I hadn't spoken to my dad in almost four months when he called me on Monday night. He left a message in a jovial voice, asking if I would call him back sometime. It was less than ten minutes after he left the message that I did.
There are a million ways this could have backfired, and a million reasons why I shouldn't have called him back. I was in no mood to argue or defend myself for not having seen him in almost three years. I was having a difficult day already. A difficult day at the start of another difficult week. I was overtired, and stressed, and before the phone ever rang I was already on edge. Between working too much, sleeping too little, and rarely getting to be creative, the past few months have been a challenge to my sanity. It's one of those very obnoxious and very true things about being an "artist": you have to have a means for some kind of creative expression or eventually you'll lose your mind. (I put "artist" in quotes because when I say things like, "I'm an artist", I always gag a little bit on my own pretension). I was in no position to cope if the phone call didn't go better than well, and with my dad that's hardly guaranteed.
But I had this overwhelming tightness in my chest, a feeling like a bow is being stretched between my ribs, a feeling I've come to recognize as a sign that whatever I'm considering is the right thing, and I should just fucking do it.
So, despite all my better judgment, I made the call.
My dad, at his best, has a voice like butter melting on a Belgian waffle. Almost as soon as he answered the phone, I was in tears. "My dear," he said, "I just wanted to hear your voice and know that you're smiling. Tell me, are you smiling a lot?"
I told him that I haven't been smiling as much as I'd like. That I'm stressed too much of the time, and that I hardly ever make time to write anymore. I told him that I'm moving to LA which is kind of exciting, but mostly terrifying. I told him that sometimes I worry that I won't like LA, but I don't feel like I can stay in Seattle anymore, and he said, "Yes, my dear. I know."
He told me all I can do is my best. He laughed when I said I'm not writing, and asked me, why not? He said, "I imagine this is all very frustrating, but Nicky. You're young. Baby girl, you have to do you. Fuck all the rest."
Then he asked me if I was looking in a mirror, and I said, no but I can. He said, "You look in your mirror there, and I'll look in my mirror here. You look right into your eyes and see if you can see me looking at you." This is a game we've been playing since I was a kid. He has always assured me that we don't have to be in the same room to look right at each other. That's family, he says. So much of the time I don't bother to look in a mirror and I just pretend for him on the phone. But this time I decided to go ahead and look.
"Okay," I said, "I'm looking. Are you looking?" And there was a pause.
And he said, "Oh yes. There you are. My dear. Look at you," and then, like the feed was just coming through and the picture had clarified, "Wow. What'd you do to your hair?"
Now, like I said, it's been three years since we've seen each other in person, and to say that my dad doesn't really use the internet would be like saying my cat doesn't really use a cellphone. An understatement. He does not yet understand how email works, or even what it is. Suffice it to say, he hasn't seen me, or any pictures of me, in years. So when he asked this question, at first I just laughed it off. But he wasn't joking, "Nick, I'm serious. What'd you do to your hair?" And suddenly, I thought I could see him too. I told him, "Oh. I dyed it. Just a few weeks ago, actually. It's blonde now." And he said "Blonde? Is that what you said? See, I thought you looked different. Well, send me a picture sometime, would you do that?"
When we got off the phone I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the comfort he'd offered me, overwhelmed by the sadness I felt for the way things are, overwhelmed by how much, in that moment, I really, truly missed my dad. My dad. The magic one I tell stories about from my childhood. The one who sees me, just as I am, without even trying. The one who calls me out on my bullshit and makes me laugh. The one who knows me, even when it's been years. Even when it's midnight, and I'm losing it, and I feel like I barely know myself.
In the days since that phone call, I've been thinking a lot about the things we don't acknowledge that we know. I think psychics are hokey. I don't know how much I believe in horoscopes or astrology or fate. I never want to be one of those people who lectures people about the value of The Secret. I'm not that girl. But I've been thinking about that bow that sometimes stretches between my ribs. About the impulse to be genuine and generous, even when our backs are against the wall. About our ability to read the people that we love, even from miles away. And then I have to wonder if maybe we are all a little bit magic, if we want to be. If we just listen for it.
That sounds like motivational speaker bullshit, I know. But I'm serious. I don't mean magic like rabbits out of hats or card tricks. I mean magic like our capacity to understand each other. To express ourselves. To be so unconcerned with being perfect that we are perfect.
Think about all the things you might already know. There is something you love to do, and you want to do it. There is someone you love, and you want to tell them. There is somewhere you love, and you want to go there. If you are listening, these are all things you know. They are things that grow, and grow, and sit, and wait for you to be ready and catch up. These are the things we put off dealing with because we are afraid, we are in our heads, we are waiting for the time to seem right, we are waiting for the thing to seem easy. But not because, as we so often say, we don't know. We do know. The important things, the things that will change our lives and will make us better, they are the things we know. The little, beautiful things that we see in each other, they are the things we know. They are the things we see without trying. They are the things we see when we look into our own eyes in the mirror.
I fight hard against what I might know all the time, because I'm scared to be wrong. I feel that push to be genuine and generous and then I back out at the last minute. I hear the tightness in my chest say it's time to change, and I say it's not true and I say I can't be sure. I make excuses about how there's no way to be certain about these things. I would prefer to play it safe.
But sometimes, the bow stretches and for a second I am brave and I listen. I pick up the phone, when every rational part of me thinks I'd be better off just calling it a day. For a second I am just myself, and fuck all the rest.
There is always doubt. There will always be a million reasons why doing something might be a bad idea. There is always the possibility that something won't work out. But there is an urgency now, to just go out and be yourself anyway. Everywhere. You are, most likely, a huge fucking weirdo. So am I. But this doesn't change how magic we could be. All we can do is try to listen to all the things we might know, and decide what we're going to do about them. Be genuine and generous with each other.
Because the moment will come when we'll be brave. When we'll turn our backs on all the stupidity that makes possibility seem impossible.
We will take a deep breath and listen. We'll say, "Okay. I'm looking, are you looking?" And there will be magic.
I just want to hear your voice and know that you're smiling.
Tell me, are you smiling a lot?