There ought to be aversion therapy for tears; a programme targeted at those people who squirm when faced with someone else’s crying. If controlled exposure to spiders for people with arachnophobia is a proven means of slowly dissolving their fear of eight legs, then surely the same should work for people who are mortified by tears. They should be made sit with a quiet weeper for 30 seconds, then a minute with a committed crier, then two minutes with a wailer, and so on, until the tear-fear has evaporated. What is there to be afraid of? Is this antipathy towards tears generational? Is it (still) something that men in particular find distasteful? This much I know – crying in public remains one of those things (like a fart in room) that makes people blush and search desperately for the nearest exit. Why is this? In Jean Rhys’s, Good Morning, Midnight (my current read), the protagonist, a woman of a certain age, says, ‘I often want to cry. That is the only advantage women have over men – at least they can cry.’ Granted, it was written and is set in 1937, and since then things have changed (a little), but it is still interesting to me that she views being able to cry as an advantage, a strength.
Sometimes I think the sight of someone crying awakens shame in us, some sense of failure that we haven’t managed to keep the conversation on a straight, tearless course. I had a gentle weep last week, in semi-public too, in a shared garden through which people were walking dogs, in which children were playing, where couples on blankets were chatting. None of them noticed. I think outdoor tears are easily passed by, especially those shed (as mine were) on a sunny day, blown dry by a summer breeze. I’ve decided it says a lot about the character of the person who does not flinch in the face of tears, like my friend did that day. She didn’t try to deflect the conversation, or apologise for making me cry by her questions, which sometimes people do – I’m sorry, shouldn’t have asked. She didn’t say this, she just listened to me answering her question as to how my husband had died. She knew there was nothing defective about me crying, she felt no embarrassment on my behalf.
Not that all tears are associated with grief or sorrow. Sometimes the reason one weeps is hard to pin down, the wellspring is hidden deep, inexplicable. I have a friend who gets tearful every time she buckles up on a plane and waits for it to take off; she has no idea why. I heard a story last week of a man who cried at the sight of a clover-laden section of uncut grass; told the lawn owner that the re-wilded part of her garden makes him smile each morning upon drawing his curtains, but that day, it had bought tears to his eyes. Laughter and tears are closer together than we credit. I have moved from one to the other seamlessly, which can feel like a delightful form of madness.
Laughter is the best medicine, yes, yes, but I find sad films as medicinal as comedic ones, and my chosen partner for watching a ‘weepie’ is my niece. The last one we watched together was Atonement, viewed in segments, the way you peel an orange and eat pieces of it at a time, that’s how we watched it. In between segments, I would work, she would study, and after we had eaten the last segment of the film and I had bawled my eyes out, I grabbed a hankie, blew my nose, then summoned her back to studying the poetry of Edwin Morgan. She’s used to my crying, doesn’t bat an eyelid, but she did try to prolong it that day, simply as a ruse to avoid the books. ‘We can’t possibly work with all this emotion coursing through us!’ Oh yes we can. Oh yes we did. The kitchen table English Literature grinds worked a trick, by the way; results came out this week and she did very well. I was with her mother when the grades came through, and she shed a little tear. I’d just emerged from a vaccination centre having had my second jab, only to find mum in the car dabbing her eyes: joy, relief, pride, thanks. And vaccinations – they’ve proved tearful for many this year, the post-vaccination high provoking tears of relief, of gratitude, of loss, of sadness for those who didn’t live to receive it. Then there is music, which can wring anyone out faster than Mrs Hinch with a dishcloth and a basin of soapy water. I used to run a singing group and, oddly enough, it wasn’t the likes of Roy Orbison’s, ‘Crying Over You’ that made people cry, it was things like Labi Siffre’s, ‘Something Inside So Strong’, and old tunes like ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square’. Sweet tears, soft pain.
I remember sitting at home with my dad on a Sunday night in August 2012 watching Jessica Ennis win the heptathlon gold at the London Olympics. It wasn’t a dead cert for her to win, but it was as good as. There she is at the starting line for the last event, the 800 metres. She doesn’t even need to get close to her personal best, a good run out will be enough. Unless – and this is possible – the two women sitting in second and third place smash their own PBs (by some margin). So, although we want her to finish first in this, her last race, we know that first place isn’t necessary to take gold – it is all down a decent time. She goes out hard, leads for the first lap, and we think maybe it’s going to be a fairy-tale ending after all with her crossing the line first. Then, on the bell, two of the contenders for gold pass her. It doesn’t matter, her time is good, we content ourselves with her not winning this battle but winning the war. But then she changes the ending, finds another gear, stretches her legs, speeds up like a rocket-propelled sprite down the home straight. For last two hundred metres, Jess pulls clear away, and even though we are sitting at home, curtains drawn so the late evening sun doesn’t dazzle the screen, it feels like we are there, part of the roaring thousands sharing this incredible, joyous, triumphant moment with her. She crosses the line, rippling arms stretched wide and that radiant face showing – initially – relief, then breaking into a huge, exultant smile, impossible to see it and not smile back. And I remember my dad laughing and laughing with happiness for her until he cried with joy for her too. And I loved him for crying and not giving a shit that he was crying. How could we not love her? So relatable, so modest, her ordinary Sheffield accent and her extraordinary dedication and graft and hard slog, all paying off so that everyone could be lifted, raised and poured by her achievement. And I think that’s why we cry: we are either elevated or levelled, we see ourselves in other people’s triumphs and losses, we recognise our power, we see what we are capable of – for good and for bad – what we can achieve, overcome.
Yesterday I was tracing out my thoughts about crying, connecting the dots as I walked, as is my way, when I passed by the Royal Mile Primary School at the bottom of Edinburgh’s historic Cannongate. It was close to noon and a crowd had gathered by the school gates. On the opposite side of the road from the school – my side – by the pedestrian crossing, stood a piper in full regalia: kilt and sporran and piper’s dirk, a long plaid of blackwatch swung over his shoulder and white spats over his boots. I stopped. We could hear the children from inside before we could see them, the growing noise, the chattering swell of excitement rolling down the stairs. Then out from the side door, from the warm old stone into the June air, came the primary sevens on their last ever day before moving to secondary in September. Miniature graduates moving on in the world, pouring into the yard like they had done since the school was built in1886. The piper stuck up a march, and the street rang with lilt of The Atholl Highlander, and the wee boys and girls hugged and laughed and danced as their mums and dads stood watching, and surely more than one of them had a tear in their eye, because I might have.