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The Four-Stringed Harp

October 14, 2008

Ben Harper has this beautiful song called “Picture of Jesus” about how he keeps a picture of Jesus on him at all times to look at whenever he’s feeling lost or otherwise needing some guidance. It’s from his album with the Blind Boys of Alabama, which is simply fantastic all around. I’m not all that religious in the standard sense, so I don’t carry a picture of Jesus with me but man, I have no trouble connecting with the message in this song and others from the album. You cannot groove much better and I find myself singing along…”I’ve got a picture of Jesus/in his arms my prayers rest /you know, I’ve got a picture of Jesus/and with him we shall be forever blessed.” Who cares that I’m not actually sending up any prayers? I’m digging the music and the vibe in general and I can understand the need for others to do it.

So what it got me thinking about was what I do have instead of a picture of Jesus. And what I do have is a harp tattoo. It’s a simple four-string harp that my brother and I began designing on a bar napkin while sharing time over a few pints in the window seat of the world famous, Charlie-O’s in Vermont. Vaguely based on the harp from Guinness’ logo and from another harp we found online, with a Celtic design along one side, we also took some design-liberty with it and after some back-and-forth emails with the siblings it was settled. The four strings represent the four siblings in the family and the plan was for all of us to have it grace our bodies in some way. While we’re only ¾ successful at this point, my brother–in-law got it as well, so in the end, there are indeed four of us with the tattoo. I have it on the inside of my right calf just above my ankle, my brother’s is on his arm, my sister’s is on her lower back, and my brother-in-law’s is on the outside of one of his ankles. And we all had them done during the memorable weekend that one of my brother’s was married in Virginia.

These days, when I am sitting in a chair and I cross my right leg up over my left, I find myself covering the tattoo with my hand and just remembering what it is, when I got it, and what it means to me: family first, music of Ireland second, and I guess stout beer third. Looking at, and then touching the harp has become a reflex in a certain sense whenever I cross my leg up and over. Even with pants on, I find myself reaching under the cuff to feel my leg where it has been forever scarred with a brand meant to signify my connection to the family I grew up within. There have been times when I have literally stared at the ink on my leg and felt a sense of peace and ease about things. Yes, it’s magic. Yes, it’s family. Yes, it’s now part of me forever, as if I needed some sort of branding on my flesh to tell me that.

People who pray to Jesus don’t all need to carry pictures of him around with them all day long, but some do and those that do probably feel better for it. And Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama have a great song about it. So, yes I am tight with my family and it goes beyond blood and love and I definitely don’t need anything to remind me of that. But now again, there is this special harp on my leg with four strings that is there just in case I ever find myself in need of a special harp on my leg with four strings.

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