The other day a memory popped in my head of a summer evening a few years ago, my husband had made Margaritas and built a bonfire in the backyard and I was wrapped up in my purple fuzzy blanket which my husband affectionately referred to as my sooky blanket. The radio was blasting in the garage and like many a person before me in a similar scenario, on a similar summer night full of promise I belted out the familiar words “Freedoms just another word for nothing left to lose…” from my favorite Janis Joplin song “Me and Bobby Mcgee’.
Many times over the past several months that memory has invaded my thoughts and as I imagined Janis pulling her harpoon out of her dirty red bandana, and playing soft while Bobby sang the blues, I also imagined Kirk taking my margarita out of my hand, moving my blanket aside and pulling me to my feet so we could dance, like teenagers, right there in our backyard. ‘Feeling good was good enough for me’.
There is a picture from that night that my sister in law and my daughters wear around their neck. His smile is magnetic and it is just a great picture to a lot of people, a picture that shows the Kirk that we all like to remember , but to me it is also a memory, one that will be forever imprinted on my soul. A memory that reminds me what freedom feels like, one that reminds me to dance, love and sing (even though I am tone deaf)
Somehow, Kirk slipped away from me. His depression shackled him in chains and bit by bit took his freedoms away.
Freedom means different things to different people.
When I think of the word freedom, I close my eyes and imagine myself outside sucking in the air and screaming from the top of my lungs, not so unlike the Four Non Blondes song. Throwing my hands up in the air, face to the sun.
I think of how for months after I lost Kirk to suicide that I was bound by his pain without ever even taking a moment to feel my own. While the world slept peacefully each night when the darkness fell upon their piece of earth my heart waged a ferocious war with my mind. I was my own worst enemy and without realizing it at the time I had the potential to be my own savior as well. While Kirk slowly climbed a stairway to heaven, I quickly descended a stairway to hell. A dark place I created in my own mind, a place that kept me unwell, that kept me small and lost and not at all living. Somewhere in the darkness I found and followed a glimmer of light. What I sought was emotional freedom. I was being held captive by my own thoughts and emotions, much like Kirk was. The difference was even at my lowest I knew that I was in control, sadly unlike those that suffer the devastating effects of depression and the attacks by their own brain, I always had a sense that I was in charge.
Shortly before Kirk passed away he got home one night and we were in the garage listening to music, I ordered Pizza and the delivery driver that came to the door was one of the most captivating young men I have ever met. I was immediately taken in by his smile and his enthusiasm. He wasn’t at all alarmed that my huge dogs surrounded him in curiosity and he seemed so genuinely eager and absorbed in the very moment, the conversation and the experience. It remains a powerful and memorable encounter for me. His name was Mustafa and he was a Syrian refugee. In our short but impressionable conversation he told me a little bit about his country and how much he missed it. When I asked him what he liked about Canada, he answered with the same elevated level of enthusiasm that directed the entire conversation and the charming smile that I will never forget.
“Freedom,” he said.
For me, freedom is a feeling and thoughts and the independence to be in control of my own ideas, feelings and decisions, regardless of what mass media or society spoon feeds me. Freedom means emotional sovereignty, knowing that I am always in control of me. Freedom is courage and self determination. Freedom is a long country road and good music to sing along to.
Freedom for me has never meant waking up without the sound of gunfire, the threat of violence or without fearing for my life and the lives of my family. That has never been my experience.
As some of you may know, February is Black History month and zealous to learn about things that we either did not learn about when I went to school or subjects that were glossed over I spent some free time educating myself. There are a couple things that stand out in my mind and one is the last scene from the Idris Elba movie Sometimes In April. The movie is based on the dark and violent hundred days when Hutu Nationalists raised arms against their Tutsi countrymen in the African Nation of Rwanda, beginning in April of 1994. As brother turned against brother, lives and families were torn apart and over 800 000 lives were lost, forever changing history. There is a scene at the end of the movie where a woman stands up and says ‘I was there. I’m a survivor.” Her name was Martine and she was a teacher at a Catholic School when the Hutu Militia storms the school gunning down all of the girls with automatic rifles. Martine had been knocked out during the encounter and somehow she and one other girl survive the unimaginable massacre. When Martine stands up and says the three simple words “I am a survivor.” Every single hair on my body stands on end.
In the past several months I have often thought of myself as a survivor. Finding freedom over the experiences I have endured, without being reduced by them. I often imagine what being a survivor means to someone like Martine, what freedom means to her.
I also watched a compelling documentary on abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass who was born into slavery sometime around 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. Douglass was chosen to live in his Masters house, believed to be his father. His mother died when he was between 7 and 10 years of age and he was moved around between slave owners and faced cruel but unfortunately not unusual punishment for its time.
He went on to become one of the most famous intellectuals of his time. A Baltimore slave owner’s wife taught him the alphabet and when she was forced to stop teaching him he learned from white kids and others in the neighborhood. Douglass, during his lifetime, advised presidents and lectured to thousands on a range of causes, including women’s rights and Irish home rule.
It was through extensive reading that Douglass’ righteous indignation to slavery began to take shape. He read newspapers keenly and sought out political writing and literature as much as possible. In later years, Douglass credited The Columbian Orator with clarifying and defining his views on human rights. Douglas shared his knowledge with other enslaved people and eventually found his way to freedom. Imagine what freedom meant to Frederick Douglas. Imagine what Freedom meant to someone born into slavery. Imagine what Freedom means to people whose ancestors were not born free.
Douglass said “Knowledge is the pathway to freedom.”
“Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”
As part of my healing journey I developed a Moksha that is on a sticky note in my office and I say it out loud when I am overwhelmed. I used to say it several times a day. A Moksha is similar to a mantra but the best way I can describe it is a liberation or a release, mine is “I am emotionally free.”
Freedom, the very word and the idea is a bit of a paradox. Is Freedom just a state of mind?
I do this exercise inspired by Tony Robbins, gratitude visualization. I also visualize what words like gratitude, freedom, courage, love and connection mean to me. I bring in memories one by one and then I visualize moments from the future. I am very aware that my memories and visualizations are due to my own experiences. I have not and cannot live anyone else’s experience nor define or deny what something means to them.
The last several weeks when I thought of freedom I thought of people whose mental illness traps them in a devastating experience in their own minds, of North Koreans and the communist regime that forces them into modern day slavery, I think of people like Mustafa and his family forced to flee the only home they have ever known to come to a country where they are looked upon suspiciously and called terrorists out of hatred and ignorance, I think of those that are still fighting racism and bigotry by having the perceived audacity to want the same unalienable rights as their white neighbors, the right to the fearless pursuit of happiness that everyone else gets. The freedom to feel like an equal. The freedom to be seen and heard. The freedom to walk or drive to the store without being profiled and harassed because they look or do not look a certain way. I think of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, mourning the loss of their friends to yet another senseless and horrifying school shooting yet fighting gun reform so they can feel a sense of freedom in their own communities and consequently I think of the youth of the Black Lives Matter movement who have been fighting the same fight for gun reform, to much less fanfare for years. Fighting for fair treatment from the very people sworn to protect them.
It means something different to everyone and we have to be aware and empathetic to the experiences of others, even though they may differ from our own. Some people fight for freedom every single day. Some people pass the fight down from generation to generation.
Nelson Mandela said “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in such a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”
I imagine a world where we are able to love and be loved in such a way that we feel free, that we feel the freedom to be our true selves and live the lives we want to lead without fear and we genuinely want the same freedoms that we enjoy for others.
What does freedom mean to you?
“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free… so other people would be also free”. ~ Rosa Parks