Life, Death and Haircuts

Sometimes hair symbolizes life and death. Sometimes it stands in for our hopes and our fears.

Sometimes it’s just hair.

I got my hair cut last Saturday, and the experience has highlighted my three principles of an elegant life, about which I am shortly to pontificate. But first, a comment on the power of writing (in general) and blogging (in particular).

This past summer, a Brad Feld article triggered my blog reboot. I wrote several blog posts, including one announcing my intention to pursue an elegant life, and one post each to outline the three principles I intended to follow. Within two months, I had put in motion a drastic change from my previous plan — instead of moving from Clearwater across the bridge to Tampa, I’m now moving from Clearwater to Portland, Oregon. 25 miles vs. 3,000. The why’s and wherefore’s of Portland shall be discussed in another post, but I credit this shift in no small part to the power of stating my intentions clearly to myself and announcing them boldly to others.

“I write to think,” Brad Feld wrote.

Light bulb. I’ve been writing to think, and damned if it isn’t working.

So. Back to hair. My experience of getting a haircut profoundly changed after I had cancer. I didn’t mind losing my hair because of chemo; quite the opposite. I had always wanted to shave my head, and now cancer had cut through my hesitation. Bzzzzzz. I never wore a wig, and I wore hats more to keep my head warm than to disguise my baldness. But after treatment, once it grew back, I understood that hair is not an inalienable right. Hair is a privilege. A privilege of health.

When my hair first grew back (and it grew back quickly), it was deliciously curly. I loved it.  “Your hair is growing back!” friends would exclaim. “And it’s curly!”

“Most expensive perm ever,” I would joke.

As is so often the case with those post-chemo curly tresses, mine eventually began to grow back in the way it used to: still thick, but almost completely straight. I saw what was happening, but I didn’t want to lose the curly bits, so I just let my hair grow… and grow… and grow…

A year ago, I had it cut to shoulder length. It was lovely, but then a lot of other things happened, and I didn’t bother with my hair for many months. In part, I just didn’t have the energy for it. In part, I didn’t want to put scissors to the symbol of health and life. Lymphoma took my hair once. Lymphoma took my father forever. I had hair. I didn’t have lymphoma. Let the talisman remain untouched.

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
-Mary Oliver

On Saturday, I got my hair cut, by the same wonderful stylist who, four years ago, had shaped my newly grown post-chemo curly hair into the best haircut I’ve ever had in my life. This past Saturday, Bryna looked at the pictures I’d gathered, and worked her magic on my now-very-straight hair, and I was instantly in love with the new style.

The next day I got up and did my normal routine: wash my hair, rub in some product, forget about it. An hour later, I looked in the mirror to check out my amazing new haircut.

I abhorred it.

Awful, awful hair, that made me look like a dweeb and feel like an idiot. I spent the day in a savage mood.

This unexpected outcome of my vanity check brings me back to my three principles of elegant living:

  1. Release obstacles. I’d done this on Saturday by letting go of the old hair, the tired old look I’d defaulted to for the past several months. The security blanket. But I hadn’t yet begun to…
  2. Cultivate attention. My long hair was a hassle: time-consuming to wash, impossible to style well, annoying when I wanted to do yoga. And constantly shedding, so that every day I would have to pluck out one or three or five long hairs, embedded in my clothing, that were tickling and annoying me. No more! I had to give my hair some attention. Monday morning, I broke out the hair dryer and tried reproducing Bryna’s magic from Saturday. It didn’t turn out as well as her handiwork, but it looked good. Very good. Great, in fact. I was in love again.
  3. Reduce debt. As I’ve explained, my understanding of debt is broader than money alone. In this case, I was “saving” money and paying elsewhere: my energy and confidence were sapped by feeling unkempt, sloppy, and unattractive. Better to support a local hair stylist every couple of months and take pride in myself than to save a few dollars and avoid mirrors. (Reducing debt, for me, is all about doing the hard work up front so that you reap more benefits in the long run.)

So there you have it. My guiding principles, applied to coiffing. And as merry as that seems, there’s another force at work this week, deeper than these intellectual exercises…


Wednesday would have been my Dad’s 64th birthday.

In February, his hair had begun to grow back in, thick and dark, and the day he died I rubbed his head affectionately. His post-chemo hair was straight, whereas before it had always been curly. His hair cheered me, that day at the hospital, and I thought, surely he’ll get better. For a while. Surely. His hair is so thick.

But sometimes hair is just hair.