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Rotten Teeth

Copyright © 1996 by Jim Watson

This article appears in the February 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

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Last summer I spent eight days counting people as part of a park use study at Mt. Rainier. Eight days of sitting all day looking at the mountain. Reading Bly and Woodman, I'd read a sentence, look at the mountain, think a little, reread the sentence, look at the mountain-it went slowly like that. as the rhythms of their speech mingled with the majesty of Mt. Rainier, and both percolated within me. I did this reading to prepare myself for the Bly/Woodman Conference.

It worked, but not like I'd expected. As I began to listen to Robert and Marion in person, I felt within a quietness. This thought occurred to me: this conference is for you, you do not have to give to others. And as the first evening wore on, I felt that this doesn't have to make sense in words, at least not at first. Let the spirits of Robert and Marion come in as they may.

When Marion happened to say her clients often dream of teeth, of mouths full of rotten or broken teeth, a shiver ran through me. I'd had several dreams of my own teeth as rotten and useless. I was in the middle of my third root canal in fourteen months and I had taken on a part-time job, commuting from Seattle to Forks, Washington, to pay off my dentist. I had just finished treatment for a cavity and a chipped tooth. After the workshop, a crown broke off. My teeth seemed like the twelve stakes around the Baba Yaga's hut, each with a skull on top.

Marion said the dreams are about teeth because we take in the world through our mouths, our teeth biting off chunks of experience. So something wasn't working about they way I was taking in the world. Images of childhood fear started to come back. And of present fear that I wouldn't be accepted. Then I remembered the lesson I've recently learned about anger. Anger is a good thing. It helps me know when I am scared and helps me deal with things that scare me. Cut off from my protective anger at an early age, I have felt vulnerable and frightened since. With all this teeth trouble I desperately wanted to change something about how I took in experience. So what if I ended up with false teeth: my teeth wanted to be sharper and more jagged as I took in life. More of my animal nature wanted to come out.

Feeling and acting on anger, showing my teeth more-this energy and understanding of it came to me as I listened to Robert and Marion, as the pin was withdrawn a little further from my neck and I woke up a little more. So, in the midst of that workshop, I began staying in my anger longer, acting on it more often in my dealings with others. I began to trust a little more to let myself be, even if that being did not seem to make sense.

A couple of years ago, I had a dream in which I was standing alone in a stone house on top of a hill. Two hunters returned home through the snow with their birds. A young boy followed them, but fell behind as he tried to keep up. The boy became lost. As I set out searching for him a part of me, that I could only catch glimpses of, knew as I searched each trail that it was not the right one. Finally realizing what I had kept from myself, I raced down to the cliffs and the sea. The boy floated among the kelp, face down. I tried to wade in, but the cold water drove me back. When I finally got him ashore he was dead. I felt the awfulness of the lifesaver who starts out having failed. who has to live with that, and still keeps on lifesaving.

Recently I chanced upon a Northwest coast story about what happened to some of the people who fell out of canoes. They went to the bottom of the sea and fed on codfish. That is why they are portrayed in dance masks with codfish spines sticking out of the skin around their mouths. They become so wild they never die.

Two weeks ago, I dreamed about a mouth with gold among the teeth: a front tooth edged on the right side in gold, with gold crowns in back. I have a broken front tooth. My good friend Gene, who knows many of the old stories, cautioned, "It's not so simple as getting the gold. The gold is an inducement. It's to keep you going. You're going into the cave. Stay with those teeth and see where your dreams and images take you."

We're heating our house with wood this winter. Last week, I built a wood box for the family room stove. It is triangular. No two corners are constructed alike. That's not how I planned it, but the way it turned out is exactly the way I wanted it. As I selected the beachcombed plank, estimated whether it would be long enough, and started cutting, the box slowly took on a life of its own. I gave up wanting it to be regular or square. I let it be the way it wanted to be. Now that it's finished, I wouldn't have it any other way. I find myself chanting a refrain from one of Robert's poems: "let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be."

Yesterday I went to the ocean. It's as far west as you can go. Then I went north, to find a place where I sometimes go to pray. There were the usual problems: what to leave, what to bring back. What can I surrender at the ocean as I pare myself down? Are there things there for me to bring home into myself? I didn't bring back the thick steel chain I found pegged to a cedar drift log. I couldn't get it out, but working at it in the beach sand, I scratched my wedding ring and used up most of the daylight. Rain began to fall.

I returned in the dark carrying a load. I brought back the three-holed block from an old sailing ship. I'd found it there two years ago, brought it home, cleaned it up and found it was a mirror: in it I saw my old self. The three holes resembled the eye sockets and mouth of a skull. The rock in one eyehole was my blindness. It sat in the living room for about three weeks, but it made me uneasy so I took it back and left it where it could see my praying tree. Now something inside me had shifted. It was time to bring my old self home. I picked it up, tied it to one end of a long cedar pole and a fishing float to the other. I hiked down the beach and through the woods, crossing a stream which blocked my way by crawling on a log.

Continuing down the beach I struggled, unsuccessfully, to see the whiteness of the waves before they found my feet. My load must have weighed thirty pounds and I found myself constantly shifting the pole-right shoulder, left shoulder, both shoulders. My glasses became fogged. Then I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a large dark shape jump off a log I would have to pass. My lips curled back: I heard my throat open in a growl as I answered the dark. Stumbling along, feeling alone, I realized it was not a mountain lion. I'd encountered those in the Olympics as a young man. When I'd felt a big cat's eyes on me then, the hair on the back of my neck would stand up. I've always known that's what it was, even though I've never seen a cat in the wild. Remembering this helped me relax a little and continue on.

After a while I saw what I have come to call my guides: seven golden lights from a small community far off to the south, human lights helping me home. They didn't help me with my footwork: I stumbled about, trying to get through the drift logs to my truck. But they did something for my spirit.

Robert Bly and Marion Woodman are showing us a way in the darkness. They have discovered that yearning, working on themselves, striving to be honest, can lead to the majesty of fully adult men and women being together.

Imagine me being guided into the city.

Jim Watson, a Seattle M.E.N. Board member and sometime contributor to the magazine, teaches writing at his Homeward Bound Institute.


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