“Sweat, Tears and the Sea”
The Danish author, Karen Blixen, well known for her books “Out of Africa” and “Babette’s Feast” which were ultimately made into movies, wrote under several pen names depending on what country her audience was located in. In 1934, as Isak Dinesen, she published a short story collection entitled, “Seven Gothic Tales.” In “The Deluge at Norderney” the story is told of a man who discovered that his father, a ship’s captain, was not his biological father. In his unhappiness he contemplated ending his life and visited the ocean considering this fate. While there a woman dressed in black lace approached him and asked to die with him. This he found quite unnerving and it changed the course of events. When he later spoke with his father he asked if a cure for his melancholy might be known. His father replied with the quote we begin with today – “Why yes,” he said, “I know of a cure for everything: salt water.” When questioned further he shared that in one way or another, sweat, tears or the salt sea are curative in their powers.
Hard physical work, a good cry, and time spent near or on the ocean do seem to have healing properties in our lives. The first two provide a release that is both tangible and emotionally satisfying. When I work up a sweat pushing myself on a bike ride, I find that my body and my mind become simultaneously freed. I love shoveling snow for the same reason! At first it seems like a task that just needs to be done and sometimes an overwhelming one depending on the depth of the snow. But once I am out there doing it, it is almost hard to stop. The act itself is physically beneficial and a gratifying accomplishment. And the sweat it produces is cleansing; as if expelling buried toxins.
Physical exertion releases endorphins, the neurochemicals produced by our nervous systems which act on the opiate receptors in our brains, reducing pain and increasing pleasure. Other activities cause this release also – eating, dancing, massage or acupuncture, meditation or volunteer work. No wonder it feels good to do things for the Meeting House and beyond in response to the needs we see all around us! When Dinesen’s character suggested sweat they were likely referring to the activities that produce the sweat. While we do emit some heavy metals and even plastics when we sweat, for the most part it is just water. Toxins take a different route!
For some of you this kind of release while doing heavy gardening is curative these days. Getting totally into it keeps the mind from dwelling on what is perceived as the crazily upside-down world we are currently inhabiting. The heavy duty labor and the toll it takes on the body have the effect of redirecting the frenzied mind. For others, your favorite body of water is related to the sweat equity involved in preserving the location over generations.
I cried inconsolably the day we laid my mother to rest. I had managed a good amount of Irish stoicism up until that point. She would have been proud! But there needed to be a letting go and it came through the tears, washing away the sadness and the unfairness of it all, her life cut short by complications of Type I diabetes. I was relieved in the end and I am sure that the weeping produced a healing effect. I find myself carrying less pain than my younger brothers whose response was suppressed, at least in the moment.
And I heard from you, too, that a good cry over a similar loss was ultimately life changing, as if making you a different person. It was a longer time in coming, but when it did there was a sense that the body had expressed something wordlessly that you had been unable to release with words. And it was a “good cry,” as they say – a sobbing; a squeezing out of the lungs; accompanied by a moaning that started deep within and traveled out through clenched teeth; shaking the body. Powerful. And there are the tears associated with a body of water that is the final resting place for the ashes of our forbears.
It turns out that tears actually do contain toxins – our emotional tears as opposed to the reflex or continuous kind – are made up in part of stress hormones. Crying releases oxytocin, creating a sense of ease or well-being, along with more of those ever-popular endorphins producing the feel-good state we long for. Emotional tears contain manganese which helps us to regulate our mood and restore balance. A good cry activates the parasympathetic nervous system resulting in an ability to rest; sobbing causes us to take in quick cool breaths of air which adjust the temperature of our brain to a state that is more pleasurable. Who knew that our brains had an optimal operating temperature?!
My husband thinks that I am part lab – if you’ve seen one of these playful pups near the water you know what he means. They cannot wait to dive in! I am much the same, although less of a diver and more of a wader. I move with intention to water’s edge though, unshaken in my resolve. The cool ocean waves splashing over my feet are a soothing balm. The sound, too, making its intervals toward and away from the shore; my breath becoming attuned to its rhythm. The air is different by the sea – so full of life. When we submerge ourselves in the sight, the sound, and the feel of the ocean we are in some way cured of whatever ills have accompanied us to its edge.
The majority of you who responded to my question about curative properties in salt water spoke of the sea. According to one source, staring at the ocean actually changes our brain waves' frequency and puts us into a mild meditative state, while the negative ions in the sea breeze have a mood-boosting effect. Researchers at Harvard and UMASS Medical School will attest to the brain changes that occur through meditation associated with alterations in grey matter concentration in the regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, and perspective taking. Ocean water can be a great natural medication for bone and muscle pain, arthritis, and circulatory issues. Researchers have recently discovered that the salt in the ocean helps reduce inflammation of the joints and the resulting pain that occurs.
It goes perhaps without saying, but we all live here on Cape Cod for a reason! We are surrounded by the ocean, it was pointed out to me, and its meaning in our lives might well be behind this. Our families have a long history with the ocean – our fondness for parents and grandparents and beyond who were themselves “of the sea” creates an association in our minds; the love for one perpetuating a love for the other. We fish, we lobster, we boat with children and grandchildren making memories that sustain us. We gather, too, with others of similar talent and interest on annual retreats and pilgrimages along tidal rivers and marshy spots. It is the interconnectedness of it all that soothes the soul.
Truth be told, our water needn’t contain salt in order to be curative! We have a deep connection to it in that it is what we are mostly made of – seventy percent of our bodies are water. Harnessing the powers inherent in water are good for us – recommended even when we are under stress or anxious; feeling out of balance. Put a small fountain in your space, they say, soak your feet, get yourself within clear sight of a river or lake or the sea. Some of you claimed a body of water that was powerful for you, sans salt. A birdbath that offers solace, tranquility, and a bit of sanity from the world outside – while also offering a bath and a drink for the birds! A pond that you envisioned and created where none had been before; a home for fish and turtles and the blue heron who visits upon occasion; a place for grandchildren to contentedly canoe.
Whether it is about getting things done or cleansing tears or being on or near the ocean, for at least one of you all three have been restorative and constants throughout your life. Whether it is the science that intrigues you or the mystery that is wrought by nature or perhaps a bit of both, we gather this morning with gratitude for the water we encounter in this journey of life. So, let’s take a moment to gaze upon the water we have provided for one another today. Let it be a window into the soul of our faith community. Let it wash over us and bring us peace.