The fun of meeting new people and being “on” socially on Sunday morning waxes and wanes for me. Lately it has been waning: my inner introvert felt particularly strong last Sunday. My husband was out of town and the kids wanted to sleep in. The service was early, the church seemed far away, and I hadn’t had time to make pancakes. Inertia dragged me back, but part of me still wanted to go. So I did what I often do in such a situation: arrived at the last minute, snuck in quietly, and sat in a row by myself.
I had a brief, pleasant conversation with a new father I hadn’t met before and greeted a couple of other people I knew slightly. I also spent some time contemplating the big tree branch in the front of the sanctuary; looking at it makes me feel peaceful, following its thick branches with my eyes, as they thin out from left to right, until they end in many little wisps. And, I was happy about the prospect of having a folk singer in the service. He was an unassuming looking middle-aged gentleman standing up front with a guitar. He had a nice voice: deep, rich, powerful, well in-tune.
I thought I knew what to expect when he started singing. I was wrong. He sang a song called “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” which has a catchy melody, and starts out somewhat cheerful, but gets grim quickly, and becomes grimmer and sadder with each verse. It is about an Australian “rambler” who goes to fight in World War I and loses his legs in battle. Later, as an old man, he watches soldiers marching in parades and realizes that with each passing year, he, other veterans, and the wars they fought are being forgotten.
It took me a couple of verses before I remembered that Veterans Day was coming up this week. That realization helped me make sense of the why of the song, but it didn’t help me with the crying. About three verses in, I started to tear up, and then cry, and I couldn’t stop. I almost got up and left before the song was over.
I cry easily, always have, and the aftermath is not pretty. My eyes and nose make a mess. I gulp and I shudder. Sometimes I sniffle loudly and this irritates people. I hadn’t brought any tissues with me, either, which was annoying, because I should know better by now. I take a long time to recover from crying, too. I can dry my tears and blow my nose (if I have Kleenex), but it takes me at least an hour to feel “normal” again after I’m done. And this is how that hour is invariably spent: having to answer well-meaning questions. People asking me if I was crying, why I was crying. Enduring the pressure behind my eyes and the headache, as I try to answer these questions politely.
In church you use your hands a lot. You shake hands at the beginning, you hold hands at the end while reciting the benediction. You sing songs out of the hymnal you are holding and you turn its pages with your fingers. I started imagining someone behind me watching wipe my nose on my hand for the fourth time and thinking, “No, thanks, I’m not holding hands with her at the end. No sirree.” And someone else thinking, “Ew, gross! Let’s autoclave that hymnal after the service!” But of course, I also thought, what I really should be is grateful that I have two legs.
I’ve never served in the military. The closest thing to it in my immediate family is the National Service my husband, who grew up in Germany, performed during peacetime in the late 1980s. Such service is still required of all young German men. His father, too young to be a soldier in World War II, became a teenage prisoner of war in Siberia when the Russians invaded and burned down his family farm. He suffered from PTSD to the end of his days.
I’m still struggling with what Veterans’ Day asks of me and others like me who are the beneficiaries of such sacrifices from others. What I seem to be able to give most easily is tears. Yet, I can’t view the description of a work of art or a piece of music, “it’ll make you cry” or “it’ll move you to tears,” as a good thing. My tears feel like they come at all the wrong times. They feel worse than useless: like a disease, a sickness, something there should be a pill against. I still feel the sting of being called a “crybaby” as a child, of being yelled at by teachers and made fun of by peers for crying, and later of being told angrily not to cry at work because it makes you look weak, but crying at work anyway. I still remember crying in auditions and after minor, and major, disappointments, well into adulthood. These tears feel like they are just delaying the moving-on process, making it harder to mount any resilient response because of the headache and the physical exhaustion they engender. I remember crying in church, at my own wedding, and in front of my children and their friends. I’ve heard it so often, I now automatically say it to myself, even when no one else is: don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. This phrase is about as useful and effective when I say it, as when other people say it: Not at all.
Does crying matter? Why does it even exist?
To distract myself, I started thinking about bionic legs. Last year in Massachusetts, when I taught at the Innovation Institute, I heard Professor Hugh Herr give a lecture. As a teenager, Herr lost his own legs in a climbing accident on Mount Washington. Now he works for the Biomechatronics Group in MIT’s Media Lab, designing (and using himself) bionic leg prostheses that are as good as, if not better than, the real thing. Herr has resumed climbing, and performs more daring and complex climbs than ever. He also designed the bionic leg that enabled Boston Marathon bombing survivor Adrianne Haslett-Davis to dance again. These days we can dream about things like that. But this song, I was reminded again, is about World War I. Its protagonist wouldn’t have lived to see bionic legs.
After the song was over, the worship associate took the podium, and to my surprise, he–a large man in his 70s–was crying too. His voice broke as he mentioned his own experiences as a Veteran, his friends from Vietnam. By courageous sharing his own crying in public, he connected with me, a stranger. In that moment, I stopped feeling ashamed. I looked at him, I listened.
At the end of the service, my hands had dried enough to take the hand of the woman in the row behind me for the benediction. She didn’t shrink from it and stayed to chat. As we talked and I told her that I was having trouble settling in to a church here, that my kids didn’t want to come and my husband was out of town, that I was missing Boston, the tears came back again, for a different, more personal reason, she gave me a Kleenex.
I said by way of apology, “It’s hard to be here, in public, dealing with these strong emotions. Sometimes I just don’t have the strength for it.”
“You’re doing it now,” she pointed out.
I was tired when I got home, but I didn’t feel wiped out or exhausted. I was glad I went. I just have to keep plugging away at this, I thought. It’ll get easier. I said a silent thanks to the tearful worship associate, and then put a long-overdue packet of tissues in my purse.
Image Credit: Field of Poppies, by Stuart Gennery;