Hair Today—Gone Tomorrow?

When my husband needs a haircut, he says, “I think I’ll go get a haircut.” He breezes out the door and is back in an hour.

For me it’s a life-altering decision.

When I’m dissatisfied with my hair, it colors my entire life (pun intended). Bad hair puts me in a mood to match. So, back in the fall, when the haircuts weren’t working, they left me in a perpetual state of agitation.

But oh, change is tough. A woman develops loyalty to whoever puts scissors to her hair, let alone colors it, and rightfully so. Talk about trust issues. When the time comes for a change, it feels like betrayal. Just asking my friends for recommendations or browsing the yellow pages or scouting salons online felt like I was sneaking around.

Drastic measures

Changing hairdressers requires much soul-searching and justification, tallying grievances that make a drastic move not only desirable but also necessary. Here are a few of mine:

  • S/he cut it too short.
  • S/he didn’t cut it short enough.
  • S/he was running late.
  • S/he was distracted.
  • S/he talked too much.
  • S/he didn’t listen to what I said I wanted.

And so, after agonizing for weeks and then acting on a whim (if I didn’t act on a whim I would never, ever pick up the phone), I called a hair stylist a friend had recommended. I figured it would be weeks before I could get in, but NO. He had an opening the following Saturday. “Noon,” he said.

“Noon?” I repeated, stupidly.

“Yes. Noon.”

“I’ll take it,” I said.

For two nights before that appointment, I had nightmares about haircuts gone bad. I vacillated between guilt and terror. What had I done? Well, I had betrayed a perfectly good hair stylist, that’s what.

It’s only hair.           

When Saturday came, armed with my photo of Helen Mirren with short hair, I set out. I gripped the steering wheel hard. I had sweaty palms. It felt like a trip to the dentist. I told myself, it’s only hair. 

The salon was small and quiet, only a couple of customers on Saturday at noon. I tried to appear nonchalant, like someone who tries out a new hair stylist every other month or so, but I must have been ashen because the stylist zeroed right in on my case of nerves.

“It’s going to be okay,” s/he said, like a parent reassuring a kid with a skinned knee.

I considered bolting, but I didn’t. I wondered, sitting there, waiting, why haircuts make me so nervous. And then I remembered.

The monstrous machine

The Bad Perm
The Bad Perm

When I was a little girl, I had really pretty hair. In most photographs, it’s shiny and clean and nicely curled, usually with a big bow. But my mother must have gotten tired of taking care of it. That’s the only explanation I can fathom for why, when I was three, maybe going on four, she took me to the beauty parlor over the drugstore, up the same stairs to where the doctor’s office was. I had been in that beauty shop before with my mother. Somebody had probably trimmed my hair. I’d seen women sit under the permanent wave machine, a monster of a thing with long tentacles that attached to their heads. I’d never dreamed it could happen to me, but that day, it did. My mother apparently wanted my hair short and carefree. Somebody cut my long hair off, and then I sat under that machine, breathing in the awful permanent wave solution fumes, those fumes and fear and humiliation making me cry.

I remember that, when we got home, I refused to look in the mirror. I don’t remember ever looking, although at some point I must have. I couldn’t have avoided mirrors for the long time it took for the awful frizzy perm to grow out. You can see for yourselves in the photo how bad it was. 

What possessed my mother? I have no idea. Whatever it was, she must have felt guilty because by my fifth birthday, my hair was long again, and pretty.

Back to the present

Of course, the encounter with the new stylist wasn’t perfect, either. There were a few problems:

  • S/he was running late.
  • S/he cut it too short.
  • S/he talked too much.
  • S/he didn’t listen to what I said I wanted.

I’ll stick with this stylist for a while, though. After all, I’ve made the break, and making up is just too hard. I’ve already gone back a second time, and this time, I let this new person, this person I hardly know, color my hair. Now that, my friends, is trust. And, would you believe—I like it!

Do you have hair horror stories? If so, share them here!

Listening Back

I haven’t been able to get these words out of my head today:

We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music.  — Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

My Wordsmith Studio friend, Lara Britt, keeps encouraging me to write memoir.

“But I write fiction,” I tell her; “I don’t write memoir.”

Oh sure, I’ve written some pieces for this blog, mostly in the context of exploring memory in relationship to story. Or at least that’s what I’ve told myself. I have to confess, though, that I found it cleansing to “get them out,” those stories, some of them like a painful tooth; it felt good for them to be gone, no longer cooped up inside my head. But a memoir, a cohesive story of my life? No, I don’t think I have the material. Or the nerve. Because it takes courage to remember.

no such thing as perfection

I used to think I’d had a nearly perfect childhood. Nobody beat me. I didn’t grow up poor. I didn’t grow up rich. But I was an only, overprotected child in a household where the grown-up dynamics were complicated, so not so perfect, after all. Idealistic and immature, I did what I was expected to do: got a teacher’s license so I could “take care of myself” if the need arose, married a good boy with “promise,” settled down and had babies and and generally lived what I thought would always be the good life. How can I get stories out of that?

Well, life doesn’t always turn out that way, does it? And that’s where remembering gets hard.

looking back, listening back

I understand Buechner’s “looking back” as an easy metaphor for examining the past. When we look back, we either boldly turn and face the past head on or we glance over our shoulders so memory comes at us a little sideways, a little slant of the truth. Either way, we see visions of how things used to be. Sometimes they’re lovely; sometimes, nightmarish.

My dad's radio / Gerry Wilson

My dad’s radio / Gerry Wilson

But how do we “listen” back? Maybe Buechner means the way we play old “tapes” in our heads: the reruns, the should-haves, the voices, the patterns of thought that occupy our minds and keep us spinning helplessly in one place, not moving ahead but not able to go back, either, which of course we can’t do; we can never, ever go back, not to the previous minute or hour or day, not really, except through the filter of memory.

Too much dwelling on the past and we risk turning into “pillars of longing and regret,” Buechner says. Soured on life. Stuck. Sad. Lost.

deaf to the fullness

But then Buechner makes the turn, important in a poem but also in any good story: “to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music” [emphasis mine]. To shut off remembering is to miss out. Shutting off the past makes us less than what we can be and keeps us from living fully now.

So maybe my friend is right. Maybe all our remembered stories, no matter how simple they seem on the surface, deserve to tell their noisy little selves: to shout out, to sing off-key, to be messy and loud, heartbreaking and beautiful at once. Just like our lives.

Nobody wants to “live deaf to the music.” How do you confront—or embrace—your past?

Memory, Revisited

Last October, I participated in what I thought would be an impossible challenge: to write a memoir piece for each of the first 25 years of my life. Jane Ann McLachlan has launched the 2013 October Memoir and Backstory Challenge, and I’m having a go at it. This year, each week has a theme, and because October is such a busy month, there may only be a post or two a week. But I hope you’ll join me here and read whatever surfaces—because that’s exactly how it happens for me: the stories “surface,” they rise out of deep memory and time.

The first week’s theme: a childhood memory

Second grade scrapbook

I was surprised, reading through last year’s posts, that I’d neglected to write about one of the more traumatic events of my childhood.

I was a sickly child. I won’t go into the details, but by the time I was six, the doctors recommended that my chronically infected tonsils be removed. That would solve all my problems, they said.

October. I was already into my second grade year, but the surgery couldn’t wait. So we were off to the big hospital twenty miles away. I don’t remember being afraid. I remember the operating room lights, the smell of ether. I remember waking up with a terrible sore throat, sucking on ice chips, not crying because crying made it hurt even more.

The evening after the surgery, something went terribly wrong. There was blood, lots of it. A flurry of nurses, another trip down the long hall, rushing this time, the lights, the mask closing over my face, and darkness. Waking again in a dim room.  I was one sick, weak little girl.

I stayed in the hospital for a long time. After I went home, I was confined to bed for weeks. I remember spending the days in my parents’ bed, so big, light, and comfy compared to mine. I was out of school for two months that fall. I ate basically the same things every day, a diet designed to cure my anemia: poached eggs mixed with cubed, buttered toast and lots of salt and pepper (the only way I would tolerate the soft eggs); a ground beef patty (made with bread softened in a little milk and another egg) at least once, maybe twice a day, with mashed potatoes (not for building the blood but because I loved them).

A pipe-cleaner butterfly and my own cursive handwriting
A pipe-cleaner butterfly and my own cursive handwriting

I passed the time listening to the radio, playing with my dolls, and eventually, catching up on schoolwork. My mother bought a scrapbook where I pasted all the cards I’d received, even the ones attached to flowers. My own little handwritten notes are on some of the pages—in cursive; I think I wrote in cursive before I learned to print.

My grandmother, a no-nonsense woman who loved me deeply, was the magical finder of treasures. Every day, she brought me something I’d never seen before: a china doll that had belonged to her sister; an old story book, a beetle in  a jar, a collection of pine cones or flowers out of her garden. “Surprises,” she called them.

I don’t remember gradually getting better. I don’t remember getting out of bed or going outside to play for the first time. The entire fall is a blur except for one image, as though I’d stepped outside my body: a wan little princess propped up in bed, the bright windows with their organdy curtains, the food brought on trays, the grandmother’s footsteps down the hall, bringing something—anything—to relieve the monotony of the days.

Eventually, I got well. I went back to school and finished the second grade with the rest of my class. And here I am.

Back to the present

My book group just finished a book I highly recommend: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. In the book, Ms. Atkinson tells one story in various ways: what if this happened? Or no—what if this instead? Fascinating. Genius.

But isn’t life like that? At any given moment, with every potential choice, with everything that happens to us along the way, aren’t we shaped? Might things have gone differently? If we had gotten to the intersection two minutes earlier, would we have been the ones involved in a fatal accident? If the surgeon had been more careful; if my mother had not discovered the bleeding when she did; if I had not discovered music at my elderly neighbor’s upright piano; if I had not met a blue-eyed boy at a college dance–how different would my life have been?

What are your turning points? Do you ever play “what if” with the circumstances of your life and stand in awe of where you are and why? 

Thanks, Jane Ann, for the challenge.