Essay

Toothbrushes

Measuring the passage of time with toothbrushes.

I’m not sure why I started doing it or if it’s even Dentist Approved but maybe two years ago I added a note on my calendar to tell me to buy a new toothbrush every three months. Like clockwork, I’d go out and buy a new one whenever the reminder appeared and then would do it again the next time I was reminded. It was robotic. I didn’t think about it and I just did as I was told.

I can’t remember how many times it took but eventually I began to notice the moments in between toothbrushes seemed to disappear. They came and went and the next quicker than it ever seemed before. In between, the conversations passed by hurriedly and moments failed to make a mark.

Even though I can recall the fun we had, I can’t remember whether I visited my friends in Toronto this past May or was it already over a year ago? I have to scroll back in my calendar to confirm that it’s been six toothbrushes since that long weekend. My calendar doesn’t have the guts to tell me but I know I’m getting caught up, distracted. I’m missing out on something.

Like how the highway mile markers—ticking by too many, too fast to count—leave nothing to say of the beauty of each flower in between, somehow these toothbrushes have become a way of reminding me of the miles I’ve put on; forgotten moments, passing in a blur through the passenger window. This simple little dental hygiene habit woke me. This anchor in time, when everything else in my life seemed to blur by, let me measure moments and missed memories.

I need to be aware of that which brings me joy. It’s going to take practice and a conscious effort to lift my head up and to make enjoyment something I actually enjoy. When I pay attention to the people around me is when those joyful moments happen—the type of moments I’ll still cherish when it’s time for a new toothbrush.

This past week, for the first time since I filled my notebook with what was above, that task reappeared on my calendar. “Pick up a new toothbrush” it read, though saying more now than it did the last time I saw the reminder. Now it tells me something like, “Pick up a new toothbrush and reflect on the last few months of your life.”

It’s easy to go by day by day on cruise control, slowly falling asleep in awareness. But a blank page instantly prompts me. It asks, “What do you see out there? Out of the window? Do you know the world better today than you did yesterday? What’s meant something to you recently?”

And as instant as the prompt, I know where I stand. Am I paying attention? Can I answer truthfully? Have I made the conscious effort to listen and to learn?

Writing reminds me to be aware. I use it to remember, to notice what’s tugging at me, what’s distracting me. Writing gives me little subtle hints about what to pay attention to, if only I listen. It helps me note what’s noteworthy and slow down for enough time to recognize what’s going on in the world around me.

So I open a blank page and fill them with what’s on my mind:

And in a blink, we rise above the tarmac and the city shrinks. The problems there seem miniscule instantly compared to the grandeur of the world around. You transform in moments from the ants milling about into the birds soaring above.

When I quietly sit and write, the moments that would otherwise be lost in between the ticking mile markers begin to bloom again. In those quiet breaths lost minutes regain color. They beg to be noticed and to be savored. They deserve to be immortalized.

Why isn’t it good enough reason to fall in love with New York just because that’s where I am now?

Why do I always have to be dreaming about being somewhere else?

When we sit with pen and paper, we make agreements with ourselves. When we bleed our lives on blank pages, we renew a covenant to be attentive and listen.

We promise to be more mindful, thoughtful, kind; to make more, eat better, relax. We scribble fragments of who we want to be so that we can convince ourselves we are. We document our days because sometimes it feels that if we don’t, no one will remember it the way we saw it, or we list out ways we think we can start being more memorable.

Filling blank pages lets my see the ink of my life’s moments spill together, flowing on paper in a way that matches an imperfect, fallible, human life. On paper, we can see the mess that we are or the greatness that we’re becoming. These stories all draw together in ink stains and give us a glimpse of our lives composed of beautiful, memorable moments.

An earlier version of this essay was published in two parts, as “Toothbrushes” and “Bleed Out on Blank Pages”.