I step inside the Great Clips. Already, I feel uneasy, but I’m in a hurry and it’s cheap and fast.
It’s the Wild West of hair salons—a first-come, first-served circus, and the ringmaster doesn’t ask my name.
I sit, already tallying the minutes until my next engagement, the time it’ll take me to get there, and the seconds that are ticking by while I wait my turn. My eyes dart around, then look at the magazine in my lap without reading a word.
The ringmaster is barely holding the acts of this show together. I just know I’m going to fall through the cracks. How long will you stay before you give up on this shitshow? I ask myself.
An older woman sits next to me to wait. She has silver hair, a wizened face, and a strong voice that quivers only slightly as she strikes up conversation.
Her name is Marilyn. She is 82 years old.
We’re both holding magazines, but as the conversation grows in purpose and intensity, they begin to feel like props. We discuss acts of kindness, ones that ripple out, reaching far beyond the initial recipient. Like when a woman sees a girl get sick all over her cream-colored winter coat on a bus in downtown Chicago and takes her to Marshall Fields, freshening up the girl and getting the coat cleaned. This kindness radiates out through time and space, from that little girl in 1945 to the woman sitting in front of me, and out into the lives of countless others whom Marilyn touched, all the while remembering the simple lesson she learned on that bus.
As Marilyn talks, the follicles on my head start to tingle and tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention.
I tell her a similar story, of a young foreigner lost in the labyrinth of a Tokyo train station. That girl learned a similar lesson of kindness when a stranger abandoned the train home to walk her to the correct platform.
As our back-and-forth continues, my shoulders come down from their perch by my ears.
Marilyn listens when I talk, waiting until my thoughts are completed before wading in with her own. I feel brash and foolish when I interrupt her. In fact, I’m a little shocked to realize I’ve picked up the habit. With others, it sometimes feels like the only way to get a word in edgewise, but Marilyn brings her thoughts to a close, ties them in a bow, and gives me time to open her gift before responding.
Marilyn speaks slowly, deliberately. Every word is filled with meaning and intent. She’s in no hurry to shove her thoughts into my brain. Conversation is a journey, not a destination, and she’s savoring every step.
I learn that I have a shocking amount of ways to fill time with sentences that mean nothing—filler nonsense offering neither insight nor opinion, story or original thought. I choose my words more carefully, slow down my speech, bring my thoughts to a close. Marilyn is listening to it all, so it all is important; each word carries the weight of her attention.
I think of Buddhists and the practice of right speech—more complex than the “Thou shalt not lie” edict—demanding nothing more or less than speaking with intention and mindfulness. Marilyn not only practices right speech, she practices right listening, allowing for purposeful silence and asking insightful questions. Talking to her brings out the best in me as I speak thoughtfully and listen with precision.
Too soon, the ringmaster gestures to me with her pair of scissors; it’s my turn. I walk toward her, but look back at Marilyn. Time’s finally sped up, catching the two people suspended without its usual, merciless hold.
I get the worst haircut since the eighth grade, but my shoulders remain loose. Remarkably, I feel good.
On my way out of the salon, I stop Marilyn and thank her for the chat. I feel awkward, clumsy, stilted. After all that we exchanged, I don’t know the words to express exactly what’s changed in me, how the world feels like a different place.
Maybe there’s no need for words. Maybe, for all her listening, Marilyn already understands.