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July 25, 2009


Early morning light is my favourite type of light. I sit on my front step quite often, just after the sun has come up, drinking tea and reading. The world starts to wake up. The crazy squirrel that lives somewhere around here (I hear him every morning talking to himself) came to visit, picking up droppings from the tree in the front garden, tasting them, discarding them, and moving on to the next one. My neighbour, Pam, throws open her patio doors– I imagine that it’s the first thing she does in the mornings in the summer when even the morning air is warm and the light is that warm yellow.

I hear rhythmic footsteps, and a few seconds later, a woman appears around the corner. She’s wearing a green tunic covered with “om” symbols, and yoga pants underneath. At first I think that she’s carrying a yoga mat, but then I realise that it’s not. It’s something long, and rolled up, and reminds me of a roller-blind although I have no idea what it actually is. Her footsteps are even. She looks up towards her car, and then back down towards the pavement. Up to her car, and then back down to the pavement. And then at the car again. And then back down. She had to keep checking that the car was there, and once she knew that it was there, she had to look back down to watch her footsteps and think about her toenails (she needs a pedicure) and then to check that she was still heading directly for the car. She read a story once about a mountain-climber in Scotland, climbing the highest peak in that small country (somewhere near England, she knows this because she wants to go) and there was a crucial point at which the mountaineer got his orientation off by one degree. One degree, and he walked right into a crevasse instead of on the path that was invisible in that thick Scottish fog. Not that she was mountaineering on the streets of Los Angeles, but one degree off is another second out in the open, and yes, those flip-flops would look lovely with hot pink toe-nail polish. There was a girl in yoga class with hot pink toe nails and it looked really good. She’ll go for a pedicure later in the day, after running errands, after meeting her friend for lunch. Maybe she can convince her friend to go for a pedicure too and then she’ll have someone to talk to instead of reading People magazine the entire time, although she secretly likes reading People magazine and that’s her only chance to read it because she would never go out and buy it. And this carries on as she walks to the car and presses the button on her keychain that opens the boot even though she’s nowhere near it, and she carefully places the long thing (it’s a roll-up blind– she’s taking it to Home Depot later to see if they have any more in that colour and size) inside, presses the close button, gets in the car while the boot closes and beeps, and she shuts the door with a well-practiced *thud*.

And then she didn’t notice it, but she breathed a sigh of relief. In the safety of one’s own car, one’s demeanor can afford to change. A return to the comfort zone, to one’s own property, to the shield that protects us from the world and the world from us. We can hold our cars out in front of us like glorious masks and sing “See! See!” in a glorious chorus that the angels will chime in to sing and we will dance to in celebration of how big and wonderful we can make ourselves.

Navigating that open street is like navigating the no-man’s land between trenches. Out in the open. No stuff to hide behind. Except toe-nails and the reassurance that the car is only twenty feet away.

And I do not speak just for the woman in green, I speak for myself too. I often fear that without my masks I am nothing. Rebecca, friend of trees. Rebecca, whose favourite person to hang out with is her cat. Rebecca who produces a piece of art every six months and distresses about her lack of creative drive, Rebecca who loves words, Rebecca who loves to ferment stuff. Rebecca the open book written in a different language (I have the love-letters to prove it, just in case you don’t believe me). Without all of this stuff that’s so important to me, what am I? Certainly not somebody special, or somebody who is loved by anyone. Certainly not somebody that the Gods would think about saving in the event of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. WIthout all of my stuff, I am the same as everybody else without a name and a face. A number. Another person waiting in line at the DMV, sitting next to crying babies, and different languages, and badly dressed people and homeless people and dumb-ass college students and then me, who might not even be a me at all when held under the microscope.

I was hanging out with Pam in the garden yesterday, she was talking about how she isn’t sure she wants a house, and by this point in her life, with a grown-up kid already, she feels slightly guilty that she’s still renting. Like she’s missed one of the check-points of adulthood and hasn’t quite “made it” yet. But that her friends who own houses have so much stress, like Debbie (I don’t know Debbie) who bought a very expensive house and has to pay out at least $30,000 a year just to maintain it and pay the taxes on it and stuff. Or her other friend (I don’t know her name) who got a leak in her basement and it cost her $6,000 to fix. And then I start thinking that if it costs this much to maintain a house, and just to keep it, even though you’ve already bought it (and the taxes are even higher than everywhere else in California, even though the state is still skint) and are going to constantly worry about whether you can afford to keep your house, and what if you get fired, and what if you get sick, and what if something mysterious happens, then is it worth it? At the end of the day, yes, you own something. Another thing added to your protective mask that makes you secure and special and much more likely to be saved by the Gods in the event of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, but are you happy? And then Pam says that unless she can fully afford it, she’d rather rent, and have money to travel and enjoy life than to own a house and be bound to it forever, and I think I agree.

I say I think I do because I’m still not sure. I want a house for my very own– a home to make pretty, and to grow a garden, and to  have chickens and a cow for fresh milk and a place where Oliver the girl cat can run around and catch mice and leave them on the front step to tell us how happy she is– but do I want that at the expense of my freedom? And then I think about my dad, who spent a lot of time on his boat, and how much freedom a boat provides. It doesn’t give you a garden or a cow. And it doesn’t give you a plot of land on the face of the planet to call your very own, (and that is quite a scary thought for me) but it does give you your choice of temporary spots. And you can go wherever you want although it might take you a long time to get there. And when you get there you can stay for as long as you want, and you can even pay to dock in a marina to use their loos and showers if you want. When dad and I were sailing down to the Mar Menor one year, a little boat caught up with us and passed us, and dad looked over and said “ooh, that’s a Hallberg-Rassey; that’s the nicest boat there is.” and I looked over at this boat passing us, and there was a woman steering it. She was wearing a man’s shirt, and had tanned bare legs (the tanned legs you get when you spend a lot of time out on the sea), and a cup of what I imagined to be coffee in one hand, and her long hair was flying around her and she flew past us on this beautiful little boat that was the nicest boat there is. And I thought “when I grow up” (which was only going to be a few years away at that point) “I want a Hallberg-Rassey and to sail it around the Mediterranean with long hair and a man’s shirt and a cup of coffee”. She could have been miserable. She could have been sailing somebody else’s boat, or have stolen it. But in my mind she was the most glorious thing I’d ever seen. She was what I wanted my mask to be and have.

Masks are essential. Like an interface for a computer– otherwise it’d just be a bunch of numbers that make no sense. We need something to show the world, some things to want to achieve, some way to get there. Absolutely essential, otherwise we’d just be balls of energy floating around squished together being “one”. It’s just that they don’t need to be permanent masks. And they can’t protect us from the world, as much as we would love them to. When death comes, and it always does, we can’t throw our cars and houses and idiosyncracies at him like he’s going to say “oh, I didn’t REALISE that you had a Mercedes… I’ll give you another week now”. But still, somewhere under all of it, I think we believe that it does work like that, that the more special we are, the more we can avoid the inevitable. I think that advertising plays a huge part of this– throwing images of beautiful and possibly immortal people at us all the time– always glamorous, always enjoying life, always stress-free, and driving their BMW on an empty mountain road with no speed-check-radars in sight. And I personally at least lust after the idea of just one minute of that supposed stress-free, death-free, speed-check-radar-free life. Of course, getting it would release all resistance in life, like letting go of gravity. In some ways I wonder if it’s the existence of these stressors that keep us going– something to move towards and fight for. But I digress. Masks are essential, but not set in stone. And they don’t need to be the same as everybody else’s. And they can’t protect you from suffering, although the advertisers would have you believe otherwise.

“Freedom”, I think, “what is it really?”. Is it a boat? Is it a house? Is it having none of these things to worry about? I am not sure that freedom is dependent on anything external anymore. Freedom to my teacher, D, is not having a car. To the woman in green, reaching her car was her moment of freedom. To my dad it was being out on the water, and yet to somebody else it might be a house with a white picket fence. All of these freedoms are dependent on maintaining a sort of ‘freedom-stasis’ where the factors that come together to create that freedom stay stable. I think that true freedom has to do with not being bound to our masks, and having the ability to see options, and make choices at every second. We are so often bound by our past– our past actions and experiences drive our future acts like a groove in a record drives the needle. Freedom from this past opens up an entire world of choices. Like when I was sitting in my treehouse a few weeks ago and looked up and noticed that there were other branches to climb that I’d never noticed because the treehouse had been my goal the entire time. The tree opened up for me. Now I sit anywhere that will take my weight. Freedom– from fear; from advertising; from the influence of others; from self-pity and from self-importance; to let go or hold on as one sees fit– this sounds to me like the most beautiful thing in the world. As beautiful as having my own house and a cow and chickens and having the money to maintain this lifestyle without worrying about it all the time. As beautiful as sailing the ocean in my own boat wearing a man’s shirt and drinking coffee.

And that kind of freedom is possible regardless of income or location.

All that it requires is the ability to let go.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mark permalink
    July 25, 2009 13:20

    I like the light of the early morning as well. I look at it as the possibility-point of the day. All things are possible here. A new day. A new start. All the potential has gathered to this point and now I can possibly do this or do that.

    I like your thoughts on freedom. I’m not sure how I would categorize my thoughts on the subject. But, I do know that I would include a freedom from expectations. I think you spoke of it well without actually using the words. I don’t want to be tied down to my own (or anyone else’s) expectations of how to behave, where to live, what to do, or anything else.

    I want to remove all the masks to see what’s behind so I can choose the mask I wish to wear in each moment. Not because someone expects me to, but because I have the freedom to choose to.

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