Several days ago, on a Sunday, I decided to grow a beard. On Monday, the company for which I have been doing blog articles called, informed me they were discontinuing the blog and, in effect, fired me. It was due to no fault in my performance or the quality of my writing, they hastened to add; they simply had no need of a content provider if they had no showcase for the content.
That these two incidents happened one after the other is of profound importance.
It all boils down to why I wanted to grow the beard in the first place. The simple answer is that I could. I don’t mean that in the sense that the hair will physically grow on my face, although that is of course a prerequisite. I mean it in relation to a fundamental state of being. For a long time, as long as I can remember, I would look at rock stars in videos and envy them. Don’t get me wrong; I have never wanted to be a rock star. I have never, since I wanted to be anything, desired to be anything but a writer. And I’m not speaking of modern rock stars either. The example which comes to mind is George Harrison in the Concert for Bangladesh. He had long dark flowing hair and beard at that time, though later in life he was clean-shaven with an almost-crew cut. I would look at him and think that he could afford to let his hair and beard grow because he was self-employed; he wasn’t accountable to anyone else. He could do his own thing because of his art. And there I was: a writer, and a good writer, someone who had gone through extraordinary, life-threatening experiences for the sake of his art, someone who had written honest, heartfelt, meaningful prose and had put it out before the world and… The world was indifferent. In a financial sense at least, I was a failure. I had to work for the man, had to hold a day job, had to support myself and my family in a way other than that which my talent dictated. And as a result of that, I had to remain clean-shaven and short-haired. I had no choice in the matter. That’s what I envied in George Harrison and other musicians: their power of choice, the fact that their talent provided them their sustenance and their appearance was irrelevant.
Now, let’s clarify something here: I’m not a special fan of the shaggy experience. In fact, I like being clean-shaven and short-haired. It’s simple, attractive, and clean. I believe in being hygienic. I shower every day; I wash my clothes regularly. I don’t like filth, slovenliness, body odor, halitosis, untrimmed nails. What I object to is the lack of choice, the fact that I have to tailor my appearance to suit the proclivities, customs, and conservativeness of others.
Therefore, because I had a job involving writing, because I was working at home, I decided to let my hair go and grow my beard for a while, just because I could. It was a manifestation of my freedom.
And then, the call came, less than twenty-four hours after I made my decision. It wasn’t just a disappointment; it was a moral crisis. I didn’t know how to react to it. I could take it docilely, or I could take it defiantly. I could stick to my decision, or I could cave in and go into the bathroom and comply with the conditions of my surrender.
I thought about it yesterday as I walked in the San Diego November sunshine on my way to the public library. I have chronicled in these pages what I went through in my last job hunt. It took me many weeks to find the gig I had just lost. I held on to it for months, working long hours six days a week to research and write their articles. The thought of starting a job search again was almost more than I could bear. And coupled with the search would be the divesting myself of the symbol of my freedom: my hair and beard.
Does it seem trivial to you? It did not seem so to me. As I explained, it was not the beard itself that was important but what it symbolized: the ability to support myself and my loved ones with the only real talent I have.
In the end, I decided to keep the beard, at least for now. I’ll see how it goes for a couple of weeks. I’ll search for more writing jobs; I’ll work on my own material. If push comes to shove I will, of course, shave and trim my hair without a qualm. If I were offered a decent day-job right now I’d do it immediately. Yet beard or no beard something has changed. I realize that I am not in a state of transition into becoming an artist; I am an artist. Financial well-being has nothing to do with it. When Henry Miller wrote “Tropic of Cancer” he was living in a state of abject poverty, and even after it was published he continued in that state for many years, in fact for most of the rest of his life. I am free in mind and heart, as free as anyone else on the planet, and if I have to appear prim and proper, clean and trim, for the sake of supporting my family, that’s what I will do. As for the freedom of appearance, if necessary I will bide my time. But this crisis crystallized for me what I’ve known all along about how to see myself as an artist.
In the meantime, at least today, the beard remains. Tomorrow, who can say? I would like to never have to shave it off unless it pleases me to do so, but I’ll have to take it step by step, one day at a time. I have to be malleable, adaptable. I have others in my care. Life would be profoundly different for me if I were only concerned with myself, but that is not my destiny, and I don’t desire it to be. I am content with what I have and I make decisions according to my present circumstances, not hypothetical might-have-been scenarios.
And where I am is here, Pacific Beach, California, United States of America. I don’t know how long I will be here or where I will go next. The adventure is ongoing.
I have a beard because it’s easier than shaving everyday and because I can. I can understand your desire for freedom. I have never in all my life desired to have a “career” in the sense of holding a day job, running the rat race, and climbing the social ladder of success. I prefer to do something I love, which in my case will be the Catholic priesthood. I hope you get to live your dreams.