On Symbols

By Amy Knight

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The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona


For a while now, I’ve been wanting another (fourth) tattoo. I just haven’t been quite sure what. As with the others I have, I want it both to  have personal meaning and to be decorative. I’ve never wanted to have a well known symbol just for its own sake, or just to signal association, but rather something that has significance for me. At the same time, my own personal relationship with ink demands that it be pleasant and interesting to look at.

When I got the first one, at 23, these impulses where there but not as clear as they are now. After some thought but without much planning, I got a tattoo of the outline of a lotus flower on my back. The shape is pleasing to me, and the meaning is not just a connection to yoga practice and spirituality, but also the idea of flourishing in – and even requiring – muck to blossom. It lacks the artistry and personal ties of my later choices, but it has continued to bear meaning for me and I’m glad it’s there.

The next is a drawing of a hummingbird on my right wrist. The hummingbird comes from a poem written by my grandmother, in which she compared me to an arrow and my sister to a hummingbird, reflecting on our approaches to life. When we turned 30, my sister and I went together to an artist who gave each of us the other’s symbol, a permanent reminder of our connection to each other and our grandmother, and a reminder to sprinkle in some of the other’s approach in our lives. For her, focus. For me, pause and look around. I love that I returned to Tucson from Montana to be with my sister and do this together, in the desert.

A year later, I was still in Montana and deep in a job as a lawyer, mostly handling small civil cases that I didn’t feel very connected to. It was a good and useful job but during my days I often had to be very buttoned up, very dry and adult. I wore blazers. I talked about insurance. I was on the phone a lot. I got into a funk when I was out with a friend at the local brewery, and we simultaneously spotted people we knew: a classmate of his and a colleague of mine. The colleague, it turned out, was the classmate’s dad. And just like that, I was on the wrong side of a divide.  I needed to reassert my youth and my artistic side. I decided on a typewriter, my commitment not just to writing, but to a kind of old-fashioned writing, without stylistic experimentation or a direct address to particular social issues – what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” The same artist who’d drawn the hummingbird drew it for me, bigger than I had imagined, flanked by flowers and branches – things I didn’t know I wanted until he showed me. It adorns my left bicep. It makes me happy.

I have an inkling (ha. I didn’t mean to but I couldn’t bear to delete it) about the next one. I’ve been wanting for a while to add the major piece of my life that is not now documented on my body, my work in the law, which has now, thankfully, taken a turn toward issues I find more fulfilling. I don’t want any of the obvious symbols, the scales, the blind statue, the gavel. But there is an image, originally invoked by a colleague, recently proposed as the tattoo design by someone close to me. I think I like it. I’ll sit with it a while.


If by now you’re wondering if I’ve forgotten my subject matter, here it comes. In my house, as on my body, I’d like there to be some symbolic expression. It’s a different kind of undertaking—the house itself is an expression of myself, my priorities, my sense of aesthetics, so I’m not imagining symbols of family and yoga and art and justice. Nor do I need a symbol for commitment to sustainability and reducing my impact on the planet; the house will embody that. I’m thinking of what I want a house to mean to me. Ultimately the same criteria apply: I want them to be decorative, and I want them to be personally meaningful, rather than purely traditional.

Being an introvert, I need my home to be a true retreat, a quiet place of shelter and recharge where I am safe. I tend to be a “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” type of person when it comes to traditions and spiritual practices, and I’m not sure exactly what might guard my house and protect me, but I have long had an affection for gargoyles. I have a tiny one that has traveled with me for years, usually perching on my desk or nightstand. I’m not sure how, or where, or what size, or material, but I think my house needs a gargoyle. Maybe more than one. The world feels extra scary these days. I’d like to remind myself of the idea of a guardian, even if the end it is only myself, when I approach my house.

The other value I want to display is welcome. Welcome to friends and well-meaning visitors, and to myself whenever I return. Welcome into a place of safety, where you get to be who you are and be listened to, and rest.

One traditional symbol of welcome is the pineapple. I’m tempted to find some small subtle place for one, especially since it’s a fruit I also enjoy so much in the flesh. I remember being on vacation with my grandmother once, when she was beginning to fade but before she was too old to travel, and for breakfast they brought us whole tiny, sweet pineapples, sliced so we could eat them easily but still held together, recognizable in original form. It was heaven.

I’m not sure I’m quite there yet with this one – it’s perhaps too traditional, and I’m vaguely troubled by the undertones of colonialism. Or maybe on reflection I’ll decide the very tradition of it is part of its value; visitors may recognize it and take its meaning, where a more individual symbol would be lost on the people it is meant to include.

What will the tattoo be? What sort of gargoyle will stand guard? How will I express my welcome? Works in progress, all. But the wishes are there, and that must come first.



Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at [email protected] or leave a comment here.

Photo credit: 20160103-DSC_0520 via photopin (license)


Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.