Saturday, October 10, 2009

Swan Song for The Moment

I can't believe it took me so long to discover the joys of blogging. In the few weeks since I started, I've already found and followed some fascinating connections, and met some truly wonderful people. The best thing about blogging is the conversations that happen, the sparks of inspiration that people start and pick up on and spread.

In the past couple of days, the word "interlacing" has appeared on two separate blogs that I follow.  In Song Lines, the most recent post on a hazy moon, a commenter used this word, and then on The Bobwhites, which I discovered via the "Next Blog" button, "Interlacing" was a blog title. defines "interlace" as:  "to cross one another, typically passing alternately over and under, as if woven together."  How beautiful is it that I'm exploring this word because of interlacing blogs? 

One of the themes that has emerged for me recently out of this interlacing is the relationship between freedom and safety. It started with Jennifer's post, What is a Safe Person?  (I'll come back to this in a moment).  Then, in the remedial college Reading class that I teach, we're reading Steinbeck's The Pearl.  When Kino finds The Pearl of the World and tries to sell it in town, the pearl buyers try to cheat him, offering a much lower price than the pearl is worth.  In class we discussed Kino's decision not to accept their offer.  By refusing it, he is standing up against a system that has oppressed his people for a long time, and therefore is putting himself in danger.  Freedom and safety are opposites.

This got me thinking.  Wasn't it Ben Franklin who said, "Those who would choose safety over freedom deserve neither"?  Why?  Is freedom inherently more valuable than safety, and if so why?  Is it just more "real"?   I think it's the  pursuit of safety over freedom that Ben was criticizing.  That this pursuit is fear-based.  But seeking freedom often is too.  I've encountered a lot of people who seem to equate freedom with mobility of some kind.  The ability to get out.  Is this not fear-based?  The need for open spaces is no "better" than the need for fences.

Another twisted expression of "freedom" is really recklessness in a very thin disguise.  I used to fall into this category.  Freedom to me meant being able to do whatever I wanted without restriction.  The result?  Harm to myself and others, of course.  Some of which I'm still dealing with today.

In my reading class we talked about how one people's freedom can be taken away so another people can feel safer.  I mentioned the internment camps of Japanese-Americans that were set up during World War II, and we discussed the racial profiling of Middle Eastern people (and others) that's been happening since 9/11.  Where do you draw the line when it comes to creating safety?  is the question we tackled, but could not arrive at a consensus.  And apparently, no one ever has, except maybe certain Gandhi-esque organizations.  Whole nations though?  Forget it.

The question is too abstract, too philosophical.  Too unsafe.  Define freedom.  Define safety.  Can you do it off the top of your head?  Now go ask your neighbor the same question.  Leave your gun at home.

The principle of oppression for the sake of safety can even be seen in nature.  A minor example that I came across recently has to do with the way flowers secure pollination. Many flowers have evolved methods of depositing pollen on bees in a way that the bee can't get the pollen off. Only by entering another flower of the same kind, that's equipped to scrape the pollen, will the bee become free of it. A bee may fly around for days with a big clump of pollen stuck to one of these “safe sites” - say on the top of the head, or the abdomen. It's like an itch in the middle of your back you can't quite reach.

Some people seem to equate freedom with NOT feeling safe - atheist fundamentalists,  deconstructionist zealots - who say either directly or indirectly:  Only stupid (i.e.,unfree) people feel safe.  Like most extremist statements, there is a grain of truth to it.  Many people do coddle themselves into a stupor by any number of sad little means.  But I think, life being what it is, we all do it sometimes.

I think it's just all about balance.  An excess of freedom (in the sense, let's say, of expanding boundaries) makes us swing back to safety-seeking, because we get afraid.  In fact, my life has been like that lately.  Because of blogging, teaching again, and joining a non-profit board, I've really been putting myself "out there," after a long cocooning period.  Sometimes I need to step back, regroup.  The point, I think, is to do this with awareness, as a means to keep growing - not as an escape or shutting down.

With this awareness, comes the realization that there is a place where freedom and safety coexist.  Jennifer's post deals with the idea that for freedom to exist in an intimate relationship, there must be a sense of safety, real trust.  And they grow in proportion to each other.

And yet, this kind of trust opens you to that strange recognition of the Other, suddenly seeing how big you both are, on opposite sides of a universe that you're meeting across. And embracing there is the least safe thing you can do, ego-wise.

Which just goes to show how differently the ego and the spirit can define both freedom and safety. This is why, to me, true freedom is a paradox. There is a freedom in decisiveness, commitment to a path. The fish isn't free if he escapes the bowl.  Bees enjoy the freedom to be sky-wanderers, to fly to many flowers, but this comes through participating in a highly structured and disciplined society.  As a poet, it took me a long time to embrace anything but free verse. When I finally learned to write formal poetry, I realized the potential in submitting to a discipline. By mastering a form, you gain a new kind of freedom. The same is true of dance, or painting, or raising children.  Boundaries, parameters must be recognized and accepted before they can be expanded.

All of this is so complex. I hope I haven't lost anybody here. Really, I think it's very simple - If you feel free, you are. Because freedom is a state of being, not a set of circumstances. The best analogy I can come up with is singing in prison. One of my very favorite bible stories is in Acts 16, when Paul and Silas sing in a jail cell, until an earthquake breaks the bars. I also think of the line from Tori Amos' song, "Crucify": You're just an empty cage if you kill the bird.

Kim Ayres recently posted here about starting a day off grumpy, but eventually being drawn out of it by a scene of beauty. Responding to beauty, to the moment, allowing oneself to be drawn out of misery – that's freedom. It comes with awareness. It's the ability to sing in a cage, to love your enemy.  And this is also the only safety there is.

One of Kim's commenters gave some interesting info about swan folklore, since a swan was featured in the photos on that post. What really got me thinking was the concept of the “swan song.” According to Wikipedia, “The phrase "swan song" is a reference to an ancient belief that the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) is completely mute during its lifetime until the moment just before it dies, when it sings one beautiful song.” And so, says Wikipedia:
By extension, "swan song" has become an idiom referring to a final theatrical or dramatic appearance, or any final work or accomplishment. It generally carries the connotation that the performer is aware that this is the last performance of his or her lifetime, and is expending everything in one magnificent final effort.
 There is a Zen story about a man being chased by a tiger until he comes to the edge of a cliff. He clambers over the side and grabs hold of a vine. As he's hanging there, he sees that there's another tiger below him, waiting for him to fall. And then two mice come along and start gnawing at the vine. He notices some strawberries growing on the cliff face next to him, and sees the most luscious red strawberry he's ever seen. He reaches over, picks it and eats it. And he thinks to himself, “Ah, how sweet it is!”

Freedom is the swan song in every moment.


  1. Wow. I was smitten to the soul. There are some beautiful thoughts and sentiments expressed here, and some really thought-provoking rhetoric. I liked your poetry analogy (among others). It took you a while to appreciate anything but free verse, you said, until you learned that there could be a freedom in discipline and the commitment to an ideal. I think human beings, when they're young, are battling, striving, bursting boundaries intentionally, trying to "be free"--and in the process, they learn what freedom is. Then they can pursue it without fear, if they wised up enough along the way. But they have to experience the lack of freedom (like bees in the hive) before they can become sky-wanderers.

    A very, very resonant post, here. Thank you for an uplifting and philosophical read. I can only hope I would be the type of person to sing in prison. It kind of reminds me of the things that peppy people (who try to see the bright side of everything; yes, I'm one of them) say: your day, your week, your job, your situation, your life--is all what you make it. I've been listening to Cat Stevens lately, thanks in part to the iPhone commercial:

    "And if you want to sing out, sing out/And if you want to be free, be free."

    Speaking of interlacing...

  2. you didn't lose me. i love it inside your head (or here as close as i can get).

    "Between birth and death,
    three in ten are followers of life,
    three in ten are followers of death,
    and men just passing from birth to death also number three in ten.
    why is this so?
    Because they live their lives on the gross level.

    He who knows how to live can walk abroad
    without fear of rhinoceros or tiger.
    He will not be wounded in battle.
    For in him rhinoceroses can find no place to thrust their horn,
    Tigers no place to use their claws,
    And weapons no place to pierce.
    Why is this so?
    Because he has no place for death to enter."

    i hope i didn't lose you :)

  3. Postman - You've seen Harold and Maude, I hope. That's the first thing that comes to mind when you quote that song. It really does fit this post - thanks for calling it to my attention!

    If you get all that about freedom at your age, you're way ahead of me. It took me until I was oh, like, 30 before I even came close to it.

    Thanks for the praise - I was really concerned about the length of this post and how convoluted it might in actuality be, (I wrestled with it for days and days) and what you say shows me that it did in fact say what I hoped it did.

    In a funny way, this post is a good example of ending up with "so much less than you started out with" (despite its length). There were so many other things I could have tied in with it, including your post that talked about the fear of writing. Alas, we have to "kill the darlings," as one of my writing professors used to say.

  4. rabbit - Is that from the Tao Te Ching?

    No, you didn't lose me. You never will.

  5. Polli - I am honored you would link to my work. WOW! That was startling, surprising and well, down right wonderful. What I want to say here within myself is SO MUCH.

    The awareness of freedom and safety is amazing and beautiful. When I consider the state of myself at times and then look beyond into the state of the world at large I recognize we do not consider ETERNALLY "the matter". It is with the balance of heaven & earth that I am able to see eternally beyond the moment, which for ME is FREEDOM & SAFETY! There is such a prize to have when recognizing "this too shall pass" and also the absolute power of LIFE here!

    I hope my comment is not to long, but I also want to add this. When I woke this morning I said, "Oh I hope someone I am following has written something inspirational and energizing this morning." I was looking for a nugget, and I say this a part from the honor you have given me. THIS WAS DELICIOUSLY ENCOURAGING and I thank you! I loved it. It is what I call a "spirit sparking" word this morning. Bouncing around and enjoying the inspiration.

  6. Jennifer - "Deliciously encouraging" and "spirit sparking" are two of the best compliments I've ever gotten. Thank you! It's so good to know that my struggle in writing this post paid off.

    Your comment is definitely not too long - I believe I left a much longer one on your blog the other day.

    Yes, the balance of heaven and earth, the eternal state of mind. Well put.

  7. I can say that it is when my heart is pounding and I struggle to push PUBLISH that I receive the absolute MOST from my efforts. What I love about your work is the effect it has upon me NOW, but the effect it is going to have in days from now as more and more people become acquainted with it. THIS IS SO EXCITING!

    I am also honored again to have given you compliments that are not only TRUE, but meaningful to you!! THIS IS Fantastico'! I don't know about you but I find myself separated somehow from the words after they are published and unable to see what others are seeing. There is SO MUCH tied into this work you've done today reaching across barriers and bounds. I LOVE IT. Also, I am taking some liberty here in posting yet another LONG comment, but the conversation of this is just too irresistible for me. : ) Somehow I know YOU understand it.

  8. I love long comments - or really, what I love is these conversations. That's why I'm a writer, and that's why blogging is such a wonderful medium.

    I was realizing last night that I discovered your blog (and two others that I follow/follow mine) via Ramblings of the Bearded One. I love the way these connections happen, and it's the thing about blogging that means the most to me.

    Thank you so much for your willingness to be connected and your very encouraging support!

  9. Hello Polly

    Your post is a very interesting rumination on the paradoxes of freedom and safety.

    One of the immutable truths of life is that life is chaos...

    and another is that we all need to feel safe...

    How do we then accommodate these seeming opposites.

    As you suggested I see freedom falling into different categories, we have geographical or physical freedom, emotional and spiritual freedom...then there is also freedom of speech and choice...

    I thought it very telling that you glibly added to the end of your early discussion of the meaning of the words safety and freedom...

    'Now go ask your neighbor the same question. Leave your gun at home.'

    the gun lobbyists espouse freedom of choice and freedom to bear arms and protect themselves yet this freedom spawns and gives sustenance to a civilization of violence and aggression which denies safety and disallows freedom...

    I agree with you that the meaning and the experience of freedom come with age and awareness...and are knitted into a philosophy of life and living...but perhaps this can only occur in a relative state of safety...

    Safety seems to me to be a primary need that must be filled before many of the other needs can be met... Safety from oppression, abuse, violence, emotional abuse, natural disasters, disease, hunger, poverty...all these are contraindications for freedom...

    when these basic needs are met man can consider the more existential needs - the feeling of safety or security in an insecure and chaotic world...and that is really the philosophical question, the quest for security and safety - feeling secure within an insecure and chaotic world...

    thank you for the thoughtful and though provoking post...

    Happy days

  10. Thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking comment.

    I will have to chew on some of this a bit.

    I'm curious - how does the "right to bear arms" issue play out in Australia?

  11. I've been thinking more about this post today. We visited a BATTLESHIP. I became anguished and actually had a private moment with tears due to my overwhelming sense that Mankind has sought freedom & safety through VIOLENCE. It was heart wrenching for me...I had no idea I would be so profoundly effected.

    I thought it interesting you would site a founding Father in this post. I AM a huge 18th century American/World History lover/studier/researcher/weirdo!!! I agree that B.Franklin was talking about the pursuit of safety at that time because many Americans, many of the members of the Cont.Congress & on into diplomatic affairs were having a lot of trouble pursuing freedom from the monarchy considering the "sense" of safety the colonist had from being under the umbrella of ENGLAND. Its interesting to think of Freedom/Safety worldview & Freedom/Safety Internal View.

    This post is very good Polli and has stuck with me & is sticking to my ribs. There is a great deal of depth here. I thank you.

  12. Wow, thanks for that tidbit about our old friend Ben. I love knowing this new aspect of you. I will keep you in mind if ever I have questions about history. I think being a research nerd is one of the best things in life to be.

    Your compassion amazes me; it's so apparent in your words. What a gift. And a burden, I know, but the best kind. AAHH! I just realized - that's what Jesus was talking about in that passage you quoted in Post 7 - the true meaning of self-denial is COMPASSION!

    I love that expression - sticking to my ribs. I might have to borrow that at some point.

  13. I'm studying this post in bits & pieces now.

  14. Hi Polly

    In Au guns can only be owned by farmers who may have a need for them, by gun club enthusiasts, by sportsmen for the hunting season... but not by the everyday man...Permits are required to own a gun and unless you are a criminal you would not be carrying a gun around with you...

    Happy days

  15. Hi Polly

    I thought I would check some figures on google and came up with this comparison:

    Murders by firearms per capita

    US sits at # 8 on the list after a number of Sth American countries

    Au sits at #27

    Japan and the UK are way down the bottom...

    This freedom to bear arms appears to bring a loss of safety and freedom with it...

    Happy days

  16. More like Canada, I guess.

    I've been thinking about your previous comment. Thank you for continuing the discussion and sparking it in new directions.

    I heartily support compassionate efforts to secure the kinds of safety you list, but I disagree that you have to be in a position of relative safety to know the kind of freedom/safety I mean with the "swan song" concept. Its very nature is to arise out of the knowledge of the chaos and unsafety of life, transcending circumstances.

    It's like Jennifer said in her first comment - it's about an eternal focus, seeing beyond, which I believe is available to anyone at any time, and perhaps even moreso in extreme situations. I know that's been true for me, at least. And I've encountered many people in person and through the written word, with different belief systems, cultures, and circumstances, who have had that kind of experience.

    I don't feel like I've been very eloquent in this comment, but I hope it's at least understandable. I know what I'm trying to say, I'm just not saying it very well, maybe because I'm too close to it emotionally.

  17. Delwyn - I guess we had overlapping comments there. Thanks for those stats; it does help put that in perspective.

    While growing up in Toronto, I didn't know anyone with a gun. After we moved to Louisiana when I was 14, I had a boyfriend with a gun collection within a year. That's never really hit me before.

    Thanks for highlighting this issue. Not something I expected when I wrote that post!

  18. Polly

    I understand what you mean...that you could whilst imprisoned, for example, feel a safety of a different kind...
    and we do learn through life to feel free within chaos and the unknown...

    However I do think that the big existential questions often need to wait until after our basic needs are met...remember Maslow's hierarchy of human needs...

    Happy days

  19. Delwyn - Yes, I think you're right. As I was musing about this discussion last evening, I thought more about what I said - that anyone anytime can experience this transcendent sort of freedom. But I realized I felt uncomfortable saying that, because it's an absolute.

    This is still an oversimplification, but I think people unlearn that ability as they come out of childhood and have to relearn it. So, yes, certain needs have to be met in order to create the conditions for learning it. But then it occurred to me that if people live in a culture, a paradigm where they absorb that kind of learning from birth, it could be different.

    I was talking to my daughter about this last night. She's spent some time in southeast Asia and talked about something I've heard many times before, that sometimes people in undeveloped areas, or third-world countries (I'm not sure what the PC term is anymore) are actually happier and emotionally and spiritually freer than many people in developed countries, even though they live with far less and under more oppressive systems.

    Why is that? Is it in fact being a part of a culture that teaches a different view about what is necessary to feel free or happy? Or is it something else? I wonder.

  20. The discussion here is intriguing for me to read. I have no conclusive statements about this. I am examining my personal situation into where I am today and how my "perception" of my own safety factors into my ability to "feel" more free not only within myself, but outside myself. As I am writing this...I am gaining clarity.

    Am I more at risk today than I was before? In some ways no, in some ways yes, in some ways the exact same and in other ways my physical safety as with anyone ALIVE in today's world might very well be more risky. It is the manner in which I personally approach life now that has created a safer environment for me emotionally and thus my strength within helps me to maintain my "sense" of safety outside of my home, etc.

    I believe for myself at least, it is a personal down to my core experience that somehow you discover YOU ARE MUCH MORE than this body and that the ETERNAL part of you has always existed, exists now inside the form of this body and that after the body is gone the spirit that inhabited it will live eternally. This knowledge for my head is GREAT, but it is the actual AWARENESS of something far greater than I can create that brings me a peace among the chaos.

    I said I had no "conclusive" statements, I suppose this is just THINKING out loud among you! For me NOW compared to my "sense" of safety and personal freedom the difference is my awareness of the ETERNAL factor in the matter.

    As I have grown into a more simple life (thinking of past chaos compared to my life now) I realize how complicated the world around me is. Maybe we have much to learn about the simplicity of countries that are not as "developed" industry wise. I sense they are FAR MORE developed spiritually because of the simplistic nature and relationship to "nature" they have.


  21. I'm glad for the long posts. Thanks for your insights.

    I'm always wary of making generalizations, and as I said above, absolutes. Because the world IS complicated, as you say. There are as many different ways of approaching life as there are people, and there are so many different factors that go into the making of a person's worldview and disposition.

    I think if any of us come to any conclusive statements on this issue, we should probably think again!

    I always return to the poet Keats' maxim of Negative Capability: "the ability to rest in mysteries, uncertainties, and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason."

    I think this is the quality that lets us see into the eternal and also avoid the very human tendency to try to overcategorize.

  22. "The epithets that I started this post with remind me that nakedness is the default state."

    Highly insightful and lyrical.

    Capote would be proud.

  23. Why, thank you, EC.

    I don't think I've ever mentally linked myself with Truman Capote before. Interesting.



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