The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Presentations: Barbara Knott

Transcendental

Are we moving toward some transcendental moment?

Leonard Cohen, Morning Glory

White clouds drift slowly across the blue domed sky
as I motor north by northeast around Atlanta toward
the medical center where I am going to be crowned by the
steady hands of my dentist who, when it comes to

mouth management, holds my absolute trust. I found Dr. Mark
years ago in my flight from another dentist whose hands
shook so badly I wondered whether it was drink or nerves or
some existential fear that possessed him and left me horrified.

When Dr. Mark moved his office to Alpharetta, I followed.
The name of the town makes me think of Loretta Lynn
and Lauretta Hannon, both alpha-rettas, one in song and
the other in storytelling, the art of growing up Southern.

I window-watch the clouds even as I drive, recalling
how the absence of these vistas brought me home again
after ten years in New York City where highrise buildings
choke all views of sky, to live once again South under what

we call the heavens, implying more than one, though we
don’t think that through, or we would be as colorful
in our world views as we are in gossip with family and friends.
Cloud-gathering Zeus directs my window drama

by shaping dense clusters we call cumulus, with cirrus
feathers that lift themselves in flight and leave blue tremors
in the atmosphere as I nose my car toward a different kind
of skyrise: the medical center sits above a treeline on a hill

reminding me this morning of Leonard Cohen’s golden-voiced
Tower of Song. Cohen died last month on the same day
our world turned upside down in Washington, a synchronicity
he would appreciate I think, though his interest was not politics

but soul and rarely do the two find kinship. Love of Cohen’s music
is one kind of bond (get used to the pun) I share with Dr. Mark.
I elevate (so many ways of rising high this day) to the fifth
floor and enter, finding Nancy full of happiness to see me.

She has the same name as my sister and is one of many
reasons why my spirit lifts on arriving here. Another is the selection
of classy magazines to read in the unlikely event one has to wait.
With all good cheer Tina and Kathy and Debra welcome me.

Then I follow Nena to sit in the chair facing a single wide
window that brings sky into the room—sky Michelangelo saw
when he created both Adam and God, finger reaching out to finger
unfurling a world on the blue painted dropcloth of creation.

Cynthia passing the door behind me calls hello. We are all
listening to some jazzy Christmas tunes on one cd of many
arranged by Dr. Mark to entertain himself and staff while
they work on mouth maintenance, and his patients

while they weather the work. The window clouds now seem
to hover over Africa where my compassionate dentist goes
every summer to give his work away and once, I know, took his
grownup children along for a hands-on multicultural experience.

The sky is floating cloud elephants with gray bellies. One elephant’s
trunk curls gracefully around another’s broad head while weightless
they seem to stomp their way through the blues on a festive day
in New Orleans. Dr. Mark missed his trip to Africa this past summer

because of flooding in Louisiana that forced his parents to evacuate
their home. So he went where he was needed most, this time by
family. I learned that through an office letter sent out to his clients
who share a sense of community with these gentle dental folks.

Through the window I see cumulus clusters practice
shapeshifting dances while feathery fingers reach here
and there, like God and Adam or wandering monks
(or particles and waves), giving body to the world.

Dr. Mark does what I have come to expect with local anesthetic:
first he rubs some magic potion on my gum. Then, with arm
curled around my head, holding lower lip between finger and thumb
with delicate but dedicated grip, he shakes my jaw

in such a way that I cannot see needle approach or feel it
enter my gum as he uses both hands and wit to thwart
the sting. He assures me in a voice almost too quiet to hear
that there will be only ten seconds more before

he withdraws the weapon that deadens the shock
and grind of drilling. I recall a scene from one of the novels
in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series about an English
ship at sea with Captain Jack Aubrey during the Napoleonic era

where Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon who must also
pull teeth, confounds a sailor similarly: after the patient
is saturated with whiskey enough to dull his mind, Stephen
calls a drummer to come near the sailor’s ear and pound

tooth-pulling pain to pieces. Only after their work on me is done
can I tell Dr. Mark and Nena this, and they will then amuse
themselves by imagining where to put the drummer when they
try him out: Here? There? and then “How about the window sill?”

As numbing grows, I am thinking how my mouth feels like it
belongs to my dog Ching, a tawny Pekingese that I adore
who has two long lower toofs, one or the other of which
often remains visible when he closes his mouth and looks

up at me as if there is nothing remarkable going on.
Just as I am feeling Chingy, with my lower front teeth
exposed to Dr. Mark and Nena, from the Christmas cd
now playing in the background, another of those created

by Dr. Mark at his leisure (he does have leisure, mark it down),
I swear to God I hear the lyric “all I want for Christmas
is my two front teeth.” I manage with my eyes to draw
attention to that and am told by Dr. Mark, “I don’t ever recall

hearing that while I was working on somebody’s front teeth.”
Nena declares, “This has never happened before!” Their talk
often is in synchrony, almost like one mind in conversation
with itself. Dr. Mark is aware of that. I know because, without

any hint on my part of what I am thinking, he begins to say how
spoiled he is by all his staff and by the way Nena reads
his mind and hands him what he needs before he speaks
and how he felt bewildered at first in Africa where he had to fend

for himself, to improvise… Like a good jazzman, I think.
I am not sure that has occurred to him yet. I promise myself
I will tell him when my mouth is fully functional (that didn’t
happen while I was in the office, but I am saying it now).

The numbing is done, the drill is set: with his left arm
around my neck, hand holding mouth, fingers gently pulling
bottom lip apart from tooth destined to be drilled—
for a moment I am feeling like a baby about to be

introduced to a bottle until I remember the drill
and dread the horrible noise that will make me flinch.
Then a much smaller sound comes on—no flinching here—
a higher pitched sound, rather like the trill of a bird

and then, I swear to God again, I hear what sounds like
the first notes of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” before bird
turns back to drill: the instrument has found its groove and finally
gives way to drone, though more quiet than it used to be.

Dr. Mark acknowledges my surprise at the sound and says,
“We are improving, but we’re not perfect yet.” Nena is
accustomed when needed to sing softly while the drill is
running, but now instead we are listening to some reggae sounds

softly played. Then Nena tells Dr. Mark what she has told me
before he appeared, about a new recipe for breakfast muffins
made with spinach and slices of Roma tomato,
seasoned egg whites poured over them, and baked at 375

for half an hour or so. Cook them up and take one each
morning for breakfast, that’s what she intends to do. She
underscores the calorie count: 43. (Looking at the website later,
one called Twelve Tomatoes, I notice it also has recipes for

secret kiss cookies, ginger pear upside down cake, deep fried
ice cream and cheesy funeral potatoes, so I wonder whether
the low calories in the egg muffins count in such an environment.)
On an earlier visit, Nena and I, feeling like cousins, were excited

about a dish called Pina Colada Fluff that echoed and expanded
the ambrosia fruit salad we both ate at Christmas growing up.
When she described it eagerly to Dr. Mark, he listened
nodding his head with polite interest but hedged a bit about whether

he would enjoy such a conglomeration of oranges, pineapple
coconut, pudding mix, cool whip, marshmallows, nuts. And rum.
She’d already told me about the way the office staff
have bonded (pun intended, sort of) by closing the office at lunch,

by rituals of food that they order to celebrate each holiday
before they close, sometimes for more than a day,
and on each birthday by taking their meal together
in the mood of a workplace where leisure time

and community are as important as work and commerce.
Imagine that if you can. In medical offices nowadays
squeezed time often makes the patient jittery, and bags
of sample pills don’t quite make up for minimal thought

given to human interchange, to caretaking as caring,
not to mention attention to recreation and fun.
My recreational dental work gives me time to settle patiently (yes)
into the mood of Han-shan in China, where Buddhist monks

were called cloud-wanderers. He asked, Who can leap
the world’s ties and sit with me among the white clouds?

And I want to answer, We are doing that, here in this doctor’s
office! Believe it or not!
Now, drilling finished, with hands

steady enough to hold the world, Dr. Mark holds
my crown in place until one of the cloud-wanderers
on the other side of the window says (a Buddhist trick)
Show me your face before you were born.

I manage my tongue just enough to reply, Look here!
and show a gleaming smile, my blessing on timeless time.
Dr. Mark’s own quiet reverie must have included elephants
from the way his trunk-like arm and hand draw back to see

if the crown holds steady, probably wondering whether
my outcry has to do with dentistry or … transcendence?
By the time Nena baptizes my mouth with lots of water
Dr. Mark has had time to reset the soundtrack, and I leave

vibrant with Leonard Cohen’s sacred sensual sounds
and full of awe at how soul is not only about music and food
but also about transcendental moments that lie dormant
in ordinary life until we open doors in time to let them in.

Dr. Mark McGee, with (in back, l-r) Kathy Kelley, Nena Byers, Debra Sheehan, and (in front) Tina Flippin, Cynthia Crawford, Nancy Green

Copyright 2016, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.