinds of eternal punishments. It's there that Sisyphus pushes his boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down and have to start all over. It's there that Tityos is splayed open over nine acres while a vulture picks at his liver, which regenerates overnight for the next day's torment. And it's there that the Lapith kings Ixion and Pirithous cower beneath an overhanging boulder that has just begun to slip and fall—forever.
Quid memorem Lapithas, Ixiona Pirithoumque?
quos super atra silex iam iam lapsura cadentique
imminet adsimilis.
I might not have given a second though to the passage, had my professor not stopped and lingered over the semantic beauty of the double iam, imprinting the phrase in my memory. What doesn't quite translate is that the rock is not merely teetering, which would imply that there's a chance it won't fall. Rather, it describes that slow-motiony moment just beyond teetering, when disaster is certain, when equilibrium is irrevocably destabilized, when all you can do is watch helplessly as the thing happens before your very eyes. By its very nature, this kind of moment is fleeting in reality. But here, in the Underworld, the horrible doom of that moment renews itself every second of eternity.

 2. The Moniker

The second key element is perhaps the most obvious one: my internet handle, Lapsura, is derived from the phrase. On its own, lapsura is the nominative feminine singular form of the future active participle of labor ("to slip"). Just as they occasionally are in English, participles in Latin can be standalone nouns. All this is to say that lapsura means "she who is about to slip." It seemed the perfect alias for a Latin enthusiast whose inner self consisted only of self-doubt and a phobic obsession with time.

The thing about internet handles is that it's hard to be unique. Almost anything you might want to call yourself has probably already been taken, somewhere, by someone. But as far as I can tell, Lapsura is still all mine. When a name is all your own, you can attach more character to it, and eventually it begins to accumulate its own.

 3. The Situation

Finally, there are the circumstances around the day I got the tattoo itself. I had been toying with the idea of a tattoo for years, but couldn't think of anything.

Then suddenly one melancholy autumn, I determined to do something spontaneous and planned a trip to Las Vegas to meet up with some people I had only ever interacted with online. It was the sort of adventurous thing that I had never done before. Although I was all set—I had plane tickets, vacation booked, and had started packing—I ultimately did not go, which I was certain at the time would be one of the biggest regrets of my life (and would have been, had the opportunity never arisen again).

So there I was, lying in my cold apartment staring at the ceiling for a week, angry at myself and completely dejected, sunk into a deeper depression than the one I had been trying to shake. Midweek, I randomly got off the bus at a beach, where I sat and watched the bleak waves that seemed to match my mood so well. I sat there thinking that I may have missed my only chance to meet somebody who had changed my life. I wondered if this malingering black ship would ever sail out of the harbour, if I would ever find joy in life again.

Sitting there, I decided quite suddenly to salvage what I could from the failed vacation and go get a tattoo. I knew exactly where I wanted it to go and, without it ever occurring to me before that moment, I knew the perfect phrase: iam iam lapsura cadentique. It was already full of meaning to me, and it also described that moment perfectly: I was in a fragile state, and I could see myself standing on the edge of a maelstrom about to be sucked under. I still do, sometimes. I took the bus straight downtown, strolled into the tattoo parlour—itself a bold act back in my days of severe anxiety—and made an appointment. Two days later, the phrase had become mine in the most tangible sense yet.

So there you have it. There are a lot of things I could say when people ask me what it means. It transports me back to the more carefree days of my undergraduate degree. It evokes the gentle voice of my Latin professor and the enthusiasm she inspired in me for the language. It's my Vegas tattoo—marking the absence of Vegas rather than its presence. It's a reminder of hard times. It's an untranslatable moment of pure linguistic beauty. It's an accumulation of years in digital space. It's years of excessive emotions etched into my skin. It's a reminder of the debilitating numbness of depression. It's an anchor, that pulls me both to that fragile time and away from the brink it represents. It's inextricably bound up to the soundtrack of that phase of my life. It's a photographic image of cold Pacific waves. It's a symbol of my own defiant triumph.

But if you were to stop me on the sidewalk and say "What does your tattoo say?" I couldn't do justice to its myriad meanings. And so I would simply say: "It's a long story."

1 comment:

  1. A strikingly honest and thoroughly enjoyable story. Thanks for sharing.