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Holding on, Letting Go

posted Sep 29, 2016, 11:18 AM by Pat Riviere-Seel   [ updated Sep 30, 2016, 7:11 AM by Britt Kaufmann ]

September 30, 2016

 “Hold on! Don’t let go,” the ski instructor shouted as we beginners crouched over our skis and grasped the rope that would pull us to the top of the bunny slope where we would try the skills he had demonstrated on the flat, packed snow. 

I held on as if my very life depended on my clinging to that rope. I held on when we reached the top and the person in front of me let go and stood up. I tried to hold on even when I found myself tumbling down the other side of the little hill. 

“Why didn’t you let go?” The astonished ski instructor asked after determining that I was unhurt. I had no good answer. It’s not that I always do as I am told. Far from it. But holding on is something I tend to do even when all the evidence and good sense indicates that I need to let go. 

I was 43 years old when I took that first ski lesson, old enough to know a metaphor for my life when I fell into one. I had moved to rural Yancey County the year before after holding on to a life in Annapolis, Maryland that I could not afford, either financially or emotionally. I let go of a lot in that move: antiques I loved and my little home, a beach cottage on the South River. I left a community of friends and runners, work I enjoyed (that was no longer paying the bills) and the daily walks and talks with my best friend who lived just down the road. 

Looking back at that move now, 24 years later, I realize that I should have left Maryland several years before I made the move. But I held on. The forced letting go also meant that I had to let go of a way of life. I had always lived in urban areas. Suddenly I found myself living in a rural area in an old farmhouse heated with wood. I had a washing machine with cold water in an unheated outbuilding and a cloths line. I exchanged my dresses and heels for jeans and boots and traded in my Hyundi sedan for a four-wheel drive truck. I became a mountain woman. To my surprise I embraced this new life and felt more at home and happier than I had ever been. I had come home, home to myself, home to the way I wanted to live. 

But letting go of the things I use to define myself is always a struggle. Last year I began the process of letting go of one of my most defining characteristics: my auburn hair. I’ve always been a redhead. As a child, my hair was bright red, short, kinky-curly and so thick my mother could not get a brush through it without me wailing as if she were killing me. 

I dreamed of being a strawberry blond, like my pretty and popular friend. But I was a redhead and neither pretty nor popular. My hair color made me unique. Still, for years I fought my hair, tried to straighten it, ironed it, set it on rollers the size of juice cans. A few drops of rain and the hair reverted into a mass of frizz. Finally, I accepted it and celebrated my unique hair. 

When my hair began to turn gray, I colored it the familiar shade of auburn. I never thought about what I would look like if it turned gray any more than I thought about what life would be like after age 65. I don’t want to try to defy or deny aging. I just don’t known how to do it. Next month I will celebrate my 67th birthday and I’ve had to admit that I am in the last third of my life. I’m still passionate about life, about writing, running. There is still so much to explore, to learn, to do. But now the question of how I want to spend my time becomes more important.

I no longer want to spend precious time and money coloring my hair.

It’s time for me to lighten up and let go of the physical image that has defined me. The one thing I’ve said to my hair stylists for years is, “I don’t want to look like an old woman who is trying to look young.” I don’t want to grow into a caricature of myself.

My mother colored her hair and kept it an unnatural looking “shoe polish black” for years. Her natural color was a deep chestnut, thick and wavy. When she finally let a stylist turn her hair a beautiful silver, my mother looked years younger. It softened her whole appearance. She looked lighter, more real. Her personality seemed to lighten also. 

Last year I began the tentative steps of letting my color grow out, letting the silver strands begin to take over. My stylist helped with the transition by using a lighter color, allowing my hair to become strawberry blond, blending the colors. I would like to say I’m completely comfortable with the process but I’m not there yet. I’m still too vain, still a bit amused when I look at my graying hair in the mirror. I wonder if people will recognize me. I wonder if I will become one of the “invisible” gray-haired women, easy for the younger generation to dismiss.

My hair color has been key to the narrative I’ve used to define myself all my life. I’m a redhead. Who am I when my hair is no longer red?

“Redhead is a state of mind, not a hair color,” my astute husband, Ed, told me. “You’ll always be a redhead.” He also broke his own long-standing rule of never offering an opinion about a woman’s hair and said he likes my evolving hair color. I believe him. He’s as honest as he is compassionate and we’ve known each other for more than 35 years. 

Maybe allowing my hair to be its natural color is just another act of rebellion, another way of defying expectations. I’ve read that “granny hair” is fashionable in some circles, thanks to the growing number of us Baby Boomers. 

I take comfort in knowing that if I decide I want my auburn hair back, there’s a quick fix. Better living through chemistry. But for now, this rebellious redhead is letting her silver shine.