Last weekend, I was answering emails in my studio while my children were watching “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” in my bed next door.
“Emory, why are you sad?” chirped my son’s voice, over the susurrus of the screen. A pause. “Emory, why are you sad?”
I poked my head out. My daughter’s cheek was pressed to the pillow, and tears streamed down her face. Her expression toggled between heartache and surprise, and I could tell, just from the arch of her eyebrows, that her own emotions were startling — even betraying — her.
“They’re happy tears,” she hiccuped. I absorbed enough from the TV to understand we were at the end of a stirring friendship montage set to music, and that she had been so moved by the sentiment, she’d shuttled into tears. I climbed into bed next to her and held her. I told her that movies, and books, often overwhelmed me in good ways, too. I told her that her receptivity to those emotions was nothing to be scared of. “It just shows you have a big, open heart.”
After we’d worked our way into smiles, I went downstairs to tell my husband.
“I was waiting for this to happen,” he said. “It’s her ‘Charlotte’s Web’ moment.” My husband has often recounted the time, when he was five or six, that he was watching “Charlotte’s Web” in his parents’ basement, eating a bowl of buttered pasta, and Charlotte (the spider) died. He sobbed openly, noodles falling from his mouth.
I think of these “early audience connection” moments as profound emotional touchstones. I’m frankly relived that my daughter’s (seeming? possible?) “first” anchored upon an uplifting message of friendship, and its resonance with her makes particular sense to me: she is, at the moment, falling in love with her little friends at school. They have nicknames for one another, and inside jokes, and the games they play at recess are shared with arched, amused eyebrows, as though precious intelligence that will dazzle and shock me.
My husband’s, by contrast, presented the startling concept of the death of a friend. This must have been terrifying for him.
I think of three simultaneously. The first, and certainly earliest: Maleficent from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.” I found her so grotesquely disturbing that I routinely figured the flood-lights outside my childhood bedroom window as her horns. I would turn my back and feel the prickle of her eyes on me. I would spin around, and, for a moment, convince myself I’d seen her face, before I’d make out the mundane metal of the lamps. I was fixated on the violence of her spindle, and her gaunt, vampiric visage. She seemed to me anathema to all things maternal. My mother was soft, and kind, and pink, and this godmother-type figure was brittle and bones and darkness. Thinking back, it strikes me as interesting that I did fine with the Bambis and Dumbos of that era — films in which mothers and babies lost one another — but the subversive presentation of a different kind of mother, one who might torment and injure a child, distressed me.
I can’t remember any other cultural phenomena impressing itself so powerfully on my imagination until I was a more seasoned reader, at which point I read and absolutely fell apart at Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. Shortly afterwards, I watched and again fell apart at the movie “My Girl.” In both of these narratives, children die in natural accidents, and while without parental supervision. There was something pointedly unnerving about the notion that tragedy might arrive not because I’d done something obviously wrong, like running out into a busy street, or accepting a sticker from a stranger*, but at the unexpectedly baleful hands of the indifferent natural world that lived just outside my back door. These were not children who died in plane crashes or on crumbling bridges; these were children who died in shallow creeks, and thunderstorms, and swarms of bees. These stories reshaped the domesticated wilderness of my backyard into an unsafe space. The subtext stuck.
I write this and I wonder if I’m showing too much of my hand — whether I am revealing unprocessed fears that you might find very obvious about me already? I read a fascinating interview a week or two ago that has been flickering in my mind since. Laurel Braitman, in conversation with Anne Petersen, said: “I tell this to my students now: you can only write at the speed of your own self-awareness. You do not want the reader to have a realization or insight about your life that you haven’t had already or they will lose respect for you.” Perhaps many of you have already had insights about me that I’ve yet to unearth, or wrap my arms around. I hope you will bear with me as I write my way into them? Perhaps this is a lot to ask of you as my audience, but — well, if you’ve been with me for awhile, I trust you’re comfortable with the muck and imprecision that comes with publishing my thoughts daily. I am currently thinking a lot about a dinner party I attended in which the hosts asked us a series of questions from The Proust Questionnaire. One was: “What is your greatest fear?” I almost called out: “Next!” because I anticipated that everyone would say the same thing: “Losing a loved one.” I was shocked — shook! — when not one participant shared that fear. Not one. I found myself helicoptering above my own life for a moment, and saw vividly the string of illnesses and deaths that have profoundly marked me, driven me to medical anxiety in some cases, left me sheet-white in the face of benign symptoms. Perhaps this is clear as day to you, and has been for a long time. But it was news to me that I might be unusually scarred on this matter.
Anyhow – those coalescing awarenesses are tomorrow’s work. The project of the next many years. Today, let me recenter on the concept of early readerly connections: the texts that sent your emotional antenna to “alert.” What was yours? Can you remember the first time a book or movie pierced you? Rearranged your perspective? Twanged against existing fears and awarenesses, or seeded new ones? I wonder how these early moments have shaped your own fears and bugaboos? Do you find yourself still hung up on some?
*Does anyone else remember a grade school anti-drug campaign in which we were told that strangers might offers us stickers laced with LCD? I’m not sure if this was in response to actual incidents in the District of Columbia, or a roundabout way of suggesting that accepting anything — even something fun, and child-oriented — from a stranger was dangerous.
+Literary life raft — the stories we need in order to live.
+On studying English as an undergraduate.
+My favorite sunglasses, now available in four FUN new colors. I own in black, tortoise, and caramel but might need the pink or matte cream? These are really dramatic and have a designer (Celine-esque) shape to them, but the price is right.
+Major Zimmermann vibes for under $100. LOVE the bold colors. Selling fast!
+This striped caftan is pure sunshine. Imagine with this sunhat!
+This Cleobella blouse sparks joy. Reminds me of Ulla, but much less expensive.
+Currently scheming about my Easter tablescape…these taper candlestick holders are on my wish list.
+Two fab upholstered ottomans on my radar: this tasseled one (under $100!), and this patterned round.
+$8 Easter bunnies — adorable as basket fillers or decor. I love the style / patterns available!
+I just sorted through my children’s bath toys, which had outgrown their container and were routinely spilt all over their bathroom floor. Many of them were molded or too-young for them. I bought this fun set of Bath Blocks as a replacement. BTW, this Ubbi bath toy holder is still such a genius design. The bin has large draining holes at the bottom and you set it on top of the “base” to let water drip out into the bottom such that toys are not sitting in water for days on end.
+This darling two-piece set is in my cart for mini. Love them together, but would also be cute as a top with jeans or a skirt with a white sweater.
+Ladylike collarless denim jacket! (I just ordered a similar one in black from Gap. SO into this moment for spring.)
+An on-trend raffia platform sandal for under $75.
+A really pretty reversible spring coat.
+My daughter received a Boogie Board for her birthday, and — though we’ve had similar toys in the past (Magna Doodles, Amazon knock-offs), this one has been at her side whenever she’s at home. She’s obsessed with asking me for drawing challenges, like “draw a flamingo blowing a bubble” or “a lion brushing its teeth,” sketching on the board, and then erasing to do another challenge. Clever for restaurants, travel, or just home fun.
+I also saw they sell these mini “Boogie Board Post-It” type contraptions, which are a really clever way to use less paper. Like, a great mnemonic for those pesky little things you want to remember in the morning, e.g., “pack an extra snack for mini,” or “$2 for free dress!,” or whatever.
+Bottega vibes for under $50.
+Love this new pattern from Agua Bendita.
+I have a full cart of beautiful pieces from Il Porticciolo. I love this dress and these embroidered collar polos for mini, and these seersucker overalls for micro.
+A spectacular Mara Hoffman dress. Love the pattern, color, shape –!
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32 thoughts on “Emotional Touchstones.”
Oh god, my dad reading The Hobbit out loud when I was only 7 or 8 and SOBBING at the end when Thorin dies. Not really sure what to make of that in retrospect. Was I crying because his noble journey had been in vain, or because he was redeemed/forgiven at the end? Maybe it was the first really sad ending I was exposed to. Idk but it absolutely broke my heart and I remember it VIVIDLY.
Aw – what a memory, and I love that your Dad was there, reading it aloud to you. So sweet. I wonder what his reaction was?
One of mine was Bridge to Terabithia as well! Because of Winn Dixie also got me as well. But my biggest “tears streaming down the face” moment was when my sister’s best friend discussed her mitzvah project, which was raising money for an organization connected to my sister’s then-recent diagnosis of a chronic and serious illness. It was just so many emotions at once!
But I do have a different take on the biggest fear question: losing a loved one isn’t my biggest “fear” per se, because it has already happened and I know that it is inevitable that it will happen again. That doesn’t stop me from almost always assuming the worst when my parents call out of the blue or there’s something off in bloodwork but to me a fear is something that has the chance of also NOT happening? I don’t know if others were thinking along those lines!
Oh my gosh – that is so incredibly kind of your sister’s friend. Wow. Sometimes people completely knock the wind out of you, especially when they’re “friends of sisters” or “people one step removed” — I’m always startled at how kind relative strangers/acquaintances can be.
You made an interesting point on fear about death. I wish I were so logical! Even though I know death will happen, I am absolutely terrified.
Wow. This is such a thought provoking post! I’m sure I had plenty of moments in my youth related to movies – but the one that represents a liminal moment in my coming of age was reading the end of The Green Mile as a newly graduated high school senior headed to college. I was engrossed and invested and then emotionally wrecked at the idea of one’s goodness being their undoing. It emotionally wrung me out in a way that left permanent creases – and to this day it is a hurts-so-good reminder to do the right thing, no matter how it looks. And whew, even writing this creates shockwaves of that feeling.
How beautiful is that, Jenny?! I know what you mean. Some movies/books just make you stand up straighter and align you with core good values.
New reader here! Grace from The Stripe recommended you. 🙂 And, wow, this post really resonated with me! My moment was watching an old Hans Christian Andersen version of The Little Mermaid… oh how I cried! Then it was Where the Red Fern Grows (I cry now just thinking of these!). I am just a hopeless empath at this point. But your story about the dinner party and losing a loved one: Same!!! And so interesting that it seems to combo with the health anxiety. Anyway, thank you for this. You write beautifully and poignantly.
Hi Kelly! Welcome! Thank you so much for chiming in, and for the generous words. I am also “a hopeless empath” — thanks for sharing the ones that have struck a chord with you. Little Mermaid was a surprise!! I wonder which bit got to you? That is such a strange story, if you think about it, and there are so many troubling/dark elements to it.
It was a non-Disney cartoon version and she dies at the end! Omg… tragic for this little 10 y/o! But I totally agree… even the Disney version is rather dark and disturbing! (I admittedly didn’t think that when I watched it as a kid, though )
OMG – very dark!!!
I remember a movie I watched when I was 10 that made me weep. It was called All Mine To Give and it was based on a true story. A Wisconsin couple that lived in the 1800’s died of diphtheria and their 12 year old son had to find loving homes for his 5 brothers and sisters and then he went off to work in the logging camps.It still makes me teary!
Oh my goodness – just hearing the premise is difficult. I can’t imagine watching it.
I distinctly remember sobbing – sobbing! – in the movie theatre as a child when I saw Homeward Bound. At the end, when you think Shadow didn’t make it and then he comes limping over the hill? I lost it. I remember my mom kind of laughing at me in a bemused way and I was mortified but I just could not seem to stop crying. I recently came across the scene on TikTok and found it still gave me goosebumps – though not sobs! I’ve never thought about the fact that most people have a touchstone like this. Great prompt!
Joanna! You’re actually the third person with that touchstone memory — two other Magpies messaged me via DM to say the same thing. That scene is SO hard! We recently watched the movie with our children and tears were pricking my own eyes!
Wonderful reflection, as always. And how interesting that no one else at your dinner party responded to the Proust Questionnaire with your answer! That would 100% be my reply as well, and like you, it’s the one I would expect anyone to give. I wonder what other people’s prime fear is in life? But then I am a worrier by nature, even if I try to quell the urge, so maybe that is why no other answer is plausible to me.
A kindred spirit!! Thanks for chiming in – that experience completely blew my mind. Some of the other fears mentioned by the other guests were: not living up to one’s potential and hurting others. Which are also horrid. But would not have been my first worry!
I really enjoyed thinking about this question this morning. I’ve always been pretty sensitive to movies, so I have a lot of answers to this, ha!
The earliest things I can remember are from when I was 4 or 5 years old: The Tigger Movie (I was inconsolable because Tigger was sad and felt like he didn’t have a family); the Lion King (the scene where Mufasa is betrayed by Scar, killed in a stampede of wildebeests, and Simba witnesses it? To this day, I genuinely cannot stand that part); and the Land Before Time (the part where there is an earthquake and the baby dinosaur is separated from his mother – also the mother might die? Can’t really remember the details but I do remember crying in my kindergarten spanish class watching it and trying to hide my tears from the other students).
When I was eight, my third grade class watched a movie where a young boy is baking bread with his grandmother and the grandmother has a heart attack and dies. I went to Catholic school and in retrospect, I think the movie was supposed to teach us something positive about death and family; however, it just made me terrified of my own grandmother dying. After that, I cried whenever I said goodbye to my grandma because I was scared it would be the last time I would see her.
Reading this now, it’s obvious that mine are all related to families, being separated from loved ones, and feeling alone/not feeling loved. It’s interesting because those are still things I get emotional about now. I wonder if seeing these movies when I was so young impacted me enough that they still have an effect on my character and personality now, or if I would have always ended up being sensitive to these things and my younger self’s response to the aforementioned movies was a glimpse into my developing personality? I lean towards the latter, but it’s giving me something to think about!
Oh Sarah – we are cut from the same cloth! All the scenes you listed are difficult for me to watch, too. I am especially sensitive now to movies where children are imperiled — I cannot, will not! I have to turn them off. They take me to such a fretful place.
To your prompt, though — so interesting. I wonder if those scenes conditioned us to be especially sensitive to / worrisome about those tragedies, or whether we were simply more receptive/impressionable because we already had those fears and concerns. I don’t have a good answer to this. Maybe a bit of both. Maybe there was a fear there already, and the movies made them manifest.
Food for thought.
It really is SO stirring to witness your children developing and expressing empathy and emotional intelligence. Semi-related but I’ve been so touched to see how my firstborn cares for and loves her newborn sister.
On the movie front: the first I can remember for me is JUMANJI. I would watch it on a loop, apparently. I remember feeling so, so bad for Robin Williams’s character as a child. The scene when something goes wrong at the shoe factory and the father just can’t seem to love him? Has the mother died in that film? That would have added a layer of sadness, too. And I think there’s something about movies that reveal to you how *other* families can operate, or be flawed, that’s really rattling when you’ve only known love and security yourself.
Yes, I think that’s it at its core: cognitive dissonance. Like, “what? there is a world in which a child doesn’t have the same love and security I do?” It’s unraveling.
Jumanji also haunted me, but because of the big bugs. I was so scared!
My daughter had a big emotional reaction the first time she watched the Bluey episode about Bingo’s outer space dream. I think it was because Bingo had to say goodbye to her bunny, Floppy, and she also has a very dear stuffed bunny. But like you, I was in the next room (making dinner) and didn’t see what set her off. Just suddenly realized I was hearing sniffling from the living room!
I have been told that I had to be taken out of the movie theater early during either Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. So maybe mine was also Maleficent! I was too young to remember this incident. I do remember my mom reading aloud Where the Red Fern Grows and being very sad. And I think Gone With the Wind is the first book I read to myself that made me cry. Just realized that all these references make me sound like I could be a 60 year old lady!! Ha.
Oh — the bunny in Bluey! So sweet. I’m sure that stirred something big in here.
That is so interesting about Maleficent — and the villain in Snow White is actually really similar in aesthetic to Maleficent. Both really terrifying. So was the stepmother in Cinderella (who actually also did the voice of Maleficent).
Cheers to a fellow 60 year old lady soul!
Reading “When Breath Becomes Air” absolutely gutted me. Years later, I still think about his daughter, and the beautiful love letter she has to read from her father someday. I’m not sure a book or movie has ever moved me that way.
I’ve heard such fantastic things about that book. I can imagine it would leave a deep mark. I don’t know that I’m equipped to read it given my own fears of losing a loved one but – wow. Even from a far, I feel moved!
Just want to chime in a quick rec for this book! Gutting, for sure, but I think you’d also appreciate how the author writes about literature. Kalanithi studied English alongside medicine (I think he even did an advanced degree, if not just an undergraduate major — I forget) and felt that these studies were just as important for understanding life as the sciences!
Wow – a true right brain / left brain!! Thanks for the rec. Placing nervously in my tsundoku.
Wow, this might be my favorite post! The image of your husband as a child sobbing at Charlotte’s death is so poignant! Mouth agape, noodles spilling. For me, it was reading The Velveteen Rabbit. The realization that I could love something into being, in this case, a stuffed animal, shook me to my core. I think I’ve loved fully ever since. Thank you for reminding me about that moment and for sharing your vulnerabilities so beautifully.
Hi Irene! Thank you so much — and vice versa. I appreciate your chiming in here and sharing your own! The Velveteen Rabbit and lessons on “loving into being.” So beautiful. I also love the image of a slightly ratty toy still being a favorite, magical one.
I rarely show emotion other than inappropriate laughter during films. I think in part because I recall watching Simon Birch with my family at home eating Chinese food and my Mom, Godmother, and her daughter were sobbing. I would get embarrassed and uncomfortable with the 3 of them sobbing un thus film and so many others. So I don’t cry. And would be one to make fun of those who did. I’m pretty sure I made fun of a boy who cried at my Godmother’s memorial service. Granted i was 13 so i have to recognise my maturity or lafk there of at that age. I’m the one who was sitting in the crowded theatre for Manchester By the Sea by myself in a room full of strangers sobbing and I was laughing because I was so uncomfortable. So no I don’t have a film or book that I will admit publicly. Because it is embarrassing and shameful and uncomfortable to show emotion and women are then deemed emotionally unstable. So best not to share. But probably better to teach children that emotions and feelings are ok. Idk. I might be the odd one out on this. So I realise this is a bit controversial and appreciate this post on how it is OK to show emotion and shed tears
Hi Michelle! I personally feel like there is nothing wrong or unstable about showing emotion! It is how I have forged some of my sincerest, deepest relationships with friends and loved ones! I do know that it can be uncomfortable to witness someone else crying, feeling deep emotion, etc. I often feel at a complete loss, not know what to say or how to comfort. I think that is natural. Sometimes just listening and being present/open is all you can do.
I do agree with you in this. I personally just don’t cry during films or books. And usually am the one laughing during the funeral which has happened many times. I think there are ranges of emotions. For example in grad school my service learning was at a pediatric hospice. I also had the opportunity to attend and participate in grand rounds at a handful of ICUs around the country, some in Denver, LA and attend bioethics lectures in each place I’ve lived. I think because of my upbringing and a former supervisor who deemed me emotionally unstable I try to suppress
I’m sorry you had that experience with your former supervisor — it sounds so harsh!!! I agree that there are ranges of emotions, and some people are quick to cry and others not. Sometimes it’s a blessing to be the latter, too.