by Kleitia Vaso

“We shall not cease from exploration. At the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot

I thought of something similar, not nearly as beautifully phrased, on a phenomenon that may seem idiotic at first sight. Forgive me, if it does, although I am not really sorry. Sorry, I ain’t sorry, as Beyoncé puts it. But, I have to acknowledge the unease that may be caused by the juxtaposition of the great poet’s phrase with my own random thoughts, especially when such thoughts concern something as superficial as my hair.

The last few days have been unusually sunny here in the north. J. and I choose to believe that the sun, sensing our apprehension and fear at separating from it, accompanied us just until we felt more at home again. Not to imply that colder places don’t have their own advantages. For instance, the water in this northern town is especially pure, so pure in fact, that one can still actually drink it straight from the tap, a no longer possible practice in most places. The last time I remember drinking tap water with no lingering doubts and regrets is located far back, in my childhood, centuries ago in terms of lifestyle and pushed further back by my life in several different countries since then. I mention the sun and water not to moralize on how we have destroyed our cities and, consequently, our bodies, but simply to highlight their beatific effect on my hair.

To cut a long story short, I woke up one morning and was dazzled by its shine and color. I could detect nuances that I hadn’t seen in years, streaks of wheat, sand, copper, bronze. I was thankful at seeing it once again and confirming that my own memories of it were not heightened by nostalgia for a faraway me. Yet, I could only thus appreciate it after years of regularly covering it up and a few weeks during which it had struck me as especially dull and boring.  So boring, in fact, that after a brief respite of a couple of years, I considered coloring it again, hoping to artificially “revive” it. But, I refrained from any impulsive action. The color-break followed decades of color and only came urged by fearing the end was near. I sensed that now or never would be the time to see my old hair once more.

The weeks in which this newfound freedom was placed in danger were ones spent in my birth city which is necessary to my well-being but not to that of my hair. Or to anybody’s for that matter. I admire the women who could still manage to emit light in this polluted, shape-shifting city. Yet, I also feel pity for the money spent and time wasted on adding or stripping, straightening or fluffing up when each element that is meant to feed you, attacks you like an angry aggressor.  By elements, I do not mean shampoos and lotions but fresh air, pure water, sun, the oxygen of flowers and trees, the iodine of the sea inhaled through every pore. In my bravest dream, I imagine myself as a being who does not need shampoos and cosmetics but can be purified and rejuvenated through the power of the elements. The truth is not far, I sense that. I can sense it by its dark side, the opposite, impurity everywhere which only piles up things that are made necessary in order to cover it up.

The perpetually matte look which takes over the day of the landing and ends once you take off, is caused by severe air pollution and water that contains an unusually high amount of limestone. I am attempting to sound like a chemist but theoretical knowledge is unnecessary when you’re dealing with such obvious pollution. You can feel the water’s harshness the moment it hits your hair and body and, alternately, you can feel the softness of every other place’s water once you are safely away. The air furthers the dulling process by layering a veneer of grime all over your skin as soon as you step out into your own beloved city which you have to leave precisely because of these and other man-made betrayals. In order to escape this uglyfying and seriously health-damaging effect, the wealthiest people in the country, those who have helped, in fact, create the unbearable pollution for enormous personal gain, have safely retired to the hills surrounding the city. There, above all the commoners, they feel safe, but I am afraid that, one day, they will reap the fruits of their labors. The damage has already been done. The poison is in and is slowly working its way.

I have seen its effects, in a faraway place. Faraway only physically at this stage for it is everywhere. In the hill communities and the non-profit organizations sprouting like mushrooms after the rain, in the malls and young people’s self-definition and language, I recognized America. The idyllic city of my childhood, once perfect-sized, now expanded to fit more people, more business, bigger highways, an ungodly number of cars. With a shudder, I looked at the villas on the hills, the suburbs where children will grow to play either alone or with friends whose parents fall in the same income bracket. I even noticed the changed body shapes, bigger but not necessarily better. I gained clarity, I lost my nostalgia although I will always belong to the city and it will always belong to me, even mutilated as it is now, changed as we both are. I also understood America better, the necessary geographical distance enabling me to value its benefits and not only perceive what it lacked in perpetual comparison to my place of origin. I saw its beginnings and understood that people are the same everywhere, assuming the shame that is assigned them.

With some pain, I realize that clarity is often unpleasant. I have lost my interest in reading magazines, for instance, one of the greatest pleasures during my life in the U.S. Whenever I had time and I needed to look at beautiful things, I would open a magazine and look at the beautiful photos, smell the perfume samples, read about upcoming books or movies to be excited about, to look forward to. And, then, growing up, I saw that the people written about, the ones photographed are the children of those featured before. I understood, somewhat unwillingly, that mostly every book, movie, album satisfies an aspect of a greater agenda or is somehow supported from within. I suppose in the male world, this would be akin to discovering that your favorite sports team gets paid to forfeit games.

Today, having read the terrible news of yet another mass shooting in the United Sates, I sensed that the peak of civilization, its end, in a way, overlaps with our barbarous beginnings. And, going back to Eliot’s words, perhaps we only understand our birth at the instant of our death. This journey, however, is one I would rather be long and full of unseen and still-surprising deviations. In order to reach the end and return to the beginning, we must go through the middle, our life, the only one we have in order to understand.

by Kleitia Vaso