Saturday, October 26, 2013

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Hair color: Gray- by guest author Kara Garbe Balcerzak

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Lately, people have been complimenting me on my hair. This is a new thing. I’ve never put a lot of effort into hair. Semi-annual professional haircuts are my only nod to style. I pick my shampoo from the sweet spot of the Venn diagram between “cheap” and “has pretty packaging.” Every few weeks, when I’m feeling fancy, I bust out the hair dryer. But most weekdays, I just mash my bike helmet onto my wet hair and pedal to the office. Then I drag a comb across my head and aim hair spray along my part in a fruitless attempt to keep the wispy, broken strands from spiking out like I’m an electrocuted cartoon character.
So those compliments I’ve been getting about my hair? Clearly they’re not because of anything I’m actively doing. It’s just that I’m 34, and I’m letting my hair go gray.

I found my first gray hair when I was 17. I didn’t care back then. I was young; a gray hair was a fluke. As subsequent years brought more gray hair, I felt the same nonchalance: I’m young. No one will mistake me for an old person. The gray isn’t that noticeable anyway.
            But then a funny thing happened. As years passed, gray hairs made a steady assault across my scalp. And one day, suddenly, my gray hair was noticeable. And how did I realize this? Not by looking in the mirror. Not by looking at photos of myself. No. I realized it because people starting telling me I had gray hair.
Take the guy who cuts my hair: “Have you ever thought about dyeing your hair?”
A male faculty member at the community college where I was teaching last year: “Your hair is beautiful.”
The random guy waiting beside me at a crosswalk: “Did you dye your hair to look like that?”
The lady in the elevator at work: “I just love your hair. I wish I had the courage to let mine go gray.”
And on and on. About once a month, I get a comment like this from someone I don’t know. Maybe you beautiful people out there are used to being stopped on the street and complimented, but for me, it’s like I’ve walked into a foreign country with weird rules I don’t get. I freeze.
I realize that – aside from the guy who cuts my hair – these words are meant as compliments. People say I’m graying in a unique way; that it’s more silver than gray; that the streaks are lovely, almost like highlights.
But despite all that, I don’t feel flattered.
Like carrying around excess pudge, a woman having gray hair violates our cultural ideals of beauty. L’Oréal Paris estimates that more than half of American women dye their hair. So when people comment on my gray, no matter how well-meaning, what they’re saying is, When I see you, I see something our society has deemed a flaw. For every person who compliments my gray hair, I wonder how many others are noticing it and thinking, “Man, her hair looks bad.” These comments, rather than making me feel confident, are actually making me insecure. 

My intensive hair-care regime.
Because here’s the thing:
I don’t think my hair is gray. I just don’t see it.  I look in the mirror, and all I see is brown.  
It’s like believing you’re skinny, but having people repeatedly gift you clothes that are size XL. No matter how beautiful the clothes are, no matter how generous the gestures, the effect is disorienting.
After all, aren’t I too young to have gray hair?

            A month or two ago, my husband and I were sitting on the patio at my favorite local bar, people watching along the Mississippi River. I’d been thinking a lot about my life, about being a childless woman married to an older man with children, and instead of thinking about the many joys this life can (and does) bring, I’d been focusing on its constraints. I’d been thinking about my wanderlust, put on hold until the kids have grown up; about balancing our retirement contributions with their looming college tuition; about the many worries that accompany anyone watching her children (or step-children) venture into the Titanic that is teenagerhood. And I was also thinking about the new job I love, which is also the first job I can imagine leading into forever; about the mortgage and car payment and student loans that tie me to a certain lifestyle; about all the choices that once were in my future and are now in the rearview mirror.
A couple who looked to be in their early 20s took a table near us. I couldn’t take my eyes off the woman. Her skin was fresh and young in a way I don’t remember mine ever being. I checked her left ring finger—I always seem to be looking at those fingers these days—and there was no ring.
She’s young, I thought.
She’s free. She can still do anything.
            I turned to my husband, seated across the dark metal table. Condensation from our water glasses stretched like spiderwebs across the narrow holes in the iron.
“I feel sad.” As I spoke, I felt the relief and also the fear that comes from exposing a feeling that’s been ballooning in secret. “Life used to be this big open thing where anything was possible. Now I feel like the future is constrained. That there aren’t the kinds of possibilities there used to be.”
I expected Eric to tell me I was crazy. I expected him to say I was too young to feel that way, that our lives could still take us anywhere.
But instead, he nodded.
“I remember feeling that way,” he said.
There was something both sad and hopeful in his comment. Sad because it gave more weight to my feelings, made them feel inevitable and normal instead of something I hoped was a fluke. But his words were also hopeful. My husband is a decade older than me; if he’d been through something similar, maybe he also knew the way out.
“What made it change?” I asked.
“The idea didn’t go away,” he said, and I realized I’d misunderstood. “I just eventually stopped feeling sad about it.”

About a year and a half ago, I finished an MFA program in creative writing. A friend in the program printed up “poetic licenses” as graduation gifts for all of us, modeling them after driver’s licenses. Thankfully, we were spared her guess at our respective weights. But she did include “hair color.” I looked over the card, grinning at the thoughtfulness that is trademark Caitlin.
And that’s when I reached the pinnacle of my hair journey.
There it was on the license.
Hair color: gray.
Not “brown,” or “brown with gray streaks,” but “gray.”
Gray? I thought.
I have gray hair, I thought, testing out the words.
They didn’t fit.
            I’m 34. I didn’t expect gray hair. I didn’t expect to be so old so soon. And maybe my friends are right. Maybe I’m wrong about the whole thing, about the insecurity and the sadness, about gray being bad, about the open palm of the future turning swiftly to a fist.
Maybe one day I’ll look in the mirror and see gray. And maybe when I do, I won’t feel bad about it anymore. 

Kara Garbe Balcerzak has an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University Mankato. She teaches creative writing at the Loft Literary Center and is working to publish a memoir about her time in the Peace Corps. You can read another piece of her writing here: 

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