I haven’t known what to write, lately. Mainly because I’ve been finding life challenging on a personal level and haven’t felt justified in talking about any of that against the backdrop of what is going on in the world at large. However, I decided to share this experience of a pre-Christmas trip to Birmingham because, well, I’ve never experienced love in quite this way before, and love just demands to be shared.
At the end of a particularly difficult week during which, in a ‘final straw’ moment, I had discovered to my horror that my hair was noticeably thinning on the crown, I could barely summon the will to make the journey – but I’m so glad I did as, aside from the joy of spending time with dear friends, I came away filled with a knowing, a felt understanding of the love that saturates everything, in spite of everything, and defying everything.
The outlines of people shimmer behind the fogged-up windows of the little coffee shop. Pushing open the door feels like pulling back a stage curtain, mingling with the cast behind. How easeful the transition from spectator to actor! All at once, we are part of the play. There is magic in this lit-up, hissing, steaming, clattering, humming space, and I sense a transforming spell being cast as three forks sink in unison into soft cake.
A big, busy city was the last place I wanted to be today. And yet – here I am, feeling fizzy, vivid, animated.
Have I grown a touch timid in my small-rural-town life? Become a little flabby, energetically lumpen from living in a pretty, quiet place? The city, I hear myself saying aloud, often enough to be convinced I mean it, is great when you’re young.
Which I no longer am. I could be the parent of most of the people I pass on an urban street.
A gross exaggeration. Would it matter if it were true?
Said with a laugh but felt with too much feeling, and feelings and truth are not always the same thing. Truth tends to last longer, for one thing.
What is true – oh please let this be a temporary truth – is that my hair is thinning – at the temples, around the crown. What I feel is upset, frightened, horrified, grief-stricken, several other adjectives. Betrayed.
Later, at the temporary ice rink, a striking woman of about my age catches my envious eye. You can’t help but notice her! With her immaculate auburn bob, her toned figure, her black roll-neck jumper and black leather gloves…. Peevish thoughts are lining up, jostling for front-of-queue – but then she loses her composure, this pristine woman. Grabs at her companion, skidding like a duck on a frozen pond. It is enough, for a moment, to flip envy into admiration of her perfect hair.
Meanwhile, forty-something bearded guy skates by again, looking so dapper in his biscuit-coloured coat and matching wool gloves. After a good ten minutes clutching the Perspex surround, he is now in stiff-limbed but steady motion, his hands dancing a curious little waltz each time he passes. He appears absorbed in their choreography, as if commanding invisible puppet strings attached to his feet. What progress, in less than twenty minutes! I feel the urge to applaud him:
Bravo, debonair, bearded debutant!
Two young women teeter to a halt in front of me, pass me a phone in its leopard print case, could I take a photo of them? – but I must wait while they get the pose exactly right! Flick hair, straighten tight skirt – oops! eyes closed, take another please? I really want to capture the picture they have already composed and uploaded to Insta or SnapChat in their heads. This really, really matters to them, I can tell. My heart swells with affection for these two beautiful, perfection-conscious girls. “You look so glam!” I tell them, pressing the button. They laugh with what seems like genuine delight. I hope they love that shot. I want them to see themselves and feel good.
What a surprise, to feel a kind of love for strangers in a big, busy city. This is not usual for me. Not at all. I hate crowds, they scare me in their brutal anonymity.
Until you make eye contact with someone, and intimacy flickers, briefly, like a firefly.
Really, when it comes down to it, I do love people. Even though we do terrible things, stupid things, selfish things. Even though we keep trying and failing to bend everything to our will. And even though – no, because – we are often unsure, more or less, about one thing and another. Often worried, about being or becoming less-than we would wish to be.
Anyway. My hair might well stop falling out. It might even start growing back. Then I can go back to disliking another feature of myself instead…
I’m not afraid of becoming unlovable, but unwantable. I can tell the difference.
That sounds like an acknowledgement that I am lovable…
On the train home, an older couple are sitting on the opposite side of the aisle, the woman resting her head on the man’s shoulder. How beautiful to have, and to offer, a shoulder on which to rest.
It is dark already. The platforms we draw up alongside are soft, sedentary, just a scattering of waiting people, the slow sigh of day’s end casting an almost tangible velvet fuzz over everything.
Soothing, isn’t it? A city, as its breath slows and deepens, at the cusp of daytime and evening, that liminal space of endings and beginnings.
I lean everso slightly sideways, towards my son; rest against him just as much as a teenage boy will tolerate – which is not much, a few grams of weight, a touching of the fabric of our sleeves. I am overcome by a desire to wrap my arms around him, stroke his hair as I did when he was little, I can feel my love expanding around him, a galaxy orbiting his sun. I hope he can sense this love that saturates every fibre of my being. I am certain he saw it earlier, in my smile as I looked at him, and he smiled back, slightly shyly, and I felt my lips would just keep getting wider, turning up more and more at the corners, that my face would burst, it wasn’t big enough to contain that smile, which was pride, pride and joy, spilling, tumbling, cavorting across my features. In that moment.
Today, now, in this deep-blue evening, I am philosophical about my hair’s treachery; tomorrow, I may or may not be. It takes only the most furtive finger-jab to wobble and topple the tall, narrow ship of the ego.
As we alight from the train, so do the couple opposite, and I notice that her cropped white hair stands in sparse tufts, and I wonder again if my hair will be like that, one day. Or if she has been unwell and her thin hair is, in fact, a defiant, triumphant return, a conquering, a renewal. A rebirth.
I will never know. But she is loved, and that is what I notice most, what I feel inside, where it matters, beneath the skirmish that plays out on the pitch, the floodlit pitch of the ego.
Love. Much more, so much more than a feeling. Its staying power is quite something, isn’t it?
Behind me, above me, through me, love explodes, not in fireworks, but in ginormous, riotous blooms, so, so many fierce and gaudy colours, so much raucous, undimmable truth, bursting, ripping through the dark of the city. Rampant, brazen, mutinous.