There’s a poem by Kathian Poulton that I’ve loved for some time. I offer it to students on the first day of the Embodiment in Later Life course I teach every fall. Here’s the poem:
Though not occasioned
to mirror watching
and saw delightedly
star streaks, grey lights
moving through my hair.
I was mother-reflection
then, my mother watching me
becoming old as she had not
lived to do.
I cannot know
what she would have felt
as age came on in silence,
but I dance elated on seeing
touches of silver
but earned by living
as widely as I dare.
My “touches of silver” appeared unasked starting when I was a still quite young, when I was eighteen or nineteen, barely an adult. Early greying runs in my family, on both sides. So does denial of greying (at least amongst most of the women; as long as I've known her my Gramma Jewell has always had the most beautiful steel-grey hair, and Aunt Elsie never denied the existence of her bold salt-and-pepper curls.). And, so, I have been doing fun, strange things to conceal my greying hair since I was eighteen or nineteen: raspberry spikes; dark brown pixie cut; auburn pyramid of curls; back to the pixie cut; then a decade almost of solid black, black bob, black waves, black, black...black.
Then, in November of 2008, when I was a month away from my forty-second birthday and had spent a ton of money before an important conference presentation on getting a professional coloring job, the gig was up. Actually it was a lovely coloring job, for the first couple of days, but after the first washing, my greys started showing. I thought, among other things, What the hell? That was a waste of money I didn't have! And--What am I doing? I'm a radical gerontologist, a critical social theorist, and I am spending my time and money on trying to deny the fact that my hair is pretty much wanting to be silver!?!?!
I was outraged, not just toward the colorist at the salon, but toward myself as well. I also saw the strange humor in the situation, the irony, and I decided to call my own bluff (in other words, I decided to “live my theory,” put my money where my mouth is, walk my talk.)
(Let me say here that I want all grown-up people, all women and men of earth, to do what they want, as long as doing what they want doesn't hurt others and as long as doing what they want is predicated on a considered, intentional decision. I mean--I'd never want to begrudge a woman's right to choose to color her hair, to conceal her grey, as there may be many legitimate reasons for her to do so. I guess I just want her to be sure she knows the reasons why she's doing what she's doing, the reaches and limits of her agency. But even then, if she doesn't know why she's doing what she's doing, I still want her to have the right to buy a box of punk rock black dye and cover her grey hair. Well, maybe dark brown is a better choice cuz the black stuff isn't good for your brains!).
So, after the failed attempt two years ago to continue concealing the truth about my hair, I stopped. Just like that—cold turkey. I grew out my punk rock black hair and grew in my silver shooting stars. And let me be honest and tell you that this process of revealing the truth sucked for a long time (by "long," I mean a year and a half) because I have dark eye brows and dark eyes and still some dark hair upon my head, so the grow-out was crazy-obvious. Time played tricks with me-- I was like a kid waiting until it is time to go to the birthday party, you know, when an hour seems like a day. I thought the growing-out period would never end.
Also, I was traveling through unknown territory, I didn’t know what would happen to my appearance, my vibe – my identity! -- once I gave up my cool punk rock black hair. My mind monkeyed around, thinking thoughts like: Would I look older, would I look my age, what does “my age” look like, what’s the problem with looking older, what's the problem with looking my age, would I still be cute, would I be respected more, would I be respected less, would I fade into invisibility, would I become more visible, vivid, weird, a cartoon character? But I persevered and prevailed!
And now, after must ado, my whole head of hair is authentic, it is the real deal, unaltered (well, mostly, except for the little matter of the natural waves I straighten…the grass is always greener!). There’s very little appearance concealment going on now, and I must say that while I'm still growing accustomed to my real hair, the hair with the silver shooting stars, I think I really quite like the silver as much for how it looks as for what it represents for me.
I’m still finding words for the deeper meanings of letting my hair go silver, but there’s something for me about being upfront with the fact that I’m an aging person, specifically an aging woman (We are, of course, aging from the moment we are born, but in mid-life our aging takes on more intensification phenomenologically and symbolically; grey hair has a different semiotics now compared to what it might have had when I was twenty-three.).
In liberating my hair from concealment, I liberated my aging and eldering self from concealment as well.
My silver shooting star hair is an invitation, an invocation to my future older embodied self to join me now, to dwell in my consciousness and guide me into my future.
I’ve been thinking that I’d like to ask some of the women I know to share their stories, women who, like me, have invited silver shooting stars to dance through their hair.