“I think you’re uniquely positioned to handle this well.” I heard some hesitancy, possibly part of the translation he had to do from his native French in his head to my native English in mine. Handle this well? I made excuses for such a seemingly thoughtless comment due to his foreign tongue and emotionally challenged gender. How could one expect true understanding from a male hairdresser whose English was only almost perfect?
Yet…isn’t that just what we look for in the other confidents in our lives inhabiting the relational middle ground between social friends and family? the bar tender, gym trainer, yoga teacher or barber who open our sub-conscious in an easy, natural way we don’t share with anyone else, including a professional psychiatrist? It’s not just that they’re non-judgmental and offer unconditional interest much in the way of a treasured pet. In fact, the juxtaposition of their slight distance combined with unrequited interest makes their connection most intriguing.
There’s often a shared history—the barber grew up in the same neighborhood we did 60 years ago; the yoga teacher started her career with the same dance company, just 40 years later; the bar tender comes from Canada just a few miles from where our best friends lived, where we visited them often as a child. There’s a trust involved in all that commonality, but the association is more than that. These unpaid shrinks see you through a different lens and so you hope they may have something to offer you can’t get anywhere else. They’re the Sherlock who will help you solve the mystery of who you are.
Mine studied philosophy in college in France and practiced that early proclivity on his clients more courageously than he presented his views on hair styles; which he wasn’t shy about, either, by the way. I listen to his deeply considered, elegant life rationales with the seriousness to match their delivery. But this one…quietly offered right after I’d told him I was facing the imminent death of my husband, was more than I could fathom. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. People say such odd things when they don’t know how to respond to a personal tragedy. But this was not a man who speaks to cover silence. I know after all these years that the spaces in his conversation are ripe with deep thought rather than a struggle with his English vocabulary, and apparently I’d heard him correctly over the hum of the dryer in his talented hand whipping my hair into clouds of swirling curls. This time, it made me wonder.
I thanked him for his confidence in me while privately rejecting it, but now that I’m almost a year beyond that horrifying death, I think of his remark and wonder how anyone could ever be well positioned to handle catastrophic sudden strikes. Lightning rods are still controversial stopgaps for protecting exposed roofs, and I can’t imagine why he would think I had anything better to defend my unprotected nerves. Had he actually sunk to the level of many of my acquaintances who’d murmured assurances based on my late life search for creative fulfillment? Certainly I’d fought for many years to satisfy something in myself that hadn’t found nourishment in my earlier life—the core of who I was without all the peripheral embellishments getting in the way. But none of that seemed to give me sound footing after my husband’s death. The struggle for survival was no easier than it would be, I suppose, for anyone else.
So why had my French philosopher not understood that? It was his first rational faux pas and I had to understand it better. Less of a damaging substance abuse than repeated returns to a bar tender, I decided another visit (twice in one week!) to my hairdresser was a necessity rather than a redundancy or indulgence. Maybe if he uncovers the components of his confidence in my ability to recover I’d see them myself and be able to use them better.
Now determined to follow the conversation of ten months prior with my hairdresser, I jumped at the offer of a midday appointment from the receptionist at the salon, although the hoped for midday meeting means I’ll have to rearrange all my other appointments. What do I really expect to accomplish? He may well not even remember his comment to me ten months ago. I can remind him, of course, but that won’t be the same. I suppose I’m hoping for a revelation, a discovery of something I’ve missed, that piece of the puzzle completing my recovery from the stress of trauma. There’s so much at stake—the possible cessation of chronic pain and self-recrimination for a recovery that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Should I casually start with an, Oh, by the way…? Or would it make more sense to acknowledge the significance of my question with an, I have something important to ask you? He won’t care, of course, but for some elusive reason, I do. I’m hoping he’s seen something in me I don’t see in myself, but I don’t want to lead the witness.
Holding my breath, I ask the question. Still holding it, I wait for the answer–easy, since there’s barely a pause of a heartbeat. He doesn’t say he can’t remember, nor does he ask why I want to know. Momentum, he tells me. I’ve known you a long time and you’re always moving forward. You have to stay open to new things to move. You have to move to live. I see a lot of people in here, he tells me, and many of them are stalled, closing in around themselves for protection—here he hugs himself to show me how shrunken they look to him. You’re always moving, sometimes just little steps, but always forward. It’s hard to do but it’s living. That’s why I knew you could handle it.
Not my job change, not my new friends, not my self-expression through writing—none of these had impressed him on some superficial level that I could deal with the painful challenges coming my way. Only my energy had convinced him I could handle ‘it’. Oddly enough, I knew he was right. And it’s interesting how running away doesn’t work. ‘It’ just hangs onto you; a shadow following you with a ball and chain in retreat. The momentum of life builds when you’re running forward, toward something. Thank you, for helping me see myself as you do.