Articles April 3, 2018

Who Am I Now?

Anna Douglas

I sometimes teach classes and retreats for those 55 and over only. Some ask me why not include all ages. The answer is that there is a palpable sense of community when those over 55 gather. This is the “medicine” that many older people need—a community of love and respect and deep listening where people feel safe to speak honestly about their experience without fear of being judged for their oldness. The quality of care and listening that occurs in these groups is beautiful to witness. This kind of situation is rare for most older people.

What do we talk about? We talk about the challenges and opportunities of living long. We talk about coming to peace with the past and letting go. We talk about opening to new experiences. We talk about newfound contentment. We talk about fear and courage. We talk about love that endures and sex. We talk about the ways in which the mind/heart can be cultivated even as the body deteriorates. We talk about how the practice of Dharma helps us. We talk about dying. We talk about what matters now. And mostly, the thread which runs through all these topics, the #1 inescapable topic, is the subject of change. What is our relationship to inevitable change?

As Ram Dass said, “To make peace with aging is to make peace with change.” When Suzuki Roshi was asked, “What is the essence of Buddhism?” he answered, “Everything changes.” For every human being, this is a challenging fact. After all, what we have most enjoyed in our lives—our looks, our energy and vitality, our intellect, our achievements, our capacity, our talents—all these reveal their impermanence and begin to disappear. This gets our attention. When we are no longer noticed when we walk into a room, when the ways in which we are used to getting positive attention from others begin to go, we may feel diminished or anxious.

Yes, aging brings with it a loss and the fear of more and worse to come. I cannot speak as quickly and fluently as I once could. I notice the impatience of the young when I stumble to find a word. This is a lesson in humility. It is also a chance to practice dispassion. I say to myself, “Yes, OK, this is how it is between young and old. I don’t need to judge myself for being slower. This is how it is now.” And I remember well when I was young and impatient. It also helps to laugh about it with my age cohorts—those over 70 who know the territory of slowness and forgetfulness and are quick to sweetly “normalize” our common plight.

One of the most obvious changes with age is one’s hair—its thinning or disappearance or, most commonly, the invasion of gray. When it happened to me, I wasn’t sure what to do. But as a Dharma teacher dyeing my hair to hide the gray seemed wrong. Wasn’t I encouraging students to be with things as they are? The trouble was, at the age of 65, I had no idea what my hair color was. Every six weeks for a dozen years, I had been having it colored. How gray was my hair, actually? I had no idea. What would I look like with gray hair? I had no idea. “Who would I be with gray hair?” I was curious.

I went to a wig store in a stylish neighborhood. There was a silver-haired wig in the window that was beautifully coiffed. “Could I try that one?” I asked the saleswoman. She murmured enthusiastically, showing me the signs of good quality in my selection as I felt its soft and life-like curls and its easy-on-and-off elasticized band. “Would you like to try it on?” she asked. I nodded, deferring to her suggestion just as I had in younger years to other fashion experts: the first bra, the first girdle, and stockings, the first permanent. Here was yet another initiation of sorts into a new stage of life.

I slipped on the wig with the help of the saleswoman. Once all my lovely hennaed hair was tucked neatly beneath the firm cap of gray curls, I took in a deep breath and turned toward the mirror. What I saw surprised me. I had the immediate impression of someone with stylish silver hair who dressed impeccably and worked in an executive suite! It wasn’t me, but it was strangely reassuring. Up until that moment, I had associated gray hair with a “do nothing” life—over the hill, washed up, done. But in a flash, it seemed that a person with this beautifully-coiffed silver hair signaled a life of some degree of public standing and achievement. Buoyed by this optimistic impression, I declared, “I’ll take it.” I carried the expensive wig home in its own padded box with a styrofoam stand and instructions for shampooing and grooming. I made space on my bureau for the wig on its stand. When my ever-observant dog noticed it, he growled and took his warrior pose, only relaxing when I showed him the wig and allowed him to smell it.

After a few days, I was ready for the big next step. I went to a no-appointment-necessary unisex hair salon and requested the very polite young Asian stylist to shave my head. She looked startled. “Are you certain, madame?” she queried. I reassured her that I was. I had brought along the wig in its special box. I showed it to the stylist. She looked dubious, but she complied with my unorthodox request and shaved my head. I felt giddy! Literally, light headed. I slipped on the wig, aware of the curious looks of the other customers. No one asked me why. I stepped forth into my new life.

By the time I got home, the giddiness had descended into trembling disbelief. What had I done? I wanted to turn back and return to my familiar hair color of reddish brown. That was the real me. This bald head seemed scary and alien: I’m not a cancer victim, I’m not a nun, I don’t have alopecia, this is not me. I wanted my dyed hair back, the real me! Now I was left with only the silver wig. Fortunately, my teaching schedule was light for the next few months. My family had postponed their trip to visit. I could more or less hideout. I could go underground with my baldness, with someone else’s gray hair as my cover.

I did invite a few close friends over to witness what I had done. They were taken aback but tried to be supportive. Me in a silver wig, they thought it was extreme! Thus began a month of wearing the wig whenever I went out while my hair slowly grew.

Whenever someone commented on my hair, I told them I had stopped dying my hair. That’s all I said, and they filled in the rest. They accepted the miracle of my hair going from brown to a beautifully styled silver seemingly overnight. That’s how good the wig was; people accepted it as my real hair. I got used to the subterfuge, although the wig itself was itchy and uncomfortable.

As the weeks passed and my actual hair grew in, alas, it wasn’t nearly as nice as the beautifully-coiffed silver hair of the wig. My actual hair was more salt and pepper than silver, but at least I felt like myself again—the one who hikes and sweats and does yoga and stands on her head every day and doesn’t spend a lot of time in the beauty salon. I lost the elegant look but gained a measure of authenticity and freedom from the scheduled ordeal of coloring.

I still have the wig. I’ve thought of selling it on eBay. But then I saw a photo in an ad for an assisted living facility of a very old woman who was smiling at her caregiver and wearing, I am pretty sure, a platinum silver wig similar in style to mine. Perhaps one day, I will again find myself in need of an elegant disguise while my real hair is undergoing yet another transformation.