TO THE TEETH 1
When I was fifteen I was sick, and the doctor said I would always feel that way. (I would rather not talk about it anymore, but most of the people I love I know because I said something loudly, or listened to them saying something loudly, and so.) When the doctor said that I would always feel that way I felt angry too, which was new at the time, because I didn’t understand how I could always feel like this and still be alive. I was right. But so was she—this, which is also a specific loneliness that takes up space inside my body, is constant—but it is also constantly changing. At some point, it became a weapon too. Weapons need armor, and that is also constantly changing. Twenty years later, I hold it all pretty well most of the time, and I’m okay. Sometimes—and this is important—I am also really, really happy. Sometimes I might be one of the happiest people who ever lived in the world.
Sometimes I think about my loneliness like teeth. When I was fifteen, the bones were pushing themselves through my face. It was loud, and it really hurt. Teething is metal, but it is also a process, not an identity. Before the teeth erupt, their edges push along the gums from the inside, like a bassline teasing a room. They push along for weeks, and then they push through. Today, my loneliness sits inside my mouth, and most of the time it helps me. This is not the same as saying I’m grateful for it.
Teeth make notches. They comb and latch and grip. Once I dreamed all of mine fell out, and I thought: well, now you had that dream. Sometimes, babies bite the breasts that feed them, and lovers bite the necks they sleep against. During the first Selma to Montgomery march, a little girl remembers biting a hand that grabbed her in the crowd. Teeth are also little pieces of sharp, crackable, durable bone. They charm, and they protect. That’s why I call this column TO THE TEETH. Everything in it will be small, and hard, and true. Everything in it is something small that adds up.
On loneliness: in his book Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen says F. said “I’m wearing my heart like a crown.” It’s likely F. said that because emotions are not weakness, in fact sometimes they are laurels of tough. In the 1981 production of Rockaby, Billie Whitlaw sits onstage in a rocking chair. Her character is wearing a sequin dress that belonged to her mother. As this person rocks, the lights and mirrors crash noisily on the wall. I probably feel like this when I listen to music in my headphones on the train.
A month ago, I bought myself a plane ticket to New York so I could visit the David Wojnarowicz retrospective at MOMA. I buy tickets to weddings and conferences and meals, so why not also for times and paintings? Since I was in high school, I don’t think I’ve made anything without some Wojnarowicz in it too. K. and I went to the show together, and afterwards I walked through it once more by myself. I have problems with museums only truly respecting people (and their politics) after they’re dead, but anyway.
Wojnarowicz used lots of stitches. He stitched his lips together, and a loaf of bread, and pieces of paintings. Usually the thread is red or black. It connects without pretending there isn’t space in-between too. Sometimes it heals, and sometimes it just holds. I stood in front of a painting about blood for a long time, and then I took a picture of it and walked down the street to the tattoo shop, where I asked a man to ink those same three stitches into my arm. It was a planned non-violent action, and also a reminder: look for beauty. Beauty exists. When I get a tattoo that is also a reminder, I’m pretty sure the reminder is never for me.
In her book about the alphabet, translated by Susanna Nied, Inger Christensen writes: “days exist, days and death; and poems exist; poems, days, death.” I like this quote because it reminds me that I am in my body in time. One good about poems is that it’s okay to pretend they are especially for you. When I try to imagine loneliness I can’t.
In an interview we did for Pitchfork that is no longer on the Internet, Patti Smith said that when she first moved to Detroit with Fred in the early eighties, to be in love and also, hopefully, to have babies, she didn’t have a lot of time to write. But she was still a writer. I used to worry a lot about what I needed to do to be a writer, but then I realized I am one. I didn’t realize this until six years of school after college. Maybe there’s a connection there, or maybe there isn’t, but I am a writer because I am a writer I am a writer and a writer: a writer. The end. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m thinking anything about you.
When I fall asleep with someone, sometimes I tap their arm or wrist a while, like saying hello a lot. This is writing, and of course it is other things too. My friend’s daughter takes a notebook everywhere with her. She sits on the floor, opens it, and draws columns of wiggly lines. She says she’s listening. This is writing. These actions are writing because they connect and clarify spaces, they need hands, and they keep time. Often that is also love, and when it isn’t it’s very much like it.
When people worry they aren’t writers, frequently they’re talking about time and money too. I remember an atrium in Chicago where I could sit in the twenty minutes between the train from Pilsen and the bus to Hyde Park. I could buy a scoop of macaroni and cheese, and I could write a paragraph while I ate. Sometimes no one else even looked at me. It was great.
A while ago I started a job I love, even though it takes almost all the time I used to have for daydreaming and gentle mistakes. The worst part about it is that I definitely still gently mistake, however I don’t have time to calm myself internally for hours afterwards. This is different than reflecting on it. As a result, sometimes I run around with my jaw clenched in a way that seems personal, even when it isn’t. But I’m getting better. Meanwhile, I’ve almost completely stopped stacking my errors every night, setting them on fire, and staring at everything until it’s black. There just isn’t time for that anymore either, and I’m glad. Decades after the doctor told me I would always feel this way, I’m glad I still choose what scares me and asks me to change. Am I still a writer? Duh.
This monthly column will be about the bites (the choruses, paragraphs, lines, shades) we take to arm ourselves, taste the death, and come closer—to ourselves, to home, and to the work. I mean that sincerely. This month was about a feeling, and next month will probably be about a person or a color. Hi, let’s go.
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