Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Trimming my Mindsets

I just cut my hair. As in: me, myself, and a pair of scissors. It’s fun learning how to do this, but the original motivation was annoyance. I knew ageing would change things, but I didn’t expect my hair to be one of those things. Don’t get me wrong; I love the gray hairs—really. Each one is a badge of wisdom, a lesson learned from four decades on this earth, and I don’t plan on dyeing them away.

What bothered me about my hair was the fact that I could no longer roll out of bed and bound off into the day without it looking a bit…um…tired. My hair just sort of hung there, lifeless. I resented the thought that I’d want to start spending time actually doing something to my strands besides rubbing a bit of argan oil into their ends.

I’m not a primper. I have the same curling iron I owned in the eighth grade (it survived in my grandmother’s attic while I gallivanted across several continents, and I rediscovered it in my mid-thirties). I only use a hand-me-down hairdryer to dry layers of acrylic paint on my canvases when I’m feeling impatient.

I could have gotten a perfectly good cut in a salon, sure, but I wanted to take this particular task into my own hands. I look down at the curls of hair that have fallen from my scissors and smile. As clearly as those dark clippings on white porcelain, I can see that my annoyance didn’t originate with my hair but with the conflicted feelings I had about cultivating beauty to begin with.

My grandmother—the one with the attic—had been a beauty. In her late teens and early twenties, she wanted to be a model, and I have one of her portfolio shots hanging on my wall. In the photo, her hair is perfectly coiffed. She faithfully and painstakingly twisted little bobby-pin curls all over her head. When I was a girl, I’d seen her curl her hair that way during sleepovers at her house with my cousin, Heather. We would watch Grandma sit at her long, glass-topped vanity while the curls dried. She used the interim to apply the contents of mysterious bottles to her face. She always took the time to look as good as she could, right up to the final years of illness before she died. Heather inherited Grandma’s aptitude and the willingness to use it.

I decided not to. I spent most of my high school and college years with my hair yanked back in a lumpy bun, happy with the fact that my shower products consisted of just shampoo, conditioner, and a bar of soap. Rebellion can look like a frizz halo.

I wasn’t rebelling against any person so much as the way our culture urged women to manufacture and maintain beauty. Not until grad school in humid Greensboro, North Carolina did I discover styling products—at first out of necessity (it’s hard to see through a sheen of frizzy hair), and then for amusement. UNCG’s creative writing program held legendary themed parties and thesis readings, and these required trips to the CVS for eyeliner and lipstick. I even let friends talk me into a trip to the M.A.C counter at the mall for a makeover.

For my first Halloween in Greensboro, I went as a Very Tall Woman. I’m already 6’ 3”, but my goal was to have to duck under door lintels. I invited several friends to get ready together at my apartment before we walked to the party on Carr Street. A fellow poet teased and hairsprayed my hair into a skyscraper of a beehive. Along with my five-inch silver heels, the hair added over a foot to my height, and I measured 7’5’. (A measurement confirmed by another poet who had to stand on a chair to read the measuring tape.) On the walk to the party, my beehive snagged in a magnolia tree, and I was the only one who could reach up to disentangle it.

It was a brief and entertaining season of playing with beauty products.

The reason I decided not to dye my hair came a few years later. I was living in Switzerland, high in the Alps, attending a theological study center called l’Abri. In a chalet with 35 students and three bathrooms, we were allotted just two showers a week. There wasn’t much point in styling limp, greasy, day-four hair. One winter night, I traveled down the valley to listen to a string quartet. I knew the cellist, but my eyes were on the violinist. She leaned deeply over her instrument, the crown of her head pointing almost straight toward the audience. Her long hair was dark brown, and swirling from the top of her head like petals from the heart of a blossom grew thick sections of unabashed white. It was striking, the way she embraced the evidence of her age. As I watched her play, I told myself I would always let my white hair show, too.

At the time, I had about four white hairs. Now, as I dry my damp hair, I lean into the mirror and see that the white ones are already innumerable. They are also becoming my favorites. They are the strongest and thickest. They are visible wisdom in a part of the world that often forgets to remember the beauty of time. And I’ve discovered that I want to celebrate them, even if that means occasionally taking time play with hair gel and bobby pins.

I think what once prompted me to skip the primping was the thought that it was faking something—that it was a well advertised attempt to mask reality. Sometimes it is. But maybe sometimes it’s also an individual way to celebrate reality.

All to say, you might see me with bobby pins in my hair—or see a trail of them falling out behind me as I figure out how to actually anchor the things. Or you might see me looking like I just rolled out of bed. Because that’s a celebration, too: simply waking each day into the continuum of ever-wiser life.

2 comments:

Cheryl von Tress said...

Wow. My journey has been so different as you've seen. Thanks for loving me in my made up version of self to world presentation. I've always felt my barn needed painting.

David Elkins said...

I kept laughing and chuckling and thinking--I hope you keep writing your stories and words of wisdom.