Saturday, August 6, 2016

Getting and Spending

Custody of the eyes was what the nuns called it, with the elegance of language that was imposed upon them by the church’s original Latin regulations and, at one time, its daily speech. They used it to caution against eye contact with men, the gateway to lust along with that pesky reflection from patent leather shoes. As I age, I understand this phrase to mean a restriction against visual greed, against the snares and beauty of the world that entrance and entrap, distracting from the inner life that can lead to dismal piety.

“Mine eyes hunger for you above all things,” a Tudor wrote, probably Henry VIII whose visual appetite knew no restrictions. My eyes have always been hungry and without custody; I feed on what they give me. Every morning I take my pot of espresso to the table on the porch and I gaze—at the increasing greenery of new leaves, a new splurge of blossoms, the soft and gentle blue of a fresh sky that’s not yet set into blaze by the sun.

This morning the air settled on my skin and I felt no difference in temperature; it touched me like another layer of my own flesh. It’s what I imagine shatoosh would feel like, the forbidden scarf woven from the hair beneath a goat’s chin and many parts of the world that I have lived in, it’s as luxurious and as highly prized. In Bangkok the air goes swiftly from pre-dawn chill to a furnace of heat; in Seattle I usually flinch from stabbing coolness when I go out to survey the morning landscape of my neighborhood.

The physician and essayist Atul Gawande says we learn to embrace the present moment as we grow old, rather than yearning for a yet unattainable future; nobody seems to know if that change is due to wisdom or a decline of chemicals in the brain. I’ve found that as some hungers leave me, other appetites grow fiercer with the strongest being the visual. The sprays of pink blossom outside my bedroom window refresh me when I look up from my computer; the shadows on the house next door are photography in flux and make me wonder if those plays of light and darkness were the inspiration for motion pictures. The luxury of so many shades of green in the backyard remind of how my eyes would lock onto random  patches of greenery that emerged from Bangkok’s cement, physically feeling the relief that those cool, bright hues would bring.

Appetite is the easy loss in aging. At one point, as I approached fifty, I was terrified of losing the sensation of physical attraction. What is known as the sexual peak had been so overwhelming and gave such affirmative pleasure that when I thought of life without it, I could only see days of black and white. I had no idea that other colors would intensify when that particular hunger left me, and that the lack of that consuming yearning would give me powers of concentration that drugs had never offered.

The power of being happy in the moment is a guarantee of lasting happiness. The only other time I remember anything close to this was when I was little on a good day when the sun was bright, the dirt was warm under my bare feet, and there were no mosquitos. Still something always came between me and that particular feeling of joy—the annoying call of a little sister, a mealtime, or some small chore. Now very little gets in the way of my happiness, except for loss and its accompanying pain.

I know I’m luckier than most. A doctor’s visit has no unpleasant surprises for me and the backaches that had me crawling on the floor over the past few years seem to have gone with the purchase of my new desk chair. My mortality still seems abstract, although people I love have died and the pain of missing them should remind me that my turn’s coming. Even so, when I look at the extravagance of light, color, and shadow that’s separated from me by a millimeter of glass, it seems impossible that I won’t always be around to love it.

I can never remember a time when I was not in love with what I see and there are still few things that can distract me from that. Yet last week I looked without seeing, caught in a jail cell of grief for a physical part of me that had died and had been tossed away.

Teeth have been a problem from the time that I was seven or so, but they were always fixable, replaceable, filled, or crowned. I knew one of my bottom front teeth had become perilously loose but certainly there had to be a solution for that. There always had been. But when it came to my mouth, my check, as a good friend has said about physical ailments, had bounced. I’d overdrawn that account and my gums had paid the price.

Both of my bottom front teeth were taken away, slipping from my mouth in a way that horrified me with its ease. The gap where they had been for over sixty years felt Grand Canyonesque, and it couldn’t be filled until all of the work on the bottom of my mouth had been completed.

Ordinarily I only cry when I’m angry but as cotton gauze was packed into the bleeding holes where my teeth had been, I was surprised to feel tears on my cheeks, and more slipping to join them. It was an action as involuntary as a sneeze, a physical reflex to something that my mind still hadn’t understood.

It took longer for that mental numbness to wear off than it did for the anesthetic that had been shot into my mouth. I walked home in an eerie fog on a bright day. My hand was fixed over the face mask that I’d been given to hide any blood that might seep through it before I could replace the gauze in privacy. In my bedroom I stared at the “bare ruined choirs” and the teeth that still surrounded them, tinged pink with blood.

Those teeth had been with me for years and they would never come back. Eventually bits of porcelain would fill the space that had been theirs, but they would never be part of my living bone. They had died, and what came with that knowledge couldn’t be escaped or ignored. I had begun to die.

“He not busy being born is busy dying,” Bob Dylan told us in his tuneless croak when I was young, but who had time to think about that in those days? As I looked at my mouth on the morning my bottom teeth left me, his words pierced me and II was lost in a wave of sadness that nothing could distract me from. I stayed in bed for two days.

When I woke up today, a week after those 48 hours of grief, my tongue felt the mournful emptiness at the front of my mouth, but my eyes had other plans. Light warmed the fabric of my bedroom curtain and I got up to pull away that barrier, eager to see what the world had to give me. Surging back came the curiosity, the delight, the impetus to love. Even though I was toothless at a crucial spot, I felt the energy of joy, springing from who knows where? As the Beatles said,”I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.”


Kim said...

What a stunning essay, Janet. Reading this I can see the essential books you still have in you to write.

Janet Brown said...

Thank you so very much, Kim!