It happened after I asked my mom to curl my hair with a hot iron.
I hid my motives from her. I was a child by child’s standards. Maybe 9? Most of my memories that feature an aware sense of self versus being just a visual memory start around this age, so I am quick to assign a psychologically imperative memory of which my age is vague to number 9.
What I told her was that I wanted to try having my hair curled by a curling iron. No big deal, Mom, just curious. What I didn’t tell her is that I wanted to look like Wynonna Judd. Yes, the country superstar who brought the country—nay, the world—such hits as “No One Else On Earth” and “Mama He’s Crazy.”
We lived on a hill draped in two acres of soft green blanket, a protective covering for worms, baby moles and secrets the former homeowner’s dog left behind for us to find and treasure. When we weren’t there, we were usually at the dairy farm my dad owned.
All of this is to say my siblings and I played outside a lot. Sometimes I pilfered animal bones from the gardens and creeks to keep under my bed. I tucked them into a crevice near the back beside my continual work in progress: soap carvings.
I’d say I “didn’t get out much,” but that means I was, technically, out all the time. The rare hours that we were inside, I was doing about what you’d expect. Reading or watching Wynonna on television or perfecting the Achy Breaky Heart dance or sneaking off to put butter knife to soap cow. I longed to give them as Christmas gifts to my parents, who probably just wondered where their Irish Spring bars were going.
The soap sculptures never turned out how I expected, though. In fact, nothing ever looked like I thought it was going to, never the way I envisioned in my head.
The creeping dread about this reality eventually washed over my worldview and seeped into my psyche like water into sawdust — a new consistency entirely but one that seemed as if it had always belonged that way. It happened when I tried to become Wynonna.
Why her? We both have red hair. That’s really it. Maybe she seemed powerful or interesting and I just don’t remember that part, but I think it really was all about me at that point.
Mom, being the good mom she was, diligently curled my hair, cheerful when it was done, telling me to “look in the mirror,” with that up-swinging intonation of anticipation that only moms can deliver. I cried immediately. And for the rest of the day. I brushed out the curls, put my hair in a ponytail, and hid under a headband.
I really thought that if my hair achieved the texture of Wynonna’s, I would look exactly like her. I felt the same way about makeup; if I wore the mascara in the ads I would look identical to the models who side-eyed me back from magazine pages.
This is around the age that if asked, “If you were ever stranded on a deserted island and could only take one food item with you, what would it be,” I would answer grapes. They are, I reasoned, both food and “water.” Grapes make you not hungry and can also quench your thirst, which is what you need to survive. Grapes were a triple threat (food, water, delicious treat), much like my Wynonna (singer, redhead, tight with her sister). As far as brilliance in school yard games go, I had reached its pinnacle with this answer to the deserted island riddle.
Sometimes I would be afraid our house on the hill would blow up like a volcano, because that’s what elevated land does, according to what I deduced from the volcano episode of Reading Rainbow.
But at least my evolving education on reality was met by many children experiencing and seeing the same things. Watching the same TGIFs and Reading Rainbows. Eating off the same white plates with the flower and ribbon motif-ed edge. Moving the same bowtie mouse through the days of December on the same Santa Claus countdown calendar.
My generation’s visual memories have reoccurring themes, the occasional north star of which we can all look upon, which gives us an identity the next generations might not share. It’s comforting, but even we are more fragmented than the generation before us.
For example, regional, cultural and political differences melt away among so many older people if both experienced the same war. They want to work together because they don’t have to empathize to feel the other’s pain when it’s theirs too. Or if you need each other to survive, you have to compromise. What even ties us to each other anymore?
Today’s strange dichotomy of overexposing ourselves while also perfectly curating exactly what we let others see should come as no surprise then. The “personal brand” revolution is a symptom of boredom and desperation to latch on to something that can connect us to one another before our communities disintegrate into something new entirely. Simply being seems not to be enough.
I’m not sure how I feel about it all and I’m not sure where I fit in. I escape a lot to stories in my head, stories I won’t ever tell anyone. They’re like my animal bones or soap sculptures or desire to look like Wynonna Judd. Things to pull out and look at when I don’t understand what’s going on. Things I’ve made up and have control over. Things I know for sure.
We all have secrets as we work through life. We shouldn’t always share them but sometimes we feel like we should in some way or another. Those are the ones you have to look out for. Their roots frequently manifest into other ticks, quirks or full-blown addictions that are seemingly unrelated.
I used to make up outrageous lies to my siblings about how I could talk to our cats or tell an animal’s gender by feeling their shoulder blades. I was a real jerk about it all, but I just wanted to be special.
So maybe an identity crisis is just that our “brand” changed. Our way of knowing ourselves is constantly evolving, but there are always big moments we can point to as moments where things shifted, which is why we so often point to age as a moment when the shift happened. A number is so tangible.
But why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to define who we are or the world we live in right then, in that moment anyway? It’s hard to give ourselves the space to be broken while we turn into something new, but if we did, maybe it wouldn’t feel so alarming when we wake up and feel five degrees different instead of the usual two.
I’ve felt five degrees different every day of late. Big changes have happened. On purpose, so they’re not as shocking as ones that aren’t, but they still make me think I’ll need a new life bio description after this. In the past six months I’ve moved to a new state, gotten engaged, started a new job, quit drinking, and learned I just can’t wear things from Forever 21 anymore and feel like a grown ass woman.
But I feel desperately uncool in sensible shoes. So in the meantime, as I get used to a new reality, I hold on to the parts of me that will always be there.
Recently I was home on our hill, outside riding unicorns and slaying dragons with the children of our family’s next generation. I ran to the house for a break and headed to the bathroom, which just got a makeover my parents had been saving for. There’s a bright new sink and shower and wallpaper, but in one of the cabinet drawers I found a relic, like the chewed up time capsules we used to find around the house as kids.
I ran my fingers over the soft hills of the handle on the dusty, decades-old yellow hair brush and looked in the mirror at my face — mine. It’s 30-year-old flesh and bone now, and I curl its red hair every morning. I haven’t thought about Wynonna in ages.
My crisis then was that I couldn’t be someone else. My identity now is that, most days, I don’t want to be.
Click to see original image: