Or…how best to live the life that suits YOU.
By Bethany Toews, who we are blessed to call a colleague and friend.
I never imagined I would own a home. I didn’t dream the American dream. I dreamed of wilder things. I watched adults with suspicion. Waded through the world of their awkward omissions. Too few seeming to say or do what their heart was insisting. So much effort made in the direction of what was expected at the sacrifice of what was longed for. I didn’t want that for myself. The American Dream felt like a collective hallucination. Pretty little rows of white picket cages. I didn’t want one of those.
I wanted freedom.
The word free stems from the root word pri meaning ‘to love.’ The same root for ‘to help’ and ‘friend.’ Freedom finds its meaning in the midst of, not away from others. How we might create and share that kind of freedom is a question my bones ache to answer.
This past year has affirmed for me my love of freedom. I’ve been reminded many times of my younger self and her belief in freedom as the promise that continues to make me want to get out of bed in the morning.
Don’t believe anyone who tells you you can’t live a life you want to get out of bed for.
I spent plenty of years dreading the alarm. A full-body No welcoming each morning. Doing my due diligence until I couldn’t anymore. Who are these dues owed to anyway? Worth asking. I did what I didn’t want to do because that’s what all the institutions taught me I was supposed to do. ‘Suppose’ means “something placed underneath.” What are you placing yourself under? Worth asking.
How to get on top of the mountain of ‘supposed to’s’ to gain a clearer view? The mountain of grow up fast so you can make a life by making money so you can make something of yourself. As if we aren’t already something. My heart doesn’t want to get a degree so I can get a job so I can get married so I can buy a house so I can have children so I can buy a boat I don’t have time to take out on the water. My soul doesn’t seek to spend my life avoiding disaster and insuring everything just in case I fail to. I want more for my life than an insurance policy.
I want the life I’m living. Across the border from business as usual. Celebrating what’s messy and uncertain. What isn’t easily arranged into a slick PowerPoint presentation. I choose the freedom to believe less in what we’re told and more in the stories we’re telling—in all their glorious diverging. I want enough space for all the stories we don’t hear on the news. To see people coloring outside of the lines and snipping the strings that someone else is pulling. Dreaming is freedom from limitation. I want room for all of our dreaming.
My American dream keeps re-writing itself. I used to think that in order to feel free, I needed to shut myself off from the world. In order to believe what I believe, I had to keep it to myself. But slowly, slowly I am coming to understand that true freedom is having the courage to exist as you are within the web of belonging. To be witnessed in your truth. To dare sharing your dream that it might be woven more completely into the collective right to dream.
Sometimes our dreams will surprise us if we let them. They’ll lead us back to our childhood home on the eve of our 41st birthday. They’ll have us doing what we’d been taught were sure signs of failing. (I love myself for trying). I now measure my success as a willingness to give up what I thought I knew for the revelation of what is true. To remember who I am, before fear made me forget for a while. To have the strength to live from that place.
And so walking through the neighborhood of my past I remembered the me that used to run through the same streets. Me now and her then. Side by side. Comparing notes. No home, no kids, no boat. Just more questions and fewer answers. Two free spirits tethered into the wondering. Open. Listening.
I turned the corner familiar and foreign both and there it was, the next step—Shasta. A 1985 Winnebago. 144 square feet of endless potential. A home that could fit, no, support, the liberated life I am living. All of a sudden, I realized—my home could have wings!
One small step and one giant leap both. I knew what I was declaring when my partner and I sat down at a kitchen table and handed over a handful of hundreds to Fred and Peggy. A small fortune. Enough to own our own piece of mobile real-estate. Real AF estate. Analog to the max. A Tesla may get you there faster, but Shasta demands you pay more attention to the world through which you’re traveling. She lets you feel every bump in the road. No temperature control. No computer screen. Just free falling forward in the direction of the forever unknown. Five tons of freedom.
Freedom, like all potent words, carries with it a weight. A sense that we don’t totally understand the complexities of what it means. Anyone paying attention is painfully aware that freedom isn’t freely given. The founding fathers forgot their mothers. So many limitations placed on their profound declaration. To have left any single person out of a universal claim. To have left love out of the equation.
We keep forgetting what we already know. What we feel when we’re courageous enough to. The powers that be don’t encourage us to remember. The systems in place reward compliance and convince us it’s care. But I know what love feels like and it’s not a box you check on a form. We need to show the Establishment what love looks like by living it beyond their instruction.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the “experts” believed love in the form of physical affection didn’t serve any real purpose other than spreading disease. Then Harry Harlow came along to learn about love by torturing monkeys. Science seeking to measure in a lab what life lived proves everyday. Alas it seems that sometimes what we call ‘progress’ wields cruelty to gain some ground on understanding how we might be kinder.
In his experimenting, Harlow found that baby rhesus monkeys—if given the choice between a soft terrycloth monkey “mother”, or a hard wire monkey holding a bottle—would choose to spend the majority of their time with the cloth mother. A lot of suffering to discover the simple truth—a hug is its own kind of life-sustaining nourishment. Of course I don’t need a scientist to tell me that. My whole body knows.
Independence is about trusting what the body knows. Freedom is making the choice to honor that.
Another important discovery made during Harlow’s research (and no doubt known for millennia by countless caregivers before he “discovered” what they had known all along) is that affection leads to security. And that security leads to the confidence to go out into the world.
In dependence we find the strength to stand on our own. Independence isn’t about not needing each other. We need each other. We really do. It’s been a powerful shift for me to open more fully to that truth. To acknowledge that the human animal is still here because of our natural inclination to lean into each other. To look beyond the narrow pages of our high school history books to find a fuller picture of what it means to be human. When Darwin wrote of human evolution in The Descent of Man, he mentioned “survival of the fittest” twice, and love, 95 times.
Margaret Mead noted that the first sign of civilization wasn’t the tools unearthed in her searching, but rather a healed human thigh bone. In the animal kingdom a broken leg generally means death, no longer able to run from danger or hunt for food. An injured animal left would not survive long on its own. That Mead found a mended femur meant that someone had tended to the one who fell. Walked to the river for water for the one who couldn’t. Shared their food. Provided safety for the recovery. Cared beyond mere survival.
All the broken bones that have healed to get us here. We are here because we’re divinely designed to depend on each other. We are still here because we tend to and defend each other.
Independence isn’t about freedom from dependence. Independence is freedom from control. The right to pursue what is true beyond what the powerful few set to be so that they might benefit from it. That’s why people set out over treacherous waters headed to strange lands. That’s what keeps someone walking through the desert at night. That’s what propels one to leave what they know for what they hope is possible. The liberty to decide for themselves how they wish to spend their precious time on this earth.
What would you give up to gain freedom? What safety net are you tangled in? Does your body know what freedom feels like?
I see the gift this past year has offered. A break down of what had previously felt set in some kind of worn-out stone. A nauseating boat ride to unknown shores. Whether or not we wanted it, we got a forced shift of perspective to ponder the lives we’d been living and whether or not they fit. A nagging insistence, every moment is a chance to imagine another way.
That’s the simplest expression of what I think I might be doing. A woman rambling down the road, getting passed by everyone in a hurry to who knows where. I used to feel sorry for what I have become. And I’ve never felt more real. And so, I am rethinking everything. Taking showers in truck stops. Asking new friends for favors. Ignoring signs and parking overnight in parking lots telling me not to. I’m doing the things I was taught I shouldn’t.
I’m risking the rewards that come from shedding the ‘shoulds’ in favor of the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘coulds.’ A life of possibility. A life of freedom beyond what I’m afraid may or may not happen. Living towards my aspirations by making choices that lead in their direction. The life we’re all longing for isn’t found in flimsy textbooks. There’s no manual for what hasn’t happened yet. The world we all deserve is found in our willingness to go where we do not know but believe is within reach. It’s found in letting go of what they’ve said is so, for what we hope to see. A declaration of independence that includes every dream.