On Hair and Hairiness

During the early part of the pandemic, one of the things that a great number of people have found hard was not being able to access their hairdresser or barber. My FB and Twitter feeds were later full of people being joyful when they finally could get a hair cut and expressing how much better they felt about themselves once they’d had a cut and restyle. The last time I can remember having a trim was in 1998, so their joy wasn’t something I could relate to directly, because I’ve never enjoyed having anything done with or to my hair and having it cut filled me with fear and dread as a child and a teenager. Aged 14, I decided to grow my hair long, having been mistaken for a boy at school; a year prior to that I might have been delighted but something had changed. My mum insisted I go every six weeks for a trim, to ensure I didn’t have split ends ruining the entire strand of hair.

That’s the first big myth I want to explode. The trimming of long hair is done mostly for aesthetic reasons, because people like to see tidy, even ends, much as they like to see neatly trimmed and edged lawns. It was put about by hairdressers that hair NEEDS to be trimmed to stop splits extending up the hair shafts. They don’t split like that. Yes, I know, you can often see multiple splits along a single hair. That’s not one split running all the way, like a dropped stitch or broken thread in weaving. Hair is dead. The moment a hair emerges from the follicle, it’s dead matter. It’s made of a protein called keratin, same substance as your nails and indeed, the horn of a rhino. How long your hair grows is also subject to certain issues of personal biology. Each hair has a life span (between 3 and 7 years is the usual range but some can live a lot longer) before it drops from the follicle. We lose between 50 and 100 (ish) hairs every single day, but fear not, the human head contains between 90 and 150 thousand follicles and therefore, usually, hairs. Redheads have fewest but seem to have the thickest hair as each strand tends to be thicker, and blondes have the most, but it’ often the thinnest. Brunettes are in the middle. Hair goes through a cycle. The cycle involves growing, resting (ie, not growing) falling out, pausing before beginning again. The rate of growth of hair is also a factor. Some hair grows very slowly, some very fast. It grows faster in the summer and it also grows faster on the side of your head that tends to be on the pillow more. Average growth is about one cm a month. If you have a head of hair that grows fast and each hair has a longer life span, you will be able to grow your hair very long. If you have slow growing hair with a short life span, it may well never get beyond your shoulders. You can’t change this. You can ensure that the bed (the scalp) your hair grows from is kept healthy and nourished so that the hair has the best chance of growing well. Once a hair has emerged from the scalp it is dead matter. Conditioners cannot repair the hair; they can make a superficial coating to smooth the hair, prevent further damage and ease the passage of a brush or a comb. The oil the scalp produces is called sebum and it’s the body’s natural lubricant for hair, to keep it clean and water repellent. So we wash it out, sometimes daily. My scalp is prone to psoriasis and general flakiness which can make it unbearably itchy at times. Nonetheless I have unusually long hair. After my parathyroid tumour was removed, my hair started growing properly again, having stalled around hip/waist length. Wet it now reaches below my knees and touches my calves. And no, it’s not difficult to look after. It’s easier than short hair, for me.

But it is very much a part of my identity. Who I am, if you like. There’s a lot of information about hair, that claims there’s a connection between hair and being terribly spiritual. One story cited Native American (don’t ask which tribe, I have no idea) beliefs that hair is a sort of cosmic antenna, connecting us to the cosmos, making those with long hair supernaturally sensitive. There is some truth to this, but not how people think. Hair serves various biological purposes on us mammals. It keeps us warm, keeps us cool and is also used for display to the opposite sex. It also serves as part of a sensory system. If you have a cat, you will notice that they have whiskers on other parts of their bodies. These are called vibrissae, and they each attach to the body and feed back sensory information about their surroundings. That’s how a cat knows it can fit through a gap. The vibrissae provide proprioceptive feedback to the nervous system of the cat. I suspect there is a lot that needs more research. Human body hair (now so anathema to many that it is shaved and ripped and chemically removed) serves other functions too. Our nervous systems respond to stimuli like fear or uneasiness by erecting the hairs on our body; often this is a very primitive response, atavistic perhaps. I’ve used the sense of the hairs on the back of my neck going up as a warning. Something is out of place and my conscious mind hasn’t spotted it but my unconscious has. If you have seen the hackles of a dog go up, it’s the same thing.

Some cultures equate long hair with a kind of spiritual holiness. The wandering holy men and women in various places have extremely long and often unwashed and matted hair. There are theories spoken of, like hair containing life force and cutting it cuts the life force and therefore the special powers these people are believed to possess. I have never personally encountered such a figure. But I cannot help wonder if the long hair is about display rather than anything holy. How is anyone meant to recognise the holiness is there’s no physical marker? No one would ever suspect someone going about their daily business, wearing ordinary clothes and hair, of being anything special and holy, would they? I might be a tad cynical. Other cultures cut the hair off, shave the head in whole or in part, for their holy people.

Hair is connected deeply to both sexuality and gender. For many in the west, at one point in fairly recent history (Beatles, I’m looking at you!) long male hair was seen as deeply subversive, decadent, emasculating; the cutting short of female hair (in the 1920s) as a radical act of defeminising. It’s a contentious issue. It was also a thing that over a certain critical age, a woman ought not to have long hair. I see comments abounding online where people denigrate older women for keeping their hair long. It’s seen as somehow false advertising, this pretence that you are still young and fertile and therefore desirable (because you can potentially bear some man a child) and the fury and the nastiness is depressing. So much bound up in what a woman chooses to do with her appearance is about squashing women into a box marked, “Men’s playthings only” and women can be fierce collaborators in this. One tiny change, expanded by the pandemic, is the growing numbers of women choosing not to dye their hair, and embracing their silver and their grey. It’s more acceptable than it was. It’s equally acceptable for older women to dye their hair fun colours, that were more associated with student age; I have seen friends get their mermaid hair colours and it looks amazing. It’s about being allowed to choose, and not having someone brow beat you into having a bob just because you’re now 41. My mum never much liked me having long hair; she said on more than one occasion that long hair was “ageing”.

For those wondering how it is possible to care for getting close to five feet of thick, slightly curly hair, and whether it’s heavy or uncomfortable, I’ll explain a little. These days of decent power showers means it’s easy and simple to wash long hair. Modern shampoos are a huge improvement on ones from when I was growing up. You lather up only at the scalp, because that’s where the oil and the dead skin need the shampoo. Gravity means the rest of the hair gets a smaller dose, which is all it needs usually. I stand upright and let the water do most of the work. It gets wrapped in a super absorbent high tech towel (the kind you take camping because they take up less room). I don’t use conditioner every time because it doesn’t always need it, though I do sometimes use either jojoba oil (closest in structure to human sebum) or coconut oil on the last foot or so to protect. I don’t often use a hair dryer, I’ve never straightened it (or dyed or permed). I keep a close eye on hair care products, and will try new brushes/combs. Currently the range of Tangle Teezer brushes do a superb job of detangling and grooming without pulling or damaging the hair. Once the hair is dry, I usually plait it and that’s it. It gets brushed in the morning, and before I go to bed, and replaited. It takes a few minutes, but the process is soothing and reassuring, and some claim that you are activating acupressure points on the scalp when you brush. It just feels very nice. I don’t find it heavy (it’s probably silly to try and weight it) but hair doesn’t actually weight a lot anyway.

Anyway, that’s about all I can find the energy to write. Hair is deeply personal, but I don’t think having long hair makes a person more spiritual or psychic.

To Catch The Wind

To catch the wind

There was a busker in Norwich, singing to his guitar, and as I walked past, I found myself in a brief flood of tears. He was singing an old song, one redolent of the sixties and the protest movement, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8hjEYTpwE8 Donovan’s Catch the Wind. It’s a very beautiful, poignant song, both words and music and it caught my aching heart for that moment.

I’ve not written a blog for several months. 2019 has been among the hardest years of my entire life, and it’s only ¾ done. Today’s the autumn equinox, that point where summer and winter pause, stand side by side, and after today, the light lessens and the darkness grows. I feel as though everything is growing dark: the political situation in my own country has riven the land in two, and the rift looks unlikely to heal any time soon. Further afield, the world is in turmoil. It feels as if everything is up for grabs. There are known liars and rapists in office, men (largely men but there are women too whose integrity is at best compromised and at worst, non-existent) who should not be allowed to run a raffle at a school fair, let alone a country. And my father died a few weeks ago. I cannot write of that, not yet.

I was born in the second half of the sixties, and my earliest memories are hazy and homely but I look back at the hope, and the energy, and the belief that we can make things better, and I shake my head and wonder where it leaked away. Then I hear of people like Greta Thunberg, and of the hundreds of thousands who have taken to the streets in my own land, of the millions beyond our shores, to protest and demand that we take action and change the terrible downward spiral of history. And a tiny flame of hope, no bigger than a seed pearl, begins to burn.

Donovan sang of the futility of trying to catch the wind. Yet suddenly, in writing this, I know how to catch the wind.

Hoist your sails, no matter how patched and ragged, and let the wind carry you where it will.

Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away” says the old hymn.

And its daughters too, though we still seem to be seldom mentioned, despite being, on average, a good fifty per cent of the world’s human population.

Whatever your gender, time is an inescapable force, and no matter how you resist, it passes, slipping through your fingers like water, and you find yourself saying things like, “I can’t believe it’s so many years since…”

More than a quarter of a century had passed since I went to Taizé

A lifetime ago, really, yet the memories were unfading, holding my heart in ways that you’d not imagine a single week could. I found the photos shortly before we set off; was I ever that young, really? I’d gone in a highly stressful time in my life; we were about to set off for a new life (I’d have called it an adventure back then but the reality proved to be quite crippling for me, in so many ways) and we’d left keys to our house with the estate agents, hoping they’d sell it before we got back. I’ve written about that visit here. If you’ve read that post, then you’ll know what stayed with me most was the chapel of the well-spring: a little wooden structure built over an actual spring that was directed into a shallow stone trough. You could feel something even before you saw the water or stepped beneath the shingled roof of the shrine; a presence, a sense of the numinous, something otherworldly and deep. Continue reading

A Story of Snow

A Story of Snow

A Story of Snow

It snowed yesterday, the first time this winter; I could smell it coming for days. I’ve always found snow magical, a transformational thing, but this snow before Christmas reminded me of other times of snow that have been transformational.

As a young mum, back in the 90s, I managed to wear out my hyperactive toddler at a mum and baby group, sufficient that both she and I could take a nap. It was February, in the north east of England and there was heavy snow that had laid, and I lived in a little street house with no central heating, so I huddled under the duvet and fell asleep. I woke with a pounding heart and tears streaming down my face after a dream that was so vivid it even included a soundtrack: Winter, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The dream was a short story that I then wrote down, entranced by its power and its vision. Later that year we moved to the Midlands where my husband began his theological training, and still so haunted by the dream and by that story that I realised it was not a stand-alone short but the first chapter of a novel. Writing in the evenings and when my daughter was at playgroup, I scribbled it down, longhand and when it was finished, I began querying publishers. The novel (entitled Winterborn) garnered plenty of interest, and a good number of publishers asked for the whole thing, but ultimately, it all came to nothing but tears and tantrums from me. I still have it somewhere, in both manuscript and typescript.

But that dream and that story, of snow and fear and heartbreak, stayed with me, and eventually came back to me in a newer, more powerful form, and with a complete tale (which Winterborn had been a shadow of) that gripped me and forced me to write it down, word for word as an inner voice dictated it to me. It took seventeen days of frantic, manic, painful (I got blisters) writing that I still count as some of the best days of my whole life. I discovered later that the process itself was called hypergraphia, and later still understood that it had not come out of nowhere but rather out of undiagnosed bi-polar disorder (bi-polar II for exactitude) that I now manage (more or less) without either drugs or medical support.

That novel, too, went round the publishers, with a significant degree of interest, and then failed to find someone who would take it on. Eventually, I published it myself five or so years ago, and while it has garnered almost exclusively wow reviews, it has never sold as well as other novels of mine. Despite that, it’s the novel that I most believe in, as having something extraordinary about it. I still believe that it ought to have been a huge success. But it hasn’t and that may be why the two sequels (both written, one needing only minimal editing before I could think of starting the process of bringing it to publication) still remain unreleased. Dr Johnson once said that no-one but a blockhead ever wrote a book without being asked to, and I am surely a blockhead for writing those sequels.

But it snowed yesterday and the smell of the air and the look of the sky reminded me of the book that still holds my heart. At this time of year, the virtual (and real) bookshops are jam-packed with happy, feel-good, heart-warming tales, usually romances, set in snowy locations and cosy corners of cafes, all written to enhance the festive season and give busy, stressed people a holiday from gritty reality. This is emphatically not such a book. I make no apology for that; the Christmas books I’ve mentioned are generally not books that appeal to me. But this nonetheless is a book about overcoming adversity and tragedy, though it’s almost the antithesis of a romance, and it might suit others who share my predilection for gritty reality and will take you on a journey that has stayed with almost everyone who has read it.

I’m going to share the first few paragraphs here:

He woke with no memory of the recent past, just a cold blank tiredness and a vague sense of disorientation. Lying still in the shadowy vestiges of sleep he tried to place himself in time and space, and as returning sleep rose to drown him again he noticed the blue-white clarity of sound in the cold room, the near fluorescent glow of the light through the partially shut curtains and the muffling of traffic sound on the distant road which all told him that the promise of those few tentative flakes the previous evening had been fulfilled. With the recognition that it had, unbelievably, snowed so heavily before Christmas, came the flood of memory that made a return to sleep impossible, and he sat up, eyes wide, in a room that was only partially familiar, with his heart thumping uncomfortably.

Outside, a layer of snow inches thick reduced a familiar landscape to a white featureless expanse, the leafless trees black against a dirty white sky that promised more snow on top of the already frozen layer. He touched the radiator by the window. It was having a negligible effect, despite being almost too hot to touch. The house felt icy cold when he went downstairs; he kept checking radiators just to reassure himself that the heating was on, that the boiler had not gone out in the night. High ceilings and large rooms took a lot of heating to achieve anything like modern standards of comfort, and much of the house had been built for people who would have lit large fires and worn heavy clothing of wool and fur at this time of year. He had lit no fires yesterday; the drawing room felt so icy he expected to see his breath in wreaths of mist.

The kitchen was better, the Rayburn still warming the large room. He drank water so cold it hurt when it hit his stomach, and then filled the kettle, craving heat. It wasn’t fully light, the reflective surface of the snow making a false dawn, and the bright strip light just seemed to make the shadows sharper. He made coffee, holding the mug with both hands, but while his skin warmed from the contact, it hardly touched the deeper chill. There was a gnawing emptiness his head recognised as hunger, but the thought of food made him feel slightly sick, so the hunger was ignored. He left the mug in the sink and went round to the front of the house where the car stood parked at an angle, marks in the snowy gravel showing hasty braking, and realised with horror that he had not shut the door properly, that the courtesy light was still on and in all probability the battery was flat. It was. A minute of turning the key in the ignition produced sad noises from the car and silent swearing from him.

He locked the car and went inside again, hands now numb from the cold. He could phone for Home Start, he supposed, but decided he couldn’t face it, couldn’t face waiting, so he fetched coat and boots, stuffed a few essentials into his pockets and set out for the bus-stop where the early bus took people from the villages into town. It was inevitably late, driving slowly over impacted snow that the gritters rarely reached on these back roads. Round and round the winding slippery roads, barely faster than a brisk walk, till the main road was reached, startlingly black after the white packed snow of the country roads. Then a few minutes till his stop; the hospital almost picturesque with its domes and humps of snow on insulated roofs, flowerbeds like plump white eiderdowns between salted paths.

To celebrate the start of Advent, The Bet is on offer at £1.99 (or worldwide equivalent) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bet-Vivienne-Tuffnell-ebook/dp/B009ISHLYI/

Tyne Cot Cemetery

Tyne Cot Cemetery

Blood-red the berries the yew trees bear,

Flesh-soft amid the shining dark, yet the fruit falls

Uneaten and ignored, for few birds feed here.

Bone-white the headstones, rank-on-rank,

Shoulder-to-shoulder, some named, some not,

Yet all cared for tenderly, with offerings

Of flowers, crosses, letters and the like.

I did not weep; I could not.

For to begin, one could never make an end.

Instead, I tuned it out, I numbed my soul,

Silenced the internal howls of horror,of grief

For a generation wiped carelessly from the earth,

All hopes and dreams and loves gone, lost,

In a sea of endless mud and politicians’ lies.

October 6th 2017,

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium

This poem appeared in The New European last week.

The Undercover Soundtrack – Vivienne Tuffnell

My second go on the Undercover Soundtrack… enjoy!

My Memories of a Future Life

The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold  a moment still to explore its depths. This week I’m proud to welcome back an author who last posted here in 2012 – Vivenne Tuffnell @guineapig66

Soundtrack by Debussy, Carolyn Hillyer, Medwyn Goodall

It’s been something of a blast from the past, trying to remember the music behind Little Gidding Girl. The novel was written during a period of unprecedented (and sadly, so far unrepeated) creativity probably triggered by hypergraphia (a beneficial by-product of my then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder – I wrote seven in a little less than three years).

Little Gidding Girl was the product of a series of intense, mystical dreams, an obsession with TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and a variety of music that teased…

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“The door we never opened”- how poetry heals past and present for a better future. by Vivienne Tuffnell

“The door we never opened”- how poetry heals past and present for a better future. by Vivienne Tuffnell

Many thanks to Suzie for hosting me.

No more wriggling out of writing ......

LGGToday on Nowriggling I am thrilled to have a guest post by Vivienne Tuffnell. Viv has written for me before, not least as part of Dandelions & Bad Hair Days (I have to thank her for that title) and more recently blogging on Words are tools of healingwhen she published a collection of her essays as Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking. 

Here she writes on a subject very close to her (and my own) heart – poetry. Readers of my blog will know that just six weeks ago I lost my much loved Mum, and I gained solace reading Viv’s recently published novel Little Gidding Girl. I have reviewed it on both Amazon and Goodreads now, with 5* both times and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who likes a book to challenge and move them and at the same time be a rollicking good read

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Guest Post and Review: Vivienne Tuffnell, Author of ‘Little Gidding Girl’

We’re all mad here….

I’m delighted to host author Vivienne Tuffnell today on my blog. Front cover of novel "Little Gidding Girl" by Vivienne TuffnellI’ve followed Vivienne’s blog Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking now for several years, and reblogged one of her posts here; I’ve also read four of her previous books: Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking, Square Peg, Away With the Fairies and Hallowed Hollow. Today she is here to talk about her inspiration for her new novel Little Gidding Girl.

Here is the blurb for the story:

At seventeen, Verity lost the future she’d craved when Nick, her enigmatic and troubled poet boyfriend, drowned at sea. At thirty-five, in a safe, humdrum and uninspired life, she finds that snatches of the life she didn’t have begin to force their way into her real life. This other life, more vivid and demanding than her actual life, begins to gather a terrible momentum as…

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