A Lesson in Softening
My 5 week trip to New Zealand with my dad was tense. I felt myself being a total bitch, and I felt myself justifying it. I attribute it now to a loss of control. From being 20, away at school, and free - to being 20, stuck in a car with my dad all day, and dependent on him for everything - I lost my mind a bit.
The trip itself as a whole was wonderful, and I think we both look back on it as a highlight of our lives, and most certainly our relationship. And it wasn’t because of the two of us, it was because of the people we met along the way. People who surprised us with their vulnerability and kindness; people who challenged us to understand the enormity of our time together; and people who scared the hell out of us with their silence and intimidation.
My dad — the man who once claimed ‘On the road’ was old-fashioned — was accustomed to picking up hitchhikers. Once, when I was 7, we were driving down the 401 outside of Toronto when we saw a man on the side of the road standing next to his broken down pick-up truck. Without hesitation, my dad pulled over and offered the man a ride. He asked me to sit in the back - a request that offended me, but one I now understand as a safety precaution. My dad and this man chatted the whole way home, as it turned out he lived down the street from us in our tiny Southern Ontario town.
New Zealand was no different - except the hitchhikers weren’t people out on their luck, they were young adventurers, trying to save money, and build friendships. None of the people we picked up were from North America. They came from Germany, Prague, Australia, and, my favourite one, came from Syria.
The Syrian man we picked up was short, thin, and middle-aged. He had a stature that made me feel like he was slightly bowing everytime he stood up. He was infectiously positive and spoke so truthfully, I found myself squirming in my seat the way teenagers do when watching a heart-warming movie with their parents. But I challenged myself to lean into his positivity, and listen.
This was the day I learned my dad was smart. My dad is a geologist from England, who has truly had a life of adventure — from pioneering hundreds of rock-climbing routes, to hitchhiking across America, to bravely taking his three kids on canoe trips before they knew how to swim — he is gruff, worldly, and sensitive. He’s also a contrarian - often making up facts just to keep an argument brewing.
So I knew he was witty, book-smart, and worldly, but I doubted his ability to understand a wide-breadth of topics. For example, I thought the intricacies and nuances of Middle Eastern politics would be off the table. But no - my dad and our Syrian friend carried on a lively and colourful debate and respectful conversation about the political landscape in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and more for over three hours. I sat there stunned.
I wanted to chime in, but my three years of undergrad political science just wasn’t cutting it. When I talked to my mum about this later, she reminded me that my dad reads two newspapers a day, front-to-back. Many of his geology and engineering friends are also immigrants like him, and they’ve become his closest confidants over the years.
Our new friend was with us for about 6 hours, as he was heading in the same direction we were on one of our long-haul days of driving. There was a lull in the conversation around hour 5, and I used the opportunity to play some music. I remember feeling an immense pressure to play music that this man would appreciate, and not judge me for. It was akin to playing DJ at a party with people much more sophisticated than yourself— jumping to keep a thumb on the phone as one song died out, and another began.
As we were winding up the long-road from Lake Taupo to Mt. Cook with the sunsetting to the West of us, I chose “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles. It was playing softly, as I wanted to ensure the conversation could carry on if desired. As we were rounding up a hill, about to catch a glimpse of the sunset, I heard a voice behind me softly whispering “here comes the sun, na, na, na, na”. I turned around and let myself smile at our new friend. It was a smile I would have typically hidden - but I let myself soften for a moment. It’s often when we’re hardest, most in our heads, most resistant to positivity, that we need to let ourselves relax, soften, and be open to help in whatever form it takes. It was a feeling I’ve carried with me since.
When we dropped our friend off, he poked his head into the driver’s side window to say “what you two have is inspiring, father and daughter on an adventure, thank you”. My attitude changed after that encounter. The rest of the trip I observed my dad, tried to learn from him, and was patient with his eccentricities. Simply put, I stopped being such a bitch.