Wednesday, February 23, 2011


One warm afternoon when I was eight years old, I was skipping down the sidewalk under a row of black walnut trees on my way home from a friend’s house after school. As I passed a couple of boys in backpacks, I heard one whisper to the other, “Was that a boy or a girl?” I turned my head just in time to see the other boy shrug as he looked left and right before crossing the street.

There was no malice intended in that brief inquiry. Clearly, they thought I was out of earshot. But I, with my Dutch Boy haircut and my unisex corduroy pants, could hear those words with the precision of a freshly honed knife. With that simple overheard question, all my third-grade self confidence dropped with a crash into my gender neutral sneakers and shivered into ten thousand sharp-edged pieces.

From that day until the day I graduated from high school, I avoided getting my hair cut short.

• • • • • • •

What makes hair so important to our self perception? To the perception others have of us? According the Apostle Paul, it’s meant to be a glory and a covering. It’s a means of pursuing beauty. But it’s also a way to distract ourselves from pursuing beauty of a more lasting kind. It’s one of the first identifying features we use to describe other people, and it has a remarkable capacity to either attract or repel.

Just this weekend, after dropping off two of my kids at a birthday party, I saw a woman walking through the Safeway parking lot. She wore a cute white coat, a pair of trendy boots, and carried an armload of carefully folded, environmentally friendly, reusable grocery bags. She also had one of the worst cases of bed head I’ve ever seen. On account of her hair alone, she looked, to put it bluntly, like a mess—like she’d had, if not a terrible life, then at least a terrible morning. She looked like someone who deserved my pity.

Odd as it seems, hair has a way of telling a story; we use it to show the rest of the world who we are and who we want to be. According to one recent survey, the average American woman will spend roughly 2 ½ years and $50,000 on her hair before she dies. Apparently we think our hair is a worthwhile way to invest our time and money. And maybe the returns are substantial enough to justify the expense; a person’s “do” is often all the signal we need to tell us whether she is headed for a night on the town or a day at the gym—whether she is one of us, or one of them.

Hair is, in fact, behind many of the snap judgments I find myself making. One look at a woman with a pink Kool-Aid dye job, or a mane of carefully highlighted layers, or a slicked-tight chignon, or straight, down-to-the-rear tresses can leave the impression—accurate or otherwise—that this person is insecure or confident, ambitious or socially inept. It seems a bit strange that I, who spend relatively little time on my own hair, would instantly attach such significance to what other people have done with theirs. Does it prove that I am shallow? Mercilessly judgmental? Astute? Could it be that some poor woman’s bad hair day has kept me from making a new friend? Is it possible that the lady in the Safeway parking lot had her Saturday morning act together more than I did? Or did I accurately assess the truth about her from one quick glance at the back of her matted head?

• • • • • • •

During my last year of high school, I had spent months wanting to change my look. I would stand in front of the mirror, pull up the ends of my long hair and fold it over on itself, letting the bottom of the loop hang down to my jaw, giving me an amateur preview of the style I wanted. I would raise and lower the looped hair, trying to decide how drastic an amputation this should be.

I was partly excited and partly terrified as I finally picked up the phone and scheduled my haircut for the day after graduation.

When the day came, I sat waiting in the salon chair, all nerves beneath my black cape, watching in the glass as a girl with acrylic nails and “Tammie” stamped on her nametag twisted and clipped the top layer of my hair into loose coils around my head, transforming me into a kind of brunette Medusa. Across the salon, a lipsticky woman with squares of foil sprouting haphazardly around her face stared at my reflection, if not exactly turned to stone, then temporarily transfixed as the last snake of my hair was held in place.

“Okay, girl! Ya sure about this?” I turned my eyes toward Tammie and nodded, feeling my heart beat rise. I watched her raise the scissors, felt the cool metal against my skin, heard the first definitive ksssht of blade against blade.

Oh gosh. Oooh my gosh. What had I done?

When that first foot-long snake of hair slithered to the floor, the woman with the foil seemed to revive from her state of petrifaction and dropped her lipstick mouth wide open. “Oh honey,” she said with a loud East-coast accent, “Oh my gaaahd. You are so brave! I could never just go cold-turkey short like that.” My eyes made contact with hers in the mirror, and I saw her shake her metallic head in disbelief. “You are so brave,” she said again.

So brave. Something about those words calmed my jitters and made me feel almost heroic, a sort of side-kick to my acrylic-nailed Achilles. With a repetitive click and hiss, she cut down snake after snake while I looked on with growing approval.

When Tammie was done and the blow dryer was turned off, she passed me a small hand mirror and spun me around to give me the full, 360-degree view. I liked what I saw. So did my foil-framed admirer. “Oh wow, that is so cute!” she said, “You are so, so brave!”

For weeks afterward, I would find myself stopping by the bathroom mirror just to see if I was still satisfied with the new look, half afraid that I’d find nothing but an older version of my crushed Dutch Boy self staring back at me. But each time I looked, I liked this girl—this young woman—better. I felt somehow grown up. Sophisticated. People I had known for years would pass me by on the street without recognizing me, and, when I said hello, would repeat some variation of the foil lady’s shock and admiration. I reveled in their reactions at the time, but in retrospect, I wonder what else they could possibly have said.

The only person who has ever reserved the right to criticize what I’ve done to my hair is my grandmother, who let me know in no uncertain terms that she had liked it better long. But hair, to my grandmother’s relief, turns out to be a renewable resource, and for the past 15 years I have let it grow and cut it off at roughly annual intervals, shocking my children, dismaying my grandmother and pleasing myself every time. I might like to think that these periodic drastic alterations prove that I am so brave. But really, it’s just that I’m no good at fixing my hair; when it gets unwieldy, it has to go.

• • • • • • •

Just a couple of months ago, I went to get my hair cut at the local beauty school. (Risky, maybe, but it’s hard to argue with a five-dollar shampoo, cut, and style.) I’d intended to go sooner, but with other priorities getting in the way, I had left my hair to grow until it reached past my shoulders and was spending its monotonous daily existence as an inartistic—but highly practical—ponytail. So when I sat down in the salon chair and explained what I wanted, my student stylist, was timid about cutting my hair back as far as I’d described. Not once, not twice, but three times I had to ask her to cut it shorter. After an hour under her scissors, it was still an inch longer than I’d hoped, but I decided it was close enough. I paid my five dollars, threw in a tip, and walked home.

When I entered the house, my sons received the new me with varying degrees of enthusiasm. “You look ridiculous,” one of them told me.

“Whoa,” was all another had to offer.

And my youngest child, who always has a flair for flattery, assured me, “You look beautiful, Mommy.” I play to a tough crowd.

I remember, though, how the same alteration startled me the day my own mother cut her hair short when I was little. It took several days to convince myself that, in spite of all appearances, she was still the same person.

• • • • • • •

Even knowing what a powerful effect hair can have, I usually hate taking the time to fiddle with it just to make myself presentable, which is why I like a low maintenance style best—and which is why it’s probably a good thing I don’t have daughters. With five kids (who sport no-nonsense buzz cuts) keeping me busy, there are plenty of occasions when I skip the hair routine and spend the day looking like more of a mess than that lady from the Safeway parking lot. At least she had trendy boots. I, meanwhile, schlep around in my slippers until lunchtime trying to get ahead of the laundry.

But still, even if I am less than gifted with a blow dryer, I do appreciate a good hair day. It’s a lovely feeling to step out of the house with a fresh haircut and a sense of having faced the enemy and prevailed. Nevermind that the enemy was nothing but a bad case of bed head.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away.
—Proverbs 27:10

I live in my childhood home. There is something charming—and almost anachronistic—about raising my own children in the same house my parents bought when I was nine years old. I know every corner of this century-old farmhouse by heart, and every room holds memories in its walls. I am comfortable here. But as familiar as this house is, we are, in many ways, living in the middle of unfamiliar territory. A foreign world lies outside our doors.

Of course, it’s not as though a whirlwind has pulled us from our foundations and given us a yellow brick road where the sidewalk once was. Our street, in fact, looks almost as it did twenty-some years ago. The buildings themselves have hardly been altered; their structures, their yards, and even their paint colors are largely the same as they have been for two decades. The difference, rather, is their occupants. Most of them have been replaced. A couple of familiar faces remain, but after 17 years, they no longer recognize me.

The residences on our block—including ours—are mostly rentals or "starter" homes, which means that the people who are here now won't be for long. We’ve spent three years trying to learn the names of most of our neighbors, and within that short time, several of them have already moved on.

We rarely see many of our neighbors, and with so few of us likely to remain for more than a year or two, putting forth the effort—and it is an effort—to meet them feels almost futile. Some will never even make eye contact before ducking hurriedly into their house-shaped bunkers. They live in hiding, and then they leave.

* * * * * * * *

Twenty years ago, meeting our neighbors seemed easy. With so many kids sharing the same block, spontaneous encounters were practically inevitable. There was a time that children formed a part of the landscape, a time when I could recite the names of the occupants of nearly every house within view of our front yard.

I could tell you that the neighbor in the white house across the street would step onto his front porch at five o'clock each night—you could almost set your watch by his appearance—and call for his son John, stretching his short name into two long, operatic syllables. And John, with the blond rattail flying out behind him, would race his bike home for dinner.

In the fading red house facing ours lived two little girls, younger than I, whose father owned Southside Mini-mart down the alley. I envied them. They could skip over to their father's business after school and have their pick of free candy.

Two houses down, with their mother and the hard rocker step-dad they called Tony, lived Chris and Jennifer, unkempt in their oversized Def Leppard t-shirts. They smelled like dirt.

And at the end of the block was a family with three children who attended our Christian school. They had a friendly brown and white dog named Ginger, and their mother taught me how to sew Barbie skirts by hand.

But for all our quotidian interaction, we never grew close to the people around us. We knew their faces, and we knew their names. We said "hello" when we met on the street, but we never so much as shared a meal. We never really knew them.

Most of these people are gone now. I don't know where. Or why. Or how long ago. Maybe some of them are dead. And, to be honest, I have a hard time caring.

* * * * * * * *

Ours is a small college town, so the student population is in constant flux. As unsettling as that can seem, it's at least to be expected. What distresses me more is how rapidly the rest of the population turns over.

I often wonder what subtle effects our modern nomadic lifestyle has had on our society. What would our neighborhood look like if the people in it had stayed? How much different would our attitudes and expectations be if we knew we couldn't just pack up and leave every few years? And what investments would we be willing to make in our relationships with the folks next door if we expected to find them still living there in twenty years?

* * * * * * * *

Twenty years ago, those casual encounters with our neighbors cost us nothing; it likewise cost us nothing to say our casual goodbyes. Because forging friendships with our immediate neighbors requires more from us than it once did, it’s just possible that those friendships will seem more valuable in the end. But what, exactly, will it take to reach these people in the first place?

Most of us are just not home enough to regularly bump into one another. We spend too little time in our own yards. We're busy. We may have collected enough virtual "friends" to keep us from feeling the need for the kind with flesh and blood. We invert our sense of community by allowing Blogger and facebook to turn our private spaces into public spaces and iPods and cell phones to convert our public spaces into private spaces. Even when we do find ourselves forced into some kind of neighborly small talk, our fragmented culture has made common experiences next to impossible to find.

Bleak as it sounds, the only sure-fire way of making contact and forming relationships with these disparate individuals seems to be disaster of some sort. A massive windstorm this fall knocked out power and downed several trees around us, damaging a number of nearby homes and vehicles. Destructive, yes, but also an easy and natural topic for conversation. It provided an opportunity to finally meet some of the people on our block. I even had a chat with a man on the corner who had the top half of a giant pine tree resting comfortably on the roof of his camper. Before that day, I had never so much as seen his face.

My husband does a much better job of making friends with the neighbors than I do, but even so, it hasn't been easy. Sharing food has been somewhat successful—excess garden produce in summer, hot cross buns at Easter, homemade cookies at Christmas. A couple of neighbors have even accepted our invitations to dinner, but we have a long way to go before we could say we know them. When we tried to share a plate of treats with one man across the street, all he said was, "No thanks," and shut the door in our faces. Maybe he thought we were trying to poison him.

These people could be suffering some horrific trials in their lives, and we would be blissfully unaware. And tragically unable to help them—tragically unable to love them.

We've all heard the story of the Good Samaritan. We've all gotten the message that "Love your neighbor as yourself " doesn't literally mean to love your neighbor; it just means, as the old rock song suggests, to love the one you're with. But what if loving my neighbor actually meant loving my neighbor? As in, the person next door? The one with the Buddhist prayer flags and the political bumper stickers covering his door? The middle-aged single lady who plays the cello? The young couple that leaves for work in the pre-dawn hours and comes home at lunch to walk their tiny dog? The former police officer with the gorgeous flower garden? The registered sex offender whose front door was inexplicably smashed to slivers one night? What about those neighbors? What would it mean to love them?

Unless some of them stick around, we may never find out.

* * * * * * * *

I, too, have been a nomad. I may live in my childhood home, but I've taken a long time to arrive back here. As my facebook "friend" list reflects, I have put down shallow roots in other states, in other countries, only to pull them up again and be transplanted elsewhere. But there are fibers in that soil, traces of me, that I've left behind with every move. Those transitions, however necessary, are never entirely painless.

I'd like to say that we'll stay comfortably rooted forever in this house, but that may not be up to me. And honestly, I have the same wanderlust as those around me, the same hope for something bigger, something better, something we can call our own. Our family is growing, I tell myself, and we'll need more space. I truly do want to hold some kind of principle of rootedness, to maintain a deep sense of belonging to a place, but on this point my principles and my desires work at cross purposes. I don't think we'll ever leave town. At least I hope not. But even if we stay here in this neighborhood until our dying days, I can say with almost prophetic certainty that most of my neighbors won’t.

It’s our modest hope, however, that in the meantime we will build a few friendships here that will cost more—and be worth more—than a shallow hello.

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