July 2010


I vividly remember the discovery of my first gray hair.  It was at a volleyball tournament, and no, I wasn’t coaching and the gray didn’t come from working with teenagers as you would expect.  I was a player.  15 years old.  A teammate was braiding my hair for a match and told me (and my other teammates) the news; it quickly became the major headline of the day.

Somehow that attention didn’t bother me, which would shock you if you knew me then, the me with the countenance of a poorly-tied shoelace and a knack for self-deprecation.  I hated being tall, having a big nose, and somehow, at six feet and 140 lb, thought I was fat.  But, the gray hair, I liked.  It hid in the back of my head and made me feel distinguished, safely removed from the adolescent zoo.  I babied my gray hairs and admired them for years.  I laughed with my hairstylist about the little surprises she found under my then-massive brown tresses.  A few years ago I decided I would not dye them away until I was at least 30, to make the most of having gray hair before I was “old”.

Unbeknownst to me, however, my head is extremely fertile soil for gray hair.  So that now, at 28, I am 75% gray.  And it does not look distinguished. This is no Monsters v. Aliens giant white-haired super hero look.  No, more like having a dirty dish towel on my head.  The hairs are fragile and unruly.  Every time I look in the mirror I’m surprised and distracted by it.  Can I handle 18 more months of this?  My pride pleads with me to leave it alone while my vanity screams, “Dye it!  Highlight it!  No one will know!”

My gray expectations (sorry, so bad, I know…) intertwined with my more broad expectations about the future.  In my teens and early twenties, heck, even in elementary school, I longed for a glimpse into later years.  I wanted to know how I would turn out, I idealized life as an adult, with no one telling you what to do and when to do it.  It could not come soon enough.

The sub-conscious invincibility I felt as an adolescent only made itself known as it faded, replaced by uncertainty through stark encounters with the dangers of the wide world and the heavy weight of decision-making.  I think back on that gray-hair admirer from 15 years ago and wonder how she would feel if she could glimpse forward.  If she could see the startling development of her hair and the life that surrounds it.  Would she approve?  Have I disappointed her?  I tend to want her satisfied, to be able to sit down with her and see the awe in her face at the marvelous stories to come down the road.

A friend of mine from college who is an artist and art teacher recently wrote about a dream she had where she encountered her 5 year-old self.  In the dream she sat down with her little self and gave herself an art book and crayons.  I love this perspective on who she is now.  It’s not up to us to satisfy the hope and dreams of the child we were.  If I could go back and talk with myself, I would instruct me to work hard, to give my later self a head start pursuing a future in the things I love and to stop waiting for the future to come to me.  To stop trying to feel removed  and safe and start being vulnerable and investing.  To give each gray hair a story, and not just a time-line.  And in case the me from 15 years from now would come back and tell me the same thing, I plan to get busy.  In Nashville, for now.  With very gray hair at the moment.

He looked out from the cliffs at the pink remnants of sun setting over the Pacific in famously scenic La Jolla and said, “You know, if this was a video game, it’d be a lot more beautiful.”

I had been dating this boy for about a month when he said those words to me.  I stood there, racking my brain as to how I had missed it till now.  Cleverly disguised as a musician, he had actually been (a term I had never known existed before) a “gamer”.  Not familiar?  It’s the term people who are comfortable with their obsession with video games use for themselves.  A “gamer”.  My previous interest in athletes and musicians left me without the radar for this type of person.  How could anyone choose to play games on a screen instead of real life?  A “gamer”.  Let’s be honest, the rest of the world’s word for that is “nerd”.

Now, almost nine years later and working on anniversary number five with this same boy, I have the full story behind the situation.  Unbeknownst to me, when I met Jaron he was in the middle of a sort of self-revolution.  He was intentionally ridding himself of screen-based entertainment in an effort to get reacquainted with the real world.  The less pretty, more challenging, and far more rewarding real world.  Where climbing a hill makes you sweat and war doesn’t have a restart option and pretty women have souls.  His self-examination had an effect on me, too, and we spent the first years of our marriage sans internet, cable, and fancy cell phones.  We went to the beach instead, seaweed, sting rays and all, and have real, salty, cold, sun-burnt, exhilarating memories from it.  I wouldn’t trade them for Wii surfing no matter how much more convenient it is.

But recently I was reading Annie Dillard, in preparation for a conference we’re attending, and was struck at just how far I’ve let myself sink away from real life again.  It is so easy to give more thought and attention to my iPhone than to my dinner date or the expensive food he’s just bought me.  My attentiveness is so lax, in fact, that I can’t even keep my phone in my pocket while watching TV.  But in The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard spends an entire book describing one valley.  It’s rich and adventurous and scary and beautiful.  She sees things that are incredibly special in that year.  Disgusting things like a preying mantis eating its mate, intricate things like a freshly-woven spider web, exotic things like a Giant Water Bug.   Notably, though, in the Blue Ridge Valley of Virginia, these things are routine.  Her ability to see them comes out of her desire to see them, to be engaged with the life that surrounds her.

The attentiveness she describes flies in the face of the life the majority of us currently lead – where we are enslaved to debt production, visual entertainment, the false luxury of “checking out” of our lives on a regular basis.  We spend hours every week disappearing from ourselves and the world around us, only to resurface with nothing changed except eyes that are a little more blank than they were before.

What happens if we play the designated role for a modern day consumer?  Will we wake up at 45 with a mortgage on a cookie-cutter house with a big screen, a passably maintained lawn, and a career as a professional sitter?

Jaron and I have been pursuing simplicity, mostly in spurts, for the last few years.  I’m convinced that the most difficult and most important tool in that pursuit is the ability to really see.  Whether it’s ancient ruins in Greece, or a single blade of grass, or that “lone drop of water making its weary way across that perfectly waxed surface“, we want to feed our ability to be present with our ears, in our words, and especially, with our eyes.

So, as step one, with an admitted bit of fear as any good addict would have, and sad to have fewer excuses to put “i” in front of words superfluously, after two years attached at the fingertips, I’m saying “good-biPhone”.

Anybody want to buy it off me?  🙂