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The Art of Losing

Recently, I exhibited a collaborative sculpture with a few of my young students in a show about the human relationship to landscape, as inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s essay “The Postmodern Old West” in her Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. The sculpture was comprised primarily of a custom-made, six-foot walnut shelf with a living edge, on top of which rested a few each of my and my four young collaborators’ baby teeth. The vastness and darkness of the wood, in comparison to the tininess and relative whiteness of the teeth—twelve or fourteen in all—created an effect of stars at extreme distance in the night sky. We titled the piece, “In Attendance” with thoughts toward participation on the earth, i.e., listening, alive, touching air, touching tree, and so on, even as the dead teeth themselves were “in attendance” in another way, presented on the shelf for contemplation. For me, the title also echoed elementary school where most teeth seem to be lost, providing a moment of excitement in the day through disruption, and perhaps, for some children, the thrill of attention-getting. I was one of the latter sort, and remember strongly how one morning in second grade, year of three “Megans” in the same class, I convinced the two other Megans who had loose teeth like I did, to work the dying roots in their mouths as intensely as possible during Mrs. Hawk’s music hour, to the end that, one, two, three-in-a-row-dark-fairy-tale, we each lost a tooth and had to take turns washing our bloody mouths in the room’s fountain. I remember Mrs. Hawk—who had a gravelly, terrifying voice, and a tendency to pound on the piano with a dictionary—was not particularly pleased, and, sensing my nature, she questioned me about the act’s deliberateness, to which I argued, safely within the half-truth that, “I guess all of our teeth were ready to fall out.” “Fall out” versus forced out couldn’t be easily proven, thus the matter was dropped, and one by one we approached her desk to offer our fresh teeth into the plain envelopes she reluctantly held open. In retrospect, I feel like I had orchestrated my first public art performance.

Perhaps one of the baby teeth that I used for “In Attendance,” was the one I lost in second grade music class. I can’t be certain but I can tell you that for years my teeth had been sitting in a tiny box on my nightstand, nestled in dust alongside a cicada shell and some braid-fixed dandelions. Propped inside the box’s lid is a fragment I cut from a 1950’s Russian-English dictionary that reads:

Because

Everything     is     all    right

Accept

Help

Give

Take

Sit   down                      } please

Smoke

Write   this

Show

What      a    beautiful   thing!

 

The text has become a kind of subconscious mantra that I catch myself repeating from time to time. What a nice list of things to be told, to be offered, beginning with “Everything is all right”! Sure, smoking is outdated, but I love the suggestion understood as “quiet the nerves,” “this is familiar,” “relax.” I took comfort in the little poem looming above my teeth—fragments themselves of the skeletal self, divided from the living body, and friended there by a gone cicada and some dried plant matter. Without ever allowing myself to think it through completely, I felt my own mortality guarded by “BECAUSE,” Everything is all right. In a way, the words became a worry stone for the mind.

Last week I received a call from the show’s curator about those same teeth I kept in the box on my nightstand. Most regrettably he informed me that a maintenance worker, in error, had swept my and my students’ teeth off of their shelf and into the trash. As the trash had already been removed from the building, the teeth were not only gone from the exhibit, but alas, gone forever. Initially I felt shocked, sad, worried for my students’ feelings; of course, the teeth were not really gone, more out of sight, but the “forever” is accurate in the sense of any known experience of them. There is also a touch of hilarity about the whole thing. I still feel bad for my students, but I thought about how much the loss actually mattered to me otherwise, and I found I had a sense of peace, for the most part, with the continued journey my teeth were taking, moving as they were, from the private sphere, to pedestal, to trash can.

For the most part. Those same teeth that helped me to sing “On a Moony Sheen” and “Frère Jacques” have fallen into something much vaster, undefined by language. It is difficult to contemplate certain moments, and not at all important, others. Everything is all right is a comfort real or imagined.