In the past, reading and history were my comfort zone, I might have aced a comprehension test or memorized Stalin’s five year plan. But ask me to do something practical, like needlework, or play hockey, and I was in trouble.
However, life led me on different paths that finally converged at a beauty therapy academy and not at university. And so, after sweating years of my life away hunched over volunteers, I was eventually able to do something practical and get paid for it. I could wax without leaving a sticky hairy patch, without leaving a bruise, or causing in grown hairs or taking off skin. I could paint a french manicure without shaking fingers.
And I was amazed. The work I never dreamed I could do was not a chore, but a passion. I loved the clients and the atmosphere of the salon. (In fact, if I am having a rough day and I pop down to the beauty supply store, the smell of wax and nail polish makes me feel whole again.)
Later, while at home with my girls, I tried creative writing.
I began to suspect that popular culture suggests creative writing is a little smarter than beauty therapy. Perhaps more respected? The first feeling of inadequacy settled over me, when, amidst a class of graduates, I was the only beautician and the only one writing romance. The next time was at UCT. I enrolled in Summer School and was seated next to a retired medical doctor in an Improve Your Prose class. He asked what I did for a living (which, to be truthful, was nothing at the time) but, trying valiantly not to say ‘struggling unpublished novelist’ or ‘housewife’, or ‘stay at home mum’, I said ‘beauty therapist’, thinking it would have more traction than the aforementioned, traditionally looked down upon, choices.
“Good God,” he said, appalled.
Did I hear whispers to the right of me, chuckles to the left?
More traction? How wrong was I? Next time I vowed to say Dragon-Slayer.
I thought it didn’t bother me, until, still unpublished, with now older, more expensive children, I ventured back to work in a salon.
On my first day, a writer I had met at that very Summer School entered the salon. Although surprised, she was friendly and gracious and we chatted about writing and then she asked what I was doing there. Was I a qualified beautician?
And that’s when I surprised myself. I felt a red flush creep over my face, a hot splash of shame. Why was I embarrassed? Why was I ashamed?
I went into the treatment room to attend to my client. I haven’t worked for a long time, but my fingers did what they needed to do without bidding. They exfoliated, massaged and shaped with the fluid expertise that took years to acquire. They didn’t let me down. I moved around the room like I had never stopped, in the quiet efficient rhythm of the work that was once my heartbeat, the spark that got me up in the morning, the essence that defined me and gave me so much joy.
I wondered why, if my fingers supported me, didn’t my mind? Why was I ashamed of doing a job that once made me so happy and so proud?
The answer came as I worked on the client (while sparing a thought for all the waitresses, housekeepers and other beauticians out there). Writing is so hard, and so all consuming, that it made the salon work seem menial. But I was proved wrong again.
My feelings of embarrassment were soon eclipsed by the joy that comes with making a positive difference in someones life, even if only for a few minutes and seemingly superficial. There is a peace that comes with massage. There is a sense of satisfaction that settles when you paint difficult nail polish perfectly. (The whitish, creamy ones? You know the ones.) Then there is the gently chit chat that builds into a relationship with the person on the plinth. And her warm smile as she gathers herself at the end. I left work feeling like a new person. My energy, my good cheer and my spirit were back.
I’ve realized I can’t stare endlessly at a computer, fighting to tame a document. As the words writhe on the screen, my eyeballs ache in their sockets. Neither can I validate myself only with social media likes.
The smart thing for me is not necessarily creative writing. But it’s not necessarily beauty therapy either. The smart thing for me is to be myself. To bring my real self to whatever I do. To the things I like to do because I like to do them. And to make sure the things I do have a positive impact on others, whether by pampering or entertaining.
Each one of us has a thing that brings us joy. It may be something that popular culture has set on a pedestal. Or it may not be.
But if you are lucky enough to have found that magic bullet, whether esteemed or undervalued, roll with the fulfillment it brings. Wear the joy in your heart on your face and pay it forward.
There is no shame in that.