what freedom might be

It’s alleged that Robert Frost once said, when asked what freedom was, that it was “being easy in your harness.” I remember the cold tiles under my feet in the room where we had poetry class, that winter my junior year of high school. We huddled over words that we were almost too young to encounter, but just old enough to know what we were meeting was – must be – a kind of scarce beauty. My hand curled over the page to scribble title, words, the stray phrase that I memorized by the repetition of the pen along the thin blue lines and empty white spaces.

We were working on villanelles, difficult poems with difficult rhythm, a scheme of lines repeating, tumbling over each other. At first, we were tasked with repeating the lines exactly, no flourish or artistry. I remember how our feet and eyes shuffled at the apparent strain on our creative spirits. “But,” I remember thinking, “how will my poem be free if I have to repeat all these lines, over and over? Isn’t that why they call it free verse?”

My teacher knew my question and answered it aloud. “Robert Frost said, ‘Freedom is being easy in your harness.’ The villanelle, this week, is your harness. Our task is to learn to be easy in it.”

I am thinking these days about what it might mean to be free. I suppose most specifically I think about this in the strange intersection I am often in, between school and motherhood and my own writing, in the spaces where I most often feel constrained by my life. I always want to stretch an hour to be just a bit longer; I always want just fifteen more minutes for the thing I am doing now or the thing I know I need to be doing later. More than once this week I caught myself checking the time while my son slowly, deliberately rolled his blue plastic ball towards me, grinning wildly. I was thinking about how to make the afternoon last just a bit longer, because there was laundry and there was reading and there was some other thing that I had written on a list somewhere that felt much more important than my son and his blue plastic ball.

I wonder if I have filled my head with so many boxes to check as a way to stave off the possibility that it might be as simple as riding a bit easier in the constraints of my life. It might be as simple as laughing and rolling the ball back towards my son.

The week of the villanelles in poetry class I struggled to write a single word. Each one felt too insignificant to bear repeating; nothing felt worthy of being written down so many times. I deleted so many sentences. I ripped pages out of notebooks. I very nearly turned in a blank sheet of paper.

I just began a ballet class. On Monday nights I leave behind the hum of the world and enter a hum of concentration, beginning in my feet and tracing its way up my back and along my arms and up into my head with its flyaway hairs caught in a headband. We are asked at the end of each barre exercise to go into sous-sus and often to then bring one leg up into coupée or passée. All of this is in a delicate few seconds where we suspend our bodies on the balls of our feet, lifting ourselves farther and farther up. “Find your balance” the teacher tells us. Some days I never find it, my hand hovering over the barre and grasping it too quickly, afraid I will fall. Some days I feel it instantly, the living wire of tension holding me up suddenly lights up and I can even smile as I feel myself aloft.

But most days it is a few, hard-won seconds of balance, a few, hard-won seconds of that perfect hum of tension, that feeling of having suddenly reached a point where it is easy, where the limits of head and feet, of arm and leg are met fully and somehow this produces balance. In those few seconds, I am free. And then most often I tremble, my foot shifts just slightly, and gravity pulls me back.

Ballet and a villanelle, and wasn’t this a post about freedom? Perhaps it still is. Perhaps Robert Frost was not wrong to tell us that freedom is being easy in your harness. Perhaps freedom is exploring the limits of the repeating lines of a poem and the few seconds of balancing yourself on one leg. Perhaps freedom is most often a few, hard-won seconds, a few hard-won lines of beautiful words. Perhaps there is no good way to describe it, and my longing for achieving freedom (as if it could be grasped, as if it could be possessed once forever) too often leaves me without it.

I did write a villanelle. It was the hardest I have ever worked on a poem in my life. It was the first time I heard my voice peeking through my words. A few, hard-won seconds of freedom – it was still the birth of something beautiful.

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