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The first thing you should know is that I always manage to pick the worst books to read on airplanes. And by the worst books, I mean fantastic books that turn me into an awkward chatter that makes the person sitting next to me very concerned. Examples? I managed to finish The Book Thief on a plane twice, read the final chapters of Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor on my way to Buffalo, and finish NK Jemisin’s The Stone Sky on a night flight to Chicago. I also once chose to watch The Iron Giant while drinking wine on a plane (the flight attendant had to ask if I was okay. It was shameful).
Why do I do this? Why do I step forward, in isolation on a plane and so completely immersed in the story I am reading, even knowing the tears are slowly rising?
A good happy cry is one of the best things that can happen to us. Sometimes when I get into my feelings I watch a series of Broadway song videos that get me in this mood. One is “I’m Here” by The Color Purple. And I’ll do it with “Happier” by Marshmello feat. Bastille, because this music video gets me going every time. Why do I do this? Because nothing beats the onslaught of happiness that suffocates you, the overwhelming feeling of “There’s a happy ending”, of “We’ve been through hell, we’ve been through a lot, but damn it, we”. I am still standing. “
I think we all could use a good hopeful cry like this right now. We went through it. We have seen a global pandemic, too many people are dying and too many people are pretending that there is no pandemic at all. The catharsis of a good, hopeful scream – the feeling of relief, the reunion, the omg-she-lives-she, who-they-can-finally-be-together, who-they-somehow-made-out-who-she -finally -understand-each other that there-always-hope-even-when-everything-is-dark – one cannot underestimate that. It cleanses. It reminds us that every story contains a rock hard core of hope.
The best cry for happiness comes when a story has thrown us into too familiar despair, but then throws us off with a glimmer of hope or an action that brings us joy again. So many of us had a scream when we finally got the first COVID-19 vaccine or when a loved one does. It’s relief. It is hope. It’s a rush of happiness after the toughest of darkness.
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In January I read Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations. It’s a climate novel set in a not too distant world where the oceans are almost empty and animal species are threatened with extinction. Determined to follow the terns on their migration, the longest any animal undertakes, the protagonist convinces a reluctant fishing captain to join her. She is self-destructive and cynical, but she is determined to do so. She has to follow the terns. She must see.
The book felt like a brutal, ragged screech of a love story with our natural world, a nostalgic plea, a love letter to the duality of the ocean, both cold and dangerous and wonderful, beautiful. The writing was beautiful and the story was dark with hard edges. The government stops all commercial boating and the protagonist and her people are not allowed to be on the water. Not sure if the terns will even be there. If you can. This was a story about climate change and death, after all. I was ready to leave the novel a little bleak.
But even in the midst of a climate novel about extinction, grief and loss, McConaghy refuses to give a sad ending. The last swing towards hope left me breathless and was all the more impressive for its contrast. It fit the story perfectly. That hard core of hope, the images that came with it, made me cry into the pages of the book. I needed this in January 2020. A scream rooted in relief, happiness, hope, survival and refusal to fall.
So here is a toast to happy tears. To books that make us cry. That gives us that sharp relief and calm catharsis. Here’s a toast to you.