A question of freedom

by f

Flickr, via Jim Linwood

My friend S’s hit a rough patch. On our way home from the city today, we talked a little about it. Then, she asked me a startling question:

“Which would you rather have,” she asked, “personal freedom, or financial freedom?”

I asked her what she meant by that.

“I have financial freedom,” she said, “and you have a certain degree of personal freedom. You can go and do what you like during the day when your folks aren’t around to interfere.”

“I guess I do,” I said, staring out into the highway abyss.

S has financial freedom, but work eats up her time. She’s on call throughout. I don’t have those constraints. I can tell work to fuck off. And often, I do.

But I don’t have any money. I am always at my parents’ beck and call. They can trash me, my things, denigrate me in public, and use me as a whipping post. They interrupt me constantly. On weekends and the days that I are home, I feel so miserable I can’t think. I have to beg for permission to do anything.

Often, my privileges are taken away on a whim. I am subject to an insane level of scrutiny because I live at home. I earn enough to have small bursts of spending money, but not enough even to afford a small room to myself, and that is how I fund my daily activities. Anything beyond that, I can’t help myself.

So what kind of life do I prefer? Uncertainty but day-to-day contentment? Or security and general dissatisfaction?

I often thought to myself that I’d trade the small bursts of free happiness for a life of security. Now, I’m just not sure what I want. I have no idea how to answer that question.

However, it’s made me think a lot about my daily activities and how I live my life. I know I’m unusual. I fill my time with people that I like and do things I want, but I have very little material freedom.


These are my weeks:

For the past few months, I’ve been actively building new friendships. I had a long period of time when I wasn’t speaking with my best friend, so I used that time to cultivate different people.

Naturally, I’m an extrovert. Though I don’t (intellectually) buy into Jungian psychology, I believe that there is some validity to the extroversion/introversion dichotomy. Some people prefer interacting in large groups and respond better to external stimuli. Others prefer smaller groups and sustained time alone.

My job forces me to be alone for most of my day. Though I like my work, I find the lack of external stimulation tedious and draining.

Whatever I do, I don’t work at home. Instead I commute to the next town by train. This town has a great library and a well-trafficked main street. I try to take breaks every couple of hours so that I can exist among crowds and people.

Because of my stressful home life, it’s difficult for me to meet friends unless I am already out. I keep a schedule and a routine, so that it’s much more difficult for the unexpected to take a shit on my plans.

Mondays are the only days on which I am by myself. It used to be Thursdays, but now that W’s schedule has changed, I don’t see him on Mondays anymore. I use Mondays to do work.

When I get bored, I walk around town.

Last week, I found an organic cafe a mile away from the main street. It has a huge deli with many vegetarian options. The prices are unbelievable, too — I ordered macaroni and cheese, a tub of potatoes, and a bottle of water for under $6! It’s unheard of for that small university town.

The best part about that trip was the gentleman I met in the deli line. He told me stories about the cold war and politics in the 60s and 70s. He says he’s there most Mondays, and I look forward to deepening that friendship.

In the evening, I often take my remaining money and use it to buy truffles. I’m very friendly with the woman behind the counter. She gives me fresh samples of the latest chocolates. Sometimes, she tells me about her years skiing in Ithaca.

Tuesdays are my big city days. I attend music workshops in the city. My teacher and I are both hyperactive idea-people; we can talk for ages and ages about the world before we get down to business. Once down to business, he can be a hard taskmaster, but I always leave class with my problems solved, which is what I need anyway. Though I may sometimes chafe while sorting out the nitty-gritty, I still love the process of correction. It’s a mental gymnasium — the work is stimulating and difficult, pushing limits.

After my lessons, I meet friends downtown. My one friend Stella has been a great source of comfort and happiness for me in the past six months. I have another friend, Vittoria. We rarely discuss personal matters but love jousting creatively. We find good food together, too — some of these adventures take us to some amazing places. I got some exquisite pasta for less than eight dollars, which is unheard of in the city.

I also use my time in the city to make creative friends from strangers. I hang around in bookstores and strike up conversations around books and browsing.

These Tuesdays, S drives me home from the city. It’s nice to have someone to talk to on the way back, to wind down the day with.

On Wednesdays I work until four in the afternoon. Tuesdays seem sinful and decadent to me, a whole day in which I have not done work-work but when I have, instead, engaged in sublime human interaction. Wednesdays are my days of intellectual atonement.

I spend my morning in a bakery listening to German women bitch about their toddlers. I eat my bagel, start my work in the warm, yeasty bakery. When I am motivated enough, I walk the few blocks to the library. Once I’m there, I work until I get hungry. I get lazy and then order food — there are a few places, albeit awful, that deliver. At four I stop working, pack my things, and get on the bus from town to my old college city.

It’s an hour on the bus, at least half an hour longer than it should be because the bus ride is dirt cheap and there are four hundred and forty stops on the way. At every stop a different set of colorful characters emerge and depart. There’re the adorable triplets, and the bubblegum smacking high school girls. The three mechanics who like to talk shop at the top of their lungs. I watch, exhausted from nothing, staring out the window and watching the landscape change slightly from the verdant to the industrial.

After I arrive, I meet my friend J. She works in the old college city, so I like to pick up dinner with her. We explore the (surprisingly many) culinary options on campus.

I always look forward to my Wednesdays. J is fascinating and we talk about everything. We like to go for lectures now and then. Our university is full of these delightful talks by different professors and luminaries on subjects we love. The nice thing about J is that she is eager and willing to absorb new information constantly. I love people who have a healthy sense of wonder and enjoyment.

Like I’ve been finding out, there is so much to enjoy.

Thursdays are W days. I go into town and wait for him until eleven. He arrives and sweeps me away. We hang around at a coffee shop far away from town. We go see movies. Sometimes, we make out in his car. Most of the time we just sit around and enjoy each other quietly. Silence is our method of conversation, and though it’s hard for me to grasp why that is, I find it much less threatening now. And, in time, I might even grow to like it.

At eight o’clock, he leaves me broken-hearted and sad. Each week I think I am coming close to leaving with him. Like the rapture, only on Earth. Those are my wistful moments, the moments in which I become determined to do something with myself, so that I can meet him as an equal when we do merge our lives together.

I work on Fridays. Seven in the morning to three thirty in the afternoon. My parents take music classes in the big city, so I follow them up. Those are the few minutes when I feel truly alone. In a crowd of people, I am by myself, a distinct entity. I am free to not think, but to just watch and exist. I live for those Friday evenings, because after a week of interacting with others, I am ready to be by myself.


So, my freedom.

At some stage in my life, I will be more successful than I am now. (I am at the South Pole; everything points north.) Then, I will have to give up my vast personal freedom. This unchecked, delicious monster can’t go on forever. It’s impressive how I can be so miserable in most areas of my life but enjoy this incredible happiness in others.

I turned the question back on S and asked which she preferred.

Like me, she fell silent.

2 Comments to “A question of freedom”

  1. A difficult question, indeed. If I had real independence, I wouldn’t mind being cash-strapped. But of course, one needs a certain amount of money to BE independent.

    I know that I couldn’t maintain being miserable for very long.

  2. Hm. Good question. I think we should strive to have both, though, not just one or the other. Its not easy to find and then maintain such a delicate balance, but it is also not impossible. People often ask these questions in an either/or fashion. I guess that’s because given the choice, people would always say both. But, it also assumes there isn’t such a choice if you leave that out. Just because it might be something more long-run rather that immediate doesn’t mean it isn’t reachable. This is something to keep in mind, too, when answering such questions. 🙂

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