In preparation for the third part of a seemingly endless root canal that has, I hope, finally come to an end, I bought one of those little miniature IPods--the ones that sell for fifty bucks--and tried, the following day, to drown out as far as possible what was happening to me in the dentist's chair. Three and a half hours later, I had learned a few things: my patience for dental ordeals is exhausted by the end of the second hour of tugging and scraping; Rosie Thomas's sad, exquisite "Bicycle Tricycle," with its ambivalence about the past ("I won't look back / I've been here before"), is just too maudlin for someone whose hopes of chewing with both sides of his mouth have just been drastically--if, with luck, temporarily--reduced.
I never thought I was someone for whom music could be too maudlin. I've never loved Morrissey, it's true, but I found the Joy Division movie (Control) haunting. Give me Emmylou Harris's live rendition of 'Songbird' or even one of the spare piano ballads from Tori Amos's Boys For Pele and I'm as happy--to quote my friend D.'s mother--as a pig in shit. Likewise, I love Rosie Thomas for the tension between her usually melancholy songs and her comic alter ego, Sheila Saputo. But she couldn't console me in that dentist's chair.
Now I'm on the other side of the country, having put the little music player to use on my flight from Chicago to San Francisco, and I'm wondering how to account for the ways we console ourselves, as well as the ways we open ourselves to consolation from others. Of course I prayed pretty frequently at the dentist's and in the airplane, but the only times it seemed to do the trick--to open the window onto something else, something that would resolve or suspend my fear--were when I turned away from myself and, briefly, toward the folks I know who are having a tough time right now, a tougher time than a sore jaw and a sudden taste for soft foods. One of my grandfathers went under the knife yesterday, as did the close friend of a close friend of mine. I have no access to what they may have been feeling--God knows, they could have approached their medical ordeals much more blithely than I approached mine--but what I do know is that thinking about them, for a fraction of a second, was what drew me out of my own narcissistic trepidation. Is fearing for others the only way out of fearing for ourselves? Or--to put it more charitably--is hoping for others one way of rediscovering hope for ourselves?
Rosie Thomas's recent collaboration with Denison Witmer and Sufjan Stevens, These Friends of Mine, seems to support this: there is something that happens chorally--when voices lend themselves to other voices--that can't happen when we're left to ourselves. What brings me hope right now (but this could just be the Advil kicking in) isn't the reckoning with an individual past (even my own recent individual past) so much as the affirmation of a community where we can momentarily forget ourselves by being present, even at a distance, to others.