Around the time of my Hobbit Adult Birthday*, I began to notice something: Someone opened the spigot on my tear ducts.
No, really. You gotta hear me out.
I don’t know why I’ve become this person whose emotional lake rises to the surface and crests its shores at the slightest nudge.
I don’t know if I much like it, either, truth be told. Nobody told me this was part of the deal.
I cry during movies now: Like, I balled when Groot wrapped his best buds in a bundle of twigs in Guardians of the Galaxy and declared, “We are Groot.” Sobbed. Probably turned red as a beet too because is there anything more embarrassing than being a fully grown adult sobbing in a comic book movie?
I cry at weddings now. Not so much if I’m playing for a wedding, because I’m stressed enough about the logistics that my attention is too divided to be emotionally overwhelmed by all the mystery and symbolism. But put me in the congregation and you’d better have a hanky in your pocket during the vows: richer, poorer, sickness, health, till death. Yeah. *sniffs*
I cry when something is really serious. I tear up when I’m happy. I get watery when I see someone nuzzling a baby. I shed a tear if I catch a big tough teenage boy giving his mom a kiss on the cheek (because those are rare during the teen years and it’s such a sweet gift for Mom).
I used to tear up when I was talking with parents about their kids. We’d just be chatting at some coffee shop, often a parent-initiated informal “conference,” talking about how Johnny needed to do his homework forgoodnesssake and reassuring Mom and Dad that he’s going to make it—thrive and grow and excel in college and go on to Do Great Things because all the seeds were there and I could see them, every day, despite the mess and the tangles and zeroes in the grade books….. And there it would come: Eyes full. I’d look away, embarrassed. Damn it. NOT NOW. This is a conference forcryingoutloud. Be professional!
Talking to myself never works. Deep breaths. Look away. Don’t make eye contact. The dam will break. Fight for control. Keep your voice even. Keep talking. Count the seconds till it’s over.
I fight back tears anytime I get to hear Coart preach. Because he’s so damn good at it but he very very rarely gets the chance. And because he knows how to unpack the Word in a way that hits me right in the feels and in the heart and the soul and the head all at the same time.
Grace. Gets me every time. Show me a story where someone gifts himself to someone else; tell me a tale in which someone sacrifices herself in genuine love. I will be a puddle. I can’t even. I’ve seen those stories up close in real life. Having a ring-side seat changes you. And I can spot ’em at a thousand yards in movies. Groot? His sacrifice embodies Love. Hey kids! That’s what Love looks like when the only options on the table are to do the loving thing and lose everything, or hold onto your life with both hands because you love yourself too much to let go. When you get the chance to make that decision, choose Love.
I didn’t grow up in a household full of emotional displays. It honestly didn’t occur to me until I went to college that my parents had emotions (besides getting angry at one another or at me, or showing pride when they thought I did something awesome).
I mean, we had plenty of laughter and good times. We really did. And I knew my parents loved me – every action was testament to that (it just took me a couple decades to wake up to the love language of sacrifice). Hugs weren’t so much a thing.
But crying? Nah.
My mom drove me 500 miles to college (I couldn’t afford my own car, like most of my college peers at that time). So that she wouldn’t have to drive back alone, a couple of my good friends from youth group / school rode along. One of them told me later, “Your mom cried as she pulled away.” Hadn’t even occurred to me that she would be sad that I’d left. We just weren’t a sentimental family.
I don’t know that I ever saw my dad cry. Steel worker for 30 years; a lifetime of hardship and struggle. I guess maybe at my mom’s funeral. Surely he shed a tear; he certainly sorrowed at losing a woman he loved, though in broken and imperfect ways. No one wants to be the one who outlives their spouse.
If we’re looking to pin the tag of “emotional wreck” on a particular group of people, a few stereotypical answers leap to mind.
There’s always the sweet lady at church who cries at all the weddings and funerals and baby showers and stuff. She cries on schedule, like daily rainstorms in Seattle: quick, light, effective, and done. We all love that lady. She’s ….nice.
We know hormonal or stressed people can be criers. Pregnant women, right? Isn’t that the joke? Up at 3 am, hormones raging, nesting instinct in full swing, waterworks on full blast. I can’t speak from experience, but hey, I read y’all’s blogs. You talk about this stuff.
And of course, teenagers. Hearts on the sleeves. Girls in a puddle all the way from age 12 to 17. Boys don’t usually cry; they punch things or shut down their entire communication centers. Girls talk out the feelings and sob through the Kleenex box. When boys do cry, it’s hella serious. It’s a hurricane. Batten down the hatches.
We pat teens on the head and think, “D’awwww.” And we nod, knowing that Life Is Hard Sometimes and that This Too Shall Pass and Time Heals All Wounds. We smirk a little, because it’s not so cool in adult world to feel like that: all emotional and unbalanced and unaware of What Really Matters.
I guess it goes without saying that I didn’t realize how much I would learn to feel after I grew up, really grew up. After I learned What Really Matters.
My capacity now, after four decades of life, to process both emotionally as well as rationally means that ideas can hit me from both a logical and an emotional position of strength- at the same time. You can argue me into your point of view. You can also feel me into it.
I know now that some relationships, some people, some ideas, some tragedies, some joys or sorrows or moments – they are worth the tears because they reach across the brokenness and numbness of broken humanity to touch the deep magic of the world.
Glimpses of Grace.
The old King James language – and Shakespeare’s – for strong emotion uses the word “bowels” as the emotional center. We all snickered as kids. Hehehe. “Bowels.” A bathroom word. Scatological references are always funny when you’re 12.
But really. That’s where the feels are, right? In that lower abdomen, the pit of the stomach, the very center of our core? That’s where I feel it. I’m rarely angry, but when I am, it sits inside my stomach and churns. I’m rarely afraid, but I feel it in my gut when it happens. Sadness may spark tears and a fight for composure but they also trigger something deep on the inside, nowhere near where I could put a finger. Do we even have nerve endings there? How does this work?
I learned emotional control from my mom. She sat still, perfectly still, in public gatherings like at church. Chewing her half piece of gum (always a half! “Don’t chew like a cow,” she’d say before handing me the other half), her mouth barely even moved. Silent. Still. Unmoved. Not cold or frozen or unkind. Just….still.
A little terrified of the consequences of the “meek and quiet spirit” language in 1 Peter that people loved to toss in the direction of females, I spent some time in college studying the phrase in Greek to sort out what it meant. I was quite afraid that God might be condemning my entire personality to hellfire and disobedience, since gender roles were already pretty established within Fundamentalism and they didn’t include women who voiced opinions (or utilized intellectual capacity for work other than motherhood). So I dug in and hoped for a lifeline.
There it was: “quiet” in the Greek means “still, unruffled, unshaken.” It’s like a deep, deep lake with a glassy, undisturbed surface regardless of what churns below. “Meekness” is often defined as “strength under control.” Whew. I wouldn’t have to embark on a weird psychological battle for suppression. I could pursue settledness as a virtue rather than silence (a lost cause anyway).
My mom was onto something perhaps in her stillness. The woman stared down divorce, single parenting, teenage boys, ruthless coworkers, backstabbing bosses, soul-sucking work, loneliness, bill collectors, poverty, and cancer. You don’t beat that shit by crying about it.
It’s probably not healthy, really, this emotional control thing, my white-knuckled insistence that the emotions you get out of me, dammit, will be only positive ones. You can have all the joy you want. You’re not getting to see the others. Not without my psyche putting up a hell of a fight.
This is where you who know me are thinking, “Nah, she’s going off the rails here. RameyLady, you just admitted to crying during superhero movies and weddings. You wear your emotions on your sleeve.”
No, I don’t.
You’ve never been invited to see anything below the top layer.
I’m hard-coded—maybe bred—for emotional control. Despite years of teaching students to act, my own steel walls make acting agonizing and terrifying when I’m the one on stage because acting demands emotional nakedness. And, if we’re being honest, so does marriage and friendship and nurturing community.
Vulnerability. I ditched it sometime in my single digits. I don’t do vulnerable. I never have.
Well, I didn’t. Until my eyeballs turned traitor on me and started tipping my hand without asking permission.
We went to a Lessons & Carols service over the weekend. Lovely service, beautiful music that was well-performed, excellent readings. Packed house.
Somewhere in Isaiah 11, the woman reading the Fourth Lesson broke. It was the part about the lion and the lamb, the radical dismantling of the effects of sin on this world. We’d heard (in words and song) about the fall, the destruction, the effects of sin in humans and creation. I was thinking of Syria, of ancient Israel (how on earth does this passage reconcile with the destruction of the Canaanites, I had wondered briefly before shoving any and all nagging questions out of my mind), of migrants stuck in fetid refugee camps while I drink Starbucks. And the woman’s voice cracked. She stopped. She fought back the tears for many seconds before she could go on.
I broke too. I need to break. I needed to weep. (I didn’t. I swallowed hard, dabbed my eye, avoided the mascara, sat so still between my husband and the nice grandmother beside me cradling a grandchild.)
There is a Day coming when we will not sob because of cancer, the deaths of teenagers, wars, mass shootings, suicide, or systemic injustice. But that day is not yet here. And despite the harsh realities of our world and the nagging doubts and the unanswerable questions that rage inside, we regularly see Love doing its work.
I guess that’s probably worth a few tears. Maybe even ones I should let you see.
*One of my favorite tiny details in Fellowship of the Ring is that hobbits don’t “come of age” until they turn 33. We gave and received Hobbit Parties that year with a few exceptionally nerdy friends. Hobbit parties are also extra fun in that the recipient is supposed to give gifts to their friends, rather than receive them. It’s a lovely touch, and I wish more parties were structured that way.