I grind my teeth when I sleep. I never used to, but for the last several years, though in denial, and in the depths of my subconscious, I know this to be true. In 2016, the dentist in Greenpoint looked into my jaw and traced the carnage. “See how the tops are worn down at the bottom, see the chipping?” Indeed, I felt the sharpening of my lower teeth, and felt a slight slant when I ran my tongue along the upper half of my mouth. In the place of reeling insomnia that dissipated when I was 24, there a clenched jaw. I woke easy on April 23rd, 2019 and I thought to myself, “well, I won’t always have these teeth to grind,” and that comforted me, and then I thought - “wait. But I’ll be dead at that point - that or very old and have other ailments I suppose.” Which made me uncomfortable that I had even had such a defeatist thought. Is my mindset to struggle through life without pleasure?
And will we get old? Or is it as close to the end of the world as we all think? I’m having a breakthrough and everything I make is crap. How can that be? Is it possible to become a contented and joyful being and still make terrible work? Being alive is not being beautiful in the commercial sense. But sometimes it feels like we’re being sold the apocalypse.
When I was 12 I ripped the black thread of my best friend’s friendship necklace because I didn’t want her to lose it. While we were zydeco dancing with our friend’s mom, I noticed it getting shoddy around her neck. Far too many of my precious things had fallen to the bottoms of lakes, or between wild blades of grass to have that happen to her. So I broke her side of our friendship necklace in order to save it. All of my precious objects seemed to disappear and so I kept things around me. I used them so that, in a sense they became me. Or I would wear them just so that I could monitor their existence. I didn’t trust anyone but myself, and so here they had to be - on me, in my hand, in my pocket. Even if that meant breaking them at my desperate hand.
This monitoring led to squirrel-like hiding places for objects, and feelings, kept precious far away from any other person who might not know how to treat them (remember how I ripped the necklace off of my best friend because I didn’t trust her?) Same.
But it’s strange when the foe comes at night, and it comes from inside, and it comes for your teeth, which I don’t plan to take out anytime soon. And yet they become worn down and chipped and I run my tongue along my plagued bottom row and know that those imperfections mean I still have knots in my psyche. My body says, “you can’t control me, no, not by worrying and working all the time, and also not through procrastination and panic in tandem.”
As much as it hurts me, as much as it is not symbolic the fact that I am grinding my teeth. I am quite literally destroying my teeth. It would be easy to go ahead and blame society, to blame the very fabric of my life. As Sun Ra said in This Planet Is Doomed, maybe we are living ruses that keep us from seeing reality. I waver and complain in the face of something which I don’t understand. I feel somehow helpless to the monotony and simultaneous banality and necessity of the smallest tasks. Where is respite but in solitary moments? Do they call this a breakdown or a breakthrough or just a busy season? Either way, my jaw takes some of the feeling my mind refuses to process.
So. I would like to honor them. My teeth, that is. So I look up “what are teeth made out of” and though it makes me cringe to look at all of the names: pulp is one of them, along with dentin, and enamel. Like trees they have roots and within a thin layer of nerves and tissue. I settle into their uncomfortable, vulnerable complexity. WebMD asks me to ask my doctor about stress relievers. Or buy a mouthguard. Everything points to: meditate and train your body to relax.
What I am engaging with regarding my teeth is manifold. They are unique, they will not grow back after that first losing of them, and they are right there underlining our faces like a choice on microsoft word document. They are the gatekeepers to the consuming of dense material. In a way they truly are our golden fortress, our protectors. From a smile to a bite, they are the shield and the shape, and a weapon on our face, defining us to the outside world, giving weight to our expressions. It is the teeth that insinuate existential fear, from a panther, a shark, a dragon, the teeth are the faithful warriors. And the fear of their disintegrating seems to be born from a fear of helplessness.
I have my father’s teeth. They’re weird because the lateral incisors are small. I have cracked them more times than I would like to admit. Several of them are patched up with some sort of tooth cement (and I would imagine this will continue to happen in my life. I am not yet 30 and my teeth are haggard.)
Dentists have always been very lax with my teeth “your wisdom teeth are growing in. You have room.” It may have been true, but I remember the intense pain of wisdom teeth growing in. I was around 22, and I would be writing when all of a sudden I thought every single one of my teeth would fall out, followed by my jaw. The sudden assaults scared me, but I didn’t do anything about it until I ran my finger along the crests of newly formed teeth and knew they were the famed wisdom teeth that many a friend had uprooted, and so for days sat with cotton swabs in their mouths and apple sauce and mush strawed in.
My mother used to take me to this real holistic doctor in Massachusetts - where all the holistic doctors were - not in upstate New York, where I grew up several towns over. In my memory he was a very old man, his skin paper thin white, nearly transparent hair. Something about his voice was buttery, clicking against the walls as he asked me if I wanted braces. I said. “No.” Of course not. Who wants braces! And more importantly, why would he ask? He’s the adult - he’s the damn doctor, weren’t braces prescribed? Weren’t they just necessary. Anyway. He listened to my ignorant self, and here I am, with teeth as wrangled as a tornadoed mountain, strong, and worn. An overbite for sure. At 29? I’m too proud to get braces now.
And as I grind them, as the jaw circles, it seems to be grinding over some expected words, something that must be said. I dream of them falling out. I dream of them rotting, or, are there still baby teeth in my mouth for some reason that just forgot to come out so many years ago? I dream of molars as wide as mountain ranges. What am I not saying? What is the motion for me to ease out these ingrained anxieties? Is an anxious free life even possible? I believe it. But there’s something I’m not saying.