July 8, 2010

Impermanence Gym.

The Dharma of the Diva Movement

The feeling of having nothing to lose is sometimes worth some losing. What is it about the inescapable urge to do something Radical from time to time? Geertje Couwenbergh shaved off her red trademark curls during a difficult time and discovered the meaning of hair, loss, and the inescapable truth of change.

I looked at myself in the mirror and wondered what I would look like without hair. It would likely happen today and although no one or no thing is forcing me, I feel incredibly sad about it. Somehow shaving my hair became something that has to be done. Just another unavoidable thing in life, seamlessly following the recent loss of a lover, a family member, and a general sense of how things were supposed to be.

Staring at the mirror, my mind kept running lists of things that I am most afraid of:

a) strange spots, bumps and lumps on my skin and skull that will be revealed ruthlessly to the whole world

b) not liking it

c) feeling like an idiot for doing something so reckless and cliché (I just broke up with my girlfriend last weekend)

d) my modeling agency kicking me out

e) my hair not growing back the same way—I heard several horror stories about curls disappearing, texture changing and color fading.

I decided that would be just one other thing in life to find out.

I don’t know where the sudden inevitability of things originates, but I dread it as much as I have learned to respect it. In life we all seem to get our share of situations that reach a point of no return—like lifting a lid that you know will never go back, ever. We may spend a great part of our life battling the fact that things change, but sometimes we seem to outrun the law of impermanence by choosing to change. This manifest as a feeling in your bones, the kind of it will
break my heart but there is no other option type of change; the knowing that is far beyond pain or pleasure. Somehow we suddenly need to take a ride on the Big Personal Drama train. It’s often not fun—pretty painful even—but at the same time magical.

The same thing had happened with my hair. Its loss suddenly became unavoidable. I had felt the hot breath of no return in my neck for two days now, unable to take care of my hair any longer, mourning and touching it with the reluctance of a lover towards the end of an affair. I felt like a huge drama queen compared to the many women and men that would do anything to prevent losing their hair in a battle against disease.

There’s simply something about hair that makes it a thing for us humans. From Greek mythology to popular culture, hair has been connected to virility, strength, life force and femininity. It had certainly always been my thing. It gave me my family nickname Poelie—Dutch for chick, referring to the red downy glow that surprised my parents after an alarmingly long absence of hair on the then over one-year-old. This down then turned into full, thick red curls that have been the object of attention ever since. For those of you who don’t know: having curls is a thing. Having red hair is a thing. Having red curls is like having a flashing neon sign attached to your head. For as long as I can remember I am proudly confirming questions of authenticity (own color? own curls?) and I have never been ashamed or teased with my red curls when I was little—although it’s very possible that the other kids didn’t dare since I had the stereotypical temperament to match.

It may have been a cliché, but shaving my hair became my small revolution of change: my conspiracy with impermanence. It reminded me that in those rare moments that I have the balls to change in a direction that feels uncomfortable, it almost always empowers me. To me that’s proof that when we stop fighting change but ride it, we turn our enemy into our ally. The more we befriend it in times when we are not forced to, the less surprised we are when change shows up at our door at less convenient times. Call it Impermanence Gym.

So during one of those visits in the Impermanence Gym, I made those first irreversible cuts. Assisted by my best friend, very aware of a potential disaster we kept shaving, seeing the pile of hair growing on an unfamiliar place on the stones. I started to feel the Mediterranean wind and sun on my forgotten skull, and felt amazed. After finishing a bottle of prosecco, cursing our past losses and toasting to the future ones, we burned my hair on an Italian moonlit mountain top. (Hey, if you start your own revolution, you might as well do it good.)

An instant clearness fell over me—like a refrigerator suddenly switching off. Having no hair after a lifelong of personality-packed red curls felt like falling in love: everything is the same, yet everything is different. Taking a shower for example included all the usual routines but then radically different; the feeling of hand on head, water flowing freely, fingers on skin, skull, bone; the nothingness of it all felt thrilling.

Shaving my hair was my one woman revolution, but you have probably also had your own sudden unavoidable, inescapable Things That Had To Be Done. Like ending a relationship. Tell the truth. Move to Africa. Painting your bedroom pink. Quitting your job. What is the root of our silent (or sometimes not so silent) revolutions? Could it be a deep longing for fearlessness that drives us to the very thing we fear from time to time? Paradoxically enough, the inability to lose another thing might be the strongest motivation to let go: isn’t loss is a burden carried only by the possessor? I know that my deep issues with our loss-packed human lives have attracted me to Buddhism. Why choose a tradition that basically puts a post-it of impermanence of your forehead—and picks it up and sticks it back there each time it falls off—if you’re not scared to death of change? When you come to think about it, the entire Buddhist path is one big Impermanence Gym.

Curious to find out who I was without all hair to hide behind (and yes, also simply heartbroken) I made this extra stop at this Gym. Then there was the day after. Starting our Big Revolution is one thing, making it work is another. In my case, every confrontation in the mirror offered two options: Buddhist nun or Kinky Buddhist. To go bald—especially if you’re a woman—can be bold. So my friend and I set out for the glamorous French city of Nice to get the clothes and accessories to make the baldness say: I know what I’m doing here. Large sunglasses with gold butterflies on the sides. An oversized t-shirt with shiny black sequins saying “I’m bad”.

Although I was going to use the help of all the stories, concepts, styles, images, clichés, prototypes that the accessories told to make the baldness work, the most important story, the inner story, would be the one that would be shining through. Between the tingling feeling of putting on a shirt over my head and the unfamiliar stares of older women on the streets (“honey, what a waste!” or “you go girl!”—I couldn’t tell) it was this inner story that could cause something that could be described—were it not such a dreadful cliché—as inner peace.

What this inner story was exactly, I didn’t know yet (it’s good to do something radical every once in a while/ discover fearlessness at the kitchen sink level/ “I’m bad” as the t-shirt promised?) but I liked its beat and was curious to find out. I guess the feeling of having nothing to lose sometimes is worth a little losing.

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