Friday, November 17, 2006

Re-post: Freedom? - Nov 06

From Wednesday, November 01, 2006

When I was a child, the vast majority of my time was scheduled, in 15-minute sections. Bed at 8.30, lights out at 8.45. If I wanted to read until 9pm one night I'd have to beg and plead for a month to get it. Every evening was structured: music lesson Monday, sport class Tuesday, girl guides Wednesday, choir Thursday, orchestra Friday. Saturday morning was drama class. Saturday afternoon we visited my father, whether we wanted to or not. Whether he wanted us to or not. Sunday morning was church. Sunday afternoon was dreaded family time. We ate a meal together. Argued. Were reprimanded about our table manners. Were made to eat all our food, even if it took all afternoon. Were made to do the washing up. Sunday evening was evensong and bellringing. Then we were back on Monday again.

Nobody I knew was happy! Not my friends, not the neighbours, not my schoolfriends, certainly not me or my siblings, absolutely not my parents, nor my grandparents, not other relatives. Not the people who ran or attended the multitude of activities we attended and our schoolteachers were some of the unhappiest of the lot. Everyone hated the boring, predictable, regularity of the schedule. Everyone railed against it. My mother hated getting up in the mornings. My father hated having to bring us home by 6pm every Saturday - he always pushed it to 7, just to wind my mother up. My stepfather was about the most cheerful of the lot, but his was a kind of grin-and-bear-it kind of cheerfulness. Stoicism, not happiness. But he also had more autonomy than anyone else I knew. Oh, there was a schoolteacher who was quite happy, but he was a paedophile. And one of our neighbours was occasionally seen to crack a smile, but she was alcoholic.

So why did we all live like that? Beats me. The only thing I can think is that it was to do with people's ideas about 'success' equating to 'busy-ness' equating to money, equating to 'happiness'. Only - they don't. And what does success mean? Being busy. Having Enough To Do? Having achievements? Being accepted? Conforming? Goodness knows. Whatever they thought, if (IF) it was happiness they were looking for, they didn't find it. They were all trying so hard and getting nowhere.

I grew up knowing only one thing for sure: I wasn't going to live like that as soon as I had a choice in the matter. And I haven't lived like that ever since. I think happiness = freedom of choice. The more autonomy you have and the more you realise you have, the happier you are.

So I've got another empty day stretching out in front of me and it's bliss. I can do anything with it at all. Cook, don't cook. Clean, don't clean. Go out, stay in. Be busy, relax. Read, write, make something, break something, or just do nothing and think. Play a game with someone, or on my own. Chat to the kids or just be quiet and leave them to whatever they're doing. Work out a new theory, test and old one, discover something, explore somewhere.

100% freedom? Not quite. I've just been debating this with Tom over breakfast. I thought we might go to Rievaulx Abbey today, but look at the prices! By the time I've put fuel in the car and paid all the admission fees we wouldn't get much change out of £50. To walk around an old ruin! I really want to go, I'd love to see it again, but £50 is a week's grocery money for us. We still could go if we were desperate. I could make a short payment on the gas bill or the mortgage, but I don't want to do that. So that's freedom of choice: I choose not to do that.

If we were to swan about all week visiting expensive places like that regularly, we'd have to make a serious lifestyle change to fund it all. I'd have to get a job, which would cut the available time for going out right down, or marry a rich man, which would compromise my freedom in sooo many ways, or we'd have to live somewhere cheaper, which would make homelife equally miserable and we'd have to go out all the time. No, I'm happy with my choices.

I'm less happy with the fact that a day out to a "publicly owned" place would cost us so much money. Who on earth pays to visit those places then? You'd need a healthy pension plan, or a cheap mortgage, or a.. wealthy spouse! OK then, I'll stay away. But it seems a shame. Does it really cost English Heritage £4.20 for me to walk around an old ruin? It's outdoors, they don't even have to heat it! I can get into the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford for free, but we'd have to pay £14.70 to get into Rievaulx Abbey. Why? Does the government want us to absorb our culture in controlled environments but not real, natural free ones? If so, why? It's intriguing.

Tom and I had a deeper debate than I can blog about. We got into the history of British politics: feudalism, the Inclosure Act. When did we give up access to our own land? How free is a person in a "free country"? Who can set limits on the choices people make and what can people do to stop them? What do people want to do to stop them? Is it all too late now?

Here in West Yorkshire, we're surrounded by farmland and suburban sprawl, interspersed with the odd industrial estate and town centre and intermeshed with an intensive road system. If we want to go for a walk, we can manage about a mile - half a mile in some directions - before our way is blocked or someone challenges us about our right to continue. If we wanted to see a babbling stream we'd have to get in the car and drive for about 20 minutes, if not longer. I don't know of one within walking distance that we'd be able to access. There's a forest we can walk through, maybe we'll go there today. We could walk to it, but the only right of way is along a busy A-road with noise and traffic fumes. Not pleasant.

So our freedom is limited, but it's also illusionary and we always look for the boundaries and push them. When we lived in Todmorden we didn't own land and I thought if only I had a field on top of a hill I'd spend all my time in it and never want to go anywhere else. Now I have a field on top of a hill and I spend very little time in it and I often want to go somewhere else. Even the things we think we really want are an illusion.

What's real then? The here and now. You can have that in a prison cell, just as much as you can in the middle of a beautiful wilderness. Freedom is a state of mind.

Sooo, what shall I do today? I still don't know. But I'll start by washing the dishes, and see what happens after that.

posted by Gill at 8:16 AM 6 comments


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