The Shortest Day
My shoulders slumped a little as I walked out of the salon last Thursday. I didn't like my hair cut. The blonde fell in smooth strands, a little bang whisked across my brow. I couldn't put a finger on what I didn't like. But when I got home that evening my tween daughter put it in simple terms. "Mom, it's a bob." She squinted her eyes a little and elaborated. "Actually, its a little bit shorter than usual. It's not just a bob--it's a mom-bob." Of course it was. I was a mom with a smooth blown out bob, a mom-bob is what I had for hair. I didn't love it, but was mildly resigned to it. Something about me with a mom-bob made sense, not to my internal story of myself, mind you, but to my understanding of the world beyond me, to the people who look at me and think of me in a certain way. I think to them I am a mostly a mom, and for me to have a mom-bob would make a certain kind of sense.
Because I'm a mom of a certain age, who still has blonde hair, a haircut does not finish it off for me. The next day I had my second hair appointment of the month--for the color. By last Friday my roots were showing about an inch and a half, damning evidence that I had missed the previous appointment. My colorist hates it when I do this. It makes her job of making my hair look natural more difficult. I've spent the last three years or so threatening to give up the color, but pretty much everyone I know--my kids, my hairdresser, my colorist, everyone, is staunchly against my going gray--and in the end, I suppose for now I'm with them. I'm not that interested in looking older these days, which must be some kind of sign that I've grown up, because I can remember the days of wanting to look older than I actually was. And beyond all that I've not been able to calculate the logistics of letting it go gray. Do I cut it off and then grow it out? Do I tough out the year of hair half gray half blonde? That's usually where my thoughts on gray stop and I book the next three hour appointment.
For the first time at this particular appointment, I ran into a male friend getting his color done. Do you acknowledge this? Is it outing him somehow to say hello? For years friends have streamed through the salon during the three hour appointment, and we've covered, children, marriage, the state of the nation, all with our hair foiled up into wild looking techno manes. But the men had never joined us here. So that was a new. I decided on texting him to let him know I was there, so when we ended up sitting next to each other in the blow dry line it was a little less awkward, I like to think.
While I sat next to my guy friend, a twenty-something male stylist with blue ear plugs and black doc martens blew out my freshly blonded mom-bob. Smooth, straight, pretty. It was a haircut that was hard to argue with, because it didn't look bad. But in the course of the three hours in the chair, not only had I seen my first male friend come in an cover up his gray, but I had also read Megan Mayhew Bergman's essay, The Long and Pretty Goodbye. In it she catalogued some of the most effective elegiac writing of the year, including an article about the sudden thinning of the giraffe population in Africa. In thirty years the giraffe population has fallen from 157,000 to 97,000, slipping from the list of animals around which there is little concern into the list of species vulnerable to extinction.
Learning about the declining giraffe population pierced me in a new way, as if there had not in the last few months been enough disillusion and disappointment. Eloise, our almost seven year old, is a self-proclaimed giraffe-girl. In a family where gender is fluid and up for discussion, Eloise claims giraffe-middle as her gender essence. It's about the eyes for her, and I can't argue. Both she and giraffes share a fringed wide-eyedness that makes an undeniable impression, and she claims the kindred spirit any way that she can. It is not uncommon for me to pick her up from first grade to find her wearing her giraffe horn head band. She draws giraffes. She dreams of giraffes. She has decorated her room with giraffe artwork and a collection of giraffe stuffies that range in size from over five feet tall to four inches short. Each has it's own gender-middle name: Jingles, Beau, Sparkle, and on and on. I cannot hold the full catalog in my head. Eloise asks me almost every week, "When can I visit the giraffes in Africa?"
From my seat in the salon I foresee a slow train wreck of heartbreak that I could not prevent. With zero hope in my heart, I sign up, from the salon chair, to become a member of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. I don't research or dig deeper to find out if it's a good organization. I just plug my credit card in one more time, because it is the only thing I can do, not to ward off disaster, but to ward off a kind of personal shutdown, a way of not allowing myself to give in to the helpless feeling that lingers at the edge of everyday these days. As the sad feeling descends once again, this time weighted down even heavier by the visceral feel of my daughter's heartbreak alongside my own, I force myself to also understand it as the seed of hope, to see the wide view that these feelings of sadness as the underside of our love for so much that is both within and beyond our grasp.
The last time I felt sadness like this was when my friend Brett was in a biking accident and almost died. The doctors did not think he would live and they predicted that if he did he would not come close to a full recovery. He had been biking across country and ended up in a hospital in Joplin, Missouri. His wife, his children and a few close friends flew out to be with him and make their hope manifest in person which seems almost always to be the most important thing. I was not at the inner circle of this tragedy, but at the next rim. I was very sad and would find myself crying at odd times and in odd places, feeling sort of stuck and helpless in Palo Alto. But eventually I came to the idea that my sadness would help nothing. That though I felt sad, that sad feeling had to serve as a call to notice what it felt like to be alive and well, to be able to walk, to be able to hug my kids, it had to be a call to joy of some kind, since I myself was not debilitated. This was hard to remember, so I streaked my hair with pink as a reminder. Every time I looked in the mirror I was reminded of a certain basic joy of just being, the kind of joy that is often easy for me to overlook.
Similarly, I decided just feeling despair about the giraffes, and the election, and the single sex bathrooms in North Carolina would not help anything, and that I had no room in my life for resignation to things that did not suit me--like that mom-bob. So I texted with my hairdresser to say that the cut was good looking enough, but wasn't working for me. He texted me back to say, "Let's make it fierce," which felt just about right. As he snipped away years of hair, my one fear was for what the girls would say.
People who have known me a long time, know that the short-haired feminist is always on hand, even if you can't see her. But the girls had never seen me that way before. Chloe had told me a dozen times when I had thought about cutting my hair short before that she did not like the idea, that to her mind, "You won't look like my mother anymore." I also realized that the whole world that has grown up around these daughters of mine has only ever seen me with long blonde hair. It was strange to realize, since I know myself in so many other ways, but this group of people I love, this group of people who are my everyday, has only ever known me with long hair.
For me, short hair is a sign that a new adventure is starting. I had my hair short when I left for summer camp for the first time, when I started boarding school, and when I moved to California. These were all the most formative moments of my life. It seems just right to me that as I start my MFA, at this particular moment in time, that another adventure is beginning. In each adventure, I can see that a set of questions was rising to the top--beginning with: who am I and who is my tribe, and then who am I and how will I take care of myself, and now as I head to writing school the question is a little bit who am i (though so much less than in school and upon arriving in California) combined with how can I help? Though there is likely nothing more practically useless than an art degree, I am becoming a student again to ask the question, how can my writing help.
And just as a final note in the darkest time of the year, I offer these couple of quotes that have helped me this month. Because though writing is impractical in so many senses, other people's writing, more than almost anything else, has been my lifelong solace. To all the writers out there who are doing their thing to offer their best effort, I am grateful. And to Rebecca Solnit, I know I am not alone in gratitude for Hope in the Dark, a book that found me the day before the election and which I read cover to cover in just a few hours.
"Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit. You hope for results but you don't depend on them."
"Joy doesn't betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection."
And to Lidia Yuknavich thank you for the continuing encouragement to "Try everything."
Happy New Year everyone. May the return of the light stoke your joy.