dreaming of hair

TheRealThing I recently attended a Stoppard play in New York City starring Maggie Gyllenhaal in an all-star cast alongside Ewan Mcgregor, Cynthia Nixon and Josh Hamilton.  The preview performance happened to take place on my last night in the city, and I was exhausted.  Miles of sidewalks, mountains of subway stairs, gallery after gallery, bookshelf upon bookshelf, an endless feast of windows displaying beautiful clothes I dared not try on.  Food?  Drink?  Who needs that?!   I didn’t even take time for leisurely meals I was so on the move every moment trying to soak up everything I love to last me another year.  Well sitting down in that dark, quiet theater of course spelled disaster.  Within ten minutes I was mouth-agape nap jerking, and I hadn’t even had a glass of wine.  The only thing stirring me out of my unconscious stupor was Maggie’s hair.

Maggie’s sexy fun close-clipped hair.  Only her hair kept me awake, bored by the actors with their affected British accents, confused by the direction, the simple shallow set meant to look like a small apartment.  Confined and comatose, I would jettison awake to watch her saunter across the stage barefoot in vintage 60s circle skirts or cropped Audrey pants, tousling her hair in various moments of distress or sensuality.  That hair.  I used to have that hair, and suddenly I missed it.  There’s something so sassy and liberating about shorn locks, and my envy reminded me of other women who had abandoned their tresses at key points in their lives.  I recall the controversial 80s musician Sinéad O’Connor who when encouraged to use her sexuality to sell records shaved her head, but she wasn’t the first woman to assert herself in this way.  I think of the beautiful story of St. Clare of Assisi, who steals off into the night to avoid an arranged marriage and allows St. Francis to cut her hair, dress her in drab garments, and hide her away in a convent.  Both St. Catherine of Siena and St. Rose of Lima cut off their hair in protest when admired for their beauty, bold acts of rebellion against their parents’ desire they marry.  However clever they thought they were being, though, I suspect there’s a deeper allure within such women as these that survives the shears and remains despite all attempts to disguise it.

Even so I envied Maggie’s frivolity, her i-don’t-care hair that brought a glimmer of life to an otherwise tedious performance.  Like a flock of sparrows.  But with all this dreaming of hair in the dark theater and entertaining a trip to the barber myself — because, yes, the play was bad enough to warrant some navel gazing in between naps — I found myself a few hours later having second thoughts, thinking about the woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair:

As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
~ Luke 7:38

Ben Brantley reviews THE REAL THING in this week’s New York Times and finds it a “tinny” and “unfortunate” “teeth-grindingly brittle” revival that “never acquires a pulse.”  Was that being kind?  He writes,

Evidence of real feelings, real chemistry and real life in general is dishearteningly scarce in this interpretation of Tom Stoppard’s 1982 comedy about one all-too-witty writer’s emotional block.

Well all I can say is thank GAWD for Maggie’s hair.  Mr. Brantley, like you, I struggled to stay awake during that play.  But it cast a magical spell over me nonetheless, and I was surprised to find that each time I awoke, I’d been dreaming of hair.  Scatter it on the cutting room floor?  Or let it spill softly spreading in every direction, as Li-Young Lee describes in the poem below, filtering sunlight with kisses and weeping?


Dreaming of Hair

by Li-Young Lee

Ivy ties the cellar door
in autumn, in summer morning glory
wraps the ribs of a mouse.
Love binds me to the one
whose hair I’ve found in my mouth,
whose sleeping head I kiss,
wondering is it death?
beauty? this dark
star spreading in every direction from the crown of her head.

My love’s hair is autumn hair, there
the sun ripens.
My fingers harvest the dark
vegetable of her body.
In the morning I remove it
from my tongue and
sleep again.

Hair spills
through my dream, sprouts
from my stomach, thickens my heart,
and tangles from the brain. Hair ties the tongue dumb.
Hair ascends the tree
of my childhood–the willow
I climbed
one bare foot and hand at a time,
feeling the knuckles of the gnarled tree, hearing
my father plead from his window, Don’t fall!

In my dream I fly
past summers and moths,
to the thistle
caught in my mother’s hair, the purple one
I touched and bled for,
to myself at three, sleeping
beside her, waking with her hair in my mouth.

Along a slippery twine of her black hair
my mother ties ko-tze knots for me:
fish and lion heads, chrysanthemum buds, the heads
of Chinamen, black-haired and frowning.

Li-En, my brother, frowns when he sleeps.
I push back his hair, stroke his brow.
His hairline is our father’s, three peaks pointing down.

What sprouts from the body
and touches the body?
What filters sunlight
and drinks moonlight?
Where have I misplaced my heart?
What stops wheels and great machines?
What tangles in the bough
and snaps the loom?

Out of the grave
my father’s hair
bursts. A strand
pierces my left sole, shoots
up bone, past ribs,
to the broken heart it stitches,
then down,
swirling in the stomach, in the groin, and down,
through the right foot.

What binds me to this earth?
What remembers the dead
and grows towards them?

I’m tired of thinking.
I long to taste the world with a kiss.
I long to fly into hair with kisses and weeping,
remembering an afternoon
when, kissing my sleeping father, I saw for the first time
behind the thick swirl of his black hair,
the mole of wisdom,
a lone planet spinning slowly.

Sometimes my love is melancholy
and I hold her head in my hands.
Sometimes I recall our hair grows after death.
Then, I must grab handfuls
of her hair, and, I tell you, there
are apples, walnuts, ships sailing, ships docking, and men
taking off their boots, their hearts breaking,
not knowing
which they love more, the water, or
their women’s hair, sprouting from the head, rushing toward the feet.

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