Friday, November 25, 2011

Overcoming the 'Thanks, But Gimme' Syndrome

When I was growing up, this transition between Thanksgiving and Christmas was an easy mental leap that I made every year without much reflexion. When the Montgomery Ward Christmas Wish Book came in the mail sometime in early November, I'd thumb through it, noticing all the nice Stuff I'd like to have. And then the week after Thanksgiving, I'd throw myself down on the living room floor, open to the toy section of the book and start making a list. My mother was very patient when I'd show it to her while she busied around the kitchen. "We'll see" was always her response.

Not such a clod that I didn't recognize skepticism when I saw it, I'd look at the list again, study the catalog some more, and decide which of those items I could probably do without. With a much more modest list redrawn, I'd approach her again. "We'll see," she'd say. It was a sort of game we'd play in the runup to Christmas, but in my naivete I didn't figure out for a few years that "We'll see" in our household was a way of letting you down easy. We were not a household of independent means, but I didn't relate that to my list.

One of the items on my "must have" list was always a bride doll. I don't think my parents ever understood the crucial nature of having this toy. Somehow, in my child mind, I identified with it and figured that if I didn't get one I'd probably never get married.  However, I don't believe that the fact that I never got one had anything to do with the fact that I didn't get married until I was almost 27. Lacking self-awareness had more to do with it than anything else. But we can save that discussion for a Pam Williams Retrospective some other time.

Does it seem ironic to anyone else that on Thanksgiving we list all the things we're thankful for, and then the next day we start making lists of more things we want to accumulate? That's the human race for you--never satisfied. Over the years I've learned that it’s spiritually and mentally a lot healthier to make lists of things to give other people. Whether or not it’s in our power to give them things we wish they could have, going through the exercise fosters the kind of insight about the human condition that selfish, greedy people never learn.

I don't make lists anymore, but if I were still tempted by that "thanks a lot but gimme more" trap, my list would be much different than it was in the days of the Montgomery Ward Christmas Wish Book. Now it would be tempered with realistically knowing that I'm not the center of everybody else's universes.

I don't remember exactly when the understanding came, but when I stopped gnashing my teeth over getting More and Better Stuff, I discovered that when we live with gratitude, we live with joy.

One gratitude rules and dictates all the rest--I'm grateful every day of the year that we can celebrate the birth of the Baby at Christmas, because if not for His birth, we would not have His sacrifice, making Easter the most important holiday of the year. If we live with continual gratitude for His tender mercies, every day is an endless thanksgiving.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hair, Not the Musical

Oy! Isn't the upkeep on the human body frustrating and time-consuming? Showers, teeth-brushing, nail-clipping, eating, exercising--you know what I mean. This week I had a perm, the every-two-months ritual to keep my hair in some semblance of order--stinky, tedious, soggy. Here's the problem: I have old hair. In fact, my hair got old before I did.

Some people have bad hair days, but I’ve had a bad hair life. I was born with fine, limp, straight, plain brown hair, with a cowlick in the front of a wide forehead. [Well, it was blonde for the first few years, but that didn’t last long.] It grows fast and will not be ignored. Before I started taking care of it myself, my mother kept it in a "Dutch boy" cut.

In temperate western Oregon where I was raised, in the days before portable hair dryers, you didn’t give a lot of thought to your hair. Washing it in the naturally soft runoff from Mt. Hood that came out of our water taps, I would comb it into place, maybe put a few curlers in it, and either sit by an open window to let the sun and breeze dry it, or in front of the heat of a roaring fireplace. When my hair was dry, I brushed it, and that was that--not a lot of fuss. I liked it that way.

When I got into high school curls became the trend, and the fuss quotient increased. I knew by then that I was fighting a genetic predisposition for straightness. Through high school I usually wore it collar length, no bangs, often in a French twist or a ponytail. My older sister had naturally curly hair, wore it short, done up easily in pin curls, and had what was then described as a tossed salad hairdo, very stylish. She pulled the hair pins out on the way to early-morning seminary, ran her fingers through it and she was set for the day. I was so jealous.

Until I went away to school in Utah, I had never used hand lotion or hair conditioner. Nobody warned me about the hard water and the dry climate in Utah. When I washed my hair the first time there and didn’t use conditioner (because I didn't know I should), I looked like someone who had never fixed her own hair before. It was embarrassing, and I still have the yearbook picture to prove it. Editors used your student ID picture for the yearbook in those days, for freshmen anyway. Lacking the natural drying elements I used at home--sun and fire--I got one of those portable hair dryers with a plastic cap that fit over my curlers so I didn’t have to go out in the cold with wet hair. During college I experimented a lot with hairdos. Some were pretty extreme, and observers might have assumed I was a rebel, but the truth was, I was just trying to make peace with my hair.

Over the years I have not managed my hair as much as it has managed me; sometimes all I could do was give in to its whims. I tried coloring it a few times when I was in my early 20’s, but that turned out to be a treadmill I didn’t want to stay on. When we lived on Guam, the tropical climate and the Hair With A Mind of Its Own conspired together to undo me again. This time, curl was impossible because of the humidity. (Believe me, the tropics are highly overrated; nasty organisms thrive--my husband had bronchitis for eight months.) I had collar length hair when I arrived, and when I washed it the next morning, there was a power outage that took out my portable hair dryer. Masterfully taking charge, I went to a salon the following week where my hair was coifed and sprayed within an inch of its life. “That’ll show you,” I thought as I inspected the finished product. I strode triumphantly out into the weather again looking fabulous, but again the hair had the last laugh. By the time I got home about 20 minutes later it was a sticky, back-combed, shapeless mess. Not long after that, I surrendered to a very short wash-and-wear hairdo known in those days as a pixie cut; yeah, think Tinkerbell. I have most often worn it fairly short, though not always that closely cropped.

To maintain some semblance of order, I have to get my hair cut every six or seven weeks. It laughs defiantly at curling irons, so permanents have been my only hope for an alternative to that look you see in cartoons when someone has touched a live electrical wire. With a perm every couple of months to give me a little height, and some softness around my angular face, things have gone along pretty well for quite a few years.

When we lived in Iran (before the revolution) and I went to the local hair salons, I was more than a little alarmed when the hairdresser put brush rollers in my hair and secured them--very carefully--with two-inch hat pins.

After my children were born, when I was in my late 20’s and mid-30’s, my hair turned a much darker shade of brown. Shortly after my son was born it began to turn gray, which has nothing to do with the fact that he was a boy and also my last child, but I wasn’t that far from 40. Actually, my hair took on a kind of mink effect, with gray ends and dark roots. People think it costs me a lot of money to keep that up, but I just smile when they suggest such a thing. I’m way too lazy for that.

My hair was almost completely gray by the time I was 60, and is well on its way to white. Yes, white hair is beautiful, as is gray that hasn't yellowed, (I am blessed to have attractive gray) but it is also curl resistant. For a while I surrendered and let my hair do what it wanted. I let it grow long and swept it up on top of my head, like a matronly silver halo hovering over me, suggesting to my grandchildren something otherworldly and mysterious. That didn’t last long--there's that upkeep issue. When I went again to a hairdresser to get it chopped off, I had only two requirements: I don't want to be a George Washington look-alike, and I don't want to frighten small children. Other than that, I don't care. I'm not the one who has to look at me all the time.

Some days it's grim, but as the years have passed, I've occasionally wondered if I can make some kind of quid pro quo bargain with the Lord, something in exchange for curly hair in the resurrection. Until then, I am giving serious consideration to hats.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Aftermath: Northwest Writers Retreat

Just came back from the best three days I've had in a long time--a writers retreat with talented, dedicated women who love and support each other and feel no jealousy or resentment when someone else has success. Left there feeling validated and affirmed.

Then I found this in a "scrap" on my desktop, if there are such things as electronic scraps:

From Pam 101—It is almost an affirmation to be an ordinary human being, gloriously flawed, willfully rebellious at the ridiculous things in the world, and curious with anticipation at the prospect of another new day. Everything passes too quickly and there's no money-back guarantee on breathing. Live in the moment, learn from the pain, and give thanks for the chance.