Braids: A Braided Essay About Braids & Braided Essays
April 26, 2021 § 14 Comments
By Naomi J. Williams
The year I grew tired of braided essays was also the year when my hair grew long enough to braid.
I was reading all the braided essays because I often review applications and entries for various writerly goodies, each of which required writing samples, and many of the samples were essays, and many of the essays—many—were of the braided variety.
My hair had grown long enough to braid because of the pandemic. Before the pandemic I had a short, stylish bob. A year later, I had become a Japanese monster lady, face drawn and pale and framed by witchy white hair.
Sometimes I try to braid it. Some people are adept at braiding their own hair. Not me. I have not practiced, on my own head or anyone else’s, in decades. And my fingers are no longer nimble. I may be developing arthritis. In fact, I’m pretty sure I am.
This is where I might throw in a bunch of facts I learn from Googling arthritis.
But I already spend far too much time looking up old-lady ailments, each more undignified than the last, many of them vaguely comic when they’re happening to someone else and altogether demoralizing when they’re happening to you.
I’ll share instead some etymological findings, as one does.
The word braid comes from Middle English breyden, a verb meaning “to move suddenly, snatch, plait,” which comes from Old English bregdan, which is related to Old High German brettan, which meant “to draw (a sword).”
All of this comes from Merriam-Webster.com, of course, boon companion to braided essayists everywhere.
I could meditate on what it means to move suddenly, as opposed to slowly, or even regularly. But reflecting on regular movements could lead to regularity then right back to undignified physical ailment territory.
I could become interested in how linguists determine kinship between an Old English word that means “plait” with an Old High German word for “draw (a sword).”
Or I could randomly share that when my sons were little, they had two genres of pretend play: “Swords & Magic” and “Blasters & Spaceships.” The plots were remarkably similar, but required different props for the inevitable fight sequences. (Swords) were drawn in the former and (blasters) for the latter.
Perhaps, in a pinch, Old High Germans used short swords to part their hair into sections for braiding.
Perhaps badass Middle Ages Germanic women braided short daggers into their hair to discourage bad men.
This beleaguered middle-aged Asian woman wishes she had enough hair to braid a weapon into it. How cool would that be?
But I’ve never had enough hair for that. And certainly not now. Because my hair, my witchy white hair, is also my witchy white thinning hair.
Wherein I decline to elaborate.
Here’s the thing about braiding hair: Sure, you can braid something that’s not hair into your braid. A ribbon, say. Maybe some flowers. But mostly you’re working with hair, and it’s hair growing from the same head, so it has some coherence, it’s literally about the one scalp, and then you pin the braid or braids in place or secure their ends with ponytail elastic or hairspray or—dang, someone online actually staples their braids. Okay!
Here’s the thing about braided essays: So many of them attempt to weave together strands that are brittle, or that appropriate someone else’s locks, or just don’t stay in place, or simply aren’t weavable—like wow, you just tried to braid (a sword) into your essay and lopped off your own head.
More and more I find myself craving the sustained narrative that stays with something—a moment, an event, a relationship, a place, a time period, an idea—and really excavates, down past one’s readily-accessed memories and even-more-readily accessed factoids from Wikipedia and approaches the hot, dangerous, beating-heart center of the thing.
Speaking of readily-accessed memories, those studies that establish the cognitive decline associated with menopause? Simultaneously validating and terrifying.
Speaking of hot and dangerous, the studies that say women who are thin, Asian, and don’t smoke have fewer hot flashes than other women? Well, all I can say is that they didn’t talk to me!
I don’t think age confers wisdom. There. I said it.
Wherein we learn that the magic potential of the braided essay inheres in juxtaposing seemingly unrelated ideas or threads and voila! the unexpected truths emerge, like liver spots.
In medical lingo liver spots are called solar lentigines, which is plural for solar lentigo, which is much nicer than liver spot so can we please just start saying that instead?
Here’s the thing about any successfully braided thing: It’s an object of beauty. The heft of a braid in the hand. That taut, satiny smoothness. The visual pleasure of the weave. The sensuous strength of the strands holding each other in place.
This is true of braided hair. And braided fabric trim. And rugs. And baskets. And challah. And essays.
Naomi J. Williams is the author of the novel Landfalls. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Electric Literature, LitHub, One Story, and A Public Space. She lives in Sacramento, California, and teaches at the low-res MFA program at Ashland University. Learn more at naomijwilliams.com or follow her on Twitter at @NaomiWilliams.