If you’ve never cried while reading a book or watching a movie, this essay isn’t for you. There are only three times I remember out and out weeping in response to either: As a child on the roof of my mother’s house, in my wife’s and my first apartment, and this December, alone at the kitchen table while my wife and our three-month-old daughter slept. Each time I was surprised by the tears, and each time I welcomed them as some cleansing phenomena. I’m not talking about welling up. I put the books in question down and buried my head or stopped the movie so I could go hide in the bathroom. I was knocked off my tracks, interrupted, more than moved.
At their very best, such instances capture part of what T.S. Eliot called the “moment in and out of time.” Most people, in my experience, like to talk about the latter, the way reading transports you or how movies melt away the daily grind. But crying while you read a book or watch a movie is very much in time, an experience that is physically immediate and which necessarily reflects the context of your life during which that moment hits. What’s more, the work in question becomes tied to a time, to a period or even a day of your life that will resonate through the work on any subsequent revisit. For me, there are three art-instances that struck water, one in adolescence, another in my early marriage, and again this last year, which saw the birth of our first child, and the loss of my wife’s first pregnancy. I wish I had a fancier argument to attach to these stories. They’re three modest tales, and all of them embarrass me.
My best friend at the end of grade school was named Skyler, and when we got together any afternoon or weekend, worlds were born. He had a definitive birthmark on his cheek, beautiful eyes, and elfin features. We lived in houses on the opposite side of a small neighborhood that were the exact same build. His yard was bigger. My basement was finished. Competition was mostly friendly, though I once shoved his head into a brick wall and was called into the principal’s office. An accident, of course. I didn’t realize the wall was so close. His blood terrified me.
Originally from Idaho, his parents threatened to move back home from almost the first summer I met Skyler. Threatened me personally, I felt. They brought it up with amazing indiscretion. Sitting at dinner with them, watching their TV, shadowing every step of their lives, I wondered if they realized that discussing the desire to leave so openly was, ahem, rude. They were going to ruin my life, and that just didn’t seem to be much of a factor. When Skyler’s dad almost got a job in Amarillo, Texas, they brought me along with Skyler and his sister for a weekend road-trip to get the lay of the land. “Three kids, huh?” everyone in Texas said. They simply nodded, unbothered to have me on a one-way, seven-hour car ride that almost, to my mind, ruined their lives. We were from Colorado. The endless flat of the horizon unnerved us.
This was the emotional atmosphere in which I read Where the Red Fern Grows the summer after fifth grade. Skyler hounded me to read the book, obsessed with the story’s two dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, animals he projected onto his own mutts, Copper and Bear. Every summer, I camped in something like the Oklahoma Ozarks, where the book takes place, and encountered gummy elders who still noodled for catfish, who probably coon-hunted themselves. I saw my own grandfather set trot-lines and listened with reverence to his stories of angling audacity. Read the book? The book read me. Skyler felt the same, and liked to list the ways in which Little Ann explained Copper, or how Old Dan was as loyal as Bear.
When I was close to finishing, I climbed out my second-story window to the roof of my mother’s house. I sometimes read there. Summer evening, a bright sun, warm weather, and I sped through the story’s denouement, the mountain-lion chase that ends Old Dan’s life, and eventually Little Ann’s, too, from grief. I couldn’t believe the dogs died, and maybe my reaction was some sort of Margarét moment, crying in the setting light for my own mortality.
But what happens at the end of the book is not simply a confrontation with untimely death. The narrator must face his sudden aloneness, the fragility of his child’s community. He peers at the doghouse in the moonlight, and notes how “lonely” it looks, how he often “had lain in…bed and listened to the squeaking of the [doghouse] door.” There is a terrible isolation in growing older, when you realize the easiness of being-in-the-world, of being content with others, is going to fade because you will change, they will change, or their parents will move them to Idaho. Idaho, uh, being the universal dumping ground for everyone’s childhood friend. Skyler moved there when I was 12. He was a world-class buddy, and I was the boy left behind. That’s not some easy life lesson, but rather the source of quivering I feel every time I think of the book. It’s a happy thought, now. The book is better because of it.
I wish the second story revolved around some other tome, but this list doesn’t comprise my favorite works. I’d never hold them up as exemplary of my taste. Oh, well. In my third year of marriage I read A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, and I will only read it again when I have a weekend to myself sometime in my 50s, a useful amount of scotch, and enough tissues to survive the experience.
Let me set up the moment in time: my wife and I married young (23), and we both finished grad school during the first and second year of our new life together. Facing our third Christmas, we were in new jobs, I was listless and anxious about being a university office drone, and the way forward was suddenly a little murky. Our syllabi life was now without 16-week outlines. For years, my mom had suggested that I read A Severe Mercy, a true story about a guy who knew C.S. Lewis and whose wife died young. Spoiler: the wife in fact does die young, it’s heartbreaking, and the book is essentially a grief-stricken reconciliation with how so meaningless an event might have more meaning than it first appeared. I know! The entire situation is worryingly emotional, possibly cheap.
But I kept reading because I grew up on C.S. Lewis and attended Oxford for a year, and the book had a vein of Oxford life I’d always wanted and half-experienced, and because I recognized in the love story of Vanauken and his wife, Davy, so much of what I desired. They were absolute romantics, promising not only never to marry if the other died, but to go to sea and die themselves. They were atheists, too, and the story of their love slowly becomes a revelation of their conversion, an almost Wauvian progression of romantic love giving way to ultimate, spiritual love. Stuck in an admissions desk job, swaybacked professionally by my master’s in literature, I vibrated at this literary return to Oxford.
What crept on me, however, was the slow realization of something I thought I knew, but was only now appreciating. My relationship with my wife was the great adventure of adulthood, and needed to take the place of adolescent dreams. The romantic hopes of childhood, of living with an intensity of purpose, were most possible in the very different romance of my marriage. The quotidian as heroic is a little overstating the situation, maybe, but that was about the gist. Commitment, sacrifice, excitement, all features of healthy intimacy. And yet we weren’t (and aren’t) some heart-burned couple canoodling over poetry by the fire. We don’t live every moment planning the next backpacking adventure. She’s a reader, and has become the best reader of my work to date, but at that point in time our great overlap of interest was that we liked each other. Sometimes we went skiing.
Well, Davy dies, and Vanauken writes to Lewis and they discuss the possibility of ghosts during grieving, of there being a special presence for the mourning period that isn’t simply emotion, but is some Christ-like grace that we receive. Christ (you know, your mileage might vary on this) hung around after his death, appearing first to those who loved him. It made sense, they told each other. It hurt beyond bearing, and my own death-pact, that essential vow of marriage, became vivid. Our intention to part only at dying and the great goodness, the great grief all of this might mean fell on my stupid, mid-20s heart. Of course I cried. The best-case scenario was to have a romance that’d haunt me. Or maybe it was to die first.
My wife read the book and did not cry, for the record. She decided she’d pick the next book, and I decided that literary experience will always trump one’s pretensions about literary quality.
At the end of 2016, my wife told me she was pregnant by handing me a note. We still have the note. We have what I wrote in response, my clumsy, bursting enthusiasm. I’m a depressingly simple human at times of great feeling. We have subsequent journal entries, too, which trace my wife’s discovery of miscarriage, and the final goodbyes both of us wrote to a person we wouldn’t get to meet. We both felt tricked, as if a promise had been made and rescinded, and we both feared that maybe something was wrong, that perhaps a second chance might not come around.
Before we knew we were pregnant, a good friend from college texted me and told me she was sure we were. I had a similar premonition before my wife spilled the news, and before her period abstained for long enough to suspect anything with credibility, my wife felt sure the process was underway. We were probably reading physical signs without knowing, sensing and reacting and intuiting. Except my friend. She was in Ethiopia and the text was without precipitant. Nonsense or otherwise, there was an abundance of forward-looking that preempted the event, and once my wife handed me the announcement, our inner lives went even farther. I’d always thought we’d have a daughter first, and we knew the name we hoped to use immediately.
The night she started to bleed, but before we knew what was taking place, we went to dinner and a movie with some friends. The movie was Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Amy Adams’s character learns a language that changes her perception of time and begins to see her daughter’s life and inevitable death before her daughter is born. She looks ahead, quite literally, and mourns her child before her child is even living. The resonance of our pain with the film was almost laughably parallel. I’d pictured a daughter, and felt grief without knowing her. My wife, the same. And, I guess, also Amy Adams? We avoided the film in any form thereafter, despite enjoying it, and my wife will always avoid it, I think. But this December, a year after the whole sad experience, I couldn’t help myself.
I started the movie and skipped right to the heartbreaking moments, to Amy Adams’s character realizing that she has yet to meet the daughter she grieves in flashes. Someone else is welcome to explain my decision to me. I can only say I acted on instinct, and then fell apart. There was no breakthrough, no insight into life’s coming trials or a neat reflection the stages of aging. Instead, a memorial played across the screen for someone I didn’t get to bury. Our three-month-old daughter, conceived quickly after the miscarriage, was in the other room. Not some daughter we’d imagined, but one who we couldn’t, one too specific to grok with even prophetic foresight. Sobbing, I feared waking the baby, felt immense gratitude that she was born, and turned off the screen.
Art has the power to warp and relieve daily life, but I also believe that art isn’t reducible to a few therapeutic instances, no matter how useful the unloosening. A good poem isn’t good because it was read many times at many funerals. That simply means a poem attended some ceremonies. Art’s value, if we’re wise, will never be commensurate with its utility.
So where does that leave my above emoting? While fiction and movies offer pleasurable reprieves, I sometimes get the same kind of jolt from a good airline magazine, or lunch. People cry at commercials all the time. As such, a book’s use in my life says only so much about whether it is in fact an interesting art project or even whether it’d be a welcome addition to your life. But as a reader, I’m fundamentally left not with a bunch of premises, but with several anecdotes about when a story anticipated my epiphanies, reflected my numb-nuttery, or broadened my sense of wonder. Every now and then, we should try and let them speak for themselves.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
This Is Not a Defense of the Power of Art