A certain light

Other people’s words about … vanity (etc.)

Matt’s mother had the bluest of eyes and still wore her hair long, adding henna to soften the appearance of white strands in the black. One of her friends trimmed it for her. ‘Now that you’re forty, maybe you should think of cutting it short.’

His mother looked stricken. ‘I will one day. But not yet. Not yet.’

Her hair was her only vanity. She wore no make-up, and dressed always in shorts or jeans and men’s shirts she bought at op-shops. Even at work she got away with a tidy variation of her uniform, as she called it.

She said that lipstick rotted your brain.

from ‘Mahalia
by Joanne Horniman

Like Matt’s mother in the passage above, I don’t wear any kind of make-up, a habit that stems partly from choice and principle, and partly — honestly? — from laziness and ineptitude. (Which came first — not knowing how to wear make-up, or not wanting to be bothered with it? I can’t say for sure.) I don’t colour or style my hair, either, though I did recently re-introduce myself to a hairdryer after decades of simply washing my hair and letting it dry naturally (or just tying it up, still wet, in a ponytail or a straggly bun in an effort to forget about it).

‘I think you are a rebel, Rebecca,’ an Italian hairdresser said to me wryly, years ago, when I insisted he just wash my hair and trim it and — shock, horror — just leave it at that.

And I thought — I truly thought, with the arrogance of youth — that he meant it as a compliment, though now I’m not so sure.

You used to tell yourself that your hair, with its grey, sometimes made you look blond in certain light or from a distance, but now it really looks as grey as a sad cloudy day, as bleak as crows calling in a fallow field on a sad cloudy day, as miserable as cold rain beginning to fall on that sad cloudy day in that fallow field with the crows wheeling overhead, calling their faraway call that reaches into your heart and splays it open.

from ‘This is the Water
by Yannick Murphy

There is a joy in Horniman’s mother, a joy in the way she views her own appearance, that is entirely absent in the middle-aged narrator in Murphy’s novel: that woman with the fallow, splayed-open heart. Still, depending on my mood, I can feel affinity with either of them at any particular given time. And I wonder, how can that be, when the two women seem so far apart?

The truth is, like Horniman and Murphy, I’m not really talking about vanity here anymore. There’s a fine line between being proud of yourself just the way you are, ‘naturally’, and being filled with futile despair about the havoc that the ageing process and life in general have begun to wreak on you, inside and out. I find myself treading back and forth over that line all the time. Is that a part of ageing? Or of being a woman? Or of something else entirely? I don’t know.

What I do know is this: sometimes the sky is sad and bleak and cloudy, as Murphy describes it, and sometimes it is clear, but it is always wide and high and open. And what keeps it that way is the light that shines behind and through …

3 thoughts on “A certain light

  1. Love your honest exploration of these quotes, Rebecca. It is a complicated thing to be a ‘woman of certain age’ in this culture. For me, I’m doing my best to accept my natural aging, easier some days than others. But I look upon every gray/white hair as a badge of courage for all that I have been through, worthy of respect if not admiration! 😉

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