For better or for worse, I'm in love with freedom. This romance began when I was a child and grew as I grew, becoming the central focus, the beat in my veins, the pulse. For most of my life, I chose freedom over other pursuits. I sacrificed safety, pleasure, and relationships for freedom. Despite its difficulties and responsibilities, freedom was the air I wanted to breathe.
When I was a child, I loved being with my parents and older sister. But I always liked to be alone, too. Reading and thinking, wandering and dreaming were just as important as being with others. If I was with people too long without a chance to go off by myself, it felt like confinement. I enjoyed socializing to a point, and then it seemed like a job, a lot of work with little or no pay. Even as a teenager, I realized that I was slightly Jekyll and Hyde about this. It was strange to me, how I could be genuinely gregarious and then, boom, not. Just the opposite. "Get me outta Dodge!" Too easily, a social situation could turn into a prison yard. I wanted relationships, and I wanted to be free. Unfortunately, sometimes the two didn't go together.
In college, I would be the life of the party and then suddenly leave. Often without telling anyone. My friend, Maureen, scolded me about my disappearing acts. The last time I pulled this stunt, we were on vacation in Mexico. I hadn't left her alone--she was with other friends--but she was concerned about my safety. This occurred in the days before cell phones. Since then, I always make sure to announce, "I'm going home (or back to the hotel) now," or I make it clear before the outing that I plan on spending this amount of time and that's it.
My husband Kenneth enjoys his own company and is not a big socializer, so that works out well for us. Neither of us could be married to a person who wants a herd around her/him. It's simply not in our natures. When we visit his family in Denmark, we usually sit at the lunch or dinner table for hours. These experiences have their wonderful aspects, but they're not natural to me. We don't see his family enough, so I'm able to power through it for love's sake. When we get home from Europe, I don't talk to anyone (except Kenneth and our cat Zooey) for about a week, trying to recover from social intoxication.
One of my favorite quotes in literature is from Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour."
There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.
Chopin wrote this story in 1894. It's a masterpiece of writing in its brevity and profundity (and way ahead of its time) about a woman (a housewife and mother) becoming conscious of her need for freedom, her need for independence, her desire to know herself and live on her own terms.
When I first read this story, I was twenty years old, in college, and in an unhappy marriage. I married young because in the 1970's that's what most girls did. I was told to marry a "good provider," and he would take care of me.
I never wanted to marry. When I was sixteen, I vowed to never get married. My parents' relationship unraveled, and they fought constantly. Their misery bordered on violence for a long time, and violence finally happened. I thought marriage wasn't a smart idea for anyone, women and men. I was trapped in my parents' misery, and I was trapped there with my baby sister whom I tried to protect. However, even though I felt so strongly against marriage, I ended up marrying too young because I was afraid to live otherwise. I was brain-washed (and raised Catholic) and had never been taught that a human being can have a happy, productive, and worthwhile life on her own, without being bent "in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature."
No one has the right.
A true relationship cannot survive that blind persistence, the emotional greediness of imposing your will on another.
I divorced when I was twenty-one. Two decades passed. I never planned on marrying again, but I met Kenneth who loves freedom as much as I do, who would never try to bend me to his will. It's odd to both of us, that weird power-struggle enterprise, how some people try to get others to do their bidding. The need to boss other people around is a reflection of your imbalanced relationship with yourself. You don't feel freedom inside, so you don't want anyone else to experience it. If you possess authentic power, you don't need to try and steal or wrangle it from others.
In our household, we rarely tell each other what to do. We ask, and the answer might be "No." And we accept it. "On Saturday, will you prune the bushes that are burying our house beneath them? "No." "Right this second, will you wash my fifteen pounds of dirty clothes that I've piled up for weeks in my Bermuda Triangle closet?" "No." And then these jobs get done, voila, when they get done. We're aware of our responsibilities, we've negotiated our duties. However, this declarative can still pop up every few months:
"Don't tell me what to do."
More from Kenneth than from me. I still tend to think (the conditioning is tough to buck) he should do certain "man jobs," like clean out the sewer line and basically give up his life for me (just kidding!), but do I think I should have to do particular "woman jobs?"
No way, José.
When I was in my twenties, I read the following poem by Linda Gregg. It was exactly what I thought of marriage.
No More Marriages
Well, there ain't going to be no more marriages.
And no goddam honeymoons. Not if I can help it.
Not that I don't like men, being in bed with them and all. It's the rest.
And that's what happens, isn't it? All those people
that get littler together. I want things
to happen to me the proper size.
The moon and the salmon and me and the fir trees,
they're all the same size and they live together.
I'm the worse part, but mean no harm.
I might scare a deer, but I walk and breathe
as quiet as a person can learn.
If I'm not like my grandmother's garden
that smelled sweet all over and was warm
as a river, I do go up the mountain
to see the birds close and look
at the moon just come visible and lie down
to look at it with my face open.
Guilty or not, though, there won't be no post
cards made up of my life with Delphi on them.
Not even if I have to eat alone all those years.
They're never going to do that to me.
Yes, "all those people that get littler together."
"I want things to happen to me the proper size...even if I have to eat alone all those years."
I ate plenty of meals alone. For about fourteen years. While I was ingesting my sink meals, did I ever think that I was, as Jean-Paul Sartre said, "condemned to be free?"
I had my moments. But then I'd write, or teach a class, or go out to dinner with a friend, and more often than not, I was glad to return to my house where I might be lonely, but I was free. I agree with Simone de Beauvoir: "I wish that every human life might be pure, transparent freedom."
Our birthright is freedom. We come from freedom, and it's where we're going, and who we are. Life's "proper size" is freedom.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society