Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Lillian, Alabama. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. She has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her short story collections, SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, are available online. STRANGE COMPANY, a collection of short nature essays, is available in paperback as well as digital and audio editions.
It is with great pride and pleasure that I announce the publication of my prose piece “It’s Your World.“ MoonPark Review is a beautiful quarterly journal dedicated to short prose selected by editors Mary Lynn Reed & Lesley C. Weston.
The last time I cried was a year ago, when I was informed of the passing of a woman I cherished. Death, it seems, is the bar for my tears. Sad movies, stranded polar bears, the plight of children in war torn countries—nothing else brings me to that threshold. Sometimes I try to coax the tears; the closest I get is a slight pull in my throat. I assume that I still can weep, but someone must die to prove it.
At first I thought it could be a side effect of Paxil, which I take for anxiety. I asked others who take this drug and they all said no, they can cry just fine. Given this testimony, the low dosage I require, and the fact that I started on Paxil years before my tears dried up, I doubt my problem is drug-related. In any case, it doesn’t matter: no way am I going back to living with my default mode stuck on panic.
So what did happen to me? It is not uncommon for people to become more jaded as they get older, and I am in fact “older.” Did I glimpse one too many photos of oil-covered seagulls? Have I hardened off in the past few years, turned numb to sadness and madness? I do not feel numb. You know those videos on social media where a dog is drowning, or a baby elephant can’t pull itself out of the mud? Even aware these clips end well, I cannot bear to watch them. And then there’s the minefield of current events. Each morning I open my iPad and tiptoe through the news, avoiding the climate section entirely.
Maybe my body is protecting me, operating on a level beyond my understanding, the way traumatic memories sink into the abyss of subconsciousness. In stemming my tears, my body could simply be trying to survive a little longer by withholding emotions that might undo me. But if this is so, why do I still feel despair and sorrow, and what about the reputed benefits of a good cry, how it detoxifies the body, clears the chakras?
On the scale of human afflictions, not being able to cry wouldn’t even move the needle, and really, is it a problem? Not being able to laugh—now that would be unfortunate. Humor is a stronghold, maybe our last.
Still, this dry-eyed life makes me feel lonely sometimes, and self-conscious, as if I am missing a measure of humanity. Watching some heartbreaking movie, I’ll look over at my wife and see tears streaming down her face as the closing music swells, and something close to jealousy climbs up my chest. She is experiencing something, fully, and I am shut out.
The internet probably clamors with people like me. There must be chat rooms, support groups, therapists who specialize in this disorder, if it can be called that. I wonder how listless I’d have to become to seek such support. My life would have to shrink to the size of an atom. There could be no plants to feed, no backyard birds to watch, no meals to plan, no partner to laugh with, no cat to cuddle, no coffee on the patio, no luck to ponder.
With all this—more than I ever hoped for—maybe there’s just no room left for tears.
Recently I watched a video featuring astronauts. They were trying to express what it feels like to see Earth from space. One astronaut was fascinated by the way he could raise a thumb to the window and block out his home—the oceans, the rain forests, the Sahara, the Alps. Seven continents and eight billion people. Taxes and mortgages, earthquakes and poverty, sins and mistakes. There, gone, there, gone.
I would never do that, hurtle off the planet and soar into space—it is simply too big, too empty—the average distance between stars is 20 million million miles. To reach our nearest neighbor by spaceship, Proxima Centauri, would take at least twenty-five thousand years. My own wondrous backyard, that’s where my focus lies: butterflies emerging from hardened husks, the intricate architecture of lime green katydids, 20 lb watermelons coaxed from half-inch seeds.
Nor do I have the mettle required to pit my warm beating heart against the frigid reaches of space. I thought it was odd that none of the astronauts used the word “panic” in describing the sight of Earth through a porthole. A single glitch and their spaceship could become space junk. They must not reflect on that; their minds, like their bodies, must be in excellent shape.
My father was a NASA scientist who developed several of the tests performed on would-be astronauts to determine their space-worthiness. In particular, he studied the effects of weightlessness on the human body. In 1960, he spent a week floating in a water tank in a rubber suit. Urine tests showed that his body began steadily disposing unneeded muscle and bone. The research provided proof that astronauts on long-duration flights would need to engage in rigorous exercise to prevent physical decline.
The International Space Station is a technological masterpiece, the pinnacle of human enterprise, a status at odds with its lifestyle limitations. There’s not much glamour in strapping oneself into a bunk each night or squeezing dinner from a plastic pouch. Beyond these character-building exercises, there is the physical toll. Without gravity, fluids in the body travel upward, resulting in headaches, nausea and a constant feeling of pressure. The heart, veins and arteries weaken, as do the muscles—crew members need to exercise at least two hours a day on specialized equipment or lose what they may not regain, like bone. High carbon dioxide levels, needed for optimal equipment performance, make the eyes burn. Bathroom breaks may be the most challenging aspect of cosmic living. Astronauts must hover over a $19 million potty—it resembles a wet-vac—and, in zero gravity, send their feces into a tiny lining at the top; accidents are not uncommon. Since space toilets are not emptied every day, someone is obliged to don a rubber glove as needed and pack the poo down. When critical mass is achieved, the problem is shot into space and burns up in the earth’s atmosphere.
While viewing the earth from an alien’s perspective may be the highest privilege we can accord our own, I imagine there must be a fair amount of grumpiness and boredom inside the space station. With no doors to close, privacy is out of the question. There are no spouses to hug, no children to adore, no puppies to pet or flowers to plant. There is only that haunting view of planet Earth and a hamster wheel of daily tasks: cleaning filters, checking support systems, updating equipment, collecting data—on themselves and the endless darkness around them.
More than one astronaut on the program I watched mentioned how organic the world appears, a blue ball of ever-flowing energy, with swirling storms and flashes of lightning. They spoke of the planet’s stunning fragility, the “paper thin” layer of atmosphere barely hugging the surface—our only protection from cosmic destruction. There was footage of the damage we’ve done, the scars and erosions and clear-cutting startlingly evident from the clarity of space.
Out there, the sun is not the sun as we know it, not the dependable orb that gloriously rises and sets, but just a star, one of billions. That this particular star happens to keep us alive, held in breathtaking orbit, at precisely the right distance and angle to maintain myriad forms of life, is an imponderable bit of luck.
The cosmos stretches in all directions, swallowing space and time. To be there in that black forever is to see infinity. And to see the earth from this other-worldly place is to see its plight. There it somehow is, the blue planet, our only home in the universe. One of the astronauts used the term “Spaceship Earth,” because that is how he sees us, a vast crew with one destiny. Scientists call this perception of oneness the “overview effect.” It does not dawn on you gradually, the astronauts said. It is an immediate and ecstatic revelation: We Are One.
Despite their training and valor, astronauts must feel relief, at least at first, when they are safely back on terra firma. Above them is the sky and sun and moon, each where it should be. And here is that old friend gravity keeping everything in place. When they walk, I wonder if they feel the pull of the earth. Does the weight of their duffle bags surprise them? Some of these travelers have been aloft several months—do their wrinkles appear all at once? Did their skin age more or less? What are they most ravenous for—sex? A grilled steak? A queen-size bed?
But what I really want to know is how they manage later, when they are fully restored and back in their Nikes and Nissans. What do they think of war, the stock market, hair loss, teeth whitening? Do they miss that lightness of being when they were floating free of earthly burdens? When they gaze into the night sky, does it beckon them back? Having seen the big picture, are they lonely among us?
This essay was originally published by Minnow Literary Magazine.
Cells die, but not the hundred trillion atoms within each one–they’ve been around since the stars were born and will be here ever after. Even a body gone up in smoke does not lose a single atom. Skin, blood, bones turn to water, gas, minerals. So widely are atoms recycled that a billion of our own once belonged to Shakespeare.
Knowing this helps. Now that you are gone you could be anywhere: inside a red maple leaf, or the twitching tail of a tadpole, in the taste of a honeydew melon, in the sigh of a thousand strangers, in the hollow you left within my arms.
This poem was originally published by Minnow Literary Review.
Last week I enjoyed a video a friend sent me of gorillas romping in heaps of fallen leaves. Riding the exercise bike a few minutes later, I turned on the television and landed on an enchanting nature show featuring animals at play—lion cubs, penguins, puppies, dolphins. After that, on my way up the stairs, I was ambushed by my spring-crazed cat. He had been hiding behind a door, waiting for me. I took these events as a sign, a reminder that I had a whole day ahead of me in which to have fun, or not.
At the plant nursery where I work there is an arching wooden bridge. In the winter it spans a river of rainwater; in the summer it turns whimsical, serving no function other than to delight the children who are compelled to run over it, again and again. Another attraction are the fountains. Children are charmed by water and will head for it like baby sea turtles. Their joyful shrieks carry across the nursery as they thrust their hands into the basins and splash the water this way and that. Color enchants them, too. They always make a beeline for the water wands, which come in an assortment of delicious colors. Product designers understand that color is fun, and even adults can’t resist that rainbow display. We sell a lot of water wands.
Children are masters of play. I’ve often wondered why this is so, why we lose the capacity for fun as we get older. We have our grown-up games of course—Scrabble and poker, Wii and Xbox, tennis and bowling. But these are games with an end point, a goal. Even individual sports like hang-gliding or cliff jumping require planning and risk assessment, a competition with oneself.
Children don’t pause to consider themselves; they just plunge into whatever catches their attention. They do not know that being alive means being in peril. They have no idea that their chances are slimming, that summers are not long, that one day they won’t be here. When they start skipping, when they make stone soup, when they build forts out of chairs and blankets, they are living in the only realm they will ever own. Running without reins, they are free because they don’t know it.
While we may no longer feel the urge to build forts or splash in fountains, we adults still lose ourselves now and then. Alone in our homes, we might break out in dance, or grab a spatula and start singing into it. In quieter moments, we can disappear into our passions: fossil collecting, product design, painting. As a writer, I lose myself not only in composition, but in research as well. There are many way to escape the tyranny of time, if only for a few hours.
It is said that a person who is living well makes no distinction between her work and her play, and this is certainly true for those lucky enough to love their jobs. Most of us can’t make that claim. We labor to pay the bills, and then we labor at home, and what free time we have is spent driving from one store or business to another. After a few months of this, we reward ourselves with a vacation that never feels adequate because we have leveraged too much on it.
I’m wondering if we can trick our stodgy selves by wringing more joy out of our daily lives, if, like children, we could make our own fun? We could start small, maybe with accessories, adding a scarf, a lapel pin. We could pour our coffee into china instead of a mug. Taking a cue from Martha Stewart, we could decorate the dining room table with fall leaves and fruit. We could smile at everyone we encounter and see what they do. We could make it a game.
There’s a woman in town who drives an old Cadillac on which she has glued hundreds of tiny toys. There is a couple down the street who have turned their front yard into a fairyland of handmade stone castles. The woman next door takes photos of neighborhood dogs, then turns them into Christmas ornaments she gives to the owners.
How hard could it be to have a little more fun each day? A child can do it.
I give my deep thanks to the editors of Woodlands nature~magic~mystery~myth for including my poem “Lichen” and my essay “Lyme Ticks and Ladybugs” in this wondrous new anthology. A perfect tonic for the busy holiday season, Woodlands is now available on Amazon. Stoke the fire, curl up your sofa, and enjoy this treasury of nature writing.
When I am not writing or painting, you can often find me hunting for fossils. I found this specimen in Northern California. 3″ long, 2″ wide and high, it is extremely dense and partially agatized. Several fossil enthusiasts have weighed in but it remains unidentified; it may not be a fossil at all. I would greatly appreciate anyone’s guesses.