Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Gone Baby Gone

The Missing All--prevented Me
From missing minor Things.
If nothing larger than a World's
Departure from a Hinge--
Or Sun's extinction, be observed--
'Twas not so large that I
Could lift my Forehead from my work
For Curiosity.
--Emily Dickinson, from The Pocket Emily Dickinson

There is a hole in my mouth where a tooth once lived. I, being a negligent landlord so preoccupied with keeping my front teeth white and clean, routinely ignored--even forgot--about the tooth in the far back of my jaw. Now there's a hole with just a few crumbling pieces of tooth that will soon be extracted. Gone forever never to be replaced.

My problem used to be having too many teeth. When I was a kid, once my baby teeth were gone, a surfeit of larger teeth moved in, crowding each other in my small mouth like passengers on a rush-hour bus. I had fangs, extra teeth hanging above my gumline on either side of my front teeth, pushing those teeth closer together, resulting in Laura Ingalls'-style buck teeth. Other kids called me "Bugs Bunny." I also had four impacted wisdom teeth. I didn't think they were doing much harm--I could have used a couple of back-up teeth. But they too had to go. Before I was fitted for braces I was sent to my dentist who pulled half a dozen teeth and an oral surgeon who, while I was sleeping, cut out my Wisdom. I was being stripped of excess, but now I wish I had some of those virgin teeth back.

Mike says that I focus on the wrong things. I worry about my outside appearance, but I ignore the fundamental things like sunscreen. Even though I don't tan, I like getting some color on my face, a healthy glow on my cheeks. Isn't that the beauty standard to which we all ascribe, especially our mothers? Go outside and get some color, my mom used to say when I was spending too much time indoors with a book. But when letting my cheeks turn pink, I'm also starting a process of aging that will be hard to reverse. Mike reminds me to put on sunscreen, even sometimes applies it to me as if I were a little girl with arms wrapped in swimmies. It's sweet that he cares so I let him do it. He does this because he's concerned about skin cancer and my fair skin, but he's also admitted that by slathering me in SPF 80 he hopes to spare me future dermatological procedures that will cost us the equivalent of a trip to Europe.

When the cap on my front tooth--the result of a rollerskating spill down my driveway when I was younger--started yellowing with stain, I immediately made an appointment with a cosmetic dentist to have it replaced, paying for the $500 bill out-of-pocket. I had seen pictures of our recent trip to Key West and in all of them is that amber splotch on my smile. When they introduced at-home whitening kits, I faithfully applied the strips twice a day for two weeks even though they made me drool.

But I was neglecting what I couldn't easily see. Those back teeth got only a modicum of my attention and care. And now one is gone and the other one is on the endangered list. I figured the dentist could do something with what fragments I had left, but two broken caps later I was running out of options. They could pull the tooth slightly by the roots like unfurling a line of floss to get to a clean piece. But even the roots were showing signs of decay. I could have the whole thing extracted and get an implant (for an other large out-of-pocket fee.) This option appealed to me. Start fresh, I thought. This time will be different, just give me another chance. But my dentist said an implant that far back in my mouth might push against my sinuses. I'd have to have a consultation before they could approve an implant. I was faced with the prospect of that gaping hole being permanent.

It's not like you can see the void when I smile. But I know it's missing and that I caused it. It's another sign that I'm mortal, that I can't always count on my body to pick up my slack.

Buddhism teaches us that clinging to the ephemeral causes much suffering. But there are things I could have held on to a little longer if I had just payed attention to the right things--regularly flossing my back teeth, for instance. My dentist advised that I pay more attention to preventive care. Unlike a sweater, my teeth could not easily be replaced by purchasing a new one every time there was a hole.

After receiving the bad news, I shuffled out of the office and went straight to CVS. I bought fluoride rinse because the Listerine Whitening mouthwash I was using wasn't effective against plaque attack. I'm paying more attention now to how well I'm flossing. I pay penance for my sweet tooth.

Which makes me wonder what else I may be overlooking.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Work Does a Life Good

"The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the things worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident."--Marge Piercy, from the poem "To Be of Use"

Last night I was having a friendly visit with Linda. We had eaten most of the bag of olive-flavored tortilla chips with mixed olive cheese dip. I always bring a snack for us to share, partly because after work I'm ravenous and I can't concentrate on anything--including convivial conversation--when I'm hungry. But also because it's a treat for Linda. When I first enter her apartment, I notice her eyeing my enviro-tote to see what I'll pull out. I try to go for healthy snacks like hummus and carrots, but at times it's a pint of Ben & Jerry's Boston Cream Pie or a box of Girl Scout cookies. Once it was a pumpkin pie with whipped cream--that was in anticipation of Thanksgiving. We started out with generous slices and followed that with significant seconds. I ate so much pumpkin pie that I had trouble sleeping that night because I was burping up pumpkin.

We start by sitting at Linda's kitchen table eating our snack. Linda's contribution is a can of seltzer water for each of us. When the food is nearly gone, we adjourn to the two green vinyl chairs in the livingroom. Almost all of Linda's furniture is stuff that her friend Chris found for her on the street. In particular, she has a copious assortment of chairs that could seat a large dinner party as long as matching isn't an issue. These include lawn chairs, wide-seat kitchen chairs, a rolling desk chair, a bright orange plastic chair, a chair too narrow for anyone but Olive Oyl to sit in, a chair that converts into a sleeping pad--although as far as I know Linda never entertains overnight guests. It's hard for her to refuse something free, no matter how many she already owns, even if she doesn't have room for it. Plus every new addition allows her to make more adjustments to the set-up of a room. I can always count on her to ask me if the desk lamp would look better on the table near the front door or next to the waterless electric fish tank. Would it change the aesthetic of the room to swap the display case of beanie babies with the low book shelf containing all her Dr. Phil books and John Denver CDs?

I don't think she really listens to my response. She just likes asking. Rearranging her apartment is something to do, a challenge, a never-ending project.

Because of her disability, Linda has never held a full-time job. She once volunteered at Mass General Hospital, assembling surgical tools for doctors. But that ended when she had trouble getting in and out of Boston on time.

I can see why Linda is endlessly moving her stuff around, why she changes her phone company as frequently as her bed sheets, why she quickly returns items she orders from catalogs and goes back and forth between a Verizon cell phone and a Jitterbug. These are the otherwise mundane tasks that keep her occupied and engaged. Granted, changing phone plans is one of many chores that busy people dread. Who wants to spend an afternoon talking by phone to customer service? Linda does. And if she gets a good rep on the phone it means the difference between a bad day and a great one. In the end, she's accomplished something, she's made a change in her world.

I find work to be essential to my well-being, too. Lately I've been thinking that working a second job--say as a freelancer--would probably make me happier than spending two hours watching "Intervention In Depth: Glue Sniffing" or "I Was Bitten and I'm Still Alive!" The times I'm truly caught up in my work--whether I'm writing a pitch letter or arranging coupons for a much-needed trip to the grocery store--are some of the best kind of present moments for me.

When my husband fantasizes aloud about winning the lottery and retiring twenty years early, I think, I don't want to be retired. The few times I was out of work I was too panic-stricken to enjoy waking up at 11 and having the rest of the day to myself. When I was laid off in 2003 I immediately hit My beach read was What Color is Your Parachute? When I was looking for work after moving to Boston I could hardly focus on decorating our new apartment; I kept checking my email to see if anyone had responded to my cover letter. Only AFTER I had a job did I think--I hope they let me start in a month! Then I can enjoy a day of rollercoaster rides and cheap beer at Coney Island without any intruding thoughts of destitution or shiftlessness.

My grandmother is another example of someone who needs work. She lives down the street from my parents in a retirement building similar to Linda's. When my father was growing up, his parents divorced and my grandfather sent for Josephine, who was living with the nuns in Sicily. This woman who knew very little about the world spent the next thirty years living in Bensonhurt, Brooklyn, raising three boys and a girl and cooking for her husband. When my grandfather died, the apartment they shared on the second floor was no longer suitable for my grandmother, an overweight woman with swollen feet who had trouble navigating the steep stairs.

After many tears and threats to return to Italy--which we knew was a bluff since she never seemed to enjoy her visits back to Palermo--Josephine conceded to my father and Uncle and moved to New Jersey. After some adjustment that included more tears and threats, she started to enjoy living there. And though she lived alone, she still cooked large pots of tomato sauce and pasta. At holidays my father would say, "Ma, you don't have to cook this year. We have it under control." But there she'd be, with her tray of stuffed artichokes (which my father has a hard time refusing) and breaded cutlets. Women of my mother's and my generations could go to Wegman's and buy a couple of party platters. But my grandmother has a NEED to cook. It goes even beyond love to necessity. This is her job. Without it she'd be lost.

My father is out of work right now, but you wouldn't know it. A construction project manager, he has switched gears out of necessity--from the construction site to the home front. Every day he has a mission, a vision of the next improvement he wants to make. He's taken up landscaping (he might take issue with the word "gardening.") The last time I visited my parents' house I was shocked at how organized he had made the garage. It was like the "After" portion of a show on HGTV. Every tool had its own hook. Bicycles and bicycle parts had their own corner. My mother's craft materials were arranged inside a work table on rollers. If I didn't live five hours away, I would have hired him on the spot to organize our place!

Mike says that if he were retired now he'd be doing the same thing as my dad--focusing on projects that would enhance both our lives. Perhaps he doesn't feel as passionate about his vocation as I do about book publishing. To me, my career is essential to my well-being. No matter what else is going on in my personal life, I always want to do good work. I know that tying your identity to your job title can be dangerous. I find it hard not to.

Feeling useful, productive, effective at something--more and more I equate that with happiness and longevity. Even my weekly visits with Linda are satisfying for this reason. Last night when Linda said to me, "You don't know how much I look forward to Monday nights when you come to visit" I felt myself tearing up. In some small way my efforts mattered. And so can everyone's if they dedicate themselves to something meaningful to them--be it grand or mundane--and stick with it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I am a rock, I am an island

"We are each an island. It is your task to bring to your island what you need to live long and well: love, beauty, diversion, friends, work that sustains, a meaningful life."--Kay Redfield Jamison

Mike and I were up at the family cabin again this weekend. First time in the hammock this year, first time putting my bare feet in the water.

The wildfires in Quebec caused a grey haze to obscure the mountains and made the air smell as sweet as a late-night campfire. It was a very pleasant smell, something LL Bean might put in a sachet and sell for $9.99.

I experienced my usual love-hate relationship with nature. In the hammock with my book, a gentle breeze keeping the mosquitoes away, I was as happy as a kid getting a turn on the swing. Then there was a buzz near my ear. It startled me beyond reason and I lost my page in the novel I was reading. I have a very knee-jerk reaction to buzzing. It not only annoys me but it fills me with anticipatory dread. I can't relax until I know the perpetrator is smashed and his accomplices have fled the scene.

I looked around for the source and saw that half a dozen dragonflies were circling the weeds, rocks, and trees around the hammock. What a hypocrite I was! Dragonflies were the theme of our August wedding. People had given us dragonfly-themed presents: pieces of Kate Spade June Lane china stamped with golden dragonflies. Framed color photographs of dragonflies. A dragonfly candle. Even a dragonfly magnet. And how was I reacting to the real creatures? Like they were the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz--proving once again that I like the sanitized version of nature better than the real thing.

Mike and I climbed down the rocks to get to the lip of Lovewell pond. The feel of the mucky pond floor actually appeals to me. It must be all those times my parents took me to lakes when I was a kid. In the shallow end I could touch the floor, and though it felt slimy it was also cool and soft, like stepping into a bowl of pudding. My father preferred jumping into deep rock quarries, places where a kid would need to know how to swim (which I didn't and still don't.)

The pond water had receded and pollen had left yellow bands around the rocks like chalk marks on the sidelines of a football game.

Something about being in a natural setting on a beautiful day makes people want to say something profound about life or death or the state of humanity. I am not immune. Some of my most intimate talks with my husband or with a friend have been when we're away from the city. Like looking out the windshield of a car eases the discomfort of a difficult conversation, talking openly seems natural while watching the small ripples on the surface of the water, the setting sun an airbrushed orange.

I asked Mike why it is that even in a beautiful, peaceful place like this I still worry so much. Is it that I'm addicted to thinking of worst possible outcomes? Mike suggested that I might be trying to prepare myself in case something unforeseen happens--even unlikely things like him falling on a rock and splitting his head open. Of course, he doesn't make me feel secure when he's jumping from one unbalanced boulder to the next.

I'd make the most anxious mother in the world.

It didn't help that I had chosen to bring Nothing Was the Same, a memoir by Kay Redfield Jamison about her husband's death from cancer, as my Memorial Day Weekend read. Did I WANT to be depressed? My wiser cousin Mikki, who was also staying at the cabin, had gone into White Birch Books in North Conway and asked the bookseller to recommend something fun. Meanwhile I was wrapped up in a book about losing a life partner. Yippee!

Mike said that probably more people have these feelings than I realize. It is hard sometimes to imagine other people having neurotic worries like I do. As empathetic as I try to be, I still have the tendency to think that other people have it together where I don't. I'm confident in some areas, sure. But feeling happiness in the present moment without worrying that it will be taken away in the future is incredibly hard for me. How do other people experience life?

One of my favorite authors to work with, Ellen Graf, brought up this very topic last time we spoke. She's married to a Chinese man who came to America to live with her. In order for them to live peacefully together she had to let go of some of her assumptions about other people and how they think. This is harder than it sounds since we all look through the lenses of our own thoughts and experience. It's difficult to imagine a Republican's point of view if you're a Democrat, a life of poverty if you're privileged, or the perspective of someone from a different culture than your own. Graf had the opportunity to experience this firsthand and it proved essential to her marriage.

Knowing that I'm not the only one to feel sad or anxious sometimes, even when there's a spectacular sunset before me, cool water on my feet, and someone I love at my side, is enough to rouse me out of my funk. I may sometimes feel unmoored in life, but this is not a disaster, and I'm not alone.