Shaving and the past

I shaved my beard off over the weekend. It was an awful decision. But it's forced me to reckon with myself in a way that I hadn't imagined.

Before you start: yes, it's just a beard. It's just the way that I look. Fundamentally, it shouldn't be so different from losing a shirt that I like, or getting a haircut. In times of stress, I've cut my hair so many times before that I've almost been bald at one point.

The beard, somehow, is different.

I first grew the beard out for good just as I came back from Japan. I was living in Orlando and had just gotten a job parking cars for Universal Studios. Sam, with whom I was (and continue to be) deeply in love, was living back home in England. My life had been full in Japan, if sometimes not particularly satisfying; but back in Orlando, my life felt empty and purposeless. When I grew the beard out, I conspicuously called it a 'depression beard' to just about anyone who would listen. Maybe this was a bit of a cry for help; maybe I just liked the idea of being depressed. I've always been suggestible.

I grew out the beard and spent most of that year deeply despondent. I learned to code, which skill has proven immensely useful in the intervening years. Six months after moving back to Orlando, I made the decision to move to England to be with Sam; I relocated here in August 2017. I've gotten a job programming for the Internet. I'm not fantastic at it, but I'm better than a lot of people, and I've caught the bug for Continuing Professional Development, which I can't help but say with a dose of sarcasm, but which also gives me a bit of a leg up on all the other career-weary keyboard jockeys out in the North East of England.

I've mostly left my life in Japan behind. Now and again I get an email from someone visiting the Mountains of Hokkaido site, asking for some advice re: an upcoming trip to Hokkaido. Now and again I catch a glimpse of an image of the northern backcountry I knew, and I feel a little tenseness in my heart. Now and again I feel a deep nostalgia for banal moments of intense seasonal-ness I felt in Japan. Here are a couple:

Digging myself out of my house during a blizzard to fetch some supplies from the Seicomart across the street. Driving down to an early-summer HAJET meeting with Tony, the low hills bright and green, the sun intense, the windows open. Racing the chairlifts down the lower flanks of Kuro-dake with Mike in the autumn, the whole world red around us, a flare of joy on an otherwise socially anxious day. A picture I took, looking back at my ski tracks winding through the quiet woods, a day when I had a whole mountain to myself.

It's funny how the things that drive nostalgia in me always seem to be these snapshots of life in nature, in Japan. When I remember them, I always remember the people who were there, though I don't see their faces. I wonder why.

Anyway, going back to the beard:

Mentally, beard/no-beard has been a pretty good way to sort of consolidate my lives pre- and post-return-from-Japan. Viz. in Japan, I had a beard; outside of Japan, I did not. The beard has always represented, for me, a sort of shutting off of something inside me, a sense of let's-get-down-to-business, no-more-mucking-around.

I have never skied with a beard.

And it's deeply disturbing, somehow, to look in the reflection, and see a different me, a me with a totally different worldview, a me coming out of a difficult relationship and getting together with Sam, a me shedding years of FOMO and social anxiety and profound craving to be liked and accepted and even admired—a me so in flux and with so much change and colour in my life. My hair is longer now than it ever was then, but as I say, haircuts don't seem to change the way I look so much as the beard does.

All of which is to say: when I look in the mirror I see the me that I was in Japan.

The difference is that today, instead of waking up at 4am to trek out to some mountain in the backcountry, I quietly beg myself to take a nap from 2-3pm because I'm exhausted. And out of frustration or weakness or a lack of resolve, I don't, and then get more upset that I've gone to bed late when all I wanted in the first place was a little rest. I fret and sigh that other people know things that I don't, because this is somehow eroding at my ability to generate revenue for the people I love. I argue fruitlessly about user experience on sites with almost no users at all.

Even my 'adventuresome' activities lack a certain colour. I walk the same path regularly because it's the one I know and the one I can walk with the least resistance, while I train for the 100km Glasgow-Edinburgh walk in the late summer, which I have failed to complete twice. I haven't seen snow in about a year now. It just hasn't snowed at all this winter. My skis are still stowed away in my mom's attic (along with the skins, which the glue on those is guaranteed to be 100% expired now).

Don't get me wrong—I wasn't a particularly productive member of society in Japan, either. I didn't have a ton of friends—not near the end, anyway—and the ones that I did have, I lacked the courage to communicate with earnestly. I did a bit of web development for HAJET but that literally consisted of putting pictures on the WordPress site—a job that, today, I would sneer at, and sneer at the person doing it for being worthless. I know I wasn't super useful back then, and I wasn't generating much profit for anyone (as if that's a measure of a person's worth), but at least I wasn't mean. I was writing a lot more, even if they were just plain hiking guides and silly stories I picked up every few months at school. I felt like I was uncovering something meaningful, at least. Even if it was only meaningful to me.

So I've identified something wrong with my life. I don't know how to change it.