Whimsy, Faith, and the Thirty-Something Woman.

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1.

I don’t belong in Icing by Claire’s*. The other shoppers browsing beside me wouldn’t be able to sit legally at a restaurant’s bar. They wouldn’t be able to rent a car at the considerable discount adults over 25 are offered. Their faces are unlined, their hair devoid of even a single silvery strand. They are still girls, really; crow’s feet will not alight on their faces for several years to come.

This is my second trip. The cashier has natural hair. The first time she rang up my purchases, her afro was pushed away from her forehead with a plain black band. Now her hair is a garden of two-strand twists. It looks like the kind of work I don’t yet want. I smile at her and recommit to my TWA. The TWA, after all, is why I’m here. Cutting my hair was one thing; feeling elegant and feminine with this cut will, as it turns out, take quite a bit of accessorizing. I know nothing about accessorizing.

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We are closer in age than the customers around us. When I approach the counter this time, she doesn’t let on that she remembers me. Maybe she doesn’t. Either way, I’m grateful as I empty the mesh shopping basket of its contents. She rings up the molehill of trinkets between us: earrings fashioned of plastic and tin, shaped like peonies and roses; cheap garlands of synthetic florals; gilded Grecian headbands, bound to tarnish if worn more than a few times this summer.

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I took this about ten minutes after leaving Icing the first time. That little smile signifies a style breakthrough.

I am probably too old for this. I am mother to a girl who will be starting pre-K in the fall. In November, I will be closer to 40 than 30. For six years, I have taught college students, every semester widening the chasm between their sartorial sensibility and my own. As someone trying to make her living as a writer, being taken seriously has always felt like an Everest climb, a consumption by quicksand, a swim upstream. I am at an age where it is necessary to pinch the bridge of my nose while hunching over bills, at an age where my elders wonder aloud when the work that I do will afford me a lifestyle commensurate with grown-womanhood. (Whither the mortgage, the marriage, the retirement plan?)

And here I am buying flimsy floral baubles at the very accessory chain that interviewed (but didn’t hire) me for my first job at 17.

The cashier tells me the total.

“That’s almost, to the cent, what I spent here last time.”

She courtesy-smiles, waits silently for the debit system to approve my transaction, then hands me the bag. “Here’s a frequent shopper’s card.”

I accept it with thanks but hope I’ll never make enough purchases to redeem it. Two teen girls compare tubes of glittery fruit-flavored lip gloss as I walk out.

2.

At revival, the visiting evangelist descended from the pulpit into the congregation. He was illustrating a point about the importance of vision by asking children what they wanted to be when they grew up. I was 8 and the third kid he asked.

Self-serious little person that I was, my answer was immediate. “I want to be an author.”

Mine was the first response he’d gotten that wasn’t, “I don’t know.” So he riffed on it for a while. “Will y’all excuse me for a minute,” he said, pulling up a chair near my aisle. “I gotta sit and talk to this young person.”

He began to tell me my future. “You’ll read a lot, write a lot of books. You won’t be like all the other children.” His voice took on a wistful, kindly tone. “You’ll never have a day of lack.”

This is all I remember, but he spoke to me for a good five minutes: a monologue amplified by microphone. In the end, we bowed our heads as he prayed that the things he’d just said would come to pass. I kept the cassette recording of the sermon and listened to it once every few years until college. That was when I lost it.

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My church calls this sort of thing a prophecy and the man delivering it a prophet — even when the foretelling is fairly straightforward (Voracious reading is a requisite for quality writing, for instance). Though mostly taken with a grain of salt, my faith still regards prophetic words as sacred.

We are no strangers to mysticism. We believe that the spirit of God might manifest itself during a church service as an indoor fog, the effect like a supernatural smoke machine. We believe that speaking in tongues communicates something to our God that English can’t. We believe that through mere touch — hand to forehead, hand-to-hand, hand-to-shoulder — a minister can confer the spirit of God upon us in ways that make us swoon, faint, convulse, or sprint. We call this being “slain in the spirit.”

For all this trust in experiences that would seem, to anyone who lives outside them, illogical, loopy, or unsound, it’s hard to believe that pursuing a life in the arts would not be accepted as a natural progression.

But being a writer — particularly of fiction — often felt like an unnatural desire. To write fiction was to lie. To lie was sin. Writing nonfiction, if not self-help or testimonial, also felt like the wrong kind of work, for honesty about one’s deepest flaws or exposure of the cracks in other folks’ facades, was regarded as a very real betrayal.

There is little left to write — and even less to write well — whenever these are the guardrails.

In my teens and early 20s, I sometimes came to church wearing a sarong as a skirt with a macrame brooch of a black, Afro-puffed angel holding it in place at the hip: a tiny reclamation of the fanciful. Sometimes I wanted to wear glittered wings and frolic like a fairy, to create a worship experience that felt like the Mamas and the Papas or Simon and Garfunkel or Angela Bofill music sounds. Otherworldly. But I always suppressed the real questions I wanted to ask in prayer. I wrote trite, implausible stories of Christian conversion. I kept my longing for purple hair and hennaed palms to myself.

What do you want from me? I should’ve asked at a much younger age.

I know now what God would’ve told me: Not this.

3.

I have always had muses — none of whom were acceptable choices for teenage churchgoing me.

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Lisa Bonet
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Shannyn Sossamon
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Angela Bofill
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Vonetta McGee
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Erykah Badu

Wear what you want. Love who you want. Give birth when you want. Find ways to live freely. I am drawn to an artsy woman whose look belies her life’s philosophy, because life philosophies — genuine, personal ones — are not easy to form.

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You cannot take stock of present-day Lisa Bonet and not know with all certainty, you’re beholding a woman who — to borrow from Langston Hughes — stands on top of the mountain free within herself. I don’t think that confidence came at low cost, but we purveyors of pop culture have always been drawn to Bonet because we sensed that she saw no trail ahead yet continued, somehow, to set one ablaze.

That kind of freedom can feel like it’s at odds with a few of my faith’s tenets. For us, submission to God’s word and will are the only real freedoms. As Christians, we do not live to please ourselves — and this runs counter to everything I know of myself as a writer. A writer must create to please herself; it is that very self-assurance that earns her reader’s confidence.

4.

For a few months in college, I tried to grow out my perm. I lived alone and if my hair looked too unruly, I’d wrap fabric around it (usually an old t-shirt) and pretend that it meant something regal. I’d stand taller, jaw set against stares or uninvited comment and, for the first time in life, I felt in control of the image I was projecting to the world.

I still wonder what it should mean for our daily lives that we were made in the image of God with the intent that we should behave as though we are reflections of God.

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But for years, it meant treating my body and whatever adorned it as an afterthought. It meant treating my appearance as inconsequential rather than as a point of particular pride. I wore neutrals: denim, earth tones, cotton tees, department-store, factory-outlet dresses. I am still uncertain which colors best complement my skin. (Am I a winter or what?) And this belief that reflecting God meant being conservative in attire and carriage has also meant decades of long hair. Hair long enough to draw a curtain. Hair that doesn’t out the wildness underneath.

The wildness I wanted then seems more permissible now. Churches have factored arts and entertainment into their Sunday rituals. Spoken word, drama, pantomime, liturgical dance. It’s all there. But I am a different brand of feral these days.

My mother convinced me to perm my hair again in college by insisting I couldn’t attend church back home in a headwrap. “It’s Easter!” she’d said. “Easter!”

It took fourteen years to go natural again. Fourteen years and here I am leaving Icing, eager to embrace the sprightliness I denied myself so often as a teen. Here I am writing about my faith’s messy intersections with my chosen vocation. Here I am being as weird as I’ve always suspected I could be.

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But am I too old for it? At 34, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like an overgrown child whenever I place a crown of fake flowers on my head. It seems that, by now, I should have my personal aesthetic figured out. If nothing else, I should know what stores don’t make me feel like the old chick at the club.

(When did I become this self-conscious?)

We talk about reinvention as though it’s a very mature and high-brow process. But so much of it is playing dress-up and making yourself okay with prancing around in new personas till  you find the next one that’s a natural fit.

6.

The Jesus who keeps me Christian roamed and ruminated and attended riotous parties. He heard disembodied voices, battled demons, drank good wine and was led by a calling higher than himself. That Jesus gets me. He gets why I don’t find nudity particularly offensive, since according to our own sacred text, nudity isn’t the sin; shame is. He preferred a complicated story and understood that not every tale worth telling ended with profession of faith in him. He didn’t recoil from the grotesque, and he was irrepressible. The Jesus who cursed fig trees wouldn’t care one wit if I ring my hair in fake foliage. He didn’t conform. And maybe, just maybe, he’d be disgusted with anyone who’d ask me to.

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How I long to be more like him.
*I found out Icing has a shop online option while writing this piece. Guess where I’ll be copping hair garlands instead of in-store now?
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Why ‘Just’ is Jejune: On Cutting All But an Inch of My Hair.

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The first photo I took yesterday that I loved. Probably the 12th attempt or so.

In the bathroom mirror, I tilted my head to the right, the index and middle fingers of my left hand clamping a dividing line between the tight, curly roots of my hair and the 11 or so inches of relaxed hair beyond them. I raised the scissors with my right hand, positioned the blades where my fingers were, like an ax at the foot of a tree, bit my lip, dropped both hands to my sides, scissors still clasped in the the right, and walked out of the bathroom.

I did this three times. Between each I went directly to my phone, toggling between encouraging text messages from my friend Joshunda and Google Images, where I’d searched the term “teeny weeny afro.”

It isn’t just hair. That, I knew before I impulsively decided around noon on the fourth of July to cut my own for the first time ever. Just is a sorcerer’s word; when used as an adjective, it’s meant to minimize impact. When we think someone is making too much of a thing, we say it’s “just” or “only” that thing. We say: you are making too big a deal of it.

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My nana has probably had those scissors for all 27 or so years she’s lived in her current residence. Maybe even earlier. We use them for pretty much everything. Even cutting 11-12 inches of hair, apparently. I bought that brush and shea butter today.

No one should be allowed to measure the import of our actions or our response to those actions (or the actions of others) but us. No one knows how great or small the significance of anything is to us, unless we are able to tell them. And when we make the oft-colossal effort to convey that significance, we need to be met with a willingness to understand or at least to respect our outlook.

It isn’t just hair.

Still, I’ve never been fastidious about the upkeep of mine. And I knew I wouldn’t miss it much, were I to part with it on my own terms*.

On the third try, I made the first cut. The scissors may as well have been miked; that’s how pronounced each cut’s echo was in the bathroom. Handfuls of hair fell away in neat swaths. I dropped them into a plastic grocery bag. After the fourth fall of the scissors, the fourth pulling-away-and-plopping of the permed hair into the bag, I was immune both to the sound and sight of it. It would’ve been easy to read into that immunity, to make the moment reductive. Just hair-cutting.

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Today’s selfies were fun.

But another sensation rushed into that blank space in the hours and the night to come. To cut your own hair is to make external what is constantly occurring within. Every day we are shearing something. We are clipping away at our anger or impatience or envy. Ideally, we are trimming the parts of ourselves that feel overgrown. And we are also losing something of ourselves every day: youth, naivety, impracticality, an acute desire — nay a near-physical need — to be right. But we are not always in such precise control of that work as we can be with cutting our own hair.

It was too easy, in fact, my whole head shorn in ten minutes. I kept trimming away too-straight ends throughout the afternoon and evening, but the dramatic work — the work that, potentially, would’ve been most traumatic, if I’d hated the outcome — was the quickest.

In this way, a haircut drastic enough to warrant notice or comment, a cut that moves the line between who finds you attractive and who does not, becomes an exercise in coping with the impermanence of all things. It is a way to accelerate the most private, deeply personal work we pursue lifelong. Knowing how simple it is to part with hair — upon which nearly everyone we know projects something: desire, frustration, envy, health, liveliness, a standard by which to judge beauty — makes possible the prospect of parting with harder things. Like people. Like money. Like life. Like jobs.

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I took quite a few of them. I wasn’t happy with many, but then, I rarely am. That doesn’t seem to have changed with the length and texture of my hair. Also: I keep seeing more straight ends I should probably clip….

When we aren’t thrilled with a haircut — our own or someone else’s — we use the words, “It’ll grow back” as a reassurance.

Maybe it won’t, though — at least not in the form anyone remembers it. And maybe in its protracted absence, something better grows. Like confidence. Like creativity. Like laughter. Like self-reliance. Sometimes hair is a hedge that hides us. We rarely need to remain so obscured.

I probably won’t grow this out immediately. I’ve had length; I’m not wed to it. Besides, the longer it gets, the more dependent I’ll have to be on someone whose knowledge about hair extends beyond cutting it off. I’m looking forward to learning how to care for it at this length and with this texture. I want to see what else else this haircut has to teach me.

In the meantime, I will try not to talk about it much, even if it isn’t just hair.