Saleem Reshamwala: When I was, I don't know how many years old, but small, a barber ran his clippers just into the top of my ear.
Saleem: I don’t remember if I cried, but I remember, I was bleeding and that might be why for a very, very, very, long time I was not into getting my haircut. I got into this pattern of going from extremely short haircuts to letting my hair get absurdly shaggy. Kinda switching between near crew cuts to a Bruce Lee style - long bangs, a false sideburns situation. I hated haircuts. It took a while, but I mostly got over that, and I kind of like haircuts now.
[Barbershop door swings open]
Saleem: I’m Saleem
Risa: Oh, you are. I’m Risa.
Saleem: What you’re hearing in the background is me walking in to get one of my first real haircuts during the pandemic, btw. From a local stylist named Risa here in Durham.
Risa: …little bit, texture here, you can still tuck in your ear, you know, something like that.
Saleem: If it’s just long enough that I can still – ponytail when I play soccer, that would be great.
Saleem: Definitely started to get gray since the pandemic started…
Saleem: Now, thankfully, I’m able to trust the occasional professional enough to put myself (and my very slashable ears) in that pretty vulnerable spot.
Risa: Is that comfortable?
[shampoo sink water starts]
Saleem: That said, I still don’t have that one shop or person like some people do, where it’s not just a pleasant transaction and some small talk. But where there’s a real relationship, real trust. Risa is doing a fantastic job, by the way, and maybe I’ll go back this time…
Risa: It’s going to be $45 even
Saleem: Thank you so much!
Risa: You’re welcome…
Saleem: But maybe I’m just not the kind of person who has a haircut home…
[barbershop door closes]
Saleem: You know, you see guys in movies in barbershops, and they walk in and they all love each other. They spill their guts to each other. It’s like an extension of their living rooms. But when I go into a new barbershop I’m low-key mad envious when people are all sharing their lives and laughing around me, and I’m kind off over there faking sports knowledge, and knowing that I’m just a visiting guest. And so my barbershop crawl continues. I just can’t commit.
But in today’s story, we talk to some people whose haircutter / haircuttee relationship is formed at a very intense time in life. One where the bonds are exceptionally strong. It’s a necessity for the emotional well-being of these customers and, it turns out, for the people holding the scissors, too.
Welcome back to MORE THAN A FEELING, I’m Saleem Reshamwala. In this episode, producer Reva Goldberg takes us to a one-of-a-kind beauty salon…
Marilyn: Fran, you look gorgeous!
Fran: Thank you …
Barb: They’re artists when it comes to hair.
Ruth: They've dealt with everything here. Everything …
Cindy: One of my clients lost both her sons. Young.
Saleem: Those are the voices of two hairdressers – and best friends – Ruth and Cindy. They run this Salon – which is inside a retirement community. And some of the toughest feelings a person can wrestle with are coming up all the time. And yet, somehow, in Ruth and Cindy’s shop, everyone has a grand old time.
Cindy: She was a riot, Edith. I loved her
Ruth: She loved her shampoo so much.
Cindy: She would moan.
Ruth: No, it wasn't moaning. It was woooooooowwwwww.
Saleem: Ruth and Cindy are licensed to do hair, not psychotherapy. But the come-as-you-are environment of their shop has a therapeutic effect on everyone who walks in the door. Today we look at why feeling unconditionally accepted helps us cope with the toughest emotions at any age.
Cindy: Beauty salon, can I help you?...Yeah, how ya’ doin, Lynn?
Saleem (in studio): Hey Reva. How's it going?
Reva (in studio): Hey, Saleem. Good to talk to you.
Saleem (in studio): So yeah, I know you've been working on this story. What is it about this beauty salon that makes it so special?
Cindy:… I know, I’m so sorry. It’s so hard.
Saleem (in studio): I mean…I've had some good haircuts in my life, but I never walk in looking for a therapy session.
Reva (in studio): No, me neither. I mean, I love Tiffany, the woman who cuts my hair, but I definitely don't get very personal with her. But this community of people I was visiting is completely different than any other salon I've ever been into.
Saleem (in studio): Okay, set the scene for us.
Reva (in studio): So this salon is in a huge retirement community. It's called Glenmeadow. It's in Western Massachusetts. The owner of it is this woman named Ruth Paradine. She's a really close family friend of mine and I'm actually using a knitted blanket that she gave me as a sound barrier, as I'm talking to you.
Saleem (in studio): I love that.
Ruth: I’ve known Reva since she was what, I don’t know what were you maybe 6?
Reva (in studio): Ruth has been working at Glenmeadow for almost 30 years. And right next to her every day, all day is her best friend and coworker, whose name is Cindy Olson.
Ruth: There’s Cindy! Hi!
Marilyn: Hi Cindy!
Ruth: Have you met Cindy before, Reva?
Reva (in studio): And Ruth and Cindy have created what I can really only describe to you as an oasis of acceptance in their salon. It's the ultimate safe space.
Saleem (in studio): I want to know more about how this salon is a safe space. Tell me who's in the room.
Reva (in studio): Okay. So the first person I want you to meet is Charlotte. She's one of Cindy's regular clients, and this is what she told me.
Charlotte: These are treasures, absolute treasures. Both of them… I've been here almost four years and they work magic. I feel like such a schluck, when I come in here and when I leave, I feel so beautiful
Ruth: You are beautiful.
Saleem (in studio): From coming in feeling like a schluck to leaving beautiful. I don't know what a schluck is, but that sounds like a good transition.
Reva (in studio): I think it's a cross between a schmuck and a schlub, maybe? That's how I interpreted it.
Saleem (in studio): Ah, okay. Okay.
Reva (in studio): So when I went in there, most of the women were in their eighties and nineties. And they come in there every week and I was not expecting this at all, but there was just this amazing vibe in there, this lightheartedness and this magneticness.
And I saw Ruth and Cindy fluttering around there, nonstop moving. And not just keeping their clients looking good, but making them feel really, really at home, too.
Charlotte: …My hair is straight as a stick but I walk out of here happy…
Ruth: But isn’t that funny because doesn't your sister have curly hair?
Charlotte: Yes, Martha, Martha has curly hair. She is artistic. She is musical. And she’s very smart.
Cindy: Martha Martha Martha…
Cindy/Ruth: We love you Charlotte!!!!! We love Charlotte.
Reva (in studio): After doing this for so long, it's hard to measure the impact Ruth and Cindy have on their clients' lives. I followed them around for two whole days and I witnessed so many small moments of care. And I think the story I want to tell you is really about the compound effect of all those small moments as they added up to a lot in the lives of these women and for Ruth and Cindy.
Saleem (in studio): So, I get they're friendly and funny, but what is it that Ruth and Cindy are doing exactly?
Reva (in studio): So the first thing I noticed is that whenever they're with a client, they're just really, really tuned in to her physically. So whatever her physical needs might be. The residents there - they have a really wide range of abilities. So some of them are very independent. Some of them need a lot of help. And what they're capable of doing on their own can really vary from day to day. This is Cindy.
Cindy: Not everybody can do this job. You can be the best hairdresser in the world, but it's not just about their hair. Because our clients just don't walk in and sit down. You know, people with a lot of ailments, walkers, can't hear, hearing aids, no hair, who all want to look like Farrah Fawcett…
Cindy: We’re going to use your walker to get you there okay? There you go. You ready?
Reva (in studio): They know who's going to have a really easy time getting themselves from the door to the chair. They know who needs extra help.
Cindy: I got you, I got you. Just get your balance
Reva (in studio): They know who doesn’t hear well.
Barb: I can’t hear now, I took my hearing aids out.
Ruth: Okay. Alright.
Reva (in studio): And they know who needs a really low maintenance hairstyle, because they're not going to be able to keep it up on their own.
Cindy: And they lose mobility, they can’t do their own hair. Most of them it's not just about that they used to always get their hair done. It's that, “I can't get my arm up…” You know, there's just so many factors that you don't think about when you're younger, you just do your own hair.
Reva (in studio): And even when they were completely behind schedule, I never saw Ruth or Cindy rush anyone in or out the door. And I never saw them getting impatient about basically having to shout across the room all day, just to communicate with anybody. This is Ruth.
Ruth: We’re loud in here. We are. We have to be. Nobody would hear us. When I first came here and my kids were like still high school age. And they would say “Mom, why you mad? Why you mad?” And I’m going “I’m not mad,” and they’d say “Well you’re yelling at us…” “And I thought oh it’s because I yell all day” ‘cause I take everybody’s hearing aids out and the blow dryer’s going and nobody can hear so I got used to yelling…
Reva (in studio): So even with all this yelling, there are still a lot of misunderstandings and people not quite exactly getting what's going on, but that doesn't stop anyone from just constant talking. And so I just started going with it and Cindy had to help me a little bit at first.
Cindy: Erna this is Reva.
Reva: Hello…So what do you usually do?...You get your hair washed and blow dried?
Cindy: She can’t hear…
Erna: What did she say about my hair?
Cindy: She said you’re beautiful! That’s what she said.
Erna: Well listen to that…
Reva (in studio): So seeing how easily Ruth and Cindy made everyone feel included, even when they couldn't hear, it made me think about times in my own life. And when it got hard to communicate with some of my older relatives, that's not really the approach I took. I feel like I gave in way too easily. I got super frustrated. Like with my grandfather, he would be having trouble with his hearing aids and I would just give up, you know, I wasn't going to repeat myself fifty times. So there was just this impossible chasm that I felt like we were never going to cross. And I wish that I had given it just a little bit more patience and effort.
Saleem (in studio): Hmm…
Reva (in studio): Cause now it's definitely too late, you know?
Saleem (in studio): Yeah, that's real. I think that's relatable for all of us who have older relatives. It always strikes me as especially unfair that a lot of the health issues that older folks are experiencing actually make them feel more and more isolated. You can't hear so you can't talk to people as easily. And it's common knowledge just how harmful loneliness and isolation are to our mental health and even our physical health.
Reva (in studio): Yeah….
Ruth: Um, Reva, Geneva doesn't see.
Ruth: I mean, she won't run into walls or anything, but just don't expect that she can see what you're doing.
Reva: Okay. Thank you.
Reva (in studio): So at one point, Ruth introduced me to a woman who she calls Geneva, although her name is actually Genevieve and I never really got the story on what that was about.
Reva: There's a chair right over here…
Reva (in studio): We sat down in this little room away from the salon where it was really quiet.
Genevieve: Um, my name is Genevieve Miller. I'm 93 years old. I have five children, eight grandchildren…
Reva (in studio): And she looked at me with these beautiful blue eyes that completely matched her sweater. And just told me about her incredible life. She had had so many adventures. She lived in Japan in the 1950s as a young woman. She told me she climbed Mount Fuji.
Genevieve: I had a wonderful time and there were floods and earthquakes and everything there, but I survived and here I am. I guess God calls you when he wants you.
Reva (in studio): But now she’s just really frustrated that her life is so much more limited than it was.
Genevieve: I'm satisfied with what I did with my life. I just wish I could see…
Reva: Yeah… When did your eyesight start?---
Genevieve: I was like 76. When they first said I was going to have trouble. They can't help me see better, but they try to help me from seeing worse. They try to slow it down. But I always go with the hope that even at my age maybe they'll discover something, but I kind of know it's futile. And, like, I can't read my mail. I save my mail for my kids to read. And I don’t go – I used to go to all the activities. I can't now, because I'm afraid I'll fall somewhere, you know.
Saleem (in studio): When we're young and we have an injury or illness, you have this expectation that you’ll just go to the doctors so you can heal and you're going to be good as new again.
Reva (in studio): Yeah. And I could really hear her kind of flipping between wanting to be hopeful that she would see better again, and then realizing that was not going to happen. And I could imagine, you know, this is exactly what I would be feeling in her position, but I don't think I would have the amazing attitude that she does.
Genevieve: Well it was nice talking with you. Now I gotta find my way back.
Reva: Okay. Can I help you with that?
Genevieve: We went straight to get here, right?
Reva: We came from this direction that we're walking in now.
Reva (in studio): And then as we were walking down the hall, she turned and just really matter of factly said something that completely floored me.
Genevieve: And so many people have passed away that I know very few people now. So many. I kept track of them. One year there were like 75.
Reva: In one year?
Genevieve: And it wasn't COVID. Just natural causes…
Reva (in studio): And then she was just on the move again. She was done with the conversation .
Genevieve: I just want to see if there’s any mail.
Reva: All right. Well thank you so much. It was really a pleasure….
Reva: All right. Take care.
Saleem (in studio): 75 people. It's just hard for me to wrap my head around that number. And it's wild to think that so many people walking into the salon are carrying that kind of loss.
Reva (in studio): That's true. And it happens at such an unbelievably rapid rate. And then on top of that, they're living with this fear or possibility, that at any time anyone could just take a bad turn and it could happen slowly, or it could happen really, really suddenly. And Ruth and Cindy are there just always watching really closely for the signs. Here's Ruth again.
Ruth: We're also the first ones to notice when somebody is failing mentally and physically sometimes. We spend the most time, I think one-on-one with them. And there is that very special relationship between a hairdresser and her client that almost no one else on earth has. And they tell us things and it could be an asset to their care. Like this person is not showing up for appointments, they always did. And now they're starting not to. Somebody needs to know that, I would think.
Cindy: Will Helen arrive is the question
Ruth: She didn’t make it last week, right?
Reva (in studio): And this care they have for their clients doesn't stop when they walk out the door.
Cindy: We’ll give her a couple minutes
Reva: Someone’s missing?
Ruth: There are some that are missing all the time and we just have to find them. If we can. We can’t always find them, but…
Reva (in studio): And then no one was really missing for long anyway, because if someone didn't show up after a few minutes, Ruth and Cindy would just go out there and hunt them down.
Cindy: I gotta go find my client…
Reva (in studio):... At one point I followed Cindy when she went on a mission to look for her client, Fran.
Cindy: You'll see. I bet she's sitting in the living room
Reva (in studio): And that’s exactly where she was.
Cindy: Good morning, Fran.
Fran: Good morning.
Cindy: How are ya?
Fran: Good good. And you?
Cindy: Good. We're going to get your hair done. okay?
Cindy: Mm hm. Okay hon?... We’re gonna go to the salon. It's down here, okay? We're going to do your hair. Okay? Isn’t it beautiful out? Can you see out there? The snow and stuff? It's gorgeous. Huh?
Fran: Yes it is..
Cindy: You going to go this way? Careful of that corner… WOOP. You okay?
Fran: What a dummy
Cindy: Oh, you're fine. Just… to the left. “To the left to the left.” I don't want you to hurt yourself… There you go….
Saleem (in studio): I hope it feels good to have someone come and get you like that. To make sure you're included. Ruth and Cindy. They could just be like, that's not my job and just let it go and let someone else worry about it.
Reva (in studio): Yeah, that's the thing. I think Ruth and Cindy see all of this as part of their job. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure all their clients get this time with them and get this emotional boost every week.
Cindy: It's anything goes apparently, what we talk about. It's whatever you feel that day. Each person that sits in your chair has different needs. I think there's a little therapy going on at times.
Ruth: Yeah. Just letting them be heard.
Cindy: You do you have to figure out what that is for the day. Cause you know, sometimes they are pretty upset or sad. And you gotta let them be. You can't tell them they're not.
Cindy: Yep. You can’t dismiss it.
Ruth: And you develop an intuition about what they might be needing that particular moment that day. You get to know them so well that you can almost tell the mood.
Cindy: From the moment they walk in that door
Ruth: From the moment they walk in. You know.
Saleem (in studio): From the moment they walk in, there's some radical acceptance happening there.
Reva (in studio): Yeah. And Ruth and Cindy's clients know that they can walk in there and just be completely unfiltered and they always are going to get an empathetic answer. A little later, we’re also going to talk to this psychotherapist I found, and he's going to tell us why this accepting attitude they have is actually extremely therapeutic. Before we get to that though, I feel like I've been talking a lot about all the struggles that Ruth and Cindy are so sensitive to, but they're also really careful not to treat their clients like having aging bodies and minds completely defines them.
Reva: So we're going down.
Peggy: Yeah we are…
Reva (in studio): That’s what this very cool lady named Peggy told me when I went to her apartment to talk.
Saleem (in studio): I love the name of every single person in this episode.
Reva (in studio): [chuckles]
Peggy: Hard to talk and walk…
[sounds of opening apartment door]
Peggy: There we are. Come right in dear.
Reva: Thank you so much.
Peggy: Oh my pleasure.
Reva (in studio): Peggy was a client of Ruth’s and her hair was in this very chic, neat, silver bob.
Peggy: My full name is Margaret Burtaine Epstein, but everybody calls me Peggy. I've had a wonderful experience of life. I was an opera singer, but you wouldn't know that now. My voice is gone, but that's okay. I still have ears. I can listen to music and get such joy out of it. And I share this with Ruth and she knows about it. It's not about how I feel and, you know, what hurts. It's just so refreshing to be with her for that. She has a knack of not talking down to anybody. That's pretty, pretty tricky when you deal with people of our age, you know. We're either ignored or where, oh, you're looking so pretty today, you know? I’d like to strangle…
Reva: I have noticed that too. What you're saying about people kind of, it's not baby talk, but people using…
Peggy: They just don't understand. It's insulting. You know, I don't mind being complimented, but you know, do it like you would to your friend, you know. “You look good today, girl.” You know, go off on me and leave me alone. But with her it's like, oh, talking to a very good friend. She respects my opinion. I respect hers. And she's – it's not just me. It's everybody she speaks to. You know, she's so generous in sharing herself. That she creates that atmosphere, and so we add to it…
Saleem (in studio): I can imagine that being incredibly alienating, having people who are less than half your age talking down to you. It shuts down any possible opening for a connection, or a conversation.
Reva (in studio): Yeah, and it really sucked to hear that that's the norm in Peggy's experience. And knowing that, it must just mean so much to just walk in the salon and have Ruth and Cindy really see her.
Peggy: There's a kind of a trust that comes between you and the person who's doing the most sensational work on you, making you look better than you thought.
Reva: I saw a few people yesterday, come in looking down, moving slowly. Um, and then I saw them literally transform in the chair. And then, by the time they stood up to leave, even standing up straighter.
Peggy: Because this is therapeutic. It is not just having your hair done. It's having somebody touching you and paying attention to you at that moment. She can't take her hands or her eyes off you. She's busy working. That's very rare. You know, women are so vain, gotta get my hair done regardless. I don't feel well today, but it's got to look good. And that vanity is something that keeps us going actually, and Ruth knows that. She doesn't make us feel silly. You know, this is the one moment that it's just, it's not about health or our mental status. It's just how the hair looks. It's that simple.
Saleem (in studio): It's funny that Peggy’s saying it’s just hair. It's just that simple. It's clearly so much more than just hair.
Reva: Alright. Thank you so much, Peggy. It was so lovely to meet you.
Peggy: My pleasure.
Reva (in studio): Oh, yeah. Yeah and Cindy actually used the term life and death to describe how important getting to the salon is for some of her clients.
Cindy: Oh my God, it’s the most important thing to them here… I’m not kidding you. They have got to get their hair done. Like seriously, it is…I swear sometimes like a life or death… I don't know how else to put it. They get that hair done… And when they leave, they are like a different person.
Ruth: And they'll say right to you, “Now, I feel better. Now I feel more like myself. Now I know I'm gonna be okay,” you know.
Saleem: After a short break, Ruth and Cindy take us back to the early days of the salon, before they knew how to make it all look so easy…
Cindy: It wasn't on our cosmetology test. I'm just letting you know.
Ruth: No, no…
Saleem: We’ll also talk to some folks who are formally trained in therapeutic methods. We’ll get their take on why unconditional acceptance has such an important effect. And why it actually goes both ways.
Pablo: If I'm accepting someone fully, it's an attitude, really, a way of being. But When we apply that to ourselves it’s quite an effective coping mechanism…
Saleem: Stay with us, y’all.
[SEGMENT BREAK ]
Saleem (in studio): We're back. And to me, Ruth and Cindy seemed like two people who were born for this particular job that they're doing. But it sounds like they didn't start out that way?
Reva (in studio): This work did not come easily to Ruth and Cindy. I mean, they are empathetic people naturally and they're insanely good multitaskers, but both of them came to Glen meadow. They were already mid-career. They were pretty reluctant.
Ruth: I didn’t want the job.
Reva (in studio): Cindy was in her early thirties with small kids and Ruth had teenagers. She was in her early forties and Glenmeadow kind of just came into their lives by accident.
Ruth: My clients were all just normal everyday, ordinary working people. Some very young, you know, some older, but I had never done, you know, hundred year olds…
Reva (in studio): Ruth and Cindy were both really aggressively recruited by these older ladies who were their customers in the outside, and just somehow knew that they really belonged at Glenmeadow and that they really belonged with each other.
Ruth: And it, what is it? 25 years now?
Cindy: I think it’s 26,
Ruth: Yeah. 26 years later. Never a cross word. We love each other.
Reva (in studio): And whatever Ruth and Cindy thought it was going to be when they signed up for this, they just had no idea. Their early days there at Glenmeadow, they were just on a crash course of all of the hardest things that come up when you're getting older.
Ruth: So we got like no training, so we just kind of got thrown into this.
Cindy: And it was a big learning curve, learning how to handle them and deal with them. I mean, we had a lady one day, this is one who I think she was like 99…
Cindy: 102. So now she has to go to the bathroom. Well, Ruth has to help her.
Ruth: And I’m going, this is not part of my job training. I don't know how to do this, but damn it. I got to help this lady. She's so distressed.
Cindy: So now my client, I'm getting her on the elevator. And as Ruth is taking the lady to the bathroom, my little lady on the elevator, like falls down and I'm like, “Oh my God!”
Ruth: The elevator doors close…That's when I see BOOM. The lady go down. And Cindy going, “Oh my God…”
Cindy: Yeah. So I go running to get the nurses. And I come back - well, the lady’s not in the elevator.
Ruth: She gone. She's disappeared.
Cindy: She’s gone. She disappeared. So we go looking for her, and there she is in the dining room. She was too hungry. She had to eat. She couldn't wait any longer. Ah, Jesus she just took 10 years off our life. And then I come back and here comes poor Ruth coming out of the bathroom… Yes. It was a lot of that kind of on the job training that I, it wasn't in our cosmetology test. I'm just letting you know.
Ruth: No no…
Reva (in studio): And in this position they’re in, Ruth and Cindy just have no choice, but to witness up extremely closely what their clients are living with every day. And then they just have to learn what works, trial and error.
Ruth: We had one lady, She was very articulate. And she called and said, I need to make an appointment for my mother and my sister. And she was like 90. And I went, “Your mother and your sister. How old is your mother?” Oh, well the mother's been dead for years, as well as the sister. She had no idea that she didn't know what was going on. There's all different kinds of that.
Cindy: And you have to learn how to handle that too, because you know, what did I know about Alzheimer's and dementia, you know? I thought they were all telling the truth…
Ruth: People come in and they sound completely cognizant and cogent and…
Cindy: But they're not.
Ruth: But they’re not, and you know…don’t try to talk them out of it.
Cindy: You can’t talk them out of it, they think…
Ruth: Just let them think they’re right.
Saleem (in studio): It’s kind of wild that after not really wanting this job in the first place, and then finding out how incredibly hard it was, Ruth and Cindy decided to stay and keep doing it…
Pablo Sabucedo: And I think that’s beautiful. That's quite a commitment, isn't it?
Reva (in studio): That's Pablo Sabucedo. He’s a clinical psychologist from Spain and the UK. And he told me he was pretty impressed with Ruth and Cindy, too.
Pablo Sabucedo: During all those years, they were willing to accept their clients' experiences. Acceptance of their feelings, acceptance of their complaints… And that had an effect, right? That improved their mood. They were feeling better. They were feeling more optimistic, more energetic.
Saleem (in studio): This guy sounds like an amazing therapist.
Reva (in studio): Yeah. And he actually also does online therapy, but I was very professional and resisted, starting to tell him all my personal problems. Pablo practices, researches and teaches all about methods of therapy that are focused on awareness and acceptance. And he told me that this “come as you are” environment in Ruth and Cindy's salon resonates a lot with a concept called unconditional positive regard.
Pablo Sabucedo: A need for unconditional positive regard is a basic human need. So we all need it. Sounds like the clients you saw were receiving that. Being in an environment where you can be yourself, and where you can think out loud and express how you feel and know that that person is still going to listen to you, I think that can help you create space for some of those feelings.
Reva (in studio): So unconditional positive regard is this idea from the late, great psychotherapist Carl Rogers. And Rogers had a huge influence starting in the 40’s and 50’s. And even though his name is nowhere near as famous as Sigmund Freud's name, anyone who's studying to be a therapist learns about his ideas on basically the first day of class. And Rogers was actually really different than Freud because Freud believes that a therapist’s job is rooting out all of the patient's neuroses and all their damage.
But Rogers believed that people are always naturally working towards healing themselves, and therapy should help that process along by creating a safe space for them to express themselves. And then they hear themselves and that's a healing process. And that's why Rogers started calling the people he works with his clients, not his patients.
Saleem (in studio):I’ve never thought about that distinction between patient and client before.
Reva (in studio): Yeah. And it's also something that doesn't only happen in a therapist's office. It's something anyone can practice in any kind of relationship. So a teacher can show unconditional positive regard to their student. A parent can do it for a child. People can do it in a marriage. And Rogers believed that anyone can be successful at practicing this as long as they're also bringing empathy and authenticity to it.
Saleem (in studio): So, this is what Ruth and Cindy have taught themselves to do.
Reva (in studio): Yeah. And it's actually kind of this magic skill. Because Pablo told me that if you can make someone feel as if everything they're going through is okay with you, then it becomes okay with them.
Pablo Sabucedo: If you give them the space to express themselves. To explore those areas of themselves that make them feel afraid or not good enough, you’re giving them the chance to accept them, too.
Reva (in studio): And I realized that this idea has probably been out there for so long that it seems a little obvious now, but I think even if it sounds familiar and we all kind of get it, I think there's a big leap from understanding this concept to then actually acting on it.
Pablo Sabucedo: Sadly, many people don't have that either in their community or at home. Maybe we have people around that really care and want to help, but they can't. Maybe they're dealing with a lot of issues themselves and they don't have the space to just listen and be there for you.
Saleem (in studio): Yeah. And it feels worth acknowledging that if someone's in pain and you care about them, sometimes their pain is painful to you to witness. So maybe you can't always be the person who provides the accepting space. That brings me back to my earlier question – wondering why Ruth and Cindy decided to stick it out, when not everyone in their position would have had the heart.
Reva (in studio): I think there are actually some pretty simple answers to that and then maybe some more complicated ones.
Saleem (in studio): Okay. What you got?
Reva (in studio): So, first of all, I think that a lot of the time, at work, Ruth and Cindy are just genuinely entertained. Their clients are easy and fun to talk to. And they have good stories about the old days. Like Barb who talked about how she met her husband.
Ruth: Where’d you meet him, Barb?
Barb: Blind date!
Ruth/Cindy: NO WAY!!!
Reva (in studio): And then how he sneakily proposed to her…
Barb: Comes out, long story short, the engagement ring was in the coat pocket and I took it up to him.
Ruth: Is this still the ring that you carried?
Barb: Oh yeah.
Ruth: She’s still got it! Nice.
Cindy: You did good. He’s a keeper.
Barb: Oh yeah. He is. Definitely
Saleem (in studio): I love that as a reason to stay. Who doesn’t love a good love story?
Reva (in studio): Yeah, and Ruth told me it feels like a privilege to hear about her customers’ lives. At they’re at this time when they’re feeling really reflective and they want to pass on all their memories. And then on top of that, I think they're also just realizing there's nothing so terrible about aging, that they can't also laugh about it.
Ruth: …Even these wonderful little prim and proper sweet little ladies. Apparently when they, when they have to use some effort to get out of the chair, [makes a FART SOUND]
Cindy: We just are so used to it, now we ignore it, but…
Ruth: But Cindy used to tell her husband, these stories
Cindy: He never believed me. So he came in one day and he was waiting for me. He was reading the paper. And I have a client, I won't say her name. And as she gets up. It, it began. She was blowing gas from the minute…It was across the entire beauty salon. And all I can see is my husband and the paper goes up. He's like this. Cause I knew he was laughing.
Ruth: It was the funniest thing cause of Kenny cause of Kenny being there. You could see the the paper shaking in front of him.
Cindy: He was dying!!! So we sit her down and she's like, “Oh my God! I farted!” And I'm like, I can’t…That was the funniest day.
Ruth: Yeah. Yeah.
Cindy: At least she knew. Most of them can’t… I am telling you, I think you lose feeling in your derriere.
Ruth: I'm dreading that moment. Oh, God, I’d be so embarrassed. Oh Lord…
Cindy: It's very hard to age…
Ruth: That is the hard thing about being here as you see everything that's gonna to happen to ya.
Cindy: It isn't good. Just enjoy your life. Just enjoy your life while you can.
Ruth: We do have a good time and we love being here. Most of the time. If we’re not crying.
Cindy: We have our moments.
Ruth: We've had days where we were planning our escapes. Remember? How are we getting out? Um, we can't do this anymore.
Cindy: Sometimes when you have a lot of the cranky ones, you know, that can be trying one after another, but we get through it. Yeah.
Ruth: It's lucky we're never in the same bad mood.
Cindy: We have opposite…
Ruth: Yeah. So if she comes in cranky, I can laugh her out of it.
Cindy: We don’t usually come in cranky too often either. It used to be worse when we got our periods, but then that ended. So we don't have to worry about that anymore. No more. No more of that.
Ruth: Then it was the hot flashes. When the clothes came off and went flying across the room.
Cindy: Sleeveless shirts, all winter,
Saleem (in studio): You know, we haven’t even talked about the fact that Ruth and Cindy have their own personal lives. And their own shit to go through outside of what their clients are coping with, too.
Reva (in studio): That brings me to yet another reason why I think Ruth and Cindy have stayed. Which is that I think they realized their clients are just an incredible source of advice and guidance. And that was especially important to them during the hardest phase of parenting…
Ruth: Well, we had teenagers. Me first, then her. And we would be like, Like, “Oh my God, my kid is doing this.” Or, “Oh my God, my kid is doing that.”
Cindy: “Oh, don’t worry about it, they’re gonna be fine.”
Ruth: And they would help you put it into perspective, you know. I mean the customers are a great source of helping you raise your kids.
Cindy: I remember “Don't make too many rules cause you're gonna make them lie.”
Ruth: Right. Who was…?
Cindy: That was the best. That was Mrs. Kerrick.
Ruth: Mrs. Kerrick. Yeah, that goes back. She’s got a better memory for the, for the names of them.
Cindy: I loved her.
Ruth: Yeah. Yeah. It got to the point where I listened to them so much that even my ex-husband would say to me, when we were like in a turmoil about something, “Poll your old ladies,” he'd say. “See what they think, ask them what they think,” you know. Ruth: Sometimes they're not even trying to teach you. All you have to do is observe them. They've dealt with everything here. Everything…
Cindy: One of my clients today, lost both her sons, not just one, but both of them. Young…
Ruth: And those are her only children
Cindy: Only children she has.
Ruth: So, you know, you watch people put up with unbelievable things and they can still somehow get out of bed in the morning and function. They can’t–
Cindy: And you don't, you handle things differently when you're older. You don't not handle things the same as when you're 30 as when you're 80.
Ruth: Everybody loses something and somebody, and we all live through that. And it feels unbearable. But here's walking, living proof that it's not unbearable. They find a way to, to, to bear it. They’ve taught us about growing old graciously and accepting things because there’s things that you can’t change…
Saleem (in studio): Here’s Ruth and Cindy creating this accepting space, helping their clients cope. But it sounds like the feeling is actually entirely mutual.
Reva (in studio): Yeah. And working on the story I found out, there are some really key things that people who spend all their time working with older folks get out of the experience that the rest of us just don't even know we're missing.
Rebecca Allen: As you age, the impact of negative information lessens. It’s called the positivity effect.
Reva (in studio): That's Dr. Rebecca Allen. She's a Geropsychologist, a researcher and a professor at the University of Alabama. And she loves the old folks she gets to work with.
Rebecca Allen: I've been in love with this field for a very long time.
Reva (in studio): Rebecca told me that she’s always been drawn to older people. Because of how good they are at regulating all their emotions, and all the self-compassion they have, and how concerned they are for others. And this is not just anecdotal. It’s all backed up by the research.
Rebecca Allen: One of the things that our brains as humans are hardwired to do evolutionarily is pay attention to bad stuff, right? So our brains are like Velcro for bad and Teflon for good…
Reva (in studio): But as we age, for many of us, that positivity effect kicks in. And our focus tends to change.
Rebecca Allen: Developmentally, as people get older, they don't sweat the small stuff. They know how to deal with problems when they arise. They don't get their feathers ruffled because they've seen it before. And scientifically there is a adult developmental theory by Laura Carstensen and her colleagues. It's called socioemotional selectivity. Basically it's the idea that as, in any person's life, as the – their time is perceived to shorten their motivation shifts from learning new things and making new connections to focusing on what's important. Do more of what makes you happy. Really deepening the ties that you have with meaningful others.
Reva (in studio): And it's not that older folks are avoiding their difficult, painful emotions, but their capacity to accept the hard stuff and then experience joy at the same time just seems to expand.
Rebecca Allen: I think in large part, it is the motivation, the choice to focus on the good aspects, and to take the bad with an acceptance approach and learn from it and try to help others learn from it. So, uh, aging and acceptance of aging allows us the opportunity to live the life that we choose to live, and give to this life what you’re meant to give to it.
Saleem (in studio): And from Ruth and Cindy’s experience, it seems like that emotional expansiveness is amazing to be around.
Reve (in studio): Yeah. And Rebecca definitely believes that. Her lab does a lot of work that connects younger people with older folks, and they do projects together. And the impact on both the younger and older people is really profound.
Rebecca Allen: Once you get in it um, it's just amazing. It's overcoming the barrier, the cultural stigma of being old. Living a long and vibrant life is not only possible. It's the norm. When you are open to this work and this reality and this aspect of life, then you have the opportunity to take in some of what older people are trying to put out there for us to receive. So Ruth and Cindy are right there, like, “Yeah, buddy, bring on some more blue-haired women. Cause this is really cool.”
Reva (in studio): So this brings me to maybe the most striking thing about Ruth and Cindy’s story which is that they’ve spent so many years there maintaining this community at the salon. And now Ruth is 69, and Cindy is 60. And they're actually starting to experience some of the really big stuff that they've watched all their clients go through over and over. And the empathy and the perspective that their clients are giving back to them is more important than it’s ever been.
Saleem (in studio): Wait, what's going on with Ruth and Cindy?
Reva (in studio): Well for Ruth, it's been getting harder and harder for her to do her job because her eyesight has been getting really limited.
Saleem (in studio): Man…
Reva (in studio): I heard Ruth tell her customer Marilyn about a moment not too long ago when she was cutting her husband Bob's hair. And she realized it was getting so bad that she was going to have to stop cutting hair for good.
Ruth: Bob is a wiggler. You know, he moves around, he's got ants in his pants. He's terrible to cut in, in the best of circumstances. So I'm cutting his hair and he's moving around and I got a buzzer. So it's going pretty fast to do Bob, right? And I lose focus. So the last haircut I gave him was the worst haircut I think I've ever done in my life. Took a big chunk out of the back of his hair…
Marilyn: His fault!
Ruth: The good thing about Bob is, he doesn’t care. He could care less… And I said “That’s it. I mean… what if you weren’t Bob, and I just took this chunk out of the back of your head?”
Reva (in studio): Ruth was trying to be gentle with her clients about this news that she was leaving. And then they were being really gentle with her too, about it.
Marilyn: People would have you do their hair…
Ruth: …by the braille method?
Ruth: I know I can't, though. I'm so, you know, I have a reputation. I can't be going out doing things that embarrass me.
Marilyn: I know and it’s better – There was a famous ballplayer recently who left at the top of his career and which was a good decision….
Ruth: Yeah, always go out on top!
Reva (in studio): So I was there in mid-December, and Ruth was in the process of basically giving her last haircuts.
Client: So Ruth is this our last haircut with you?
Ruth: Yes, I’m afraid it is…
Client: I feel sad about that…
Reva (in studio): And Ruth isn't the only one going through something. Cindy’s husband, Kenny had died less than four months before my visit there. Here’s Cindy:
Cindy: I had said this when my husband passed and I had to talk to the priest. So I was saying, “You know, I'm really lucky where I work, because they kind of got me through it.” I was always like, “Oh my God, I never want to die.” You know, we're all gonna die one day. But they've taught me how to accept that so much more, in so many different ways. I mean, of course I'm terribly sad, but like I was very calm at the funeral. The whole thing, like they really did teach me something.
Ruth: Yeah. Relax. It's just a life, you know? I mean, we all have this and we're all going sometime and, and it's, there's just some things you have to accept.
Cindy: And they actually had a few of my favorite ladies came to that funeral service. I was so touched.
Saleem (in studio): Woah. That’s incredibly profound. Cindy and Ruth sound like they’ve absorbed so much of the resilience that their clients have, but decades ahead of schedule.
Reva (in studio): Yeah. Pablo told me, he thought that might've been what was happening.
Pablo Sabucedo: They weren’t just accepting their clients. They were working on their own acceptance as well. Acceptance of their own difficult experiences, while listening to all of that. During all those years, they were also willing to experience what grief means and what pain is through other people's lives, expose themselves to that and learn with them. Up to a certain extent it’s unavoidable. It makes us human. And when it was their turn to deal with some of those difficulties, they knew what to expect and how to react to that. And maybe we should be doing far more to create spaces in the community where we can be all willing to accept difficult feelings in ourselves, and in others, knowing that that will help us all.
Cindy: So I feel like sometimes we're the lucky ones to have worked here in a lot of different ways.
Ruth: No doubt about it. This was a home run coming here, as much as it happened by total accident and against everything… everything was against what I really wanted to do. Taking the job, getting Cindy…
Cindy: We’re just really lucky.
Ruth: Was supposed to happen. Yeah… But it took me a while to recognize the value beyond a paycheck and beyond a job, that I was getting something really rich from them and from their experiences and from their, from their gratitude. And there is nothing that can compare with that...This is a huge part of life. It's not just a job, like we've been talking about before. I mean, there's a lot to this. Which means it's a lot to leave behind…Um…
Cindy: I'm very sad.
Ruth: Are you really?
Cindy: I am very sad. Don't make me cry…
Saleem (in studio): Man it really is a lot to leave behind.
Reva (in studio): Actually, it might make you feel a little bit better to know that she’s not all the way out the door yet. Ruth has been making plans to leave and pass the business on to Cindy. But as attentive as Ruth always is to the feelings of everyone around her, she realized she was overlooking something really important. One night Cindy was over hanging out with Ruth and her daughter Brie was there, and Cindy and Brie were talking.
Ruth: She was talking to my daughter, when we were all making pies together and she didn't say it to me, I just sorta was hearing it. And she said, “You know, it's not just I'm at home and I lost my husband. And that's that big part of my life. But the other big part of my life has always been working. And your mom, and now I'm losing your mom.”
Cindy: Yeah, it felt different.
Ruth: And I just, and all of a sudden I felt like, holy fuck. I, you know, it's like, I've been kicking puppies or something, you know, I've, I was only thinking about, you know, leaving her a good business, getting her set up in this, and then I'm not even thinking she's going to miss me. It’s ME she’s going to miss. And I thought, yeah. I mean, we've been the other half of our lives, you know, I've been husband and family, but each other, have been just as much our lives…
Ruth:And then I thought, “You know what? I don't have to leave. I have to stop doing hair, but I don't have to leave.” I could put on a color. I can see well enough to do that. And I'll be, you know, still doing the bookwork, paying the bills. And it's not hard. And when she's ready, I'll help her do that. But it doesn't have to be now. It doesn't have to be for a year. If that's what it needs to be.
Cindy: It'll be different, but it's a new beginning. And she's not leaving us completely, so.
Cindy: I feel much better about it. Much. Yeah. I was a little panicked.
Ruth: You win the lottery and we'll all leave..
Cindy: I’ll win the lottery that I never play…Okay. Good Lord.
[music - “Soave sia il vento” from Mozart’s Così fan tutte]
Saleem: Just one last word before we go to the credits. The More Than A Feeling Crew would like to dedicate this episode to the memory of one truly fabulous lady. 94-year-old Margaret Epstein (aka Peggy) who passed away on February 20, 2022, as we were editing this episode. She’s the one who told Reva about being an opera singer, and warned her about talking down to older people. We found out that Peggy loved the Mozart opera, Così fan tutte. That’s what you’re hearing in the background. So Peggy, this one’s for you….
Saleem: Next week on More Than a Feeling, a jealousy special with two very different stories: First we’ll talk to two social psychologists who turned their scientific minds onto their own friendship and their “friendship jealousy”…
Jaimie: I could just say, you know, stop hanging around Keelah. and then baseball bat…
Saleem: I love how we're getting very specific into what you would and wouldn’t do.
Saleem: Then we’ll head to a country that has a reputation for jealousy and we’ll try to figure out when and how that reputation might have started.
[Nunzia speaks in Italian]
Voiceover: “A pinch of healthy jealousy is the confirmation that a love relationship that can last.”
Will: This echoes something from the 1964 film “The Magnificent Cuckold.”
[clip in Italian from movie]
Will: The actress Claudia Cardinale’s character says, ‘‘when one is in love, one is always a little jealous.”
Saleem: I don’t want y’all to miss this one.
Meanwhile, if today’s story inspired you to want to work on your own capacity for acceptance – we got something that might help with that. This show is part of the Ten Percent Happier podcast network. And our Ten Percent Happier app has all kinds of helpful mediations. Some of our favorites are “Letting Tough Emotions Be” with Sharon Salzberg or “Resilience” with Sebene Selassie. Because you listen to More Than A Feeling, you can try the app for free for thirty days. Visit tenpercent.com/more (that's ten percent, all spelled out, dot com slash M-O-R-E) or go to the link in our show notes. And you can always get in touch with us about an emotion you’ve been grappling with by sending us a voice memo at firstname.lastname@example.org - you gotta spell out T-E-N percent. Who knows? You might end up hearing yourself on a future episode. We’re also on Twitter at “pod feelings:” P-O-D-F-E-E-L-I-N-G-S. If you like what you heard in this episode, let us know by giving us those five stars over on Apple podcasts. It helps other people find the show.
More Than A Feeling is produced by Reva Goldberg, Mark Pagán, Wille Coley, Palace Shaw, and Kim Buikema. Our managing producer is Kimmie Regler. Our executive producer is Jen Poyant. Scoring mixing and sound design provided by Ultraviolet Audio. Production support for this episode was provided by Connor Donohue and John Laww. Our theme music was composed by El Michels Affair. Shout out to Leon Michaels and Piya Malik for this beautiful theme song. They made it especially for us. Thank you to Danny at Big Crown Records. Additional music provided by APM. Music licensing help by Rebecca Grierson of SixtyFour Music. Fact checking for this episode provided by Robin Palmer. Special thanks to Jess Goldberg, Ben Rubin, Dan Harris, Matthew Hepburn, and Toni Magyar. This show could not have been created without you.
That’s a lot of people working hard. And I’m feeling a lot of gratitude. But maybe Edith said it best…
Ruth: no no it wasn’t moaning, it was [Ruth & Cindy]“WOOOOOOW”