blackbirdonline journalFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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When I Started to Cry

I’m known for being funny. And most of the time, I’m laughing. The world is absurd, so it’s easy enough. Oddly, I’m also known for crying.

A poet friend of mine takes bets with people over how long it will take me to tear up when I give a reading. I may choke up when I read a poem or a story, one I’ve written or someone else’s. Sometimes, when I make introductions or speeches or give lectures or preach about writing, my throat closes and those tears ease up from some deep chakra, first into my chest, then my throat, then leak out over my lower lids, gush over my eyeliner. I wear waterproof mascara, or no mascara at all, so I don’t spend life looking like a raccoon.

I’ve learned this little trick: I tap acupressure points. If I feel a wave of tears coming on, I tap my collarbone. It helps to hear the hollow thud, thud, thud as it resonates out toward my shoulders and down through the cave of my thoracic cavity. Now I’m also known for tapping my collarbone. Sometimes I look into an audience and lots of folks are tapping with me.

The waterworks often spring a leak when I watch movies or commercials. They don’t even have to be all that sad. My husband shakes his head. It can happen when I’m washing dishes or driving by myself—say, to the dry cleaners, or along some winding country road on the way to somewhere else. Maybe tears well up when I see an MG like the one my brother, who died at forty-four, used to drive when he was young. Sometimes, all I have to do is think about Woodrow Call and his overwhelming sense of loss at the death of his best friend and trail pardner, Gus McCrae, and I cry for them both—even though I haven’t read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove in years and haven’t seen the miniseries in months.

I make jokes in public about not being on Zoloft because I’m too happily married. Well, I am happily married. I am deeply in love with my husband and my children and my grandchildren. I love my friends and my students and my porch and my job. I enjoy my colleagues. I am a happy person. I am not depressed in any way. For as many years as I’ve been tearful, I couldn’t tell you when the weeping started or why.

People try to console me. Tell me it’s moving when I cry, how it gives them permission to cry themselves. Writing students—young and old—who write about life’s obstacles and traumas say this to me. Let me tell you, a memoir class can go through a lot of tissues. Students tell me my crying gives them courage. “Well, I’m glad if it helps you,” I say. I do like helping people. I’m grateful for these generous responses to something I can’t control. Sometimes I become heavy with the kindness of others. Heavy as a rain cloud. 

I love The Temptations, particularly their rendition of “I Wish It Would Rain.” My high school sweetheart and I used to make out to that song in a parking spot near a hay field only high school boys remember exists. My sweetheart had it on an 8-track. The notion of rain hiding tears makes me think that song could be the last song on my life’s sound track.

Once, my other brother—half brother, he would correct—was angry at me because I somehow reminded him of our father (the only reason he’d correct me). In the midst of our argument, he accused me of trying to manipulate him by crying. “You can fool other people with that shit, but I’m not falling for it,” he said. I wanted to tell him I would much rather give these tears away than use them as a tool, but I was too busy holding my breath, turning red and straining, in an effort to stop weeping, too overcome to articulate my own frustration or to challenge his accusation. He wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

I cry when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m angry, when I’m hurt, when I’m tired, when I’m afraid, when I’m worried, when I’m nervous, when I’m forgetful, when I’m lonely, when I’m touched, when I feel the hand of God, when I feel the hand of the past reaching for my back.

Maybe teardrops roll down my cheeks, or maybe my voice catches in my throat. It can be a steely, interruptive crying that ruins the sound of the poem I’m reading, takes attention away from the text, and makes me swallow those last, most important words I’ve worked so hard to come by. Sometimes I get really quiet on the other end of the phone. It’s rarely a “boohoo” kind of crying. The wave of emotion that crests with the water might just cause a pause, just enough to make me tap my collarbone.

Once, I sat in a therapist’s office and read her a poem I had written about a woman making a dress to wear when she leaves her husband. I made the woman up. Made up her dress. Made up her husband. Still, I choked up near the end and couldn’t finish. My therapist asked why I was crying, and I didn’t know. I sat there on her sofa, a throw pillow snug against my chest, and shrugged my shoulders. The therapist suggested I had an incredible level of empathy—even for my fictional characters. “That’s not unusual for a writer,” she said.

I don’t cry like this because I’m a writer, but I may be a writer because I cry like this. All that water weight is a lot to carry. You have to set it down someplace, so I set a lot of it in fiction and poetry and now here.

One night not long ago, at a writers’ workshop in the mountains of North Carolina, the faculty sat in the living room of our cabin, talking. We are good friends who only see each other once or twice a year, but when we do, we share in a deep way. It tethers us to each other all year long.

One of my peers mentioned a short story she’d written. The story was about an American child, not much older than a toddler, who stood on a beach in France, looked out over the immense sea and sobbed, longing for her parents whom she loved, parents who had left her in France to summer with her aunts and cousins. Those aunts and cousins had little sympathy for homesickness. 

My friend confessed the story was based on her little-girl self who cried for her parents in the same situation as her character. “I stood there looking out over the waves crashing,” she said, “and sobbed for my parents. I loved them so much.” 

When my friend said the word “sobbed” in the same sentence as “parents,” I was suddenly ten years old and sobbing. For just a few seconds, I was transported back into childhood body. Of course, I had cried plenty of other times before that moment because I was tired or petulant. I was no stranger to spankings or skinned knees or simple hurt feelings. But this memory was of the first time I wept from an unconquerable sorrow, from the anguish of separation and abandonment, a memory I had let drop deep into the protective, muddy past. 

My dress is black cotton, strewn with images of small, fall-colored flowers. The cuffs and collar are starched and white. My mother bought this dress the previous school year at Roses in Danville, Virginia. In that body, in that dress, I cry and cry. The sleeves are damp. A sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary stands next to me. The tissue the nun has given me is disintegrated by the heft of tears and snot that would otherwise hang to the floor. My face is as wet as if I washed it with cupped hands pooling water.

“Stop that,” the nun says to me, her breath hot and close enough to melt the wax in my ear. She hunches over me and squeezes my shoulders. “That is enough,” she says, every syllable distinct and accented. Her veil falls like a black wing, obstructing my vision. She hunches over me to impress her displeasure. I turn my head into that dark wing. Smothered, I lift up against her black chest, what seems to me her black heart, only to drop again in despair on my tear-damp, speckled notebook.

I am heartbroken in what they call “study hall.” I haven’t been at boarding school long enough to be issued a uniform. The room is full of highly-polished desks and chairs and floors and children’s faces—girls’ faces, annoyed faces. Their blue and green, plaid-jumpered bodies are turned to me, as if I’m in the wrong place.

I am in the wrong place. I should be with my father and mother. These annoyed girls want to work math problems and study for spelling tests. The nun wants that for them. But my head hovers over my folded arms. My shoulders and back bounce as I gasp for each hateful breath. I have been forsaken.

I am in love with my mother and my father, you see. They are also in love with me. I know this. I also know they are now fractured beyond repair. She has gone crazy and he has gone broke. He will likely never even pay the bill for this school when I finally leave at the end of the school year. (I don’t know this yet.) There will be a weak and ineffectual attempt to knead things back together, but their crumbs are already cast upon waters elsewhere. All our hearts are broken.

My aunts and uncles don’t want me, no matter how well I’ve made my bed or washed dishes after meals or swept the floor or babysat my young cousins. They will make flimsy excuses, and I will most of the time temper my rancor because I love them and still need some link to where I come from. I will later understand they must reject me out of fear. Whoever takes me will have the chore of my parents. And who knows what I’ve seen and heard? Who knows how it will affect me in the long run? And how might that taint my cousins? (I don’t understand any of these layers in the study hall.)

My mother is in the state mental hospital in Staunton, the place with black leather and chrome chairs, old Look magazines, and that sour smell. “They took her up to Staunton,” people say. There is something in the subtext of that sentence that remains just beyond reach, even as I rest my head on my damp sleeve.

My father, who has few options but to travel for work, has left me with promises that everything will be back to normal soon, that he’ll find us an apartment. These are promises of which I’m already faintly doubtful. He has left me to the nuns, with their wisdom and blessings and black wings. Their so-clean hands and so-clean fingernails. Their scrubbed cheeks, wimple-pooched and rosy with prayer and piety. Rosaries slung at their sides like six-guns.

It is fall 1964, and this one bride of Christ bends over me in her wisdom. The autumn sun has long since cast shadows through the study hall windows. She shouts in a whisper, “Enough is enough.” But over fifty years hence, one night talking with friends, I will suddenly know it has never been enough. It is still not enough.  

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