Crossing the line
Foreign object, that could as well be a metaphor for a middle aged woman, an interference in the array of young, smooth, elastic, glowing bodies without incontinence pads, halitosis, grey streaks, varicose veins.
But this foreign object also falls into the category of aid and appliance, an extra that was once not needed, but now is, to function “normally”.
To keep up the smooth elastic glow as far as possible. Or the illusion for oneself, that maybe we only crossed the line partly, there is still time, there is this liminal space ahead of us, on the journey to being “an old woman”, but we have only just started. We can on good days still “pass”.
The time where we move without being conscious of our bodies ends all too quickly.
This is a shock.
Of course some of us hardly ever move this way.
And as women most of us are always conscious of our bodies, even as little girls.
But for those of us with “normally working” mechanics, the beginning of the end of that era is tough. Timing, graduation and specifics are individual but also collective- irregular ovulation, a dodgy knee, previously unknown smells, hair in odd places, maintenance requiring more time. Vitamin supplements, tachycardia, dry skin, cancer scares. Off to a gentle start, considering.
And that dodgy knee has been a problem on and off for a decade, it might be unrelated.
Maybe the categories are not well chosen. But unrelated or not, they, this, will come harder and faster now. And it’s a process to realise, there is no way back. This can not be reversed. This will be the rest of our life.
This foreign object will be with me for the rest of my life. Most probably it will be in my body when I die, or, if I am lucky and die peacefully in my sleep, in my own bed, it will be sitting not far from my body on the bedside table or maybe, further away, on a shelf in the bathroom.
Or maybe it won’t.
Maybe I will have decided then to not use it anymore, to let my body have another attempt at building up callous skin to render it unnecessary, and do away with aesthetic considerations once and for all. Is that not the one prospect, in equal parts threat and promise, old age holds for women? That we reach a point where our bodies are not seen any longer and not “counted among women” anymore. This might start early. But the promise part is that we will also reach a point where we don’t care any longer and start to live without shame.
For now, they are wrapped in a tissue, beside me on the table, within reach. Like glasses.
I don’t always take them out when I write, but this evening, I have. Maybe to be able to contemplate them better, from the outside? And for certain passages I will put them back in to better be able to incorporate “the pinch”. To write from my body, and they are now a part of it.
I often do take them out however in the evening in general, nothing to do with the act of writing.
When the day is almost done, when it’s time to open the top button or open the belt, or slip into leggings and wooly socks, or whatever your particulars are.
I once had a boyfriend who hated this marking of a shift from public to private, he was an artist and probably it signified to him a person who isn’t whole, who lives a division that should not exist.
Some take off earrings. Loosen up.
Everything that keeps us in the prescribed or expected shape during the day, tucks in loose skin and wobble, straightens hair, covers unsightly sights.
When the public part is done.
Dirty little secrets- boundaries and culture
There might not have been a public part of the day in the traditional sense, but that part where all “other people” are on “the other side” of that divide, and you are the only one on your side.
I have two people where this particular boundary is more flexible in regards to “bodily things”.
My mother and my son. But obviously I have left the realm of childhood where everything has been visible to my mother long ago, and I have also left the realm where my son had not left our shared universe to sometimes live in his own, inaccessible to me.
When he did start to dip in and out, new boundaries were drawn and it changed also how I felt about my body and about which parts to show to him.
Still, these two have seen “them”. My foreign object.
Nobody else has. Although I can think of people, girlfriends, that will probably see them in the future.
These two, my most intimate family, for better and worse, have very rarely, when there was no way around it, seen me taking them in and out. When I was in danger of choking because they had trapped food for example.
But usually I avoid it.
But they know they exist. They have seen the wrapped tissue, and know what is inside, even though I have not revealed it like a magician taking off a magic blanket in a trick: Tadaaa.
But there are other scenarios or machinations they have not seen. They won’t. Nobody will. For now.
We can never predict when our mental or physical capacities might fail us or our circumstances change in a way that we have less or no control over who sees what.
But for now.
I sometimes take them out for example after eating something sticky, like crisps.
A lot gets stuck under the plate and in between the parts and I take it out and lick the remnants off.
It’s the best way.
But that would be in my book too much to share, for both sides. It’s probably already too much to write about, but I will decide later if there is a reason it should stay in this text.
People have of course very different boundaries when it comes to that, even within a supposedly shared culture.
And then those boundaries may shift as described when phases are entered and exited.
A parent leaving the door open when on the toilet when a child is small. Walking naked through the house, sleeping naked.
Some do, some don’t.
When my son was very small we were at the house of a playground acquaintance with a daughter the same age. The little girl came over to have a look when I changed my son’s nappy on the floor of their living room and her mother said: Don’t look, you naughty girl. She was English.
Then we were on holiday once with a German friend of mine and her son and I had come out of the shower to talk to him, he was about 5. And my friend asked me afterwards if I had been naked in front of him, because he had come back to her with eyes as wide as UFOs, as the expression goes. She laughed at that, it wasn’t accusatory. She herself was just never naked in front of him, I had been his first completely naked female body.
Another little girl on a sleepover who came into the bathroom with me when I was about to take a shower asked me why my boobs were hanging like this.
And I said well, as I got older they kind of went that way, it can happen when we get older.
And she said: My grandma is older than you but hers are not like that.
But the point is, she had seen her grandma’s naked boobs and was obviously not told to not talk about or not look at certain body parts.
And then, last anecdote for now, I was in hospital once in the 1990s and a Saudi man and his wife were on the same ward. He was a veteran of the gulf war and had fought in the American coalition and for that reason was now in the hospital to be treated by what was apparently considered the best team of doctors in that area internationally. The Americans were paying for his treatment. We were both on that ward for epilepsy. His wife was there to accompany him and she told me all this, naked, in the communal shower.
It had come as a surprise to see her there without her black abaya she was covered with at all other times we had met, in the dining room or in the hallway.
I had so little experience and knowledge about her culture or other cultures than “mine” that it seems to me in hindsight that I probably had not been entirely sure that she would look like me underneath those layers of cloth, even though I had not consciously thought about it.
She had all the parts I had and I envied her thick mane of curls that had also been hidden.
But the point is that she was in no way representative of any culture, the same as I am not for mine. On some level, yes. But to choose to have a chat, the two of us, half in half out of the shower, not covering ourselves with a towel even, that was our choice and our boundaries for that moment and that person.
Epilepsy..it seems I had forgotten about these times when my body already had lapses of “functioning normally”, even when I was much younger. But they were distinct spans of time, had an onset and an end. In between I had functioned without noticing.
Dealing with it- mentors
My grandmother kept her teeth in a glass with water beside her bed at night. I now have a different sort of respect for her, or let’s say there is an additional thing that I am impressed by.
That set of dentures, a full set, is in my memory massive.
I google it: Full dentures.
There is a website that advertises” basic dentures” and I take the “basic” as a sign I might find something akin to the monstrosities from the 1970s that she had to endure.
A massive foreign object. How could you get your head around it, not only metaphorically, but literally? How to overcome the constant sensation to be about to chole, or puke, or both.
The constant trigger of your gag reflex. The sensation of the sheer size, the bulk trapped in your mouth. The sensory innervation of the oral cavity is dense and there is high blood supply.
The tongue is the most sensitive organ for our sense of touch.
Remember children and the oral phase? The mouth is our first connection to the world, here we have explored and gotten to know our surroundings for the first time.
Sensation is intense and cavities or objects feel larger than they are. It is also the gateway to our airways: can we breathe, or do we feel like suffocating.
What an essential body location, symbolically and operatively.
But the examples on the website depict nothing of the kind. Times have moved on, and I am glad for it.
I am afraid I am not made off the same stern stuff that my grandmother was. Both of them actually. Even though my other one kept most of her own teeth until the end, she was known to swallow tubes and endure the surgical removal of gallstones without anesthetic. Repeatedly.
The one with the teeth in the glass also wore a catheter, had it removed and replaced on a regular basis, without complaint.
I can count the swallowing of a tube for a gastroscopy, several dilations and curettages, and a tattoo. Without anesthetics, yes, but not always by choice, and even then not with their stoicism and quiet resolve.
Not that it should be a requirement to be able to suffer quietly. It shouldn’t. But maybe it is?
Am I allowed to be in pain and finding this hard? Am I allowed to reject the foreign object? Allowed to take my time and go back and forth in accepting it. Cry, be angry, desperate.
Find the balance between rejection and tolerance.
Or am I supposed to keep quiet about it. Suffer in silence, the price for a smile with full teeth.
The dentures on the website are contoured and shaped and polished to individual fit, the roof as thin as possible.
Young women in identical uniforms and ponytails craft and shape and the woman who at the end of the process “confidently” smiles into a mirror is older than me, but not very old.
There are no old women, not even in an ad for full dentures!
On the one hand, it could encourage me, maybe there are actually way more women around my age who have dentures already?
Or maybe it just means the threatening part of that prospect mentioned earlier on is indeed true, there will come a time we will not be counted among women anymore.
But I also have another thought, in fairness.
Maybe the water in the glass and the years that have passed, are distorting my memory.
Maybe our sets are not that different.
And maybe we are weak, and tough, both.
A few months ago I visited the Sigmund Freud museum in Vienna. Freud had cancer of the palate, but there is also speculation that the deterioration of these parts was due to cocaine abuse. He was also a heavy smoker. Following a maxillectomy he had to wear a prosthesis in his mouth for the rest of his life, which he called “his monster”. Partly endearing, partly beholden in loathing.
Dealing with it- me
They are part of my body, but at the same time a foreign object.
I sometimes dream about them. About realising I have forgotten to put them in, and now I am somewhere, not necessarily at the literal speaker’s desk, but somewhere in the “public part” of the day. That actually does happen in waking life. That I have really forgotten to put them in and then cannot eat or smile.
Or at least I shouldn’t. Or do it in a careful, specific way.
I wonder about them, what would happen if someone hits me in the face. Or if I fall with the bike.
Or in a car accident. Would they break and slice me, or choke me, would I choke on them?
Are they a danger to me?
Other times I feel they are the main support keeping my head from falling apart, my bones from crumbling.
It’s a love/hate relationship.
They stand for strength and power, and the ability to defend yourself. But also for hunting and killing and tearing flesh off your prey.
They stand for life.
Once you lose them, you’re destined for death.
(Of course we are always destined for death, but that’s when you know.)
I have been a dental nurse, I know dentin is the hardest tissue in the body.
So, the hardest part of me has been removed.
There is the historical image of old people, toothless, only sipping soup, losing weight, getting smaller, dying.
I went through that phase and I hadn’t expected it.
My few original ones left had needed to come out for a while, I had been pushing it back.
Why did they have to come out? A history of bulimia and neglect, smoking heavily, and the good old hereditary disposition.
It runs in the family, addiction, neglect, genes.
I had thought to have made peace with it, as much as possible. With the aesthetic aspect, and the sensory. These were the areas I concentrated on, and of course also the : “Now, already, at your age?” But I still didn’t make the connection.
I still couldn’t foresee how disempowered and weak I would feel.
The days after the extractions were like an illness, I could barely get out of bed. I had had extractions before, but this was different.
I felt small, brittle, like a leaf in the wind. “Handle with care, could break at the slightest pressure”.
For a long time I was “without”. Healing. Vulnerable. Couldn’t eat. I lost 7 kilos. If I had been that old person a century ago, I might have died. That sounds overly dramatic. But you get the point.
Getting used to this is hard work, and everytime I think: oh, I got that now, the next thing comes along I hadn’t foreseen. A bit like parenting. You don’t know how to handle it, there is no precedent, and you don’t have the time to sit down and think it through. I need to eat, I need to speak, I even need to smile sometimes, so deal with it.
I had been without teeth in some places for a long time, so my face muscles were not used to them being there and needed to adjust. Some of them have lain dormant for years- you know when you go running after you haven’t run since you were a child? Or climbing over stones and roots? And it’s not just the face, the muscles connect to shoulders and back...but it is also great in a way. Like meeting a long lost acquaintance again.
That is the good part, that’s why I want to dwell on it for a while and embellish it.
Long lost acquaintance? Ha. I was doing fine without those muscles.
But it beats the nausea after a few hours outside with the monster in my mouth, especially after physical exertion, like a gentle bike ride home from work.
The feeling of having to rip them out of my head just in time before being sick.
The retching, the exhaustion.
It beats the bloody mouth from biting my inner cheeks constantly for weeks.
I still do sometimes, after almost a year.
The allergy symptoms, itchy ears and throat, a burning sensation in my mouth. Heat.
Need to get them out. NOW.
Apparently some people do develop an allergy against them, against some or other component of the resin. It turned out that my allergy is against the concept as such.
But I wanted to put this in in case someone with the same problem reads it: do go and get it checked out, maybe you are allergic in a non- psychosomatic way.
Although there is probably no divide: psychosomatic: “relating to the interaction of mind and body.”, “caused or aggravated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress”.
Internal conflict, that goes a long way, metaphorically, and inside my body.
Sometimes they come off when I eat certain foods.
Just recently I had raw carrots after years without and the whole muscle pain started over.
A painful neck and jaw for days.
Sometimes I sniff at them when I take them out before going to bed.
A sweet smell of saliva and coffee, a smell that reminds me of nursing homes, old people’s breath. Milky coffee and rusks to dunk in. When you rinse the cup there is always rusk mush at the bottom.
The best is yet to come
I did my dental nurse training in Ireland.
Here I also saw for the first time how teeth are a marker of class.
Who can afford the dentist and who can’t, and how basic basic insurance can be. Extraction as the treatment of choice, also for me.
A quote attributed by Miguel de Cervantes- maybe he had tooth trouble, too- is obviously cherished by the profession and can be found on many a practice website: “Every tooth in a man’s head is more valuable than a diamond.”
One of the hygienists in the practice I trained also worked for an implantologist- the price of a full set of implants was 45.ooo euro. For those of us with basic insurance it’s keeping on fighting windmills.
One of my bosses told me how a full set of dentures used to be a popular present for a 21st birthday, half a century ago. Bad nutrition and care used to let rot in early.
That brings me to one of my future challenges.
“The Kissing Problem”.
At least I have done some kissing without worrying about plastic parts.
And I haven’t given up on the idea that I will kiss someone in the future.
But how? Wait until I can take them out, secretly, in the dark? Put them back in before it gets light?
I am thinking of hiring someone to try it. Like a call boy, just for that part.
Asking a friend, but it’s too sensitive still.
Or a drunken one night stand?
In my mind the kissing will be the hardest part.
But thinking about it also proves that I still expect it to happen, I still count myself among those on that side of the divide.
I haven’t made the leap yet.
The leap does not mean to pass over to a presumed other side, but to understand there is no line to cross, that we are all always here, fluid, crossing, on a human spectrum.
Kissing is the hardest part yet to imagine because it will cross into the intimate knowledge of this body and the foreign objects attached, embedded, in it.
Each body is a foreign object for the other person, but we expect it still to feel a certain way.
Even if we have grown up seeing and knowing loads of different bodies intimately, the artificial leg of a war veteran grandfather, the aunt with MS, a friend in a wheelchair.
But still we expect. Hard in certain places, soft in others.
Trained by media and porn we translate images into sensations, images to feelings, expectations of touch. Inference of feeling from image.
And then, the snake, it is not wet or slippery, but dry and coarse.
Probably there exists a fetishism around dentures, but fetish is “other”, a foreign object solidified, cut out, detached, sanitized- even in its possible messiness.
But I can’t detach, the other person cannot detach.
Or I don’t want to detach.
I want to be whole…
Is that the problematic phantasy?
Will it feel like running your tongue over a plastic cup?
Will it feel to me- secondary and less important consideration it seems right now-
as if two foreign objects filling my mouth, a plastic barrier and what it bars?
It covers the main part of my sensitive nerve endings where they matter for kissing.
Matter to me. Have mattered so far.
I wish I could ask someone.
My mother hasn’t done it, we touched on the subject.
The “plate” coincided for her with other life and physical changes that led to an abandoning of “kissing like that”.
We didn’t go into it further.
It was impossible to shake off that teenage discomfort at discussing or even imagining these “things” with a parent.
I wonder briefly, is that a cultural thing too.
Who could I ask then?
Maybe there is an internet forum.
Half woman/ half….what?
Not fully human anymore? Not all “flesh and blood”. What is natural, what is on the human spectrum?
Crossing from barely visible, if one doesn’t look too closely, from “passing as” into exposure, vulnerability.
This is how I feel.
For the rest of my life.
The first day of the rest of your life
Our first anniversary is coming up. And I recently found the perfect song to celebrate.
That footage of Woodstock, Richie Havens singing and improvising, allegedly for hours. It’s well known.
The other day I saw it, it was cut in between scenes at the beginning of a documentary I was watching. It was a Saturday evening, end of the day, my monster sitting beside me wrapped in tissue. I had poured myself a glass of wine and briefly debated if it was time already, what it might mean or not mean if I took them out now or later, same as I might previously have negotiated drinking the wine. And then, as it was the weekend, and I had been kind of productive that day, the verdict had been: hell, why not.
I was first watching in that not entirely focussed way when you still get settled in, rearranging cushions and the wine glass exactly within reach, can you hear anything from the kid’s room, one last glance on the screen of the phone. Thus, I wasn’t sure the first time and had to stop the film and go back.
Of course I knew the song, of course I had seen parts of this performance on screen before, the long orang kaftan thingy he is wearing, the guitar.
But this time I noticed something for the first time:
he has no upper teeth!
I am looking at the tissue ball beside the screen and back to Richie. Stop the film, go back. It’s a short sequence, I go back several times. Can not straight away believe it.
The camera is very close to him, coming up from below, almost into his open mouth.
A dark pink ridge, no upper teeth. Of course I google it.
The usual rows of “people also ask”:
“Did Richie Havens have teeth?”
A blog titled “Richie Havens’ teeth”. There seems to be division on the point if he had dentures that he took out for singing because he thought he sounded better without them, or if he hated or feared dentists so much that he didn’t acquire them until later in life. Or never.
I can relate to both. I also take mine out sometimes before an important phone call. And I haven’t really been back to the dentist since getting them adjusted.
Some post- trauma thing.
I couldn’t find anything on why he had no teeth at that age, he was born 1941, 28 in 1969.
Probably the usual reasons, it doesn’t matter.
Well, what does matter, is that he is a man and that this was more than 50 years ago. There was, at least in some places, a different spirit of the times. There were no selfies, filters and photoshop.
Writing from a woman’s body, that was Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich.
But you could have picked an old woman out of the array straight away, just by hairdo and attire that made her invisible. Beauty ideals were surely young, able bodied and slim then, too, but didn’t apply yet to all stages of life - most Mrs Robinsons really crossed a line and disappeared.
The good old bad old days.
One last google, “women ageing teeth”. Some research papers with bizarre titles, instagram : “Lovely old woman”- can it be more asexual? Some commonplace wisdom: women smile more than men- did you know??
“How fixing your teeth can fix your face”- wow. Of course it’s a woman’s face that needs fixing.
Women need to steer the line between being authentic and being old- “how to age gracefully”.
Either a lovely old graceful woman, authentic, asexual and without a claim to representation, participation, the space to be flesh, blood and all other materials that might be needed, plastic, metal, not always neatly tucked in.
One research paper suggests teeth act as “Human Ornament Displays Signalling Mate Quality”, akin to ornament displays in the animal word. Adult teeth record environmental and traumatic events, as well as the effects of disease and ageing. Teeth are therefore a rich source of information about individuals and their histories.
This is who I am.
Richie Havens’ famous song at Woodstock is called “Freedom”, and in that performance he mixes it with riffs of “Motherless child”. What a combination, what a perfect reflection of my mixed bag of feelings towards my foreign object, towards ageing, towards life. It’s allowed to be corny on anniversaries, isn’t it?
“Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone”. “Clap your hands, yeah.”
My monster in a tissue ball. Of course it will be all downhill from here.
But I want to end with a few lines from that blogger, nothing to do with teeth, I hope he doesn’t mind:
“What was remarkable about that particular performance was that Richie Havens could not stop playing once the song was “over.” We see him go off stage still strumming his guitar, still playing his music long after it was formally “finished.”
Formally finished. Who decides that anyway?