I have become the bag lady. Not the kind that collects bags--although I admit that's a weakness that needs a soft intervention--but a bag lady associated with long coats, drooping hats, mismatched socks, and a smeared red lipstick.
You know the kind. The crazy ones.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror this past Sunday, as I frantically made my way to meet a post graduate student I needed to supervise and I had to stop and glare at my reflection. I was wrapped in a black, floor length wool coat, the belt clumsily tied across my waist, a hand knitted scarf wrapped 3 times around my neck. You couldn't see my hair because it was covered under a drooping newsboy hat, my eyes hidden behind dark rimmed glasses. I think my head tilted a bit and I examined myself for a quick second.
A nutty professor. I looked like a nutty professor.
I had turned 40 the day before.
I think what disturbed me the most was the psychotic giggle that escaped my lips. For that split second I felt like I was at a crossroad. I mean, I was 40 now. I had always held intelligence over beauty on a pedestal and here I was, middle aged, looking like a scattered nut. My hair under the hat was in absolute disarray, knotted and frizzy. My eyebrows were growing in 5 different directions. And as always, the corner of my lower lip was peeling. I was the visual antonym of my student who was young, with piercing blue eyes and long, shiny luscious hair. But she clung onto my every word because I was the expert across the table. She was brilliant herself but clearly, she found me a genius. How could you not? I looked like a lunatic, and aren't all geniuses teetering on the side of insanity? I thought, I like this...this feels right. And I felt a little emotional at the possibility of joining a small army of eccentric bag ladies, the kind that students look up to but crack jokes about. The very thought of students cracking jokes about me was disturbingly appealing.
But then a few days later I went to visit a school I supervise. I cloaked myself in the same fashionable hysteria and the lack of acknowledgment bothered me. I sat there, looking at these young teachers who did not seem moved or startled by how knotted my hair was and how dry my lips were. They were clearly accustomed to my clumsy appearance. But they are equally used to hearing me come up with ideas that don't work and my level of genius does not impress them. I drove away from that school ruminating on beauty and womanhood and being 40. And then I thought of what Audrey Hepburn once said: "The only beauty that doesn't fade is elegance."
And so I faced my crossroad at that moment as I drove through Coney Island in Brooklyn. I can be a brilliant nut like a handful of my professors in college who did not care to bathe or change their clothes. Or, I can be a Diane Sawyer, who clearly does not trade elegance in exchange for smarts.
The next day I woke up slightly earlier to iron out my hair and to pluck my eyebrows. I don't have to go downhill just because my age is going uphill, I decided. I will maintain a level of poise and beauty, along with some level of expertise that come with education and with age.
But today I woke up and looked at my reflection in the mirror. Hair in disarray and lips hopelessly dehydrated. I realized that a bit of toothpaste had dropped on my black shirt. I got to school and one of the teachers, tall and pretty and young and perfectly put together, went to my office with a wet paper towel in her hand.
I'll clean your shirt for you, Ms. Anna Marie.
I looked down at my shirt then looked up. Nah...who cares?
I could tell she did not know how to react. She chuckled a little then walked away. I smiled after her, a psychotic giggle escaping my lips.
So much for that crossroad. Hello, Bag Lady.