Last weekend I sat with my head in a sink for five hours. I watched the door. Lots of smiling people were coming in and out of it, their bodies momentarily illuminated completely white as they passed through the sunlit entryway. I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

It was the first warm day after a strange winter. The weather got below freezing only a few assorted days, and had crested to 99 degrees in Denver in February. We barely even got any snow in New York. Nevertheless, there was a relaxed energy on Austin street that day, since it was 74 degrees for the first time since the Autumn. I had chosen that day to change my hair.

Years before, my first job in New York had been at an advertising agency. I was the receptionist. All day I sat in a lobby where computer monitors mounted on the walls around me silently played the agency’s best commercials. Over and over I saw the slogans, day in and day out, for years. While I was still working there, my husband died inexplicably. It was then that I came to know the deepest misery of my life. I was fired from that job, I became alienated from everyone, I drank heavily all night every night. I wrote a suicide note and left it clearly displayed, in case the misery overcame me one night.

Deep in that misery one night, as I lay breathing heavily on my kitchen floor, drunk, swollen faced from crying, I closed my eyes and saw the monitors from the agency.

“make one small change”

 

I observed it, in my mind’s eye. On the screen it was slowly spelled out in cursive, as though written by an invisible hand. I fell asleep, there on the stone floor of the kitchen.

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The next day I walked my dog Mina, and stopped at a pharmacy. Dog under one arm, I stood in front of the dental hygiene section, looking at the toothpaste. Mina panted intermittently and looked around. They didn’t have the toothpaste I wanted, the kind I always use. I stood there, shifting my weight, the drone of the fluorescent lights coming in and out of focus, looking at the four brands they did have, as though waiting for the correct one to appear. Then I simply made a selection, too depressed to be annoyed or go elsewhere for the brand I liked. Unwittingly, I had just made one small change.

I don’t recall if I liked the toothpaste or not. I don’t even remember what kind it was. And I don’t recall when it occurred to me that I wasn’t using “our” toothpaste, but I remember being hurt by it, and yet – also thinking it might be good to have a “my” toothpaste.

It made me think of the serenity prayer that I had heard in the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings I used to attend with an old boyfriend. The boyfriend was an unpleasant memory, but the words of the prayer still had some merit.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (dead husband), courage to change the things I can (toothpaste), and the wisdom to know the difference. (So far, so good.)

I tried it with other things. I bought a juice smoothie simply because I never drink juice. I walked a different way to the train. I wrote with pens other than just my favorite one. I bought a shirt in a color I never wear. Bit by bit, I changed the things I could. It cost me nothing, it wasn’t really a struggle, and it made me feel a little bit more I could choose the direction my life was headed, rather than being a prisoner of some vehicle on a one-way track to death and misery.

Pablo Neruda wrote

You start dying slowly
if you do not travel,
if you do not read,
If you do not listen to the sounds of life,
If you do not appreciate yourself.
You start dying slowly
When you kill your self-esteem;
When you do not let others help you.
You start dying slowly
If you become a slave of your habits,
Walking everyday on the same paths…
If you do not change your routine,
If you do not wear different colours
Or you do not speak to those you don’t know.
You start dying slowly
If you avoid to feel passion
And their turbulent emotions;
Those which make your eyes glisten
And your heart beat fast.
You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice…

(Pablo Neruda, “You Start Dying Slowly,” transl. Barry Daniel)

So I read more Pablo Neruda. And I read more… everything. Then, one day, I went skydiving. Another day, I flew to Portugal and walked to Spain.  (Well, that actually took me seventeen days.) Another time, I signed up for lessons in horseback riding, and then tango lessons, and so on. I chose to live. No – I chose a new life.

Now, when my life begins to feel like it’s getting stuck again, whether it’s my job or my routine or my weight, or even just the winter blues, I make one small change. This kind of little decision-making seeps into my consciousness and helps to make me feel less trapped and helpless, and reminds me to drive, to choose my course, to pay attention and not get lazy or complacent. In my opinion, the best kind of life is a vigilant one, where we choose to be our best selves in every moment. It’s easier to do that if you practice keeping your mind awake all the time, and one way to help increase awareness is to change things up. Another is to meditate, and there are others too, but let’s keep this blog post brief, for the sake of one-lesson-at-a-time.

Back to the sink in the salon. They were lightening my hair, and the color was being stubborn. My hair was black. People used to ask me why not lighten it like everyone else? Why not go blonde for the summer, and I would reply, “I just don’t have a blonde soul.” I do spend a lot of time reading, and tend to get philosophical at best, if not existential, due to the culmination of experiences in my life. I’m not your stereotypical blonde. But I had decided I was done with black hair, too. So, after five hours and several applications to lighten my hair, the color we arrived at was auburn. A rather reddish shade of it.

Ok, I thought, red. I can rock red. In fact, it looks pretty good. I look younger, I have a little more glow.

And, you know what? If I decide I don’t like it, I can make another change. ⬛