The hairdressers didn’t have a ruler, so I had to guess. I pointed to a place roughly shoulder-length. ‘There,’ I said. ‘That should be at least twelve inches.’ Twelve inches is the magic number for hair donation to the Little Princess Trust, which makes wigs of real hair for children with cancer. We put a hair-band halfway down, and one at the top, and then Alex from Santander in Spain took a great pair of scissors and sawed through my ponytail. It was terrifying, and wonderful. After two years without a haircut, I felt free.
When I got home I measured the strange creature that was now separate from me: it came to fourteen inches. ‘Hair grows roughly half an inch per month,’ Pam said, surveying my new short cut, ‘so that’s twenty-eight months of growth.’ That’s about right: I last cut it in October 2019, freshly moved to Edinburgh. My ponytail has seen the whole of the pandemic. First, there was word of a new virus in China; news of lockdowns in Italy and Spain; the sudden, gasping move to online working, the air of certainty snatched out of our lungs. Later, there came terrible pressures on the NHS; many lives lost, and others blighted by isolation, distance, and choices that we should never have had to make. We have lived through collective fear, anxiety, anger, and grief – and then reopening, and unfolding, and all the ripples, echoes, and stutters that come when the heart begins, once more, to beat.
We all carry our own story of the last two years. Like all stories, it has been made up as we went along. Some parts we could shape, and others simply happened. Much of it was confusing. Bewildered and in pain, there were times we couldn’t trust in anything, and others that we simply had to, or fall apart. There were times, too, of beauty: the clear blue sky when the aeroplanes were grounded; the warmth of arms we loved around us, felt after a long time apart. Nearly two years into this pandemic, we are older, wiser, and marked. I look through my pandemic ponytail for grey hairs; I am almost angry to find that there are none. But then I laugh. Isn’t that the strangeness of life, that neither our magic nor our wounds always arise as we expect?
The morning after I cut my hair, I looked in the mirror and was, briefly, shocked. It is perplexing to realise that we can let things go, and surprising when we finally do. Often we need ritual: a ceremonial closing, a last visit to a place, the release of material goods, a final letter, the snip of scissors. Willpower alone, the Puritan illusion, can’t force us across the threshold to what lies ahead. We need place around us, space, a moment in time, someone else’s hands on the scissors.
What will you release, as life begins to find more ease? When we’ve travelled through hard times, even when they settle mind and body may cling to a darker vista of the future. We find ourselves fearing joy, in case it’s taken from us again. The nervous system curls in on itself like an oyster in a tightly closed shell.
Look for a hint of the wonderful, as well as the terrifying, in the possibility of letting go. Don’t wait until you’re ready, because you may never be. In the end, you may simply need to take your seat, and point to the threshold, and say, let’s do it. Afterwards, looking back, that old part of yourself may surprise you. It’s not as grey as you thought. Maybe, someday, it will make you laugh-gasp in recognition of its bittersweetness – or bring a small child some joy.
Photography: Sam Sills