Last July, Dave and I relocated from Los Angeles to San Francisco’s East Bay. In landing in a new place, I lost myself a little bit. There were beautiful parts of it: I answered “yes” more readily to the questions “Are you a writer?” and “Are you an artist?” because I had emerged as an artist and writer in LA, and now I could own those roles more fully in a new context. There was a new freedom in rediscovering who I was in a new place after a lot of transformation in the several years prior.
There were also hard things. I was on a break from writing until we settled in and found a babysitter, and soon I started to see myself primarily as Dave’s wife and Everett’s mother – roles I am grateful to play, but not enough to carry my identity. My lack of routine in a new place held me back from diving into the practices I had cultivated in LA – I wasn’t creating, listening, or being still the way I had been. I had trouble rooting my identity in who I was as a beloved child of God. I was unmoored.
In the midst of all of this came the Great Hair Catastrophe.
It was all my own doing. I’m a big believer in committing to things. I don’t like to start things I can’t finish. When I do art projects, they are projects that can be finished in an hour or two (or preferably about twenty minutes), because if I don’t finish them in one sitting I may never finish them at all. I’m committed like that with reading books, too – once I start, I have a hard time letting go and not finishing, even if the book is terrible. I am careful with my yeses because I mean them.
The week we move into our new house, I decided to stop using shampoo. At least, I stopped using conventional shampoo. I googled a few things and settled on a once-a-week baking soda scrub plus a few washes with a castile soap-based mixture in between.
What on earth possessed me to do this in the midst of one of the craziest transitions of my life? I was already feeling uncomfortable with myself, unsure of exactly who I was in this new place. Why not add gross hair to the mix of insecurities? It seemed like a bad idea at the time, but I decided to do it anyway.
Generally speaking, I’m pretty happy with my hair. I’m starting to get a few gray hairs now and then, but I still pull them out most of the time. (I told myself I wouldn’t after I turned thirty, but wow, did I want to after I turned thirty.) I have some nice waves in the back, but it’s pretty stick-straight in front, which is a little weird, but I don’t think anyone notices too much. And I have a lot of hair. Like, a LOT of hair. Usually, this is a good thing. It’s not so good for up-dos, but since I’m married and don’t plan to go to prom any time soon, I think that’s probably ok. (In the practice run for my wedding, the stylist kept saying, “Oh boy, we’re going to have to hide a lot more of this next time.” I looked like an over-grown Shirley Temple.)
My hair routine had always been pretty simple. I washed it every day or two, and then I’d either leave it down or put it up. Generally speaking, I didn’t bother to comb or brush it. I’d let it air dry and pony-tail it if it was hot, or try a bun if it was particularly unruly. If I’d been watching Hunger Games or Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman I’d braid it, usually at a nice angle so it was less obviously lopsided. Every night, I put it into two braids, like Anne of Green Gables. Every morning, I woke up looking like Pippi Longstocking.
So, no shampoo – this sounds like a low-maintenance hair lover’s dream, right? I don’t even have to wash it! In my experience, it’s not as low-maintenance as it sounds.
I did a fair amount of googling before I started, and, apparently, if the shampoo isn’t doing the work for you, you have to actually get the grime out of your hair another way. Like, by scrubbing like crazy with your fingers in the shower. And by brushing and brushing and brushing and brushing.
I made it a month. A month with lots of buns and scarves and ponytails, because my hair felt like an enormous candlewick. It was awful.
Dave said he couldn’t tell. He said it looked great and smelled nice. I think he was just trying to rub in the fact that when he went “’poo-less” a few years ago I made him go back to shampoo because his hair was too dirty (you’d think I would have learned from that, right?).
So, a month in, every afternoon when Everett went down for a nap I sat outside in the yard and I brushed, and brushed, and brushed. Why in the yard? Because as I brushed, handfuls of hair and chunks of mysterious gray goop started to pile around me. I brushed and brushed and brushed, and eventually, after lots of patience, I could more or less get the brush through my hair without too much pain, and then I’d whip it back into a ponytail again before anyone noticed how smarmy it was.
I tried leaving it down a few times when it was freshly “clean” (it never really got clean), but here’s the thing: all the blogs talk about how they get “great volume” and “really nice body” when they stop shampoo. Did I mention that I have a LOT of hair? It was long and thick and when I added a nice layer of mysterious gray goop, it was ENORMOUS. It was a huge frizzy mess, and I couldn’t blame the perfect Northern California climate.
Every time I left the house, I was a little bit embarrassed about my hair, and I just banked on the fact that no one cared enough about what my hair looked like to notice. For all they knew, I’d always worn it up every day and worn lots of scarves.
Finally, one afternoon as I combed the gray goop out yet again, I had a revelation: I don’t need to do this. There was absolutely no reason, other than because I told myself I would. Really, I’m not even particularly homeopathic/all-natural when it comes to medicines and hygiene products – so why was I so worried about chemicals in my hair? ‘Pooless, I felt gross when I left the house, showers took longer than they used to with the endless scrubbing, I spent hours every week brushing, and the only reason I was doing any of it was that I had decided in a crazy chaotic season that I should try it. Good grief.
So, that afternoon I tucked Everett in for his nap and jumped in the shower, so that afterwards I could brush (or not brush!) clean hair for the first time since moving to Northern California. I did this because I knew I would feel better, I’d feel more myself, and it’s not worth doing things just because one time you thought it might be a good idea so now you have to stick with it.
A lot of times faithfulness means discipline. Sometimes, faithfulness means mixing it up. Sometimes I’m afraid to commit to things, but, maybe more often, I’m afraid to give them up. I don’t want to be a quitter, a failure, a loser. I don’t want to be weak. But, sometimes, that I idea I had just isn’t worth sticking with. Sometimes, that thing that worked really well for me in one season just doesn’t work in the next.
So I washed my hair. I remembered what it was like to feel clean. And as I gave up that practice, I remembered others – how did I used to spend Everett’s naps, back in LA, back before I spent them brushing my hair? I read and wrote and painted. I listened and I prayed. It was time, I discovered, to reengage some of those practices that ground me. The season of chaos was ending. It was time to remember who I was in the everyday.