The Smallest Tear
The first time A speaks about her inability to cry after starting with antidepressants, the streets of Mumbai are angling for space between Atlantis and Venice. Water has been spilling over the streets with a notoriously bullish vagrancy. We are sitting in the breakout space of my office, closer to the window where rain is dividing its fall into translucent threads unfurled across the pane. We watch throngs 10 floors down scuttling about like a coterie of marbles; each person tumbling towards their own chaotic direction. A was diagnosed with clinical depression about a year ago and initiating with meds has been a reluctant wrangle at best. She fears the shadowy, revolving door of history as do we all. Her father fought the needling dissonance of the same condition she is faced with now and in her own words, she saw him go from a buoyant humorist to an “emptied wine bottle” following his inconsistent trials with voluntary psychiatric confinement. It is hard to calibrate free will with repression. It is hard to harmonize the sour notes that deck the edges of our conversations as she laughs and lets “like father, like daughter” slowly slip from under her breath. It is hard for any child to find the trestle between themselves and their loved parent to be shaped as an illness. She calls it an illness and doesn’t want what she calls “candy-coating” about the condition.
A discovered my therapeutic practice via my own poetry. Her first visit to me marked a decidedly fecund talkfest about Virginia Woolf. Woolf is not necessarily a poet but A finds something resonant in her surmounting, that surprising lustre in the “thin skimmed milk of the morning”. A intends an inked homage to Woolf; an echo that saltates — “I rise from my worst disasters, I turn, I change.” The stubborn bloom of this line from “The Waves” is destined to serve as A’s own bodied vine. I have often turned to Woolf myself even if sometimes just to find relief in my cynicism against the quotidian homilies about hope; even if to release comfort in the entropy of my own tremors that chant: “I belong to quick, futile moments of intense feeling.”
We discuss Woolf and then we discuss the simultaneous relief and heaviness of crying during depressive lows. A has an expressed disdain for the false equivalence between tears and rain which reminds me of Alice Notley writing that “the tears are looking for a place to alight in, they aren’t rain they’re desolation.”
A seconds that summary with her own analysis: “I like rains. Monsoon reminds me of our capacity to endure and release without holding on. Rains are about unmooring — a freedom I am distant from when I feel depressed. The only other place where I find this simultaneous expression of freedom and flight at the same time is inside a book and more so, in poems”.
In “The Natural and Cultural History of Tears”, Tom Lutz recounts how the earliest written records of crying — The Ras Shamra texts — were discovered on Canaanite clay tablets dating from the fourteenth century B.C in present day Syria. They belonged to the ancient city of Ungarit which was consumed by an earthquake. It is intriguing to note that these tablets -disinterred during a series of ongoing excavations — in fact contain a narrative poem about the death of Ba’al, an earth god worshiped by several ancient West Asian cultures. In the very first chapter titled “Crying”, Lutz writes — One of the fragments tells the story of the virgin goddess Anat, the sister of Ba’al, as she hears the news of his death. Quite naturally, she weeps at the news. The accepted scholarly translation is that Anat “continued sating herself with weeping, to drink tears like wine.” This, the earliest mention of tears in history, suggests that they are induced by grief, and that they offer satiety, even a kind of intoxication.
When I think of A remembering her father as an “emptied wine bottle”, I wonder if the grief of his depressive lows, his persistent concavity, had swallowed his own tears to a point where nothing was left to pour out. Crying can be a connection, a flickering bridge that reminds us how we are secured to one another not just in gathered joys but also in the possibility of sharing our griefs. A poem often feels like a safe place to fully dive into the lowest registers of grief without faltering for reason or commentary. We see waves of “reach out” being passed around in a tidal alarm when a celebrity succumbs to the worst possibility for their life. It is fatiguing to reach out when you are incapable of believing that someone would want to fit their presence into the shape of your “reaching” or even that your reaching can be wide and strong enough to tug at something resonant that will answer back with a compassionate acceptance. Sometimes though, I have found my “reaching out” answered not by a person but by a passage in a book or a line in a poem like JoEllen Kwiatek’s writing in “Snowlight” — “The mind’s a lonesome flourish.” This line helped me navigate a peculiar sense of depersonalization coupled with a desire to destigmatize the idea of aloneness.
When I have cried with a poem, the poem has made no attempts to decipher or demarcate my crying. It has, instead, allowed me space for cleansing and renewal, a freedom to cry without explanations alluding to rationale.
In a purely scientific classification, there are 3 types of tears — basal or tears that help lubricate the cornea, reflex or the kind of tears that occur as response to physical irritation (onions, anyone?) and psychic or emotional tears which are linked to feelings, cognition and expression. Crying has its own cultural, social and religious connotations that stretch far and wide. “Moral Weeping” was once differentiated from regular, “physical” crying as an expression of authentic sadness. Religions have often equated penance with crying. Certain cultures including Korea and India even have the tradition of employing “official criers” at funerals to indicate the social significance of the deceased. In literature, Beckett once proclaimed that “the tears of the world have a constant quantity” and in Epligoue, Anna Akhmatova quickens the lyrical pulse when she writes — “From my eyelids, bronze, unmoving, may snowflakes fall like tears, melting.”
A, like many other clients of mine who have recently started antidepressants, felt a certain emotional paralysis when she was unable to cry once the meds kicked in. This was ironic because one of her biggest challenges with daily functioning used to be the excessive crying and an accompanied psychological aridity that almost forbade any clear direction for her days. In a breakthrough of sorts, we both agree that sometimes crying was the compass for being able to recognize that one had an emotional scale that hadn’t effaced. This is the greyest of feelings to verbalize.
A week later from our session, A sends me a text with a snapshot of a Woolf quote that reads “Now let us issue from the darkness of this solitude”. Accompanying this text is a pair of emojis — one crying the other smiling along with a message — “I was reading her and then was able to cry a little today. I didn’t feel crushed. I felt possibility. I know what you mean when you say that being on my own doesn’t mean I am alone. Because the words always stay with me. Without expectations.”