My front two teeth are missing. Most days I can joke about this. Everyday this is a part of my life. Every day my tongue looks for his lost friends. Every day I bite into something and it fails to sever into an ingestable unit. Every day I catch myself holding back or modifying a smile or a laugh. I'm not seeking pity for this, it is just my reality. My mother would like me to find a way to have them replaced. It is not that simple.
When I was in seventh grade I was on the basketball team. While in the locker room before practice, three of the eighth grade team members thought it would be funny to take some sugary carbonated drink into their mouths and then spit it on other people. Some part of me decided that I should tell them that I didn’t approve of this action. The situation turned into the three of them beating me up, while everyone else watched. I was thrown against lockers for a while. Then, the final punch that landed before the coach returned, landed squarely on my front adult teeth.
The history of these teeth, between that time and now, is long and costly. I will summarize by saying that it started with a Finnish dentist in a Nairobi clinic attempting a root canal on nerves that were not dead and ended with a crazy alternative dentist in the suburbs of Chicago removing large parts the jaw above those teeth while an anesthesiologist ran large amounts of propofol (made famous by Michael Jackson) into my veins.
After paying for three sets of fake teeth that didn't fit, I began making my own. I have made my own fake teeth out of about any material you can think of so as to be socially presentable for work as a hospice nurse. (The irony of pretending you have not lost something while working with the dying is not lost on me.) I did remove them on occasion, once to lament with a woman with cancer telling me of her teeth falling out. My favorite homemade set was crafted from moose jaw. That moose was killed by an Anishanabe man, in what is now called northern Ontario. The jaw cost me my favorite book of William Stafford poems and a calligraphy pen. My least favorite set was wood. That George Washington story is bullshit.
A few years ago, one of my dear friends and I were writing an album. I had the beginning of a song with the working title of ‘Throw Your Privilege Down.’ The more I thought about the title, the less I felt as though it was a statement that I wanted to make. It felt like a lie. I cannot throw my privilege down.
I will not quit being male. (My friends have told me that even with surgery I would make a poor woman.) Last week I was mistaken for a person of Mexican heritage by a person of Mexican heritage, and I have First Nation blood in my veins… but, I am almost always recognized as ‘white’ in the community I live in. I am afforded the privilege that accompanies ‘white’ male in my community. When I walk into the hardware store, I am treated a certain way. I am told certain jokes.
This privilege (that of the white male) is dying. I can see that clearly as someone who has been witness to many deaths. The amount of technology, gerrymandering, and resources this privilege is costing to maintain clearly parallels a person's last days in the intensive care unit. I see the election of Donald Trump and the climate of bullying very clearly as the last gasps of this system. And when I say the word ‘system’ there is a slight hiss due to my missing teeth.
But, I cannot ‘throw down’ this creature of dying privilege right now. This also needs to be midwifed into death. Holding space for dying is one of the hardest tasks this culture faces. I need to hold space for this creature's death in order to hold space for wondering what gave birth to it and how it grew up. To not just quickly fix the problem or get on to the next better thing is hard. To hold space for something's end, when the redemption of that thing is likely to not be seen by your eyes, is an excruciating discipline.
It is easy to think that 'holding space' for death is a waste of time...shouldn't we just be working on the new system? 'Holding space' is not the same as fighting. One of our century's design masters, R. Buckminster Fuller says:
“You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
The part that Fuller doesn’t state is that the new model is built from the rotted body of the existing system. It is not simply hopping from the knackered horse to a fresh one and galloping off into the sunset. The bones we will have to build with depend on the manner of the death. Think of it in terms of trying to make a coat out of a deer hide that is riddled with holes vs a hide from a deer killed skillfully with a single arrow.
I am not advocating violence. The violence has already occurred at our own hand. We are the teenager racing his motorcycle on a hot summer night. We are going 100 mph down county roads with the tall corn blocking all visibility of the next intersection. We will only be aware of the impending impact for a split second. This is no longer about trying to steer or brake. This is about going deeply into the only moment we have been given in order to set our intention. Maybe to say a blessing for our organs that they might be transplanted into another body. Maybe just saying, "May all that I am serve the larger life of the world.”
But to utter the plea of serving something more than ourselves, we need to see clearly.
A man who works at my local hardware store was helping me to load bags of concrete into my truck several weeks ago. He looked at my bumper sticker, which says "There are no jobs on a dead planet," and said, “But, He's going to give us a NEW one." I shook myself out of shock and responded by saying "I'm really fond of this one." The ‘daddy god’ will buy us a new world after we destroy the one we have now. Why would we ever bother taking care of anything? This incident reminded me of a man I heard screaming in the hospital, furious, that he couldn't just get new parts (organs) put in. This is the blindness we are up against.
My friend told me just the other day of a piercingly cold winter. He said he had received more work than he could handle burying dead horses. He described how difficult it was to bury a dead horse even with the aid of a backhoe. He said the teeth kept breaking off the backhoe bucket as he tried to dig the frozen ground. He could replace the teeth, but the ground would still be frozen.
My friend's story struck me. The ground is still frozen. There is no point in spending money on teeth. It is not time to try to hide or bury the dead horse. Maybe we can go bow deeply beside the dead horse and weep. Maybe we can sit with the uncomfortable rotting carcass of the system that created tormented power structures. My missing teeth are my reminder of this. They are my daily meditation on uninitiated bully energy.
The guy who punched me in that locker room was known for punching people. He was given no initiation into how to serve the world. We now have a president-elect with no idea of service or what it means to be an adult human ... this is not a moral judgement, just an observable situation to anyone who understands that being an adult human is not inevitable. We will be required now, to be fierce holders of space for the uncomfortable task of allowing the system to die. It will be all too tempting to try to sustain or fix it. But, we do not have the resources to sustain or fix this system. Those resources need to be allocated to growing food and supporting communities that might survive post-petroleum and post-bully.
It is also all too tempting to want to shoot the hide full of holes with bullets of pious anger…to ‘put it down’ so to speak. This only leaves a carcass that cannot serve those who follow. I am not advocating being nice. I am advocating being fierce. When I teach new nurses about working with a dying person I tell them that holding space is the most important thing they can do. I show them a video of Joan Halifax talking about being fierce and compassionate.
Joan speaks of seeing clearly. For me, seeing clearly is not trying to hide all of the privileges I am afforded. It is also not pretending that all is well with the role I inhabit in my culture. The wounds need to be made visible. The energy needs to be shifted so that we are not wasting our energy pretending that a new 'great again' is about to be delivered just for us.
Our wounds are the opening into spacious time. They are our connection to this place, without which, we cannot hold space for dying well. I will still cover my mouth with my hand. I will still try not to smile and show my woundedness. But, my tongue reminds me every day. It reminds my to call upon all men to be vulnerable and wear their woundedness, not in shame but in courage. It reminds me to try and take care of this carcass, my body, as something precious that may one day serve as a beloved coat for those who follow … but also as the sensual vehicle of this experience right now. It reminds me to not fear the pleasure of being alive or hate those who are enjoying their holy experience in ways that make me uncomfortable. It reminds me to throw the toxic ‘pussy grabber’ bravado into the nigredo so that some fierce warrior gold might emerge … if not for me, then for my nephews or their nephews.
It reminds me to live as a deep prayer for men:
May we see clearly even if that vision leaves us wrecked.
May we bow down beside the dead horse and weep.
May we fiercely hold space for the dying of what no longer serves life.
May we help that which is dying, do so in a way that feds those who follow.
May we risk pleasure and vulnerability.
May we risk loving that which will not be here tomorrow.
May we risk being wild wounded warriors who protect the space of the womb…
the space that births not for our small selves, but for a carrying-on we may never see.
May we risk speaking forth our prayers into the world…even with missing teeth.