Tuesday, February 23, 2010

stuff falls off

Yesterday, I made a hurry-up appointment with the dentist to address a tooth whose pain was enough to make me skip supper the night before and, in addition, take an upscale pain medication stashed in the bathroom medicine chest ... something I dislike doing if I don't have to.

The young-woman dentist was every bit as cheerful and forthright as her father who generally tells me good-naturedly to shut up so he can do his work. We agreed with minimal lollygagging that the tooth had to go. That's what happens when you get older -- stuff falls away or, from a more clingy point of view, is taken away.

The idea of losing the tooth was not appealing. The idea of losing the pain was quite appealing. So the cheerful dentist did a good job inserting the needle loaded with Novocaine and then went about other business while the stuff kicked in. I was left in one of those one-size-fits-no-one dentists' chairs in the care of a dental assistant.

And as we chatted about my kids and hers, it turned out that her husband had, at 48, had a stroke last week. He did not do any of the bad things doctors say can lead to a stroke ... no smoking, cholesterol in good shape, modest drinking, and didn't neglect his exercise. Despite all of his clean living, he had a stroke and Darcy told me about the family fallout.

She told the story with the kind of reserve that people bring to such stories ... wanting to talk about it because it was, after all, the latest compelling news, and yet wanting to keep it private as well. She wanted to look strong and capable and in control at the same time she told a story that bespoke a loss of control. As if her husband's stroke weren't enough -- and it depressed the hell out of him -- there was a great-uncle who had died, not unexpectedly, the week before.

Stuff falls off or is taken away, not just by old age, but by life itself.

Without laying on the Buddhism too thick, I told Darcy a small breathing exercise she might try when the whimwhams came calling. "It's cheaper than meds and if it doesn't work, you don't lose much more than a couple of minutes," I said, sugar-coating the exercise.

Pretty soon the Novocaine had kicked in and it was time for the cheerful young dentist to do her work. My focus shifted away from Darcy and onto the fact that life was taking one of my assumptions, that stuff was falling off ... and that there was something visceral that didn't like it one damned bit.

The extraction took five minutes or less, but it seemed to take forever. It wasn't painful physically, but mentally it was a blow. Its implications spread out like the ripples after a rock is dropped in a still pool.

Stuff falls off. From six to sixty, stuff falls off. What was controlled and assumed becomes uncontrolled and proven unworthy of assumption. Like Darcy's husband, any efforts I had made on behalf of health and control and assumption proved uncertain: He had a stroke, I lost a tooth, Darcy's lifestyle was upended, her kids were shaken as one of their bulwarks, their dad, shape-shifted in illness, and the cheerful dentist probably had her own tales to tell.

Why anyone needs books about spiritual endeavor sometimes beats the hell out of me when a little attention makes things perfectly clear. It was just a trip to the dentist, after all, and, however much I may dislike such trips, it wasn't anything extraordinary. Stuff falls off ... things change ... and perhaps the spiritual endeavor pointers are good for something if they can point out that stuff does indeed fall off and here's something you can do about it.

Only of course there is not a goddamned thing you can do about it in the sense that control and assumptions simply do not accord with life. Control and assumptions accord with habitual behavior and thought, but they don't accord with life. But in the sense that anyone might review and revise their outlook, something can be done, something that accords more with the facts and less with the fictions.

Stuff falls off.

In old age, this observation seems to take on increasing force. Not only do physical attributes take a licking and not only do physical capabilities wane, but the mind is, bit by bit, less concerned or compelled by what once was -- and for others remains -- concerning and compelling. It is harder to return to the world of assumption and control. It is harder to come back to earnest conversations. It is harder to be convinced ... by your self or others. And, whatever the sense of loss that may grow up around all this, still there is something consoling and smooth in it, as if something had been staring you in the face and you said, "oh yeah, I knew that."

Stuff falls off. You knew that. You knew that when you were six and you know it again as the years progress. Sometimes it feels desperately important that things are somehow taken away -- don't take my tooth! don't give me a stroke! -- and sometimes it's like water flowing downhill ... what the hell else did you expect?

I feel lucky to have run into a spiritual endeavor that addresses such matters rather than fleeing from them. What use is heaven if you can't do much more than whine about hell? It can be hellish to lose control, to lose a tooth, to have a stroke, to feel your world upended in little and large ways, but ... when was it ever different and what made any of us imagine that it should be different?

Stuff falls off. All the time, stuff falls off. One moment leads to the next, one moment falls off and another appears. No one can hold on and no one can escape. It's not determinist and it's not annihihilationist and it's not relative and it's not absolute ... it's just what happens, isn't it?

To become depressed or angry because the sky is blue hardly seems sensible. The blue sky isn't depressed or angry or at a loss. Does stuff fall off the sky?

So it strikes me as a good question -- a question anyone might ask, whether dentist or Buddhist: "Falls off what?"


  1. Loved this essay!!

    Have you ever watched people going through one of those slowly spinning tunnels at a carnival? I always felt life was like that...ever turning, you have no control...and just when you think you are on your feet and have got your balance...whoops!

  2. I once tried one of those carnival tunnels while drunk. I was pretty badly bruised the next day, though during the adventure I was pretty cocky.