Steven Wineman is the author of The Politics of Human Services and Power-Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change. His work has appeared or will appear in journals including Cincinnati Review, Wayne Literary Review, Written River, 34th Parallel, Conium Review, Blue Lake Review, Newfound, and Poetica. His play Jay, or The Seduction was produced at Columbia University. He is currently at work on a novel about childhood sexual abuse, The Therapy Journal. Steve retired in 2014 after working in community mental health for 35 years.
the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing
–Les Murray, “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”
I have cried every day for the last 20 months.
It started in 2014 when I woke up one morning before dawn and realized I was depressed. Somehow I understood this was a depression extending all the way back to my childhood that I had managed for much of my life to cover over with busy-ness and denial. But in that moment, at age 65, through a confluence of life circumstances, I was ready to try something I had never done: I welcomed these buried feelings into my heart.
Within minutes I decided on a daily regimen that includes meditation, a dedicated period of time to cry, and a depression journal.
Each morning after meditating I pick a passage from a book, a poem, a favorite song, or something on YouTube that in the past has moved me to tears. Charlie Chaplin’s stunned smile when he stumbles onto the blind girl who has recovered her sight at the end of City Lights; an Indigo Girls song, “Southland in the Springtime,” that makes me yearn for the rural Southeastern Michigan that I loved as a child; the heartbreaking epilogue to Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger in which the beautiful little boy, Kenka, has morphed into an old drunken ex-slave telling tales in the waterfront bars of New Orleans. Each day there is a small question hanging somewhere in the air: will this really work again? And each day it does. At times in trickles; usually in a strong steady flow. I cry from my stomach, the place where I was abused when I was little. Occasionally, I sob so hard I have to gasp for air.
Recently it struck me how much my crying ritual resembles a wonderful children’s story by Arnold Lobel called “Tear-Water Tea.”
It’s part of a collection of five stories in Owl at Home, a picture book for early readers published in 1975. Owl, a solitary fellow who lives in a cozy little house, usually appears in pajamas and robe. He has adventures such as taking pity on the winter by letting it inside to warm up, being scared by bumps in his bed that are actually his feet, and trying to be upstairs and downstairs at the same time. One day he decides to make tear-water tea.
Holding a kettle on his lap, Owl starts thinking of broken chairs and forgotten songs, and one large tear rolls down his face and into the kettle. He thinks of spoons that have fallen behind the stove, books with torn pages, clocks that no one has wound up, mashed potatoes left uneaten, pencil stubs too short to use. By now he is crying hard and fills the kettle with his tears. Satisfied, he boils his tear-water. “Owl felt happy as he filled his cup. ‘It tastes a little bit salty,’ he said, ‘but tear-water tea is always very good.’”
Owl and me. It has been comforting to make this connection, as if the two of us share a delightful and mildly forbidden secret. People cry over immediate events or during periods of grief, for deaths and the endings of relationships, men on the whole much less easily than women, but I know of no social context for making a daily practice of crying, regardless of gender. But now here is Owl, my compatriot. I imagine us together, exchanging a knowing glance and nod. Or maybe, if he were still alive, I might exchange the knowing glance with Owl’s creator.
At 16 I got into my first relationship, with a girl named Janet. I was in love, thrilled, overwhelmed. This taste of intimacy touched places in me which at the time I had no way of understanding.
We argued one evening as I was driving Janet home, not for the first time, but for some reason this argument particularly upset me. I was scared she was going to break up with me, but something deeper was getting triggered. Later, sitting on Janet’s living room couch, we were in the process of making up when I burst into tears.
It had probably been five or six years since the last time I’d cried. I was an adolescent male in 1965, and like all the boys I knew, I had taken for granted that when you reached a certain age, you didn’t cry anymore. The extraordinary thing was not that I cried, but that I could tell how right it was to be crying. I was reclaiming something I had lost—that was what I felt, not awkwardness, not embarrassment, not shame. Nothing in my upbringing or in the larger culture laid any groundwork for that moment. Also nothing in my conscious mind—no reading, no conversations, no analysis, no theory. I had no critique then of male conditioning or conventional gender roles. I had only this raw, irrefutable explosion of felt experience.
It was a defining moment in my life. A month later Janet did break up with me, confirming my fears, but my conviction of the rightness of crying has endured, serving me during my bad times, helping me to support my son to express his feelings as he was growing up, and creating a foundation for my own variation on tear-water tea.
I first ran into Arnold Lobel’s work in a dentist’s waiting room in 1974. I was a childcare worker at a group home for troubled boys. Sitting with a kid who was anxious about seeing the dentist (who isn’t?), I scanned the children’s books on a nearby table and picked one with a delightful cover illustration of a toad and frog on a bicycle-built-for-two, dressed like humans in pants and open jackets, the frog in front with a long rounded green throat and bulging eyes, the toad scrunched behind him and wearing a sporty little cap. I started reading to the boy, hoping to help him calm down.
It was called Frog and Toad Together, and I can’t remember any other book, for children or adults, I’ve fallen in love with so immediately. At the beginning of the first story, Toad makes a list of things to do for his day. Well—40 years ago I was already a veteran list-maker. Instant identification! Later he becomes immobilized when he loses his list, and I so related. But my attraction to this book went far beyond a quirky personality trait I happened to share with one of the characters. The soul of Frog and Toad is the sweetness of the friendship between its two protagonists, their mutual acceptance and deep affection across a multitude of differences: the anxious, moody, high strung, insecure Toad; and the relaxed, centered, steady Frog. They complement one another, rely on each other, fill their days with the joys of generosity and attachment. In the last story of this collection Toad dreams that Frog has shrunk to almost nothing and then, waking to find Frog his own right size, Toad says how glad he is that Frog has come over to his house. Frog replies, “I always do.” How could they not win your heart?
They did in fact win many more hearts than mine. Frog and Toad Together was named a Newbury Honor Book, one notch down from the Newbury Medal, the most prestigious prize for children’s literature. It was the first early reader ever to have won a Newbury. Its predecessor, Frog and Toad Are Friends, won the Caldecott Honor Award for its illustrations and was a finalist for the Children’s National Book Award. Lobel would write and illustrate two more Frog and Toad books, and the series of four is widely considered the crowning achievement of his prolific career.
Owl at Home is a good book, whimsical, amusing and beautifully illustrated, but on the whole it stands in the shadow of Frog and Toad. In four of the five stories, Owl displays the kind of magical thinking characteristic of very early childhood, leading him into ridiculous antics. It’s funny but limited, lacking richness and depth. “Tear-Water Tea” is the exception. If there is charm and humor to the lost spoons and stubby pencils that make Owl sad, there is also the integrity of emotional experience. We all feel what we feel, and sadness is always valid.
As is crying. All of us come into the world hard wired to cry out our displeasure and anguish. There is something about Owl’s early stage of development that makes his affinity with tears especially fitting—the tears of a small child. Along with sucking, breathing, gripping, to cry is an elemental human experience.
Ten weeks before my depression came into focus, I had retired at the beginning of 2014. My troubles began right away. I had a rapid succession of physical ailments—a locked sacrum, pains in a half dozen parts of my body, a dizzy spell, stomachaches, a rare cold. I was sleeping poorly. I had many moments of feeling blue, mostly during evenings, with drops in energy that went beyond simple fatigue. These dips in mood seemed linked to a sense of not having done much with my time, and with a feeling of weirdness about my future, which was taking shape as a succession of blank days.
During those first ten weeks I believed I was having trouble adjusting to not working, that my signs of distress were being caused by a difficult transition to a new phase of life. Then I suddenly understood that all this open space was allowing my depression, which had been there all along, to rise to the surface.
The roots of depression trace back to events in my childhood. I have a severely disturbed older brother who targeted me with physical and psychological torture for years and years, and my parents, aware of my brother’s behavior problems, failed to protect me. But my parents did scream at my brother, and at each other, often and in front of me, a terrifying event for a little boy. My mother also screamed at other times, wails of despair, sometimes saying she wished she were dead.
My brother’s pathology, my mother’s aching unmet needs, the ugliness and relentlessness of my parents’ unrestrained mutual rage—all this was in the air I breathed as a boy. I coped by finding the eye of the chaos, by being the good boy who stayed quiet and small while my parents and brother were at each other’s emotional throats. There was no space for me to express my feelings or even to let myself be aware of them; no space for me to make messes or get angry, to speak up for myself or display more than a fraction of who I really was. I emerged into adulthood as someone who yearned for intimacy and had little capacity to manage or maintain it. Much of me was still in hiding. I was in a string of relationships in my twenties and thirties that one way or another fell apart; then two failed marriages. There was the death of my father, whom I loved, at a point of intense unresolved conflict between us. I spent years in therapy trying to resolve my issues. Yet sometimes when I meditate or write in my journal I can feel my brother’s fingers clawing into my gut, six decades after the fact.
Given my history of abuse and the many losses I’ve experienced, I know that what I am calling depression also includes aspects of grief and trauma. In the past it would have been important to me to parse these different strands. I would have identified as a trauma survivor but not as a depressed person. I would have noted the difference between a healthy grieving process and the stuckness of depression. These distinctions no longer feel significant. The strands weave together into a braid, and I take them as they come. I choose to move toward these truths about myself, to hold them with as much love as I can muster.
So when I cry every morning, I’m not trying anymore to resolve something, or to complete a grieving process, or to overcome my past. I cry to nourish myself, just as I nourish myself by meditating, by eating breakfast, by exercising, by telling and receiving stories. Just as Owl nourished himself with a cup of salty tear-water tea.
Over a span of three decades, Arnold Lobel wrote and illustrated 28 books, wrote another four books illustrated by his wife Anita, and illustrated more than 70 books by other authors. He won the Caldecott Medal, two Caldecott Honor Awards, a Newbury Honor Award, and his books appeared six times on the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books list.
Standing alongside these accomplishments, there is another, personal story. A child of the Great Depression, Lobel’s parents divorced when he was little, and he was raised by his grandparents, which according to George Shannon’s book Arnold Lobel, “made him feel different.” Added to that he grew up Jewish in Schenectady, New York (which lacked a large Jewish community), missed all of second grade convalescing from mastoid surgery, and experienced bullying at school. So a difficult childhood, with which he coped, says Shannon, by becoming a storyteller.
In 1955 he married a Holocaust survivor, Anita (Kempler) Lobel, who also went on to be an acclaimed illustrator and author. They settled in Brooklyn, raised two children, and worked side-by-side on their individual projects. But after decades of marriage, Arnold came out. He and Anita separated in 1984. A year later, Mathew Anden, Arnold’s “friend and companion” (the eighties euphemism for gay lover), died from stomach cancer and complications of AIDS. In the spring of 1986 Arnold himself was diagnosed with AIDS. He died of cardiac arrest in December 1987 at the age of 54.
Drawing on Lobel’s own statements about himself in interviews, Shannon describes him as someone who used his love of books and stories to pick himself up at difficult moments. After learning he had AIDS, “he initially tried to convince himself and others that perhaps it was the appropriate time to die.” But in his early fifties, at the height of his career, it was a rationalization that Arnold could not sustain. Instead he chose to “approach it as his new job, something he had to do as well as he could.”
Fair enough, and all of us should approach the end of life with such grace. But it was the same Arnold Lobel who wrote in his 1980 Fables, “It is always difficult to pose as something that one is not,” and who later said that “comedy…is created out of pain.” I don’t know the trajectory of his coming out, or for how many years he was in the process of recognizing the truth of his sexuality. But he must have experienced the pain, perhaps the anguish of having posed as something he was not, and then to emerge into his truth, only to face in rapid succession the devastation of his lover and of his own life. There must have been more to this story than a graceful acceptance of death; this was also about such an important part of himself, negated by society for most of his life, being annihilated at just the moment when he was claiming it.
Arnold Lobel’s death took place in the depths of the AIDS epidemic, and his personal story, like those of over two hundred thousand people who died of AIDS between 1981 and 1992, needs to be understood in this larger social context. A middle-aged man comes out and within a few years dies—it was a common story, one of many variations on the theme of lives cut short, the rapid and terrible deaths that AIDS victims experienced from wasting, from cancer, from pneumonia, the cascading failures of body systems. A friend of mine at the time, a gay man who was personally and professionally immersed in the epidemic, said it was like living in a war zone.
By the beginning of the nineties treatments had improved, by the mid-nineties they dramatically improved. From 1993—1995 another 159,000 died, and then the death rate from HIV/AIDS began a steep decline. Too late for Lobel and so many others in the first wave of the epidemic. Magic Johnson famously announced that he was HIV positive in 1991, only a few years after Arnold’s death, and Magic is still alive today. For Lobel it was a year and a half from diagnosis to death. For many the interval was shorter.
In October 1987, less than two months before Arnold died, the AIDS Quilt was assembled in one place for the first time, on the National Mall in Washington, in conjunction with a massive march for lesbian and gay rights. I was there, and after a long day of marching, I finally made it to the Mall. It was like being in a cemetery, or at a mass funeral conducted in silence. The ground was lined with panel after panel memorializing someone who had died of AIDS. There were stitched messages, embroidered designs, photos, clothing, stuffed animals. One panel held my attention. It displayed the picture of a very young man smiling with warmth and joy, his face radiating innocence and an embrace of life—a man who was dead. I was already in tears when I got there, and as I looked at the love and grief stitched onto that piece of cloth, I stood on the grass and sobbed.
“The world,” writes Jennifer Freyd, “is infinitely horrible and infinitely wonderful, and..one truth does not cancel out the other.” As I have been welcoming depressed feelings into my heart, I have also managed to reclaim my joyful self, a place in me that is amazed by the simple fact of being alive. I can’t entirely account for the emergence, or re-emergence, of this sense of wonder. I didn’t go looking for it, had never considered that making friends with depression would be a path toward something less gloomy—to the contrary, I give myself stern reminders all the time that my depressed self is here to stay. But one morning there it was, a love for life as present and deep as my depression.
Jumping into the water when I was four and finding that I could swim without having to be taught; my summers at camp as a boy; places in nature of special significance; moments of connection, for all the difficulty I have had sustaining them; the depth of my love for my son—it’s not that I had ever forgotten these things, but they have come back to me in a new way, perhaps made more vivid by all this depression work I’ve been doing. If the pain from my history still lives in me, so do my moments of joy.
Most of the time they seem to run on parallel tracks, my pain and joy. But when I cry, they twine together. The act of crying, connecting me to my anguish, makes me whole, something I feel in my body and in my spirit. Crying, for me, is a duet—a harmonizing of deep sorrow and the hard-wired pleasure of giving it full expression. It’s what I knew, sitting on Janet’s couch as a 16-year-old and bursting into tears, the rightness of it; I think we have all known this as infants, as young children.
Arnold Lobel, according to Shannon, would sometimes walk around his Brooklyn neighborhood in a gorilla suit. Lobel described this as an experience of “childlike wonderment.” But I’d like to believe there was another layer: that the gorilla capers might also have offered Lobel the occasion for a kind of harmonizing of pain and joy. These walks would have happened before he and his wife separated, during some of the long years when he appeared to the world as a heterosexual married man. What an image for him to have embodied at such a time, Arnold inside a gorilla! What was the guise, what was the truth? Was the real Arnold hiding within the funny costume? Or was the gorilla his true self, bursting out to be paraded before his neighbors? Or somehow both. The pain of the closet, the pleasure of announcing to his corner of the world, I’m not what you think I am—this playful gesture might have captured both sides of that equation. Of course I can’t know what Lobel was thinking and feeling inside the gorilla suit, what harmonies might have been contained within his childlike wonderment. But I hope, so many years after the fact, that this was so.
Lobel’s last book, The Turnaround Wind, was published posthumously in 1988. It portrays people out in the countryside on a sunny summer afternoon when dark clouds, drawn as a huge swirling face, suddenly fill the sky and “a strong and rushing wind…turn[s] the whole world…upside down.” The topsy-turvy world is depicted with illustrations which viewed right side up are one character and turned upside down are another. The organ grinder turned around becomes a parrot; the stout man becomes his slender wife; the mayor becomes a baby. If the book were taken as a fable, the moral might be that there is more to a picture than first meets the eye.
Lobel talked about drawing on his own experience to create his stories. Frog and Toad, he said, represented different parts of himself. He called Owl at Home a “personal book.” So it’s not farfetched to think that The Turnaround Wind reflects aspects of Lobel’s experience following the sudden onset of a terminal illness. In the midst of an idyllic scene, a huge black cloud comes out of nowhere and wreaks havoc on a world in which, for a time, nothing is what it had seemed. In the end the storm passes “as quickly as it began,” and the huge cloud disappears. “Everyone dusted themselves off / and walked serenely in the sunshine / of a lovely afternoon.” A great turbulence followed by the serenity of a cloudless late afternoon, the restoration of order. Not unlike Owl having a good cry and then enjoying his cup of tea. I imagine Arnold, in crisis, nearing the terrible end of a wonderful life, finding solace in art one last time.