The first time I came back to a dead car battery after my divorce it was raining big messy sploshes of rain-snow or snow-rain. The sky had nothing to offer that day but heavy over-committed snowflakes losing their cool. Splosh, splash and sploosh tried one after another to hold it together but broke apart into water when they hit the windshield.
As soon as I realized my dead car battery was stranding me, I buckled my seat belt and hit my forehead against the steering wheel. My ribs began to shake like the condemned frame of a ball-and-wrecker-wrecked and dynamite-imploded building. A hurricane ripped through my lungs and spat saltwater moans out of my mouth. I stayed there for a while, as if praying, as if studying, as if standing by. I wailed a wailing cry until my forehead was imprinted with the vinyl steering wheel pattern stamped into my skin.
Eventually, my friend Rosa showed up, working the jumper cables like a tow-truck junkie. She laughed and lectured me. The gist of her lecture went like this: “Problem? Solution! Problem? Solution! It’s a really easy formula, Laura. Next time you need to call me first instead of crying in your car for an hour.”
But sometimes a woman just needs to freak out a little.
Sometimes, the nerves, when frayed to death, just have to break down.
Sometimes the interior electricity of the heart is off-kilter. A surge of water and a jolt or two can reset the fuses, somehow.
Martha Graham gets this.
Alvin Ailey gets this.
There is a wail and a lament to music, to dance, to poetry, and to the blues. But I wonder how many times we really lean into a freak-out, a meltdown, a nervous breakdown and just do the damn thing with style?
This is a bit of a cultural trespass for me. Of 100% Norwegian Northern Minnesota stock, I come from a long line of stoics – from the Viking women who held down farms alone, to a church-full of fidgetless children listening to long sermons in cold Lutheran prayer houses. My grandfather was a preacher, and cracking a line in my face during the sermon or even so much as letting my saddleshoes circle-chase each other as they dangled from the pew would get me a stern and appropriately stoic: “no fidgeting!” warning.
Among the old Norwegians, crying was a luxury we simply did not have time for. When people died, a mourning Norwegian might spit in a Norwegian brogue: “I never liked death. I don’t agree with it.” Or a Norwegian might slip out the back door on skis and be found the next Spring, frozen under snow.
Mourning rarely included busting open and crying, or “freaking out.” Stoicism was seen as a sort of self-effacing politeness, as if to say: “Don’t bother about me. I’ll be okay.” And in the Northern Minnesotan skyline of white snow against big white sky, a crack in the face was as hard to find as the horizon line in a blizzard.
Northern farmers can’t afford for people or vehicles to break down. My great uncle, at my grandmother’s funeral, strode into the funeral on legs like windmill blades. He took off his hat, looked at the body, turned on his heel and said: “I’ve got to get to Grand Forks by noon. There’s a farm shipment coming in.” And then he was gone. He had paid his respects and not bothered anybody, so his mourning time was done.
Sometimes breaking down and crying is the goal, or should be. As David Bowie sings, “isn’t there just one damn song that can make me break down and cry?” Or as Blind Faith put it, I just “had to cry today.”
Luckily, my mother understood this. She’d swing her long black Crystal Gale hair to one side and begin plunking out “It’s okay to cry” on the old brown upright piano for me whenever I cried as a child.
It was a cultural transgression made possible by the 1970s hippie song book, “Free to Be You and Me.”
And so then I would cry.
And I liked it.