Monday, February 01, 2016

"I've Tried, In My Way, To Be Free"

Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried
In my way
To be free

The great Leonard Cohen wrote these lines for what is one of his signature songs, "Bird on a Wire," but they only really got through to me when Johnny Cash sang them late in his career. There is something about his old man bass tremolo that speaks to my soul.

When I was five-years-old, I went to kindergarten, my first time in any sort of school. Mom trusted me with the tuition check (kindergartens were all private back then), which she put in an envelope, which I put in my ball cap, which then went on my head. I gave it to Mrs. Jennings by tipping my hat to her. Even now, I think that's a pretty dashing and nifty way to introduce yourself to a teacher. You see, I had things figured out when I was five. Then I turned six and had to figure it out again, then seven, then eight, then twelve when not only did I have everything figured out, but I was also certain that the rest of you conformists had it figured out wrong, a state of affairs that continued well into my twenties.

I have tried, in my way, to be free, and for me at least that has been a process of trying to figure it out. Not the meaning of life, exactly, although I'm interested in that question too, but more simply: given what I know so far, how should I proceed? At a very primal level, I seem to believe that if I can figure that out, today, I can be free at least for today.

I imagine that's what we're all doing, trying, in our way, to be free. And I imagine that we're all going about it in our own ways, be it gathering together or casting away, reaping or sowing, hating or loving; trying to figure it out for ourselves. Or maybe not, I don't know, I can only speak for myself, but what I do know is that tomorrow will not be like today, next year won't be like this year, the lesson of decades is that change is the only constant, and if I'm not constantly trying to figure it out, life traps me. When I'm not striving to be free, it captures me and I find myself wondering where the days have gone.

What we did in Mrs. Jennings' class was play. We built with blocks, we painted, we dug in the sandbox and chased one another on the playground, the very things we do today at the Woodland Park Cooperative School, where we spend our days figuring it out again and again and again, because ultimately that's what play is all about: figuring it out. We play to stave off the curse of rote, which is how life captures us. We play not because it's the only way to prepare ourselves for this life, but rather because it's the only way to be free.

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Rebecca deCoca said...

Thank you for the food for thought.

Anonymous said...

I love this. It's nice to know I wasn't the only 'weird' kid growing up. Funny how hearing things put into words can sometimes allow you to let go of emotions you didn't even know were there. It's hard to strive to be free, especially when you feel you're alone in doing so.

Arthur Battram said...

That Leonard Cohen line always reminds me of this other avian-influenced song, sung by a magnificent human rights activist who knew more than most about not being free...

I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holdin' me
I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say 'em loud say 'em clear
For the whole 'round world to hear

I wish I could share
All the love that's in my heart
Remove all the bars
That keep us apart
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you'd see and agree
That every man should be free

I wish I could give
All I'm longin' to give
I wish I could live like I'm longing to live
I wish I could do all the things that I can do
And though I'm way over due
I'd be startin' a new

Well I wish I could be
Like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be
If I found I could fly
Oh I'd soar to the sun
And look down at the sea

Then I'd sing 'cause I'd know yeah
And I'd sing 'cause I'd know yeah
And I'd sing 'cause I'd know

I'd know how it feels
I'd know how it feels to be free
Yeah, yeah I'd know how it feels
Yes, I'd know
I'd know how it feels, how it feels
To be free, oh lord...

Sung by Nina Simone and written by William Taylor and Richard Carroll Lamb

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