Crying in public does not in fact require a license, though it’s nice to have one to show the naysayers, if they turn up. Crying in public is like getting to be the egg in its shell, and the running white and yolk, all at once. Crying in public undoes the teaching that being as you are is not what you owe the world. Crying in public lets your bodily fluids run free – something this whole civilization has been set up to prevent. So if it seems daunting, you’re right.
Children used to cry in public with abandon, but I don’t see that so much anymore. Now, children are in huge strollers, eyes glued to screens. Or eyes glazed over, while their parents’ eyes are glued to screens. Screens are there to suck the tears out of us. They are hyper-absorbent energy-suckers, and all the tears have disappeared into games, apps, facebook, porn, and productivity.
I was standing in line at the post office yesterday, behind a man in a yellow coat, who started singing loudly to himself, to ward off anxiety. Then I looked up: all the advertising images bolted to the wall above the service counters were of people beaming at their screens. Their tears were being absorbed by the USPS’s new Super Predictability App. They were so happy! No wonder the man in the yellow coat was anxiety-singing: he was there to mail his almost-late taxes, and he didn’t even have a phone to dry his tears. As for me, I felt a little stupid: who goes out into the world with two boisterous monsters, mails a package to a friend, and stops by the library, all without a screen to prevent crying in public? Some people are just so thoughtless.
Crying in public is not what Sheryl Sandberg recommends, in her book, Option B. I’m only on the first CD – the first few minutes of the first CD – and I can tell that wild weeping at the post office is not the option she will be in favor of. She has already told the story of not crying at a school parents’ night, and the story of not crying at a birthday party. That is already a couple of oceans’ worth, and I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a lot more unwept tears before I either give up on the project of listening, or reach the end.
What happens to the tears the screens suck up? They get turned into shiny things that ruin the forests and hills, either quickly, or insidiously. They’ve become a reservoir that someone’s going to have to cry, one of these days. They get funneled back into the oceans, whose levels rise, whose acidity goes up. The uncried-in-public-tears become a chain of massive hurricanes spinning up across the world, one after another, as if to say, Do you not see? Go ahead and cry the fucking tears. Please, please do not hold on to the story that you must Compose Yourself before buying bagels, or going to the doctor, or answering the question of How You Are.
What’s “in public,” anyway? Is it being in the presence of yourself? Sometimes, that is very hard. Is it one other person, besides you? I have a friend whose tears look like racking hiccups, or chopping, hacking laughter, but never run to water. Those are tears not cried in public, over and over. Is “in public” the face we show our families? I have a vivid, terrifying memory of my father breaking down in tears, in a diner near the Cloisters Museum in New York. My mother, brother, and I had no idea what to do with this. For so long, he’d been the source of my private tears, my tears at the dinner table, my tears cried with friends – and now, this? My mother, brother, and I went on eating French fries. We froze him out. There was nowhere for his crying in public to land, and so he just paid for lunch, and then we went back underground for the long subway ride I insisted on instead of a cab. My mother may have asked, What’s wrong? – but that’s really just another way of saying, Please stop.
There are so many ways of saying, Please stop, and blocking any crying in public that might arise around us. One is: You are damaged and strange, and your weeping is nothing to do with us. Please go away. Please stop. This happens a lot, around those who allow tears to leak out, the ones whose access to the ocean is momentarily or permanently opened up.
This community is fine: you are strange and damaged, and the stories you have to tell about the wrongs you suffered are nothing to do with us. Why dig up old harms? Keep your emotions to yourself. Don’t come to us with your crying in public. We have a good thing going here, and we don’t need your bad attitude. Get on board, or else fuck off. There’s one way to do this, and your crying in public isn’t it.
I remember being at a party, the Fall after my friend came back to school from a year of helping her father die of AIDS, which was also the Fall after my uncle died of leukemia. It was a standard party: a room in the front, with food; a kitchen, with booze; and a bedroom, with people’s coats and bags. My friend and I wound up on the bed together, weeping wildly. Why not? She’d just lost her father, and I had just lost a man who’d taken care of my heart. We just went for it: big, racking, beery sobs. But no! This was – even in a back bedroom – not allowed. You don’t cry at a party – or at least not unless it’s your party and you’re being adorable about it. We were not adorable – we were keening. We were meeting each other in the ocean of grief, and it was scaring the other children. Our friends gathered round to make us stop. They thought they were helping, but maybe they were just afraid.
What if crying in public were as common as looking into a screen? The argument for this winds up sounding a bit like the one for nursing in public – another transfer of fluids from inside the body to outside, happening right here, where we are singing the alphabet song, or trying to find the vegetarian corn dogs in the freezer case. Why not? Why not, if this will keep the oceans healthy, and allow each of us to reclaim the whales that we are? Why not, if the alternative is a closed system of wars, addictions, and other hells, both more and less visible?
I don’t actually, these days, cry a lot in public. I work through oceans’ worth in meditation practice – literally days on end of tears pouring unobstructed from my eyes to my chest, filling my lap, running out onto the carpet, floating the mat as a raft, out into the unknown. I sit down, I go into the body, the tears flow. Simple, unfussy, profound– the ocean.
I am writing this while a kids’ sing-along is happening in the room next door. You Are My Sunshine. Where is the You Are My Ocean of Tears song? It’s an important one, a Kali kirtan, a song from Teresa of Avila, a keening we’ve maybe lost in the back rooms of parties and the shiny screens we carry with ourselves, everywhere.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.