A New Look For New Frontiers

`TO get your hair cut means there's something about your life that you don't like.''

This was the half-serious opinion of my friend, Debbie, upon my telling her I would be getting my hair cut. We were standing in the office of the English department at Cornell University at the time. Since she and her office mates often joyfully expressed to me their enthrallment with the thick ``golden waves'' that spilled over my shoulders and down my back, I had decided to prepare them concerning my soon-to-be missing locks.

Of course, I made light of the idea of my having to ``prepare'' them, especially since I wasn't sure I was prepared myself. As silly as I felt for having anguished about this decision for the last few years - it was, after all, a haircut; I wasn't buying a house - I was nonetheless having trouble shaking my reservations.

It had been more than a decade since I had had more than my split ends snipped. During the latter part of that time, the image I saw in the mirror every day was one of a reserved-looking young woman, her hair swept away from her face by a thin gold barrette and tumbling out of sight behind her. It was an image I felt comfortable with, and one I felt helped perpetuate an aura of authority to the Cornell students I taught.

My classroom wasn't the only place where my hair seemed to define who I was. Fast in my mind is the memory of me as an undergraduate in the office of one of my favorite writing instructors. In this memory, we're discussing the strengths and weaknesses of my Chaucer essay. All the while, she is abstractedly braiding and twisting my tresses. I can still hear her favorite aside, interspersed among the literary rhetoric: ``What incredible hair.''

Although at that stage in my life I could offer a sincere but self-conscious thanks for such a compliment, growing up, it was hardly the case. As a youngster, I hated my hair. It was thick and hot in the summer and impossible to keep tangle-free beneath my heavy coat in the winter. Worse, to me, was the color, a reddish-blonde, or blondish-red, certainly not carrot-top, yet not quite strawberry-blonde. It was different, and to a child, different often means less than equal.

As a quiet fourth and fifth grader, I was teased ruthlessly by a girl because of the color of my hair. ``Witch'' and ``wildcat'' were a few of the cruelties she spewed. Although I could aptly defend myself, secretly I longed for simple brown hair or true blonde hair or shiny black hair - any color that would let me blend in with my classmates.

Deep down, I knew that I couldn't change the natural color of my hair. Perhaps I had finally come to accept that, or maybe it was an indication of my shift toward adulthood, but one day, I began to see my hair in a new light.

I was walking across the church parking lot after the service one sunny afternoon when I heard a voice behind me say to someone else, ``Look at her hair. Isn't it beautiful, just like spun gold!'' I glanced over my shoulder, and sure enough, it was mine they were looking at. I felt warm all over.

My parents insist that remarks such as these regarding my hair had been quite common. I can only assume now that it was my youth that kept me from hearing them, certainly from appreciating them. But from that afternoon on, it became clear to me that while different didn't necessarily mean better, it certainly didn't mean less than equal.

Perhaps because I had tried for so long to detach myself from my hair, I had simply let it grow and grow and grow. By the time I was mature enough to appreciate it as a unique expression of myself, its length seemed as much a part of me as the color itself.

Nonetheless, despite the kidding, Debbie's words haunted me: Was there something in my life I didn't like?

I was happily married; I loved our apartment and the neighborhood in which we lived. My spiritual life was in order. My parents and I were more than family, we were close friends. My nieces and nephews brought me only joy. This had been my personal life for years, and there was nothing I could see as a threat to that peace. So I looked at my career.

It's true that I was about to leave my position at Cornell to become a full-time writer. But it wasn't because I disliked teaching; on the contrary, I loved it. There was more than a hint of melancholy when I thought about my few short years at Cornell. But when I considered the life that lay ahead of me - my writing dream - the sadness was swept away by excitement and anticipation.

I won't deny that I was a bit nervous. Could I make it as a writer? My occasional uneasiness was not enough, though, to override my deep-down certainty that I couldn't have hand-picked a better life.

Years have passed and I have laid to rest what Debbie said that day. The image I now see when I look in the mirror is one of a woman with short, layered, wildly wavy reddish-blonde - or blondish-red - hair. When I see that woman I am reminded not of a life in need of change, but of a person celebrating it. To me, that haircut has come to symbolize the courage and faith necessary to pursue a dream.

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