The Salt Water Cure

The cure for anything is salt water–sweat, tears or the sea.
~Isak Dinesen

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
~Mary Oliver “I Go Down to the Shore”

photo by Nate Gibson

…when he looked at the ocean,
he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to.

Maybe what made him weep was
how vast and overwhelming it was

and yet at the same time as near
as the breath of it in his nostrils,
as salty as his own tears.

~Frederick Buechner writing about Paul Tillich in Beyond Words

I grew up an easy crier.  Actually growing up hasn’t cured it, nor has getting older.  I’m still an easy crier – a hard thing to admit especially when my tears flow at an inopportune time in a public place. These days, it is most often in church, while singing favorite hymns, but I can cry just about anywhere.

These days, simply reading the headlines warrants weeping.

It might have had something to do with being a middle child, bombarded from both directions by siblings who recognized how little aggravation it took to make me cry, or it may have been my hypersensitive feelings about …. everything.  I felt really alone in my tearful travails until my formidable grandmother, another easy weepy, explained that my strong/tall/tough/nothing-rocks-him former WWII Marine father had been a very weepy little boy.  She despaired that he would ever get past being awash in tears at every turn.  His alcoholic father tormented him about it, wondering if he would ever learn to “man up.”

So this is a congenital condition – my only excuse and I’m sticking to that story.

A few years ago I read about how different kinds of tears (tears of joy, tears of pain, tears of grief, tears of frustration, tears of irritated eyes, tears of onion cutting) all look different and remarkably apt, when dried and pictured under the microscope.  This is more than mere salt water leaking from our eyes — this is our heart and soul and hormonal barometer streaming down our faces – a visible litmus test of our deepest feelings.

I witnessed many tears every day in my clinical practice, usually not tears of joy.  These were tears borne of pain and loss and rejection and failure, of hopelessness and helplessness, loneliness and anguish.  Often my patients would describe having a “break down” by which they meant uncontrollable crying.  It was one of the first-mentioned symptoms they wanted relief from.

Tears do come less frequently as depression lifts and anxiety lessens but I let my patients know (and I remind myself) that tears are a transparent palette for painting the desires and concerns of our heart.  Dry up the tears and one dries up emotions that express who we are and who we strive to be.

When I’m able, I celebrate the salt water squeezing from my eyes, knowing it means I’m so fully human that I leak my humanity everywhere I go.  Even God wept while dwelling among us on earth, and what’s good enough for Him is certainly good enough for me.

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Why Did I Cry Today?

A second crop of hay lies cut   
and turned. Five gleaming crows   
search and peck between the rows.
They make a low, companionable squawk,   
and like midwives and undertakers   
possess a weird authority.

Crickets leap from the stubble,   
parting before me like the Red Sea.   
The garden sprawls and spoils.

Cloud shadows rush over drying hay,   
fences, dusty lane, and railroad ravine.   
The first yellowing fronds of goldenrod   
brighten the margins of the woods.

Schoolbooks, carpools, pleated skirts;   
water, silver-still, and a vee of geese.

*

The cicada’s dry monotony breaks   
over me. The days are bright   
and free, bright and free.

Then why did I cry today   
for an hour, with my whole   
body, the way babies cry?

*

A white, indifferent morning sky,   
and a crow, hectoring from its nest   
high in the hemlock, a nest as big   
as a laundry basket …
                                    In my childhood   
I stood under a dripping oak,
while autumnal fog eddied around my feet,   
waiting for the school bus
with a dread that took my breath away.

The damp dirt road gave off   
this same complex organic scent.

I had the new books—words, numbers,   
and operations with numbers I did not   
comprehend—and crayons, unspoiled   
by use, in a blue canvas satchel
with red leather straps.

Spruce, inadequate, and alien   
I stood at the side of the road.   
It was the only life I had.

~Jane Kenyon, “Three Songs at the End of Summer” from Collected Poems.

The first day back to school isn’t always the day after Labor Day as it was when I was growing up. Some students have been in classes for a couple weeks now, others started a few days ago to ease into the transition more gently, especially adjusting to classrooms and masking after a year of remote learning for so many.  Some will be return to the routine tomorrow: school buses will roar past our farm brimming with young faces under fresh masks, new clothes and shoes, stuffed back packs amid a fair amount of dread and anxiety.

I remember well that foreboding that accompanied a return to school — the strict schedule, the inflexible rules and the painful reconfiguration of social hierarchies and friend groups.  Even as a good learner and obedient student, I was a square peg being pushed into a round hole when I returned to the classroom; the students who struggled academically and who pushed against the boundaries of rules must have felt even more so. We all felt alien and inadequate to the immense task before us to fit in with one another, allow teachers to open our minds to new thoughts, and to become something and someone more than who we were before.

Growth is so very hard, our stretching so painful, the tug and pull of potential friendships stressful.  Two of my own children now make this annual transition to a new school year as veteran teachers.

For the first time in over thirty years, I won’t have yet another “first day” or new students under my care — it all feels new and unfamiliar yet again.

So I take a deep breath on this foggy Labor Day morning and am immediately taken back to the anxieties and fears of a skinny little girl in a new home-made corduroy jumper and saddle shoes, waiting for the schoolbus on a drippy wooded country road.

She is still me — just buried deeply in the fog of who I became after all those years of schooling, hidden somewhere under all the piled-on layers of learning and growing and hurting and stretching — but I do remember her well.

Like every student starting a new adventure tomorrow,
she could use a hug.

More like this is found in photos and words in this book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

I Don’t Mean to Make You Cry

I don’t mean to make you cry.
I mean nothing, but this has not kept you
From peeling away my body, layer by layer,

The tears clouding your eyes as the table fills
With husks, cut flesh, all the debris of pursuit.
Poor deluded human: you seek my heart.

Hunt all you want. Beneath each skin of mine
Lies another skin: I am pure onion–pure union
Of outside and in, surface and secret core.

Look at you, chopping and weeping…
~Suji Kwock Kim from “Monologue for a Onion”

It’s true it can make you weep
to peel them, to unfurl and to tease   
from the taut ball first the brittle,   
caramel-colored and decrepit
papery outside layer, the least

recent the reticent onion
wrapped around its growing body,   
for there’s nothing to an onion
but skin, and it’s true you can go on   
weeping as you go on in, through   
the moist middle skins, the sweetest

and thickest, and you can go on   
in to the core, to the bud-like,   
acrid, fibrous skins densely   
clustered there, stalky and in-
complete, and these are the most   
pungent

~William Matthews from “Onions”

I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

~Naomi Shihab Nye, from “The Traveling Onion”
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems.

Onion,
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
happened
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency…

…You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

~Pablo Neruda from “Ode to the Onion”

Everything smells of “eau de onion” here in the kitchen as the onions are brought in from our late summer garden to be stored or dehydrated and frozen for winter soups and stews.

This is weepy business, but these are good tears like I spill over the whistled Greensleeves theme from the old “Lassie” TV show, or during any childrens’ choir song, or by simply watching videos of our grandchildren who are quarantined so far away from our arms.

It takes almost nothing these days to make me weep, so onions are a handy excuse, allowing my tears to flow without explanation:

I weep over the headlines.
I weep over how changed life is and for the sadness of the stricken.
I weep over how messy things can get between people who don’t listen to one another or who misinterpret what they think they hear.
I weep knowing we all have layers and layers of skin that appear tough on the outside, but as you peel gently or even ruthlessly cut them away, the layers get more and more tender until you reach the throbbing heart of us.

We tend to hide our hearts out of fear of being hurt, crying out in pain.

Like an onion, each one of us exists to make the day a bit better, the meal more savory, to enhance the flavors of all who are mixed into this melting pot together. We aren’t meant to stand alone, but to disappear into the stew, and be sorely missed if we are absent.

So very dish needs an onion, and for the sake of the dish, every onion vanishes in the process.

No, I don’t mean to make you cry
as you peel my layers away,
gently, one by one,
each more tender until you reach my heart.
Chop away at me if you must
but weep the good tears, the ones that mean
we weep for the sake of our meal together:
you eating and drinking,
and me – consumed.

A Bright Sadness: Ephemeral Tears

Beauty, to the Japanese of old, held together the ephemeral with the sacred. Cherry blossoms are most beautiful as they fall, and that experience of appreciation lead the Japanese to consider their mortality. Hakanai bi (ephemeral beauty) denotes sadness, and yet in the awareness of the pathos of life, the Japanese found profound beauty.

For the Japanese, the sense of beauty is deeply tragic, tied to the inevitability of death.

Jesus’ tears were also ephemeral and beautiful. His tears remain with us as an enduring reminder of the Savior who weeps. Rather than to despair, though, Jesus’ tears lead the way to the greatest hope of the resurrection. Rather than suicide, Jesus’ tears lead to abundant life.
~Makoto Fujimura

fallen sakura petals in Tokyo (photo by Nate Gibson)

3When Jesus saw her weeping,
and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping,
he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.
34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 
John 11:33-36


Daily I see patients in my clinic who are struggling with depression, who are contemplating whether living another day is worth the pain and effort.  Most describe their feelings completely dry-eyed, unwilling to let their emotions flow from inside and flood their outsides.  Others sit soaking in tears of hopelessness and despair.

This weeping moves and reassures me — it is a raw and honest spilling over when the internal dam is breaking.  It is so deeply and plainly a visceral display of humanity.

When I read that Jesus weeps as He witnesses the tears of grief of His dear friends, I am comforted.  He understands and feels what we feel, His tears just as plentiful and salty, His feelings of love brimming so fully they must be let go and cannot be held back. He too is overwhelmed by the pathos of His vulnerable and visceral humanity.

Our Jesus who wept with us becomes a promise of ultimate joy.

There is beauty in this: His rain of ephemeral tears.




Prescribing Good Medicine

 

A good night sleep, or a ten minute bawl, or a pint of chocolate ice cream, or all three together, is good medicine.
~Ray Bradbury

 

 

 

If there is anything I’ve learned in over 40 years of practicing medicine, it’s that I still must “practice” my art every day.  As much as we physicians emphasize the science of what we do, utilizing “evidence based” decisions, there are still days when a fair amount of educated guessing and a gut feeling is based on past experience, along with my best hunch.  Many patients don’t arrive with classic cook book symptoms that fit the standardized diagnostic and treatment algorithms so the nuances of their stories require interpretation, discernment and flexibility.    I appreciate a surprise once in awhile that makes me look at a patient in a new or unexpected way and teaches me something I didn’t know before.   It keeps me coming back for more, to figure out the mystery and dig a little deeper.

I’ve also learned that not all medicine comes in pills or injections.  This isn’t really news to anyone, but our modern society is determined to seek better living through chemistry, the more expensive and newer the better, whether prescribed or not.  Chemicals have their place, but they also can cause havoc.  It is startling to see medication lists topping a dozen different daily pills.  Some are life-saving.  Many are just plain unnecessary.

How many people sleep without the aid of pill or weed or alcohol?  Fewer and fewer.  Poor sleep is one of the sad consequences of our modern age of too much artificial light, too much entertainment and screen time keeping us up late, and not enough physical work to exhaust our bodies enough to match our frazzled and fatigued brains.

How many of us allow ourselves a good cry when we feel it welling up?  It could be a sentimental moment–a song that brings back bittersweet memories, a commercial that touches just the right chord of feeling and connection.  It may be a moment of frustration and anger when nothing seems to go right.  It could be the pain of physical illness or injury or the stress of emotional turmoil.  Or just maybe there is weeping when everything is absolutely perfect and there cannot be another moment just like it, so it is tough to let it go unchristened by tears of joy.

And without a doubt, the healing qualities of chocolate are unquestioned by this doctor, however it may be consumed.  It can fix most everything that ails a person,  at least for an hour or two.

No, it doesn’t take an M.D. degree to know the best medicine.

Just remember: sleep, weep, reap (chocolate!)

 

Let the Tears Flow

whitehearts

People have said, “Don’t cry” to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, “I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings.  Don’t cry.”  I’d rather have them say, “Go ahead and cry.  I’m here to be with you.”

~Mister Fred Rogers

I am a crier, no question about it, whether it is listening to the old “whistle” theme from the Lassie TV show, or watching any children’s choir sing.  Certain hymns will always trigger tears, and of course, baptisms, weddings, and graduations. Yesterday was joyfully tear-filled, with our youngest child receiving her college degree.

Tears don’t bother me, whether it is my own or someone else’s.  My office and exam rooms are well- stocked with tissues, and one of my routine mental health history questions is “when did you last have a good cry?”   Some patients will look at me blankly, not sure they ever remember crying, and others will burst into tears at the mere suggestion.

No matter what the reason for tears, it is a powerful expression of feeling, like a smile or a grimace.  I watch for those cues and sometimes can feel the emotion as surely as if it were my own.

I am with you.  And always intend to be.

image

 

 

Sudden Ends of Time

sunset1224142

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time.
~Richard Wilbur from “Year’s End”

Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.  They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
~Frederick Buechner

I’m not paying close enough attention if  I’m too busy looking for kleenex.  It seems the last couple weeks I have had more than ample opportunity to find out the secret of who I am, where I have come from and where I am to be next, and I’m loading my pockets with kleenex, just in case.

It mostly has to do with welcoming our children, their spouses and their friends back home for the holidays to become a full out noisy messy chaotic household again, with lots of music and laughter and laundry and meal preparation.  It is about singing grace together before a meal and choking on precious words of gratitude.  It certainly has to do with bidding farewell again, as we begin to do a few hours from now and, to gather them in for the hug and then unclasping and letting go, urging and encouraging them to go where their hearts are telling them they are needed and called to be.  I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I knew to set my face toward the future.  It led me here, to this farm, this marriage, this family, this work, to more tears, to more letting go, as it will continue if I live long enough to weep again and again with gusto and grace.

This is where I should go next: to love so much and so deeply that letting go is so hard that tears are no longer unexpected or a mystery to me.   They release the fullness that can no longer be contained: God’s still small voice spilling down my cheeks drop by drop like wax from a burning candle.  No kleenex needed.  Let it flow.

adventfull2

Good Medicine

photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

A good night sleep, or a ten minute bawl, or a pint of chocolate ice cream, or all three together, is good medicine.
~Ray Bradbury

If there is anything I’ve learned in 35 years of my medical career, it’s that I still must “practice” my art every day.  As much as we physicians emphasize the science of what we do, utilizing “evidence based” decisions, there are still days when a fair amount of educated guessing and a gut feeling is based on my past experience, along with my best hunch.  Many patients don’t arrive with classic cook book symptoms that fit the standardized diagnostic and treatment algorithms so the nuances of their stories require interpretation, discernment and flexibility.    I appreciate a surprise once in awhile that makes me look at a patient in a new or unexpected way and teaches me something I didn’t know before.   It keeps me coming back for more, to figure out the mystery and dig a little deeper.

I’ve also learned that not all medicine comes in pills or injections.  This isn’t really news to anyone, but our modern society is determined to seek better living through chemistry, the more expensive and newer the better, whether prescribed or not.  Chemicals have their place, but they also can cause havoc.  It is startling to see medication lists topping a dozen different daily pills.  Some are life-saving.  Many are just plain unnecessary.

How many sleep without the aid of pill or weed or alcohol?  Fewer and fewer.  Poor sleep is one of the sad consequences of our modern age of too much artificial light, too much entertainment keeping us up late, and not enough physical work to exhaust our bodies enough to match our frazzled and fatigued brains.

How many of us allow ourselves a good cry when we feel it welling up?  It could be a sentimental moment–a song that brings back bittersweet memories, a commercial that touches just the right chord of feeling and connection.  It may be a moment of frustration and anger when nothing seems to go right.  It could be the pain of physical illness or injury or the stress of emotional turmoil.  Or just maybe there is weeping when everything is absolutely perfect and there cannot be another moment just like it, so it is tough to let it go unchristened by tears of joy.

And without a doubt, the healing qualities of chocolate are unquestioned by this doctor, however it may be consumed.  It can fix most everything that ails a person. at least for an hour or two.

It doesn’t take an M.D. degree to know the best medicine.  It just takes a degree of common sense.
Time for bed and time to turn off the light.  A good bawl and chocolate will wait for another night.

 

Now and Now

photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment … a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present…
~Wendell Berry

My days are filled with anxious people, one after another after another.  They sit at the edge of their seat, eyes brimming, fingers gripping the arms of the chair.  Each moment, each breath, each rapid heart beat overwhelmed by fear-filled questions:  will there be another breath?  must there be another breath?   Must this life go on like this in panic of what the next moment will bring?

The only thing more frightening than the unknown is the known that the next moment will be just like the last.  There is a deficit of thankfulness, no recognition of a moment just passed that can never be retrieved and relived.   There is only fear of the next and the next so that the now and now is lost forever.

Their worry and angst is contagious as the flu.
I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day.
I wish a vaccination could protect us all from unnamed fears.

I want to say to them and myself:
Stop.  Stop this.  Stop this moment in time.
Stop expecting some one, some thing or some drug must fix this feeling.
Stop being blind and deaf to the gift of each breath.
Just stop.
And simply be.

I want to say:
this moment is ours,
this moment of weeping and sharing
and breath and pulse and light.
Shout for joy in it.
Celebrate it.
Be thankful for tears that can flow over grateful lips.

Stop me before I write,
because of my own anxiety,
yet another prescription
you don’t really need.

Just be–
and be blessed–
in the now and now.

The Mystery of Tears

photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.  They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
~Frederick Buechner

I’m not paying close enough attention if  I’m too busy looking for kleenex.  It seems the last couple weeks I have had more than ample opportunity to find out the secret of who I am, where I have come from and where I am to be next, and I’m loading my pockets with kleenex, just in case.

It mostly has to do with welcoming our children and their friends back home for the holidays to become a full out noisy messy chaotic household again, with lots of music and laughter and laundry and meal preparation.  It is about singing grace together before a meal and choking on precious words of gratitude.  It certainly has to do with bidding farewell again, as we began to do a few hours ago in the middle of the night and will do again in two days and again in two weeks, to gather them in for the hug and then unclasping and letting go, urging and encouraging them to go where their hearts are telling them they are needed and called to be.  I too was let go once and though I would look back, too often in tears, I knew to set my face toward the future.  It led me here, to this farm, this marriage, this family, this work, to more tears, to more letting go, as it will continue if I live long enough to weep again and again with gusto and grace.

This is where I should go next: to love so much and so deeply that letting go is so hard that tears are no longer unexpected or a mystery to me.   They release the fullness that can no longer be contained: God’s still small voice spilling down my cheeks drop by drop.  No kleenex needed.  Let it flow.