This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  September 15, 2006

Ears lowered and on the bus


Most people consider a haircut an annoyance on a busy calendar, but I look forward to it. Vanity figures in my anticipation. I like changing my appearance, and this year I’ve gone from longer hair to a buzz cut, and from brown to blond and finally to red highlights. I dread ever becoming a man who still has the semi-hippy haircut he first got in 1973.

But seeing Sarah is the real reason. She’s cut my hair for years and is a coconspirator in my makeovers. I usually nod off while she does her magic. Only once do I remember being startled by what she did when I opened my eyes.

Her father was a preacher who still seems vocationally compelled to point out his daughter’s erring ways. Her mandatory tenure in Bible College was short-lived, her abrupt departure politely labeled a “deep-seated difference in theological perspective.”

I was early on Friday, so I leafed through the paper and read my horoscope for fun. “Be sure and don’t get stuck in rigidity, but flow if you want to be happy,” it announced. I smirked, made a smart remark but duly noted the warning.

Getting a haircut gives us time to catch up on what’s going on in our lives. Sarah’s always reading Joyce Carol Oates or Flannery O’Connor, and I usually get capsule reviews of what she’s read recently. Actually, her salon qualifies as a setting for a Flannery O’Connor story.

There’s a big statue of the Little Flower in one corner. Our Lady of Fatima stands guard in the other while Jesus points to his Sacred Heart next to the sink. A huge black-beaded rosary is draped over the mirror and her scissors are housed in a tabernacle she found in an antique store. She’s not Catholic, so I’m often explaining things Catholic to her -- what a scapular is, what a tabernacle is used for, how the rosary works. There’s not a hint of ridicule in any of her display of Catholic devotion, only a curiosity laced with reverence.

Taking my horoscope to heart, I decided a frontal attack on rigidity seemed in order. “Just buzz it all off,” I said. “I’m in a minimalist mood.”

“OK, we’ll start at a half-inch and work our way down,” she said.

Both our lives have changed a lot recently, so we needed “processing” time. I lost a corporate job not long ago, and learned helping others through change feels nobler, or at least easier, than going through it myself. I’d actually been in the job too long, but safety defended me against boredom, just as a reputable competency substituted for real satisfaction. I needed a change, but I resisted being changed.

So we talked and Sarah listened well as hair fell to the floor.

“I don’t know if I’m built for another corporate job,” I said, “but being a consultant is no picnic either. I’m probably just scared of making a decision,” I finally admitted as even more hair disappeared.

“How did Max’s surgery go?” I asked.

“Not well,” she said with a faint sigh. “The steroids he’s been taking ate away at his hip, but the replacement surgery was a bust. He’ll be on crutches for months,” she added. “How many 20-year-olds need hip replacements? It breaks my heart to watch him. Why can’t he just be an ordinary college student? He doesn’t need this.”

No, he doesn’t, I thought, and neither do you. I just nodded silently.

Max was diagnosed with leukemia about the same time her younger son started setting fires at school and then went kicking and screaming into a drug rehab program. He’s had a sawtooth recovery, but things have begun to settle down.

Sarah is no stranger to heartache, but I’ve never seen her without hope and humor, and that has strengthened me over the years. She’s been subjected to hardship but never overcome, backed into a corner but never overcome by despair. The tip-off I get that she’s struggling is when we listen to Iris DeMent’s Gospel songs, just the sad ones.

When my hair was close to stubble, Sarah said she had an idea for me.

“OK, I’m all ears,” I said. “Tell me.”

“You know,” she said, “I think God wants to take you on a field trip into life; you just need to get on the bus.” Then she started laughing a little and added something else. “But stop waiting for your mommy or daddy to sign a permission slip for you to go.”

My horoscope seemed suddenly superficial, but Sarah’s punch line had the intimate feel of God’s ever-fresh personal advent of grace.

I’m fully expecting I’ll have to give a report next time about whether I went or not, and if I did, whether I saw anything interesting. Maybe next month will be my chance to strengthen Sarah. This month, however, I lost a lot of hair but gained a gracious invitation to consider living more freely and fully.

Joe McHugh is a career consultant and executive coach.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: