I once wrote a story about this bird who loved flying high in the sky, higher than all of the other birds. One day, a bolt of lightning struck the bird and it fell to the ground, but it didn’t die. Instead, the bird awoke to find that it had been captured and caged, to be kept as a pet, to be kept controlled. Like all caged things, the bird initially tried hard to escape its cage. It flew into the bars, it zigzagged from top to bottom, looking for a way out. It tried squeezing itself between the bars. Nothing worked. Eventually, also like all caged things facing staggering defeat time and again, the day came when the bird no longer tried to break away from its iron bars. It resigned itself to a life spent looking up at the clouds instead of soaring above them, of feeling the wind against its face instead of under its wings.
Life in captivity wasn’t completely terrible: she didn’t have to search for food because she was served good meals daily and, while she was in a cage, at least it was set outside where she could feel the sun and the rain. The bird resigned herself to her new life, but a part of her never forgot; a tiny part of her never gave up hope that she would one day fly free. When she saw a raven alight near her cage, the bird became excited. She chirped and squawked loudly until she caught the raven’s attention.
“Please, use your beak to unhinge the lock on this cage, so I might escape. Please, help set me free.”
The raven looked at her funny. The bird repeated itself, again and again, until the raven squealed loudly, interrupting the bird’s pleas. “Stupid bird,” the raven chastised, “There is no cage. You are in a commonplace nest; there’s nothing stopping you from flying away.”
My world revolves around children. I taught the first class of children when I was 14 years old, teaching a third grade class French once a week. I fell in love with those kids and vowed that I would continue to teach. As soon as I turned 18, I began volunteering for Junior Achievement because it allowed me to go into classrooms and teach while, at the same time, I mentored children who had been abused in organizations like Big Sisters and Project Affirm. And then I had my first baby when I was 23, my second when I was 26, and my whole world blossomed. After spending the last 22 years enveloped in the lives of little people, there are a vast array of things I’ve found to love about them and lessons I’ve learned from them. But, if asked, I’d say the thing I most admire about children is their ability to live free. They color outside the lines because they aren’t yet burdened by expectations that say they won’t. They are a wellspring of outrageous ideas that spark escapades like climbing trees and sticking things up their noses or in their ears. They say whatever comes to their minds without editing themselves. They scream indoors and twirl and laugh hysterically for no reason at all because they are living freely and that means they’re hearts are too big for their bodies: they can’t contain, can’t bottle up, their feelings like adults who are overly conscious of their surroundings and what others might think. Constraints like time have no meaning to them: when a three-year-old decides she won’t eat her grilled cheese because its been scandalously placed on the red plate when she wanted her purple plate, she couldn’t care less that the adult in her life has allotted only sixteen and a half minutes for lunch or that taking twenty minutes for lunch will make them late for the scheduled play date at the park. No, that three-year-old has eternity to spend right there in the kitchen, just staring at the offensive red plate, because that three-year-old’s life isn’t yet dictated by time.
And the way they love…
There simply isn’t a love like that of a child’s. The smile that lights up her whole face makes you feel like you own the universe, the plea for “one more story” is a plea for a few minutes longer in your presence, the “look-at-mes” every two seconds is a desire to make you proud, the scribbled crayon drawings with unrecognizable shapes are giant, unconditional “I love yous.” Every enormous mess made isn’t an attempt to drive you mad; it’s a not-so-subtle attempt to remind you to slow down, to remind you that life isn’t all about appointments or deadlines or schedules: life is the mess. Every word that teenager tells you about her day is a gift of trust. A child’s love isn’t offered with conditions or obligations: she loves you because, in her eyes, you are the Disney princess, the grown-up whose knowledge is endless, the hero who drives cars, has money, makes decisions and knows everything about life. When you cry, she cries. When you’re angry at someone else, she’s angry on your behalf. When you’re angry at her, she’s brokenhearted. There just isn’t a love that’s comparable because only children love so freely. She doesn’t have walls to keep you at a distance, yet, because her heart is untamed and mermaids, fairies and unicorns are real. She just loves.
She is the wise one.
When my daughters were born, I made a conscious effort to try and safeguard, to harness, that freedom. I actively promoted coloring outside the lines (didn’t even provide coloring books until they were school-aged because I didn’t want black lines dictating how they expressed themselves). Messy activities didn’t bother me at all; in fact, I looked forward to it. I know structure is important to children and that they need order and cleanliness—but I also didn’t want to limit them to my world. I wanted them to fly. I remember the first time it rained. My daughter wanted to play in it but my grown-up mind almost refused the request. I shook it off, reminded myself that a life without risk, while safe, isn’t really taking advantage of life and we walked out into the rain. We splashed through puddles, got soaked to the bone…. and had so much fun. When she laid down on the ground, like it was a swimming pool, I bit my tongue and refused to say, ‘But the ground is dirty,’ choosing instead to let my kid be a kid. She didn’t recognize the internal struggle that day in the rain was for me… she learned what rain feels like and I learned to relax. We both gained a priceless, precious memory. When we got lost on a car ride at night, I didn’t want my daughters to feel afraid so I stomped down my own fear and bravely declared we were playing a game called Lost. Could they get us un-lost? I let them give me random directions, getting us deeper and deeper lost, until none of us were afraid and laughter filled the car. We all learned that how we react to life is more important than any particular circumstance life gives us.
Freedom is being adaptable. Freedom is paying attention to those around you and adjusting your plan when the plan isn’t what’s best. Freedom is the security of knowing you can talk without fear, no matter how difficult the conversation may be. Freedom is consciously deciding to live with your heart on your sleeve, even—and maybe especially—when that means knowing the likelihood of heartbreak is high. Frankly, I’m not very good at living free. I’d rather be alone than risk abandonment—or, at least, that’s what I tell myself. I’d rather keep my opinions to myself, making excuses like “It wouldn’t change anything, anyway,” than speak up and risk being a disappointment. Life, for me, has always been a balance scale: weighing the pros and cons of every decision until I talk myself out of taking any risk at all. I’d rather be safe, I tell myself. I’d rather be alone, I tell myself. And so I have been both. While I’ve hopefully taught my daughters to cling to their sense of freedom, to revel and take delight in actively living, I’ve clung tight to a sense of self-control. In essence, I’ve effectively exchanged freedom for a sense of inner security. Being free is to live passionately: to love loudly, to disagree, to break a rule or two every once in a while, to be bold and brave, to be like a child. It’s the ultimate “bucket list” character trait I seem to be missing, the New Year’s Resolution that’s more important than those fifteen pounds.
Living freely isn’t natural for me. My comfort zone is withdrawing into myself; it’s to write and spend my time creating a “meaningful” legacy. And that is important. But the people I most look up to, the people who seem to be the happiest, are those who aren’t afraid of falling into the moment, the people who are a bit spontaneous, who don’t overthink things and who seem to have an innate understanding that sometimes taking risks means embracing the present and holding it tightly, rejoicing in the everyday, mundane trivialities that make up the heartbeat of life. I don’t want my girls to wake up realizing they’ve lived someone else’s dream: I want them to wake up one day realizing that they’ve lived their dreams and, in order to make sure that happens, I have to give them space to explore the world around us. How else will they find out where they are supposed to fit in it? An adult’s eye is trained to see danger lurking around every corner, a child’s eye is trained to see potential. Although there may well be danger involved in jumping on trampolines or exploring sewage canals or riding carnival rides, there’s also the chance to see something worth marveling at in the world. Catching frogs by the lake or playing in the rain may involve a few health risks but it also has the potential to glimpse freedom. Dating may well be a dead-end road marked with heartbreak, but it might also be the chance to glimpse true magic. If we never experienced sadness, how would we know what joy is?
There are so many labels that, if I’m not careful, can stop me from living freely. I grew up convinced that getting in trouble meant I’d failed; doing anything unexpected meant I was going to be a disappointment. So, even when I was having fun, even when I was being as normal a kid as I could be, I kept myself on a tight, short leash. I made up for it by living vicariously through my imaginary characters. And even though that opened up a truly beautiful and creative world I’m so thankful to have experienced, it wasn’t the same as feeling the cold rain beating down on my face or walking through icy waters and feeling only warmth. The birth of my daughters taught me that there is so much more to life than checking off the next goal on my Life’s To-Do List. Living passionately creates a life of joy; consciously training my adult’s eye to see the potential in every moment creates a life of hope. It keeps the brilliance of the world from fading by making every moment spectacular and glittery. Inspiration comes not from creating something from nothing but from noticing the potential of what’s right in front of us. The labels that stop us—self-esteem, doubt, fear, guilt, responsibility—are walls we allow to rule our lives because we are afraid of getting hurt. Sometime between the days of old when we climbed trees, ate mud pies and crawled around sewage canals looking for who-knows-what and our first real heartbreak we decided that naivete was dangerous; instead, we opted for “adulthood” and exchanged our zest for life, our awe of each day, for a life of routine. Freedom is not immaturity, it’s not forgetting to take care of our adulthood responsibilities. Rather, freedom is an acknowledgement that we can meet those responsibilities with joy in our hearts because we know that, in any given moment, we might see a flower growing in concrete or our children will want nothing but a day spent with us or a stranger might make our day by going out of his way to be kind. Freedom is saying yes as often as possible, of actually stopping and thinking about whether our nos should be yeses; eventually, we’ll find ourselves waking up to a kinder world, a world in which anything is possible, a world in which dreams do come true. Skepticism and cynicism replaced with wonder and awe. Taking the time to count the stars is not a waste of time: it’s breaking free, even just momentarily, it’s feeling a sense of freedom.
In the story I wrote for Holding Home, about the caged bird, the bird’s life in the cage wasn’t that bad. He was still fed. He had a place to sleep. He could see the world. And he’d decided that that was good enough because…. what if he fell again? At least this way, he was safe. Ultimately, though, he wasn’t content with having enough; he wanted to feel the wind behind him, he wanted to feel the freedom of flight, he wanted to be himself. In his heart, deep down, he wasn’t just a bird, he was a soaring bird. Until he reached out and grasped hold of that dream, until he turned it into reality, he would be caged.
I will fly.