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Basket of Tears

The other day I walked into my shrink's home-based office, took off my boots, and settled into the couch across from her worn easy chair. As she fetched some tea, I sat in this hurting and healing room, alone for a moment with the throw pillows and cats, and noticed something I hadn't before. Underneath a shelf that holds a few candles and rocks from around the world, there was a wastebasket overflowing with tear-strewn tissues. Next to that lay an empty Kleenex box and its hastily stripped cardboard top.

I told her it was the most poignant piece of art I'd seen in a while, a still life that hammered home the communal state of struggle in which we find ourselves--formally akin to the clumps of hair strewn across a barbershop floor, only this shedding was of sorrow. She chuckled and, I guess out of respect for the privacy of the others who came before me, simply nodded and said, "I've earned my money this week. A lot of grief counseling."

For the next 50 minutes, we talked about what we talk about. When we were done, I got up the guts to ask her if I could take the basket with me. Her face registered something of a professional dilemma, but she finally said I could have the contents. She went into the kitchen and got out a garbage bag and held it. I scraped the bottom of the basket for every last tissue, and picked up the ones that had tumbled out or missed entirely and now littered the floor. As I walked out the door, I was surprised that she wasn't surprised, as if she's used to people doing odd things to get to wherever they're going.

I threw the garbage bag in the car and when I got home, I stashed it behind a stack of records in the basement. Around midnight, with my wife and kids asleep upstairs, I got it out. I lit some incense and the dozen Mexican religious candles--Oracion a la Milagrosa, Oracion al Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, etc.--I had purchased for 99 cents apiece at Kmart. I took a whiff of the peppermint massage oil a friend gave me, and I spread out the tissues on an easel that the kids use with their paints, unfolding each one and brushing my fingers over the coagulated snot and dried traces of saltwater. I stacked them in a neat pile so that all the tears pressed down on each other. After that I didn't know what to do, so I started praying. Just like that, the tissues burst into flames.

At the same time, the electricity in the house went out, leaving only the soft candle glow. I grabbed the guardian angel candle, fumbled over to the fuse box, and threw the main switch. When I turned around, the basement was filled with people wearing nametags that said, Hello My Name Is Freak; Hello My Name Is Bipolar Boy; Hello My Name Is I Cut Myself to Feel Good Girl; Hello My Name Is Barely Hanging On; Hello My Name Is Adult ADD What Was the Question?; Hello My Name Is Fetal Position on a Good Day; Hello My Name Is Totally Fucked Since the Election; Hello My Name Is Kinky Compared to What?; Hello My Name Is Unloved, Untouched, Undeserving; Hello My Name Is Suicidal When I Watch the News; Hello My Name Is Wanna Lick My War Wounds?; Hello My Name Is My Depression Is "Off the Charts," Hello My Name Is Unpleasant In Pleasantville; Hello My Name Is Whatever You Want It to Be.

My first impulse was to play the role of host, but they had already made themselves at home. The manics were mixing with the depressives. The self-medicators had gotten into the Maker's Mark and the antidepressants were pounding the Guinness. The pillars of society were chatting up the sociopaths. The anorexics and barf-flies were gorging on old Halloween candy and making fun of the sex addicts, who were comparing mash notes with the agoraphobes and leafing through my copy of Ronald Rolheiser's The Restless Heart.

The scab-pickers were dipping their fingers in candle wax and flicking it at the arrested adolescents. The failed family men were talking football and flying saucers with the desperate housewives. The workaholics were smoking weed with the gifted and talented underachievers, who were invoking Joseph Campbell and quoting sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick: "Sometimes the appropriate response to reality is to go insane."

I got a beer, stood in the corner, and listened. The haunted-by-the-pasters were trying to practice mindfulness but couldn't stop thinking about tomorrow. The searchers and the saved were playing craps with the liars and the cheaters. The guilt-mongers and the longtime sober were holding forth on the differences between shame and blame, inner peace and sheer boredom. The book club losers were huddled around Jack El-Hai's new Walter Freeman bio, The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness.

I played DJ. Everyone had a request. The sensitive artists wanted to hear Don McLean sing, "this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you." The hungry and the hunted wanted to hear Ani DiFranco's "Asking Too Much." Everyone wanted Jon Langford's version of "Trouble in Mind," Eddie and the Hot Rods' "Teenage Depression," Jane Siberry's "The Lobby," and X's "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts." They asked me to play something I wanted to hear, so I dialed up Sparklehorse/Flaming Lips/Daniel Johnston going, "To understand and to be understood is to be free," and the Lambchop song that goes, "One by one we die, and our secrets die within us, there's no one left to blame...all you really can do is just sit up and start a brand-new day."

Over in the corner, the masochists and self-obsessives were celebrating Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body by administering tattoos to each other with the wood-burning gun from my workbench. The clear-cut favorites were "Visible Scar (See Inside)" and "God Don't Make No Junk." I opted for one that ran the length of my forearm: "Excess of sorrow laughs, excess of joy weeps--William Blake."

A teenager and a TV reporter gathered everyone in the middle of the room to hear their poems about how it feels to be alive in the age of grief, any age of grief, and ended it by holding hands and talking about how we could all use a good cry. Sniffs. Coughs. Quiet. Then everyone started bawling, and I ran around offering the tissues, which miraculously had been cleansed free of the old tears and snot and folded liked warm laundry, but everyone waved me off. I guess they wanted the tears to flow into a common stream, since they were crying for dead babies or soldiers or dreams as well as for every loss or hurt they'd inflicted or felt. They cried and cried until the basement flooded.

After a few minutes, it got quiet again. Finally, everybody laughed and did what they do after a good cry--pronounced the experience cathartic and apologized for making such a scene. Then one of the tough guys called everybody crybabies, one of the smart-asses told the old joke about how many schizophrenics it takes to screw in a lightbulb, and I kicked everyone out because they were getting on my nerves.

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]

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