Moved beyond tears

Cry me an ocean. A. v. Z./Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I've long documented on this blog my propensity for overemotional ninnyness, yet I continue to surprise myself with when and why I cry ... and when and why I don't. Here, three recent lachrymose vignettes.

A Moment When I Didn't Expect to Cry, But Did

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Georgetown's School of Continuing Studies campus for the first time, which meant it was also my first opportunity to meet my facilitation instructors in person. (My height-of-pandemic-era program had been entirely virtual.) When I arrived at the classroom, I poked my head around the doorway, saw the lecture was in session, and ducked back behind the wall. But one of my teachers had spotted me, and she left her spot in front of the class to come greet me in the hallway.

Her wordless hug was one of the tightest I've ever received, and I was startled to discover that while I know the contours of my teacher's heart, I didn't until that moment know the shape of her body, the pressure of her arms, the cadence of her breath. Yet her embrace felt completely natural and right, as if we'd always been in affectionate proximity.

Caught off guard, I choked up, and because the emotion sneaked up on me, it made me want to cry harder. Even now as I relive it, the lump in my throat reappears; that's how strongly I was embodying gratitude commingled with grief for all I'd missed, all I'd gained, and all I was now getting to experience.

A Moment When I Expected to Cry, But Didn't

With my children's Covid vaccinations complete, earlier this month we finally ventured back to church—only the second service we'd attended as a family of four, and the first time we were all inside the sanctuary for a regular weekend service. We chose to hedge our bets by attending the Children's Mass, a scene of of sheer bedlam scored by a constant din and heightened by a particularly violent, non-child-friendly set of readings.

My body was on high alert for 60 straight minutes: who's wearing a mask, who's not wearing a mask, who's speaking too loudly, who's drooling on the cushions, who's ripping up offertory envelopes, who's ingesting them ... and that wasn't even touching on bigger questions such as how is my child interpreting these readings, will the kids hate us for making them sit here, am I raising values-driven humans, and so on.

At the end of the service, I asked my husband, "What's the opposite of contemplative?" He answered, "Present." As in, there. I hadn't expected anything close to perfection for our first outing, but I thought I might feel at least sentimental about the four of us sitting there, embarking on the next evolution of our shared faith life as a family. Nope. Nothing. There was zero space—emotionally, psychically, sometimes physically—to consider the magnitude of the moment. As with all baby steps, it was small and halting and not yet comfortable. For now, it had to be enough.

A Moment That Moved Beyond Tears

A couple weeks ago, I received a Facebook message out of the blue from the sister of my high school homeroom teacher, whose kind life and untimely death inspired a reflection in the grief chapter of Amen?. She wrote, "Thank you so much for including my sister in such a beautiful piece of work. We are all very touched by your tribute to her, and that her memory not only lives on, but can be found anew by people who read your book. Thank you. A million times, thank you!"

Normally, the surprise of such a note and its heartfelt contents would destroy me, but the entire concept of my work rippling out into the world and reaching a formative part of my past was almost too huge to comprehend. My dry-eyed reaction was akin those I had on my wedding day and at the births of my children, events that sent me to a place in the core of my being beyond tears, a wide, deep, tranquil sea where life teems in the depths but the surface remains calm. Despite all the activity below, the overall feeling between the surface of the sea and the dusky sky above is one of peace, contentment, and acceptance.

In huge moments such as these, I see the through lines of death, new life, rebirth, renewal—the massive, unceasing currents beyond our control that shape our lives' course. Maybe that's why I don't quickly cry in the face of vastness. I'm so caught in the flow that I am willing to let the force of the water break my heart again and again and again.

What moments await me? What tears lie in store? Where will my heart crack, and what water will rush to enter it?

Prayer #383: A Container the Size of the Ocean

Everyone likes to compare tears to rain, rain to tears, but the point of comparison is often in the falling rather than the filling, the accumulation of deep feeling and emotional saturation that leads to a Mariana Trench level of magnitude.

In puny moments I am inclined to think my tears disappear into the ocean, or that the ocean finds them immaterial. But such a myopic focus minimizes my valuable contributions to the swells that carry us all. The ocean welcomes every tear it's offered; it—and we—need every one of them to thrive.