25 May 2014

Freedom's Just Another Thing

From time to time, disparate elements of my life -- books I'm reading, email messages and FaceBook comments, overheard snatches of conversation, etc. -- seem to be in conversation.
It happened this week. It started with a thought-provoking article posted on FaceBook:  "10 Things That The People Who Love Their Lives Are Doing Differently." My motivation for reading it was curiosity about recent brief but recurring lapses into hating or grumbling about my life. I wondered if the list would shed some light.

 They don’t bother trying to make others like them — mainly because they don’t care if they’re liked.

I've been marching to my own drumbeat most of my life, not caring much about being liked. But these last two years, living more socially isolated than perhaps ever before in my life, it is difficult sometimes to hear the beat. I won't go into a discussion of the specific causes of my deafness except to say that I have been hungry for social contact here at times. I have noticed I am increasingly uncharacteristically cautious, making more effort than is usually my wont to avoid offending the companion of the moment. 

It results in that awful arrangement:  being with people and feeling more alone than ever. In those moments, I do NOT love my life. I am caring more about being liked...

A few days later, an email from a friend called my attention to an episode of the great radio show This American Life entitled "Americans in Paris." It was a rerun of an show from several years ago but I either hadn't heard it or didn't remember the title.

As I listened to David Sedaris' frank disclosures about his social anxieties, seemingly unconcerned about what his fans would think, and his forthright confession that he has lived in Paris for years without visiting any of the must-see sights, I thought of the "10 Things..." list again. I wondered if he loves his life. And I think he does. He's far from what I would call "cheerful" and, yet, I think he lives on his own terms and loves his life.

In the final segment of  "Americans in Paris" we meet Janet McDonald, a delightful African American woman who lives and works in Paris. She speaks with insight and humor about experiential differences between being "black" in Paris versus the U.S. When the host asks her to explain her statement that "it feels very different to be around French white people than American white people," she says, "I feel much more comfortable. I feel that I'm not a black object..."

...and tears sprang to my eyes. It's not a secret that a large part of my motivation for going to 
Brazil is a desire to experience -- just once in my life....please -- living for an extended period among people who do not see me as a black object, but hearing someone else express the same sentiment was...heavy. 

She says: ". It's not just that we [black americans in paris] feel free of the burden of race, because we are still black. I still experience myself as black. It's just that that's not like the center of my identity. It's not the first thing people relate to when I meet them here.

Oh, yeah. Tears were streaming by now. It was not, as I was so often accused growing up, that I did not want to be black; it was that my identity, who I knew myself to be and what what I wanted to give the world, had so little to do with the color of my skin and it felt like there was no way, nowhere, to bring what I felt was the best of me.


Ms. McDonald grew up in a housing project and escaped a hard scrabble life there to attend Vassar ... where she navigated a new and different set of challenges. She wrote a book about the whole experience. Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, read her book and comments
"...She depicts herself as somebody who was depressed and embattled and sort of lost for years.
And the most striking thing about meeting her, if you've read the book, is how completely happy she seems today. She's one of the happiest seeming people I have ever met, just relaxed and funny and at ease. ..."

She sounded that way to me, too, listening to the interview. I was still reflecting on the "People Who Love Their Lives" article. I thought, "She loves her life" and I wondered "Will I ever love my life like that?" Maybe Brazil...
In the closing credits and acknowledgements of the broadcast, we learn that Ms. McDonald died a few years after the interview. Ira said he hated having to add that postscript to the story but I didn't feel sad at all to hear it. Near the end of the interview, she said

That's what's freedom is, though. It's not about nothing left to lose. It's about nothing left to be. You don't have to be anything. I was just thinking about it this morning. It's like I'm an outsider. I will always be a foreigner no matter how good my French gets. I will never really be French no matter how much of a wannabe I am. And yet, I feel that I'm home. I'm just home.
Yes! Beautifully said. She found freedom. 

And now, I think my journey with the "10 Things" list comes to a end. The mission, the issue, the "thing" is not comparing my life to those exceptional, special people who love their lives....learning their tricks of the trade. 

There are no tricks. I re-read the list (and another list  I found this morning called "17 Things People Who Love Their Lives Do Differently") and, for me, there's just one "thing," one "home" and its name is Freedom.