Honorable Mention. “To Be Truly Free” Essay Contest
By Laura Owens, Monday, July 19, 2010
– “From Song of the Open Road,” Walt Whitman.
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I’m not much for celebrating symbols of war, the NRA or bumper stickers that announce, “America: Love it or Get The Hell Out” but this past Memorial Day my daughter, husband and I watched a small town parade in honor our veterans and fallen soldiers. Standing under the mom and pop store awnings listening to the crowd amp up when the fire engines and soldiers moved down the street I felt as American as it gets, whatever that means these days.
When I saw the rows of pinned medals, the little kids waving American flags on sticks and the uniformed men and women next to me quickly stiffen and salute, I got goose bumps and felt like pounding my American chest.
Maybe I have no right to stand in these sacred military moments unless I served or I endorse Glenn Beck’s version of the whole Patriotic Package, but I don’t think someone needs to buy into the pro-war, pro-kick ass bundled set in order to grin ear to ear and clap for a soldier.
To some my prickly and ambiguous place of mixed ideals is hypocritical, but I see moving through these shades of gray as blissful freedom. Avoiding a linear path or lockstep checklist of beliefs feels empowering to me and not because I want to be ornery, aggressive, or to advance my views by coercing you. I disagree simply because I do.
Liberty feels like that, an in between place of ambivalence, the intersection between where I disagree with someone but still show them respect by not engaging in verbal coercion or name calling.
Breaking free can be an instant, non-verbal dissolution of anger, like when my Obama-loathing friend turned beet red the other day and tensed up after she mentioned something she heard on Fox about the President, but then decided to change the subject and asked how my daughter was doing at summer camp. Call it wimpy avoidance of the partisan elephant in the room, but to veer away from sharp edged discussions that have no positive end in sight is forward motion I believe.
I used to get annoyed with Frank’s political rants, a retired Pee-Wee coach and curmudgeon with a stubborn, crusty heart of gold, Frank volunteers with me at the Y. Now I just shake my head in mock-irritation so he knows where we still stand and he drops the subject. Frank thinks the country he “once loved” will without question “not be around much longer with Obama screwing it up.” I see no point in discussing the finer points of why I disagree, or that if he feels the country is doomed to total unavoidable destruction, that within that perspective he will probably never feel any other way.
Fiercely debating your neighbor into tired retreat or into anger isn’t freedom. That we CAN is liberty, but that we DO, is not.
When I see Frank at our meetings he holds his old-school, tough guy pride close with a tight serious expression and only says hello and softens when I do. I budge because at 44 budging feels good, maybe to Frank it doesn’t. Either way it doesn’t matter. He and I sense that our unlikely, amicable friendship and interest in the volunteer work transcends our political polarity and need to dissect the pros and cons of Hillary. Our blurry relationship frees me to notice more irregular connections like this, and I hope it does for Frank too.
The extreme polarity of opinions in our country across politics, religion, war, abortion, the economy, international affairs, Hillary, Obama, Bush, Sarah don’t interest me much anymore. They’re too easy to strike, too vulnerable to target practice from the understandably bitter or angry. When I was younger and more interested in being right, in rattling cages and stirring up a meaty reaction, getting a rise out of someone was appealing, titillating really. Freedom felt loud, visible and sometimes in your face.
Now freedom feels like the only bumper sticker I have on my car, “Loving Kindness is My Religion” by the Dalai Lama, although I’m not sure a bumper sticker is freeing because if you felt the words you wouldn’t have to plaster them on your car to convince drivers of what you already know. But the Dalai Lama’s message is where I sit now, void of feisty labels and filled with blended beliefs that have no clear lines of delineation.
Extreme opposite points of view, particularly against gay rights used to send me into tirades around my living room, yelling at the TV that that only “A cold hearted son of a bitch could feel that way.” My husband an informed political blend himself but less impassioned, usually ignored me or threw out an appeasement line or two, “You can’t change everyone Laura, that’s just how they feel.”
“You sure as hell can’t change anyone by sitting there and not giving a crap, or are you a homophobe in disguise?” I’d scream, horrified by his neutrality.
Whether it’s middle age, my generation, my changing spiritual beliefs or battle fatigue, I’m mostly done fighting, and that’s a comfortable release.
Empowerment, how Americans organize their choices comes from the grueling work of our foremothers and fathers, and I don’t take that lightly. I worry that I seem politically lazy to my step-mother, a sixties generation feminist who even pre-retirement when she was imbedded in financial corporate America, remained a tireless voice for the Democrats and downtrodden. She understands, I think, that my less visible activism isn’t just the by-product of a generation who no longer feels stirred to roar, but a change in my paradigm about how I want to move through life from now on.
I still care about the causes, the fights and the sacrifices. I still hit some succulent hot buttons in my conservative friend Bob and he still introduces me as his “liberal” friend Laura even though he knows damn well I’m a moderate in many regards. He and I engage because it energizes us, we get a laugh, and because our banter reinforces who we think we are or are supposed to be. Labels are deceitfully soothing because they excuse complicated details and dissection from the room and keep what we think we know securely fastened in our psyche.
I vote, respond to online call to actions, donate to third world countries, read some of my grass roots newsletters, and listen to the sides. Only now I care less about convincing others why my version of freedom might be superior. I wonder why more people don’t crave ending the win-less battle to loudly convince and convert and instead beat the drum of their fears with hostile mantras.
I might sound too idealistic and granola, like John Lennon’s strumming in my head while our soldiers lay in the trenches dodging bullets, dehydration and post-traumatic stress syndrome to keep my comfortable ass safe.
But I applaud the soldiers and despise their wars. My freedom feels like that, full of contradiction.
I hold on to my feminist views without flinching because gender equity isn’t securely locked in. The wage gap is still around, motherhood still brings career and financial damages, and choice is on moving ground. But I also read big-boobed fashion magazines and like it in the movies when the girl “gets” the guy, the security, the romanticized package. And, I love being a mother but unapologetically hate what motherhood takes from women’s bodies and identities.
I brim with opposites that in time have no place to go but to settle in. As I age my views stumble along and re-organize so I try to find compromise within myself and within a society swimming with blatant contradictions, particularly about women.
My freedom includes messy messages of ambivalence I thankfully have the right to spew, dissect and work out. It includes inches of respect with someone who holds opposite views from me and our uncomfortable moments that can become drenched with insight and grace if we want them to.
That’s what I take from the chaos that has swirled inside the cells of our nation’s divisive opinions for centuries. It’s all I believe will EVER keep me free, inches of release from the anger of dissension, and new understandings I didn’t have before.