The Memory of Teeth

| October 6, 2017 | 0 Comments

I asked my dentist the other day if I would have to wear my retainer forever. It puzzled me that while I had worn braces for a few years, there seemed to be no fixed end date for my newer apparatus. She explained to me that my teeth “had a memory,” and that if I took out my retainer for too long, they would realign, returning to their former, crooked state — and that I would, in fact, have to wear my retainer until death.

I found the idea pleasantly eerie. Teeth, capable of memory? And in more ways than one, as I later discovered during a crime drama. Apparently, teeth can help detectives trace a corpse’s origin, as the isotope of lead in a person’s teeth corresponds with their birthplace, or, at any rate, the place they spent their first few years. Teeth, then, will tell us not only what we used to be, but even where we came from. They sit like abandoned road signs at the crossing between Nature and Nurture.

photo credit: FletchtheMonkey Pennine Way near Stoodley Pike via photopin (license)

photo credit: FletchtheMonkey Pennine Way near Stoodley Pike via photopin (license)

Our teeth follow the same rules that we do. Remove the structures on which we depend — our braces, our retainers — and we too will begin to revert. Don’t you act more like a child when your routine is upset, when whatever markers of independence or selfhood you have established are removed? Do you retain your newfound maturity when you return to your parent’s house, or do you find yourself becoming the girl who painted your room’s walls that unusual shade, who once knew the name of every stuffed animal, who was so easy to hurt?

But it is not only childhood that we guard against. Our own nature, ever present and unchanging, may be subdued but never — thank God — overcome. The traits my father attributed to me at four years old ring true even now — sensitivity, stubbornness. I must counteract the worst of these qualities through psychological techniques. If I am insulted, I must express my injury, analyze it, decide on key takeaways, seek reassurance, and distract myself, as quickly and thoroughly as possible; perhaps I must even turn it into art. If I am stubborn, I must at least be careful to listen and relent quickly and with good humor if I am proved wrong. If I find myself stuck in a bad place emotionally, I must circumvent my thoughts, turning away from myself and towards the world. Just as my retainer fits the contours of my mouth, my own devices require an experienced understanding of my most intimate self, a knowledge of which techniques will serve my purposes and which will fall flat, leaving me miserable and mired in myself.

Good, then, to have trail markers. Whether teeth or tendencies, they show us where we have been, where we must never return, and how far we have come from where we began.

featured photo credit: FletchtheMonkey Pennine Way near Stoodley Pike via photopin (license)

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