I never cried until I was 24 years old.
When I was old enough to understand, my mother explained to me that crying meant you were "feeling sorry for yourself". She reminded me how much I had to be grateful for and made it absolutely clear that crying was unacceptable. Punishable, in fact. And so, I didn't cry. Not ever.
I guess I should clarify something here. I never cried after I was old enough to understand my mother's edict. Before that, well. . .Shortly before she died, my mother shared a rather strange story with me. She told me that when I was eight years old or so, she and my father and I were walking through an airport, when a couple came up to us. This was not unusual. People were always coming up to my father in public. These people, however, happened to be our neighbors -- though we had never met them. We lived on a quarter acre in a wealthy Los Angeles enclave whose sole purpose was to protect its inhabitants from having to meet anyone they did not wish to know. But this couple was eager to meet their famous neighbors. They lived behind our house on the top of a small hill. We could not see their house, nor they ours. After exchanging a few niceties with my parents, they looked down at me and said, "Oh! You must be The Screamer!"
At first both of my parents looked confused, but then the penny dropped for my mother. And she was mortified. My bedroom was at the back of the 9,000-square-foot house in which we lived, and when she or my nannies put me to bed, apparently, I screamed and cried non-stop after they left. As so many parents of that era had, my mother took much of her parenting advice from Dr. Benjamin Spock, who believed that if a mother continually gives in to the cries of her infant, the infant will “realize after a while that he has his poor, tired mother under his thumb and he will become increasingly disagreeable and tyrannical in demanding this service.” And so both my mothers and the nannies, on her orders, left me to scream and cry myself to sleep. Although a lot of square footage shielded my parents from my ruckus, apparently our poor neighbors heard every bit of it. I imagine that their cocktail hours were rather unpleasantly accompanied by my caterwauling. And so to them, I became The Screamer.
In retrospect, what I find most interesting about this story is that my mother shared it with me at all. Did she regret her decision, or was it just a humorous tale to her? Probably a bit of both. But for me, it was a clue in the anthropology of my non-crying life.
I changed schools in seventh grade, after my parents' divorce, and landed up, it seemed to me, in a class of inordinately weepy girls. In all likelihood this was aided and abetted by their entry into puberty -- which happened to them years before it did me. I was always the youngest girl in my class, and I was also physically immature. I did not enter puberty until I was almost fifteen, two months before the end of tenth grade! So, I had no idea what all the hormonal fuss was about. I just thought they seemed awfully emotional. But when every single girl in our class cried at the end of Lord Jim, that was it for me! I decided they were pathological. Lord Jim? Ol' Yeller maybe. But Lord Jim?
It seemed to me that those girls were always crying about something, and I thought they were nuts! Turns out, they thought the same of me -- that surely there must be something wrong with me for never ever crying. Now, we were a particularly close class -- and more so after we all spent three weeks in the spring of 1976 piled into the back of five station wagons traveling from Boston to Virginia on a Bicentennial Tour. So, months before graduation, everyone started talking about how sad it was going to be. Even the boys agreed. Me? It was one more door closing, which meant that I needed to plan for the next one opening: High school. But they weren't going to let me off the hook.
"Of course you'll cry at graduation," they pronounced. Soon there was a betting pool about whether or not I would shed tears in June. I could have told them not to waste their money. If I hadn't cried when my dad left my mom and me or at any of the mean things my mother or stepmother said or did to me; if I hadn't cried when I was pulled out of my elementary school, where I'd been with the same kids for nine years, I sure as hell wasn't going to cry now. And of course, I didn't. I couldn't even imagine what would make them WANT to cry.
And so my tearless life continued. When my mother announced out of the blue one day that she was pulling me out of school after the eleventh grade and sending me to Germany for a year to "get my act together", I was scared shitless. But it never occurred to me to cry -- even during ten particularly terrifying days there living with a temporary host family straight out of a Tim Burton movie, including a 22-year-old "older brother" who took me on edifying field trips to the Red Light District in Hamburg at midnight. Every night I prayed for my ordeal to end, but it never seemed like crying would do anything to aid my cause. Through all of my early relationships, all of which ended in heartbreak, I never shed a tear. Until I was 24 years old.
I was driving through a narrow canyon in the mountains east of Albuquerque, New Mexico, when one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs came on. "A Little Green". I was blithely singing along, when suddenly it happened: Joni sang, "There'll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow," and I started to cry. Until that moment, I hadn't realized how much I was missing my father, but memories of the sweet little pots of crocuses he sent to school with me every spring flooded into my consciousness, and I just wept. But even as the tears poured down my face, I was watching myself. I thought, "So, this is what people feel when they cry."
From that moment on, the floodgates slowly opened, and I became "normal". Slowly but surely I became someone who cried at movies, sappy commercials, relationships ending -- all the things that make "normal" people cry. But deep inside me, I have lived with my mother's voice in my head -- that remonstration that crying means you feel sorry for yourself. And deep down, I have believed her. Because, to be fully honest, I am still uncomfortable with tears -- both my own and other people's. It's true. I judge people who cry. Just ask my dear friend Cynthia, a person who has one of the biggest hearts and most beautiful practices of lovingkindness on the planet. We have a wonderful daily dialogue about many deep spiritual things. But whenever she cries, or even tells me about something that has caused her tears, I can tell that she feels my judgment of her emotions. And I hate that about myself. . .which is probably why I have created this immensely ironic emanation of karma in my life. You see, almost overnight, everything has changed. Thanks, in no small part, to my hormones.
Turns out perimenopause is like the Rolling Stones. Just when you think they've trotted out their Final Farewell Tour, back they come again -- bigger, better, louder than ever, with a few extra pyrotechnics thrown in to compensate for the fact that Jagger can't quite move, well, like Jagger any more. But the sound and lights show provided by my hormones can't hold a lighter to the tears. Oh my God. The tears! How did I become the middle-aged groupie in the front row who bursts into bewilderingly inapporpriate floods of tears during "Satisfaction" and then inexplicably rips off her bra and hurls it on stage during "Gimme Shelter"?!
Somewhere Cathy Boething, Rae Borlaug, and Melanie Ritch -- those perfectly normal girls from junior high who cried when appropriate -- will be happy to know that I am making up for my incomprehensible dry spell in droves now. I cry at anything and all time. And the bitch of it is that, the mother in my head is mortified! So, even as I am crying, I am trying to figure out why, so I can "pull myself together". It's no use. No sooner have I pulled myself together than someone says something purely sweet, and the waterfall is gushing again.
So, if you've been wondering what the heck any of this has to do with my Daily Practice of Joy, you'll be relieved to know I'm finally getting to it.
Tears of Joy. There's a phrase, as you might imagine, to which I've never really resonated. My friend Mary said she had them after reading my birthday blog to her, "Oh What Fun!" And, come to think of it, I had them during one really beautiful phone conversation with her, when she honored me by sharing some very deep and beautiful parts of her soul with me. But for the most part, Joy and Tears are not two words that go comfortably in the same sentence for me. But now that I've become The Cryer, I've decided that I better find a way to make peace with both of them at the same time. But what I've been thinking about is not so much tears of joy, but rather finding joy in my tears. Which begins, I'm pretty sure, where most re-written stories begin, with forgiveness and releasing the judgment.
One of my favorite stories about my dad happened long before I was born, when as a seventeen-year-old, he saved up enough money to take a three-month Grand Tour of Europe. One of the last stops was Florence, and although he'd been having the time of his life, occasionally he found that he was a bit homesick. And so when he saw a painting called Madonna of the Harpies by Andrea Del Sarto at the Uffizi in Florence, he realized that the face of the Virgin Mary reminded him of the mother of a very dear friend at home, whom he loved and missed very much. Standing there with tears streaming down his face, he felt a tap on his shoulder and looked into the kind eyes of an older woman who said, "Would you like to see the one that makes me cry?" Well, homesick or no, my dad was a seventeen-year-old guy and he wasn't about to let a lady see him cry. So, he said, "Oh no. I just have something in my eye." To which she quietly replied, "Yes, beauty."
To the end of his life, my father retained a deep aversion to crying. So much so that, when, toward the end of my dad's life, he and I had probably the most moving conversation we ever had together, about love, I knew that if I showed him how deeply it was affecting me, he would stop speaking. We were in a restaurant, so whenever I felt like I couldn't hold in the tears any longer, I told him I had to go to the bathroom. I'd lock myself in the stall, have a good cry, and come out and keep listening. The next day he called me and said, "I loved our conversation last night. It was so wonderful and perfectly unsentimental. Thank you. But you sure did have to pee a lot!"
But when it came to art, none of that male Midwestern self-restraint came into play. Tears or laughter -- it was all an expression of the pure joy he found in art. As with so many things in this Daily Practice of Joy, I will take my cue from my dad.
My mother was 45 years old when she had her first child. All of her friends' children were already much older, and she was embarrassed, she later told me, to ask their advice. So, she found it where she could, and she did her best. But it's time to let go of her judgment as it keeps surfacing in me, and to forgive both myself and her for all the ways we have kept our emotional shirts buttoned up to our chins. If I'm going be The Cryer, I might as well learn to love it. At the very least, I won't judge my tears -- and of course, I can find it hilariously funny that this has become my fate!
You know, I have been praying for years for my heart to crack open. My script was just a little different than this -- maybe a little more Garbo in Camille instead of Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. But hey. The reason those Rolling Stones keep heading out on tour is because they wrote some pretty darn good lyrics. Like these:
So, look for me in the front row on the next round of their Final Final Farewell Tour. I'll be the crazy half-naked lady laughing and crying at the same time with snot running down my face, my bra already flung on stage, and dancing with total strangers in complete joy!!! I can hardly wait!!