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.
Dictionary.com 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.