As They Say, the Tooth Hurts

Let me begin by telling you two facts. 1: I am 50 years old. 2: I just had all four wisdom teeth removed, an indignity and a pain beyond which I thought I’d long aged.

As I remember, most people had their teeth out when they were teens. Apparently, my teeth had not yet come in and, when they did, I had no money for a dentist, and so I never even knew. Sure, I had tooth-coming-in pain, but I just smiled waveringly (I wouldn’t say it was a grin) and bore it, not knowing why things hurt so bad. Eventually, the pain subsided, and that was that. I sighed in relief and forgot about a dentist, figuring I could do without what I couldn’t afford. I never knew I had wisdom teeth, so I never knew I had to get them out.

And despite what most people who know me will say, I have a small mouth. Not much room for teeth, wise ones or otherwise. (Get it? Otherwise?) So when my dentist recently told me the wisdom teeth had to come out because they were making trouble for my other teeth, pushing them around and crowding them out, I dutifully made my appointment with an oral surgeon and waited with dread.

I’d like to say I was worrying about it for nothing, but boy, howdy, it is a procedure that really sucks. At least when you’re 50 and not taking any serious drugs. I stuck with ibuprofen instead of getting something more powerful prescribed, and sheesh. Poor choice.

I’ve been thinking about those four gone teeth this week. My mouth has protested their absence by swelling up, acting tender, throbbing and stinging and burning with pain. Somewhere, in some trash can, those teeth are rattling around. Perhaps by now they’ve been sent to a medical waste incinerator. Does dentin burn?

Those wisdom teeth had made my mouth a hostile home, bullying the other teeth, rearranging the landscape of my jaw to their liking, occupying all my thoughts with their need for management. They represented a leftover from my youth, a pain I had endured without questioning where it came from or what could be done about it.

Yet it was hurtful and difficult to excise them. I’m still in throbbing, burning misery a week later. It hurts in the spaces where the teeth used to be, but the remaining teeth are also hurting, apparently on high alert, the nerves rattled because of the uprooting. That kind of pain invades everything.

The teeth are a metaphor. That much is clear. I could go on, but I imagine it would interest few people to know that much about me, and what a metaphor means doesn’t mean much coming from its originator anyway.

In a move of great hypocrisy, a move toward TMI, I will tell you that when the dentist told me I was a “tongue thruster,” I laughed. Mostly because of the name. She explained that in sleep, swallowing, managing tension, even speaking, I push against my teeth with my tongue and displace them. Even so, I find it funny and I want to put it on a T-shirt: PROUD TONGUE THRUSTER.

Hilarious dental language aside, I’ve been thinking about this idea. Perhaps the whole displacement thing was not the fault of those wisdom teeth, but the result of my tongue applying pressure, insisting on its own need for space. I have always been told I have a big mouth, but perhaps this is not the problem. Perhaps it’s a case of a big, insistent tongue, a muscle which can only think to push against what tries to hold it back, reactionary and stubborn, and this is the consequence I bear for it.

As a woman (and before that a girl), as a first-gen kid, as a smart kid, I was always taught humility above all else. There is perhaps no greater sin, I learned, than to put myself above or in front of another. As a child, I was told that children should be seen and not heard, that one should always consider how one might make others feel before doing or saying anything. In college, I rebelled, and was frequently called—mostly by the boys I knew—“outspoken,” which is the crappy way of saying, “You talk too much and too loudly about things I don’t want you to talk about.” It is also the thing They seemed to say about all feminists in the 1980s. When I was assaulted by a male student at school, the college counselor told me that I had provoked him and, though I’d told them he had been stalking me and telling others he was going to kill me, the school would not intervene on my behalf (I kid you not. It was 1989). Later, after that incident, as a young adult I realized from, well, just walking down the street daily, how very public the property of my body was, how other folks seemed to see it as unquestionably available for their judgment, comment and use.

When I hit late middle age, I was heavy tired and then elated to discover that I had become mostly invisible in public. (Walking with a cane has helped in that department, too.) There are certainly drawbacks to such invisibility, but there is a useful side: no longer would I be pushed or pressured, bullied or used, forced to walk the gauntlet of a landscape hostile to women like me. If you don’t see me, then you won’t bother with me. Aging didn’t feel like a loss at all—it felt like a relief. My life got much better, much more my own, in many ways.

I believe they’re called “wisdom teeth,” by the way, because they come in later, around the time one should have become “wise” to the world. Is it telling that people usually have them yanked out upon their first appearance? Does wisdom produce that much disruption, crowding everything else out?

All this is probably the pain talking. I haven’t been thinking right, the drilling ache curdling my thoughts. I should have asked for some prescription painkillers, but I didn’t want my head muddled. Go figure.

Today both my dentist and her hygienist told me that I’m healing really well and that they’ll take the stitches out next visit. I will be unlaced, and my mouth can once again do what it will. That sounds like the relief of freedom, but also the weight of responsibility coming. All my mouth has ever done is get me into trouble.

They’ve removed all my wisdom and it hurts, but they tell me relief is around the corner and everything will get better. It is entirely possible that the stoic mentality by which I have always operated was the wrong choice in my case, and that the pain from the wisdom tooth extractions is neither the fault of those bullying wisdom teeth nor of my tongue and its pressure, but of me and my own choices, my own stubbornness. What if they take out the stitches and everything still hurts? I can’t imagine it not hurting—living with the constancy of pain, it’s hard to imagine an otherwise. I mean, pain is a signal. It’s hard to imagine being wise without feeling pain. I’m not exactly sure what to hope for. Red pill, blue pill.  

REVIEW: Killing Rage by bell hooks

Killing Rage: Ending Racism by bell hooks (Henry Holt and Company, 1995).

I have been putting off writing this review for over a month. This is not because I don’t love Killing Rage or bell hooks’ mind—it is precisely because I love the book so much and respect its author so deeply that I’ve been nervous to write a review. After all, I’m just a rinky-dink writer living a rinky-dink life. Who am I to be critical (or praising) of bell hooks, a scholar and feminist I so absolutely admire?

Thus, a warning: this is less a critical review and more a pastiche of memories and a paean.

I first came across Killing Rage back in the day (in the early 2000s, about five or six years after the book had initially come out) when in PhD school and one of my classes read and discussed a chapter. I don’t remember who the professor was, or what the class or context happened to have been, or even which particular essay we read, but I do remember that I didn’t like it. Part of the problem was that I was raised a good Greek girl who was assiduously taught to be “nice” (not to ever raise my voice, raise a fuss, make a wave) and to look with distaste upon any woman who did so. I thought I had unlearned this teaching and fiercely resisted it, but it worked through me in quiet, invisible ways. As is so often the case with such insidious teaching (and by that I mean what we learn in service of keeping other people comfortable in their privilege), it had really wormed its way into my very deepest self.

The other, perhaps larger, part of the problem was that the professor who introduced the work and led the discussion clearly didn’t like hooks. Perhaps that prof, too, had absorbed that insidious teaching, or perhaps they directly benefitted from teaching it to the rest of us. Either way, the discussion was bent forcibly toward a negative conclusion.

(An aside: graduate school, I had thought, would be a haven of brilliant, open thinking and uplifting for this queer, disabled first-gen girl, but it was anything but. One professor used to point at me any time he said the word “gay.” I watched our class of six women—each of us some mix of queer/immigrant/first gen/Black/Asian/disabled, all of us quite smart and driven—be worn down by the environment of American academia and its determination to discourage people like us. Eventually, only two of us would finish the program with health and relationship intact.)

I remember not feeling hate—but neither love—for hooks’ text under those circumstances, but I did keep the book on my bookshelf for decades anyway (and even, in subsequent years, acquired more of hooks’ catalog). Recently, in the looming shadow of racialized police brutality (including numerous execustions) directed primarily at Black folks and the call to consciousness issued by, among other entities, the Black Lives Matter movement, in my grief, fear and despair, I picked Killing Rage back up and decided to reread it.

Boy, howdy, context changes everything.

It struck me most painfully how prescient this book is. First published twenty-five years ago, it seems to be speaking directly to the current moment. Of course, it is not so much that the book is prescient as that what the book addresses has not significantly changed since then. Conditions have, perhaps, become unburied, visible to so many more people than they were in 1995—it was much easier for many people then to ignore what so urgently, directly affected others and not oneself. Or perhaps it is me that has changed, since clearly hooks perceived conditions clearly, even if I did not.

This is all to say that, reading this book of essays about race and racism in the United States now was a mix of the painful, heartbreaking, vilifying, affirming and angering. I like the double (triple?) entendre of the title: it is about a rage that makes one feel like going on a murder spree in response to racist conditions, but it is also indirectly about the rage in others that makes them act/think consciously as racists (another murderous kind of anger), and also about the culture-wide effort to suppress/kill the rage which has the potential to fuel and electrify positive political movements (think: BLM and Act Up, for two examples).

Culturally, we’re taught that rage is ugly, politically useless, a nasty emotion. Consider the difference, for instance, between how Martin Luther King, Jr (leader of passive, loving resistance) has been elevated as more important and more culture-changing than Malcolm X, whose insistence that one must fight racist violence in all its forms (both cultural and physical) with strong resistance and refusal of violent victimization has been largely demonized as “reverse-racist” (ummm… what?) and dangerous. Think about the stereotype of the Angry Black Man (and here I think of lawyer Imani Gandi of the brilliant, sharp and irreverent podcast Boom! Lawyered, whose Twitter handle is @AngryBlackLady), or about the stereotype of the Aggressive Black Woman (again, I think with gratitude of Gandi). Think about the vilification from all sides that is the reward for Black queer feminists or Black trans women.

I’ve strayed: let me wind back to hooks’ wonderful book. It’s a huge collection of bite-sized essays (more than twenty essays, each only about ten pages) about race and racism in the U.S. and the effects of Black liberation and feminism as a counterpunch. It’s scholarly in its approach (carefully reasoned, backed up with facts, tightly crafted), but written in a voice to which everyone might cotton and connect (not that dry, scholarly language of self-important blahblahblah). Some of the essays help make plain the cultural workings of racism, workings which often depend upon effecting near invisibility or easy deniability (essays like “Representation of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” “Teaching Resistance: The Racial Politics of Mass Media” or “Marketing Blackness: Class and Commodification”); other essays propose a way out (see “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance” or “Moving from Pain to Power: Black Self-Determination”).

This is a necessarily brief overview of what is by nature a complex, wide-ranging but sharply-honed collection of essays about anti-Black racism in the U.S. and how we must counter its workings. I haven’t nearly done it justice. In short, it’s a brilliantly clear, smart, affecting collection of essays. Not a collection, really. It’s a brilliantly clear, smart, affecting gut punch of essays at least as relevant today as when they were originally published.

REVIEW: Audre Lorde’s THE CANCER JOURNALS

lorde

The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde

San Francisco: aunt lute books, 1980

 

The Cancer Journals is a collection of essays by Audre Lorde about her diagnosis with, treatment for and healing from breast cancer and decision to undergo—and physical and emotional recovery from—a mastectomy. It contains and often riffs on excerpts from her personal journal in which she contends with her own fears and mourning, the inhumanity of the medical establishment, the warm support of the women in her life. These are powerful essays, insightful and unflinching and beautiful. Though she does not step back from the pain she undergoes, she speaks clearly about the power and support she finds, the connections to other women she intensifies, and the erotic experience of her own body. I’ve returned to this little book again and again and again throughout my adult life.

But these essays are about more than breast cancer, more than illness and disability. They are about strength, and hope, and feminism, and body politics, and power, and power, and power. Lorde frequently reminds the reader that these words are coming from a black lesbian poet, and this is important, I think—Lorde is positioning herself in the world, calling our attention to where she’s standing as she speaks. By doing so, she’s emphasizing the connection between lived experience, what one thinks about and what one is usually permitted to say.

If you’ve ever read an Audre Lorde quotation, chances are it came from this book. Remember “your silence will not protect you”? This book. If you have the T-shirt, you need to read the book, friends.

You may imagine that a book of essays about struggling with breast cancer would be depressing. This is not. Neither is it falsely uplifting (the expectation of a put-on-a-cheery-smile attitude, Lorde says, is a way of preventing women from knowing themselves and discovering their full power). The tone of the book lies smack in the middle: sometimes strong, sometimes terrified, sometimes mournful, sometimes pragmatic.  Extremely human. As a chronically-ill and disabled woman, I’ve heard Lorde’s words in my head numerous times—though I have never confronted breast cancer in my own body, Lorde speaks to my own experiences of illness and disability, and also to my experiences as a queer woman, a feminist, and even a writer.

Right now, reading these essays again (as I do every year or so), I’m finding them extra-chillingly-on-point. In this moment when institutionalized racism seems to be baring its teeth extra viciously at its targets, especially those who speak back to it; when American Black people in particular are endangered by our country’s own institutions, pResident and even some citizens; and when white folks, insisting on their “allyship,” are trying to divert attention to how white allies feel about all of this, Lorde’s words are frighteningly prescient.

“I have found that battling despair does not mean closing my eyes to the enormity of the tasks of effecting change,” she writes, “nor ignoring the strength and the barbarity of the forces aligned against us. It means teaching, surviving and fighting with the most important resource I have, myself, and taking joy in that battle. It means, for me, recognizing the enemy outside and the enemy within, and knowing that my work is part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power, and knowing that this work did not begin with my birth nor will it end with my death. And it means knowing that within this continuum, my life and my love and my work has particular power and meaning to others.”

She also sees clearly how such a profound threat to her life (she’s specifically talking about cancer, but is also obliquely referencing racism and sexism and homophobia) sap her energy, divert her away from exercising her own power in the world. It follows that those who have an interest in keeping down Black folks, women, queer folks, disabled folks—those whose lives are easier if all of us just sit down and shut up—also have an interest in not finding a cure for breast cancer or other chronic serious illnesses, or enacting safeguards against homophobia, sexism and racism. (And not, I might add, making complete healthcare available to all of us…) I’ve often said that taking care of a debilitating chronic illness (in my case, Multiple Sclerosis and Type I/Juvenile Diabetes) is a full-time job and leaves little energies for other things. Lorde writes:

“I am often afraid to this day, but even moreso angry at having to be afraid, of having to spend so much of my energies, interrupting my work, simply upon fear and worry. […] I resent the time and weakening effect of these concerns—they feel as if they are available now for diversion in much the same way the FBI lies are available for diversion, the purpose being to sway us from our appointed and self-chosen paths of action.”

Imagine how much more productive, creative, brilliant Lorde could have been, how much more powerful, how much more of a threat to the status quo Lorde would have been, had she not had to expend so much energy just to stay alive. One might say the same for all ailing and disabled folks, poor folks, Black folks, LGBTQ folks, POC folks… And by making our lives harder, by not providing enough support and care to such folks, American culture/government is essentially sapping our strength and robbing itself of our contributions and active presence.

I feel this especially strongly during Pride month and in the midst of BLM demonstrations and our own pResident’s threats of violence and “crackdown” on demonstrators and dissenters. In this context, Lorde’s words, written in the 1970s, seem to predict this moment. But, of course, it is more likely true that, though much has changed, little has changed since Lorde wrote these essays. Our government is still under the sway of racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist agendas. Women, LGBTQ+ folks, disabled folks, POC, Black folks… all live with the threat of violence. All deal daily with a lack of fiscal, legal, intellectual and bodily safety and security. All need, desperately need, the brilliant, powerful, brave and true words of this book now more than ever.