My Wobbly Bicycle, 56

Posted by on Jan 8, 2014 | 22 comments

Fleda hair 3Hair! What a kerfuffle humans make of hair, as I wrote last year when it was all falling out. A week ago I went for my first haircut since what, December 2012? I regretted having even one of the precious dears trimmed, after the daily effort I’ve expended urging them to grow. But when hair comes back, it’s like baby hair, all different lengths, which encourages wild disarray. Still, it’s all curly-wild and probably will be until there’s enough weight and clipped ends to settle it down. It’s as thick as ever, for which I’m eternally grateful.

And then there’s the issue of color. When it started going gray years ago, I started having it touched up. Gradually “touching up” became a euphemism. Still, I wanted some gray showing, a signal that I wasn’t really trying to look young, I guess. Hair is the flag of our disposition. A signal. We say all sorts of things with it. “Keep it looking like I’m going gray,” I told my hairdresser, who devised a technique of painting the color through, leaving strands uncolored. The idea was to be “going gray” forever. Fleda hair 5

But behold, here I am, my exact self in its exact color! A really nice steely gray, like my father’s (He has more white now that he’s 95). I’ve been contemplating this—gray or not gray?—for a while now. I feel good in gray. I am, after all, the age for it. My hair matches the rest of me. However, you can say all you want about gray being elegant, signaling wisdom, whatever, but basically, for those who don’t yet have gray hair, the gray-headed ones are dismissed as somehow no longer “counting” in the contemporary whirl. I think I used to feel that way.

Will I leave it gray? I have no idea. It’s a joy to see at last what it really-really looks like. Remember when I said it was interesting to see my bald head—most of us (the lucky ones) go a lifetime without ever seeing what our bare scalp looks like. Color-wise, I might have gone for a bunch more years before I gave up the illusion of a younger me. I would have, eventually—I’ve noticed when one is 80 or so, dark hair tends to look harsh.  

For now and maybe forever, I’m liking this gray. I’m liking not wearing a wig. I’ve been grateful to have that absolutely perfect wig, for sure. It’s made the whole chemo-radiation process much less miserable, to be able to go shopping and not have people’s eyes change to what seems like a mixture of sympathy and separation (“Thank God it’s not me”). But speaking of separation—all the time wearing the wig, all the time coloring my hair, there’s a sense of disguise. Dramatically so, with the wig, only slightly, with the color.

Jerry says, “Do you feel inauthentic wearing contacts, eye makeup?” No. “So,” he says, “why would you feel that way about coloring your hair?” Maybe the difference is this: cosmetics don’t disguise anything; they just enhance. Color on gray hair is a disguise.

Nothing evil in that. Whatever makes us feel good when we look in the mirror is just fine in my book. I don’t feel any particular nobility in choosing not to color. A large percentage of women color their hair—look in the hair-color aisle at the drugstore! I don’t know whether I’ll stay gray, but I can feel a kind of settling in my body/mind as I look in the mirror. Yes, this is me. This is me, aging. I’ve caught up with myself. Fleda hair 7d

So far, not a word about writing in this post. I’m having a heck of a time getting anything written. A lot going on here, Jerry’s back surgery, Christmas, Jerry’s recovery routines. And so on. So, my beloved  husband said to me, “You’ve written so much over the years, you have so many books and awards (he lays it on thick), you could never write another word and still have had a successful life as a writer. I’m not sure why you feel you MUST press onward.”

“You still don’t get it?” I respond tenderly. “What I’ve written doesn’t matter. What there is to be written this day, this moment, is what matters. Stuff is unshaped that needs to be shaped, that wants to try to fit, awkwardly or not, into words.” Well, I probably wasn’t that coherent.

I’m reading Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. She describes the unwritten novel as a glorious butterfly. You can watch it flutter for years if you wish. But to actually get it written, you have to smash the butterfly, the dream of the perfect novel, and try to build back something only somewhat like it by slogging through muck.  “If you want to write,” she says, “practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you want to learn to write well, because there is something only you can say.”

At this moment I’m also thinking this about the gray hair, too. There is no one else who’s me. It makes some kind of sense to be exactly this. Fleda hair 6

I put several photos of me here, so you’ll recognize me next time you see me.


  1. Fleda, you look terrific! XXOO Tara

  2. Looks great! And I am jealous–I have my old color with very little grey, but it’s soooo thin that I still don’t recognize myself. Wish I could just go have it “thickened.” As for writing, I am a great believer in the fallow field. Something usually grows there anyway, and if not, it’s getting ready for planting season. Took ten years over the photograph book, then whoosh, six months for the next one (post-chemo) to assert itself. So just enjoy buying a new wardrobe to complement the hair!

  3. Your hair is darling. I really think you look younger, because more natural. Anyway, just darling. And I would know your smile anywhere.

    • Fleda, I agree with P. J. I think the gray actually makes you look younger. Give it a try! You may like the natural look. I, too, think colored hair, especially a dark color, can look very harsh as we age (I was 74 on Dec. 20th).

      Hi to you both, and may the New Year bring you joy!

      • It might do that. And i agree about dark color as we age. I kept lightening it, but not enough, I think.

  4. Comment

  5. When I stopped coloring my hair, I felt free.liz

    • Yes, I get that. I agree. Free in many interesting ways. One kind of slips under the radar of physical attention-getting, somehow. Love to you.

  6. Dear Fleda:

    Hey, at least your hair came back, which is exactly what mine will NOT do, though I didn’t have to go through such an ordeal to lose it. But (of course I’m male, so ceteris is not exactly paribus) my hair never have me a moment’s pleasure. Let it fall out even more abundantly for all I care.

    Now I will publicly admit that I went through about 4 years of “Just for Men” to tint my BEARD. Then came the time when, because it grows so quickly, it seemed I was slavering that goo on more than once a week; so I decided the Santa look would be for me… and I can’t say that I have suffered a whit for such surrender.

    You looked great bald as far as I am concerned, and will whether you stay gray or go back to “going gray.”

    Love you,


    P.S. Hope Jerry is still rehabbing well1

    • Jerry understands that about hair not coming back. Any color is preferable to none. He also decided to grow it where he could, hence the beard. Thanks for your confession, which could have been part of our “clothes” essay, I guess, about dressing up the face? Did you see me bald? Did I send a picture? I didn’t take many, for sure. Love to you, as always.

  7. Good hair is appreciated hair, I think! Yours looks great. It has been strange to be 63 and to have, still, mostly brown hair. The white has been showing up for 5 years but in a family where everyone else went white early–by mid-thirties/forties, for some–I have been razzed a long while. Finally at the last gathering no one told me to get with the family proclivity for silver although the brown still has an odd attachment to the lighter strands. And I am happy no matter what it does after dying my hair red for years until age 44…

    • My mother had brown hair all her life. Hardly any gray. She died in her 70s.

  8. Dear Fleda:

    My wife, Kathy, also a cancer survivor, let her hair go gray about ten years ago, and some of her friends who colored theirs were horrified, but she is an even more attractive woman today, and the friends that thought she’d gone completely off her rocker have over the years begun to have hair that looks a little too much like Cleopatra’s.

    You’re immensely attractive with silver hair. I’d like to ask you to the prom, but you’d decline because I am too old for you.

    Happy New Year to you and Jerry!

    • Oh, the fact that you WOULD ask me to the prom is enough for me. It’s interesting, a lot of retired people live in this town, so I see a lot more gray. I like it, I have to say. Happy New Year to you and your wife, too. This cancer thing is all too ubiquitous.

  9. Hair! beautiful Hair! Let it grow down your shoulders
    let it sweep up the floor
    til the word goes around
    that you called up the soldiers
    and the Boys can blast their trumpets
    to play a song for you
    and dance all night
    until the Sun breaks through.

    • Wow! But my hair (I’ve tried) doesn’t look good long. Thanks for the little poem.

  10. Dear Fleda,

    How wonderfully serendipitous to get your post in my inbox today! Like you, but for different(ish) reasons, I’ve been having a terrible time getting any writing done lately. Finally yesterday, I was beginning to circle the funnel of creativity and need to write, and a big part of how it came was through reflecting on some things you have said to me over the past couple of years. So among my first resolutions were to get in touch with you, and to free-write on some of the things you’d said to me…and then here is your post!
    I’m in awe of Jerry’s perspectives on dyeing hair. That’s exceptionally nuanced “for a guy” in this kind of context. I’m also gobsmacked that a hairdresser can create a “going grey” look. But the silver is beautiful, I think.
    It’s slow for me right now, but I’ll be in more touch soon.
    Grateful for you.

    • I’m so glad to hear from you, Ela. And to hear that anything I said is useful. We all go through what Judith calls “fallow times.’ Best to let them be that and not force too hard, although finally one must face the beast. Love to you.

  11. The grey is lovely! It suits you, as you have olive skin tone. My mother used to say,’As long as I can lift a hand to my head, I’ll dye my hair!’ But it’s different nowadays. It’s great to see you looking so well. Hope the weather gets better. Hell, Michigan is on the TV daily here. Is there really such a place? Love to you and Jerry.

    • Yes, Virginia, there is a Michigan. It is way the hell up here in the snow and is absolutely gorgeous all times of year except maybe March. But don’t tell anyone. There are enough people here already. Love to you.Glad you like my hair. Some people look good gray, some not. I don’t think the issue is anything but an aesthetic one.

  12. Lovely, in all your transformations. Maybe it’s the choosing to be just who and where you are in your life that makes this choice particularly lovely, as long as it suits you! You may wake up tomorrow and want it pink! In the same vein, I’m about to start parting my hair on the opposite side from what I’ve done the rest of my life to better befriend the now-damaged cheekbone, etc., from my recent fall. Maybe it’s vanity, but it feels like it’s less about hiding the differences than about the fact that my face has changed (that I have changed; that this has happened), and I want to receive that with some gesture of softness. But we’ll easily recognize each other when we find ourselves in the same space again. Maybe that will actually happen one day! Thanks for sharing yourself here.

    • I get that. It’s like wearing a wig to avoid being singled out, noticed that way. Good for you.

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