Andy and I went to see H last Saturday for our typically overdue haircuts. When I made the appointment, I remembered that this fall was Ramadan, but wasn’t quite sure if it had ended or not. Over the years, I’ve had a couple of my visits to H fall during Ramadan. On those occasions, I’ve felt a bit of remorse having a full stomach while she’s worked on my hair in the middle of a fast. We’re not talking a Beverly Hills detox, where you get all the Fiji water & fresh lemon juice you can carry in your Rachel Zoe Medusa bag. We’re talking hardcore deprivation with a side order of prayer. I get thirsty just thinking about it.
Let me back up – After nearly a decade of semi-regular contact, H feels like more than my hairdresser these days. In a urban sprawl of nearly 10 million people, having changed jobs every few years, seeing someone as regularly as I see H makes her more like a therapist or minister or possibly even a friend, than a stylist. And she’s a damn good stylist. It’s gotten to the point that I literally sit down and say, “[H], make me current, do whatever you think is best.”
H: I think maybe we should go shorter; I like shorter on you.
R: I trust you completely.
H: Maybe a little bit layered at the end?
R: Sure. I trust you completely.
H: And some slight bangs?
R: Whatever you think. I trust you completely.
It’s not just about me and my hair. Over the years, I’ve learned that H immigrated to Los Angeles after she and her husband and baby survived the war in their home country. She hadn’t been in the U.S. that long before I met her. She taught herself English. She’s gorgeous, fashionably hip, kind and funny. She and I are within just a couple months of being the exact same age.
I’ve been tempted to invite her out socially—perhaps even on a double date. But have erred on the side of assuming the last thing she wants to do during her time off is to hang out with a client. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll get brave and ask.
She cut my hair for years before I heard her speak of the war. Even then, on the rare instances when it came up, it was mentioned in passing as the vague backdrop to our usual girl talk—like how she met her husband. Once, more recently, she spoke specifically about the war years to describe an act of extreme life-saving kindness that had been shown towards her family. I hesitate to offer details because that’s her story, not mine; the reason I bring it up is that I’m in awe of H’s disposition. I gather she’s got plenty of post-traumatic psychological reasons to be bitter and miserable and hateful. She and her family were the targets of genocide for years, but when the ripples of that evil move past her being, she radiates goodness and generosity.
Last Saturday morning, before our appointment, after enjoying the amazing breakfast Andy cooked, I had a little guilt driven curiosity about whether or not H was still fasting for Ramadan. It was only after a quick Google search that I learned that we were actually seeing her on the first day after the fasting period. Turns out the end of Ramadan—called Eid ul-fitr (Eid for short)—varies by a day or two depending on when the moon comes out, and depending on what country you’re in.
When it came time for our appointment, Andy walked with me to the salon & then went on to a nearby café where he’d wait for his turn. I suppose as an afterthought, he texted me, “Tell [H] Happy Eid.” I had never heard of Eid until that morning, so I wasn’t sure how to say it. So after our usual hug hello, I showed H the screen of my phone, “Look, Andy sent a text for you.”
H: Oh, he’s so sweet!
R: How do you say it?
H: Yes, Eeed.
R: Happy Eeed!
H: Thank you, my dear.
I asked H more about how and when she would be celebrating Eid while she shampooed my hair, and was fascinated when she unknowingly proved Wikipedia to be spot on, “I always have to look it up, it has to do with the moon.” She told me that she couldn’t get to services at her usual mosque the day before, but that she’d been to a different one that morning and that it was nice. She brought cookies to work for everyone to share. I asked her how the month-long fast had been. She said her husband had taken to joking, “We can’t find [H]! She’s disappeared!” We laughed.
H turns an ordinary shampoo & conditioning treatment into a 6-minute scalp massage complete with momentary pressure point pauses. For the most part, massages are not something I’m super comfortable with. I’ve had a couple full-body spa treatments in my life, and while I’ve ultimately been able to enjoy them, the experience always starts out feeling more like a medical exam than a treat. H’s massages, being restricted to the neck up, have been less stressful for me, but still bring up a flash of anxiety—a moment when I have to remind myself to breathe deeply and relax.
Last Saturday, the anxiety never came. We just talked straight through the massage: Ramadan 101—Q & A. It occurred to me that I might be coming across as being rudely curious; I didn’t want to treat her like an anthropological specimen. So I opted for the dorky sounding platitude, “This is so interesting to me. I love hearing about different holidays.” After we moved on to the front of the shop, I got to telling H about how we’d recently attended a Sukkot dinner at the home of one of my girlfriends who lives down the street.
I hadn’t even heard of Sukkot before. Andy’s Jewish, his cousin has been one of my dearest friends for my entire adulthood, and yet somehow, the existence of this holiday completely escaped my radar. I told H all about being there under the Sukkah, looking up through the loosely woven palm branches to the stars. “It was a privilege to be invited. I’m not sure, but I gather that there are some families who would not be so welcoming of non-Jewish outsiders during religious traditions.” Our Sukkot hostess had also included us a couple years ago at Passover; it was my first Seder. We had a fantastic time. I told H, “I’m so grateful learning about these wonderful rituals.”
She told me about her newly acquired annual tradition of going to a friend’s home on Christmas and how there is always a gift wrapped under the “beautiful tree” for her son. I had never thought about how someone who wasn’t raised celebrating Christmas might view the mechanics of it.
“When it comes down to it,” I said, “I believe there’s one god, and all of these traditions are just different ways of worshiping him. And I don’t think he cares how we communicate with him – whether it’s by Islamic traditions, or Jewish traditions, or Christian traditions or even the people on surfboards in Malibu at this very moment, it’s all the same to him.”
H replied, “You’re right; you’re right. You just gave me goose bumps.”
I told her, “For months—no, for years, I’ve been having trouble figuring out how to write and talk about my faith. Because just saying ‘I’m a Christian,’ doesn’t feel comfortable. And frankly, I’m afraid people might confuse me with the likes of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. It seems to me that the ones who talk with pride about being Christians are hateful, judgmental people.”
H concurred, “I know what you mean.”
I said, “Maybe I just need to be more confident with who I am and not worry about labels so much.”
H kept trimming & cutting and I thought about how good it felt to be in her company. We hadn’t come out and said it in so many words—but the fact was apparent—we both make a place in our lives for relating to God. That’s not a quality I look for when I bond with people. And if someone’s really quick to bring on the God-talk, it can even repel me. But when I feel seen and understood by someone who’s got their own awareness of the divine—and that awareness causes them to proceed with love and openheartedness and compassion–it confirms my beliefs. It makes me feel like we’re talking about the most important topic of our lives.
It will take me years and thousands of words and hundreds of pages to figure out what I need to say about faith, my faith, but spending time with H made me realize that I’m on the right path. Remaining open to the rich traditions of the people around me will bring me closer to where I’m going, it will teach me how to say what I want to say in my own voice. Because I see now that it doesn’t have to be so complicated – it’s really just about loving one another.