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Elan Vitae


  • Heather Doyle Fraser


I often crave change, even though it makes me uncomfortable at times. I also enjoy routines and thrive within them—some of them. Somewhere in between consistency and change is a sweet spot where I like to live. When I have routines and consistency in certain areas of my life (reading, writing, self-care), it allows me to feel safe enough to experience difficult change with more flexibility than I often think I can muster. And I think there are two reasons for this: I regularly practice flexibility and compassion in areas where it seems rather low-stakes. For me, flexibility and compassion are inextricably linked, and I try to practice both of these in the low-stakes areas so that I CAN lean on them when higher stakes are involved.

Flexibility and self-compassion are two things I have had to learn to cultivate, and they don’t always come easy to me, but when I allow myself to embrace the wholeness of this life, both flexibility and compassion are required, and my experience is richer for allowing them in. In order to cultivate something, you have to be willing to practice. How to practice these, though? I’ve latched onto a few ways to practice that might seem unexpected: haircuts, rearranging furniture, and writing. I know—this is a most unlikely trio! Stay with me.

Ever since my mom let me get my first haircut at an actual salon, I have reveled in changing my hair to suit my mood and wear as an accessory. It was fifth grade, and the “salon” wasn’t really a salon; it was Nationwide Beauty Academy. (I’m not joking! It was a teaching school—so a student was cutting my hair.) To me, though, it felt like a salon; the only person to cut my hair up to that point was my mother. I wanted a mullet (yes, it was 1984). I went from all one-length hair (except for some grown-out bangs) to lots of layers on top with angled feathered sides, keeping the shoulder length below the layers. Yes, it was a look that we are all familiar with. A look made even more impressive because it was asymmetrical unintentionally. Did I mention it was a teaching school?

My perfectionist nature was already well-developed at that time. Of course, I noticed the asymmetry as soon as I got home, looking back and forth in the mirror at the right side and then the left. Not egregiously different, but different enough that I could see it. Ultimately, though, I loved the haircut enough not to dwell on it. (And when I went back for another cut, you know I pointed that out and made sure it didn’t happen again.) But I lived with that haircut for a good 8-10 weeks or more, maybe. And as it grew, the asymmetry wasn’t as noticeable for some reason. Maybe I got used to it; maybe my hair grew faster on one side; who knows? Maybe I just had practice with being flexible. I flexed my ability to accept the slight difference and focused on the fact that I felt great with the new haircut.

That was a long time ago, and in the past 40 years since then, I have had countless cuts and colors. I have loved using my hair as a reflection of how I am feeling: mullet, pixie, bob, lob, the Jennifer Aniston, all-one-length, shag, permed, highlighted, all-over-color, and lots of other combinations I don’t have names for.

I can always pinpoint the year a photo was taken because of my hair. And although this may seem superficial (because it is), it has also given me experience with inner flexibility. It has taught me a lot about immediate gratification (pixie), and patience (grow out from a pixie or the home perm I just had to have), and the joy of finding something new and enjoyable in a place of discomfort. It has given me agency and a way I can feel safe with practicing change on an almost daily basis. And it continues even now as I navigate change and transition into a new stage of life—one that includes lots of gray strands that I purposely leave uncolored.

Around the same time as that life-changing mullet—fifth or sixth grade— I started to realize how important my physical environment was to me (another expression of me). I spent a lot of time in my room reading, writing for pleasure and solace, and studying. I wanted my room to feel cozy and comfortable and a place where I felt safe (there’s that word again). When we feel an internal sense of safeness we are more able to handle challenging situations and be more flexible and compassionate with ourselves during those struggles. Somehow, even as an angsty adolescent, I knew I needed to create this for myself. For me, creating a calm environment that celebrated my passions (reading, writing, creativity, learning) in my room was the first step in finding internal safeness for myself.

Since I was a pre-teen, I needed to work with what I already had, and that meant rearranging the existing furniture in my room to suit my experience. At the time that furniture was a bed, a desk, and a dresser. I think I also asked my mother if I could move a rocking chair that wasn’t being used into my room (reading nook), and I asked for a light I could attach to my bedframe (reading light for before-bed reading and journaling), and I started collecting little things and placing them intentionally in my rearranged space: a rock that looked like a heart, a pinecone that was absolutely symmetrical and perfect, photos of me with friends tucked into the corner of the mirror above my dresser, a collection of books and blank journals and pens set out in the open to entice me.

I liked rearranging my room because it was a change, and it forced a perspective shift for me. Things that I never noticed in my room suddenly became apparent when my bed was on a different wall, and my desk beside my bed became a nightstand (a place to put my books). It gave me a sense of comfort to have things arranged just as I wanted, even though it was different and felt a little strange at first. This obsession to rearrange furniture didn’t retreat either. When I first married my husband, he would begin to cringe when I started walking purposefully around our home, walking off lengths to see if things would fit, plotting the next move of furniture. Anything and everything was fair game.

What I found with rearranging the furniture was that I became adept at seeing physical things in a different light—there are almost always options, my friend! You may not like these options, but they exist, and experiencing these different options gives you a real perspective shift in your life that goes beyond the furniture in your home. And while sometimes these changes are uncomfortable at first—We really do need to have a side table here for books! Why did I move that chair in here?—they also give you practice at being flexible with your options. And give you the opportunity to create a safe and compassionate haven for yourself that supports your inner landscape—a safe place for you to come from and retreat to when you face challenges in life.

It’s interesting as I am writing this that all three of these hallmarks of flexibility in my life began in earnest around the same time. Shortly after the mullet and first room rearrangement, I started writing stories and poetry. I confessed to myself—in the dark, at night, when no one else could hear, that I thought maybe—I might (possibly) want to be a writer. I kept this to myself for a while, but soon enough, people started noticing that I brought a book everywhere (yes, everywhere) and also had a small journal with me for jotting down ideas and notes about poems, stories, or anything that just stood out as curious or beautiful or quirky.

I reveled in reading books and writing. To me, these two activities were all about relationships and the process of life. Of course, I didn’t realize that at the time, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t always been true.

What I did realize at the time was that reading great books allowed me space in places I wasn’t able to glimpse otherwise. It gave me empathy for people who experienced difficulties. Reading provided comfort and solace, as did writing. Writing gave me the opportunity to practice flexibility and exploration at a time with those two things felt scary.

Writing allowed me to process all of those emotions that flood us as humans, especially in those teen and young adult years.

Writing allowed me to give myself a voice when I didn’t feel like I had one.

Writing allowed me to compassionately explore the process of life—its ups and downs and constant change—in a safe and unexpected context.

Writing allowed me to build internal flexibility and self-compassion when what I was writing didn’t come to the page as I had planned.

Flexibility and self-compassion have always been there for me, whether or not I as able to see them. Over time, they have become my beloved companions, enabling me to endure when my inner landscape became harsher than I had ever intended it to be.

Photo credit  Image by Pexels from Pixabay


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