Tears of joy

Tears may be vain in themselves, but as a symbol they are worth their salt. It's true they've been overused at weddings and in sentimental movies. But for some, even genuine tears may feel like a bothersome storm that blows up suddenly , leaving them uncertain of their navigational points. And in a world that wants , at all costs, to stay on a well-plotted course, we debate whether or not ''Big boys (or female executives, for that matter) cry.''

My father cries, and, with a football tackle's build, he's certainly a big boy. Usually, he cries when he is laughing. In fact, sometimes the only way to know whether he is laughing is to watch for tears. During his heartiest laughs, he sits quietly smiling, crying, and fumbling for a handkerchief. He also cries in moments of tenderness. Once we'd had several days of edginess between us. Outside the house, the skies had drizzled for days. Inside the house, we both felt the ceilings and walls were too close. It must have been some sort of territorial dispute. He went to his room, and I went for a walk.

Looking for a place to count up all the reasons it wasn't my fault, I went to a park near the harbor. Surely the rain-trapped sailboats would give me comfort. They rocked gently in the wet wind and the riggings clanked against the masts with the song of a wind chime. The rain was softening me up. It wouldn't take sides. I began to wonder what precious bit of territory really made any difference if it cost us the common ground of understanding and gentleness. The rain was a beginning for my tears.

When I got back to the house, he was waiting for me at the window. In the midst of hugs and apologies, we both were crying. His was the same soundless cry as in his times of laughter. And he fumbled for his handkerchief - this time for me. It was not the first time I'd seen him cry. But it was the first time I knew what was so wrong with telling big boys they couldn't cry. His tears and mine came of the same ocean - the same urge to cleanse, to wash down a wall between us.

I have a friend who is very tall, and, by her own description is an easy crier. She is certain that big girls don't cry. Yet, and I am convinced there is a link here, she is the first one on a hiking trip to find a stream to sit in or , by the ocean side, to find a crashing pool of waves where she can wait to be pounded by the surf. She and those waters have a family feeling. They are both smoothers, softeners, gentlers of the stream bed and coastline of the heart. They both work away at rough edges. And they are easily touched by and touch others who do the same.

The word ''maudlin'' had its origin in the name ''Magdalen.'' Time and the tough-it-out world have obscured the point of some of the most poignant, and powerful, tears in history. Tears aren't a sign of weakness. They are a symbol of a tremendous strength in the human heart - a capacity to be touched, to be moved to change, to be filled with waves that wash against some great rough rock inside, wearing it down, smoothing it until it no longer has a cutting edge. Lady Macbeth could have used such a sea for washing her hands.

Of course it's possible to fake tears. Just as it's possible to build wave-making machines. They do it for physics labs and science museums. They even build them in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee so that tourists who choose the mountains can still go surfing. But the fakes are only pumped water. Real oceans and real tears have depths behind them.

To bring praise to tears is not to justify the anguish that brings us to tears. Tears of joy are so much the more powerful. Yet the difference between tears of sadness and tears of joy may be but the difference between low and high tide. One exposes the bed of the ocean and the still sharp cliffs at the sea's edge; the other works at these with a continuous washing - sometimes pounding and scouring and other times nuzzling and caressing. I can never tell exactly when low tide ends and high tide begins. I do know that, taken together, they transform.

In a cafe, I watched two friends talking at the table next to me. She had undoubtedly been crying for some time. He had been telling her she had no need to cry, that he and her other friends would help her. After all, hadn't she been happy to help them? Why all this I've got to do it all on my own? Finally, she began to straighten up and sip her drink again. He got up to call the waiter so they could have the meal that had been interrupted. When he returned, she had begun to cry again. You could understand his dismay. And with an impatience in his voice that was new until now, he asked, ''Why are you crying again?''

''I'm crying because people are so good to me,'' she sobbed.

''Oh,'' he smiled. ''In that case, keep crying!''

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