There was a single gray hair taped to the bathroom mirror yesterday morning. Maybe it was because it was 5:30 a.m. and I was still waking up, but I felt confused as I considered the tape and the strand of hair. As I brushed my teeth I muddled over a possible explanation. My daughter Isobel sometimes leaves notes attached to the mirror before she goes to bed (which is almost always long after I do) asking me for a favor (can I print something for her in the morning before school?) or telling me something (there was a gigantic spider crawling on her bed last night!). So I looked around for a note, thinking it slipped out from under the piece of tape. No note. I removed the tape and the hair from the mirror, took a closer look at the hair, and then tossed both into the waste basket. It was time to make coffee, feed Happy-dog, and wake-up Izzy.
I haven’t been sleeping as well as I’d like or as well as I need to.
One reason, which I will merely mention for now, is that my body has begun to experience some mid-life hormonal turbulence.
For another reason, for the past few nights I’ve been woken up around 2:00 a.m. by dreams in which I am visited by who I understand from within the dream to represent a teacher or elder in my life. In each of the dreams there’s been a different character who has asked me a question or given me some sort of idea about reality to ponder. After a particular wise one transmits their special lesson to me I wake myself up from the dream. And then I lie awake in bed for anywhere from a half hour to a couple of hours, working away on the question or the idea. I’m not a Zen Buddhist, but it is as if I have been given a koan to center my contemplation and meditation practice upon, to carry around inside me as I go about my daily life, until which time I come to some understanding about what the dharma riddle might and might not mean.
Another contribution to my restless nights is the intensified state of excitement in which I find myself. Not only is it the first week of spring term at my university and, thus, the first week of the three courses I teach this term, but it is also the week leading up to – more to the point, the last week before – my “gero-punk world tour” which begins on Friday, April 4th at the 72nd Annual Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama Conference in Oakland, CA., and then moves on to the University of Nevada/Reno for Careers in Aging Week and the Sanford Center on Aging Distinguished Lecture Series. I fly home on the 9th and jump right back into the business of my “normal” life. I’m excited, very, and anxious, more than just a little bit. I don’t think I’m anxious because I’m unprepared (though I almost always wonder if I’m prepared enough for just about everything that happens in my life). For many weeks I’ve been dreaming about, brainstorming alone and with others, and provisionally choreographing the two keynote presentations I’ll be offering. But just days before I take off on this adventure, I’m still working out the details, filling in what happens between the different gestures I intend to make, provisionally staging each presentation. Right now, the two presentations feel very different in quality to me because they are being created with very different audiences in mind, because they have distinct purposes, because I’m playing two very different roles almost back-to-back with little transition time in between. This is an unprecedented experience in my life thus far this time around.
So, I haven’t been sleeping so well. I’m excited. I’m anxious. I’m cold. There are bees buzzing in my chest. I want to take a long nap.
My mom and I text each other most mornings. Yesterday morning when she asked, “How are you feeling this a.m.?” I responded with: “I am tired and mildly PMSing and nervous about my upcoming presentations but good enough, I think.”
She texted back encouragement in the form of something written on a coffee mug I gave her when I was a teenager. On the mug there’s an image of a mom-caricature, she’s hearty and wearing an apron, wooden spoon in hand like a queenly scepter, chattering on to her unseen daughter. She says, “….now listen to me, I am not just saying this because I am your Mother…you are the smartest, prettiest, nicest girl in the whole world….!”
My mom has repeated this little cheer many times over the years and hearing it now as a grown-up daughter, I giggle and immediately feel more relaxed (though I suspect when I was Isobel’s age I had a different response….).
I might inhabit a mid-life body doing new and strange things, I might be mother to an 18 year old daughter soon to head off to college, I might be embarking upon my own unprecedented and thrilling adventures, but at this moment I feel very much as though I am masquerading as a grown-up. A pep talk from my mommy is exactly what I needed.
And while we are on the topic of my 18 year old daughter, she did eventually reveal the mystery of the gray hair taped to the bathroom mirror.
Later in the day I received a text from Isobel in which she told me she “HATES!” me.
I suppose I should feel good about the fact that in all of our years together she’s never once told me she hates me. Until today. She hates me not because I forgot to slice the mango I put in her lunch for ease of nibbling, though I did forget. (Yeah, I still pack a lunch for my kid though she’s a senior in high school.) Nor does she hate me — at least she’s not told me that she does– because I am blackmailing her in order to compel her to make good on her promise to clean her room (no more money for clothes or movies or fun with friends unless and until she cleans her room).
She hates me because she discovered her first gray hairs. And apparently it is all my fault.
She’s placing the blame on me though her father has gray hair, too, but he’s in his fifties so she thinks this his gray hair is normal and uncontroversial. She’s placing the blame on me because I was her age when a few single silver strands began to appear tucked in between my otherwise very dark brown waves. She knows because I told her that I’ve been “going gray” since I was 18 and by the time I was in my early thirties, it was full-on obvious (though no one but me knew because I did such a creative job at concealment). And starting in 2008 she watched me go through what I experienced at the time to be an eternal grueling process of growing out my artificially colored hair to reveal its natural state.
Though she’s supportive of my decision to “go natural” and says she likes my silver hair, she wants nothing to do with any of this when it comes to her own embodied experience. She’s deeply offended by finding gray hairs on her head when she’s barely 18. She says she wants to “stall it for a few decades.” To her, there’s nothing cool about having a few strands of silver hair. Nothing.
I apologized to her, tongue in cheek, for the fact that she inherited some of my genes.
I wonder what it would be like to live in a time-place-space where we were encouraged to greet changes and transitions with openness and curiosity, rather than with considerable confusion and ambivalence, if not with fear and dread. I imagine that there has been someone somewhere at sometime who, upon seeing their first gray hair (even if they considered its arrival to be premature), felt excited, imagined their gray hair to be a potent harbinger of a new liminal time in their travels through the life course, something to celebrate. Or at least something to just let be.
Just as I have, just as I am still, Isobel will make her way throughout her hopefully long life guided by her own star. She will gather experiences. She will make decisions small and large, including whether or not to conceal her gray hair. She will find the rest of her tribe, her creatures and comrades that will be her chosen family. And even though right now she wishes she hadn’t inherited certain genes from me, in time, she might feel differently. Or not.
As the wise elder in one of the dharma dreams reminded me: either way, it’s cool.