catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 23 :: 2013.12.13 — 2013.12.26


What’s wrong?

I think it was late afternoon. The edges of the memory glow golden with a setting sun peeking through the windows. I was five years old perhaps, sitting in front of the television on the beige carpeting in the living room of our family’s small house.  On the TV was What’s Happening!!, a sitcom about the zany teen-age exploits of Raj, Rerun and Dwayne.  Having seen my mom cry numerous times over what was happening on television, I decided that, unrelated to the show I was watching, I would try to make myself cry.  Mom broke from her task of cleaning out the pantry in the hallway and came into the living room.  “Kirstin, what’s wrong?”  “Nothing,” I replied, wiping away my tears and feeling foolish about my experiment.

Children learn by imitation, and on that day, I was trying out the gesture, but without the emotion.  I’m not sure where or when I absorbed the lesson that I ought to be ashamed of my tears, suppressing the emotion to avoid the gesture, but I can recount many more episodes in my life when I held back, than I can of letting go.  “Cool as a cucumber,” my theatre professor announced in front of the class, as she tried to pull something from me in performance that I still don’t understand.  Of course I had memorized my lines well, and worked out a means of delivering them consistently — wasn’t that what I was supposed to do?

And yet I also remember times of catharsis.  There was the day the principal announced over the loudspeaker that our beloved gym teacher had died after struggling against cancer for many months.  I was not ashamed to cry because nearly all of us had tears in our eyes, children and adults alike.  I thought it was odd that a teacher whom I knew to be one of her best friends didn’t show any signs of crying.  And there was the day, recently married, that I stood next to my husband at the Irish music festival in Chicago and the joy and proficiency of a young band sent tears streaming down my face.  “What’s wrong?”  he asked, echoing my mother’s question from years earlier.  But this time, I had a better answer. “Nothing.  It’s just so beautiful.”

In fact, I cry more often when I’m moved by joy than I do when I’m sad or angry, and perhaps it’s the inevitable question about what’s wrong that makes me want to keep my tears to myself.  Because in that moment, something is very right, and having to apply words to the mystery can make it disappear, like trying to follow a thread of déjà vu.

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