Shaved Heads

A couple of months ago, I started shaving my head again. I’ve always worn my hair short, except when I was a little girl and had no choice, and briefly in high school, when I succumbed to peer pressure. But shaving it is something more recent. I did it the first time about twelve years ago. I don’t even remember what inspired me at the time – I just went to a hair salon, asked them to set the clippers at one, and said, “Take it all off.”

It is one of the most liberating things I have ever done. I now completely understand why monks and nuns do it. Hair is one of those links to the material world, to the realm of appearances. Even when you wear it short, you have to worry about it – will it get plastered to your head if it rains? Will it get tangled in a knot if you ride in a convertible? Will your baseball cap, once on, have to stay on, because now you have hat head? Do you absolutely have to take a shower in the morning, even if you just took one before going to bed, because otherwise your hair will be sticking straight up? And long hair – oh, my goodness. Blow driers and curling irons and permanents and appointments at the salon. No, thank you.

I shaved it for several years. During part of that time, I lived in a shared house with six other roommates, one of whom was a talented acrylic painter and also a hair stylist. He had a salon chair in his room, and friends came over for dye jobs and hair cuts. He began shaving my head for me every few weeks. By that time, I had completely lost attachment to hair as identity, which left me open to all kinds of crazy experiments. One time he gave me two little parallel mohawks down the center of my head. Another time he shaved spiralling lines, then dyed them bleached blonde, so when my hair grew out, I had this amazing pattern. Whenever he did a dye job, and had dye left over, he’d just call out, “Hey, Michelle. Want to try something?” I had cherry red hair, skateboarder bleached orange hair, ash blonde, black. Then four or five weeks later, we’d just shave it off and start again. Call it a unique way to practice nonpreference. When I moved out, I reverted to the simple shaved head. But all fear about “What will I look like?” was gone.

Being a woman with a shaved head does sometimes draw some interesting attention. This past weekend, wearing a ball cap and my usual Converse sneakers/cargo shorts/sweatshirt attire, an elderly woman stopped me at the door to a restroom with a loud admonishment: “You can’t go in there. This is the ladies’ room.” When I am very thin, as I have been in the past, people sometimes think I’m sick -cancer, or AIDS. Now that I am in the Zen community, I have had people ask if I am a priest. People do a double-take when they see me, trying to figure out gender, trying to discern reasons. That’s the downside, I guess. I’m not really thrilled about the extra scrutiny. But not even that can dampen the liberation I feel every time I cut it all off.

So much is about context. My partner Sabrina has been doing the honors for the past few months, coming out on the deck with clippers in hand every two weeks to shave my head. Last week, midway through, she paused. “This is so weird,” she said. “I’m reading that book about Auschwitz right now, and I just read the part about the prisoners having their heads shaved.”

Sabrina just recently discovered that a huge percentage of her extended family, relatives that her mother had never talked about, perished in Poland in the death camps. On our vacation to New Mexico in August, we drove to El Paso to see a Holocaust museum, which was chilling and powerful. Since we returned home, she has been immersing herself in Holocaust literature.

Amazing, isn’t it? That the same act, shaving hair, can be a statement of complete personal freedom and refusal to conform in one context, and a shaming, dehumanizing violation in another.

As the Hsin Hsin Ming says: Nothing is separate and nothing in the world is excluded.

It is both, it is neither. It is all, it is nothing. I simply shave my head.


Dill Pickles

One of the Zen concepts I’m playing around with a lot right now is the idea of “practicing nonpreference.” It comes back to what I was talking about yesterday, acceptance and serenity, in a way. Feeling sad is only bad when I think to myself, “I hate feeling sad! I want to feel happy!” Simply letting go and experiencing the sadness (or anxiety or fear or…fill in your least favorite emotion here) is far less traumatic, because I’m not trying to change anything, or escape from my present into an imagined future where all will be just as I want it to be.

But that’s hard to do. I’ve spent years of my life honing escape skills. Acting differently, newly, is a real challenge.

One night at a dharma talk, Darlene spoke about her experience of practicing nonpreference at an ice cream parlor. She went in, ready to order chocolate. Then she thought, “Wait! I think I’ll practice nonpreference.” It was an urge that simply rose up, and she decided to act on it. She closed her eyes and pointed randomly – and got orange sherbet. She was bitterly disappointed. Not orange sherbet! But then, when she actually got the ice cream and began to eat, she said it was absolutely fabulous. Her years of preference for chocolate had made her completely forget (or not know) that orange sherbet could be good.

The story made all of us laugh. It was such a light-hearted approach to a practice that could, if carried out to its fullest extent, transform your life.

Not too long after that, I was at a hospital for an evening workshop on health issues. I had come directly from work, and was hungry, so I went to the cafeteria to grab a quick bite to eat. As a vegetarian, I often find cafeterias to be a bit challenging; there are very limited options. I went with my safe bet that night – a grilled cheese sandwich.

The cafeteria worker served up an ordinary grilled cheese sandwich on a paper plate, with the requisite big dill pickle as a garnish. I have never liked dill pickles. I used to eat sweet pickles when I was a child, but as I grew older, they never seemed to be an option in most places where I ate out, and I never thought to buy them, so I gradually gave up eating pickles all together. Every time a dill pickle appeared on my plate at a restaurant, it stayed right where it was, untouched.

For whatever reason, though, that night I remembered Darlene’s story, and I thought,”What the heck. I’m going to try to practice nonpreference and eat this pickle.” I gingerly put it to my lips – it was tangily sour. I took a bite, and was surprised by the crisp, clean taste in my mouth. I sat in that cafeteria by myself and ate the whole darn pickle – and I loved it.

So, big deal, right? Now I know I like dill pickles. But don’t you see? The magic, the zinger, the kick to it all, was that I surprised myself. I thought I knew myself inside and out – what I like to eat, what I believe, how I work. And just one bite of a dill pickle undid all of that burdensome predictability. Who knows what’s going to happen next?

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved