Tears contain a mixture of salts from our blood, including sodium chloride and potassium, which come from the food we eat. The lachrymal glands are situated just above our eyes. Irritation, frustration, and embarrassment cause blood to flow near the glands, depositing the salts which then mix with water and drip down the superior and inferior lachrymal canals, onto our cheeks, and down our nose. A bit of salt is in all body fluids. The salt in blood, mucous, and cerebrospinal fluid is believed by some to be a remnant of the evolution of one-celled organisms in the ocean into higher-order organisms on land. Salinity optimizes the microscopic electrical and biochemical reactions that take place in our cells.
One biochemist determined that emotional tears, such that fall during a tear-jerker movie or at a funeral, contain more protein than do irritation-caused tears, like the ones that stream while cutting an onion or getting soap in our eyes, which may be solely for flushing purposes.
Salt is nature’s cleansing agent, especially effective on swollen wounds. I had to soak my foot in Epsom salt after frequent ingrown toenail surgeries, which were due to a head-on, foot-to-foot collision with my dad while kicking an old soccer ball around that threw my nail off its standard growth path. Every time I lifted my foot out of the bath, the swelling of my big toe was remarkably slighter.
The feeling after crying is similar. When emotional equilibrium is thrown out of whack, we cry. As my mom says, “it”—whatever it is—just has to come out somewhere, and crying is an every-action-has-an-equal-and-opposite-reaction event.
I cry relatively easily. Seeing someone else cry, even happily, can do it. While studying in Wales, my friend Melissa was leading our group of American girls in “Lord, I Would Follow Thee” during church.
I would be my brother’s keeper;
I would learn the healer’s art.
To the wounded and the weary
I would show a gentle heart.
I knew it was going to happen and I am a lousy singer when I’m choked up.
There are some triggers that have never, and I believe will never, fail to make me cry: the original fairytale of The Little Mermaid, Ezekiel 36:26-27, the painting Le Premier Chagrin, the hymn “I Believe in Christ,” stories of loyal dogs saving lives, children who remain unadopted, the soundtrack to the movie The Piano, the story of The Prodigal Son, and the letter Norman writes to Jessie in A River Runs Through It. And I am not lying. It’s a classic Pavlov reaction. Only instead of slobber, it’s tears.
In church, it seems the sound of truth is a catalyst for tears. I have watched my grandma cry quiet, graceful tears that slide through canals formed by wrinkles, which, I have no doubt, are created just for the purpose of ergonomically directing more tears, the older we get, down our face in an orderly fashion.
When I was six, I was made to stand by an enormous, creepy bird at Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo. My dad wanted to force the fear of birds out of me by making me pet the huge emu and see how nice it was. I reached over and it immediately pecked at me. All at once I realized that my dad knew nothing and that I had been wrong for a number of years to think otherwise.
Lately I have cried a little when thinking about my future children. Not necessarily with sadness or happiness, but with a gravity that pushes tears through my tear ducts. It’s happened with increasing frequency lately. Once while putting one of the two-year-old twin boys I babysit to bed, I, whispering the words from my great-grandma’s signature lullaby, “My Pigeon House,”
They fly to the left and they fly to the right
And they land in the nearest tree.
And when they return from their merry, merry flight,
I shut the door and say good night.
and he, breathing deeply, constantly, beating his heart steadily, dropping his eyelids . . . . I thought how beautiful a child is, and how could I ever be so lucky as to have one of my own some day. I cried for a few minutes. Placid and warm, these tears were masterfully silent.
That moment was deepened in my memory by the sensation of my great-grandma next to me, singing along. She had died only two weeks before that night. I am the oldest grandchild and therefore had more time with my great-grandparents than the other great-grandchildren. I can still taste her lemon-chiffon cake and feel her little bird-like hands around mine, teaching me the art of crochet. I can still hear her wobbly voice exclaiming, “You don’t have to leave just yet!”
At her funeral, my crying rhythms came into their own. I had the strangest sensation that I was crying for the mystery of a million moments packed into three talks, four songs, and one drive to the East Lawn Cemetery. The true purpose of life snuck up on me, and its simplicity surprised me to tears. I tasted the lovely salt on my lips.
Another time, I shed a small and singular tear while waiting in line at the computer lab. He had a bag of fresh corn and a scar on his nose. His unassuming appearance arrested me. Instantly, our life together sprawled before me in plots of tomatoes and fields of lavender. There was a light green house; there were beagles, tricycles, plastic pools, red geraniums, four-year-old boys. Inside, muddy paw-prints and crusty baby-bibs on the floor. On our bulletin board, five tickets to our oldest girl’s high school play and scraps of material for a quilt, which I gave up hope of ever actually assembling at least a year ago. He walked past me out the door when he bumped into me with his bag of corn.
I don’t doubt that spells of this sort have a purpose or meaning, but I have yet to find an ultimate explanation. As kids, we worry when our parents cry, and the explanation “I’m crying because I’m happy” confuses and never wholly satisfies us.
My home, Utah, is known for its saltiness. Little salt crystals boxed up in souvenir plastic containers, bags of rock salt, and shakers of “Real Salt” line gift shop selves at airports and hotels. The Bonneville Salt Flats are a remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville which once covered the whole Utah Valley—Salt Lake City and the 100 miles south. The Flats stretch over more than 30,000 acres and no animals or insects live there. No overnight camping is allowed. At night the temperature plummets and it is one of the quietest places on earth; at night it becomes nothing to nobody. No nocturnal animals rove for food or water, no lizards or mice dig into the salt, nothing stirs; it’s a vast and silent crust of salt so barren and expansive, some swear they can see the curvature of the earth.
Last summer I went camping with five friends to Antelope Island, which is northeast of the desert Flats, a mammoth island in the Great Salt Lake reachable by causeway. I only remember having been there once before, with second cousins, and I was repulsed at that time by the inhabiting brine flies. Everywhere I walked, I agitated a torrent of tiny black bodies that buzzed angrily around my knees before settling back down on the black crust made out of their fellows’ carcasses.
The first thing I noticed while driving on the causeway this most recent time was the smell. It was of rotting flesh, pepper, sulfur, cat food, latrines, mustard, sticks, and curry. The lake water was as its lowest point ever, settled beneath aerating layers of muck. Birds flew and skidded all over the glassine water, which at such high density hardly rippled. Our first hike of the day was to “Look-Out Rock” through a minefield of Orb-weaver spiders who are harmless to humans but whose thick, strong webs clung to our shoes and pants. We gave up on finding a path and just climbed our way to the top. The only other people we were aware of were a pair of kayakers way out north on the lake. It looked as though someone had just cut-and-pasted them out there; from where we were, the up and down of their paddles didn’t appear to disturb the water. We retreated to a little beach under Look-Out Rock where, as with the entire island, the white striations from receding water laced the beach. Two dead birds lay nearby, with feathers ripped away by the wind.
On the last day, I decided to walk out into the water with my friend Ann. We were cautious of the mating brine shrimp at first but ended up lingering in the brackish lagoon. It felt like a good soak in the Epsom salt baths of old. I lifted my foot out and it looked healthy and pink, bright and cleansed. We left covered in a crust.
Ezekiel chapter sixteen, verse four says salt is useful to dry and harden the skin of a newborn and on the umbilical chord to prevent swelling and infection. Salt has been used for over 3,500 years as a preservative for meat and is recognized as a symbol of spiritual incorruptibility. In Islam it is used during sacrificial meals as a symbol of hospitality and friendship. Catholic sacraments of exorcism and healing employ properly blessed salt. Mark nine, verses 49 and 50:
For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. Salt is good: but if the salt have lost its saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.
When we were young, my little brother and I played heartily on beaches. The salt transformed us into shiny brine humans. We lapped and rolled and breathed in the stinging goodness of the earth’s salt. We loved the beaches of California because they were close and clean and sunny.
On one of those beach trips, I was lost for a moment. With grit in my teeth, salt in my throat, and scrapes on my knees, I drifted further down the beach until I was far enough away that the short waves hid my body. Later I was told that a murmur rippled across the blankets and towels and umbrellas as my frantic mother pulled at her hair and paced around calling my name. Finally she picked up my little brother and started to run. I was seven. I looked down the length of the beach. She was bouncing her way towards me where I hid in the swelling water. I stood and looked at her. She slowed to a walk and put Andrew down. I walked out into her path, away from where the tide could touch me. When she reached me, she dropped on her knees and hugged me in a curiously tight way. I licked my upper lip, to taste the salt.