an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

Crying in the Subway: Personal Indulgences No. 18

Every once in so often, a friend or colleague asks to read the manuscript of a children’s book I’ve written and am trying to place, The (True) Life Story of a Dancing Cat. A number of these readers subsequently report that the story made them cry in the subway. Although I’ve published over two dozen books for young people, this is the only fiction that deals with dancing (my more visible beat). It has been sold three times and each time–talk about bad luck!–catastrophe kept it from being published, though I was allowed to keep the advance twice (some indication, I assume, that the publishing powers find it worthy). Equally relevant, I still believe in this book–it makes people cry in the subway, for goodness sake!–and am still trying to find the right home for it.

Aside: This is how the underground crying comes about: The absurdly busy New Yorker grabs the daily sheaf of mail (yesterday’s, since delivery is chronically late) out of her all too tiny metal mail box as she leaves her all too tiny apartment for duties and adventures in the Great World. She leafs through it rapidly on her walk to the subway, culling the ads and catalogues and depositing them en route in a public trash bin. (I’m told this is illegal.) Then, once entrained, she reads the few pieces she cares about. I like to think that Sylvie (as my story is informally called, after the name of its feline heroine) makes the reader weep–in public, in a hellhole like the New York subway system!–because it conveys the poignancy of a life in dance, with its ecstatic moments, its inevitable heart-breaking ones, and the vision of beauty and intense feeling that fuels a dedicated artist’s unswerving pursuit of her or his trade.

Surely most of you reading this right now are familiar with being reduced (or is it elevated?) to tears by a passage in a ballet–not just once, but every time you see it. One of these, for me, occurs in the wedding scene that closes August Bournonville’s A Folk Tale. Here, after overcoming all sorts of threatening medieval magic, the fresh young lovers are united in a surround of innocence and rose petals, each modestly claiming himself or herself unworthy of the other. The dulcet purity of this scene and its prevailing gentleness are utterly persuasive. No wonder that, even today, Niels W. Gade’s Wedding Waltz from the ballet’s score opens the dancing at Danish marriage celebrations.

The same moving identification may be true for you with bits of poems, novels, and plays. For certain paintings–like Rembrandt’s self-portraits from his spirited youth to the year of his death at 63, when his face seems to have crumbled from decades of piercing evocations of human bodies and souls. For films that go deep. I remember that, years ago in New York, two festivals of films by the incomparably subtle Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu ran simultaneously in New York. People I knew seemed to go to these screenings every day, as I did. When the lights went up at the end of the films, there they were–highbrow artists and intellectuals–unabashedly mopping up the tears streaming down their cheeks.

I believe that these tears have nothing to do with personal sentiment. Yes, they are personal, but they are not sentimental. They are the result of a work of art’s touching your personality, expressing something central to you that you, perhaps, thought hidden or embarrassingly unique, and setting it forth with gorgeous clarity, delicacy, and intensity for all the world to revel in. In a sense your tears are the tears of thankful recognition.

Of course some works will move you beyond the realm of tears–art that makes an unarguable statement, written as it were in stone, to which we must all accede, about the nature of human experience and the architecture of the universe in which it takes place. The Giotto frescos in a small church in Padua, say. Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco and Graham’s Primitive Mysteries. Passages in King Lear that relentlessly increase in intensity as the reader ages. Scenes from the work of the towering nineteenth-century Russian writers–Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov–in response to which one can only bow one’s head and say yes. But that is a subject for another day.

© 2010 Tobi Tobias


  1. Jeff Weinstein says

    Note to prospective publishers: All lachrymose readers will wish to have that damp manuscript in front them, in book form.

  2. Martha Ullman West says

    Personal associations with the arts can also make us cry, or certainly make me cry.
    The sound of Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, played by Emil Gilels in my recording of it, inevitably makes me cry, for it reminds me of my mother, a lesser albeit fine pianist, playing it at dusk in Sag Harbor in the summer, her door open, and passersby stopping a minute to listen.
    The memory of Elena Carter dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation in a wretched production of “The Nutcracker” here in Portland years ago, the delicacy of her points plucking the floor, the warmth of her smile, the generosity of her port de bras. She’s gone now, but I wept when I saw her do it and I’m inclined to do so now as I write.
    Lines of poetry will do it, unexpected ones, such as Edna Millay’s “My candle burns at both ends; / It shall not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — / It gives a lovely light!” is inextricably associated with my godmother’s voice chanting it, because I was out on the town in my Barnard years rather than hitting the books.
    Most recently, a figurine of a child in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and the anonymous artist’s skill in creating innocence and vulnerability in an immobile figure brought tears to my eyes.
    And so yes, TT, they are tears of thankful recognition for the artists who express our humanity and our history, sometimes over a very long time. Thanks for this essay–it’s lovely.

  3. Christopher Caines says

    I read this book in manuscript last year. As a part-time editor who had worked in children’s and “young adult” (teenage) fiction exclusively for seven sometimes tedious years, I thought I was beyond being able to feel much of anything when I read children’s books, which I was heartily sick of. After a day’s work, I wanted nothing but adult facts, and read pretty much nonfiction and poetry only during those years. But my eyes welled up unashamedly when I read “The (True) Life Story of a Dancing Cat”—in the subway. Maybe it’s because, as a dancer, I recognize the story’s truthfulness on every page. Or maybe it’s just because I love cats. . . .

  4. Gary Tucker says

    For some odd reason, pretty much any story with a cat — big or small — will make me cry. (Maybe it’s allergies?) The lions at the very end of “Out of Africa” reduced me to a blubbering mess. Can’t wait for the opportunity to read “The (True) Life Story of a Dancing Cat”!

  5. June Omura says

    I’m still reverberating from the fantastic piece you’ve posted on tears in the subway. It’s been echoing back to me at odd moments, at least once eliciting tears on our stairway. Ah. . . yes! Thank you for it.

  6. Hark All Publishers: Seconds on that “damp” motion!
    To tt: Great Piece!

an ArtsJournal blog