Monthly Archives: January 2010

Samson and Me

At five I couldn’t see the point of hair. I wanted it out of my way, so my mother obliged. She circled me slowly, shearing it off to just above my chin, and the air filled with a most satisfying ripping sound. Close to my ears the scissors crunched, closing their legs hungrily on my black wings.

At eleven I wanted everything under control. I was up when the sun was a murmur, stomach turning at the prospect of breakfast so early. My hair was a thick fountain I had to subdue into a ponytail neat enough for school and my desire to do things exactly right (a desire since mostly lost). I worked and reworked it, each time finding I’d sat my rubber band too far to the left or the right, or that threads of too-short hair were escaping from its noose, or that where I thought I had brushed my scalp into perfect smoothness there was still a small hillock of hair, invisible but to my own questing fingers. My sandwich sat uneaten.

Later I was a teenager, and let my hair down, and—bliss—it was a pair of doors I could shut against the world. Teachers nattered at it, instead of me. (Also, though I did not realize it then, I’d grown a set of blinders. Nothing could be seen beyond the edges of my hair, but for several years there was plenty to occupy me between their curtains: the curve of a friend’s back as she walked away, the crazy softness of a boy’s lip, my gigantic fear of being unloved.)

I began to imagine it would one day grow so long it would descend into the ground like roots, fixing me where I was. Perhaps that’s why it all came off in one dramatic gesture. How many other things were tangled in it! I looked down when it was done and saw them all snipped in half. Slick heat and sweat. The idea of being beautiful. The memory of dancing to “Copa Cabana” some school-day afternoon, laughing through my fingers. Some of them I’d have wanted to keep, if I’d known that’s where they’d been.

The year I turned 21 I was living in Jerusalem with an English boy, and it had been two years or more since I’d sat in a revolving chair, leaning my head back for a cut like a patient ready for surgery.

I was very happy then. As for my hair, it was happy, too. It wriggled with happiness; I could feel it sometimes when we sat on the bus together and everyone else leaned a little towards the speakers, listening to the hourly news. My hair leaned towards the English boy. It waved down my back like the shining tide of a gentle sea. At night we arranged ourselves, he and I, like two bookends tucked into each other. That was so he could brush my hair a hundred times, giving it all the attention of a tailor smoothing out a magnificent piece of fabric that had not yet received its first cut. When we parted the boy took some with him; for all I know he has it still.

Lately I have been cutting my own hair, chopping at it like a woodman who doesn’t care how rough are the edges of the stumps he leaves behind. I am all business. What is gone is gone.

Natalie Angier (I do adore her; she inspired my only fan letter to the New York Times to date) has written that the skin is the organ with the biggest mouth. She says it trumpets our emotions with its goosebumps and blushes, reveals our weaknesses with its scars and scrapes, and is, no matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise, the well-judged cover for a book no one, really, will ever read from first to last page.

She’s right, of course: skin is a loudmouth. But if you ask me, what hair lacks in volume it makes up for in storytelling style. It may be bloodless—at least by the time its questing fibers are pushed up from beneath the scalp—but it has a heartbeat. How else to explain the fact that it can keep time (let’s see skin do that)?

Don’t believe me? Try this. Take a few long strands of hair from a brand new mother, all relief and tears, her sweet infant barely out of its packaging. Get them right from the scalp, and don’t worry; she’ll barely notice you. Take more from a woman whose child is now three-months known, her eyes bleary from 90 interrupted nights. Another from a six-month mother, practically a veteran of cradling and lullabies and midnight messes, and still more from the head of one just beginning to hear her nine-month-old babble like a brook.

All set? Right. Now. Check the very highest tip of the hair from the newest mother, the flickery spot where it emerged from its follicle, for cortisol. That’s a substance that’s a marker for stress (people call it the fight-or-flight hormone). When a woman becomes pregnant she is flooded with cortisol. It soothes her response to pain, gives her more energy, and—some evidence suggests—makes her more attentive to danger. Look at the nib of that hair, and you’ll find cortisol in spades right there, just at the point of her baby’s birth. Now move three centimeters along the hair, and test again. Less cortisol. Another three centimeters, and test again. Still less, in an utterly predictable monotonic progression.

Do the same thing with the hair from the other women, and you’ll find the level of cortisol decreasing from high to low, step-wise along the hair, in just the same way—except now the highest level won’t be found at the tip. It’ll be three centimeters along with the mothers of three-month-olds. Six centimeters along with the mothers of six-month-olds. And so on.

Line them all up against each other, matching hormone levels as you go, and what you get, in effect, is an astonishingly accurate calendar of pregnancy’s effect on cortisol production in a woman’s body. Here is where it all began, two cells meeting, merging, making plans for the future. Here they’ve grown into a little lemon, here there are hands that wave through amniotic fluid as if swimming. Here everything is ready at last, racing like a freight train towards that long-awaited emergence.

All this happens, of course, because a growing hair takes on all manner of free-floating biochemical stowaways in the blood it absorbs from its follicle, each of which is permanently incorporated into its cellular structure at that precise point. If someone were trying to poison you with lead, your hair would know. If you’d been good and given up all your vices, your hair would speak your virtue. And though it has no life of its own, hair still breathes the air you breathe, drinks the water you drink. It remembers where you live.

It’s all there—the inner ebb and flow of anxiety and love, the things you’ve brought into yourself, the places you’ve traveled—all documented in a curl. It doesn’t go away, either. Hair can keep a secret for more than a thousand years, it seems. And knowing that, I am a little rueful over the decades of ink I’ve spilled below my chair. Whole novels’ worth, perhaps. The longer the strand, the deeper the communiqué?

I’m growing it out now, you know. I’m waiting to see what my blood writes in it.

A Very Commonplace Gesture (3)

New Year’s Day Self-Similarity

There has always been, for me, something shivery and mysterious about the Book of the Thousand and One Nights. One reason is that although for years it sat quite within reach on my father’s bookshelf, both the Nights and its store of what we so (in)delicately call “adult” material were closed to me as a child: locked tight with a single shake of a maternal head. (Let me tell you that when I read the stories, in direct defiance of that fiat, and discovered that not only is there a lot of sex in them but that the very first tale is about a fart so legendary it reverberates through an entire kingdom for generations, I laughed until I cried. Adult indeed.)

But far more wonderful, what I knew about the comparatively slim volume revealed its position within that most favored of literary genres: the infinite book. That “thousand and one!” How I craved its everlasting promise of still one more night after you thought the final one had come.

One other thing gave the Thousand and One Nights limitless mystery, and that was the fact that it held stories within stories within stories. Scheherazade would begin to tell a tale, and all of a sudden its narrator would begin to tell his own tale, and before you knew it its narrator was holding forth on yet another narrative, and so on and so forth until your head spun with delicious confusion. No matter where you looked, it seemed, there was a tiny reflection of the book as a whole, which in turn contained its own reflection, which contained…and in turn…and in turn… The book of Nights was made of endless versions of itself, writ small (er and smaller and smaller).

As in the Nights, so in Nature. Self-similarity is everywhere. Each stretch of the British coastline, fractal-father Mandelbrot tells us, curves and jags and undulates in such a way as to produce a remarkably faithful scale model (not perfect, but close) of the coastline as a whole, no matter how many times you carve it up into smaller and smaller pieces. Always you will find that each individual part contains within itself a rough unabridged copy of the total sum.

So again with the leaves of a fern, whose fronds divide into fronds that divide into fronds, and with the branching bronchial tubes of the lungs, which fork and fork and fork once more. Raise your head to the skies and there too the part reflects the whole. Galaxies clump into small groups, like little knots of gossiping schoolchildren; those clumps form larger clusters, and those clusters even larger throngs.

(What is it for, all this huddling? Is it a lonely thing, being a galaxy? I can’t imagine it could be, since you yourself are made up of clustered clustered clusters of stars…)

And what does all this have to do with New Year’s Day, my dear dears? Why, only this: When I woke up this morning I resolved to make my own self-similarity. This first day, I decided—itself just one small part of the long annum stretching out before me in all its promise and disappointment—should be a scale model, crafted as best I can, of what I want the year to be like.

Therefore, this is what today contained:

Waking to sunlight through curtains and a cat on my belly.

Cooking, with Ross and for a friend. Eating what I had made. Laughing.

Walking, face tingling in the January (!) cold. Looking. Breathing. Hugging Ross.

Making what I know how to make.

Sitting, just sitting, while music plays. Reading with a cup of coffee by my side.

Finally, perhaps most importantly of all, writing this for both you and myself, with a calm heart and nothing to prove.

Welcome to a new decade, readers-mine. I’m enjoying it so far. I’m imagining, at least for one day, that I know what the future holds. It holds a thousand and one New Year’s Days.

RedRun