WHEN I WAS IN KINDEGARTEN we learned to say, “The Pledge of Allegiance" and to sing, "My Country ‘Tis of Thee". When it came to the last line, "Let freedom ring", I would imagine two Frito Lay corn chips calling each other up on one of those telephones that we used to make from paper cups strung together with a string. That was so back in the day, I’m sure that soon kids won’t be able to play that game at all anymore; they won’t be able to imagine telephones with cords attached to them stuck to a wall. I wonder if now they think that the people they're talking to are actually inside their cellphones, the way I used to believe that there was a man named Joe Matzaratzi who lived behind our refrigerator and handed out all the food through a secret door in the back of the fridge, until I figured out that it was actually a big fat lie my mother was telling us, without a bit of truth in it. It didn’t matter, once I knew I still kept my best friend, Scott Monie, so convinced that when we moved away to Pennsylvania and his family came to visit, he wanted to know if Joe had come with us. Yeah, I told him, he did, where else do you think that sandwich came from?
But back in kindergarten, I had the concept of the telephone mixed up with a game we called "Whisper Down the Lane" – the one where you say something to the person next to you and then they say it to the person on the other side of them who says it to the one next to them all the way around until the end when the last person says it out loud and everyone laughs because it’s so different from how it was at the beginning. Because I had no idea what the words freedom ring meant, and no one else was talking about it, I just sang along imagining the fritos talking to each other on the phone, pretty sure I was on the right track. And maybe I was, really. The first definition of freedom in the dictionary says that freedom is, "the condition of being free; the power to act or think or speak without externally imposed restraints." So I guess I was experiencing freedom around my concept of the meaning of the word.
And maybe freedom really is kind of like that game. If I start out with an idea about something, the definition of the word freedom in that case, or the concept of freedom of speech for instance, the right to say whatever it is that I think or believe in, then I begin to wonder where and why those thoughts about what is true or real came from to begin with. Or if any of what exists inside me, as thought, is without external restraint in the form of the limitation of currently available information? And, how much of what I’m willing to think, or admit to myself, much less say, comes without the restraint of my own, not so friendly, live-in critic, developed over a lifetime’s worth of absorbed experiences about what works and what doesn’t, what’s o.k., and what’s not, given whatever socio-cultural biases I’m most given to at any given time. Freedom is one of those trick words, like truth, I think, or at least trick definitions. Just when you think you’ve got it, you don’t. I guess the sky, the wind, and the ocean, know a lot about freedom and truth, but not much about language, and don’t struggle too much with this.
I remember sitting on a wooden swing in the middle of one of those parks that in New York City they call “pocket parks”, but this one was on the Isle of Goleta in Santa Barbara, California in June of 1977. I had a bag of Oreo cookies on my lap, and I felt like I had just discovered what freedom was. I was 21 years old, freshly graduated from art school and girlfriend of mine and I had hitchhiked down to Southern California from San Francisco, an act of freedom in itself, to stay with some friends until we managed to get a ride back East where our parents lived. We were attempting to do that solely through a note that we had written and posted on the UCSD Ride Board that read, "2 women looking for a ride to New York via Mexico" with our friends phone number on it. It was about our fifth day there and we hadn't received any calls yet, but that was no problem. We were confident that the perfect situation would present itself to us, at exactly the right time, whenever that happened to be. In the meantime, we were smoking a lot of pot and listening to our friends play old timey banjo and fiddle while we did things like bake bread and eat it, loaded up with cream cheese, honey, and strawberries, or go for walks over to the campus in Goleta to look at the ride board to see if any more interesting opportunities than the one we were offering had presented themselves, which of course they hadn’t. It was after one of these ventures that I found myself alone, hanging out in the pocket park with the wooden swing in it eating the Oreo cookies, thinking about the fact that no one in the entire world knew where I was at that moment and, that having just recently graduated with a degree in painting, I was also currently without a job, children, a mate, a schedule, or any particular forseeable plans, so I could pretty much sit on that swing for as long as I wanted to, eating as many cookies as I wanted to, and there was no one, anywhere, who would have one word to say it. I was completely free.
That was 36 and a half years ago, and I understand now how narrow the range of my concept of freedom was then, back to that tricky definition, but even now, the sight of an Oreo cookie can still remind me of that particular initial experience of freedom, the freedom to be content with things, exactly as they are, at the moment.