The Important Things

I had a couple of hours free this morning, and decided it was time to find out what happens when you get highlights in Addis. There’s a high-end spa a few blocks from my house where I’ve had a couple of incredible massages. I don’t usually love massages, but I was having back spasms and really needed some relief. For about $15 you get at least an hour with a highly trained massage therapist. I don’t know exactly how long, but you know it’s a good massage when you completely lose track of time.

Anyway, it had been almost four months since I got my hair done in Rome, and my dark roots were getting a little bit ridiculous. After three years of bad hair in South Africa, I was so nervous to get my hair done here–but my job situation is still unclear and I may not get back to DC until May. That’s just too long to wait. So I walked over to the spa and asked if they had anyone available today who was good at highlights. I was ushered into the salon, which is so modern and lovely that you could really be anywhere in the world. I thought to myself, maybe this could be great! Maybe I can come here all the time and never have dark roots again! The stylist asked me if I wanted anything to drink. Just water, I said in Amharic. Look at me! I’ve got language skills and style.

“Weha yallem.” There is no water. “Maybe some ginger tea?” No water, but somehow they have ginger tea… Okay, why not.

As soon as I took a sip of the strong tea, I remembered Toni. She was my colleague who brought me fresh ginger tea every morning during the first trimester of my first pregnancy. (I thought my morning sickness was bad, but that was before my second pregnancy!) My eyes immediately started tearing up. Toni passed away last year, and I think of her often. I’m trying not to be sad, because she certainly wouldn’t approve. She was the kind of magnetic and positive person that you just wanted to be around. She was a devoted mother–you could tell by the way she talked about her family–but she came to Washington for our job orientation, and had to leave her kids with her husband for a little while in Jakarta. She never complained about it, though. I’ve known a lot of people in my line of work who had to leave their kids for weeks, months, or even a year. Many of them are bitter and angry about it, or just depressed. I know I would be. But everything Toni said and did came from a place of love. She told me, more than once, that I should consider going back to my natural hair color. If anyone else had said that to me, I would have been offended–but I knew she meant it in the best possible way. She was trying to reassure me that my natural color is just fine, and that I shouldn’t be afraid to embrace it. (Most people just say I look better as a blonde.)

So there I am, foils in my hair, thinking about Toni and wondering if maybe she was right–about my hair, that is. I got lost in this train of thought, imagining what I would say to the stylist if he ruined my hair, wondering if there would be some way to fix it, and trying to figure out how to say “not good!” in Amharic. Luckily, highlights take time to process and rinse. By the time the stylist was blowing my hair dry, I had accepted the outcome, whatever it was. It is just not important. There is no need to get upset about one’s hair. Sure, I feel more confident when my hair looks great. But is that really okay? How much time and energy should I waste on my appearance? What message do I send my girls if I come home crying?

Sure enough, my hair is ruined. Okay, it looks fine. If you are at least ten feet away and I don’t pull it back in a ponytail (which I do EVERY DAY). Yes, I wanted to cry. And no, the staff at the spa didn’t understand at all. They offered to fix it tomorrow, so I’ll go back and see what they can do. But when there are big orangey splotches in your hair, I am not sure there is much you can do to make it look good. But I didn’t cry, and I’m moving on. It will be a funny story, sort of like when I was 13 and got a perm at the Hair Cuttery and they burned a huge chunk of my hair off–in the front. (The same thing happened to Oprah once, so I’m in good company.) After thinking about Toni and her legacy of love, how can I be upset about a bad hairdo? I walked home smiling, thinking about her amazing smile, and had little conversations with everyone I met along the way. When I picked up Charlotte from preschool, she said “you look great, Mama.” And I said thank you. In Amharic. See? Style, and language skills.

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