Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Hair=Signifying Crown of What?

My almost-twenty year old granddaughter sports a mane of ebony black hair though she was born with blond fluff that became a thick honey blonde. (See above, middle: she’s nine, at play) I bit my tongue when she first dyed it–glowing pink. Then blue tips on blond then beachy blond and stawberry blond and finally to blue-black and blacker. It has remained the latter for perhaps four years. I don’t ask about it; I tell her she is lovely– as she is, body and soul. But sometimes I long to see her real hair color again–whatever that is. Will it tend toward her mother’s, her grandmothers’ (I’m at right from last year in a shot for my friend, who gave me that delightful shamrock plant) and great-grandmothers’ (her paternal grandmother, my mom, above left, is about 28) hair color–all wearing a spectrum of auburn to chestnut to walnut brown full-bodied hair? Maybe that will come to be. But it’s her head of hair, not mine, and she’s growing into an adult whose crowning glory means something particular– to her. The style will evolve as she does; who knows where her journey will take her?

I get it, though. One reason I never criticize her dyeing sprees–or in the past, my four daughters’ and a son’s– is that I sure wasn’t immune to hair dye. I once tried a rich black-brown in junior high (now called middle school) and somehow it transformed into a muddy green horror. It even cast its ugliness onto my skin. I didn’t return to school until a stylist corrected the mess. I tearfully begged for my natural color’s retoration. She came close, yet it all was a disappointment. My first spontaneous experiment–and pushing against our cultural norms– met with hideous results.

Back in my earliest teen years I’d suffered with bristly rollers overnight or weird foam ones that left me in ringlets until I brushed hard, patted and plumped. I thus achieved a “bubble bob” cut at earlobes or jawline, or a puffy longer bob if it had somehow grown out some. That style required lacquering in place with many spurts of hairspray. It was the cool thing to do, so middle class WASP; we all looked alike–and dressed in matching skirt and sweater outfits with complementary Capezio flats. I got tired of enduring it all by 15 and found it singularly uninspiring. I was a diehard romantic, a poet and musician, not a sheep. And I loved being outdoors. I suited myself and let things go natural, bangs growing out so they formed a short curtain over my eyes. I was forever being nagged to push them off my brows or chop them off or I’d end up going blind, according to Mom. I left them as they were, the better to glower surreptitiously, and to observe…and hide a bit. But I liked that it was all so moveable, that wind could mess it up and I didn’t care.

Next came a daring change: the Twiggy haircut. Twiggy, a British model from the ’60s, was rail thin with huge eyes darkly outlined and fake-lashed. Her hair was pared down to bare minimum and it was fantastic. Actress Mia farrow had that haircut, too, and I wanted it. loved the bold statement. My classmates by then were wearing straighter, longer or medium length but still coiffed. (The guys slowly became shaggier a la Beatles.) I quite liked the severity of that cut. I saw it as gamine wearability–but it shocked my classmates and many adults who thought it “boyish” and “extreme” at the worst. I believe some guys I dated liked it fine. But I’d slipped into noncomfromity while in the midst of turmoil. It was an act of rebellion, as well as a way to demonstrate my growing interest in creative decision making.

I underwent DIY alterations. I toyed with blond streaks in my twenties, hoping for glamour that in fact was too transient and washed out my lightly sallow skin. Then I tinted it deeper auburn until it grew out. Until late thirties it grew to become shoulder length and beyond. The point was that it hung free, even tangly and true to hippie style. Once, at 33, I was struck by the lack of captivating curls so gave myself a perm. It sprang to life like a mad thing I couldn’t control, yet when I boarded an airplane to go meet my husband on a business trip, I felt like a new woman. He met me and stared at the corona around my face and said nothing. I felt so let down. Perhaps it wasn’t my best look, though once again it was liberating to do it. I recall pulling it back for months to keep it out of my eyes and mouth. Afterall, I had five kids by then, and off and on we lived in countryside. I wasn’t keeping up with fashion despite enjoying, from a distance, its creative aspects.(I often shopped at second hand stores for those fast-growing kiddos–and sometimes myself.) I’d half-forgotten what it was like to put on a pair of high heels and a dress. My weekly uniform was a clean shirt or sweater, jeans and Frye boots in winter; in warmer weather it was shorts, tank top/Tshirt and sandals. Like many mothers who stayed at home.

All that changed at 36 when I got a worthwhile, full time job that I loved and had to wear dresses or at least pants suits. It was 1985. My life was turning a corner and if it was positive it felt risky. I kept my hair chin length and easy but started to color it a bit red. I wanted to be someone else, I suspect, than who I’d become when drinking too much and failing to meet a myriad duties. And being sequestered in each new place my husband’s career set us all down. I was worn thin and thinner by endless housework, stress of life demands and our contentious marriage; and I was glued to my lovely but exasperating kids for many years. I tried to keep writing– children’s stories, poetry, short stories seeming like lifeboats in the midst of unpredictable seas. But it was often impossible and I flailed about. It may not resonate with some, but living unhappily in suburban Detroit did not work for me, anymore. Developing a career was a way out of the corner and it was a good transition. But it was not enough.

Before I embarked on a major change or two, my hair color had slipped into a fiery red as it got shorter. If that wasn’t a foretelling….and, unfortunately, not all for the best. Don’t get me wrong, I like (natural or otherwise) red hair on people just fine. But not for me. It was too flashy; it was an abrasive red. I was restless and mad, at times drinking again to muffle the miseries. I was getting ready to do something drastic even though I loved working and adored my children. Where all of that led me was to a couple bad choices.

I was divorced a second time at 42. But with a move to Oregon and upon making greater changes I began to find my way back to a more authentic self. And to my natural hair. I stopped dying it, rarely cut it much. It breathed, while it was apt to snag twigs, provide a resting place for flower petals and leaves; it shone in piney air and the sunlight of my new (sober, once and for all) and soon curiously improved life. I was on my way to peace.

I always had decent volume of hair if fine in texture. People complimented me; it half-embarrassed me, surprised me as I had increasingly “let it go” as my mother would have chided. It had grown wavier like my parents’ and siblings’ hair. It was a family trait for silvery streaks to adorn temples by age thirty, yet mine remained a stubborn single color for another three decades. I got regularly teased about it by family, as if something in my DNA had gone rogue. One niece had fully white hair before forty; it was ethereal, gorgeous with her alabaster skin. My sister in Portland sported deep waves of glimmering white like our mother. My jazz musician brother near by us had a head covered in silvery hues. I felt, frankly, left out. I wanted–no, needed–to identify with the tribe that my older four siblings and I embodied, especially after our parents died. But I checked in the mirror: same auburn-brown hair that grew by mid-forties to the middle of my back, curving about shoulders and face. It was curious.

I thought by fifty it would happen; it did not until my mid-to-late sixties, shiny strands here and there. But at least I had more healthy hair than ever before. It leased me that on hikes gusting wind lifted and swirled it around so that I felt like a creature at liberty to roam at will. Which I was, I realized. Only once more–after a heart disease diagnosis at 51 after my mother’s death and not working 3 years– I cut it once more. Very short. I felt it had to be gone for awhile. That I had to start over. And I can’t tell you how many people expressed disappointment I had done so. I had no idea my hair had secret admirers. I found it disconcerting, wanting to cover my near-naked head with hats. But it grew, of course, for a decade, then two.

Now I am 71. It is gradually going whiter at last, drier, coarser and wavier, too. But I’m also losing hair. Over the last three years, it’s drifted out and down quite a bit, and I can get alarmed when I note a small nest of it on the shower floor. I saw a dermatologist who said it was inherited hair loss via maternal genes and welcome to the club: 40% of older women have thinning hair. Sometimes even younger ones. And the past two years or so? Stressful doesn’t even cover it, so I doubt I’m the only one shedding more.

When I got home after my appointment I stopped to ponder how my mother aged. I had only known her since she was 40 when I was born; her hair was worn shorter and a gleaming grey. And we all loved her beautiful crown of hair above laughing blue-grey eyes. Few lines on her face even at 90. (My father had so-called good hair, once black gone white; his eyes were bigger, bluer.) She infrequently complained it had become more scarce but it was no tragedy. She got her hairdo “done” every week until the end–that was what women of her generation did if they could possibly manage it. A few times I rolled her soft hair in the bristly rollers, dried it under a hair dryer cap. The look was curlier than she liked but attractive. Nonetheless, she preferred her small beauty shop, and her stylist was one of her best friends. It was a happy social ritual, too. It’s safe to say it was a point of pride to keep her pretty hair in good shape. It was clear my father thought she was wonderful to look at no matter what. Yet pictures of her when younger astonish me–her spirited, intelligent face framed by cascading dark auburn hair. Her personality likely was close to the same.

What does hair mean to us women–and, likely, men? How much does it impact our sense of identity? How much speaks to our specific cultures and chosen subcultures, our socioeconomic groups? I suspect it affects how we feel about ourselves more than we care to admit. Which seems absurd as i write it. It likely moves others to pigeon-hole us, make decisions about who we are despite true identity being very much deeper. I experienced this to a dregee in the 1960s and ’70s. Activist men and women became more androgenous in atttitude and behavior, more experimental with fashion and risk-taking with political activism. After all, the personal was and can yet remain political. How are we set apart or pressured to blend in? How do we keep oursleves unique in a world where there is boring replication and uncannily fast? Our variety is an aspect that makes humans so fascinating–unlike the vast numbers of strikingly similar other creatures we live with on earth!

Let us be who we are– it seems such a reasonable thing to expect…and yet it seems even more a hot topic despite the loosening of strictures regarding appearance. Perhaps the more our world becomes multicultural, the more dividing lines may blur. Some will welcome that; others will not. But when it comes to hair–it is our own, it’s attached to our bodies so we own the right to do with it what we will. It ought to be an enjoyable freedom. We need to play it and adornments, if we chose–it can indicate more of who we are. But I know that for many this choice is not a given. I can only speak for myself, my own lifestyle milieu. I left behind judgments of how I look long ago (my thinness being another focal point of others over decades).

Our interest in hair–not to say obsession–daily supports a huge industry. Not only hair salons but endless products that one can amass, each more nature-made or fancy or miraculous than the last. I have a few but mostly forget to use them, so end up pawning them off on daughters. I haven’t tried aything to stop hair loss. I’m not close to balding and I guess if that happens I may cut it short once more. As an older woman, I choose to not shear it off yet like so many do. I want to feel it sway at my neck, let breezes muss it up. But my more loosely woven grey-to-brown hair doesn’t define me now, if it ever truly did. It’s like a practical accessory; it protects, warms and can be decorative.

I’m settled in with myself, this body. I’m my everyday self–no need to dress up or look fabulous–and so life is lived in such a way that renders what is on top of my head the least of priorities. Still, maybe one day I will blend in a soft lake hue of blue. My daughters have thought I should do that for years. It’s a tiny bit tempting–a last hurrah from a woman who knows her own mind, with hair that seems to have its own life. The aforementioned granddaughter, just back from Hawaii and glowing, would likely give me a “thumbs up”, as well. Meanwhile, there are many more intriguing matters to capture my interest, regardless how this mop of hair looks as I go through the day and night.

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Preparation for Freedom

Oh for heat and length and ease of

our bodies returned, a simple certainty

of life even as time dwindles, loses track or forbids.

Yes, what I would give for a life lived

so as hands or feet or arms seek others

there comes a meeting of strength and balance,

a compromise between gravity and flight.

Such lightness and courage of bodies that trust…

Before these days, the poisonous winds,

people in their sporting selves

glowed inside the loosening of green

and warming saffron of fall days,

and perhaps there was a small anointing

of flesh, of spirit with safe exhalations,

and armfuls of praise which result

from such comraderie.

I watched them then with clear eyes;

they welcomed with gestures, smiling.

We now step into October’s gauzy air

streaked with smoke, as a myriad of

spinning leaves fall like shy visitors to earth,

and glance off our finely tempered skin.

Which we yet do own and don’t think otherwise:

our flesh has memorized our contentments–

how do we forget comfort when there is a lack?

–and they call to us as our bodies labor.

Still, we likely dance or tread as solitary over earth.

And all the while inside these besieged vessels,

our exquisite homo sapiens sheaths,

we are waiting as if cocooned,

readied for liberation, poised

to be released–and then to once more rise.

Being at Peace with All You Feel

 

"Sunset Melt" by Niya Christine
“Sunset Melt” by Niya Christine

 

I arrived a few minutes early for my doctor’s appointment, looking forward to reading several pages of the book I had brought. But even though I am an established patient there, there was paperwork on a clipboard handed to me. Once seated, I noted that the pages were turned back to page 3. The section I was to apparently fill out was highlighted canary yellow. Because I have an odd fascination with forms and questionnaires, I readied my trusty pen and put on my reading glasses.

1. Are you depressed?

Yes or No.  (Please circle)

2. Do you find you have little to no energy or lack interest in your work or hobbies?

Yes or No.

If you have answered “no” to these questions, you may skip the rest of the form. Please hand to the nurse when you are called forward for your appointment.

I had checked “No’ to both initial questions but couldn’t help scanning the remainder. Chronic aches and pains, persistent sleep problems, irritation, moodiness, a drink every night and so on were noted in the group. What did they mean by all this? I pondered them a minute, wondering what I was missing out on.

Taking stock, then.

Sleep: insomnia has been with me since my late forties, more noticeably the last ten years. I have adapted, even come to appreciate the solitary late or interrupted hours that can yield more time for reading, writing, puttering.

Pain: I came to the doctor due to lower back achiness that has dug its heels in recently and sometimes awakens me. And, sure, I have a few aches and long term issues (heart disease, for example) that grab me from time to time, like it or not. I don’t often complain.  If it comes to 911 status I can reach out. In the meantime I’m busy livining. Griping alleviates aggravation for a moment, agreed, but fails to resolve things for the long haul.

Alcohol. Anyone who drinks a few times a week for barely three years plus a few more worse times and develops an issue with it should just not drink. Been there; over it.

On to irritation. Well, yes, I am at times prickly, some days much more than others. It seems a part of my general constitution. In the last few weeks there have been some irritants: unfriendly cliques at the gym that take up too much space literally and otherwise, bad manners, overpriced goods, drivers that barely reign in the urge to run me over when I am crossing the street. Wait, there are television commercials that couldn’t possibly appeal to anything that breathes, the way I drop bottles or glasses but catch them at the last second while often spilling the contents, anyway. How about when I get in the car and my purse strap is snagged by the door, yanking me half out of the car? (I am in a hurry and it’s one more thing…) My husband abandoning half-full mugs and candy wrappings on the lamp tables as though this is a hotel and I am the maid. And all the tea towels–where do they go when earlier I placed another fresh one on the oven door? (On the floor, atop the salad bowl…I call out the spouse again, sorry.) And I was surprisingly irritated when I saw myself in the daughter’s wedding pictures. It was as if I had been carefully shoved into the elegant sapphire blue lace dress. Do I really own those hips? Drat! A “mini-muffin top” for all posterity.

That was a long paragraph, I agree. But we all can get irritated. On to that next word: moody. Who came up with that? What does it mean, away? Do I experience moods? Yes, a good variety. Do they change throughout the week or even day? Absolutely.

I was called to the examing room. The nurse scanned my answers. “You’re not depressed?” she asked. “And you don’t drink?” Her incredulity was almost kept at bay.

I smiled amiably to reassure her. “No. Just have some back pain.”

The rest of the visit was easy as that. I apparently have a little arthritis despite hiking, power walking, Zumba-ing and working out at the gym. Or, the doc said, because I am so active. Huh? Such is life.

But do not mistake my light-hearted response to the questionnaire as indifference to depression. I am pleased my medical office is concerned about depression. I hope they really notice when someone is, especially if a patient lies on forms.

It’s just that I have a prejudice against questionnaires that try to determine what is going on with our personhood in two–or ten–easy questions. Human beings are so much more multi-faceted than that a form can begin to ascertain. And when did you last tell the whole truth of your life on a piece of paper? It’s not a quiz about one’s favorite vacation spots.

If I had filled it out three weeks ago I would have had to answer “yes” to the first two questions. It was post-wedding (I know, old news–this is it for a while). The day after company left, I was so exhausted I could not move. I lay on my Lazy Boy chair most of two days in between rudimentary chores. Two more days and I was re-engaging in my life but still felt like a wet noodle. That goes for emotions as well. I was drained, fried, wiped out, discombobulated, and randomly feeling like I was floating outside my body. I also had a worse-than-moderate migraine that lasted a couple of days which suspended my brain function in that weird migraine way. And there was a core sadness that it was all over and everyone was gone, with happiness that A. was married. And I made an ongoing critique of the event, moment by moment. It was a full Technicolor movie of memories entertaining and distracting me way past two in the morning. I got tired of all the fun…

About a half-dozen feelings were layered atop one another. But I just went with it. I figured in another week things would fall into a more balanced state. Things did.

When I was daily counseling mentally ill and addicted persons, this question came up every day: Is the client long-term clinically depressed or is he/she experiencing grief and loss, frustration, anger, exhaustion, loneliness, discouragement, physical ailments, or other trying experiences that he/she wants helps with and can work through with better coping skills? And, equally important, is this client using alcohol and/or other drugs to mute the effects of the difficulty? If so, then symptoms of depression are likely secondary to the substance abuse.

In a way it was that simple for me, even though people who are hurting and flailing are more complicated than either question, just as with that medical form. But I could start there. In time I would come round to a full and clear determination. Make diagnoses and a plan. Help was within reach in any case. As each person began to get honest with themselves (first crucial step) and me, they could begin to notice what emotions were authentic and key and often, why. When they identified the critical issues, they could begin to see a little gleam of light in the murkiness and start to be proactive. To redesign their thinking, behaviors and thus, their lives.

One of my favorite educational topics for my groups was identifying and living with emotions. At the inception of the first group attendees would throw each other looks, oh yay, now we get to talk about our feelings...Yawn. By the end of the session they would be discussing how feelings impact brain chemistry and vice versa, how feelings can be felt, corralled or altered naturally. How drugs and alcohol can manipulate them. How the vast spectrum of feelings are a healthy sign of being alive and how they enable us to be effective people. They would begin exchanging stories about their real lives. Within the next two groups they would have let go of their facades, shared surprising things with others, connected, even cried.

Yes, even the men, even the tough guys–and gals. Not every one, of course. There might be that couple of folks who were simply not interested, i.e., not ready. Or struggling with terminal illness. Mired in the muck of addiction or confounded by their own criminality. But even they came around to their feelings sooner or later, even if grudgingly or stuck in anger (an easier one to identify and feel). We can’t sit on feelings forever. They pop right back up like a balloon bounces up after being forced underwater. It’s too tiring to hold that balloon down forever. The thing is, I said, you don’t have to do battle with feelings. Or be embarrassed by them. You can become friendly with them, get to know them. Then let them go. They are integral to our personalities so may as well be amicable with them.

I was born experiencing emotions intensely and not masking them well. By adolescence they often seemed to grab and lead me around by the nose. I addressed my own hard issues but my basic nature didn’t change that much. My face equals an open book most of the time. What I have learned is that feelings are a gift. They inform me about others and myself. They give me energy, fuel my curiosity so that I get up and get going on slower days. They give me clues about my health. Feelings insure I am a person who responds to this nutty and intriguing world, other people, to my thinking and imagining. Without feelings I could not empathize with others. Or stand up for what I believe in. Or grieve over losses. Protect myself from what is dangerous to my well-being. Take care of myself. Feelings link me to the outside world as well as to an internal one. To my body as well as mind and soul. They are the magic stuff from which we are made, along with the esoteric workings of our brains and all the other systems we need in order to live on earth.

Deep, tenacious depression? That is another thing altogether. It is a despair that alters everything. Becomes numbness, emotions seeping away into nothing. That is when you cannot any longer feel much of anything at all. It is intolerable. As if you are looking into a bottomless void or worse, that void seems to be yourself. It has been called an eternal shadow, the black dog, a hidden beast, the demon on the shoulder. A creeping, strangling thing that takes from people precious reserves of hope. That is the malady the doctor’s office– wants to expose and help. For good reason. If you have been there even for a short time–countless people land there at sometime in life as have I, not too long but quite enough–you do not forget. But there is good, expert help out there, so answer those two questions if you are asked. Or better yet, pick up the phone, call someone you trust and this time, speak the truth.

I am very grateful depression hasn’t ruled my life. I have serious compassion for those who do. Neither do my emotions in general take the upper hand all the time, which may be fortunate for those around me. But I do give them lots of room to move and breathe. Let them out, allow them to speak. I have strong emotions–not every one does, actually, nor all the time–and I delight in them. I am very attached to life; the feelings it offers are one of the pluses. They can be mystifying as well as challenging. I pay attention to them the minute I awaken, as they are a barometer as much as the one outdoors. Usually I am a bit low–I tend to think it is because when I finally do sleep I so love the dream world that I do not want to exit it yet–until I shower and put in my contacts. I come to, check the sky and breezes (for some reason, this seems crucial to awakening–primitive I must be). Put on the tea kettle, toast a bagel. Reach for my meditation books. Pray to be a blessing, not an impediment, pray for those who suffer everywhere. Ask for Love to surround me and clarify my goals for the day.

But if my melancholy lingers awhile I have to tell you, I usually don’t bother to avoid or change it. I give it space and time. Feel it. Feelings are fluid, not indelible. We can just acknowledge them as they come and they go. Most of the time I am good with that. But I do at times have my own questions: What is burbling under that sensation, this emotion? What is the signpost saying, where is it pointing? Or it is just a passing energy, come from who knows where and disappearing like vapor?

As living breathing organisms, we are gifted with feeling the pain and joy, anger and rapture. The dizzying sweetness and alarming sour. I hope you welcome your emotions as esteemed visitors. Sit with each awhile. Learn each one’s ways and lessons, honor their part in your short, valuable life. Let them not mistake you for an enemy when you are, in fact, the good host or hostess who has opened the door to your domain.