Heartbreak, Hair and Philosophy

My last year of college shared a rhythm with the earlier years. On weekends, my friends and I sat on Melissa’s carpet, watching TLC reality TV or Hallmark movies on her television’s tiny screen.

Though she studied economics, Melissa’s passion was hair. So as we watched agitated housewives or people with addictions, she would massage our scalps and brush our hair.

It calmed me.  As I listened to the sounds from the monitor I let myself regress to first or second grade when my mother shaped my hair into curls, bound them up with ribbon, and soothed me into beautiful emotional order.

That year I decided to write a philosophy thesis. I was not prepared. As an English major, I’d read Shakespeare but not Kant, I’d read Milton but not Hegel. But nearing the end of my educational journey, I kept asking myself for meaning.

In all the poems and plays and stories I had read, descriptions evaded definitions. I did not understand love after War and Peace or after Romeo and Juliet. I wanted to strip ‘love,’ and ‘faith,’ and ‘certainty,’ down to sounds and forms and elements. To know when I carried them in me; to know when they were real.

In those days, I awoke and carried my wide eyes across the faces of loved ones, looking for clues. I tried to isolate the love behind their expressions. And with the same intensity, I stared at the sky, at the school athletic fields and the little, dense patches of New England forest.

I wrote and I read and talked through my work with my thesis mentor, until the day that a letter came from the school. Curtly the administration informed me that my mother had not paid my tuition for the semester, and that if they did not receive payment soon, I would be evicted from the dorms, unenrolled from my classes.

With help from my advisor, I worked out a way to graduate early. She told me it was a shame that I would miss so and so’s seminar, and I saw her concern. She knew too how senseless it was to abandon what I had just begun, how senseless it was to pretend my way into adulthood.

In those days I still awoke with wide eyes so that I would not miss meaning if it chose to appear. I continued going to class, and working, and watching TV with my friends on the weekend, feeling childlike and comforted when my friend ran her hands through my hair, adding pins and hairspray.

It is always comforting to be around people with a sense of vocation. “Have you been called?” asked the posters at my church, and they showed self-assured faces, people of all ages who dropped their lives as construction workers or engineers or grandparents to be folded into religious order, into certainty.

My friend was no different. As she twisting my hair knowingly around curling irons, I asked her how she knew she liked hair. What it was about styling that drew her back. She hmmed. She said she didn’t know, but that it was nice to see people respond to themselves with wonder.

I read that semester about Lacan’s idea of meconnaissance, or misrecognition. The idea that a child recognizing himself in a mirror realizes he has been mistaken; that he is the small and vulnerable creature in the mirror, whom the outside world has always known. As my school kicked me out, my mother stopped paying, my work ground to a halt, I felt vulnerable. I realized that the world could place itself between me and my search for meaning.

My heart was breaking.

I loved philosophy. Studying and writing felt like standing before an ocean, like I drew closer to the water every moment, closer to the clean sure words of people who would tell me why love was not reflected in movies, or why rote memorization could not fill or satisfy my mind. But I could not continue.

I packed away my things, I applied for jobs in a state of pure confusion. I found myself on the floor in Melissa’s room. I remember the sound of the brush she moved through my hair. The pressure of the brush on my scalp.

Melissa reassured me. Because she knew what she wanted. Because she carried it with her in a number of cosmetic cases, making moments of sense from disobedient circumstances.

Today

I woke, I ate, I thought, I ran through the park. I stared down the self-assured eyes of statues. I sat on a bench and meditated. I felt the bench through sweat-wick gym clothes, and let life flash through me. The day is still fresh and damp hair from my shower runs down my back. Today is my day off, and energy has been traded for quietness.

I treat myself with slow care, as if I am a child. I alternate tasks to keep my mind engaged. I take naps. I call to myself to disrupt wandering or painful thoughts. I remember the clapping rhythms used by primary school teachers to bring focus, discipline. Early instructions to my mind, they echo up. It hurts.

When I am alone with myself I ruminate. I wrestle past events into a coherent line that then breaks down on analysis. Jags of pain stem from attempts to solve the behavior of others. Faces come up and, tied to them, all of the love and weight of relationships that broke into confusion.

I wash my face. I sit down in a cafe. I focus for an hour or so, and take notes. But no immunity comes and the thoughts keep running, the tide of the past rushes over; it gives weight without grounding.

I know that I am here, in this chair. I know my name, how to spell, and how to shape the letters. I know addresses of childhood homes and the phone numbers of old friends. Through mastery of these practical skills, my mind has gained time to consider the life of my barista, the businessman with his wide stressed eyes, the mother in a sun hat, the seven year old scootering by.

Today, on my day off, I realize my incidental situation, in the backdrop, with partial information.

Post-sex cigarette

Ruddy-faced pictures of my friend at eleven show unkempt hair, a dolphin T-shirt, and over-sized board shorts. Certainly not glamorous. The contrast that exists, between my friend as she is and my friend as she was then, was irrelevant to our conversation.

My friend told me about her growing pains because she could see mine. In response to those first shocks of rejection, I’d adopted diets that led to acne. My haircut was awful. Because I was dissatisfied with myself, I lost too much weight. At one point, I stopped eating from anxiety. As she did my hair and make-up before a date she unfolded her eleven-year old images to me, confiding the slow creation of her image from raw, awkward, child material. I felt so comforted.

A few moments ago, I pulled the pins out of my hair and untangled the braids. I let it fall around my face, and I asked myself yet again if I was beautiful. I think this is a ritual question. Shockingly I had an answer a few weeks ago, after sex. He said, “you know, you are just so beautiful.” And I believed him. He was the first partner who shared my ethnic background. So how could I disagree with someone in whom I saw some shade of that same beauty?

I was attracted by our differences. His indigenousness, his proximity to my heritage compared with my isolation in the mixing pot. And he was older, understood more. And he’d seen the whole world and knew I was naive, despite my own travel. And he left.

I am not prone to much reaction. I don’t cry in public, I don’t chase people. I know that catching someone in a scene does not allow you to keep them. When he left, I kissed him goodbye, and grimaced when he said, “If only this were another place and time. I wonder what would happen with us.” As if he were interested.

Now when I stare in the mirror, I imagine I have control over the shape of my eyes or the pout of lips. And that in them – in the posing and posturing and applying of creams – some alchemy exists. That belief creeps in to override what he’d said about the vacation he’d planned, about his unwillingness to settle down “for, like, the next ten or twenty years.” It threatens the revelation I had that I am, in some sense, beautiful.

And it is not so painful to believe that my beauty, like the beauty in so many ordinary things, might be realized and let go, or simply go unappreciated. It is painful to think that my significance was dismissed or pre-empted, but because I only have control over my interface, I end up here, in front of a mirror. Critiquing my upper arms, for Chrissakes.

More damningly, I find myself closing the door. On opportunities, on events, and on would-be friends and the experiences we might have had. I insure myself against the possibility of rejection through an ascetic denial of the role I might play in other lives.

Sitting with myself, I find it easy to belief that another insider, someone with my knowledge of myself, would walk (or run) away. The way I ruminate. My maddening studiousness and my guilt over a thousand nothings. And the reality, the moments of rejection themselves are not so bad. It’s a mild pain. But like a bee sting, you can’t blow it off. It eats in, like the nihilism that comes afterwards for me.

I wish I could blow or burn it off. Maybe through a cigarette. Maybe I could delay whatever pain is there through the true indifference that more pleasure might bring. But I worry that these minor aches are part of some grander narrative that colludes to make acceptance sweeter. That fantasy is my post-sex cigarette.

Humility and what I don’t own

My best friend is from Bangalore, India. We met at college orientation. During one of the countless talks on women’s liberation and globalization, I saw her lip curl for the first time, gently at one side. Later I knew the curl was her response to anglicized pronunciations and naïve solutions to the third world.

She taught me that ‘buddhism’ is pronounced buthd-hism and not bood-ism, watched Buffy with me and movies with Aishwarya Rai, and combed oil through my hair. We were always watching explosions, dramatic or literal, in her attic dorm room above a bookstore.

When I go to yoga, or meditate, I feel my lip curling too, as if I weren’t part of this white washing because I am in sympathy with my friend. But my friend is more generous. She does not roll her eyes at shirts with ‘namaste’ on them, and she says growth and spirit can come in anyway. She is beyond judgment of white men with buns in flowing kurtas, and I am not.

But my judgment does break down. Today, at the end of a difficult class, our yoga teacher told us her practice was driven by the beauty of the universe, that she saw the beauty of the universe in human exertion. I felt or intuited truth. My thoughts about how the teachers gossip before class, rolling their eyes at some inconvenience, folded in on themselves. It did not matter that they gossiped because their insight was in spite of it. How humbling that they live a divinity beyond me.