Monday, August 30, 2004

Hair

As a girl my hair, dark and thick, and contained in heavy braids, reached down past my waist. I had to elbow it out of the way when I sat down. It took all day to dry after bathing and in cold weather even longer, so that in winter I was loathe to shampoo. Sometimes my head hurt from its weight and I would ask permission to unbraid it. Then I would lie down and fan it out around me like a shawl or the rays of a dark sun. The family brand was Prell but sometimes I used my mothers' Herbal Essence and I remember its flowery scent and the pleasure of shaking out my hair still damp and wavy from braiding.

My grandmother was as Finnish as you can get without actually having been born there, and she would switch between languages without warning. Her hair was thin and yellowish gray, and she wore it in a peculiar fashion that I've never seen repeated. It was parted down the middle and wound up in two small flat buns at the back of her head, like tail-lights. She wore a hairnet and a lot of bobbypins and never seemed to have her hair down. Perhaps she slept with it like that but it couldn't have been comfortable.

My mother's hair was also very long although I knew it had been short when she was a girl because I'd seen a photograph. It was silky and brown, and she marcelled the front a little, faintly Elvis-like, with some kind of pomade, and swept the rest back into a French twist which was secured by bobby pins and a mist of AquaNet. She could do this all by feel, if necessary. No mirror needed. When she took the pins out at night before bed, I would touch the tight curl left in the tail of her hair. I loved that curl.

In high school I was known as the girl with the longest hair, and having nothing else to be boast about, became rather proud of it. On the schoolbus I would release my braids, fluff out my enormous shroud of hair around my shoulders, and wait for the comments. Once a boy in Algebra class remarked that I looked like Juliet. He had just seen Olivia Hussey in the Zefferelli movie. I didn't care for the boy at all, but I savored his compliment for years before I actually saw the film and even more so afterward. Ms. Hussey was luminous, divine. (And my chubby adolescent self bore no resemblence to her -- other than the long, dark hair.)

One of my first acts of self-definition, on leaving the OALC as a teenager, was a haircut at a beauty salon. Not short, but shorter, with layers and wisps and a completely novel sense of movement. Afterward, I kept tossing my head like a mare and smiling. I was Samson in reverse, fortified by lightness. I didn't think to ask for a lock, a keepsake.

That first haircut was rebellious but also a concrete way of claiming my identity as a person, not a symbol. I had been taught that my hair was of vital importance -- it was not to be shorn or adorned, it was my crowning glory, and it was to be covered in church by a headscarf. I never could make out the logic in all that, but the implication was that a woman's hair is so alluring that it might divert attention, and that it was the woman's responsibility to hide it. Later I would learn that this practice of covering the hair is not unique to OALC or to fundamentalists such as the Mennonites or Amish that I would occasionally glimpse in long dresses and scarves, fellow tourists usually, at places like Yellowstone where we vacationed in the summer. Nor is it unique to Christians, of course.

Why? Why is female hair such a potent symbol? Is this not a perversion of power, all around? Why can't women choose to cover or not cover their heads as they see fit?

I now have shoulder-length hair that is easy to wash and dry and carry around all day. I don't think much about it, but when I do, it seems satisfactory. Of all my attributes as a human being, it ranks quite low. There ARE times when I want to cover it from the sight of others, such as when I haven't had time to shower, or on the third day of camping in the woods. Then a baseball cap does the trick.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

At Last, a Place in Cyberspace

When I left the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church at the age of 18, I gave up not only my religion but my family, my friends and my support network. There was no way of knowing who else had left the church or how to contact them if I had known. I was on my own without a 12-step program, support group, or therapist trained in the particular psychological issues of leaving this fundamentalist sect, which teaches its adherents that salvation is possible only within its walls, and the price of leaving is to be shunned by members and indeed, by God.

It took me years of therapy and the love of many, many good people to deal with my past and create a healthy, happy family of my own. Over the years I have searched the internet for information on the OALC. I learned more online about its founder, Lars Levi Laestadius, than I ever did from the church, and I still remember my surprise at discovering that this revered "prophet" was a botanist turned revivalist who lived in the 1800's -- not the time of Christ.

But I've yet to find information on "my" OALC online (although there is information about related churches and about Laestadius). Recently a google search led me to a heated dialogue on pasty.com (you can find it in their archives).

This blog is a beginning.

Let me say here that my experiences in the church are just that, mine. No doubt there are former OALC members with very different experiences. Even happy ones.