The crying game: Flying into a vulnerable reality

The crying game: Flying into a vulnerable reality

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Miami International Airport. Photo by the author

—Joni Mitchell

I made my way back to the United States last Saturday after the completion of a disorienting spring semester at my university in Bulgaria. The notion of flying internationally unleashed trepidation, but my primal need to be near my ailing mother in Florida was the stronger force. As I walked off the jetway into London’s Heathrow Airport Terminal 2, the vast, empty corridors made my gauges spin. No throngs. No announcements. Nothing. The scene felt confusing and profoundly forlorn.

I followed the signs to passport control. As I rounded the corner, I saw the cavernous room cordoned into the maze travelers are usually inching through. I was the only passenger in the room. It was The Truman Show meets The Twilight Zone.

I wound my way toward the one open desk and stopped midway. I turned in a slow circle to acclimate to the science fiction. Time and place, near and far, large and small—all of it has been upended. Quarantining at home for two months caged me in the center of a city. Teaching online unhooked me from place. An empty Heathrow Airport liquidated what little was left of the internal architecture I had built to knowingly move through the world.

I burst into tears and let them stream down my face.

The passport officer was a woman with a halo of curly hair, large brown eyes and sparkly violet eye shadow that extended up to her eyebrows. She softened with sympathy and edited the officialese out of her voice when she asked, “Are you OK?”

“I will be,” I said. “But I’ll have to cry my way there.”

I cried as she checked my passport. Cried on the airplane that brought me to Miami. Cried when my brother pulled up to the curb to fetch me. Since the pandemic, I have cried watching internet videos of high school choirs, cried when I click “End Meeting” at the finish of my classes. Cried from my Sofia balcony in the evenings when neighbors applaud health care workers.

Crying has been my pandemic salve. I have had baklava and potato chips for breakfast, too much wine for dinner, video chats with sympathetic friends and power walks through empty city streets. Nothing feels as spiritually chiropractic as crying. It is a tiny car wash for my emotional traffic jams of the past few months. And it is, as we all know, the dress code for grief.

The biggest influence on my life has been my mother, who is an anti-crier. She calls crying sentimental (read: weak). As a child, I learned from her that crying as a response to physical pain was OK; crying as a response to emotional pain was not. Points are earned for bucking up and carrying on. Extra points are earned for not feeling the feelings in the first place.

As an adult I have come to see that my mother wasn’t tutoring me about crying per se, but her notion that crying is a signpost of vulnerability, and vulnerability is weakness. As a child I drank that Kool-Aid; as a grown up, I reject this tired, patriarchal definition. I choose instead to subscribe to the ideas of Dr. Brene Brown, a researcher who studies human connection. Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” Vulnerability is what lies beneath my armor, and nothing dissolves armor quite like a global pandemic. And so I cry.

The final class of the semester was on a Thursday. My laptop was a checkerboard of tiny, familiar faces. We decided to make our last meeting festive, so we wore hats. The students took turns presenting their digital magazines. As the class wound down, the emotions leaked out. This had been an extraordinary group of young writers who had made and nourished a community during our three months together. Paradoxically, they had drawn even closer as they dispersed back to their homes and rejoined the class through their laptops.

They reflected on the class. The graduating seniors tossed their hats. They all spoke about their disappointments and sorrow, about their dashed summer plans and their uncertain job futures. Some of them began crying. The class session officially ended, and we said our goodbyes. But we held on, digitally gathered, unwilling to let it be over. We looked at one another in silence, holding the moment.

Then one by one their faces went away.

Originally a flatlander, Laura Kelly is a journalism professor who teaches writing and storytelling at the American University in Bulgaria. She lives in Flagstaff during the summer months and calls the city one of her homes. She uses Mary Oliver’s words as her manifesto: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

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