I’ve been looking at myself in the hospital mirror for days—it was just opposite the beds, in both rooms I inhabited (is that really therapeutic?). Certainly I’ve seen myself, but until this week, I didn’t have to look at myself as often as my family did.
There is still a lot of cognitive dissonance for me in having a cancer diagnosis. Plenty of mornings when I wake up at home, the first thing I see is the shelf next to my bed full of meds and prayer shawls and and books called “How I Got Through—Stories from Survivors,” and think, ‘whose stuff is that?” Then I remember.
Not anymore, I guess. After a week straight of staring at myself and hardly seeing other human beings, the dissonance is resolving. I am a cancer patient. I act like one, I feel like one, and now, I realize, I really look like one. I think this was an important spiritual step for me. This reality had to lock in at the most highly authorized levels of my being. We humans practice so much denial, and so well. Sometimes it is necessary, life-saving, denial. But too much, too long keeps us from really getting to the nourishing marrow of what our lives can teach us, how they can transform us.
So, yes, I look the part, mostly. I am still not, entirely, completely bald. I have a strip of dark stubble on top that I have to shave every couple of weeks. I have a little bit of the Phinney brows left (which were wee to start with), and a few eyelashes to bat. I have been waiting for the other lash to drop, so to speak, for 7 weeks now.
But I am pretty durn bald. I mostly go bald around the house—it is too darn hot to do otherwise—and I have surprised a couple of people who have casually stopped by. Adults always assure me that I look radiant, like a Buddhist nun, that my head is beautifully shaped, that my eyes ‘pop.’ They are kind, and they love me, and maybe they are telling the truth, but I far prefer the reaction of children. They can’t do other than tell the truth, or, more likely, show the truth on their faces.
It usually goes something like this. They walk into the door with a parent, who has come by to drop off one of our children, or our farm share, or a hot meal. The child sees me, their eyes widen, they duck behind their parent, they peek out.
I ignore the parent, and look at the child, and say, “Pretty surprising, huh? Pretty strange?” And they nod, all Japanese animé eyes.
“It took me a while to get used to it, too. Do you want to touch it? Part of it is very rough, and part of it is very soft.”
And they almost always want to touch it, and approach my head as if it were a wild animal, which maybe it is, in a way. And they touch it, so gently, and then with more confidence.
And then it’s done. They’ve accepted the new reality, and become like my children, incorporating my baldness into who I am and our everyday life, telling loud bald jokes and elbowing me in the side, or singing songs with a shaky vibrato, like Carmen, about her beautiful, beautiful, beautiful bald mother. “Does she look in the mirror and wonder ‘who is that woman?’” she trills.
Some of you have been dying to see me bald. Admit it. The scarves, and wigs—they’re just a titillating reminder of what’s (not) underneath. Well, I’ll show you. But first, the warmup acts.
This is my friend Jason.
He came over one night, a week or two before chemo started, and handed Rafe his hair clippers. He let Rafe shave him down to the fuzz. I was like one of the kids—mouth agape, eyes wide. It was a preview of things to come. It was a toe in the water before getting pushed off the diving board. I was grateful. It was also very empowering for Rafe. Jason’s still rockin’ the bald(ish). In Davis Square, it passes for cool. Till Jason starts talking and people find out he is really a nerdy theologian, and not a bass player in an alt/rock band.
This is my friend Bob. Also a nerdy theologian (you see a theme here).
We are friends from seminary. He looks really cool in this photo, like an actor in a detective drama; his wife Nancy would hasten to assure you he is not. He is one of the kindest, gentlest people I know, and I am proud to follow him into balddom. Here is another, that better demonstrates his baldness, and our friendship (Bob and Nancy and their fabulous kids visited us on a sweltering week last August).
He also, in spite of having a full time job and two kids, gets up at 4a daily to meditate. Maybe that will rub off on me too.
This is my friend Shannon.
We were not good friends in college but lived in the same coed fraternity, and so we were around each other a lot. We found each other on Facebook and we have had many pithy and warm email exchanges since then. That is one of the things that won me over to Facebook, actually—the potential for authenticity to bloom out of old distant relationships, or even new relationships to find us despite degrees of separation (like cancer survivor friends I have found—fist bump, Carolyn!).
Shannon shaved her head a few years back, just to do it. She was surprised at all the looks of heavy sympathy she got when going around shorn with her three children in tow—people assumed she was in chemo. She said, “I caught only a glimpse of how it would be handle that energy, coming from strangers, when you do have cancer.”
Shannon told me a great story about a neighbor of hers in an email exchange a few weeks ago. I was going to re-tell it, but she tells it so wonderfully in her own words, I want you to hear it from her. In this bit she starts off responding to me wondering how I will find the guts to go bald to the public pool with the kids, where I know people (unlike the gym where I swim, where I don’t, really), and then segues from there…
"Isn’t it wild how something so superficial as hair has all this cultural currency? I honestly can’t imagine going to the pool with a bald head. All those acquaintances. That is just way more powerful than GI Jane. It is, as you say, a huge ‘eff you’ to all our cultural hair and cancer issues in a great gleeful and courageous way. I can see that there is a path to developing a lightness around all the heaviness of it, partially because you are liberated from certain cultural norms.
"It reminds me of my in-laws’ neighbor, who was a nice golfing lady of the Philly suburbs. Rather conventional. When she got cancer, she would still do her morning walks around the park behind their homes, but she would go bald, and crow like a rooster when my MIL’s rooster would crow. They had a call and response.
"It was so joyful, and so clear that she just didn’t give a f*ck anymore. She hadn’t given up on living, she had just given up on staying stifled and normal and pleasant. She probably howled at the moon, too! (If you’re wondering, she is dead now. She lived with and without cancer for many years, and died an old woman.) I loved her, though I hardly knew her."
I want to be a rooster lady (whose name, incidentally, was Molly)! I want to howl at the moon! I want to drop the F bomb in my blog! It is all coming, I suspect…:)
As I come out more and more as a baldy, I find, people often tell me how beautifully shaped my head is, as if being bald is an asset, something we should all desire. On my crankier days I challenge them to join me in baldness, if it’s so beautiful. It’s not that I mind being bald. I am actually getting quite used to it. I just resent what I perceive in others as the pretending that it’s all right, by people who don’t have to bear that reality themselves.
There’s one thing I quite like about being bald. There’s a crispness, and a clarity, and a simplicity to it, that extends far below the follicle. It’s more than about not having to shampoo or use product or blowdry, to make decisions about up or down or curl or straight, or, as Shannon says, be bound by all those cultural norms. It’s more that I’m entirely liberated, no fluff, no insulation. And this has extended to my whole way of being in the world, especially my words.
What you talkin’ bout, Willis? You say. Ok, ok, in my blog posts I am just as wordy as I ever was. But in so many other venues, I am stripped-down, succinct, lean and even, occasionally, mean. As a kid, as a teen, as a young woman, and until now, I always felt bound by my gender, by my job choice, and by a whole lot of invisible factors—birth order, family myths, etc etc—to be diplomatic. To be kind. To use extra words to soothe, to put people at ease, to couch things gently.
I’ve always fantasized that when I became an older woman, I’d have long, flowing white hair the color of our church matriarch Dibbie’s, wear busy embroidered caftans and huge earrings, and, most importantly, talk plain, also like Dibbie, or like Mma Ramotswe. And something about becoming bald has given me permission to opt in a decade or three sooner.
People know that I have a cancer diagnosis and am undergoing chemotherapy, so that gives me a lot of permission. I tire easily, am often hoarse or have mouth sores, so they know I have to use words sparingly. But I’ve taken the permission further, extended it not just to quantity, but to quality of words.
I don’t beat around the bush in emails anymore. I keep it short and sweet. And in in-person conversations, I just come out and say what’s on my mind, what I need, what my family needs, what I can’t bear, what my limits are, what I think is really going on. It has been very, very helpful in establishing boundaries.
And it is such a RELIEF. Maybe it’s a relief to other people, too. Maybe they were very patiently waiting for me to get to the point all these years. Maybe it’s not a relief! Maybe it’s been hard on people, this newly bald me, and they’ll tell me so when chemo is over.
Because the new baldness in speaking also extends to telling people some truths (from my perspective) about themselves. One of my seminary professors, Ellen Davis, said when we were studying the book of Proverbs, which has a lot to say about straight talk, that ‘criticism is a gift.’ I never forgot her words.
And even though I myself for decades have delicately wrapped (constructive) criticism in layers and layers of tissue paper before handing over the gift, I find that I prefer mine given to me straight, even if it’s pointy. Because wrapped in so much tissue, you sometimes miss the gift. It is almost embarrassing to find out that you have been hurting someone, or not living out of your best and highest self in a way that others have been noticing for some time, and you only just figured it out.
You would hope that people who really love you, will tell you when you have food in your teeth. And that they will also tell you when your behavior is harmful or irresponsible or selfish, or just infringing on their boundaries. I myself have had people who love me confront me, baldly, a few times in my life, and even though it hurt like hell, I was so, so grateful for the gift. It’s not an exaggeration to say it quite markedly changed the course of my life.
Here’s an example of the new, bald-speaking me. A few weeks ago, the doorbell rang at suppertime. Just at that moment, I was giving Rafe a lesson in scrambled eggs, and Peter wasn’t home, and the oil was just hot in the pan, and I had to abandon kids and hot oil together (yikes!) and race to the door.
It was one of our tenants from church. I know her to be a very, very kind, deeply compassionate woman and an idealist; I know that she tends toward the dreamy and her idealism often outpaces her practicality. She had forgotten her keys. Again (and again).
And there she was, smiling at my door, thinking it wouldn’t be a problem to stop by the house and get a spare key. [Which it wasn’t, say, the first 1,000 times tenants and others have done so—this is cumulative. Parsonage-dwelling pastors who are reading this right now, you are sighing, aren’t you?]
I opened my mouth, and out came, “I will lend you the key, but this is the last time. It’s suppertime. It’s a stressful time of day even for healthy families. And I’m in treatment. I can’t have people coming over here for church stuff. You need to be responsible for your own business.”
That’s what I said! I still can’t believe I said that. It’s one thing to be bald with your family—my own has come to expect that, they will tell you that being nice does not come naturally to me—but to be that straight with a human being to whom you are not related, who actually believes you are congenitally kind, who puts you on something of a pedestal, one on which you hope to stay—wow.
So much of the time I think we (ministers especially! This is our fatal flaw!) are nice not because it is the ‘right’ thing to do, the holy thing to do, but because we are terrified people won’t like us if we aren’t. And they might not—that’s a risk we take. C.S. Lewis again: he said we are not called to be nice people, but to become new people.
The end result was, she was thoroughly apologetic and penitent (I think she hadn’t know about chemo, but still), and I bet she won’t forget her keys again. I probably embarrassed her very much. It’s partly my fault—I enabled her behavior for a long time, with my niceness, absorbing her irresponsibility at cost to myself and my family.
I’m not sure if I did the bald talk ‘right.’ It would have been better if I hadn’t been stressed, or if I’d sent a warning shot over the bow. I’ve been accused, and rightly so, of having no middle gear. But I don’t regret doing it. I want to practice doing it more!
We are never, never called to be cruel to each other, of course. That is self-indulgence and immaturity. But there must be a third way, between an enabling niceness that doesn’t call other people honestly to be the person (we believe) God wants them to be, and a disabling cruelty that undoes the other’s self-esteem.
There is something wonderfully refreshing about people just telling each other the plain truth. Not bursting forth in long-pent-up anger. Just enforcing boundaries or offering constructive criticism with brevity, and enough affect and kindness to keep it cool, but not so much that your ultimate meaning becomes obscured.
Let’s get our bald on!
Ok, you’ve earned a peek. Here it is, after the jump. Jump!
Here it is: