I have feathers in my hair. Eight, to be exact. One is a woodpecker feather from my mom’s fly-tying box. White polka dots on ebony black. One is a downy-looking white and grey striated one that a student gifted me in Chile – it came from Easter Island. Last summer my grandma gave me a ceremonial hawk feather to add to the collection. And the rest? Blonde, brown, black and white. They hang down my back. They get tucked into a bun when I am teaching. I stroke them when I am in deep thought. I shampoo them with the rest of my hair. I pull them gently aside when I brush it.
To three years ago.
When I turned down the offer. The 5-year funded PhD offer. An offer that seemed to be served up to me on a silver platter. Professors that I adored. A cohort with that desperately-glued-together-love-each-other-for-real summer camp feel. And I had felt, for the first time in my life, that I was really good at something. It happened to be writing. Academic papers. It turns out I am a pattern-seeker. I see patterns, connections, commonalities, where few people think to look. And I frame them within real-world contexts, and rarely take myself too seriously. Which they seemed to like. But it’s past-tense now. Framed. Took. Sought.
Because I felt that I had too much life to live. Too much air to breathe. Too many paces to sprint across.
Ten years ago,
I lost a brother.
A best friend. Someone who had guided me through every difficult situation since birth. And the loss of that Ross, it gave me a skewed sense of how I wanted to live my life. Or perhaps, more accurately, it gave me a more vivid sense of life.
In his absence,
I didn’t want to waste time.
I didn’t want to squander the hours of sunshine, the miles of laughter, the intensity of a firmly-held hand. No way. Not in my lifetime. I was certain (and still am) that he watches me. And nudges me in the direction of my dreams. A firm nudge, sometimes.
that often gives me
So back to the Boston University East Coast trip and the feathers in my hair.
I declined the offer. Because I had a lovely, handsome partner waiting for me in the ‘Rado. And I felt that life as an academic, as glamorous as it seemed then, would not…enrich me. My favorite professor, who also happened to be the department chair, was stunned and disappointed. And perhaps more than a bit puzzled.
I declined because for me, in that moment, it felt like the choice that was wild and free.
So I went home to live at the foot of the mountains. And worked in a cubicle as a copywriter. For a very fancy-schmancy travel company. I used words like “illustrious” and “curated” and “bespoke.” I wrote about thread counts, researched the see-and-be-seen hot spots, and cooed over four-million dollar homes.
And my soul began to die a little. One molecule at a time. And the walls of the cubicle began to move in on me. One centimeter at a time. And the commute that I had convinced myself was a breezy 40 minutes started to look like an hour and fifteen.
And I began to feel like I was contagious.
Because I brought the “mala leche” (Spanish for bad milk – or an overall cranky attitude) home with me. To my to-die-for handsome and nearly-perfect husband. I spilled that cranky milk all over our warm hardwood floors. Even the sunlight filtering in through our leaded glass windows couldn’t ameliorate my cubicle pain.
And so it had to end.
I quit my copywriting job.
I resigned myself to eating Ramen for the rest of my life.
I booked a trip to the East Coast with my newfound vacation time. Boston. Kennebunkport. Cape Cod. With my mom.
And then, to prove to myself and everyone else, that I was indeed, wild and free,
I put feathers in my hair.
Not the one dinky little feather that starts at the root of your hair that you wear to a Phish concert. Not like that. This is a featherlock. A big, chunky dreadlock of the avian variety. You can’t get it at a hair salon. You have to acquire the feathers yourself. Your best friend Sloop has to put them in with needle nose pliers and make the tiny braid just right. You’ve got to have your own fly-ass featherist [pun intended]. And you have to commit to looking like a questionable Rastafarian.
But most important of all, you have to rock that shit. Because you believe in yourself. Because you believe in your dreams.
Because in your steep descent after being pushed off the ledge, then, and only then, do you remember that you have wings.
So I show up in Boston with a featherlock. To spend my 28th birthday with my Boston friends, to vacation with a godmother in Kennebunkport (where we happened to see former Pres. George Bush Sr. takin’ his boat out for a spin!), and to see one of my most badass grad school friends get married in Brewster.
Hiding among the planters at the Liberty Hotel.
served best with chilled champagne. all fancy like.
And they ask about the featherlock. Specifically, Joyce asks about it at her bridal luncheon, surrounded by all of her fashionable friends. She wiggles her eyebrows in that way that says “I think it’s pretty strange. But I like strange. So that means it’s cool.” And she’s like the queen of cool.
And I smile my big Colorado smile and say “It makes me feel wild and free.” And she flutters those fabulous eyelashes we were all fawning over and nods her head in acknowledgment. Yes, she seems to concede, Bethany is wild. And she seems to think she’s free. Good for her.
This was the night, I believe, that we got locked out of our “quaint” Cape Cod B&B.
This summer, the featherlock returns. And at a staff meeting, the chair of my department, my supervisor and boss, sits directly behind me for several hours. And he asks me, in a somewhat neutral tone, about my feathers.
Him: “What’s up with the feathers?”
Me: Pause. Big Colorado smile. “They make me feel wild and free.”
Him: Long pause.
Me: “Last fall I took them out because I thought they were unprofessional. But this year I think I’ll leave them in.”
Him: Another long pause. A smile. “You know what worries me? I worry when people teach in sweatpants. Now that’s unprofessional. I’ll be worried when you start teaching in sweatpants.”
Me: Quiet laugh.
Him: “What kinds of feathers are in there, anyway?”
Last month, one evening at 10,000 feet in Fairplay, Colorado, beneath a setting Rocky Mountain sun, just before the zillions of stars flung themselves upon that india ink sky, I put feathers in my mom’s hair. Because she, too, is wild and free.
And a few weeks ago, on a hot June night, when my mother-in-law asked what the feathers “meant” in mine and my mom’s hair, we both looked at her, smiled, and explained in three words: “wild and free.”