The afternoon was hot, so Ava and I decided to go farther than usual, out into the deep woods. It’s cooler there and we still know of one good walking road in the higher hills that hasn’t recently been decreed off limits to the peasants.
Locals in the know used to drive a branch of that road all the way up a steep (like 4WD steep) incline to a flat, clearcut spot. There, dense woods gave way to a distant — but sweeping and grand — view of the ocean. No more. Now you can walk, not drive, for about 3/4 of a mile before you find both forks of the old road cut away to allow a salmon stream to flow through. The stream courses in a narrow cut about 30 feet below the level of the former road, and the dirt and rock they dug out to restore the watercourse is heaped steeply on the near side of it, making a formidable barrier to venturing across the water.
Still, the 1.5 mile walk in and out to that spot is just about right for an old dog and a silver-haired dog walker.
Yesterday when we got in as far as we could go, we found an aluminum lawn chair atop the rapidly greening heap of road rubble. Part of its seat was torn out and a blop of bird doo marred the intact section, but there was enough surface left to hold my skinny butt in reasonable comfort.
I sat there, queen of the hill, and listened to the exquisite silence. Aside from the crystaline rush of water, there wasn’t a sound. Not a truck, not an airplane overhead, not another person, not even a bird. Just perfect silence on a perfect day.
I felt content and perfectly free.
I’ve just read two books by Jaycee Lee Dugard, the young woman who, in 2009, was liberated from 18 years of captivity at the hands of a convicteded sex offender and his wife. The pair grabbed Jaycee in 1991 when she was just 11 years old and subjected her to physical and psychological horrors right under the eyes of the police and probation officers who were supposed to be monitoring the man’s behavior. In captivity, Jaycee gave birth to two children, who remained captive with her.
Fortunately, when finally released, she benefited from a loving family, privacy precautions, deep friendships, and years of innovative immersive care that helped her and her family adjust. (She doesn’t talk about the $20 million settlement from the state of California that probably went a long, long way toward enabling her remarkable post-captivity therapy and resiliance.)
Freedom describes all manner of mundane — to the rest of us — activities of young adult life. Her adoration for Starbucks and nice shoes. Trips to abroad with friends and family. Her first traffic ticket and the godawful experience (delayed flight, canceled flight, late-night taxi rides in strange cities) of her first solo airline flight. Horseback riding (which has been the mainstay of her recovery therapy). The activities of her JAYC Foundation (which aims to both prevent victimization and help victims of abuse), and her attempts to tell psychologists and trauma specialists that the term Stockholm Syndrome is inaccurate, unhelpful, and demeaning. Much of the information is trivial and almost boring — except that it’s all happening to someone who, for the majority of her existence, had no choice except to hide, comply, and placate a crazy captor.
The key phrase is “had no choice.” No choice about the big issues of life — where to live, whom to associate with, whether or not to have children. But even something like being able to specify which McDonald’s burger she wanted was a rare privilege. For the most part, the limited decisions she was able to make were based on the utmost un-free criteria: “If I don’t do what he wants, will he kill me?” “If I don’t obey, will he take away my children?”
So being able, as a 30-something woman, to buy a caramel macchiato, drive a car, or go to a concert represents some once-unthinkable liberation.
All those everyday things the rest of us take for granted are, to Jaycee Dugard, dazzling, sometimes terrifying and tricky to navigate, freedoms.
They call us cop outs — those guys who spend every waking minute alarming over the bad news of the day and urging us all to prepare to fight for the political freedom of the future.
They have a point. No doubt about it. Someday when a fight for freedom comes to us, we may need to join the battle — or at least support it from the sidelines or the underground. If that day comes, I hope and expect that millions of freedom fighters will do their part. Even then, though, the “fight” will involve more messengers, mechanics, suppliers, repairers, doctors, nurses, food growers, safe-house operators, and “native guides” than actual combat-ready militiamen.
In every crisis, there are stories of failures on the part of the allegedly well-prepared (thus the truism that generals tend to fight the previous war). There are even more stories of unassuming individuals stepping up to save the day or save a life or brilliantly solve a problem or just generally Do the Right Thing. I’m talking about individuals who may not have had special training and who certainly didn’t spend their lives anticipating and conditioning themselves for the crisis that’s just come down upon their heads.
Sure, it’s good to be prepared for the worst. Good to practice situational awareness. Good to understand how forces from nature to politics are shaping the world. Good to know how to shoot. Good to have reserves. Good to practice privacy protection. Good to think in terms of physical security. Good to know how to grow and preserve food. Good to build intelligent networks. Good to learn in advance how to keep one’s mouth shut or tie knots or scout out a new territory. Good to be able to keep a cool head in a crisis.
But in the meantime, don’t forget what freedom is (as I suspect those ever-vigilant, train-your-life-away, and dream of Red Dawn guys often do). Freedom is us making our daily choices — and sometimes pausing and choosing to enjoy minutely simple things.
Which is not to say that a fight is never needed. Fights transfer power from one influence group to another, and that may be necessary in this overgoverned world, even if the same dismal sort of people keep ending up on top after every war (or for that matter, every election).
Constitutionalists always talking about how this country was created for a moral people. They have a point, too. If we let freedom slip away because we’re too busy enjoying the bacchanal of consumerism or because we’ve lost our principles, then shame on us. But this talk of a moral people is such a stiff-necked, puritanical notion.
If you were given the choice of joining a bunch of self-advertised moral people for an afternoon picnic or a bunch of kind people — and that’s all you knew about each group — which would you opt for? If you were to join an army and you had a choice of one whose soldiers were moral and one whose soldiers were tough, which would you cast your lot with?
The reality is that most people are moral, but those who go around making a big deal out of superior “morality” (and of course, everyone else’s severely lacking morality) are not only stick-up-the-butts but are usually seriously deficient when it comes to simple human empathy. They’re also no better than anybody else when it comes to strategy and tactics. They’re often the complete sh*t when a situation requires flexibility. They may be so blinded by the way they want the world to be that they can’t work with the world as it is.
They are, in fact, the very sort of people who create tyrannies so they can force everybody else into the straightjacket of their personal standards.
Highfalutin’ principles can be valuable, of course. I’m all for ’em. Used to have a ton of them, myself and still hang on to a few. But principles are not of value if they keep you from dealing productively with the messy, gray situations reality typically presents. Or if they deter you from relishing the freedom you already have. They’re certainly not a good thing if they turn you into your enemy’s twin — demanding, inflexible, and convinced of your own superiority.
I agree that it takes strong and principled people to preserve freedom. But it also takes neighborly, collaborative, flexible, clever, humble, loving, and appreciative ones. It takes people who understand and cherish the daily reality of freedom so much that they won’t easily surrender it for the sake of anyone else’s grand visions — visions that gaze to the past or future, visions that depend on political or military action, visions that look everywhere except here, now, and within.