When you lose all your hairs, including brows and lashes, to chemotherapy, your complete hairlessness becomes a visual cue to others that you are ill. It’s possible to pass off a bald head as an intentional style statement, though rarer for a woman than a man, and of course you can cover baldness with wigs and hats and scarves. But once the rest of those hairs go, especially the brows, something about your face looks off. You’d think in an age of mask-wearing the absence wouldn’t be so obvious, but it’s precisely the swath of face exposed between headscarf and mask where something is missing. Minus eyebrows, you tend to look sick, even on days you feel good.
It is, I imagine, a little like being pregnant, in the sense that you’re undergoing an immensely intimate corporeal experience that displays in profound outward bodily changes. Others–even strangers– often take those changes as permission to make comments or ask deeply personal questions. Thankfully no one seems inspired to reach out and touch my head the way they do an expectant mother’s belly, but it’s still disconcerting when someone stares a little too long, or starts offering me reassurances, or sharing their own cancer story.
So it was with much joy and not a little relief that on Tuesday, I had my first eyebrow tattoo session.
I am lucky to live literally around the corner from an amazing cosmetic tattoo artist, Jordan Kantor, of Skin Care Consulting. Kantor works in two sessions, six weeks apart. Her work is detailed and dimensional, the results amazingly realistic. The process was a bit uncomfortable, a feeling somewhere between having your brows plucked over and over again and repeated bee stings. But it was bearable, and worth it. I’m still in the early stages of the healing process–like any tattoo, there will be some flaking and settling of color, and of course, there’s a second session planned specifically because we may decide there needs to be some tweaking. So far, though, I’m thrilled. In fact, it’s hard to describe just how different I feel when I pop into the bathroom or walk past my dresser and catch sight of my face in a mirror–and I have eyebrows again! My face looks almost…normal! Each time, the sight feels like a small miracle.
Perhaps that sounds like an overstatement, but something that creates a sense of normalcy in a body that often no longer feels like my own, functions as I expect it to, or looks like the “me” imprinted in my mind, is a real gift. My face no longer immediately telegraphs–to me or others–“this woman is ill.” It’s a profound shift in my headspace, for which I am deeply grateful.
I won’t say I missed my brows more than my natural breasts, but I will say that it’s easier to fake natural boobs with implants than it was to fake eyebrows with any of the various products I tried. And brows play such a key role in how we read emotions and identify faces. An artist friend of mine told me that whenever he paints a portrait, he starts with the eyebrows, because they are so expressive. Steve was talking to me a couple days ago and said, “Your face is so much more expressive with your new brows!” The tattoos really are a game changer.
So this week, I’m celebrating art. Jordan is an artist, and I am happy to be one of her canvases. My only regret is that I didn’t get my eyebrows tattooed a couple of years ago when I first considered doing it to boost my natural brows. If I had, I wouldn’t have had to spend the last ten months without. I look forward to seeing how my new tattoos develop over time, and doing lots of raising and furrowing and flexing in the meantime.
Snow changes the landscape upon which it falls. It smooths the dips and rises of the land’s topography, even as it throws into stark relief the knotty bark and bent branches of winter-bare trees.
If ever I were conventionally beautiful, I am no longer.
I’m not seeking compliments or reassurances. I do not think myself ugly, though some days I struggle with self-confidence. It’s simply that my body and face have changed in ways that do not conform to society’s ideals of beauty, and I am reckoning with that reality.
Growing up, I didn’t think myself unattractive, but I didn’t think I was especially pretty either. Like so many preteens, I went through an ugly duckling stage in junior high: a mouthful of braces, thick glasses, a head of fine, short hair that never cooperated with the tall, teased tresses popular in the ‘80s. I felt gangly and awkward, out of balance, my skinny legs having grown long well before my torso caught up.
Early on I was labeled a “smart” kid, and given the fierce demarcations of school social categories, it didn’t occur to me that a “smart girl” might also be a “pretty girl.” I definitely didn’t look like the models I admired in the Seventeen and Glamour magazines I devoured; I thought my face crinkled up too much when I smiled, my nose was too pronounced, my chin too undefined. My fears about my flaws were confirmed when a boy I’d briefly dated told me my nose was too big for my face. Then I developed persistent acne.
When, to my own surprise, I took up modeling with a local organization called Fashionista Roanoke in my early forties, it wasn’t because I’d decided I was beautiful, though I was well over most of my hang-ups, and had come to rather like my face, strong nose included. If anything, I thought by modeling I could challenge the narrow American beauty ideals that insisted on privileging young, svelte, willowy waifs. I was 40, not 14; I was thin, but not thin enough by modeling industry standards; I was taller than average, but not the 5’8″+ desired. And while reasonably photogenic, I “didn’t have as many angles as some other girls”—a phrase I picked up from the one episode of America’s Next Top Model I watched at the time.
My look was decidedly different than most of the younger women I modeled alongside. A picture of a group of us lined up on a stairwell at one event is telling: one, two, three sleek brunettes smolder fiercely at the camera, and then there’s me, wearing a broad smile, blonde hair tossed in messy waves. My early beauty influences were clearly more Farrah Fawcett than Katy Perry. But I had chutzpah (a gift of my age), a lifetime of stage performance, and an acute awareness of my body in space born of years of childhood dance lessons. I participated in several local runway shows and a number of photo shoots, and it felt good to get a public stamp of approval on my attractiveness.
Then, cancer. Chemo. Surgery. Radiation. At first, the impact on my appearance was minimal, and temporary. I lost my hair, but it grew back; my left arm swelled a bit after my mastectomy and the accompanying removal of lymph nodes, but the difference was almost imperceptible. With each subsequent recurrence and round of treatment, the changes have grown more profound, my appearance progressively less conventionally attractive. I’ve lost corporeal symmetry, one of the elements science has shown affects our perception of beauty. The lymphedema in my left arm has made it markedly swollen, my shoulder drawn up and rounded by a combination of fibrosis, capsular contracture, and edema. A rope of scar tissue tracks my left collar bone, the skin on both chest and back red and inflamed from radiation dermatitis.
Most distressing, a patch of skin just above my left breast has remained ulcerated for almost a year. My radiation oncologist believes it’s cancer the drugs haven’t reached due to the lack of blood flow in my previously irradiated skin. He told me not to worry about it–“As long as it’s not getting bigger, who cares?” On the one hand, he’s right. On the other, he does not have to live with a daily reminder of cancer festering on his chest, itchy and ugly and scaly. I long for the reassurance its healing and disappearing could provide. Instead, it’s a daily source of shame and anxiety.
The most obvious changes, the ones I cannot hide under cold-weather clothes, are those to my head and face. A beautiful woman, society tells us, has a mane of long, shiny hair, full shaped brows, a thick fringe of eyelashes. These are things that, objectively, I no longer possess. (My head shines, but not in the way the world tells me it should.) And since I’ll be receiving Sasquatch long-term, at least at a maintenance level, I can’t look forward to a time when my various hairs will grow back.
These losses may seem like minor hits to my confidence or vanity, but there’s potentially more at stake. Beauty is a currency. In a 2010 interview with Sharon Driscoll, Stanford law professor Deborah L. Rhode cites a poll conducted for a Newsweek article that “revealed that two-thirds of hiring managers ranked appearance above education in importance for hiring. And the same percentage agreed that appearance would affect job performance ratings.” Rhode’s book The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law details numerous instances of appearance discrimination, arguing that those who do not conform to culturally accepted ideals of beauty face real consequences–and their legal protections are few.
At present I don’t venture out much, but I do wonder, post-pandemic, what the wider world’s response to my changed appearance will be. In the meantime I’ve been trying to find ways to get comfortable myself with my new look. There are plenty of products out there to help me fake what’s missing–faux eyelashes, eyebrow tattoo stickers, wigs. But faking it takes a lot of time and energy, and I’m not persuaded trying to “pass” looks all that great, or is all that convincing, anyway.
Which is how it came to be that, when we got five inches of snow here in Virginia last weekend, I decided to become a snow princess.
The benefits of conformity notwithstanding, I deliberately set out to find ways to feel beautiful by defying conventional standards and fully embracing my changed canvas. No hair? How about a cap of silver glitter! No eyebrows? Create expression with arching crystal gems. Instead of fake eyelashes, define and highlight the eyes with a line of shimmery ice-blue shadow.
Granted, the otherworldly-snow-princess-look isn’t particularly practical for a run to the grocery store or doctor’s appointment. (Though it would be kind of fun to see my students’ reaction if I showed up in full princess regalia on the first day of teaching class….) But my goal was to see if I could feel pretty, even beautiful, without attempting to “pass,” without attempting to hide all the changes my body has undergone.
The good news is, the answer was yes. The bad news, well–beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder. And the only beholder’s perception I can control is my own. So perhaps a different goal is in order. Whether or not I’m beautiful by conventional standards, I am, as Margery Williams’ Velveteen Rabbit describes it, most decidedly Real: “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But those things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
I think I do understand. And it’s a beautiful thing to be Real.
I’ve uttered several things in 2020 I never thought I’d say. “Wait, do you have your mask?” “What time do you want to Zoom?” The most surprising, though, is this: “I really miss my nose hair.”
I’ve written previously about how hair becomes a signifier of health (or lack thereof) for cancer patients, and during my first round of chemo-induced hair loss, I explained why I missed my pubic hair the most (something else I never thought I’d declare, much less publicly, but there you go). One of the main points of the latter piece was that, as much time, energy, and money as many of us spend trying to remove them, the hairs on our human bodies do indeed serve a purpose–beyond creating and supporting an entire hair-removal industry.
Most of the time, if you hear anyone mention nose hair, it’s in the context of getting rid of the excess by trimming it. You can even buy instruments dedicated expressly to that purpose. Before you get too zealous in said pursuit, however, you might want to read on.
Remember the “sudden snot”? At a recent appointment, both my regular doctor and nurse practitioner were unavailable for my scheduled pre-treatment consult, so I saw another NP in the office. As I was filling her in on my history, I mentioned the “sudden snot” problem I’d developed, and told her that despite taking a regular antihistamine, it hadn’t abated.
She nodded. “Some of that is probably just your body’s normal production of mucous,” she said. “But you’ve likely lost all your nose hair, so there’s nothing there to hold it back or slow it down.”
My mouth gaped inside my mask. “Oh my god, of course!” I said. “Of course!” I’d never thought about the fact that we have hairs in our nose, that that hair is functional, and–given that my body has emptied every other known follicle since I’ve been on Sasquatch–that my alopecia would extend there as well. It was a revelation. If light-bulbs really did appear above your head when the light dawns, I would have had a full-on Rockefeller Christmas tree over mine.
As it stands, I have a full-on faucet on my face. So. I really miss my nose hair.
I really miss my eyelashes, too, and not just out of vanity. Eyelashes are also functional. You don’t realize how effective an early warning/blocking-foreign-object system they are until you don’t have them to signal, for example, that the edge of your mask is about to creep up and scrape your eyeball, or the edge of your headscarf about to droop into it. Then there’s the act of trying to put on eyeliner without an eyelash line to stop you from jabbing the pencil right in. If a particle of something does get into your eye, you have no lashes to grab and pull your lid out to try to help blink it away. Don’t think you do that very often? Betcha do it more often than you realize.
I also miss my eyebrows. Profoundly. That was true the first time I had chemo, too, and it’s related more to appearance than function. I’ve referred before to the research that shows eyebrows are a key feature in making us recognizable. Losing my eyebrows–far more than losing the hair on my head–makes me feel like I’ve lost something fundamental in what makes me look like me. It feels like losing my face.
No one manufactures replacement nose hairs, but in terms of brows and lashes, there are almost as many products on the market to replace them as there are to remove those hairs less desired. (We probably need to have a longer conversation with ourselves as a species about our strange pre-occupation with good hairs versus bad hairs….) Since my face is currently a blank canvas, well, why not test out a few?
First up: eyelashes. When I was modeling, I occasionally wore fake eyelashes, the basic kind that use eyelash glue. I never found them difficult to use, and I liked how they bulked up my natural lashes, especially in photographs. Now there are magnetic lashes with tiny magnets along the lash line; you swipe on a magnetized eyeliner to which the lashes stick. Even more recently, the company Moxielash has debuted lashes that use silicone as the sticking agent.
I tried both. The liner that came with the magnetic lashes is black, liquid liner. If you think drawing straight, even lines with liquid liner is tough when you have your own eyelashes to guide you, you can imagine how many times I drew on my eyeball. And it’s nigh impossible to draw the liner or place the lashes right up against the eye (your natural lash-line is usually the guide, and fills that space). So even if I manage not to poke myself, I end up with a thin skin-colored gap that’s further highlighted by the dark liner and lashes. The clear liner that comes with the silicone lashes tones down the contrast, but the gap remains and makes fake lashes, even styles labelled “natural,” look extreme. It’s a lot of drama for a visit to the doctor’s office.
I’ve had more luck, after considerable trial and error, with eyebrows, at least if I subscribe to (and I do) the adage that brows should look like sisters, not twins. Twins are not happening. I started with a “Tattbrow” pencil, which mimics the look of micro-blading, but it’s a bit too dark. I ordered some stencil stickers but found them unwieldy. For a while I used a reusable plastic stencil and brow powder in “dark blonde” by Senna. It doesn’t really give the look of individual hairs and wears off more easily than I’d like. But it’s easy to wipe off and try again on those days when my first attempt results not in sisters but in fourth-cousins thrice removed.
Most recently, and a bit by accident, I found and purchased the somewhat inauspiciously named “Eyebrow Tattoo Stickers.” Temporary tattoos that stay in place for a couple days, they’re going to take a little trimming and some practice, but they’re promising. I also got myself some sparkly bling to play with. Might as well put the canvas to good use.
I was reassured a couple weeks ago when Steve and I watched a live-stream concert of Scottish folk musicians, and one of the women, Inge Thomson, had a face and head like mine. I don’t know the cause of her alopecia, but she is bald and sans eyebrows and lashes, and she looks fine–not alien, not weird. Lovely, in fact. So I’m trying to find ways to stop with the before/after comparisons of my own face–which is what gets me into trouble–and embrace and enhance my new look with minimal prosthetic additions.
Still, vanity is one thing, functionality another. I do miss my nose hair. This holiday season, be kind to your hairs. They are a gift, and they are doing more for you than you might imagine.
Now, please excuse me while I go find another box of tissues.
Today has been a good day. In fact, it’s been a good week. I had this week off from treatment, so I’ve been busy creating, writing, and organizing. We’ve had a couple of sunny days, which energize me, and some rainy days, which somehow make my afternoon tea taste even better.
It’s been oddly warm for November, but today began to feel like Fall again. So it seemed like a good time to break out a hat and renew my running “Heads Up!” feature, which I started as a way to get some practical use out of my vintage hat collection, as well as find a bright spot in being bald (and not just because my head is shiny).
Today’s hat, though it looks vintage, is actually a newer acquisition, purchased in 2018 from Bonnet, a lovely millinery shop in Portland, Oregon, whose brick-and-mortar store, sadly, has since closed. The hat looks delicate and feminine, but it’s sturdier than it appears: it was made to stand up to rainy Portland winters. I love the combination of the cozy, sueded fabric with the jaunty striped grosgrain ribbon. I call it “mauve,” but that’s not quite right: it’s a warm, rosy lavender that makes me think of winter sunsets and stormy summer skies.
Speaking of jaunty, I must confess that it wasn’t only the hat that compelled today’s photo fun. Take a close look at the pattern on my pants. It’s called “catstooth” (the feline answer to houndstooth, made by Betabrand), and my pants have been making me smile all day. If you gotta wear pants, why not have some fun with them? (I recognize that in the era of Zoom, not everyone has to wear pants, but…most of us have to leave the house at least occasionally.)
And speaking of things we gotta wear: masks, friends. Something else we might as well have a little fun with, while we take care of each other.
I have a lot of fun with clothes. Some folks may think I have too much fun with them, that dressing up during a pandemic when I’ve no where much to go is silly, or that playing with style is a shallow pursuit. But being creative with clothes harms no one and it brings me joy. If I’ve learned one thing in the past four years, it’s that you can never have too much joy. Seize it where you find it, and spread it whenever you can.
I got lots of grins from passersby while I was out taking pictures today. And I just grinned right back.
Hello, friends! It’s been a while. There’s much to tell you, so I’ll jump right in. Lots of wonderful things have happened since I last posted in 2017, but I am sorry to report I’ve had not one but two recurrences since then. We discovered the first one in December of 2018, in lymph nodes just under my upper port scar by my right collar bone. I’d actually found a bump in July of that year and thought (hoped) it scar tissue, then asked my GP about it in September. She ordered an x-ray (what I needed was an ultrasound, but I didn’t know that) and said all was fine. It wasn’t until my December oncology check-in that I had an ultrasound and surgical biopsy, and I re-entered treatment from January to May 2019.
My husband Steve and I took a wonderful trip to Ocracoke Island in late May 2019 and had an amazing adventure in Scotland in July. In late October 2019 a small rash appeared just above the crease in my left armpit, and I started having issues with lymphedema again. A biopsy in late November confirmed that the cancer had metastasized to the lymphatics of my skin, and I re-entered treatment the day after Christmas, December 2019.
I wrote about the first recurrence on a Caring Bridge site; I was teaching and working through daily radiation, and I wanted to be able to give updates without feeling like I had to be “writerly.” If you are interested in the details of that time, please look me up there. When the cancer returned again late last year, I was so overwhelmed and sad that all I could muster was writing in my journal, for myself. Honestly, I think I was tired of this being the story I had to tell. To complicate matters, a couple of months into treatment (a combo of immunotherapy and Abraxane, a new form of Taxol), along came the coronavirus. There’s been a lot to process, and it’s only been in the past few weeks I’ve felt able and desirous of opening that process back up to others. I hope sharing my story is helpful, especially now that so many are faced with health challenges and the deep uncertainties they bring. So, here we are.
A recap of this latest round: as the coronavirus pandemic intensified in the spring, we discovered through a CT scan on April 15th that the immunotherapy I’d been on since late December wasn’t working as well as it needed to; the cancer had spread to a few additional lymph nodes. That was a big blow. I received no treatment for several weeks while we waited on some test results that could give us insight into other treatment options. One of the hardest parts about the current recurrence is that, as my oncologist says, we have a front-row seat: with the cancer being in my skin, I could see it, while we waited, as it progressed across my chest and down my abdomen. I began to experience increasing pain and swelling and began having problems swallowing, leading to several endoscopic dilations. It was all terrifying.
I had a consult with my oncologist the first week of May to discuss the test results and next steps. Because of the coronavirus, only patients were allowed in the cancer care facility, so Steve could not accompany me. I shook with anxiety. I can always tell if the news will be good or bad by my oncologist’s demeanor when he enters the exam room. That day he entered smiling and appearing almost…chipper? Steve was on speakerphone. “You seem cheerful,” I said to Dr. K. “Why are you so cheerful?” “I am,” he replied. The FDA, he said, had just granted expedited approval to a targeted-chemotherapy drug that had been in clinical trials for the treatment of advanced triple negative breast cancer. The approval had been given on April 22nd, little more than a week prior. It was particularly miraculous news given that the test results we’d been waiting on hadn’t turned up any good options. But I could start the targeted chemo drug sacituzumab govitecan-hziy, which they’d come to call “Sasquatch” acround the office, within the next two weeks.
My first dose was on May 20th, coincidentally the day Steve and I adopted two black-and-white kittens who we named Herzchen (German for “little heart,” as he has a heart-shaped spot on his back) and Finn (after Huckleberry, as Finn is a bit of a rogue). Herry and Finn have been good medicine, too. I’m still receiving Sasquatch, which has a two-week on, one-week off dosage schedule. It can be a beast, as it impacts three out of four weeks every month, but the side effects are fairly predictable, so I’m slowly learning to work with the uneven patterns of my days. Treatment day is always rough; I’m at the cancer center at least 4 hours and receive 7 drugs alongside Sasquatch to help with side effects. I usually feel pretty crummy that evening as my body processes the influx, then I’m powered by steroids the day after, have two down days, and then start to feel good again.
It’s a lot to manage, and I’ve lost all my hair again, including my eyebrows, which I really miss. But Sasquatch seems to be working, and every day it gives me is a gift. Conventionally, metastatic breast cancer cannot be cured, only treated into remission or no evidence of disease (NED). While that is technically still true, new targeted treatments like Sasquatch and the ongoing development of various immunotherapies are changing the game so quickly and dramatically that we simply don’t know what the future holds. Cancer, like HIV, is becoming something many people live with long-term, managing it rather than eradicating it.
It’s not easy to adjust to the idea of chronic illness, or to live in a space of such deep uncertainty, and the mental and emotional work it requires is one reason it’s taken me so long to write publicly about my experiences. I remind myself that we all live with that uncertainty every day, even if most don’t have constant reminders of it. And COVID-19 has now shifted mortality to the forefront of many people’s experiences. The pandemic has added a whole other layer to my own processing, but that’s another essay for another day.
I have several things going for me—the cancer, though it’s metastasized, is still pretty much contained in the lymphatic system. The science keeps staying just one step (one week!) ahead of me, and new treatments keep emerging. I have an incredible support system and one heckuva smart medical oncologist heading up my health-care team. All things considered, I feel good. I’m cuddling kittens, making art, and writing again. Steve and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary in September with a trip to the beach, and I’m on sabbatical currently and finally getting rolling on some creative projects. It’s not always easy, but it’s a beautiful life.
I haven’t, at this point, decided on a regular blog schedule, and I’m cutting myself some slack on that “writerly” thing. I hope to post again soon. Until then, be well, wear your mask, and safe travels through this unpredictable world.
My father taught for well over forty years in the public school system; he started with a few years of high school in Texas, and then, for the bulk of his career, taught chemistry at a community college in Georgia. He’s retired now, and tomorrow is his birthday. In honor of the contributions he and all other smart, dedicated, and hard-working teachers have made to the education and growth of our young people, I’m featuring his vintage gray Stetson in today’s Heads Up! post.
The hat itself testifies to the kind of opportunity and success access to public education offers. My dad, Garry, grew up on a farm in rural Texas, and he was the first in his family to go to college. When he graduated in 1964 from what was then East Texas State University, his parents gifted him the Stetson as a graduation gift.
According to the receipt, still tucked in the box, the hat cost $12, the equivalent of around $94 today. After graduating, he put his degree right back to work in the service of educating others.
I remember him wearing the Stetson on occasion during my childhood. When I was in middle school, we discovered that it fit me, too. Both my father and I have (at least judging by the general inventory of the hat industry) unusually small heads. So it was a kick to discover that I could sport his Stetson.
Having grown up in the Southeast, I never had my parents’ bent for Western style (though I am partial to boots of all kinds). To give the Stetson a little feminine flair I added a (removable) floral band and paired it with a cozy blue wrap over a mixed calico-print dress and jeans.
According to the official Stetson website, the company was founded in 1865 by John Batterson Stetson, who, after traveling out west as a young man, returned east to open a hat-making shop in Philadelphia. His father had also been in the trade, and passed his skills on to his son. With an initial investment of somewhere between $60 and $100 (accounts vary), Stetson finally struck a chord with his “Boss of the Plains” design in 1869 and in 1870 purchased property for his own factory. After his death in 1901 and well into the 1950s, the company designed and manufactured a wide variety of styles, including hats for the military during the war.
When hats began to drift out of daily fashion in the 1960s, it was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s influence that encouraged the company’s turn toward Western styles. That proved a long-term lucrative market. Manufacturing moved to Missouri, and movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark helped keep the hats popular. The current Stetson factory is in Garland, Texas.
Changing up the band of my Dad’s hat to a narrow one in black, rust, and gold makes the Stetson the perfect accessory for a black poncho, jeans, and equestrian-style boots.
So here’s a hats off to all our educators, especially those like my Dad who’ve dedicated their entire careers to public education. Thank you for your service. We are indebted to you and will continue to need your wisdom, guidance, and strength.
And happy birthday, Dad! Thank you for the loan of your wonderful hat.
∼ Beautiful, quirky hats make me happy. The “Heads Up!” series is a reminder to keep my (still bald-ish) head up, to pay attention to the good in the world, and to encourage myself and others facing a tough road that it’s possible to find the fun in even the most challenging circumstances. ∼
Like much of the U.S., we recently had snow here in Southwest Virginia. I usually welcome snow, as it tends (at least here in the South) to make us slow down a bit and refocus our attention, for a day or two, on things like nature’s beauty, play, and family. The cold inspires gratitude for the warm shelter I call home, a gift denied to too many.
Our recent snow days–accompanied by single digit temperatures–seemed like the perfect time to feature my cozy cobalt felted wool hat, handmade by artist Sandy Stanton. I purchased the hat new back in September at the Asheville NC Homecrafts store, located in the Historic Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville. There were so many wonderful hats there to choose from, it was tough to select just one (I didn’t; I’ll be featuring my second purchase at a later date…). But I was immediately drawn to the beautiful blues of this hat, its primary cobalt accented by a band and flower knitted from an ombre-dyed yarn that shifts from jade to turquoise to cadet blue, into gray, brown, and finally cobalt at the flower’s center.
I gravitate toward shades of blue in my winter clothing, perhaps as a way of harnessing and transforming the emotional blues I often suffer in cold weather and its long, dark days. When so many other colors disappear from the landscape in winter, we are left with the blues: the crisp cerulean sky that reigns over the coldest days, steel-blue clouds signaling an oncoming storm, ice’s translucent aquas, the ethereal periwinkle of moonlit snow. Beautiful in their own right, these winter hues also recall the blues of kinder seasons: the robin’s egg blue of a cloudless autumn afternoon, a pewter horizon hanging over a sapphire sea, water lapping at the azure edges of a sunny backyard pool.
Occasionally snow days are an unwelcome interruption: they frustrate routines, delay travel, cancel our much-anticipated plans. But even when the clouds confound us, the thing about snow is this: it eventually melts. The storm will pass, the roads will clear. And as the world emerges from its white cocoon, the sky above will spread its wings, inviting us once again to delight in its fair, wide, beautiful blue.
Photos by Steve Prisley
∼ Beautiful, quirky hats make me happy. The “Heads Up!” series is a reminder to keep my (currently bald) head up, to pay attention to the good in the world, and to encourage myself and others facing a tough road that it’s possible to find the fun in even the most challenging circumstances. ∼
Of all the hair I lost, I missed my pubic hair the most.
I know a lot of people go to great effort and endure significant discomfort to remove the hair in their nethers. I briefly tried shaving once a few years ago, and I didn’t get the appeal. When after chemo my pubic hair shed alongside all the other hairs on my body (exception: seven eyelashes), I’ve never felt more profoundly naked.
Losing my eyebrows was a close second. When I was first diagnosed, I knew I’d lose my head of hair; I knew, eventually, I’d lose my breasts. No one warned me that, for a while at least, I’d also lose my face.
As a born blonde, my brows have always been light, especially in summer when they’re bleached by sun exposure. I usually fill them in a bit with a light brown pencil, lest it appear I have no brows. For the month or so that I did, in fact, have no eyebrows, I almost couldn’t recognize the pale, perpetually startled face in the mirror (an effect enhanced by my having the cheeks of a puffer-fish, courtesy of steroids). Eyebrows are a key factor in facial recognition, according to a 2003 study conducted by behavioral neuroscientist Javid Sadr: study subjects asked to identify fifty famous faces in digitally altered photos could ID the celebrity only 46 percent of the time when the eyebrows were absent. Small wonder my browless visage looked unfamiliar, even to me.
Losing the hair on my head bothered me least, which is probably why I never opted for a wig. I tried them on twice. The first time, I borrowed a short wig from another survivor so I wouldn’t have to take my new driver’s license photo bald. It was a very nice wig, but the weave was thick, and I’ve never had that much hair in my life. I felt like a fake.
Later, a friend of mine invited me along to visit her hairdresser’s wig shop in Lynchburg while she got a haircut. I found a few wigs there that I felt more comfortable in; they were constructed differently and better mimicked my naturally fine hair. I couldn’t decide if I should be comforted or alarmed that the one we all liked best was an angled bob—especially in gray.
My chemo had already concluded at that point, though, and I was hoping my own hair would soon return. Plus, it was hard to imagine asking my doctor for a prescription for a “cranial prosthesis” with a straight face—the term most insurance companies require for coverage.
Thankfully, my various hairs have begun to grow back, though the universe has had a great sense of humor about the order of things. The first place I detected stubble was on my legs, specifically my calves. Seriously? I thought. The first hair to come back is the hair I deliberately shave off several times a week?
Hair also began to grow “back” in places I didn’t remember having hair before. Like the front of my neck. Large downy patches on my cheeks. As a fine fuzz began to cover my scalp, tiny hairs also outlined the helix of each ear in a soft halo. I know most humans, women included, have a layer of fine facial hair, but I don’t recall mine previously having been quite so thick.
The verdict is still out on the color of my incoming head hair. My mother thought the initial peach fuzz looked light, “like the white-blond hair you had when you were a little girl,” she said. I wish. Steve thinks it’s brown. I definitely see some lighter highlights, but I’m guessing they’re gray. If I’m lucky, they’ll be that pretty, glinty, silvery gray some folks get. And texture is a real toss-up post-chemo: hair that was once straight often comes in curly; curly hair grows in straight. Since mine is maybe yet a quarter-inch long, the only texture it has at present is soft and fuzzy, like a velour jacket. My head seems to invite a lot of rubbing.
As my eyebrows have returned, I’ve stopped having to draw them on from memory (tricky to get even, easily smeared). They’re coming in the same light-brown, taupe-ish color they’ve been since college. It’s nice to see a glimpse of the familiar when I glance in the mirror, instead of a surprised alien.
And yes, it’s a relief to be less bare “down there.” I’m told there are wigs, called merkins, available for one’s nethers; movie stars sometimes wear them in nude scenes for a little extra coverage. But though I felt unduly exposed, I can no more fathom going to the trouble of attaching extra hair to my crotch than I can fathom enduring the pain of waxing it bare. Besides, according to an article by Ian Lecklitner on the Dollar Shave Club website (oh, the irony), all of our naturally-occurring human hairs have an evolutionary purpose: eyebrows, in addition to identification, are “ergonomically engineered” to protect the eyes from moisture and debris; pubic hair helps to foil bacteria; head hair serves as insulation. So I’m glad, for the most part, that my follicles are up and at ‘em again.
Though I do wish someone could explain just what evolutionary advantage I’ve gained by having fuzzy ears.
I celebrated a birthday at the beginning of this week. I think I can safely refer to myself as being in my “mid-forties” for one more year. The next time candles grace a cake for me, however, I’ll have shifted firmly to the “late-forties” category.
That’s okay. More than okay, actually. Being a breast cancer patient has given me a whole new perspective on aging. Growing older–having the chance to grow older–sounds pretty darn good. Aging has its challenges to be sure; even before I was ill, it had started taking me longer to recover from strenuous hikes, or late nights with friends, than it did ten or even five years ago. But given the various losses of mobility, energy, and dignity I’ve recently endured–and survived–I know I can cope with growing old. (And in the meantime, I better understand why old-timers sometimes feel cranky.)
Though I suppose any vintage hat that has retained attitude and elegance could serve to underscore the merits of aging, I thought this one especially apt: a gray felt cloche topped by a feather detail. It appears sedate at first, but a closer look at the crown reveals a colorful medley of pink, green, and black-and-white feathers underneath fine netting. The gray brim of the hat is ringed by a satin ribbon that might, in its youth, have been bright pink, but has since faded to a lovely mauve. A round rhinestone accent, though darkened a bit by time, adds sass and sparkle.
The hat is tagged as an “Evelyn Varon Exclusive.” According to Brenda Grantland in a comment on the Collectors Weekly website, Varon was a “French milliner whose designs were so popular that they were copied in the U.S. A March 11, 1914 issue of the Evening Post Page of Wanamaker News reports that the store was offering copies of hats designed by Parisian milliners Suzanne Talbot, Evelyn Varon, Jeanne Duc, Caroline Reboux and Paul Poiret.” Grantland also claims that Varon designed costumes for the original Broadway version of Pins and Needles, but I haven’t been able to verify that claim.
In any case, it’s fun to embrace a little touch of 1914 Paris right here in 2016 Virginia. Ooh la la!
∼ Beautiful, quirky vintage hats make me happy. The “Heads Up!” series is a reminder to keep my (currently bald) head up, to pay attention to the good in the world, and to encourage myself and others facing a tough road that it’s possible to find the fun in even the most challenging circumstances. ∼
It’s a big day in the U.S. of A. today: after months (years) of wildly optimistic campaign promises, sometimes baffling debates, and too many social media meltdowns, the presidential election is finally here.
A big day deserves a bold hat!
This purple velvet beauty, trimmed in a sweep of iridescent blue, green, and white feathers (peacock, perhaps?) and a wide purple grosgrain ribbon, makes me think of the femme fatale in a 1940s film noir. The brim is low and wide, dipping below the eye on one side, giving it a bit of mystery and drama.
I find it pairs well with black and a bit of attitude.
Still, its bright hue and asymmetrical fold keep it from getting too serious.
Maybe we should keep that kind of balance in mind when we’re talking politics?
The hat was made by “Wesco.” There have been at least three different U.S. companies who sported that name, though it was not clear which of them were in the millinery trade. There are a number of other vintage hats on Etsy and eBay advertised as “Wesco” chapeaux, but no one notes any additional details.
It is a hat, then, with more mystery than history. On a day that’s making history for other reasons—the first time we have the opportunity to vote for a woman as a major party candidate for president—perhaps that’s just as it should be.
∼ Beautiful, quirky vintage hats make me happy. The “Heads Up!” series is a reminder to keep my (currently bald) head up, to pay attention to the good in the world, and to encourage myself and others facing a tough road that it’s possible to find the fun in even the most challenging circumstances. ∼