For much of my life, my father was a sort of enigma to me. He was there but he wasn’t always “there.” I was emotional, loud, boisterous; he was reserved, quiet, contained. I was such a sensitive girl — I felt everything so intensely, took everything so personally — that his exhaustion after a hard day’s work or business trip to Japan affected me more than I cared to admit.
My mother was the parent in whom I confided. We would go for secret ice cream trips to Dairy Queen. I came to her when I wanted to start taking birth control. She talked me through the various ups and downs of my romantic life, in college and beyond. I could always tell my mother the truth.
Simply put, my teen years were a nightmare for the household. What I realize now was chronic depression manifested in emotional volatility, and I’m sure my parents felt simultaneously helpless and frustrated. My mother was always the one to try to break through, to ask me if I needed to talk to someone, to comfort me when hot tears of shame and sadness once again sent me racing up the stairs to my bedroom from the dinner table. I sometimes felt like my father didn’t care.
But looking back (something my nostalgic heart cannot help but do), I now see so clearly how untrue that is. My father cared; he still cares. He cares deeply. What I thought was my father failing to understand me was probably his inability to know how to communicate with me. His logical mind and my volatile heart struggled to overcome a sort of linguistic barrier, which makes the moments when we did connect even more powerful to me.
The moments I remember most vividly of my relationship with me father are all emotional turning points for me, for us. Here are a few of those moments.
In the early summer of 2002, the summer before I entered my junior year of high school, I was dreamily waxing poetic about last year’s summer, which I had spent at the North Carolina School of the Arts summer session. I wanted to go back, to relive that magical experience, to know that it was still there for me whenever I needed to touch it and feel it. I begged my parents to let me visit the few friends I had who returned this summer. My father agreed.
We drove the nine hours to Winston-Salem as my heart raced with excitement and anticipation. He dropped me off on the campus and returned to our hotel, giving me the evening to galavant and reminisce. But though the setting was the same, everything was different. New people, new relationships, new energy. Rather than blending back into my idyllic summer memories, I spent the next hour crying on a curb. I learned an important lesson that day: you can’t ever go home again.
I did something I rarely do: in a fit of tears, I called my father. I begged him to pick me up. He did. We drove back to the hotel as I deflected every attempt he made to understand what had happened, what went wrong. I told him I wanted to go home. The next day, less than 24 hours after we arrived, we did just that.
The car ride was quiet — I remember listening to The Beach Boys (a shared love of my father and me). I felt mortified, like a complete fool. Mostly, I felt devastated and confused — I was growing up and moving on, an act that was distinctly painful. I figured the car ride would be Hell — what would I say to him? How could I face him when he knew how foolish I had been? But I don’t remember anything like that. I remember my father being with me, quietly. He didn’t pry or push; he was just there. It’s as if he could sense how ashamed and crushed I was, and there was no real need to talk about it — I just needed someone to quietly love me. In that moment of utter heartbreak, of learning the obvious yet painful truth that the past remains the past, my father was there with and for me.
On a frigid January weekend in 2008, my family came up to Evanston, Illinois to see my latest show, one of my last as a student at Northwestern University. I was cast as Nettie Fowler in Northwestern’s production of Carousel, which meant that I got to sing two of the biggest musical numbers in the show — June is Bustin’ Out All Over and the iconic You’ll Never Walk Alone. I connected so deeply to You’ll Never Walk Alone; it wasn’t a song that I sung, but rather a song that sung me. For that brief two minutes of each show, I knew I could just be. I wasn’t competing, struggling, or even trying. I just let that song flow out of me, into the auditorium, through ears and hearts and souls. It was me, honest and open.
After the first performance my family came to see, I changed out of my costume, tidied up my dressing room, and headed to the lobby for what was more or less the performers’ “Praise me!” moment. We all loved it; it felt like greeting an adoring public, no matter how silly or terrible the show, and it fed our delusions of grandeur for half an hour. I spotted my family and instantly knew something was different this time: they were all in tears (except for my little brother; it’s okay, Nicholas!). My mother, my grandmother, my grandfather, my cousin — their faces were wet with tears of joy and amazement. I then looked at my father and felt a thrust of emotion in my gut and throat — he was crying, too.
I’ve only seen my father cry a select few times in my life, and all have been etched into my miserable excuse for a memory. I can’t help but cry whenever I see him cry; it’s as if our emotions are linked and I feel what he feels, as he feels it.
As I watched his eyes swell with tears of pride and wonder, I felt my face grow hot. I hugged him and as he held me, he told me how incredibly proud he was of me, how hearing me sing that song was one of the greatest moments of his life. I muttered a meager “Thank you, Dad,” as my emotional core was rocked. He saw me as me, he understood me. He was proud of me.
I’m not a professional performer anymore, not that I ever really was. I love to sing, more than anything else in the world, but the business of musical theatre was too harsh. When I sing, it’s a reflection of me — it’s not an act. My voice is a part of who I am. I couldn’t help but take it personally when I didn’t get a role or when someone told me that I wasn’t right for something. The rejection was always personal because my performance was always personal.
I wondered for a while whether or not my father was disappointed that I couldn’t hang with it, that I gave up, that I moved on to something else. The pride he expressed after hearing me sing You’ll Never Walk Alone was so poignant, so deep, that I wondered if I had betrayed him in some way by abandoning it.
But this Christmas, as my mother, father, aunt, uncle, brother, and boyfriend all celebrated together in what will always be one of my favorite holiday memories, I learned yet again that my hunch wasn’t true. After we all had several glasses of wine, I noticed that my father got that look on his face again. I watched him as his eyes swelled with tears, his throat became a lump of encapsulated emotion, and he leaned in across the table towards me. He looked me in the eyes and said, very quietly, “I’m proud of who you’ve become.” He smiled, nodded his head, and that was that.
Today is my father’s 62nd birthday. In some ways, he’s still an adolescent — put on a doo wop song or a Pink Floyd record and watch as the layers of his nostalgic heart, just like my own, peel back before you. He’s reserved a lot of time (unless watching a Northwestern football game, in which case look out!), but the moments of joy with him are unlike anything else. When he’s happy, you feel happy — his joy is infectious. Not many people can do that.
In some ways, my father is still an enigma to me, but I’ve come to realize over time how alike we are, beneath the surface layer personality types and our differing linguistic styles of logical vs. emotional. My father feels, and he feels deeply, just like I do. He’s just better at keeping it to himself than I am.
Except in those moments, the ones I hold so dear, when he quietly lets his feelings seep out and you feel the universe shift. I treasure those moments.
Happy birthday, Dad. Here’s to more of those rare but exceptional moments.
As someone who is an activist, online and off, I understand the importance of self care. In fact, it’s imperative, both to my personal well-being and to the continuation of the work that I do.
For me, self care means unplugging. It means taking time away, sometimes by myself, sometimes with others, to (re)connect in a meaningful way. It may be a walk on the beach with my dog, a meal with my partner, or reading a good book. It could be watching a silly movie, going to the gym, or meditating. I know how important self care is.
Though some of these actions include other people, they are first and foremost about being present within myself, about being connected to myself, even when I’m with other people. Self care isn’t always about “having fun” but about being present and connected. It is a chance to check in with myself, to replenish my reserves. It is about honoring myself with genuine presence.
This connectedness, this presence, makes something I’ve begun to notice on social media, what I have termed “the performance of self care,” a confusing emergence.
I understand that, though it isn’t for me, twitter can be a source of self care for people. Social media has the power to connect people in meaningful ways and to provide a portal to deeper understanding of humanity. But is self care something that we must share with the world? Is self care a type of performance we enact through mass-shared selfies of bubble baths and wine consumption, tagged with #SelfCare? Is self care something that we encapsulate into a social media nugget and send out into the ether? Can self care truly be self care if it is for other people?
To be honest, I don’t know. I certainly don’t want to judge or belittle an action that someone else finds soothing. But as I understand and conceptualize it, self care isn’t about a performance for others but about being real and present with oneself.
It says it right in the name: self care is about the self. It is not selfish, but about centering the self, being present with the self, being honest with the self, checking in with the self. It is about caring for the self.
Tweets and posts and statuses that document self care in real time, that update us on what self care is taking place and how it is going, seem to take away or at least diminish the vital, central aspect of self care: the self. When we are documenting and sharing self care with the social media ether, when we say “Hey, look: I’m doing self care right now!” it feels distinctly performative.
Whatever form it takes, self care is individualized, personalized. That doesn’t mean it can’t involve other people, but that it varies person-to-person. What I find soothing and centering may not be soothing and centering for the next person.
But in a world where our every thought, our every move can be shared through social media, a world in which we “meet” people online and feel we “know” them, simply from their twitter feeds, documenting self care in this way seems more to be about playing the part of a dutiful, self-caring activist and less about genuinely centering oneself in the momentary universe, to whatever extent that’s possible.
If self care is a hashtag, is it really about the individual? If self care is a performance, is it really self care?
I don’t know the answer. I just know that it isn’t for me.