The Hair

May has gotten to be such an absurdly busy month. Having learned of its lunacy over the past few years, I last month, in a moment of wisdom, signed myself up for a marvelous, two-week writing class that began yesterday.

Co-hosted by the ever-inspiring and talented Jena Schwartz and her terrific partner in crime, Cigdem Kobu, it's called Mother, May I? and includes ten daily prompts and writings plus an incredibly active, engaged private Facebook group in which writers can share their prompt responses if they'd like.

With each writing and the time I spend posting my piece and responding to others' incredible works, I am reminded of the power, healing and inspiring, of the craft. I am reminded of why I return to the page even if no one reads my words, even if they move and affect no one but me. 

Yesterday's piece was wrenching and hard. Today's was light and fun, a trip down memory lane via hair. My hair. Enjoy. 

Perhaps more than anything –even more than the earrings that matched the bow, belt and socks; even more than monogrammed backpacks- our hair was the way I and the girls I grew up with personalized ourselves. As if we were matching canvasses but for our hair: manes short and long, thick and thin; grand waves and peaks and gusts of moldable yarn and silk that we shaped into Emily, Janie, Callie and Katy.

My hair was particularly important to me because it didn’t have anything to do with all that grew below it. I felt pudgy instead of thin, was pale instead of tan. My stomach pooched out more than my flat chest ever did or would. It took years for me to feel right in my own skin, but I always loved and could style my hair.

Side-ponytails, high ponys, low ones too. Straight, braided, ironed, crimped. I made a huge mistake in third grade by insisting on cutting my long locks into the Mary Lou, the short, perfectly pert and practical do worn by Olympic gymnast and my then-heroine, Mary Lou Retton. I had the stars and stripes leotard, I was a member of Mary Lou’s fan club, my parents took me to see her perform under endless fluorescents in Houston. I did everything to be that megawatt-smile powerhouse, but her haircut did not work on me: it simply highlighted my round cheeks and buck teeth and the unflattering, maroon-plaid school uniform I wore.

And boy did it take a long while to grow out. All the while I watched my friends' long hair bounce and shine, I envied their sleek ponytails and glossy braids. And I waited, still turning cartwheels during recess and trying to feel like Mary Lou.

A year or two after my hair had grown out again, I permed it. What another wretched idea. The man who did it burned the hairline along my forehead and my bangs fell out. We later found out that he was a druggie who ran a thriving business from the closet where he kept his hair chemicals.

Fortunately, the perm grew out and my bangs grew back in.

Good thing because come middle school, it was all about the bangs. Specifically, the three-layer, individually curling-ironed rolls that we then teased together into a rounded, three-dimensional triangle and sprayed with AquaNet within an inch of life. Imagine trying to keep that situation looking good in south Louisiana heat and humidity on any day but especially those during which we also had to dress out for PE (maroon poly-blend, elastic-waist shorts and maroon tees), play dodgeball in a steamy gym and then redress, sans shower, in time to get to math class.

I’d slimmed out by this point but was still woefully flat-chested (and doing “I must, I must, I must increase my bust” a la Judy Blume at every private opportunity) and the challenge issued by my bangs was a mighty one. Fortunately, Laurie discovered the portable, butane-powered curling iron, and we all shared it hurriedly and hungrily after PE.

In New York, I became a regular at the Vidal Sassoon salon, and worked with April, a sassy woman with a way with scissors. My hair got shorter and sleeker and my bangs went the way of perms and Mary Lous. It also got blonder and blonder, and at one point, a flaming stylist convinced me to go "slightly red."

Friends, I looked like a feral cat.

During each of my pregnancies, the back (but not the front) of my hair grew curlier. And not in a good way: it looks rather like a failed perm slept on when wet. It’s a mess.

But I now have a mostly fool-proof system that involves blow-drying my hair in three or four stages (it is exceedingly thick, which I love but which is time-consuming) with my Super Solano (a fantastic gift from my husband) and then flat-ironing many, tiny sections with my Jose Eber (another superb gift from T).

It’s a ridiculous process, but I relish the days that my hair sweeps and swings long around my shoulders, glossy and healthy (if something can be both healthy and require a two-part intervention and mousse and anti-frizz spray). It makes me feel put together, and not in a superficial way.

I often find that when my insides are roiling -nervous, sad, peevish, whatever- a polished exterior smooths the fizz. I suspect that’s an old coping mechanism, learned and honed and reinforced over the years.

But somedays, only a ponytail will do. And I’m over bangs.