Saturday, November 3, 2001: I am at a friend's house, all aglow with the warmth that comes from an evening of good movies, fresh popcorn, and super premium ice cream with people you love. We are talking about shaving our heads. Suddenly, Reed turns to me, looks me right in the eye and says, "I'll do it if you do it."
Well, that was unexpected.
Suddenly, I am cognitively transported to my schedule book: We ran that grid patient on Tuesday, and the right dominant patient on Wednesday. All of the other upcoming surgeries are in the nondominant hemisphere, so we won't be running them in the magnet.(It may seem silly, but I can't help but think that people who are about to have brain surgery would find a bald researcher rather unsettling.) I've got that meeting with Dr. Ojemann on Monday and dad will be here in two and a half weeks, but I think they'll be able to handle it. But...will I be able to handle it?
Stop. Breathe. Note that heart rate has increased substantially. Think. You've been tossing this idea around in your head for weeks. Look at Reed. I think he really needs this. Run fingers through now-threatened hair. What are you so afraid of? Look at hands. I think -I- really need this.
"A life lived in fear is a life half lived."
The funny thing about shaving your head is that everyone wants to know why you did it. I've been telling everyone half of the story: I love my friend dearly. I could tell that my friend needed inspiration. I knew that shaving his head would provide him a source of inspiration. In order to shave his head, he needed moral support. Therefore, I shaved my head. QED.
I want to believe that friendship was my only motivation...
I've never been a good liar.
This is the part that I don't want to admit:
Okay, yes, friendship was a substantial motivator for my shearing, but there was more to it than that. In the past few months a lot of really terrible things and a number of really wonderful things have happened (and yes, it speaks to my secret pessimism that I mention the terrible things first. and yes, it speaks to my even more secret optimism that I'm trying to get you to think I am a pessimist. Now stop being so good at figuring me out, okay?). Many of these terrible and wonderful things are reflections of the terribles and wonderfuls that animate my life story. There is also a generous helping of completely novel stuff. At many points in the past few months (and especially the last three weeks), I have found myself at a complete loss for what to do in order to deal with it all. It is amazing and sickening and entirely too similar to a roller coaster (but you love roller coasters...).
Minutes later I am standing shirtless in a cramped bathroom with a towel thrown around my shoulders, examining a growing pile of my own hair in a wastebasket that had been placed into the sink. ABBA, always helpful, provides the soundtrack for the denuding of my scalp.
For a while, only the back of my head had been shaved, so when I looked in the mirror, everything seemed normal...but then a breeze would blow on the back of my head, and in the aftermath of the sudden temperature change I was reminded (again) that things are not always as they seem.
How much of you is tied up in how you look? If you took all of that away, how much of what was left would be defined by what you own? After that, how much of you is inexorably linked to your job? The problem is, your body, your posessions, your job, these are all things that can be violated and taken away from you. You get in a horrible accident that leaves you cognitively intact, but physically mutilated. You are no longer capable of fulfilling your responsibilities at work, and so you lose your job. You are forced to sell your belongings in order to raise sufficient funds to keep yourself alive. What is left of you?
If you died today, for what would you be remembered? Some words that fell out of your head into a database? Some hugs that you shared with strangers? Are you comfortable with that?
When all of that other stuff disappears, your ideas and your behaviors are all that is left of you. (well, okay, I might be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time, either.)
But how often do circumstances permit people such a clear vision of what makes them who they are? It is so easy and so safe and sometimes so tempting to lead a complacent and wholly unexamined life.
After the initial pass of the razor and my first look at a fist-sized clump of my own hair in a wastebasket, my heart rate and breathing rapidly returned to normal--it was clear there was no going back at this point, so I might as well relax and enjoy it. I had thought my hair was pretty short, but I think it only appeared that way because it lay relatively flat on my head.
When I was young and depressed and things seemed out of my control, I used to cut myself open. I took comfort in the fact that, in the face of everything else that happened, I was in charge of me. It gave me the strength to keep going. I don't self-injure anymore (well, not physically, anyway), but there are still moments when things seem beyond my control. I can't help but wonder if I wanted to shave my head because I thought it would help me regain the centeredness and focus I used to find in my pain.
I shaved the front part of my head myself. My lack of experience at this whole shaving business made me slow, and I noticed the blade of the clippers heating up as I progressed over the surface of scalp that helped secret away my frontal lobe. (mmmm....thinking bits.)
On further reflection, you can actually document the major sections of my life by referencing my hairstyle.
- birth - 11 years: Being young, financially dependent, and easy to dominate means that mom decides what my hair looks like. I don't see this as an injustice, so I don't complain that I end up with unflattering straight-cut bangs and jaw-length hair.
- 12 - 21: A bourgeoning sense of self awareness leads me to refuse all attempts at hair removal. My hair responds by growing as long as it can, petering out at about mid-back length. I'm happy because I have something to hide behind during the part of my life when I am least comfortable with myself.
- 22 - 23: Major life changes (graduating from undergraduate school, getting married, moving 3000 miles away from anywhere I'd ever lived before without the safety net of a job waiting at my destination, etc.) inspire me to cut my hair short. When it rains, it pours, I suppose.
- present: Major life changes (upcoming onset of graduate school, getting divorced, a major increase in work responsibilities, etc.) and the love of a friend inspire me to reexamine the choices I have made in my life. I shave my head. When it rains, it pours, I suppose.
I stayed awake most of Saturday night, restless from a predisposition for insomnia and the strange sensation of the pillow touching my head. I fidgeted with the bedclothes while I replayed the evening's special moments in my mind: the twinkle in Reed's eye as he examined his new reflection; the ritualistic post-shave head rubbing; the sensation of rain on bald; the strange compulsion to rub my head on everything. At some point my fingers happened upon a three-inch-long strand of hair that was the wrong texture to have come from my cat. If my life was scripted like a Hollywood movie, I probably would have held the hair at eye level with one hand and slowly reached up to touch my naked scalp with the other, the camera first focusing on the hair and then on my head in order to emphasize the fact that I have undergone a significant change.
Instead, I fell into a fit of giggles.
I don't know if I've reinvented myself, and, if I have, the transition certainly took more time than the haircut that reflected it. I do know that I've spent the last four days grinning and whistling and dancing on street corners. I am not going to quit my job and devote myself to honorable pursuits. I am not filled with inner peace because of a renewed faith in the good of humanity. I still have to clean out the litterbox when I get home from work.
I didn't have an epiphany. I had a haircut.
and deciding to get that haircut was one of the best decisions I have ever made.