The Princess & the Hygienist

A real-live princess gives a clinic in working a room and being in the moment; my real-live hygienist gives one in working my mouth and (I hope) being in that moment. Where’s a real-live Buddhist when you want to talk about mindfulness?


She stops and holds out her hand.  A simple question gets the ball rolling.

Where are you from?

Mumble mumble, in response.

Are you enjoying retirement?  This, noting the medals on the business suit, marking the wearer as retired military.

Mumble, mumble.

And so it goes, back and forth a few times until, on the completion of one mumbled response, her eyes shift left and she moves on to the next person.  She holds out her hand.  A simple question gets the ball rolling.

Where are you from?   

Some exchanges engender more animation, more back-and-forthing; some, less.  But all end the same way.  Mumblers finish a sentence, her eyes shift left, and she moves on.  There is no leave-taking, no conclusion.  The interaction is, simply, done.  An hour-or-so later, the room is also ‘done’: Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, has spoken to every one of the one-hundred-or-so people assembled.

It has been a beautiful display of how to execute the job of being a public person: graciously, completely naturally, comfortably, unhurriedly, and—seemingly—effortlessly.  If Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, Princess Anne were a golfer nearing a round of fifty-nine, we’d say she’s been giving a clinic.  In every moment, she is fully in that moment: no reaching ahead, no looking back.  When talking to a given mumbler, that’s all she’s doing.

As I watch her move through the crowd, trailed by at least two plain-clothes security guards who also seem to be fully in the moment, I move out of the moment myself and think back a few days to the last time I thought about this very thing.

Scrape scrape.

Reclined, I’m trying also to relax, but it isn’t exactly a ‘Lie back and think of England’ moment.  No, there is a masked woman sitting just beside my left shoulder, wielding a piece of tempered steel (sharpened to a surgical edge) inside my mouth.

Scrape scrape.

We go through this procedure every four months; indeed, I pay to go through this procedure every four months.  My ability to relax depends on how well I’ve handled my dental hygiene since the last time I was in this chair.  If I’ve done well, the tartar is not built up, my gums are not tender, and the piece of tempered steel (sharpened to a surgical edge) causes little or no pain.  If I’ve not done well, all bets are off.

Scrape scrape.

I know I should relax.  Tension is worse than useless, it’s counterproductive, actually exacerbating whatever pain there is.  But I can’t quite get my mind off the wicked curve of the scraper even now sliding along each tooth surface.  What if the next swipe cuts?  What if she hits a sensitive area?

As I try to relax my shoulders and to stop gripping the armrests, I contemplate the irony of it all.  I won’t let anyone near my hands or feet with a sharp implement, and yet here I am, opening my mouth—all full of soft tissue as it is—to a blade more diabolical than any used in a pedicure shop.

Scrape scrape.

I cast about for something—anything—to think about rather than the sound of that damned scraper and my uncertainty over its next move.  What occurs to me is that even without knowing the source of the much touted Buddhist dictum of ‘mindfulness’—also known as being ‘in the moment’—I could have guessed that it didn’t emerge from a society with significant experience of dentistry.

Worrying about the next swipe, maybe I’m just not achieving the right degree of mindfulness, but there are some moments for which I prefer to practice forgetfulness: being somewhen else altogether.  Dental hygiene appointments are on my list of such moments, as are mammograms.  Colonoscopies are on everyone’s list; hence the standard sedative-induced forgetfulness.

Where are you from?

Scrape scrape.

Mindfulness, or forgetfulness?  Being in the moment, or being somewhen else?

As I rejoin the reception, I think, not for the first time, how easy it would be if I could find a one-fits-all-situations philosophy.  Instead, life demands that I master diverse practices and select the one that, well, fits the moment.

I just hope that my dental hygienist is like Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, Princess Anne: a be-in-the-moment sort of gal.  At least for every moment that she wields implements of tempered steel, sharpened to a surgical edge (did I mention that?), inside my mouth.

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12 Comments

  1. MorrisB

    I understand that you were using the statement “sharpened to a surgical edge” for its dramatic effect. However to set the record straight and to allay the already heightened fears of many dental patients everywhere, I must say that that the tools used for scraping and cleaning are not actually so sharpened lest they flay the gums of patients during the cleaning. They have, to be certain, an edge to them, but one more of a butter knife than a scalpel.
    I am not in the dental profession but I do have in my possession a number of such implements and other than poking my eye out, I don’t think I could inflict much serious damage with these tools.

    As they say: just sayin’.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Morris – Good to know! Maybe that will help with my relaxation mantra: “She can’t flay my gums.” I must admit, though, seeing that curved hook from underneath is a little intimidating. I still think its point looks pretty sharp…

  2. Jim Taylor

    I agree — I hate those three-times-a-year visits to the dental hygienist. Yet my hygienist insists that she loves her job, probing around under people’s gums for yuck that I don’t even want to think about!
    I also liked your comment about a one-size-fits-all (OSFA) philosophy. Or theology. Or whatever. It seems to me that OSFA is really a yearning for a simpler world when, having learned something, it never had to be unlearned.
    In reality, it seems to me, every new experience changes the mix of chemicals (to mix my metaphor a little) in the stream of life. As Plato said (well, if it wasn’t Plato, he’ll do), you can never step into the same stream twice.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – Well, I certainly hope that hygienists are cheery in their work! I don’t want to work with a cranky one. Re the OSFA phenomenon, I think it’s driven by a bunch of things – that (false?) memory that things used to be simpler (odd how our problems and challenges look simpler once we’re done with them), a discomfort with the rate of change, and also a resistance to holding more than one idea in our heads at a time (the “it oughtta be simpler than this, damn it” impulse). This latter in particular drives us to apply the same child-raising techniques to wildly different children and the same supervisory practices to wildly different supervisees. Acknowledging the complexity of the real world and the real people in it without losing track of the eternal verities is an ongoing challenge. As for the river, Wiki suggests Heraclitus, who died about 50 years before Plato was born.

    2. Heraclitus, whose observation about the moving stream (from my brush-up at Wikipedia) seems to make him the perfect referent for staying “in the moment.” We could declare him the patron of dental hygienists (and princesses), but . . .

      His reputation for lack of clarity, the juxtaposing of opposites, and manifestations of depression (and a list of other symptoms) places him among the earliest bipolar influences on philosophical thought (my diagnosis). You want a steadier hand on the surgical steel.

      1. Isabel Gibson

        Laurna – Doggone it, we can’t even find a one-size philosopher! Oh well, he’ll just have to apply to some things, and not to others. I suppose he’d be amazed to think that we’re still talking about him, roughly 2,500 years later. I don’t suppose anything I’ve done will have that staying power!

          1. Isabel Gibson

            Laurna – I suspect Heraclitus would have understood excitement over beer, at any rate. Some things don’t change. As for “all is flux” versus “what we do matters”, I’m OK with both those statements (which may explain why I didn’t do a philosophy degree). But if things couldn’t/didn’t change, then what would be the point of anything that we did?

  3. Slightly O/T — When we grumble about so much flux, just imagine stasis! A plotless life, a flat-lined existence…

    If you watched the funny TV show “Monk”, you may recall what the OCD detective Mr. Monk thought of change (being afraid of just about everything, including … milk.) — he said, “I don’t mind change, I just don’t want to be around when it happens.”

    I heard that if you keep your eyes slightly open while the dentist is messing about, you will feel less pain & anxiety. Something to do with visual stimulus blocking anxiety — you concentrate on all those intricate blood vessels pulsing away and you forget where you are, what is happening to you. Try it next time. Works for me!

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Yes, stasis is not a condition to be pursued. It will come soon enough (or, as the Big Guy says, we’ll be a long time “still”). As for using our eyes to distract ourselves, that’s the flip side of something I heard once: that when people hear something in the house at night, they open their eyes, sit up, and then close their eyes – the better to concentrate on what they’re hearing, my dear. Interesting.

  4. Mike Saker

    My hygienist has scattered a number of clever sayings and word games across the ceiling on little cards and I actually look forward to our visits when I can review them like an old movie and promise to memorize them so that I can impress my friends with my wit. Unfortunately my brian isn’t very good at this memorization challenge, so a few weeks down the road I have forgotten them all. Ah, but I can look forward to reading them during my next visit when I’ll ask myself —“is that a new one? I don’t think so, but perhaps…” “Open wider, please Mike”. Time flies when you are having fun. What’s she doing now?

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Mike – I had a doctor who used to paste postcards on her ceiling. Somehow, it was never enough for the level of distraction required. And a dentist in Edmonton had movies folks could watch when undergoing major work, like crowns. I guess there’s more than one way to be in the moment. Or, perhaps, more than one moment to be in.

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