On the Fourth of July I awoke to the sound of bells coming across the lake from the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York, to my guest room at a friend’s lake house. I felt grateful for two consecutive full nights of sleep (and a nap!) after a week of scrimping. I had run and walked along silent roads lined with wildflowers, cornfields, vineyards, and the occasional tennis court of a local resort. I had met new people, caught up with one of my best girlfriends, and finished the second novel in the Hunger Games series my nephews have me addicted to this summer.
Twenty or thirty of my friend’s and others’ children had run around the property barefoot and jacked up on cotton candy. Crazy-in-love with the freedom of summer vacation, they flung their skinny bodies down the rented waterslide to smack into the pool below, then jumped in the bounce house until they were dizzy, falling and laughing over each other.
At night, while adults cheered at fireworks over the lake, their kids ran around with s’more-caked fingers, their knuckles decked out in glowing, rainbow-colored flashlight-rings that turned the air around them into dizzying streaks of light across their sky.
Watching them, I remembered similar freedoms I had celebrated in my own childhood, and I wondered about ways they had changed.
Can careening childhood freedoms grow up too? What do adult versions of innocent freedom look like?
For me, they are freedoms I do not pay attention to often enough—not just the red, white and blue freedoms we celebrate on the Fourth, not just the kind that make us not have to pay taxes to the English monarchy. I do not even mean the freedoms more Americans have been gaining in the years since independence, which have taken time to work into laws and hearts—the freedom to exercise rights such as voting, attending good schools, and more recently in states like New York, marrying the person we love.
Lately, around every corner I have been bumping into the adult versions of freedom that can be as tough to navigate as the freedoms outlined in laws and constitutions.
Around one is a friend’s challenge to be who she is—in her daily life, work and home. She is surely not alone in the challenge to fearlessly present the same “me” outside that we sense is inside.
Around another corner is the freedom to be who we are in relationships and marriage, and the challenge that comes with actively choosing to limit our freedom out of love. I am thinking of one couple that is contemplating an important geographical move to support one spouse’s career, and the mixed feelings it raises for the other about limits it may place on hers.
Around another are life choices we are free but reluctant to make, sometimes to the point of kicking our freedom to the curb, hoping time will somehow figure it out and present the answers to our toughest questions on a silver platter one day. I confess to struggling with this one!
And around another corner still, a close older relative faces the slow loss of treasured independence due to age and injury. With admirable courage and dignity, she is showing me freedoms I take for granted: the freedom to navigate the world and ourselves in it; to move fearlessly through places known by heart that can suddenly turn on us in sickness or age—stairs and rugs and edges and more; and the freedom to make our own decisions about where we will live out our lives.
Last week I actually cheered at the sight of handrails and a hand-held shower being installed in the bathroom. All by themselves, two six-inch plastic grips and a showerhead delivered independence, dignity and a smile on her face. The fact that my heart lifted more at the sight of handicapped bathroom equipment than fireworks this Fourth of July has me slowing down to appreciate the mobility I take for granted in health.
So what is the adult equivalent of the freedom children celebrated this weekend?
For American women anyway, a Ladies Home Journal survey indicated last month that we are happiest when we are independent and able to control our lives and schedules. This echoed results from a similar survey in April's issue of Woman's Day, where women said what makes them happiest is the "me" time we are free to determine how to spend (this freedom outranked children, friends, faith, marriage, and jobs). It's safe to assume some cultural bias here, as women without the basic freedoms that Americans take for granted could feel differently--i.e., driving may be last on a list of American women’s most treasured freedoms, while Saudi women likely have a different perspective.
Something to Think About - What is Your Version of Running Through Fireflies on the Fourth of July?
Whether we use our freedom to careen across our lawns with bare feet and s’more-caked faces, or to create daily lives that reflect who we are, I suspect adult freedoms are not so far from children’s. (There were more than a few adults pushing the weight limit on the kiddie waterslide on Sunday.)
But they do grow up a little too:
• What freedoms are you most grateful for?
• What freedoms do you fail to seize as willingly as kids do on the Fourth of July? They are the
freedoms that sit, stagnant in your life (maybe because you’re too chicken or worried to take
advantage of them?). They include the freedom to do work that reflects who you are, to say the
“you” that is itching to be said. Where have you declined acting on the dare from your heart to just
go ahead and be who you are already?
• What would your life look like if you really, really believed you were free—not just from oppression
by governments or foreign enemies, but from your own neuroses and self-imposed, crummy limits?
• What are the freedoms you would work to advance for others? This is where I think our work in the
world lies. I wonder how the work you do—in your family or professional life—moves someone else
closer to freedom.
If you are an educator, the skills you teach give your students choices for their futures. If you are
a counselor, you empower your clients to claim and use the freedoms they have. If you work in the
health care field, you work to give freedom and independence back to the sick and aging. Whether
you are in law enforcement or the military, the arts or parenting, law or finance, what freedoms do
you help others to grow into adulthood?
Between now and the next Fourth of July, may the freedoms in your life give you strength to advance the freedom of others. As your own childhood freedoms grow into their adult versions, may you see where your limits are imaginary lines, and may you lightly and happily skip over them to even more astounding freedom on the other side.