I dreamed as in my bed I lay,
All night’s fathomless wisdom come,
That I had shorn my locks away
And laid them on Love’s lettered tomb:
But something bore them out of sight
In a great tumult of the air,
And after nailed upon the night
Berenice’s burning hair.William Butler Yeats
If you find yourself in the woods some late evening away from the lights of cities and towns — a place where you can see the stars — look up at the big dipper. If you look to the dipper’s cup — and were to draw a diagonal line downwards — and then trace down from the stars in the handle to a constellation called Arcturus– Coma Berenice’s can be found there between those two spots. It lies in the third quadrant of the northern hemisphere (NQ3) and can be seen at latitudes between +90° and -70. Two hundred and fifty light years from earth its one of the star clusters nearest to earth, formerly the tail of Leo until it was renamed for the Egyptian Queen Berenice, wife of Ptolemy III.
Berenice was married to Ptolemy III who went to battle against the Seleucids to avenge the killing of his sister, in 243 BC, during the Third Syrian War.
Terrified her husband would be killed, as an act of sacrifice and faith, the queen swore to Aphrodite that she would cut off her beautiful long hair if she spared him and brought him home safely.
Once her husband returned, Berence fulfilled her promise. Her shorn hair was placed in the temple, only to disappear the next day. To appease the fury of the king the court astronomer claimed Aphrodite was so pleased with Berenice’s offering that she had placed it in the sky, pointing to the group of stars that have since been known as Berenice’s Hair.
At my grandparent’s summer cottage there was an old children’s book of constellations — bright blue and yellow with sketches of the constellations on the inside covers. I remember reading how one set of stars “The Horse and Rider” was an ancient vision test – and I would squint up at the two small stars seeing if I could distinguish one from the other. It was there, I think, that I first read about Berenice’s hair.
I was born a blond girl child to a blond mother — my father, black irish with dark wavy hair and fair skin and blue eyes. My mother’s hair, in photographs of my childhood, is far below her shoulders. It was 1972 and my mother had long sheets of blond hair. She cut it when she separated from my father so that it just grazed the tops of her shoulders.
In childhood she kept my hair long — my two braids so ubiquitous that years later I would run into a grade school classmate in a record store in Uptown when we were twenty-one and he looked across the stacks of CD’s at me and said my name and I said his and he said “you look just the same except,” and he gestured as if pulling on two imaginary pigtails on either side of his head “no braids.” I can thank Princess Diana for the short hair I had from 1981 until 1989 when it reached the length where it has remained, with only slight variation, for almost 25 years.
From top left clockwise: me at four or so outside the motel where my father would come to stay; me with my best friend (still one of my best friends) on my 13th birthday; my brother and I in the summer of 1997 or so; Christmas dinner in 1995 (incidentally this picture was also taken the very night I met G for the first time though we wouldn’t date until 2003.)
Though I would say that my college years, and certainly my graduate school years brought me a clearer sense of self and mission — I was beginning to understand who I was (a writer) and what I valued (wild spaces) and was beginning to redefine my life, but … my hair. My hair never changed.
Top left: hiking Pattee Canyon 1999; Honeymoon 2006; Spring 2012 with Zoe; Fall 2013 at an apple orchard –heads bent together.
When my friend lost her hair a second time and was in the hospital for a brief stay I had just dyed my hair red for the first time in my life. She was the one, of the two of us, who has always had the guts to go uber-short, platinum blond, fiery red. In one of the pictures of us that I love the best she has short auburn hair — probably the color my hair is now — and her cheek is pressed against mine, head slightly tilted — she is looking up through her eyelashes a bit — almost smirking — I have a self-satisfied smile on my face — my hair spilling down to my waist. There in the hospital room she looked at my hair. Had me come closer into the light. She smiled, tired. “I like it” she said softly. “It’s only hair” I said stupidly, knowing it was so much more than just hair. In some ways I dyed my hair for her, even if she never explicitly knows it — and not in the way you might expect. Let me back up and tell you a different story.
I had a cat I loved more than anything. Colvin. She lived with me in Boulder. I took her when she was eight to Missoula — where she caught birds and brought them into the unscreened windows. When G and I began dating and he was going through his custody situation with W — I allowed my mother to keep my cat who she had been taking care of while I found a pet-friendly place (and, she had fallen in love with her and wasn’t really willing to let her go). I made that choice consciously as a sacrifice of my own. That sounds ludicrous, I guess — that I would liken giving up my beloved cat to G’s own heartbreak each time W would leave.
Equally ludicrous, I guess, to dye your hair as both a tribute and a sacrifice.
*** When I look at the pictures of my head bent down to Zoe’s I want to sob for the loss of it — the loss of the color that is exactly the color hers is. I think then about how many times i heard how much I looked like my mother; I think about how bewildered and mute my mother is now about my hair — so much so that she won’t speak a word to me about it. As if in changing the color of my hair I have edited her out, somehow. I’ve already told my friend who does my hair that I want to work back towards blond — which brings me to Connie Britton’s hair: In my obsession about finding a way back to blond I stumbled across this fantastic article — an excerpt
But Connie Britton’s Hair is not from the world of Venus and Mars, and it really could care less about what it is doing to the men who may come across it. The Hair asks us to think about a heavy ponytail at forty. Let’s not dismiss this as a joke, or as the same question as Botox or artificially plumped lips. If Botox is always about youth obsession, Connie Britton’s Hair is not always–or even ever–an attempt to look like Lyla Garrity or Hayden Panietierre. It might actually be about the specific pleasure of forty-ness.
It requires me to think about my own relationship to my hair –because I do wear it extraordinarily long for a woman my age (40). There’s no denying that at one point in my life I wore my hair long because of the cultural weight of beauty — and that I also lived with the world’s response to the cultural artifact of ‘long blond hair’ — but now that I am 40 and no longer blond — what does that long hair mean, if anything?
I’m not in the world enough anymore (as ridiculous as that sounds) to know how my hair color might affect the way people perceive me — I still forget I’m not the color I’ve always been and so, when I catch my reflection in the mirror there are times when I stop and study it.
Is this me or am I hiding from the me I’ve always been. Or, is it, after all, only hair.
I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on hair.