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Ode to Hair

Updated: Apr 23, 2019

This week, I had the sudden sense to check myself as to whether or not my mom actually started chemo on my birthday in 2012. I have it firmly linked in my mind, and yet, there was a nagging sense -- now, after the book has gone to the printer -- that I ought to confirm it. Going through my old photos, I have images dated 7/19/12 that are still in San Diego, or "last hurrah" trip before chemo started, so I began to second guess myself: maybe she started that day after my birthday?

Today, I thought I'd search my hard drive for any reference to chemo, since I tend to randomly take notes and then save them wherever, just to be sure I don't forget something. (My method of organization is pretty disorganized!) I'm not sure what purpose it would serve if I found I had that date wrong. Too late to correct it in the printing. But, in doing so, I ran across an essay that I don't think I ever published, let alone shared, in the days following my mom's chemo. An exploration of hair. Those who have known me a long time know that I used to have middle-of-my-back-length thick curly-ish hair. Somewhere in the last decade, I decided cut it to a bob, for ease. I also have one son, now nineteen but in the essay eleven, with amazing middle-of-his-back-length curly-curly hair that most women would envy, and one son, now sixteen but in the essay eight, with long thick relatively straight hair that he'll sometimes let me French braid. My hair is definitively shorter than either of theirs. And my husband still has a Captain Picard-esque 'do. There is also reference to my mom occasionally wearing a wig during chemo, which I would have bet money that she didn't do. I remember looking through catalogs with her, but later, after. Memory is such a strange animal.

Without further ado, the mystery essay that I don't remember writing but whose markers are unmistakably my own, with apologies for any typos you might find.


Hair. Nothing is as politically divisive as hair, that “filamentous biomaterial” made of keratin that grows out the follicles on our non-glabrous skin. Depending upon which culture you are immersed in, cutting (or not cutting) & showing (or not showing) your hair is breaking a law -- religious, governmental, societal; figuratively or literally.

I spent the better part of last week (read: time that should have been used for writing or reading) looking at hairstyles on the internet. Which would be: best for my hair type, face shape, age, lifestyle, career. This, on the heels of bad haircut, one in which the stylist repeatedly stopped mid-cut to gesticulate and chit-chat, with me (who was just dying for her to shut up) and her colleagues, resulting in a you-get-what-you-pay-for type cut, one that I immediately hated, and one that lost this stylist a client, and required that I spend more money elsewhere to have the mistake “fixed”.

Now, one bob later, I am satisfied. For now.

Contrast this to my husband’s hair: a Captain Picard-esque ‘do, every Saturday shaved to a 32nd of an inch, the trimmer removed of its protective combs, baring its tiny shearing teeth.

Now imagine if the styles were reversed, my own hair sheared to fierce velvet, my husband’s falling in soft curls just above his shoulders.

How something as unremarkable as strands of keratin can change one’s perception of the self; society’s perception of the person.

My sons: One with luscious, touchable (when it’s clean) shoulder-length curly hair; the other with short stick-straight hair, and a habit of plucking, so that between April and June of last year, he had developed a bald spot roughly the diameter of a baseball, which he covered with a cap and spent all summer retraining himself not to pick at, so that now it is a barely noticeable dollop of white at his crown. Yesterday a friend’s son in Target with spiky blue hair. Another friend’s daughter with none, or a sparkly blue wig, as she recovers from a year of chemotherapy. My mother with her thick clumps of chemo hair on her pillow, think wisps of silver peeking out from beneath the lower edge of her hat - not quite gone, not quite all there, sometimes covered by a “cranial prosthesis” -- aka, a wig.

Hair as an aesthetic choice. Hair as a prosthetic. Hair - or lack thereof - as a political statement, as an argument for or against or in opposition to what is conventionally beautiful.

Beauty as a tool. Beauty as a weapon. Beauty as temptation, or salvation.

* *

I have been working on a series of poems intermittently, working off this one line, a line that I can’t seem to get out of my head:

I want to write something beautiful so that you will love me.

I want to write something beautiful so that you will love me.

Love me.

Love. Me.

Beauty as desperation.

But in this case, it is not an aesthetic beauty that I am after. Also, sorry to disappoint: It is also not about you, dear reader, you who I assume to exist but that without whom this essay still does exist. This essay, and in fact that line which has already driven a number of my poems, is in fact a direct inquiry into the nature of my own beauty; a solipsistic attempt at reconciling the dualistic parasitic twin tendencies of self-love and self-loathing. I am pleading with myself, through the construct of the assumed reader, to find something beautiful in me deserving of my own love.


Photo above was taken somewhere around the time I wrote this, 2009ish; photo below taken ten years later, April 2019.

Mandatory early morning AWP airport mother-and-sons selfie.

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