Signs and Wonders

Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow
– Sufjan Stevens, “The Only Thing

ii.
It may seem strange, but it is instructive to think of depression as being like a friend. “Dee,” let’s say, is like an old college buddy who’s a great dude but has rather poor hygiene, so you’re reluctant to admit you’ve been hanging out with him. Dee’s the guy who will say, “Hey, man, let’s focus on you tonight. I’ll bring beer and pizza rolls,” and then just sits quietly and stinks up the place while you watch Netflix. Whenever he comes around, he’s making a timely, almost heroic, entrance: everything’s falling apart around you, but here’s Dee, a friend indeed. He’s blunt and brutally honest – he tells it like it is – but he really, really wants you to understand that even though he likes you as a person, he doesn’t think you have what it takes. So you stare at your feet as you say, “Yeah, you’re probably right. Let me get some of those pizza rolls.”

There’s something poetic to the fact that soil erodes most quickly when there’s nothing planted in it. Common sense then dictates that your heart should be a well-tended garden, with healthy diversity like zucchini and a raspberry patch to go along with a row of lilies and sunflowers and three different types of mint. A lucky few have plots that edge up against some old-growth, with some beech or cedar just barely on the other side of the forest edge. When my grandma died seven years ago, I felt the ground shake as that blessed oak was pulled out, roots and all. Now that my grandpa and his brother Elmer have followed, the whole landscape has changed. My secluded garden is now strip-mall adjacent, a little more of that nitrogen-rich soil flowing down the storm drain with each rainfall.

Reflecting on the loss of his mother, Sufjan Stevens was struck by how the trajectory of his grief seemed so unconventional. “It felt really sporadic and convoluted,” he told Pitchfork. “I would have a period of rigorous, emotionless work, and then I would be struck by deep sadness triggered by something really mundane, like a dead pigeon on the subway track. Or my niece would point out polka-dotted tights at the playground, and I would suffer some kind of cosmic anguish in public.”

Nothing. Nothing. Intense pain. My phone buzzes. Dee wants to know if I’ve ever tried Fireball.

“You are an individual in full possession of your life,” says Stevens. “You don’t have to be incarcerated by suffering.”

It’s jarring to realize that it’s as likely as not that I will someday consider suicide again. Dee reminds me that my retirement savings are meager anyway.

“The Only Thing” refers to what kept Sufjan alive as he was contemplating suicide: “The only thing that keeps me from driving this car half-light, jackknife into the canyon at night….” Signs and wonders. The Northern constellation of Perseus cradling the head of Medusa. A random pattern of moisture on a bathroom wall, conjuring an image of the biblical Daniel. The sea lion caves of the Oregon coast giving sight to a blind faith. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing else but intense awe.

To Him alone who does great wonders
For His steadfast love endures forever
To Him who made the great lights
For His steadfast love endures forever
To Him who struck down great Kings
For His steadfast love endures forever
– Psalm 136

Perseus

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A Cluster of Words Simulating the Way Steven Macks Had an Existential Crisis at the Dentist Office (Blog Titles Inspired By Sufjan Stevens Songs)

i.
“That doesn’t look right,” she said behind me as I stared up at the ceiling, the treble in her voice deadened by her dental mask. “It could be an occlusion or maybe even a cavity. But the whole root of your tooth is dark on the x-ray.”

When I woke up Saturday morning, an emergency dental visit did not seem to be in the realm of possibility. But when I got out of bed and brushed my teeth, I felt an unmistakable grit on my brush. I spit into my hand and put it under a gentle tap and let the water pass through my shaking fingers like a prospector panning for gold. Soon enough, I found my treasure: sharp flecks of mother of pearl. I ran my tongue around my teeth and found an unfamiliar texture, like a corn kernel made of shale, on my lower lateral incisor.

Shit. I’m going to lose a front tooth.

A quick Google search revealed three dentists within a mile of my house. Fortunately, the one open Saturdays – Bucca Dental – was also in my insurance network. A follow-up Google search told me that “Bucca” is a storm spirit of British yore, a wraith believed to haunt the abandoned mines of coastal regions. That sounded to me like a sturdy, romantic name for a dental office, so I got dressed and walked over.

It has been my experience that all dental hygienists are gorgeous young women, and Bucca’s was no exception. She had orangish-red hair and the slender body of a middle-distance runner, the sort of combination that made me think of a defiant maple still gleaming despite a waning autumn. I also couldn’t help but wonder whether my dental visits growing up have had an impact on my dating life. Meet a beautiful woman. Fall in love a little. Endure a span of pain, and criticism, and judgment. Try again in six months.

At any rate, by this point she had summoned the dentist, a regal and handsome Hispanic man named Edgar Mantilla. He looked like a Mexican version of the actor Ray Wise. “Let’s have a look,” he said, gesturing for me to open my mouth. The exam last less than ten seconds. “This is nothing. It’s a calculus.”

What does this have to do with derivatives? I wondered to myself. Confusion must have registered on my face.

“It’s calcium buildup. We’ll scrape it off and you can go.”

The voice behind me chimed back in. “There’s still the matter of this occlusion, Doctor.” I glanced back to see green eyes shining like traffic lights against her cerulean facemask. I couldn’t help but wonder if occlusions were dealbreakers.

“Ah yes,” he replied in a cadence close enough to Emperor Palpatine’s to be unsettling. He explained that a spiral cavity had cut off the blood flow to my tooth, and it was likely dead. He proposed an experiment to illustrate his point, and disappeared momentarily to retrieve a shard of dry ice the size of a pebble. Instructing me to tell him when it started hurting, he pressed the dry ice against my poor occluded tooth. I felt nothing, and so I shrugged slightly. Then he moved the it to the adjacent tooth and I felt a burst of intense pain. He did it again to drive the point home. Nothing. Nothing. Intense pain. “See? You’ll need a root canal.”

I thought to ask when I’d be able to eat hard cheeses again, but I didn’t think he’d get the reference.

lizlemon2