In which I am very bad at relaxing…again.

All of the books I read over summer breaks in middle and high school dried to a mild wave along the bottom edge. Magazine ink transferred to the underside of my wrist, my forehead or, at least once, my stomach when I was finally allowed to wear a two-piece. I pretty thoroughly trashed a copy of The Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood*, resting it against my thighs and stomach, covered in sweat and sunblock and chlorine. The back cover puckered and peeled off, but I didn’t take any steps to protect the book. I don’t have it anymore. I finished it at some point during the summer and set it on the shelf. Eventually, it had to be recycled. It was in no state to be given away. Even the books from back then I’ve kept I couldn’t reasonably hand off to anyone new. Jane Eyre, pressed for years on a packed shelf, still curls a bit…just a bit. I read most of that book working in the snack bar for my brother after he had to get stitches in his foot. I didn’t do a lot of swimming that week. I drank Dr. Pepper and ate packet after packet of ToastChee Crackers and read.

I spent hours at the pool in the summer, with friends but often enough without them. I’d throw a book, a towel, and my Walkman in a backpack and head out. Most of the time, I remembered to bring sunblock but the tan lines that peaked out from under tee shirts were usually still visible in school pictures in October. By August, the exposed parts of my body were a dense network of freckles. I wasn’t worried about sunburns or skin cancer or even having to buy a different shade of foundation.

On Tuesday, Zac and I went down to the pool and I lasted about 45 minutes. Not even long enough to reapply sunblock (except I did reapply it to my shoulders, shins, and feet.) I swam around until the whistle blew, then hopped out and toweled off. I judiciously held my library book away from my thighs and my stomach, but the sun reappeared and my shoulders got hot. All the umbrellas had been appropriated by much more diligent pool-goers who’d arrived when it opened. I don’t know when our pool opens. I see these women when I’m walking Bagel. They have dedicated pool bags and wear short caftans like they are going somewhere much fancier than an apartment complex pool. I’d just emptied out my regular tote bag and threw on mesh shorts and an old tee shirt. I don’t even have a beach towel anymore. I should probably get a beach towel. These women are all very good at doing nothing. Some of them didn’t even get in the water while I was there. It didn’t look like they’d been in the water that day. Some of them had books or were there with friends. Some of them had just lain down and not gotten back up again. I watched them the way my pets sometimes watch me while I read or sit at the computer. It’s probably why I didn’t make much headway in my book.

I spent hours at the pool growing up doing exactly what those women were doing—nothing. I did nothing in the pool and then I got out during breaks and I did nothing until the whistle blew again. I did nothing while absent-mindedly singing along to Jane’s Addiction and the Toadies playing over the pool intercom. The Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood probably got so gnarly-looking because it didn’t always leave my backpack. Sometimes it just got shoved further down when I restored my soggy towel and biked back home to get ready for ballet. If it rained, I did nothing at home.

On Tuesday, I lasted 45 minutes. I came home, ran a load of laundry and re-read an article on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. The Times had changed the title from earlier in the day and I didn’t notice until a couple paragraphs in that I’d already read it once. We took Bagel to the dog park when the rain stopped, then I gave her a bath after dinner. I think I fell asleep sometime after midnight. I couldn’t sleep and had started watching a David Attenborough special on Netflix. Aphids reproduce asexually. Platypi were originally thought to be a hoax. This was all nothing too, but it doesn’t luxuriate the way a poolside nap does. Even the late-night Netflix in bed was less treat than prescription.

I don’t bring up any of this looking for correction. I know me. I’m never going to enjoy the pool again the way I did when I was 12 or 14 or 15. That kid was perfectly content to listen to Fiona Apple’s first album over and over. She’d borrowed it from her older brother when he wasn’t home and copied it to a cassette. She didn’t have bills. She’d barely had her period. She wasn’t even all that worried that she might get to the end of the summer without having completed the assigned reading. I still haven’t finished Cold Mountain. I sprained my ankle the summer that was required and still managed to avoid finishing it. I think I read Fight Club, The Exorcist, and Guerrilla Warfare instead. I still have that copy of Guerrilla Warfare. I highlighted the instructions for building a tank trap to mess with my mom, but I don’t think she thought to check. I know she found that copy of The Exorcist. It disappeared from under my bed and we never discussed it.

If I hadn’t spent last Tuesday reading about ICBMs, I would have spent the day reading about healthcare or the Russia investigation or just feeling bad because I need to vacuum and I forgot to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer and if it sits too long, I’m just going to have to wash it again and if I’m just going to start wasting water, I might as well not turn off the shower when I shave or deep condition either.

I’ll go back to the pool. Not today, though, it’s raining and I really do need to vacuum. But I’ll go soon. I might get a fun towel first.

50 Strands of Gray

On a particularly nice fall day during my senior year, I met with my thesis advisor on a bench between Radford’s library and science building. Ostensibly, these meetings were to make sure my research was progressing, but more often than not our conversations drifted. That day, in the middle of whatever he was telling me about gay whales, Tim stopped and asked me if I was aware there were gray hairs on my fucking head (I’m paraphrasing, but Tim definitely swore. Tim usually swore a handful of times during these meetings. Tim routinely swore a handful of time during class.) I was, and still am, a woman of reasonable sightedness in possession of a mirror and an overhead light. I was aware. I might have asked if he was aware he was similarly afflicted. The difference, of course, was that I was a woman and 22. He was not. The next time we met, he asked me if I was aware my hair was aubergine in the right light. The box had read “Egyptian Plum” but “eggplant” wasn’t a totally incorrect descriptor. I’ve been dying my hair out of perceived necessity about every two months since.

I think I found my first gray in high school. I plucked it immediately and told no one. My relationship with my own body has been a little adversarial. I felt, and routinely still do, out of place in my own body most of the time—slightly too tall, slightly too thin then slightly too doughy, with too-large eyebrows and feet and too-small lips, too many freckles and acne that didn’t seem to trouble my brothers nearly as much (I also don’t recall any of them worrying about their eyebrows, but I could be wrong. At least one of them was concerned enough about eyebrows to attempt to eliminate my burgeoning unibrow. Mom caught us, probably for the best since Micah was going after it with a safety razor and some mentholated Barbasol which I do not recommend getting that close to your eyes.)

In my very early 20s, hiding my grays seemed easier than answering questions about them. I am no more equipped to answer the question “why do you have gray hair?” than I am “why are you so tall?” or “why do you have such long toes?”—all questions I have been asked at one point or another (exclusively by men, by the way. Don’t do that.) It is how my body is and I wasn’t given a choice in the matter,  though it is nice reaching the top shelf and those toes came in handy, both on the swim team and in dance class. I can also pick up socks off the ground without bending over (#blessed.)

For years, dying my hair felt like a reasonable use of my time. Sure, I’ve spent well over $1,000* and countless hours holed up in questionably ventilated bathrooms. I’ve ruined more than one towel, a handful of beloved over-sized concert tee shirts, and (I will admit since she is reading this and will point it out if I do not) my mother’s fancy shower curtain. I have dyed my ears, my cheeks, my forehead, and my neck while missing whole sections of my head. I’ve only avoided dying any pets because I won’t allow them into the bathroom. I don’t want them inhaling toxins. I’ve only had it professionally done twice. It was beautiful both times, but that dollar amount would be much, much higher and it wouldn’t have saved me any time. Only mess.

So, I’m done. Probably. Maybe. I’m not sure. The average white woman starts to see grays around age 35. I am 31 for the next month, but I’ve always thought of myself as a little above-average, a little ahead of the curve. I’m not making a grand stand against fascist beauty standards. I’m not going get my hair cut into a more utilitarian hairstyle or stop shaving my armpits or forego wearing makeup (not when I just picked up this bomb-ass highlighter and might have finally figured out contouring!)—not that there is anything wrong with doing any of that. None of this (or anything else I listed BTW) is necessarily a feminist statement. Right now, it just makes sense to give up something I do to myself largely out of a sense of obligation to other people who probably don’t care nearly as much as I have assumed they do. But I am also the same insecure girl I was at 14 and 18 and 22. I drink significantly less soda now and have that unibrow under control, but I am no less concerned about the way I look when I am out in the world. Giving this up is harder than giving up Diet Coke. I was pretty sure the Diet Coke was giving me migraines and no one asks me, unprompted, about how long I’ve drunk Diet Coke or how long it’s been since I’ve since I’ve had one.

When it all goes, I'm dying it lavender. I don't care if it isn't cool anymore.

Well, I still have less white hair than Bagel.

People (men) like to give people (women) unsolicited advice on how they look or how they might improve their appearance. I am already dreading the first time that happens. Years ago (maybe four or five) a co-worker told me he liked the way my grays were starting to come in and I should think about just letting them go.  I’d been worried that my hair was starting to look really processed and I’d been extra gentle with it, which was the only reason I had not already covered the grays coming in. But in that moment, my hair was no longer mine. Suddenly, it belonged to that guy and whatever I did to it next wasn’t fully my choice. I might have dyed my hair that night. I might have had a false choice, but I was going to use that false choice to tell that guy to fuck off.

…“But Meredith, I’m a guy with opinions. Are you telling me I can’t ever tell women what I think of her appearance?” If you’re asking this question—yeah, that is exactly what I am telling you. If you read this whole thing and that’s what you’re taking away, you should probably keep those opinions to yourself, full stop. We also don’t need to know what you think about the 2016 election, the wage gap, or gender-swapped movie reboots.

Not spending a little under $30 every two months isn’t going to make me debt-free (that money will just go to my wine or cheese or book budget) and I will probably find other ways to waste that time. But this feels right right now. If you see me about in a couple months and my hair is almost pitch-colored all the way through, you’ll know I caved and we won’t talk about it because you know better now, right?

*My hair is typically long enough that I have to buy two boxes. At around $14 a box, 6 times a year, for 9 years= $1,512 and it could be so much worse.