A kitchen is the best—I mean the saddest—room for tears. A bedroom is too easy, a bathroom too private, a living room too formal. If someone falls to pieces in the kitchen, in the space of work and nourishment, they must be truly coming undone. The bright lights offer no comfort, only illuminate. The floor should be vinyl and cold.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman—feminist, writer, sufferer of postpartum and other depressions—proposed in 1898 that private kitchens be abolished, as the work they demanded of women left them with no time for any other activities. “The cleaning required in each house would be much reduced,” she argues, “by the removal of the two chief elements of household dirt,—grease and ashes.” She does not mention a corresponding reduction in tears.
Some churches have designated “crying rooms,” soundproofed spaces to which parents of wailing infants can retreat if they are concerned about bothering their fellow parishioners. Often the room will have a large window, so that its inhabitants can still look out upon the nave and chancel, as well as speakers, so they can hear the sound of the sermon and hymns. People unfamiliar with the practice—guests, for instance, at a wedding or funeral—sometimes, understandably, mistake its purpose. The poets I know who have made this mistake are without exception very taken with the idea.
Crying rooms appear most frequently in Catholic churches. One man tells me his story of seeking forgiveness for his sins during Confession in a crying room. Not ever having made a serious confession before, and in a great deal of anguish—he was suffering the aftereffects of divorce and mental illness—the man decided to lay bare his soul, but the priest responded with what felt like a cold, detached script: a rote recommendation to turn to Christ. Unheard, unheeded, the man ran crying from the crying room.
The English medieval mystic Margery Kempe’s madness, or bedevilment, or suffering, was caused not only by the birth of her first child, but also—like this man’s—by a priest’s failure to hear her confession. She never, in her book, utters precisely the nature of her sin, only that it weighed on her terribly, and that “the devil said in her mind that she should be damned, for she was not shriven of that fault.” And so, when after childbirth she feared for her life, she called for her confessor, but “when she came to the point of saying that thing which she had so long concealed, her confessor was a little too hasty and began sharply to reprove her before she had fully said what she meant.” In consequence, “because of the dread she had of damnation on the one hand, and his sharp reproving of her on the other, this creature went out of her mind and was amazingly disturbed and tormented with spirits.”
Sometimes I am afraid that as I am listening to people’s stories of tears—and therefore, frequently, of suffering—I will make the mistake of these priests, that I will fail to hear what people most want to be known, that I will only make them cry again.
In April 1975, five years after creating the experimental film I’m Too Sad to Tell You, the Danish-born performance artist Bas Jan Ader introduced a new work in a cycle called In Search of the Miraculous. Conceived as a three-part project, the first installment consisted of photographs of Ader walking through Los Angeles at night, seeking something with the aid of a flashlight. For the second installment, Ader planned to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a small sailboat by himself, having been seen off by a group of his art students singing sea shanties. The third installment was to be another series of night-wandering photographs, this time in Amsterdam, but Ader disappeared during his sea voyage, and so the final piece of the triptych remains potential, conceptual, unexecuted.
Three months after Bas Jan Ader set sail in his boat, his mother wrote a poem:
I feel my heart beating too. It will go on beating for some time. Then it will stop.
I wonder if the little heart that has beaten with mine, has stopped.
When he passed the border of birth, I laid him at my breast,
Rocked him in my arms.
He was very small then.
A white body of a man, rocked in the arms of the waves,
Is very small too.
A particular cruelty to losing someone to disappearance at sea is the uncertainty of knowing when the tears ought to begin. Today? Long ago? There is a mist.
In 1991, when our neighbors were tying yellow ribbons around everything they owned, my father worked on an oil tanker, the only civilian ship that remained in the Persian Gulf. During the six months he was gone my mother, my sister, and I would watch the nightly news, a black screen with green dots representing missiles diverted “harmlessly out to sea.” I remember one day walking into the dining room and finding my sister on my mother’s lap, both of them in tears. Nothing was wrong. I mean, nothing new was wrong, I mean the war was entirely wrong, and within it my father remained safe, but the worry and the waiting had worn them down. My mother offered me her arm, invited me to join their embrace, but I shook my head. We couldn’t all cry, I reasoned.
I imagined us into a triangle, each of us nestled in her own corner. It had to be isosceles. Scalene was too erratic, equilateral too composed. I could trust neither. I am pretending this is in past tense, but honestly the feeling remains. I couldn’t cry, because I needed to be the angle of difference, the angle that made the whole just unbalanced enough to keep going.
But we have come all this way, and I have not explained how to cry in the first place! If you find it hard to start, Julio Cortázar’s “Instructions on How to Cry” suggests picturing “a duck covered with ants,” or certain bodies of water “into which no one sails ever.”
In my imagination Cortázar and Ader’s afterlife has them seated facing each other in a small boat, courteously taking turns practicing proper crying behavior until neither can keep a straight face, and they fill the sea air with laughter.
Crying won’t make you feel better. We only think that it will, or, perhaps more important, think that at some point in the past it did. Let it out, we hear some imaginary figure instruct, and tearfully we obey. But when subjects report their mood immediately after a crying episode, it’s often worse than before. Then again, this may be because the subjects are crying in a laboratory, the tears are meant to solicit aid, and the researchers provide little comfort to those whose tears they’ve provoked.
Rachel disagrees, says crying for her provides a great release. She also says the half-moon looks like a taco, which makes me trust her capacity for both truth and joy.
It’s June, and Chris and I are supposed to go teach at a writer’s institute in Massachusetts, but the baby—now a full year old—has a terrible ear infection, and I have to stay home with her in Ohio. Chris goes alone. I cry at the loss of precious time with dear friends, at the chance to be someone and something other than mother. Chris is supposed to give a reading with Jim, our old teacher, our beloved poet, husband to Dara, a parent to Emily and Guy. Chris comes home. Jim dies. I turn, as one does, to his poems:
You cannot weep;
I cannot do anything
that once held an ounce
of meaning for us.
I cover you
with pine needles.
When morning comes
I will build a cathedral
around our bodies.
And the crickets,
who sing with their knees,
will come there
in the night to be sad,
when they can sing no more.
Emily and I exchange techniques to stop crying. There comes a time, we say, when one is simply not in the mood. Pick a color, she tells me, and find every instance of it in the room. I pick blue. I pick dark green. One day I call her and say that if I start to cry I want her to squawk like a chicken. When my voice starts to shake she panics and quacks like a duck. Then I am laughing and crying all at once—wet and loud and thankful—and it feels as if my heart has turned itself inside out.
There are other ways to stop. One day, reading Joan Didion, I learn a new method:
It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag.
Among wikiHow’s “How to Stop Yourself from Crying,” my favorite step is “Remove the lump from your throat.” A surgery by act of will. I imagine it falling into my hand like a doll’s pacifier.
If you cannot stop your tears, or if you must take your cried-out face into public, you can hide behind a lie about allergies or a cold. You could, like Roland Barthes, don dark sunglasses:
The intention of this gesture is a calculated one: I want to keep the moral advantage of stoicism, of “dignity” (I take myself for Clotilde de Vaux), and at the same time, contradictorily, I want to provoke the tender question (“But what’s the matter with you?”).
I fear the tender question, whose ever-elusive answer will only stimulate more tears. The hiding is a way to stop other people from trying to help. A way to not have to explain precisely how and why I cannot be helped. I’d like to hang a little sign on each lens: OUT OF ORDER.
When Gabrielle sends me a passage from Michelle Tea’s novel Black Wave, she is trying to help me with my writing, not with my crying, but I find ideas in it to try out in my own life:
She kept tablespoons in the freezer, would place their rounded bottoms on her eyelids … She kept chamomile tea bags soaking in the fridge. She kept cucumbers handy and would layer her face in slices. At a beauty store she selected a product with raspberry extract that promised to reduce eye puffiness.
In the novel, Michelle does not find people’s suggestion to use Preparation H on puffy eyes useful, but I buy some anyway. The ointment form is too greasy, but the cream seems to help.
I love the way people offer these remedies to one another, the care of tending, the way they try to offer an answer to a problem without lobbing a query of their own. People want to know: “Can the phoenix’s tears bring someone back to life?” They go to Yahoo! Answers and everyone weighs in:
No they can only heal wounds they would not even heal a dead persons wounds for the tears only make the skin heal faster and dead skin does not heal and even if it did heal the tears cannot bring them back to life by shocking their heart back into motion
Reading this is like riding a waterslide of tears. I go down it again and again. There is no phoenix, and no phoenix tears, and nothing can bring back the dead, but these words—these hopes and these breathless responses—they can shock a heart back into motion. I have felt it. Have felt myself alive.
Heather Christle is the author of the poetry collections The Difficult Farm; The Trees The Trees, which won the Believer Poetry Award; What Is Amazing; and Heliopause. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, London Review of Books, Poetry, and many other journals. She teaches creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. The Crying Book is her first book of nonfiction.
Excerpted from The Crying Book, copyright © 2019 by Heather Christle. Reprinted by permission of Catapult.