Someone told me that with all the work required to launch a new book, there was no way I’d publish my new novel on Leap Day. I just love it when someone suggests I can’t do something (because here’s the link to Waterwight, my new novel, published on February 29th: Waterwight)
This past summer I had an opportunity to reflect on other “you can’ts” that contributed to making me the person I am today. I discovered that Smith College was having a Leadership Conference the first weekend in April 2016 and was looking for panelists. Although I’m not a Smith grad, I decided to complete their 200-word essay application just for the heck of it. Here’s what I submitted:
In 1976 my guidance counselor told me Smith was beyond my reach. In 1978 during my sophomore year at Smith, the college president said I was making a big mistake leaving to attend West Point. Many believed I’d never graduate from West Point, but after proving them wrong and serving my country as an Army officer for thirteen years, I now stand with classmates from Smith and West Point who applaud successful women who continue to shatter barriers.
I laugh at myself frequently when I look back on how I’ve redefining success over the past decades. My memoir will be called “Danger! Comfort Zone!” because as the black sheep in a family of five girls, I’ve lived my life believing that with comfort comes complacency, and complacency breeds boredom. My three semesters at Smith opened my eyes to countless opportunities available to intelligent women. I wanted them all.
My success as a Smith student opened doors to experiences far beyond any realm of comfort. At West Point I redefined my goals and challenged myself on every front: academic, physical, and emotional. Graduating with the fourth class of women in what had once been a “No Girls Allowed” institution launched me into a life of increasing responsibility, and I loved it.
With each major transition—Smith to West Point, Army to civilian life, mom to teacher, teacher to author and mentor—satisfaction in my accomplishments grows. My credo: Embrace change. Challenge the status quo wherever you find it. Challenge yourself always.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I’ll be heading to Smith College on March 31st and look forward to meeting three other women who will join me on the “No Girls Allowed: Game Changers” panel! I plan to have fun. Go ahead. Tell me I can’t.
I got this silly idea a few months ago that every girl should grow her hair down to her butt at least once in her lifetime, and since I never had, it became a goal. I’ve tried this several times in past years, never with success. The longest my hair has ever been was during sophomore year at Smith College. I was really cool then. I wore my wavy locks in braids and sashayed around campus with my patchwork skirts and my art portfolio.
I had lusted after Sheila’s hair in high school. A gymnast with thick red hair well past her butt, she represented everything I believed to be sexy. She was even smart and not too stuck up, so I had no reason to hate her. But I knew I’d never get the attention she got wherever she happened to be with her gorgeous locks swaying as she walked, lifting in a breeze, glowing in the sunshine. I also knew I was not built for backflips on a balance beam. For those petty pretty things, I envied her.
The “pixie” cut was Mum’s choice for me throughout my childhood years, and although I can’t remember ever complaining about the choice, I also coveted my baby sister’s long, golden strands. For school picture day, the best I could do was try to keep a ribbon-clip in my hair. Girls with long hair could do ever so much more. Even as a youngster I sensed the glamor symbolized by long hair, so after growing my own to shoulder-length in high school, I determined never to cut it again in college.
And then I joined the Army.
Cadets at West Point in 1979 had no access to hair stylists or salons, and my first butchering by the high-and-tight-hungry barber in the basement of a cold, stone building left me horrified—and convinced I could do a far better job myself. Fortunately, aside from ensuring my shoes shined like mirrors and my shirts were tucked just right into my starched pants, I had little time to think about my appearance, and the uniform hat hid much of my face beneath it, and my hair.
I think I could probably take a few trips around the world with the money I’ve saved over the years by cutting and coloring my own hair and cutting my husband’s and sons’ hair. My horror at the cash register each of the few times I treated myself to a professional cut and color rivaled the horror I felt leaving that barber’s chair decades earlier. Two hundred dollars? Are you kidding me? And that’s without a tip? Do you have any idea how many bags of clothes I could fill at Goodwill with two hundred dollars?
For a few years we lived in a place where $200 was pocket change and hair extensions were as commonplace as Tupperware, so I convinced myself I deserved the occasional splurge. But I always felt guilty after handing over the credit card and hopping into my car, and when I checked myself out in the rear view mirror, I never felt 200+ dollars prettier. For $8.95 and about one hour in the privacy of my bathroom I could emerge with a color and cut that was “me.”
I laugh at myself now for my most recent attempt at long locks because this attempt marked the fourth time I’ve repeated this sequence:
Decide to push past the awkward not-short-not-long phase.
Camouflage the transition as best as I can.
Start to feel good about my progress as my hair reaches my shoulders.
Chastise myself for compulsive hair twirling.
Enjoy the hair twirling because that means it’s growing longer.
Buy all manner of hair adornments and accessories.
Realize I’m spending lots of time keeping my hair out of my face.
Wake up one morning with a mouthful of hair.
Spit it out, walk to the bathroom, find the scissors, and cut it all off.
Tell myself I’ll never grow my hair again.
Last week’s hair-in-the-mouth will be my last. The liberation I felt from all things “hair” inspired me to lighten up in other areas, too, and I filled bags with clothes and shoes from my stuffed drawers and closet. How did I get so many pairs of socks?
As I pondered the decision to embrace my inner pixie, the whole idea of hair consumed my thoughts for several days. I asked a long-haired friend why she would never cut her hair and she confessed to having an emotional attachment to it. She plays with it and it is a comfort to her, although she told me she woke up nearly strangled by it one morning. When she returned to her studies, I watched surreptitiously as she absentmindedly twirled and occasionally chewed on the ends of her lovely locks.
Every time I see someone who’s lost their hair to cancer treatment, the foolishness of my own vanity becomes clearer. It is vanity, after all, and it affects some more than others. Hair is something we adorn, hide behind, deceive others with (“Only her hairdresser knows for sure”), perm, tease, spray, braid, extend (so much deception!), feather, spike, dreadlock (Eek!) . . . the hair care industry will never die.
But I don’t want to be a slave to my hair anymore. I want to believe I’m at a stage in my life in which I’ll spend far more time on my inner development than my outer appearance. It’s not like I’m mature enough to shave it all off, though, and I’m still going to buy my $8.95 Clairol every six weeks, so I’m not walking away from all expressions of vanity.
“I like it. It’s cute,” my husband told me when he returned from work.
I’ll never be a Lady Godiva, and I’m finally okay with that.
I’ll settle for cute.
A friend recently suggested I read this article about hair. The author’s research extends beyond her personal experience, and she too was a pixie at one point! Siri Hustvedt’s article in New Republic.