Meditations on Freedom

I know some folks that are so task-focused that, not only are they unable to see the forest for the trees, they don’t even know they are in a forest.  And even though they only see the trees, they all look the same to them. They can’t seem to distinguish between any two trees as different without a great deal of coaching. It’s fine to be task-focused and to be unconcerned with the big picture, I guess, but it sure isn’t my choice.

You see, they just don’t seem to like being burdened with responsibility beyond the task at hand. It seems to me that they are finding a form of freedom. “Just tell me what you want, as specifically as possible, and let do it. Don’t expect more than that. Don’t expect me t anticipate the future or even worry about it. Just let me do what you tell me.”  This attitude creates a freedom from greater responsibility, freedom from thinking too hard, freedom from all but the minimum expectations.

People like this are not leaders. They can be solid workers, reliable and sturdy, but little more than drones. But they are free from challenge, especially once they leave work. It’s a contextual freedom that works for them.

 

But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee.
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

Oh like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

-Leonard Cohen, “Bird on a Wire”

***

Loss can be freedom. You only truly own what you can carry with you at a dead run. Ownership ties you down and restricts your freedom. Further, responsible ownership often requires that you do maintenance activities and protection activities to care for your stuff. These things eat into your freedom.

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you’re saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!

George Carlin, “A place for my stuff

The more stuff you own, the more you need a place to keep it. A house, an apartment, a room, a safe, dry, warm place to sleep and rest, is a good thing. Unfortunately, stuff can get in the way, stuff can take over, and then it seems a home really is just a place to keep your stuff. Stuff that ties you down. But having a safe place to keep your stuff gives you freedom, to move about, to work, to play.

 

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,
And nothin’ left was all she left to me,
Feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues,
And buddy, that was good enough for me.
Good enough for me and Bobby McGee.

Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee”

When you lose everything, or lose “enough” whatever that might personally be, it’s easier both to fight for freedom or to give in just to hold onto what little you have.   When the conversation is about “stuff” I think this line becomes pretty clear to most people. When it is about something intangible, like freedom, it gets to be more difficult. How do you know when you’ve lost so much that there is nothing left to lose?

***

Love limits freedom. When you love someone, truly someone, your hands are truly tied. Freedom dissipates not only with increasing responsibility, but with loyalty and the conviction to do what’s best for the both of you (or the family).  I’m not trying to suggest this is a bad thing, only that it is truth. We are bound in love to not act freely irresponsibly, or without consideration,  instead are bound to the opposites. Or should be.

I’m not a river or a giant bird
That soars to the sea
And if I’m never tied to anything
I’ll never be free

I wanted magic shows and miracles
Mirages to touch
I wanted such a little thing from life
I wanted so much
I never came close, my love
We never came near
It never was there
I think it was here

Stephen Schwartz, “Finale from Pippin

“Pippin” is the story of the son of Charlemagne, Pippin,  who has just graduated from the University at Padua and is lacking direction in his life. The play is a series of vignettes of Pippin trying to find himself. At the end, he is living on a farm, in love with a widow with a small boy. Throughout he gone to extremes attempting to find glory in war, importance in royalty,  and joy in in hedonism, and ultimately fe finds love. He finally rejects temptation offered him to step into fire a become a glorious light himself, if only for a few moments. At the end he is asked:

CATHERINE:
Pippin:do you feel that you’ve compromised?

PIPPIN:
No.

CATHERINE:
Do you feel like a coward?

PIPPIN:
No.

CATHERINE:
How do you feel:?

PIPPIN:
Trapped:but happy:
which isn’t too bad for the end of a musical comedy. Ta da!

Pippin, Stephen Schwartz.

This is probably the ideal for relationship: happy and trapped. It’s in this perspective that we recognize (or should) that our choices are constrained in order to allow happiness, to cause happiness, for who (or those) we love. The constraints are by choice as we give up our freedoms willingly. (Although, it can be argued that falling in love is not necessarily a voluntary process, but rather a biochemically-induced form of temporary insanity that allows relationships to form, and lead to breeding; but when I say that, I find people get really upset and reactionary). Anyhow, most will agree that when love is present, we stay in relationships willingly. It’s a choice, perhaps a daily choice, that restricts some freedoms, but I think opens up more.

Love opens us up to being truly vulnerable. It is easier to show ourselves as vulnerable when we are with someone we trust, someone that we know loves us. The freedom to be vulnerable can be compelling, once one learns how. (Once I learned how.) This can be especially true in times of stress and worry. When this happens, it seems to open up the conversation to allow more effective communication. In other words, the vulnerability allowed in love creates greater freedom to communicate.

***

It seems to me as so many people prattle on about their imagined freedoms and many more others just seek to be acknowledged, to be equal, the economic and social structure in which we live is impressively organized to encourage us to limit our desire for responsibility and personal growth, to acquire stuff , and have relationships, all of which reduce freedom and create constraints.

Living freely, but comfortably, is about learning to live within constraints.  To be truly free, disappear into the woods with no more than you can carry, and drift from place to place. See how much you like it. Not many do. They want permanent shelter. They want comfort, multiple tools to make mundane tasks easier and briefer, temperature control, food storage.  The list goes on.

Heaven knows I was just a young boy
Didn’t know what I wanted to be
I was every little hungry schoolgirl’s pride and joy
And I guess it was enough for me
To win the race? A prettier face!
Brand new clothes and a big fat place
On your rock and roll TV
But today the way I play the game is not the same
No way
Think I’m gonna get me some happy
-George Michael, “Freedom”

***

Real freedom is freedom from pain. Freedom to move. Freedom to love who you love. Freedom from seeing your love in pain and disarray. Freedom to be recognized as human.

Freedom is also not being owned and constrained by belief systems that devalue others. Such beliefs are just a heavy set of chains that reduce one’s freedom to find happiness as they create false limits for relationships and the possibilities of love. Relationships drive all things, all successful commerce, why constrain their potentialities with dumbass beliefs?

Freedom is knowing the limits of freedom and accepting them with grace.

Photographs and Memories

When we traveled over the holidays, as a concession to my wife,. we listened a lot to the Garth Brooks channel on SiriusXM. It’s not a huge concession, while we don’t share the same tastes in music, I do like some of Garth. As is typical with artist-specific channels on SiriusXM, the playlist includes selections of music that the artist likes to listen to.  In the process I rediscovered Jim Croce.

Most anyone in America that listened to FM radio from the late sixties on would recognize at least three or four songs: “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,”, “I’ve Got a Name,” “Operator,” “I Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” and the song that shuts my ears down for some reason, “Time in a Bottle” are probably the most familiar songs. I kind of really hate that last song. It’s not that it is bad, just maudlin and represents the worst of seventies soft rock. My wife tells me it is song that tells us (me) how we are supposed to feel about love.

It’s a song that tells me that even the most talented artist can go too far.

For good or ill, I spent my early teen years in Northern Virginia listening to WASH-FM when it was an easy listening/soft rock station in the mid-seventies.  I really think much  of the music of the seventies was garbage. Whiny, too wistful. There was lots of good stuff but lots of really, really bad stuff. Songs that I still know the lyrics to when I really shouldn’t know the songs at all.

Croce was brilliant though. His songbook includes a variety of topical genres, with absolutely masterful examples of each, especially the “break-up” or “kiss-off” variety. Some of these I had forgotten, especially “One Less Set of Footsteps.” This is truly a great song.  It’s cheerfully upbeat with a pleasant melody, and lyrics the tell you all you need to know:

We been runnin’ away from
Somethin’ we both know
We’ve long run out of things to say
And I think I better go
So don’t be getting’ excited
When you hear that slammin’ door
‘Cause there’ll be one less set of footsteps
On your floor in the mornin’
and later:
But tomorrow’s a dream away
Today has turned to dust
Your silver tongue has turned to clay
And your golden rule to rust
If that’s the way that you want it
That’s the way I want it more
There’ll be one less set of footsteps
On your floor in the mornin’

 

This last bit what gives lie to the cheerfulness. “If that’s the way that you want it,
That’s the way I want it more”  that’s the scream into the maelstrom of a person desperate to convince both parties that they are”okay.” It’s brilliant.

***

Growing up in the seventies also meant different television viewing options. Of course, by different, I mean “limited.” As a child, visiting grandparents on the wrong day and time could mean having to sit politely by during “The Lawrence Welk Show” (shudder) but earlier on Saturday, it was roller derby, which rocked. I loved watching the Los Angeles T-Birds with my paternal grandparents.

And I was just about old enough to really appreciate Raquel Welch in “Kansas City Bomber.” She was awesome.

Gonna tell you a story that you won’t believe
But I fell in love last Friday evenin’
With a girl I saw on a bar room TV screen
Well I was just gettin’ ready to get my hat
When she caught my eye and I put it back
And I ordered myself a couple o’ more shots and beers

Jim Croce’s “Roller Derby Queen” is one of his songs about larger than life characters like “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown” and “Rapid Roy (that stock car boy).” These are rollicking songs that are kind of fun and crazy. They are also somewhat cartoonish, but they work. Just kind of adjacent to these songs is the truly great, “Working at the Car Wash Blues.”

Well, I had just got out from the county prison
Doin’ ninety days for non support
Tried to find me an executive position
But no matter how smooth I talked
They wouldn’t listen to the fact that I was a genius
The man say, we got all that we can use
Now I got them steadily depressin’, low down mind messin’
Working at the car wash blues

This is really a song for today. So many people on social media and elsewhere declaring their genius when all else is evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, such people are either not working at something that suits their abilities or angry and resentful that their “genius” is not being recognized. In some cases, in some communities, the latter may often be truer than we think, but they are not who I am thinking about.

***

My wife has been going through photographs lately.  She is preparing two photo albums, one of which is for our son and his future bride. When he moved out of state last year I had given him an album that was mostly our scouting and other outdoor trips together. Over the years of these trips, I have generally taken at least

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one on the way home of him sound asleep in the passenger seat. I hope that when he has a tween or teen of his own that we can go on a fishing trip together and he can get a picture of me sleeping the ride home. Lord knows, I will need the rest by then.

 

 

Looking at old photos can be melancholy. I look though, and remember those little boys and how much fun they were, and how innocent their laughter was. I look at pictures of me that span range of different sizes and weights. There is approximately 150 pounds of variance across the last 36 years. Perhaps more.  There are memories of family and dogs long gone. And more recently gone, like Lucy, who’s been gone a year this month, and Monty, who’s been gone a few years longer.

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Lucy

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Monty

 

 

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But there are also pictures of a mix of emotions. This is from eight years ago this weekend. It is from two nights before brain surgery when we shaved our heads together. That look on Zach’s face would be there for days, not knowing what to expect. He certainly was not expecting to spend a full day and a half waiting for me to come out of surgery.

Of course, this all ties to another Jim Croce song, “Photographs and Memories.” It’s a sad and wistful song, not quite as maudlin as “Time in a Bottle.” It’s a sweet song and to my ears, more pleasant to listen to than the other. It’s really about wanting to go back to the way way things were.

Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you
Memories that come at night
Take me to another time
Back to a happier day
When I called you mine
Jim Croce, Photographs and Memories
It’s a good song, but doesn’t hit the way John Prine’s “Souvenirs” does.
I hate reading old love letters
For they always bring me tears
I can’t forgive the way they rob me
Of my sweetheart’s souvenirs
Memories they can’t be boughten
They can’t be won at carnivals for free
Well it took me years
To get those souvenirs
And I don’t know how they slipped away from me
-John Prine, Souvenirs
It takes years to earn the souvenirs we find in life, and then they slip away as memory fades. I guess it is just best to treasure them all while we can.
***
I can’t imagine the song “Which Way are You Goin’” ever got that much airplay. Certainly not when I was listening to the radio way back. It’s another song that feels so very relevant today.
Everyday things are changin’
Words once honored turn to lies
People wonderin’ can you blame them
It’s too far to run and too late to hide
Now you turn your back on all the things that you used to preach
Now it’s let him live in freedom if he lives like me
Well your line has changed, confusion rings
What have you become
Your olive branches turn to spears when your flowers turn to guns
Your olive branches turn to spears when your flowers turn to guns
I think we all need to listen to a bit more music. More singing and dancing, fewer parades.