Poetry Friday: “Encounter”

When I worked in children’s ministry, I facilitated a unique, Montessori-style children’s worship experience called Young Children in Worship. At the core of the worship experience was a dedicated space for wondering. After encountering the Scriptures for the day, children were invited to ask their questions of the text. They were invited to wonder.

Wondering in our children’s worship wasn’t a Q&A session. I didn’t offer textual analysis or commentary. My job was simply to shepherd children as they asked their questions, to create space for them to ponder God’s words and God’s person. Together, we entered God’s presence and presented him with our questions. A growing spiritual relationship, not necessarily answers, was the goal.

Death prompts us to ask lots of elemental questions. Why am I here? Is any of this worth it? Is God real? Why does suffering and pain exist? When we encounter staggering grief and unexplainable loss, our natural instinct is to wonder about these things. Unfortunately, many Christians think it is wrong to ask such questions. They see these questions as a lack of faith or as the seeds of doubt. I think they don’t understand that wondering is the pathway to worship.

Years ago, Rob and I sat in church and heard these words from the pastor that day. I found them so compelling I wrote them in the back of my Bible. “A God that I can fully understand is no bigger than myself.” The only God worth believing is a God we must wonder about. The God who is big enough to bear our grief and pain invites us to ask our questions of him.

I love that today’s poem pairs wonder and sorrow. The elemental questions we ask in grief prompt us to wonder. In sorrow, this wonder can be a form of worship.

Encounter

by Czeslaw Milosz, trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Wilno, 1936

What Shall I Give Unto the Lord?

For years, Rob sang a particular psalm to our kids at bedtime. He’d sit on the floor in their darkened bedrooms and sing to settle them as they headed off to sleep. I’d stand at the doorway as the tune washed over me at the day’s close. “What shall I give unto the Lord, for all he’s done for me?” As I write those words, my eyes fill with tears as I remember his voice and those nights that now feel a lifetime away.

What shall I give unto the Lord? I hear those words, and I think of wizen old Abraham, offering his son Isaac on an altar of sticks. I think of Jesus asking Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” What shall I give unto the Lord? You’d better be careful if you ask that question. If you ask what you should give, God might ask you to give what is dearest to you.

I didn’t want to give Rob back to God. I wasn’t ready in July of 2019. I don’t think I ever would have been ready. I wanted Rob to be mine for years and years to come. Be mine. Those words reveal a possessiveness I’m embarrassed to admit. I’d rather think about how Rob was stolen from me by death. It is harder to admit he was never mine to start.

Rob never belonged to me. He always belonged to God. The God who welcomed him like a forgiving father, who sheltered him like a mother bird. The Christ who bled and died for him. The Spirit who claimed his rightful, loving ownership of Rob before time began.

What shall I give unto the Lord? It’s a rhetorical question, actually. One that answers itself. In view of all God has done for me, I should be willing to give all. Everything I have. Everyone I love. Even the one dearest to me. Like Abraham, I must learn to love the Lord with open, uplifted hands. Like Peter, I must learn to say, “To whom Lord should I go?” I don’t know how to do this kind of giving, this self-emptying kind of loving. I admit, I’m afraid to learn. In grief, God, please teach me even this.

What shall I give unto the Lord

For all, for all, for all He’s done for me?

I’ll take the cup of salvation,

And call, and call, and call upon the name

  of the Lord.

A Different Kind of Birth

My fourth pregnancy poked along to the very end. I often tell my youngest, “You were just so comfy inside you didn’t want to come out!” On a sunny spring day, after labor had stopped and started all day, Rob finally convinced me to call my midwife for encouragement and an update. “Just relax,” she told me. “Have a beer and take a long soak in the bathtub.” Sure enough, that’s all I needed. Labor kicked into full gear.

I’ll never forget Rob driving me north on the highway at midnight that night. We were headed to the hospital. Though we’d decided this would be our last child, this trip was kind of bittersweet. It would be our final visit to the labor and delivery room. “We can go as fast as we want,” he joked. “There’s nobody on the road!”

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When we arrived at the hospital, we met our doula and midwife who’d agreed to facilitate the non-invasive birth I wanted. As labor became focused, the room grew quiet. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” I told my midwife nervously. “You know exactly what you’re doing,” she assured me. “You were made to do this.” Rob smiled. He loved her reply.

I think most husbands are in awe at the birth process. It’s sobering to see what women endure to bring life into the world. Rob always treated me like a childbirth hero. You’d think I’d won an Oscar for my performance each time. I remember how he proudly repeated those words to friends and family after I gave birth to our daughter. “You were made to do this.” He always believed in me, even when I didn’t.

Through four births, Rob was my faithful companion in the labor and delivery room. He was always a participant, not a bystander. We were a good team. Rob knew my needs well and intuited everything else. He advocated for me and cheered me across the finish line every time. “You did it, you did it!” he’d say to me over and over again with tears in his eyes as we held our new little one bundled close.

Rob made me both a mother and a widow, and enduring his death bears striking similarities to enduring childbirth. I feel the nervousness, the anticipation, the fear. My new life is being birthed from Rob’s death, and I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s a painful labor and delivery, this time devoid of joy. I want him beside me to do this hard thing, but I must endure this labor alone.

And yet, Hebrews 11 tells me that, in the groaning of this hard labor of death and rebirth, Rob still cheers me on, albeit from afar. For as many years as this labor lasts unto glory, in the midst of that great cloud of witnesses, Rob encourages me along. I can’t hear his voice coaching me, but I know he’s there.

I never asked for this birth; I never wanted it. This isn’t the labor I hoped for when I married Rob. It isn’t one he could have anticipated. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the day when he wraps me in his arms and joyfully celebrates with me: “You were made to endure. You did it, you did it!”

The End of a Season

I studied theatre in college; and when I graduated, I hoped to spend my career in the field. I interviewed with professional companies, became heavily involved in community theatre, and worked for a regional theatre for a season after Rob and I got married. Since I’d been a kid, working in the theatre had been all I ever wanted to do.

I remember standing one night in the back of a dark theatre on the outskirts of Chicago, realizing that it wasn’t what I wanted anymore. I wanted to be home when Rob was home. I wanted to tuck the baby in my growing belly in at night. To my great surprise, I discovered that I wanted something different.

I chose to quit my job. I hadn’t achieved all that I wanted, and I wrestled with feelings of failure. Was I giving up too soon? Should I try harder to make it work? Had I not been dedicated enough? Had I never really loved the theatre so much after all? I inwardly grilled myself with questions. My inner critic was pretty loud. But the reality was that I was becoming a different person. It was painful to say goodbye to one thing and point my feet in the direction of the next. One life season was ending; something new was emerging.

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Since Rob died, I’ve wrestled with a lot of similar questions. The old dreams we had together have been hard to maintain without him. The old life we lived doesn’t fit at all with the life I must live now in his absence. Many times over the last year, I’ve stood at the edge of these changes wrought by his death and questioned whether leaving that life and those dreams behind is my white flag of surrender. (As though I had much choice.) I tell myself: Maybe I should be working harder. Maybe I’m giving up too soon. I have interrogated myself to find my “true motive,” as though I’m somehow doing something wrong or sinister in relinquishing my old life and moving forward. As though I could deny the seismic shift that has come to my life because of Rob’s death.

The tough truth is that I stand once again at the end of one season and the beginning of another. The shifts that must come after Rob’s death aren’t signs of my failure or lack of love but the natural reordering that happens after a person loses half her life story. Time continues to move forward, even if Rob isn’t a part of it anymore. This truth is absolutely heartbreaking. In the face of such loss, it’s okay to say I need new things (I’m not ready to say “want” yet) in this life I must live without him. I’m learning — once again — that’s not failure, that’s wisdom.

My four years in the theatre taught me a lot. I met fascinating people and learned the unglamorous, business side of working in the arts. I gained skills that I brought with me into the work I would eventually do, telling the stories of small nonprofits. I discovered who I was as a person, what I needed, what mattered most to me. The season wasn’t as long as I originally hoped it would be. But it was valuable nonetheless.

Moving forward through loss is the toughest work I’ve ever had to do. Ending one season and beginning another is excruciatingly hard. I hate that saying goodbye to my life with Rob acknowledges an act that has closed. I stand in the back of the dark theatre of my life and wish the curtain would rise again on that story I loved so much. Nonetheless, I’m committed to facing forward, to moving fully into this new life even though it’s not what I planned. I need to see what life still has to offer (even if most days I’m only moderately enthusiastic about it). I have no doubt that stepping fearfully and bravely into this new season is what Rob would want for me.

Looking Ahead

School officially started this week, and all of the looking ahead has got me thinking lately about my kids growing up and my home emptying out in the years ahead. I can’t help thinking about it when I stack the high school textbooks and pull out the graphing calculators and lab books. My children have grown so much in the last year. In a span of five short years, two will be in college.

When our oldest child hit middle school a few years ago, Rob and I began dreaming of what our second half could look like. We wanted to be one of those couples who said the second half had been as much fun as the first. We didn’t want to suddenly look across the table at each other as retirees and realize the only things we talked about were in the past. So we paid attention to where our interests intersected, and we began to build dreams for the future.

Those dreams are all tarnished now. When I try to salvage them, they don’t shine with the same beauty and anticipation they used to. For half my life, I dreamed in tandem with Rob. It’s not that I don’t know how to dream alone, it’s just that I never wanted to. That’s not the way it was supposed to be. I never wanted to do this life without him. Even a year since his death, I don’t know how to build a future without him. But now I have to learn. I must let go of the dreams I had with Rob and find other ones to pick up. Whether I like it or not, I have to look forward.

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As a homeschooling mom, I’ve charted my kids’ academic course since they were little; looking forward is something that comes naturally. As I get them ready for school this fall, I’m trying to balance looking ahead with living in the present. Letting go of the dreams I had with Rob is giving me new perspective on planning. I find this year I’m planning less. I’m making fewer commitments. I want to leave space open for hope, for the good things that I can’t see yet — for my children and for me. I’m a firm believer that if you can predict sorrow you can also predict joy. Your perspective colors your days. The truth is that my story is still being written. It’s a faulty assumption to presume it will be tragic.

In a few short years, the conversations around our dinner table will be about college tours and SAT prep. I’ve loved every stage of parenting, and I know I’ll love that stage too. Rob and I talked a lot about our kids’ college years, and I can’t wait to share his wisdom with them when the time comes. For now, though, it’s the first week of September — just the beginning of a new year. A new year that, try as I might, I cannot see into very far. No need to get ahead of myself. Instead of building castles in the air, this school year, I’m going to work toward building a marvelous life in the here and now — living in this moment I’m given, looking ahead with hope not fear, trusting that good things are in store for my children and for me as the days go by.

Reflections on a Summer Spent

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As the summer closes, I’ve been reflecting on the ways these last three months changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This biggest change to our family’s summer plans was the cancellation of a cross-country road trip I’d planned with my children. They wanted to finish the trip Rob’s death cut short last summer. I wanted to return to Washington for the anniversary of his death. I held out hope through the spring’s quarantine; but when summer rolled around, COVID-19 travel complications felt daunting. I changed the plan, and we stayed in New England instead.

People have asked me if I’m disappointed about how my plans changed this summer. They know how much I wanted to be on the road and back in the place that still feels like home. Honestly, the answer is complicated. Yes, for a million reasons, I wish I’d been able to take that trip. I’d planned six months for it, and my heart was set on going. But I’ve learned more about grief over this summer. Enough to also say no. No, I’m okay with not having been in Washington on the year anniversary of my husband’s death. I’ve made peace with the way things played out. This might come as a surprise until you understand the nature of trauma.

The trauma of the night we learned of Rob’s death is written indelibly on my family’s hearts and minds. There are some things I choose not to share publicly, details of that night that will forever be in our silent, sorrowful keeping. That night was painfully sacred space. The year that followed was incredibly taxing. Trauma begets significant physical, emotional and psychological consequences. It can take a long time to come to grips with the pain of the things we have endured. It can be incredibly hard to turn toward that pain again. We often don’t know how hard until we start.

Over the last year, my children and I have sought professional support for grief and trauma. I am fully aware that revisiting places or timelines of trauma and loss needs to be done carefully and in a fully supported way. In our journey with grief, I have always wanted the healthiest outcome possible for the five of us. After a summer grounded locally by COVID-19, I now understand that it’s not as simple as saying I wished I could be in Washington this summer. I didn’t realize it when I called off our trip, but I’ve come to see that this unexpected, additional season to process Rob’s death has been beneficial for our family. I didn’t know it, but we needed this extra space.

Space to Grieve and Grow

Our family has grown and changed a lot this summer by staying put. Growth I wasn’t seeking and change I didn’t expect. It’s been a weird, hard summer in a lot of ways, but a healthy, good one too. In the quiet moments of this staycation, we’ve had unique opportunities to face afresh some of the sorrow of Rob’s death and begin to work through it. I’m still getting to know grief, and I didn’t see the need until it was before us. I realize now that staying put gave us some distance to begin that important processing work. This summer has offered us space to grieve and grow.

Over the summer, I’ve watched as my family’s grief has changed shape. We’ve dug in deep and talked about things that really hurt. We’ve also started to talk about the life we want to build together as a family going forward. This summer, we’ve realized we’re not just a mom and four kids. The five of us are still a family, even without Rob here. Grief transformed our family, and this summer has been a metamorphosis of sorts. We’re coming alive in new ways even in the midst of death. While we aren’t making any big plans, this summer’s intentional grief work has allowed us to look forward to the autumn and to the future with hope. It hasn’t been the summer I plotted out, but it’s been a good one after all.

Take Care of the Basics

I often think about what Rob would want me to do in this season. After almost twenty years of marriage, I know pretty clearly what he’d say. Take care of yourself. Take care of the kids. Do what you need to do. Don’t make things harder on yourself. Take care of the basics. When I think about these last three months, I realize I’ve done just that. My children have enjoyed an unplugged summer of sun and fun. I’ve found joy in exciting new projects (forthcoming!). I sold our home and moved to a more manageable space. Travel didn’t go according to my plans; but I think Rob would say it was a summer well spent, even if I didn’t make it to where I hoped I’d be.

This summer, I failed to execute a trip I carefully planned just for us, just for Rob. However, Rob isn’t waiting for me out in Washington, tapping his watch wondering what’s taking me so long to get there. He’s not restless or impatient or embittered that I changed my plans. He always told me I was the best trip planner. I know he’d understand my decision. More than just understand, I know he’d love me for the choices I made for our family instead. To me, that’s all that really matters.

Getting Ready for Fall

“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Today is one of my favorite days of the summer: Getting Ready for Fall Day. I usually mourn the end of the summer, so each year I dedicate a few days to getting ready in a way that fuels excitement. I organize all of the school supplies, purchase everybody’s textbooks, and — my favorite — transition the clothes from summer to fall.

Every year, I love the clothes transition. Together, the kids and I go through the dressers and pull outgrown shirts stuffed in the back of drawers, shorts irreparably stained by chocolate ice cream spills. We drag the big tubs from the closet and try on last year’s cold weather clothes, hand items down to younger siblings and choose our favorites for the season ahead.

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Four years ago, Rob and I went through a big mindset transition in our marriage: we started living more simply. We committed to reducing waste and owning less. We acknowledged that a cluttered house was a stressful one, that owning things that didn’t capture our hearts just ended up bogging us down. We admitted to ourselves that often we held onto items out of a sense of duty or prudence or tradition but not a sense of joy. Rob and I found that living simply and owning less helped transform our attachments to this life in ways that encouraged us spiritually.

I remind my kids of this each summer when Getting Ready for Fall Day rolls around. That things don’t make us happy; people do. That what they choose to keep or give away tells them something about what they value. That living with less is a spiritual discipline, not just a cultural fad. My policy is to never give away something that brings us joy, but I also don’t believe in holy relics. If we love something that lacks purpose, we help it find a new one if we intend to keep it. When we go through the clothes, I apply no pressure; I always want my kids’ decisions to keep or give away to be entirely their own. It’s an important part of their growth as individuals.

By now, my kids are pros. I’m really just the adult facilitator. Together we go through their clothes and make piles: keeps, hand-me-downs, giveaways, and sentimental items for the t-shirt quilt bin. All on their own, they turn the day into a fun time of memory sharing. I learn the stories behind the items they want to keep and hear the sometimes funny reasons they are ready to part with things. I love watching them reason through what they own, consider what is important and what’s not. Rob would be so proud to hear their growing discernment and thoughtfulness. Someday, I’ll have them read one of his favorite books, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline; they’ll recognize the “Simplicity” chapter right away.

Our house is ready for fall now, and I’m excited for the new season ahead. Shirts and pants are neatly folded in drawers, sweatshirts hang in the closet, and I’ve got a pile of discarded, sentimental clothes to turn into a t-shirt quilt over the winter months. It feels good to be organized and ready to go. What feels even better though is this seasonal reminder that our stuff doesn’t own us. We own it. It feels good to look around our home and in my dresser drawers and say, “Everything here has purpose. Everything here is something I really love.” It feels good to know that what I own reflects the way I want to live.


Rob loved the resources of Richard Foster’s Renovare. They inspired much of his understanding about living simply. Check out these excellent resources if you’re interested in learning more about how we developed our commitment to living with less.

Understanding Simplicity (Richard Foster)

Simplicity: Inward Then Outward (Nathan and Richard Foster)

Simplicity: A Practical Guide (Adele Calhoun)

Abundant Simplicity (Jan Johnson)

Campground Envy

Rob and I took this picture the day we set out on the road in 2017. We hoped our three months of traveling would be the gateway to living on the road full-time. Our family traveled over 50,000 miles over the next three summers, but we never made it to full-time status. It didn’t end up working out well with four growing kids. Not to be dissuaded, he and I began planning instead for when we could full-time camp as empty nesters.

This past weekend I took my kids up to the mountains to camp. We’ve camped a number of times since Rob died, and each time it gets easier. The practical parts become more fluid, more intuitive. The emotional parts sit differently, hold a different sadness. We’re figuring out how to do this without him, how to reclaim this thing we loved together so that camping isn’t just another casualty of his death.

I miss Rob at night when I douse the campfire and turn in early alone. I miss him when the water hose gets jammed at the spigot, and I’m not strong enough to get it off without a wrench. But I miss him most of all when the Airstream pulls up at the campsite beside us. When the retired couple sets their two camp chairs beside the fire ring. When he releases the awning while she gets the utilities hooked up.

Envy isn’t one of the five stages of grief, but I’ll admit I envy those couples. I want what they have, what I feel was taken from me. The length of years with my beloved. The easy partnership of a relationship that has stood the test of time. The companionship of the one whose face I still see in every dream I have for my future. I do not covet my neighbor’s Airstream or his shiny half-ton pickup truck. But I do covet his life.

As time passes, I’m discovering that grief isn’t just a burden. If we embrace it, grief can also be a spiritual discipline. Grief is a daily surrender of the one I loved most in all the world. It is a relinquishing of the dreams I held tightly. It is a moment by moment opening of my hands to a future that I cannot see. Grief asks me to trust that pain can shape me if I allow it, that it can teach me if I am willing to listen. That all of the sorrow I experience in this life can be a passage to intimacy with Jesus.

When an Airstream rumbles down the gravel campground road, my kids all shout out, “Look at that one!” The camper’s shiny rivets gleam like my wedding diamonds, painful reminders of the life I longed to live with Rob until we were old and gray. I’m tempted to simply stand and follow the Airstream with my eyes as it fades into a cloud of dust. Wistful. Longing. Jealous. It is a symbol of everything I wanted. Everything I lost.

Instead, I’ve started trying to wave to the driver instead. If the couple parks in the site beside me, I stop and say hello. I engage my grief by turning outward not in. I release my envy by celebrating someone else’s joy. I’m not super good at it yet, but that’s the essence of spiritual discipline, right? The half-hearted attempt, the faithful fumbling. The trust that even the slightest move in the right direction is one that can be blessed.

Grief is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Saying goodbye to Rob, moving forward without him, is the biggest call to trust that I’ve ever had to answer. I’ve been a Christian for many years, but grief has worn down more of me than any other discipline I’ve ever engaged. I trust that this is God’s good design for me. That, as I relinquish my own desires and embrace grief as my companion, “the suffering will produce perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And that hope will not disappoint.”

Poetry Friday: “Making a Fist”

This summer, I had my older three children read Naomi Shihab Nye’s novel Habibi about a girl who moves to Palestine. We had studied the culture and geography of the eastern hemisphere in social studies this past school year, and I’m always looking for literary connections. Rob and I always wanted our children to understand that the world is much larger than their own small sphere.

I love how Naomi Shihab Nye explores the continuity across cultures in all of her writing. Her exploration of the universal themes of life and grief always draws me in. As the granddaughter of a refugee, I am committed to welcoming the stranger and building bridges with other cultures. In our marriage, Rob’s passion for humanitarian work meshed so well with my own passions, and together we worked on behalf of refugees during our years in Chicago and Seattle. Our hearts were drawn to care for those who bore deep scars of grief from lives they had to leave behind.

We all carry the scars of grief, whether we have fled countries or sat beside a loved one as her life fades away. We all carry fears and questions and regrets and dreams. Today, I invite you to enter into the backseat of Naomi Shihab Nye’s car. How would you answer her childhood question? How would you answer its opposite — How do you know you are going to live?

Making a Fist

by Naomi Shihab Nye   

We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.
                                                                  —
Jorge Luis Borges

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.

The Sea of Sorrow

Photo credit: Clarissa Moll

I go to the ocean to sit with my grief. Dead things are everywhere here. The landscape feels familiar. Empty shells, bits of cast off crabs, seaweed dried crisp by the radiating heat of sun on sand. Waves roll in, pushing the ribbon of detritus up the beach, adding more death with every breaker. The grim collection traces a dark line along the shore as far as the eye can see. The sea, an endless reservoir of salt tears.

A couple hundred yards away, a family eats their picnic lunch. I wonder about the menu. I cannot smell their food from where I sit. The wind coming off the water erases every scent except the pungency of salt water. I recognize that smell. I know it well now. The wind smells like sorrow.

Sometimes, I go to the beach and look for signs of life, in and amongst all of this death and sorrow. I marvel at the tiny bugs that scurry across the sand, at the brazen seagull with the gall to steal my sandwich.

But other times, I go and only search the horizon. Like the women who paced their widow’s walks atop clapboard houses, looking for familiar masts returning to harbor. I want to find an end to all this water, discover an edge that declares the grief is finite, that one day he will come home to me. I wonder how I can keep going in a world where the sorrow stretches out until the salt tears meet the sky.

“And there was no more sea.” Once upon a time, I read John the Revelator’s words crestfallen. I have always loved the ocean. How could one enjoy eternity without it? But perhaps, instead, this is the demise foretold. Not waves and crabs and sand beneath our toes, but seas of grief and trails of death that stretch along the shorelines of our lives. The endless reservoir of salt tears transformed into dry land.

Until then, I climb into my car, and the salty sand sticks to my legs. I lean back my head against the seat, close my eyes, and breathe in the smell of ocean grief. I remember his arms around me, the warmth of his presence, how much he loved this stretch of beach. Salt tears spring forth — the ocean I carry within me until the day there is no longer any sea.