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Noël Nicolas Coypel:
The Miracles of Saint James the Greater (1726)

"I can breathe again!"

Who seeks Absolution by going to the dentist? Who, that is, besides me? I hold a convoluted story about my recent relationship to dentistry, one which I'm uncertain I should share, which explains why I'm choosing to share it, under The One Must Speak What's Not Supposed To Be Spoken About Rule, one of my personal Ethical Responsibilities. That twinge suggesting I should stay mute on a subject too easily becomes an excuse to stifle myself and I'm reasonably certain that my purpose here might never have been to master self-stifling. I'm not struggling to justify disclosing embarrassingly inappropriate details, just something perhaps painfully necessary, a shortcoming and its accompanying redemption. An act of Absolution.

I do not believe that my primary purpose here was ever to pass judgement, either.
Lots of stuff happens of which I do not approve, but those offensive behaviors might also manifest as lessons in tolerance. The Ancient Chinese scholars insisted that there were ten thousand ways to accomplish most anything, none necessarily invalid, each perhaps worth consideration if not precisely execution. Some walk straight and narrows, others, broader boulevards, each in accordance to something. I've fallen off the straight and narrow path so many times that I only rarely ever even consider taking it, more interested in finding some secret passage or moving with some larger flow. Every now and then, though, I go off the rails. I get some notion in my head and go head over heels, obsessive in the extreme.

Just about the last act I performed here before The Muse and I went on exile, was to visit our dentist. Nothing complicated, a typical cleaning. The bill came and we were unable to cover it, an experience of extreme embarrassment, the first of a fresh class of experiences that would inform and humble me over the following few months. The Muse and I went bankrupt, and not a little at a time. Our financial world came crashing down with apparent vengeance. It felt like an extreme form of punishment, an act of judgement, a crime. At the time, I had not yet developed the callouses one acquires after experiencing something one does not believe in happening to them. I was becoming an unimaginable me, somebody I simply could not possibly become, yet there I was, there we were, with no place left to run.

I finally contacted the dentist and reported that I was just unable to cover that bill right then. I promised to send the money once I had it again, but I couldn't say precisely when that might be. The Muse and I were struggling to find stuff to eat right then, pared down to a spare essence. The dentist insisted that we just tear up the bill, that he would cover it, and wished us luck in our attempt to rediscover solvency again, an extreme-seeming act of forgiveness. The Muse, of course, paid that bill as soon as she was able. We'd gone on exile and I found a dentist there for The Muse, but I quietly refused to schedule appointments for myself. Call it a PTSD response. I'm uncertain what it was, but for the following thirteen years, I steadfastly avoided dentistry, except for that time when I cracked a wisdom tooth in half and submitted to an emergency extraction and that other time I submitted to a cleaning about halfway through exile. Until yesterday, that is.

I had just about convinced myself that I had become unredeemable. I figured that I might have ruined my teeth by so long neglecting professional maintenance. I brushed more frequently than any dozen people like me, and I flossed like crazy, but I noticed some anomalies, a broken edge, odd feelings. In response, I sucked up my feelings and went unconscious again. The Muse continued visiting dentists on a regular basis throughout exile, but I weaseled out. Until this week, when I decided that maybe I could afford to find out what more than a decade of my own amateur dentistry had wrought. I returned to the scene of the sin seeking some Absolution I didn't feel I deserved. Julietta, my dental hygienist, was soothing and pleasant. I told her my story as if she were my father confessor, and she listened without apparent judgement, indifferent to my angst. I caught myself leaning into the treatment, detached but interested, intrigued, as if it wasn't me in that chair. I wasn't scared.

My greatest fears were not realized there, just like greatest fears rarely are realized anywhere. I needed a couple of crowns, pretty much
de rigueur for anybody my age. A few misselleanous and minor cavities along existing fillings, nothing terminal or especially alarming. We could resolve to normal over six weeks or so then return to maintenance, guilt and shame and all the unnameable sensations which had increasingly haunted me about dentistry left behind. I left that office feeling about a ton lighter than I'd felt when I arrived. I recognized the sensation as Absolution, an unlikely artifact of even the most modern dental practice. I was back.

Am I the only one who does such things to himself? Take a stand then absolutely augur in, reason to the wind? I could not through that long exile quite face a dentist. Even contemplating a visit dredged up all the impotence bankruptcy inflicted. I kept my own counsel. Juletta marveled at how well I'd maintained by teeth and gums, remarking that I must be one in a thousand in terms of brushing and flossing skills. There I was, back in that same dental chair again, the one where I had before gone off the rails, slipping back on track again, accepted.

We are here, I insist, to absolve each other rather than to stand in judgement. Tolerance demands no less, as stressful as it might seem to even think about tolerating so many things. We're enjoined, I believe, to find reasons to forgive more than excuses to punish or correct, to accept. To see through and around and over and under even the most obvious shortcomings, even the little games most of us play to keep ourselves safe but which eventually imperil us. I expected a Spanish Inquisition, a combination of displeased fifth grade teacher and Torquemada greeting my return. Instead I received Absolution. I can breathe again!

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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