This month's Hairpisode is by Bruce Holland Rogers, award-winning fiction writer and creativity consultant. Bruce's passion for writing has taken him around the globe; he's taught writing seminars in England, Denmark, Greece, Finland, and Portugal, as well as teaching for a semester at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest on a Fulbright grant. Currently, he teaches fiction as a faculty member of the low residency Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, and, in addition to ongoing writing projects, writes 36 stories a year through shortshortshort.com.
I am a Japanophile. A key element of Japanese esthetics is mono no aware, which is often translated as the “the impermanence of things” or “the pathos of things.” Aware, by itself, is an old expression of surprise—not the fight-or-flight surprise when someone jumps out of the shadows with a yell, but the surprise of seeing cherry blossoms in the morning. So I think of mono no aware as the “oh my of things.” Contained in that “oh my” are both the mild surprise of noticing something and the gentle sorrow of knowing that it won't last. Oh my, here is a thing! Oh my, there it goes!
In my early thirties, I developed some patches of itchy, flaky scalp. The doctor pronounced it a case of seborrheic dermatitis. I was pleased to have what I thought was the sort of diagnosis that had a definite cause and cure attached. Seborrheic dermatitis. It sounded so specific.
As it turned out, seborrheic dermatitis means “itchy, flaky skin.” Once the doctor ruled out a few possible causes, he concluded that the itchy spots were the result of me being me. For its own unknowable reasons, my skin had become itchy and flaky. I could soothe the skin. The itching and flaking might go away. Or they might not.
Eventually, those spots on my scalp improved, but the hair grew in white, giving me these two distinct spots. My girlfriend at the time called them my fawn spots, like the white markings on a baby deer. They were my first white hair.
Of course, my spots weren't at all a sign of youth. They were an advance signal of the color that all of my hair would be one day, if I lived long enough. They were a reminder of mortality, but rather than an ominous skull hidden in the painting of my life, my spots were kind of cute... and were mostly hidden from me.
Anxiety about death comes with being human, but mono no aware helps many Japanese adults feel at ease about aging. The first gray hair isn't as likely to make them reach for bottled color. Instead, the first gray hair is met with mild recognition. Oh my, there is something new. Oh my, there goes the earlier me. I'm moving in time with all things, as is right, as is sad, as is beautiful.
A very young Japanese woman may enjoy wearing bright, girly, even stagily erotic clothing, up until her twenty-sixth birthday. After that, she will dress more conservatively. I have never seen a Japanese woman who did not dress her age. A woman of twenty-six might feel a little sad as she gets rid of that bright and sexy outfit that brought her so much attention. She can still dress attractively, but there is no more sense in keeping that outfit than there would be in trying to tape the fallen petals back onto the cherry tree.
After my spots came in, a few of my whiskers turned white. The woman I was with wanted me to dye my beard on the grounds that she was too young to be paired with a man with a gray beard. So I did, while we were together. After we parted, I shaved my beard, and the white one that grew in startled and dismayed me. Now my face displayed the same memento mori as the back of my head. I'm not Japanese, so it took a while for me to incorporate mono no aware in my daily assessment of the face in my mirror.
Year by year, my white spots become more subtle as the rest of me catches up, and as my acceptance catches up with my reality.
Oh, my! Hello, whiteness! Oh, my! Goodbye, middle age! Oh, sad and beautiful goodbyes! Every day, every moment, a tender goodbye, a sweet goodbye. Delicious heartbreaking joyful beauty of goodbye.
—Bruce Holland Rogers