Monday, February 28, 2011

Coming of age at 54

Last summer, while staying at my summer home in northern New York State for several months, a combination of benign neglect and the lack of a good hairdresser kept me from tending to hair that for a good decade I'd been trimming and dying as a matter of course. As my hair grew richer (I'd added a silver crown to my gold), I became more curious: what the heck did I really looked like these days?

By the time my guests were due to arrive for my fall writing retreat, I had collaborated on the sly with one of them, a hairdresser: for the first morning’s writing prompt, we had a bit of performance art in store. Roxanne would cut my hair. Short.

My resolve was immediately put to the test when Lisa walked in the door. “I love your hair!” she said, referring not only to its inordinate length but also its sun-bleached state. And I thought, "I love compliments!" I smiled and thanked her and wondered if I’d really go through with this.

But the next morning, when the women had assembled in the living room, I marched straight to the sink to wet my head, threw a beach towel over my shoulders, and sat in a chair in the center of the room. The other women were quite surprised when Roxanne pulled out her scissors and began combing my hair. She explained that she’d been watching my hair since she arrived, and that it had told her what it wanted to do. (And I'm thinking, thank God it knew!)

I then described the writing prompt, which was one part a theme of transformation, and one part a randomly drawn lyric from a Kinks song (I’d printed those up ahead of time—the Kinks were big my with my lake friends while growing up).

Retreaters Ellen and Nancy took these pictures of the process. All was fun and games until I started seeing four-inch sections of my hair fall to my lap. Fear and anticipation duked it out for dominance.

To me it felt no less important than carving out an authentic sense of self.

That's a re-emerging theme these days. As I write my memoir, I seek a sense of my own developing character within a story over which I had little control. In a parallel process, as I strive to lose weight, I feel I’m carving out a physical sense of self from the excesses that protected the unfurling woman whose shell shattered from Ron's suicide. I see all of these events as connected.

After taking a moment to contemplate the new me, the women and I got writing. Having these women witness my transformation raised the experience to the level of ritual for me. It was fun, and meaningful—I think all aging women should gather their friends to celebrate the dropping of the hormonal veil that keeps us from truly knowing ourselves. I tried to wrestle my feelings into my usual prose style but they just wouldn’t go—these images felt more raw and untamable. The result was this poem. I've put the Kinks lyric in italics.

The Urge to Push
by Kathryn Craft

An urge asks no permission.
The body simply knows
how to accept a lover, or birth a child.
Yet I needed pills, thermometers, surgeries.
Split second timing. Chemical induction.
With no urge to push, a monitor’s line graph supplanted instinct.

Growth seeks its own path.
The soul finds a way
to bend toward ample light.
Yet I needed journal pages, tough circumstances, therapy.
Life or death choices.
I would be a widow before I could call myself a woman.

Gravity will have its way
with materials meant for temporary use.
It breaks down bone, washes out hair, tugs on skin.
Yet I dammed the inevitable with calcium and hair dye,
pitting my desires against erosion and entropy
and the very spin of the planet.

Time offers up trials
that blister and bolster the enduring spirit,
rubbing, peeling, revealing.
Growth and gravity and time have finally made me
so swollen with experience
that I sense, at long last, a true urge to push.

Impulsive courage seizes me.
The lie of my hair weighs heavily
and I seek rebirth to self.
The scissors snip and shape,
a glimmer of silver feeling freer than
the lock of brass that falls to my lap.

Naked truth emerges,
seeking the light, embracing the gravity, honoring the time.
People take pictures of youth to prove it really existed.
I push my aging self into the open
while I have the chance
before modesty dictates that I don the robe of the crone.

It took four months before the blond was all cut out. Here's the final result:


Tiffani said...

I love it! I love the transformation:) You look beautiful and what an awesome writing prompt.

Kate Brandes said...

Beauty stems from truth. Great post!

Kathryn Craft said...

Tiffani and Kate: thanks for reading. Kate, I love your phrase "beauty stems from truth," but it's not a pervasive notion among women in our society!

I'm glad you two get what I mean, though. Many women warned me off about going gray! It's a pleasure to know both of you.

Sandra said...

Ahem, who was it again that urged you to go natural? Um, hmm, I think her name begins with an S... Oh, it's on the tip of my tongue... Yes, that's it: SANDY!

Kathryn Craft said...

May I just say that my sister Sandy was a huge support in suggesting I let my hair go au naturel? She was a role model as always. Not sure why I only now thought to mention this...

Kathryn Craft said...

And this wasn't the first time Sandy was my "birthing" partner--she was with me when my son Marty was born. Ron was there; he just wasn't the coaching type.

Lisa R. Tomarelli said...

I love your hair even more! Perhaps I was simply being prophetic; perhaps I was truly meant to be the challenge to put the fire to the test of your iron will. Moving forward in our lives of constant change is natural and difficult.

The ritual touched me, too; the reminder of our retreat paired with your beautiful poem brought me to tears. Okay, so maybe it's menopause, but you triggered the tears nonetheless. I'm grateful.

Love you, K!

Marie Gilbert said...

Loved your post. I always put things is perspective using the natural world around us. Women are like trees in a forest. We take the harmful chemicals of life and send out the fresh breath of life and love. We're always adding new branches to our lives. I like your hair and on the news today, they were mentioning the growing trend of women looking quite fabulous in gray color hair.

Kathryn Craft said...

Lisa: Thanks for the sentiment--and you did play an important role! You gave me one last chance to reconsider. ;)

And thanks for your lovely contribution, Marie. I too have seen some buzz in the past six months or so about women celebrating their gray. Guess I'm one of them, now!

Anonymous said...

"People take pictures of youth to prove it really existed." This line is so simple and so true you arent aware of it.

Your silver is elegant and beautiful naturally

I only started dying my premature gray for a HS reunion and before that loved watching the Cruella DeVille streaks come in...I am waiting til 50 to go natural again... maybe you'll inspire me to go sooner! PUSH.....

-Donna G