My daughter’s hair started turning gray when she was still in high school. And so began the furious effort to hide it.
First it was girlfriends who worked the dye into her long, thick curls. Later, her college boyfriend took over. When he became her husband, his mother turned her expert hands to the process. Over time, the job returned to him.
Meanwhile, the rich chestnut hair I remembered from my daughter’s childhood turned varying shades of brown, sometimes streaked with gold, and always fighting against gray at the roots. As the decade of her twenties began to approach thirty, the monthly dyeing sessions became less frequent. And less important.
Motherhood arrived. First came a daughter and later a son. My daughter’s roots began to silver. A touch of white emerged. One day she announced she was willing to let nature take its course. Turning silver back to brown was time-consuming, expensive, and possibly detrimental to her health. “Silver hair adds dignity to one’s appearance,” she observed. “And besides, you’ve always told me that all the women in your family had white hair by the time they were forty.”
On a Mother’s Day retreat to the coast I watched my daughter begin the turn toward natural, again with the skilled help of her husband’s mother. First came the bleaching of dye from her hair. Then came a stylish trim. And, against her mother-in-law’s advice, no second round of bleaching.
I watched the transformation and found the result to be beautiful. My daughter’s hair now shone mostly silver, mixed with brown, gray, and a little white, with a few outer patches of golden-orange still holding their own. Once, when I was not much older than my daughter is now, I was out taking a walk when a man hollered from across the street how much he liked my hair. “It looks like the colors of wolf fur,” he said.
I have witnessed the ripening of my daughter into womanhood and am reminded of my own turning process. Today I watched my six-year-old granddaughter turning pirouettes in the living room, just as my daughter once did. My granddaughter’s waist-length hair swirled with her body in wild abandon, the wavy chestnut brown glowing in the early morning sunlight.
I hope I’ll be around to watch her turn into a woman. I wouldn’t want to miss it.
Alice Evans, Eugene
It took me a long time to leave. I don’t think that’s unusual, all things considered. When you’ve done anything for twenty-some years, it makes sense that turning away would not be immediate, especially when the years were those of your formative childhood.
I lived in a bubble. Our town measured one square mile, and roughly five hundred people lived in it. Growing up, there was family, and there were school and sports, and there was church. Ours was a Pentecostal version, one of the more radical branches of Christianity—speaking in tongues, being slain in the Spirit, and the like. So strange looking back, less so when it’s all you know.
Every Sunday, sometimes twice, we would go to church—right side, second pew from the front. Dad played the trumpet for worship; Mom taught Sunday school. It seeped into the rest of our lives too; that’s how it should be for good Christians, right? You can’t live for Christ just one day a week.
It took time to see and understand that this life I always knew, this life that seemed normal when I was in it, was not normal at all. For me, turning away has been incremental. One discovery, one decision, one step at a time.
Moving to Portland. Discovering my twin sister likes girls (something the church frowns upon). College. Living abroad. Meeting new people with different beliefs, or no beliefs. Having a child out of wedlock. Marrying someone who could teach me about evolution. Experiencing life outside of the carefully constructed bubble I had grown up in.
It took the summation of all these things and more for me to realize that organized religion is not for me. I still talk to God(s), but I don’t need to sing praises. I can be grateful for all the beautiful things in this life and not give someone else all the credit for it.
There are more steps to take. More judgment to shed. More beliefs to undo. Yes, still. But I am becoming a kinder, more charitable, more openhearted person, and leaving religion behind was one part of my journey.
I will, however, continue to rock those Bible categories on Jeopardy! regardless.
Katy Devine, Portland
On Returning to the Field
You have to turn a lot of sod to plant thirty ponderosas in a high, dry pasture. No matter how much you sharpen your spade, no matter how strong your shoulders are, the digging will be hard enough to warrant a work song. You’ll need a steel bar to pry rocks out of the holes. You should arrange the cut sod upside down in a ring around each young tree, to catch the water you will bring.
The sod may reroot and compete with your trees. Porcupines and deer may eat any bright new needles the day they emerge—even in June, when greens are plentiful, and you’d think, wouldn’t you, that deer and porcupines would prefer the neighbors’ alfalfa to your waxy pines. No matter how many earthworms your shovel turns up, no matter how good the soil is, no matter how much water you carry, your thirty ponderosas might not make it through the summer.
Mine didn’t. Not one. I felt the guilt of futile caregiving. I should have put up fences, laid down weed mats, hauled more buckets. But there were many other projects that year, and I was torn, too, between my hope for a shady grove in a distant future and a competing hope: that things I establish will put down their own roots, thrive on their own, without helicopter fussing, without constant maintenance.
If the metaphor here seems obvious, let me say: I know. Sometimes events seem to shout their meanings—and I’m a poet, so I tend to dig into such moments. I cut and turn; I cultivate; the world becomes material.
But also: the world stays material. It’s not an idea. It happens—and not for us: not for our shade trees, nor to teach us a lesson. If we want meaning, we have to make it, and meaning-making is living work on living ground—dynamic work, to which the ground in question may be indifferent.
Of course, it’s frustrating to return to something you planted and find it chewed down, or dried out, or grown over. You dug and hauled and sang and nothing grew. But the ground was good—just not for ponderosas, that season, that year. You can’t turn an old pasture overnight into trees. Sure, you worked it. But the sod was working too: filling in the holes.
Christina deVillier, Lostine
Carmelita Maracci Turning
My teacher, Carmelita, in her practices, often did an astonishing fourteen pirouettes en pointe, finishing each neat-as-you-please in fifth, the toe of one foot tucked behind the heel of the other. Once, in the studio, she spun for seventeen revolutions. Igor Youskevitch ran through the streets with her high on his shoulders, screaming of her feat like a madman.
Yet she never did more than seven on the stage. “This wasn’t the place for tricks,” she said. In each of those seven revolutions she focused on the image of her father’s ghost passing, a different gesture in reaction at each turning.
If you ice-skate, you pull your arms in tight as you spin (that speeds up the turn), and you hold yourself together against the force that would take you off your blade. A famous Olympic skating champion put hers overhead, winning the gold medal and astonishing commentators. The same en pointe. To extend the arms out, especially just one, asymmetrically, to touch your father’s cheek, is unimaginably difficult.
Enrico Zanfretta taught Carmelita the skill. This ancient ballet master had danced with Cecchetti. He sat at a little table with a glass of sherry, wearing a scarf. Sometimes he used an ear trumpet. Often he smoked little cigarettes held between thumb and forefinger with the palm up, perhaps to catch any crumbs of rich tobacco.
Carmelita studied alone, so she didn’t know she had exceeded everyone—he played with her to see what more she could do in her practices week after week. About a performance that the New York Times described as “Once in a lifetime,” Zanfretta said only, “It’s coming.” For her, the latter review held more weight.
The artistry, though, that came from her. It was her sensitivity that demanded the restraint to serve the image, rather than to display technical brilliance. That’s why I studied with her, for that was her greatness.
Katja Biesanz, Nehalem
Life Is a Series of Poems
It’s said that each of us has a personal story—an account of events and facts, including the misremembered, that helps explain our lives. We tell these personal stories to make sense of ourselves. But what if, instead, we thought of our lives as a series of poems?
There’s something to many poems that feels as natural as life. This something is the shift, or turn. As in life, the turn can be a moment of surprise or recognition, a new understanding. It may be the poem turning on itself, the way insight can lead us to tack in a different direction or give us the permission we didn’t realize we were seeking.
How many times have I stubbornly held my ground and argued in my squeaky voice, as my mother used to call it, only to walk through a door and hear the echo of my unkindness, my unwillingness to listen? Am I brave enough to turn around, to turn from my stance?
Several years ago, I repeatedly forgot to bring payment to a colleague who’d purchased a workbook for me for our discussion group. When I apologized for the third time with “I’m sorry. I’m really not the kind of person who flakes out on these things,” he answered evenly, “Well, apparently you are.” I wasn’t insulted. I was gratified. Here was expanded identity! Here was a gift.
Much has been made about the influence of cognitive bias in gluing us to mistaken beliefs despite contrary information. And, while this often may be true, we have the ability to shift. If our lives are poems, we can turn back on ourselves with new awareness.
In 2017, a friend sent me a note wishing that my mother’s recent death would liberate us both. An unusual condolence, to be sure, but one that offered a beautiful and sturdy frame to look through. The turn is my chance to pay attention to the story I’m still writing.
Keli Osborn, Eugene
Tread a Worm on the Tail
“The worm has turned,” they say, meaning even the most docile of creatures will turn on its tormentor if pushed too far. My deepest turn of recent years was inspired by Donald Trump and those who elected him.
The phrase first turned up in a sixteenth-century proverb by John Heywood: “Treade a worme on the tayle, and it must turne agayne.” The image is vivid. What remains unspecified is what, exactly, a red wriggler might do to its predator. Can an earthworm beat a robin away with a large stick? In Old English, a wurm or wyrm could mean a dragon. Is that the only kind of worm that can take action?
In the 2016 election I saw horrific wrongness, evidence that my fellow countrypeople would gladly throw millions under a proverbial bus to achieve aims I didn’t comprehend. That year, my family had moved from a lefty-liberal Western Oregon city to a small, conservative-leaning town just east of the Cascades. Before, I’d had little perspective on the “liberal bubble.” With distance, I could see it shimmering brightly, enclosing its residents in a self-congratulatory haze.
Lonely and disconnected in a new town, I settled down to a long, snowed-in winter of self-reflection. I quit my political party and took breaks from social media. Through meditation, reading, and some frankly unpleasant thinking, I examined my values, separating them from the received knowledge of my bubble and the media.
What I found wasn’t pretty. My friends and I had been so cavalier with our language, so dismissive of others’ concerns, so full of mockery and revulsion—we’d brought this on ourselves. The worm had turned, all right: it’s been reported that President Trump was elected by millions of mostly white people who felt downtrodden or persecuted. I hadn’t understood that, blaming the election on the Russians and Cambridge Analytica. What might happen if I tried to listen? To dial back my snark and anger, contain my reflexive rejection of those outside the bubble?
Painfully, I made a turn of my own: toward listening and opening my mind. Beating the robin with a stick, I’ve discovered, isn’t the only option—nor do I need to breathe fire. Instead I crawl underground, into the dark soil of my own consciousness. It is slow, rough going. But here I dredge up truths that soften my heart, fueling political activism and community engagement.
Tiffany “T” Lee Brown, Sisters
1 comments have been posted.
Yes, Still, by Katy Devine. I loved it!
Stacey Korn | September 2018 | Portland