(or Music For Tears)
I admit it:
I have always been a weeper.
My grandma used to say my eyes were too close to my bladder
(which is hard to picture).
She herself was rather weepy, and for good reason, being an epileptic with a scarred lip (thrown from a horse when a child). A lonely woman in a rooming house in Toronto, she would journey north to connect with her son and grandkids but end up fighting with Mom and leave, weeping, on the bus to Hogtown.
The reasons for my weepage varied. Once, when a child, I looked at a drop of pond water under a microscope and saw that it was full of life. When I subsequently saw the pond iced over I thought of all the lives frozen in that ice and teared up a bit.
And I wept when the old man strapped me in the woodshed with his double-stranded razor strap. I would stand with arms raised and he would whip my body until I started to sob. Then he would reassure me that it hurt him more than me.
Mom never showed her tears. When she was a girl, she and her sisters would switch each other with willow wands to teach themselves not to weep or cry out. So she kept her tears inside and focused on the care of others. At the end I found her working in her bible with a pen. She said she was underlining every instance she could find of the phrase ‘loving kindness’.
My father only wept when he laughed too hard. But his main mode of emotional expression was rage.
His pa abandoned him and his mom to live on welfare in Winnipeg, in the thirties. At age 15 he rode the rails to Ontario, slept in hobo camps and worked as a day labourer, a wandering tough guy in Ontario, where he lived until he met my mom.
When my first lover ditched me I begged her, weeping, to change her mind. For a long time after I would imagine that I saw her on the street only to realize that it was someone else. I dropped out of school and became a lonely pilgrim. Then the psychedelic wave washed me through a sequence of hippie scenes and left me destitute, weeping openly, indifferent to the passersby, on the streets of Vancouver.
I wept a lot after Mom died. One time, stoned, I found myself gazing at a photo of her. Suddenly her image began to shimmer and dance. I held my breath until I realized that her movement was caused by tear mist evaporating from my glasses.
The term ‘weepage’ was coined by a fellow tree planter. When I told him that I had spent most of the day on the rainy mountain singing, howling and weeping, he said ‘Ah weepage.‘ Listening to the wolves sing around our camp at night cheered me up a bit.
Up till ‘85 or so I had only wept for myself but that year I found myself sitting by a tub in which a sick friend was trying to comfort herself and I started to cry with her. She was annoyed, but I think touched. At that moment I realized that I needed to be a true friend to someone, to her in fact, if I was ever going to become something more than a cold, lonely observer.
Sometimes tears take me by surprise, like (as my sailor brother once said) a line squall. I often think about the day I left Korea, where I had lived for five months with a small Korean family as an English tutor. On the way to the airport with the father I realized that I would probably never see them again and (to my keen embarrassment) I wept helplessly the whole way.
In spite of the sorrows of my youth I never contemplated suicide. As my old man liked to say, it’s a long road that has no turning. I knew that if I lived long enough something good would come to me. And it did. They did. She did.
But now I have something else to cry about: the realization that the one I love will someday die and the even worse realization that I may die first and leave her to go on alone without me. Just writing this brings tears. But they feel very good because they tell me that I am truly alive.
At an early age I learned that boys don’t cry and in order to avoid tears I learned to shut down the feelings that would ignite them. I became watchful of my dangerous heart and learned to distract myself with critical thoughts toward my father which led to a critique of authority in general and a quest to discover why we human beings allow ourselves to be ruled by men who are themselves ruled by anger and fear. Eventually I became a kind of cool, philosophical zenist, scornful of those who allow themselves to be ruled by their savage hearts and failing to see that mind is what matters.
But writing in my solitary rooms I usually play music in the background and I discovered that music could often unlock a deep well of unacknowledged sadness and love, bringing a light that revealed the still living heart of a wounded child. Finally I learned to let my heart child weep and rise from the darkness and walk openly in the world. Finally I came to understand that he is the best part of me, as important to my wholeness as my rational, analytical mind. But there are still times when that mind, with its incessant judgement of myself and others, drags me away from my heart into a cold, dry place. Then I need music to bring me to my senses and wash my eyes clear.
At this moment I am listening to Schubert’s Quintet in C, the second, Adagio movement. Written in the last weeks of his life, this is possibly the most beautiful love poem in the language of music, a poem without words but to my ears a song of deep and delicate love and the deep sadness that attends it because of the understanding that love is always enmeshed in confusion and mortality. The adagio is accented by a series of string picks that feel like teardrops falling, drop by shining drop, upon my heart. The best recording I’ve yet found is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtZgIKZ_jrw If you want to skip the talk by Joel Krosnick you have to move the cursor to about the eight minute mark and wait for it to load, but it’s well worth the wait.
Another piece that moves me is Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34mNg12vg6Q
Here is what one war veteran said online, about hearing it used in the film Platoon:
I wasn’t in Viet Nam, I have been elsewhere. Still I can share those feelings when I‘m watching that movie. Did You recognise how music became more loud and people talk less and less all the time. That’s how it goes. When time goes, You don’t talk to another… and You feel if someone is watching You. Couple of second staring and they turn their head.
The real fight starts when You come back. World has change forever… It feels like You watching it threw window. You are outsider. Every day work feels pointless. If You are lucky You don’t see dreams during night. If You see, they all nightmare. And no one can imagine how does it feel to wake when You hear someone breething to You ear, and You are alone. Or how does it feel when You hear scratches and see shadows.
Music like this give power to believe goodness of people. It tell there can grow beauty from endless suffer, total disaster and after un-human behaviour. Love will win allways.
To me music like this gives a peace. …give me my tears…
Another piece I use (sparingly) is Jesus’ Love Never Failed Me Yet, a duet by Tom Waits where he accompanies the recorded voice of a London street tramp who simply sings:
Jesus’ love never failed me yet,
Never failed me yet, never failed me yet.
Just one thing I know that he loves me so,
Jesus love never failed me yet.
The man sings in quavering voice of absolute childlike innocence. When Waits first played the tape for his studio sound technicians he saw that they were soon reduced to silence and tears. You can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMZVZ5NBkpw
Other songs that come to mind: Allison Krause singing As I Went Down In The River To Pray. That song was beautifully used in the film Oh Brother Where Art Thou in a scene that shows all the simple hearted baptists walking thru summer trees down to the river.
and: Softly And Tenderly Jesus Is Calling, Cynthia Clawson, vocalist. Music from the beginning and closing of the movie Trip To Bountiful (1985)
Winter Solstice can be a hard time for many of us, especially those who spend it alone. This is obviously why so many cultures bring on the light, feasting and general jolliness. I wish you all the joy and warmth the season may afford but if all else fails you might just try some of this musical medicine
and have a good cry.
Three of the above pieces are nominally Christian but I don’t identify with any named religion. There is a widespread religion of the heart, that has no name. It’s practised by people of all religions and none. Though it has no name it does have gods and goddesses: of love, wisdom, science, music, art and poetry. My personal favorite of those deities is the one I glimpse in the song Down In The River To Pray. The refrain goes
As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good lord show me the way.
I have my thoughts about that good old way
which may well differ from yours but
my solstice wish in this dark time is
that you too will return
to the river and the child
who stands within your heart
robed in radiance and crowned with stars
and may that child indeed show you the way.