The Gift of Tears

At the San Jose airport, thanks to another $6.95 to connect to the Internet and a long cry back in the hotel room with my amazing roommate, I seem to be sane again. Script of the storm after I finished writing my last post: sign-off, think, "Oh, I seem to be feeling a little better even though the end of that post was somewhat depressing, maybe it helps just not to pretend that I'm going to be able to fix things by thinking about them," get in shower and start crying again. Come out of shower and start flinging clothes around the hotel room in a semblance of trying to pack, collapse into tears and self-recriminations for the next, oh, 45 minutes; no, make than an hour. Amazing roommate waits it out (bless her, she did not sign up for this when she agreed to share a room with me; should I have warned her?), and then, when I try to apologize for crying, says, "This is part of it. You need to grieve." And perhaps she was right. I've spent my whole life being embarrassed of crying and being angry with myself, shamed by the tantrums I had as a child and convinced that I would eventually "grow out of it" and no longer need to cry. Ridiculous, I know, but I spend more energy than I can describe trying to find ways to prevent the tears. Even this blog is really an effort at self-management (as it says in the sub-title, I'm in process here, not an expert by any means, just a young fencing bear, maybe even still a cub), a desperate bid for control by way of public self-reflection. The last two posts should demonstrate how effective that is: the storm hit anyway.

So what does it mean that I needed to cry? Could I have prevented it? Should I even try? Perhaps predictably, I'd been thinking for some time about doing a post with this title, perhaps offering a reflection on Psalm 42:3, but there the tears seem to be something that one would not be ashamed of, if not actually welcome, the tears of thirsting for God. Do I feel with the psalmist that God, my Rock, has forgotten me or that my enemies oppress me? Not really; not at all, in fact. My tears are the tears of an angry child, wanting something that does not seem to be available, no matter how hard I work for it. But they are also the tears of surrender, indeed, of grief, as my roommate said, of having to let go of a possible present that is now lost. Of course, the tears were intense. I have been working very hard at my fencing this past year; I have invested a great deal of my self and my self-perception in learning to fence. To pretend that any outcome regardless of how I had prepared would be equally welcome is crazy; it mattered to me that I fence well yesterday, and I didn't, at least, not as well as I had hoped I might be able to given all of the practice that I've done. Not to cry would have made as little sense as crying seems to, given how overwhelming it feels.

But, perhaps, this, after all, is precisely the point. I knew before yesterday that I was running the risk of feeling like I did after the event; as I've said, I've been here before. And yet, I still registered for the competition and brought myself here. Am I weak for giving in to the tears--or strong for being willing to lay myself open to the possibility of losing not only my bouts, but also my self-control? It's strange how we often, in our present culture at least, see tears as a sign of weakness, when, in fact, they may be a sign not of childishness, but of courage. I would not have been crying this morning if I never came to the tournament (at least, not about losing my three pool bouts and D-E yesterday), but would that mean I was in fact stronger or more mature? Perhaps it would be better if I were able to adjust my expectations, be happier with more realistic goals (simply making the cut to get into the D-Es, winning at least one of my pool bouts), but the fact of the matter is, my goals were realistic: I wanted to win my first D-E in an event in which I have done that once before (at a Combined Veterans fifteen months ago). To be sure, seeing someone with less experience than I get so far in the event makes me envious, but the thing that I am actually angry about is not her success, but my failure to maintain my focus as I’ve been practicing these past several months, ever since the big tournament in March when I found, much to my delight, that, indeed, I was different on the strip than I remembered from the previous year. Yes, I was afraid yesterday—afraid of failing, afraid not to measure up to my own hopes, afraid others would do better than I for reasons I could not understand—and so I cried this morning because I gave in, in part at least, to my fears and so did not fence as well as I could. But, on another level, I was also extremely brave because, afraid as I was of failing, I still put myself on the line and risked the very outcome about which I was so anxious.

This, it seems, is the real reason I fence; indeed, the reason that I have to fence. It is, likewise, the reason that the tears that I shed yesterday and this morning were a gift, not (although self-punishing) a punishment. They are the obverse of the thing that is most precious to me, my ability to plan for and control the circumstances of my life. Which, of course, I can’t, not ultimately, no matter how many lists I make or lectures I plan. When, after all, do I cry? My mother knows the answer to this one: when my toys fall over and I cannot make them do what I want, but then, they wouldn’t do anything if I didn’t try to make them do more than I had previously. This holds for writing as well. I used to think that I could learn to write without going through the barrier of tears, or so I thought of them. Now, I realize that I am only writing what I really mean when I let the tears come, for as long as I fight them—with outlines, notes, carefully constructed opening paragraphs, ever so careful efforts to avoid risking saying something that might not be right—I am, in effect, hiding. Real writing only happens naked. Do you sense a theme here? When I was finishing my first book, I happened across a publicity photo for a production of Hamlet at one of our local theaters. The actor who was portraying the Prince was crouching on stage, entirely naked, his face as anguished, indeed, tearful as his body was bare. I realized, as soon as I saw it, that this was what I would have to do in order to say what I wanted—needed—to say about devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary and that as long as I tried to keep my clothes on (metaphorically speaking) I would be deceiving myself and my readers. Okay, perhaps not exactly deceiving, but somehow avoiding the truth, pretending that I thought one thing in order to protect myself against embarrassment or possible disagreement from my audience. Likewise, when I step on the strip now, I can feel myself wanting to clutch my clothes around me, lest I expose myself somehow, when the only way I am going to be able to fence as I really can is to let go and risk losing control. This is what my coach-friend has been telling me and I do know what he means. It’s just that it still takes tears to get me there.

Do I say, “still”? Perhaps it always will. Perhaps tears are not a sign of failure, but of release, a signal that one has, in fact, finally surrendered and thus opened oneself to the possibility of change. Although I do not tend to cry as much as I used to before starting to write, the tears still often come after the fact, when I have finally allowed myself to say what I have been most reluctant to say. I am not entirely sure what the analogue in fencing is, except that I feel the difference in my focus and in my attacks. Perhaps one could say that I am trying to fence with my head, when what I should be doing is fencing with my heart. My husband asked me yesterday, as I cried with him over the phone, what I would tell my students if they came to me with the same questions about learning to write as I posed to my coach-friend about learning to fence. I do not believe that learning to fence or to write is ultimately about innate talent (if there is such a thing), but nor is it solely about hard work, although it is that. No matter how hard one works, there is always something else—that secret I was complaining about this morning that “everyone else” seems to have—that, paradoxically, hard work seems to suppress; rather, the harder one works, the more elusive it seems to become. Perhaps because, of course, one hopes, by hard work, to guarantee it when that is the one thing one cannot do. And yet, of course, hard work is the only thing that makes those moments of release (“Just do it”) possible in the first place; no one ever learned to fence simply by picking up a foil and waving it around. What do I tell my students when, skilled as they are at forming sentences or paraphrasing others’ arguments, they cannot seem to learn to write? Well: “Write what you most want to say.” To argue, one must have an argument; nobody wants to read anything that you write just to write; you must be passionate about what it is you are trying to convey. In other words, trite as they are: “Be yourself.” What would this mean in fencing? How would discovering myself as a fencer mean that I would finally be able to fence, when, after all, what I seem to be is what I am now, too afraid to do anything not in my control?

As usual, it has taken me somewhat longer to write this post than I anticipated (I’m on the plane now from Denver to Chicago), and some of the initial insight that I started with has begun to fade. I remember how I felt for the first hours after the tear-storm had subsided: washed clean, somehow, both of anger and fear; but both are now beginning to return and I wonder what that means. Every time such a storm hits, I hope very much that it will be the last; that next time, I will be able to avoid it, and yet, it seems, the very actions I take seem only to postpone it until it breaks over me like the thundercloud that it is. If I could go online now, up here above the clouds, I would be rereading Psalm 42 and wondering, yet again, what it means to make tears one’s bread day and night. If only I could surrender utterly to God, perhaps I would not have to endure such a diet so regularly; and yet, it is only when I cry that I am able to open myself to the very possibility of surrendering. Otherwise, I am back, as I am now, trying to think my way through to release. Crying cannot be its own antidote, but it seems to be its only cure. Perhaps if I welcomed the tears, rather than dreaded them, they would be less likely to come, but the very hope undercuts its premise. Not to cry, I have to be willing to cry; not to lose, I have to be willing to fail. And that, of course, is the secret, as you and I both knew all along.

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