Jun 26, 2009

This old hat

This old pink baseball cap and I have shared some times. Maybe Sarah's right and it is time for a new hat - it doesn't really hold on tight anymore or even keep my hair out of my eyes, and the tatters off the rim are a bit distracting. This is already feeling like a country song, but it'll be hard to let go, and even harder to find a new one to see me through this new era.

She (the hat) came to me as a mercy gift in 1995. A group of American visitors in my Tanzanian village decided to give me a haircut. 14 culture-shocked Americans ringed around the bare cement walls of the village hospital guesthouse, taking turns with my hippy mane by the light of a kerosene lantern. Me trying hard to trust, then remembering that as the only white man on the lake I looked funny no matter what I did, then giving up all hope when Wendy came up for her turn.

Wendy was a big African-American gospel-singing powerhouse of a woman who brought over-confidence and overpowering energy and humour to every moment. On the worksite she'd sit in a director's chair and praise everyone else's sweat equity labour, and we'd have to drive her back to the guesthouse during breaks because she was physically unable to squat over the pit latrines. I often picture Wendy when the kids and I read our Southern revision of the creation story, Big Mama Creates the World - "What Big Mama wants, Big Mama gets. That's just the way it is."

As Wendy started aggressively rushing in where the other fools had feared to tread, groans and shrieks of horrified laughter echoed through the room. When asked if she'd ever cut hair before, she said, "Honey, I cut all my dollies' hair growin' up." When further pressed if she'd ever cut a white man's hair, she came back with what I now understand to be a cutting indictment of America's white-dominated culture - "Honey, all my dollies were white."

When the groans were over and the kerosene lantern was flickering, a lovely lass named Dexter Manley handed me her favourite pink cap and said, "You'll need this."

She was right. I've needed that cap through a civil war in Zaire and deep personal despair in Ghana. I've loved that cap on rainy BC camping trips and a sunny Mt. Ranier honeymoon. I've made a ski-boat turn around to retrieve it on Cultas Lake, and had it fly off while cliff-jumping on a canoe trip.

So after 4 years and 13 countries in Africa, courtship and marriage in Zambia, 3 years and a baby in Texas, more birth and loss in Vancouver, and now 2 cows and play-at-home dad paradise on the island, how does one say goodbye to an old friend, let alone replace her?


I started writing this four months ago, but didn't know how to end it. But sometimes we're meant to leave things in the ground for a while, trusting that something new will grow when it's time. Last week my mother unexpectedly brought over my grandpa's old straw farming hat. The one he wore with his gardening suit - the one that was the work suit in year one, the leisure suit in year two, then the after-work balance-restoring gardening suit thereafter. It will now grace his long-haired and purple Hulk-pants grandson.

Grandpa, the row I hoe isn't that far off the one you grew up on, and I wear your hat in the same spirit of grounded humility and connection that made you so grand. And to my beloved pink hat, I bid you a soft fare-thee-well with the promise that over the next 14 years I will be just as adventurous, growing, open, learning and loving as I have been along the twisting path that led me here. To traditions, adventure and growth, I tip my hat.

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