"Tell your story. Tell it on your bruised knees if you must, tell it at the risk of madness, scream it at the top of your lungs." –Andrew Lam

Category: Hair

Letter to my sixteen-year-old self

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I see you writing poems in Algebra class. You’re scared. You feel trapped. You’re so immobilized by your fear, so hesitant to speak, so unconfident, so self-absorbed in pain and worries and doubts. You are so inexperienced in every way. You assume no one feels the way you do. You want to know the secret, the rules of this game of high school, the secret rules of girls—the password, the handshake. And you never ask anything because you are so afraid of the answer. “How do you feel about me?” you want to ask a particular senior. But you never do, so you always wonder, analyze, second-guess.

You don’t understand why no one makes eye contact with you in the hallways. You wonder why you’ll never be just one of the girls. You wonder why they intimidate you so much. You wonder why girls—and guys—make up rumors and constantly change the rules of their own stupid game.  You wonder when these high school boys will grow up.  You wonder why you feel too much and think too much.  Take heart. You are feeling all of these emotions so that when you become a teacher, you’ll be able to tell your students that you understand. And you’ll be able to mean it. You’ll be drawn to the rebels, the outcasts, the underdogs, and the ones who have extraordinary talent but no confidence. You will make them feel important, seen, worthy, understood.  You’ll tell your classes to never, ever make a person feel invisible.  Thank your English teacher. Thank your choir teacher. They were the diamonds in that dungeon. You’ll want to teach most like them.

  It is okay that you don’t care about what is trending, what is popular. It all changes. Like what you like and be proud of it. You don’t have to be in every activity.  Pick a few you are passionate about, and throw yourself into those only. There’s already too much noise in your head. Stop worrying about trying to impress people.  You won’t talk to very many of those lunch table girls after graduation. You should go off on them and tell a few of them that they are bitches and you’re tired of their gossip.  You are sick of their cold stares, their biting laughter, and their screaming silence when you sit down.  Go ahead. Say it. You were thinking it. In fact, speak up more about everything—the wrong you see, the good you see, the things you need, the things that others need. Slap them with some truth. Tell them they are hurting themselves by making others feel small. One day they will grow up and realize it. And strangely, you’ll become dear friends with a few classmates that you didn’t talk to and thought you had nothing in common with at all. Why could you not see them then? How dare you miss those opportunities? If you just would have opened your eyes, life would have been easier, more bearable, and more real.  

Your parents convince you that your sixteen-year-old emotions, the ones you tell them about, anyway, are normal. It is indeed true that the world does not end because nothing looks good on you that morning and your hair is being especially funky, but you still should have had some therapy.  You’ll feel a lot better knowing that you aren’t crazy, that many people suffer from panic and anxiety. You’re not a freak because you want to drown yourself in the bathtub or drive off the bridge because you can’t breathe and you’re so cold and the weight and the pressure is too much because you have a biology project due and because you know he’s slipping away and because in her fakeness, she makes seemingly innocent remarks pointed straight to you. Every day. And she knows it. And there’s no one to sit with on the cheerleading bus. And this town is So. Very. Flat. 

You’ll meet friends in college, and you’ll feel so surprised they invite you to events and speak to you and want advice and want you around. There are no rules.  You’ll bloom in college. People will tell you that it was ridiculous to go to your beloved university and your student loans will be outrageous, but you meet professors and people who aid in your becoming. You feel at home for the first time. You’ll feel curious, wide eyed, and important. People here are original and have their own thoughts and views. They are not apathetic. You needed to surround yourself with creative people who Were. Not. Apathetic.

You’ll adore the women in the lives of Josh’s friends (Yes, Josh, the guy who winks at you; the one with that voice you sang with at church). They will become your own friends, your own sisterhood. You are connected by the men you love, the babies you dream of, the simplicity and complexity of what it means to be woman, wife, sister, mother, friend—to sacrifice and want, to need even when the needs contradict.  You’ll feel so loved, so light. You’ll meet a friend at work. She’ll hate you at first, but then she’ll become the only friend who truly gets you. Oh, how you learn from her. Oh, how she saves you. She’s the best you have.  Having a person—people like these angels—is worth waiting for. I promise.

There are lots of things that are bothering you right now, my misunderstood teenage girl-self: Your under bite. The bumps on your arms. Your nerves. Your annoying voice. Your expressions. Your flaws.  your sweat and your stupid face. The thoughts in your head.  The way your lips twitch when you’re nervous. The fact that the only thing people do in this town is drive around and sit on the square. You feel like you’re missing something. Everyone is growing up without you. You feel too young and too old for high school. Yes, you’ll always look this young. You want to look mature and sophisticated and older like the other girls, but you’ll always have a pure look about you no matter how much you tan or how much makeup you apply or what kind of haircut you ask for or what style of clothes you wear.  It’s okay that everyone thinks you are too much, too much and yet you feel not enough. Not pretty enough. Not liked enough. Not talented enough. Not good enough. Every day feels like defeat. Some of the things you pray for do not happen in ten years. Some do. Many prayers surpass your sixteen-year-old dreams. Be thankful you and God talked a lot when you were sixteen. You built a solid friendship that carries you. Praise him for the fact that in order to see twenty-five, you had to survive and learn from sixteen.

You’ll meet a man so soon—you know him already, actually– and you’ll never have to wonder about his feelings for you. He thinks you’re everything that drives a man crazy (in all the good ways and in all the bad ones). And he told you so. There is no better person who knows how to take care of you or wants to so fiercely. And when you lose more of your hearing, he cups your ears and kisses your forehead, your nose, your cheeks, your chin. And you can feel him praying silently, asking God to fill you so that you don’t feel that hearing is another flaw or thing you lack. Yes, you lose even more of your hearing and you feel frustrated and forsaken. But, you gain more than you lose. Trust me that you gain more than you lose. You had to lose in order to connect with special people and connect with future favorite students. You had to lose in order to write about it.     
 Josh loves all that you hate about yourself. He’ll be the only one you are ever fully comfortable around. He’ll continue to be your unconditional love. Don’t break up with him just because the world tells you that you are supposed to. You don’t have to date other guys when you know their kisses won’t feel the same. If anything doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to do it. If it does feel right, you don’t have to let it go.  

Commit everything to memory—every sensation, every mistake, every glorious risk. People, memories, moments collide.  Remember the scent of Hollister cologne still clinging to you after he’s left. The white and red tube top with tiny cherries you wore on the Fourth of July resting your head on his lap in order to see the sky and receive tingling upside-down kisses and watch the most colorful fireworks display you’d ever seen. Remember the dizzy hopeful chance encounters at the grocery store. The music–the soundtrack of freshman year and summer.  The titles so fitting of the time—the songs I still play sometimes. Remember the farmer-boy and the undeniable flavor of his cinnamon altoids and your Watermelon Bonne Bell. The undeniable smell of a southern summer.  Remember your young future husband–kissing him the entire length of the train while it rushes by fueling our intensity when we’re stopped at the tracks.  Night swims. Sandy bank on your back. Your rainbow-stained hands that make his favorite cherry snow cone while you watch him walk that way he walks. Towards you. In muddy jeans and baseball cap, sun-streaked from work. The brilliant canopy above us and the sound of leaves crunching while we walked—your only romance that lasts into fall and into the rest of your life. Smile at the way you pretended you were on Broadway when you put on those eyelashes and ruby lipstick and dance shoes. You knew you belonged to the dinner theater lights, the curtain, the audience you wanted to please and create magic for, the show choir where you felt joy and felt like you fit—but got shoved, purposely knocked right between the shoulder blades because you were in front and they wanted you off of that stage.  The way you played “Insensitive” over and over again, feeling the vagueness in his eyes and his casual goodbyes and the chill in his embrace. Remember everything, won’t you?  You are collecting material. Perhaps the unexplainable things happen so that you can grow up and explain them, expose them, understand while simultaneously helping others feel understood.

He’ll apologize to you, the one who broke your heart, at the most peculiar and perfect time. It is the way God’s divine plan for your life always works. You get the apology, the acceptance letter, the proposal, the publisher at the very moment God knows you’ve honestly released your fist of bitterness. You don’t need that grip in order to be okay. Perhaps this is why you continue to write the words in your bones. You don’t have to be published. At sixteen you were filling up spiral poetry notebooks in algebra class to simply write—to be your truest self, to connect to God, to counsel yourself in inexpensive therapy. You are writing purely in honor of the beautiful act of creating. 

You’ll never believe it, but you do get out of there. It was always too flat for you. You’ll get a rush, a reminder of being sixteen and wanting to speed away while blaring Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces” when you pass the square and drive seven hours north. You’ll feel peace as soon as you see those hills. You grow into your dreams. You grow into your thoughts and your depth that no one understood and other teenagers felt so off-putting.  You learn to own your awkwardness—sort of. You may still not physically be able to hear, but somehow—you learn to speak.  
Keep your hunger and your thirst, but don’t lose yourself so much. Have hope—the future is more beautiful than you thought it would be. Spend more time with Kathy, your grandma, and especially your sister while you can. Trust this almost other-worldly intuition and instinct that you possess in your heart. You are brave. You are enough.  Now go get that blond out of your hair. Then go force people to look you in the eye. Go burn bright. You have a lot of helping to do. So go. You have a lot of living, a lot of moving on, a lot of people to meet, and a lot of becoming to do. 
Love (Because people finally taught me how to love you),

Masks Fall

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                     I come into the world impatient and stubborn and restless, an angel hell-bent on not being a present wrapped up in a perfect bow.  My tiny body is overwhelmed by the unruly dark hair I inherited from my father. My mother is sick. In every newborn picture, my mother wears a mask so that she does not breathe on me. In the moments after birth as I drink from her breast, we are close. I imagine her holding me too tightly, wanting me to remain hers forever. Yet there is distance, a barrier.  My infant fingers desperately attempt to claw the mask away from my mother’s face. 

                         At five years old, I sit at the salon with a cape around me.  My dark hair is starting to fall out in places. Soft tufts of hair are coming in golden, like my mom’s. I look a bit like a baby skunk. Tsk, tsk, snip, snip—the dark hair disappears, was never there. My eyes are blue-green-gray. I am my mother’s daughter with my dad’s coal-black eyebrows and glistening long lashes.  But by thirteen, I am no longer my gorgeous mother’s mini-me. I am awkward, ugly, and shy.  My hair is growing in dark again.  “She needs highlights–the blondest you’ve got,” my mother says matter-of-factly.             
                         My mother is mad when I am sick.  She frowns when she feels my forehead.  Life—or the fairytale—is disrupted when something is wrong with me. She is aloof when I am desperate. She is suffocating when I don’t know how to communicate. She covers my depression and anxiety with fresh bright paint, paint that makes her house look beautiful and clean. I manically scratch at the walls and peel off the moldy layers of wallpaper that are stuck to this barricade surrounding me, desperately trying to get to bare plaster. 
                         I date boys because they call, and I’m pushed to get to know people, to be “known.” And then, too young, I fall hard in love with a grown man who takes me horseback riding. With urgency and intensity, he grabs my face and knows how to kiss so deeply he hits my soul, makes me stand in the rain soaked to my core until the mask finally washes away. My mother hates Josh for his maturity and frankness, his natural firmness and authority, his ability to see through superficiality. Josh brainwashes me, my mother says. According to my dad, he isn’t good enough. He’s not the star of the football team, the cocky jock who tries to jam his fingers down the waistband of my jeans during homeroom but won’t acknowledge me in the hallway.  My mother would rather see me with this “Ken” to my Barbie. My dad would rather see me go on shallow dates that mean nothing.
                         If Josh isn’t good enough, I fear I must not be good enough either. I escape, often, to the place that feels most real to me—his parents’ house and more specifically, their swing which feels more like mine than any memory. Their house is beautifully lived in, and no masks are hidden in the closets or drawers. Their moods don’t change and lives don’t stop if they have a guest or an audience. They hand me an always-open invitation for supper. When they are mad, they are mad. When they are happy, they are happy.
                         I break up with him towards the end of high school. They pull too hard; my parents win their tug-of-war. They convince me he’d put a ring on my finger and a baby in my belly. They assure me I’d be stuck forever in my hometown of no opportunities. They say I’ll never get my degree from the university I apply to that makes my future feel packed with possibility. But life doesn’t feel real or even possible when I’m not with him. I am robotic, colorless. I am overcome with strong urges to touch the earth, ride bareback, climb a mountain, skinny-dip in twilight, and feel alive with passion again. I drive to his house and cry in his swing. “Forgive me,” I sob. He looks me hard in the face. “I’m in,” he said, “all in. I’ve never questioned anything with you. This is real. Are you ready not to run? Are you ready for this to be it?” And so I finally stop fighting hands that always held me. I need his touch, his taste, his truth, his voice, his fierce loyalty, his gentleness. I need what feels like home—the highs, the lows—the swing.
                         My mom pretends the wedding won’t happen. So I take the three hundred-count guest list and attempt to plan a wedding myself. If I could marry him again, the wedding would be more rustic, less pink. I’d marry him at sunset in autumn. I’d marry him in my cowboy boots. I’d marry him in a field under a tree with just God attending. We’d whisper vows we wrote ourselves.  We’d make love and wake up covered in leaves.   
                         At twenty-three, I find myself as a new wife in a house my mother swears is haunted. I run my finger over the date 1920 and the words “Aint Love Grand” which are carved into the wall of the closet.  Knowing Josh’s job would force me to often dwell alone, mother makes up ghost rumors. Because I leave mother and father’s house to be united with my husband, her irrational fears and loss of control conjured up an apparition living in the basement of the house.
                         I think I hear noises: gurgles, whispers, creaks. I lock the doors, but she still floats through the walls of our house, making me wonder in my lonely bed if love is really grand or even worth it or if I should have paid attention to her constant alerts of “red flags.” She tells me life could be convenient, more glamorous.  I could go back to school, have a mother-approved house, a husband with a mother-approved job, and have anything “I” wanted. Her ghost-games taunt me, haunt me. I relive the time I told her I was going to see him and she dove into the backseat of my car, then got out, and jammed her foot under the tire like a deranged refugee shielding her child from the bullet. But the bullet is just life. The bullet is the reality of heartache and sickness and inconvenience and messiness and shattered expectations. Sometimes we bleed and scream. Sometimes we nearly die. Sometimes the bullet sticks and stays as new flesh grows over top of it because the body always knows how to repair itself.    
                         I want our mother-daughter relationship to heal. I begin to understand that her suffocation is a twisted form of love, an attempt to fulfill all she wanted to be, a desire to lock me inside a box and remain her companion and company, a gift she doesn’t have to share. I believe she tried to control me because she could not control her own life—her parents’ divorce, her own mother’s breakdown, the fears she allows to control her, her own loneliness, and her own battle with self-doubt.
                         I sit in a chair draped in a cape. “Do I need to mix up your usual?” my hairstylist asks. I pause. I will never grow long nails the way my mom wants me to. I will never be perfectly polished. I will continue to take the anxiety pills that prove I have a problem but ultimately make me feel better. I will continue to write the truth instead of pretending perfection.  I will never have the patience to iron my unruly curls into submission. I will always love the man who fills my soul and tears off my clothes and my masks and my fears. I believe authentic love is unconditional and grand and the hardest thing of all.  I’m learning to understand the mother I love with all of her flaws. I’m learning to love my own.

                         “Brunette,” I blurt out of nowhere. My stylist mixes a shade of color, a liberating hue as dark as years of bleaching is able to stand. I simply was not the girl my blonde hair shouted to the world.  I relax at the touch of her hands massaging the chemicals, the fakeness out of my head. A sly smile crosses my face as my eyes sparkle blue-green-gray. I think of sophistication, my favorite coffee, warmth, my own definition of confidence and demure beauty. The shade appears much darker than my mom’s, still lighter than my dad’s—a transformation that I know in my heart is much deeper than a mere cut and color. She takes off the towel, and the mask—finally—falls.
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