The Way of Freedom

There once was a small, unassuming gazelle that never knew her parents. She remembered something of them… a scent, a vision… but knew nothing of who they were. At a young age she had been kept caged as a spectacle. Her beauty and grace alone brought her these many strange admirers that she would glance at through her metal bars. Other animals didn’t seem to understand. Other animals knew no other reality but the bars, the people, the prison of this place. But the gazelle had dreams, or maybe they were memories, of a different place. A free place where she would one day live.


The other animals would talk about the safety they found behind these bars, the protection and provision that this place gave them.  Whispers could be heard about the dangers and risks outside the zoo.  “One cannot trust another when one is completely free.  At least here we are safe and comfortable,” a peacock announced as he strutted for the crowd.  But the gazelle wasn’t satisfied.  She wanted more.  She wanted freedom even if it came with risk and pain.


A few years passed and the gazelle grew older, but no less hungry for that familiar yet distant idea of freedom.   Every waking and sleeping moment found her dreaming of wide open fields and unending waters.  Her desire grew stronger as rumors spread of the zoo closing its doors.  Maybe I’ll be sent where I belong, she thought. She didn’t really know where that was, but she knew she needed to be there.  She started seeing other animals shoved into crates and cages and carted off into large moving trucks.  Maybe those bring the way to freedom.


It was finally the gazelle’s turn to be packed away and for some time her prison became even smaller as she leapt into the open cage meant for her.  Freedom was close.  She could feel it.   After a long journey, the cage was flung open and the gazelle slowly, hesitantly inched her way out.  Everything shone with an intensity that she had never experienced before.  She closed her gentle eyes for relief from the radiance and commotion around her.  When she was finally able to open them again, though, the land that lay before her was her freedom.  And she leapt and ran for joy in this new, exciting world.


The gazelle learned many things about this new world in just a short time.  She learned that food was no longer scheduled and provided for her, but that she was suppose to find it herself.  She learned that water came out of lakes, rivers, and puddles instead of plastic.  She learned that sometimes there was no relief from her thirst, hunger or fatigue.  And she learned that freedom is often lonely. 


She was busy and excited for a month or so.  Finding new birds to watch or new places to eat or ponds to lay by.  Life was exactly how she knew it was meant to be.  She had the feeling this is how her parents lived.  But soon the young gazelle grew tired of this new place.  Every day there was so much responsibility, so much work, so many choices.  And every day she was alone.  Until that fateful day.


It seemed like a normal day.  The gazelle did her usual routine, by herself.  But as she was grazing in a new field, she noticed something out of the corner of her eye.  She had learned that the rumors about danger in freedom were true so this new presence made her uneasy.  She tried to casually walk away from it but something about its movement drew her gaze.  She had yet to see the full figure but she knew it was another animal.  An animal she had never seen before.  She was fascinated and excited by the prospect of a companion.


She knew enough not to approach this strange creature but still found herself moving closer and closer to it until its full figure was in her view.  Never before had she seen such a beautiful, sleek and majestic thing.  Even though something inside of seemed to hold her back.. warn her, she moved even closer.  Finally she could no longer be ignored, but instead of a normal welcome the stranger began coming toward her with increased speed.  Such a moment of intensity left the gazelle frozen, unable to move, though her own danger now seemed apparent.  After what seemed like hours, but was only a few seconds, the gazelle started running away.  Heart-pounding.  Not knowing if what she felt was fear or attraction.  But, after being in a cage for years, she was no match for this stranger.


Once this cat-like creature caught the gazelle, there was a single moment, a choice, a connection between the two animals.  The gazelle helpless in the grips of this immense creature but the creature loosened its grip, let the gazelle step back and chose something different.  The gazelle could barely breathe, knowing her innocence got her in this danger.  For she had never known that cheetahs and gazelles were not meant to live in the closeness, the intimacy that she so desired. But, why, why did the cheetah stop?


The cheetah, as shocked by his decision as the shaking gazelle, paused for another second feeling a sort of pity for this new animal.  Pity is not a feeling he was use to feeling at the top of the food chain and he didn’t like it.   So to break the silence and confusion he told the gazelle who he was, he told her his story.  The gazelle didn’t know what to say, she felt powerless in front of this predator but loved the way he spoke, with passion, commitment, determination.  She felt like she could trust him, despite his teeth, which were a constant reminder of the risk to choose to be close to him.


That day was the day that changed everything.  The gazelle and the cheetah were inseparable.  The danger, the excitement, the attraction between these two unlikely partners was intoxicating drawing each of them closer and closer.  Now the gazelle had someone to protect her, to play with her, to be with her.  Now the cheetah had a partner that forced him to slow down, to feel, to remember.  The gazelle just kept thinking, I knew freedom was worth the risk.


But after a while, the cheetah started hearing his friends talk about his new friend.  He knew that they were disappointed, confused, upset.  Why would a cheetah need or want a gazelle? He must be weak, they would taunt.  The cheetah sulked.  No one calls me weak, he thought. And the next day he would show them, he would show himself that he was strong. That he didn’t need anyone else.


So the gazelle and the cheetah met at their normal spot.  The gazelle excited to tell the cheetah all about the beautiful things she dreamt of last night, but the moment the connection between them was made, the gazelle knew something was wrong.  This was the first time since their meeting she saw a fear, yet an anger in his eyes.  She moved away but not quick enough.  The cheetah in one motion clawed his friend.  The gazelle let out a yell of pain loud enough for the cheetah’s friends to hear, but the cheetah showed no remorse.


The gazelle stayed away from the cheetah, healing her wounds both from his claws and from his detachment.  What had happened? I thought we were friends?  Did I do something wrong?, the gazelle obsessed.  She replayed every conversation, every touch, every look they had shared hoping to find an answer to this burst of hurt, of anger, of pain.  But she couldn’t find any so she started blaming herself… I knew I wouldn’t be good enough for him.  He is bored of me.  I don’t excite him anymore.  And suddenly the gazelle’s freedom became another prison.


Meanwhile, the cheetah came home proud to his friends.  He had proved them wrong.  He was strong.  He was a true predator.  But when his friends were gone.  He was left alone.  And in that space of self-reflection, the truth lay exposed.  What have I done? he thought.  She was my friend and I hurt her for no reason but to feel better about myself?  I am worthless.  She should get as far away from me as possible.  But how do I go on without her?


The next day the gazelle, hoping to make things right with her friend, wandered over to their meeting place, head down, cautiously waiting.  The cheetah saw her and ran to her, but in that moment the gazelle thought he came to finish what he had started and began to run away.  Before she got far, though, the cheetah gasped, “I’m sorry, you’re perfect, what would my life be without you?” And the gazelle was stopped in her tracks. Without turning around she said, “How can you say that? Do you know how bad you hurt me?”  The cheetah fell to the ground in remorse begging for the gazelle to forgive him.  He needed her, in that moment, and she liked that.


Things went back to normal after that.  In fact, their intimacy increased after sharing such an intense experience and they grew closer and more entangle in each others lives, but every few days that cheetah would claw at her once more opening afresh old wounds and scars.  And every few days the cheetah would apologize and the gazelle would build him back up again.  The cheetah would say, “Only with you can I learn to be better, to think before I act, to see things differently.” And the gazelle would be drawn even further into her need for him. 


 

But she started hurting all the time.  Wounds wouldn’t heal and more would appear.  She knew she could no longer love this cheetah.  For his very survival depended on her destruction.  For she noticed that every day with him her glittering world of freedom became a little more like the cage she use to know.  Slowly the cheetah began convincing her that he was all she needed.  That the birds and the sun and the ponds and the grass were all meaningless without him for he could save her.  But even his intimate touch felt like a sharp pain to her badly scarred body.


One day the cheetah showed up at their normal meeting place ready to play this day’s game of chase, but the gazelle was no where to be found.  He searched, frantically, but there was no sign of her presence around him.  The gazelle had left.  She had remembered.  She had recaptured freedom, the freedom she once knew.  For she learned that even without bars, even without cages, freedom is elusive.  Freedom is not something to be obtained, owned or held on to.  The gazelle now saw freedom as knowing, in the deepest parts of yourself, that you deserve to be whole, to be alive, to be healed.  And the gazelle chose that freedom.

 

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Maya Angelou: Songs of Freedom


“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” -Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is, was and will forever be a unbreakable prophet. She spoke of the day when the “caged bird’s song” would burst open the iron gate that rendered its wings useless dreams. She sang the song of freedom when only captivity and despair seemed present. She was a prophet of song, of verse, of life.

Poetry is more than writing. More than putting pen to paper and hoping for the best. The best of poets, like Angelou, know how to speak into the rhythm of the world, to beckon the human spirit and to call that spirit beyond this present moment to a possible future. Angelou was a poet with both her word and her life.

She spoke of a freedom that surpassed the physical chains that bound so many. A freedom of the mind, the spirit, the essence of humanity. I will never forget the moment I read Angelou’s quote above, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” She knew the goal of every artist, poet, writer, human–to be completely and utterly known.

Such is not an easy task. For to be known one must bear one’s soul for another waiting in helpless silence to hear a response. Most of us never make it to that silence. Fear keeps us living within constant noise so that we are seen through every medium possible, but never truly known. Maya Angelou lived in that silence, recklessly unleashing her soul for her own soul’s freedom.

She lived in the silence of a tomorrow where ever “caged bird” not only sang the dream of freedom but flew in its life-giving wind. May we all seek that silence for the memory of Angelou and for the future for which she so deeply lived her life. A silence that speaks of human vulnerability, acceptance and a told, heard, and known story.

Thank you, Maya Angelou, for singing, dancing, celebrating, persevering and living your freedom story. Not only was your soul unchained by your story and your voice, but, through your life and your work, you helped create a freedom story for so many of us.

Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. May her freedom song continue to tell our unending human story.

My Therapist Dumped Me

I’m proud of my 1 for 1 record in the dating world.  I found a good partner and kept him, which means I’ve never been dumped.  That is, until now.  Last week, my therapist dumped me.  Talk about a bad break up.

I have been going to therapy for over a year now.  A year!  That’s a long time.  I thought we meant something to each other! We laughed together, she has watched me cry, and she knows about all my thoughts and feelings.  We were pretty perfect.  Or at least I thought so… Last session, after a twenty minute update on how happy I have been the last month and how I’ve felt more in control of my life, she said the dreaded word… “termination.”

What? NO? But.. but.. my life’s not that perfect.  I have more.  I need more help. I can’t…

Why do they call it termination, anyway? It’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to leap out from behind her bookshelf and escort me out of the office in order to make sure I never come back ever again.  Termination.  It’s so morbid. Permanent. No one’s dying here, but in that moment as that word slipped out of her mouth, my world of control fell apart.  My anxiety is under control.  I haven’t had a panic attack in a few months and I rarely have the constant obsessive thoughts that use to keep me up till the early morning hours each night.  But termination?  I can’t be ready.

I looked at her with my best fake smile and said “Sure, of course I’m ready for that.  I’m in such a great place and I’m confident that I am ready to.. ehh, terminate?”  But in my head my mind was coming up with every worse case scenario that could possibly result from this decision.  What if I stop coming and then I have a major life crisis?  Or what if the only reason I have been doing better is because of this safety net that she has provided me?  Or even worse what if I’m actually crazy and she is just using this whole “termination” excuse to get rid of me? I snapped back out of that fear whirlwind to make sure that my smile continued to stay glued to my apprehensive face as she replied, all too cheerfully if I may add, “Great!  Next week will be our last session.”

NEXT WEEK!  Way to really ease me out of this. I only have a week to think of all the possible issues that could possibly arise in the next 20 or 30 years.  I’m sure there are hundreds of traumatic childhood experiences, repressed memories, and defense mechanisms to work through, right?  I kept circling back to the thought that “I thought we really had something special here and you just want to throw it all away in a WEEK!”  Bitch.  Oh, sorry.  “Yes, yes I’m sooooo ready to move on. I can totally take care of myself,” I replied.

I stepped slowly out of the office that day not knowing how to feel.  I guess that’s how it feels when you are dumped.  As I rode the elevator down three flights, I contemplated the many ways I could change her mind in next week’s session.  Maybe I could fake some family death or tragedy, maybe I could bring up another fight I had with a family member, or maybe I could just get really sick and postpone it one more week.  Yeah, that’s it.  But as I exited the building listening to my own anxious thoughts ruminate about the different self-inflicted possibilities of remaining in therapy.  I finally understood.

She didn’t break up with me.  I had broken up with her.  She had given me this choice since our first session and I had finally chosen it.  Freedom.  My life has always been about the approval and advice of others.  What does he want for my life?  Will she like me if I do this?  What can I do to make them think I’m worthy?  Constant.  No wonder I have anxiety.  Over the past few months (with the help of some medication) I have broken down (although not completely) those destructive cycles and released the anchors from my life.  Accepting that life is a shit show and moving through the shit instead of pretending that I can navigate around it has granted me a freedom beyond words.

So I stopped walking and busted out laughing.  I had finally broken up with the person that helped me find my own freedom.  She was the last person that I was fighting so desperately to seek approval from, but she knew that I didn’t need it anymore.  I still don’t think they should call it termination, but I do think it signals a kind of death.  My old self and ways of operating that I dumped on her and revealed to her die now with this relationship.  I no longer have to be that person.  I am free to live.

So, thanks, to the therapist that dumped me and thanks for letting me dump you.  Because it’s not you, it’s me.

Belated Lenten Reflection [Rewind]

While I’m a little late in the liturgical season for this post, I wanted to share a reflection I wrote last year during my time working at an after school program for middle school and high schoolers.  I wrote and read it for a Stations of the Cross event that my service program, Amate House, hosted last Lenten season.  I was assigned to write a reflection based on the station, Jesus is Judged by Pilate. 

The chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He said to him in reply, “You say so.” The chief priests accused him of many things. Again Pilate questioned him, “Have you no answer? See how many things they accused you of.” Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed…Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd released Barrabas…and handed Jesus over to be crucified. (Mark 15: 1-5, 15)

Failure. Dropout. Criminal. Gang member. By the time he was fifteen, he had been labeled every single one of these. I met this particular young man on my very first day at the Teen Center.   As I took deep breaths to calm the insatiable butterflies in my stomach, he came over to me, stuck his hand out in order for me to shake it, and introduced himself with a half smile.   After knowing this young man for only thirty short minutes, he had already managed to share with me many of his past struggles and his ambitious hopes for the future. Walking away from this encounter my first day, I realized that my work at the Teen Center would be much more than merely supervising an after school program.

Almost every week, it seemed like this kid came in to the Teen Center with a new crisis or life-altering event to share with me. Over the past eight months, he has faced more challenges than most people can even begin to imagine. Just in this past year, he lost his childhood friend to gang violence, was arrested for an extremely serious offense, and learned he would be a father at age nineteen only to find out a few weeks later that his girlfriend had had a miscarriage. And now him and his family have been homeless for over a month, the six of them living with different family members and friends in small one-bedroom apartments. But he perseveres. While looking at his story one can begin to see why his identity has been so tightly entangled with his mistakes: failure, dropout, gang member, criminal. Many people have given up on him and told him he is not worth it. But, even through all these challenges, I could never get the memory of that enthusiastic young man that I met my first day out of my head. I realized that while he may have come to me looking for answers and advice for the problems he faced, what he actually sought from me was an acceptance he had never experienced. He wanted to be able to admit to these mistakes without worrying that the person listening would condemn him, judge him or abandon him. He wanted to be seen for who he is: an incredibly joyful young man with a huge heart and unstoppable goofiness, who has a love for writing poetry, who would do anything to protect his three younger siblings, and who cared enough to make me feel comfortable on my first day of work. He was asking for freedom from these negative labels and low expectations that seemed to continuously define his life. Not until recently did I realize that I have some small power to help him find that freedom.

Pilate was also in a position of power. Power to change the outcome of the story. Power to save a life that was hanging in the balance. Power to stand against the accusations of the crowd. No, unfortunately, I do not have the power to dramatically change the outcome of any of my teens’ lives or make certain life altering decisions for them, but I do have the power to stand against the accusations and judgments they have heard from parents, teachers, and peers their whole lives. I have the unique power to choose to see these young men and women as more than charity cases and delinquents. To choose to speak out louder than the crowd, which shouts of their worthlessness and inevitable failure, and refuse, unlike Pilate, to be a passive observer to such violence. Because if I don’t, then these young men and women may also begin to see themselves as nothing more than criminals, dropouts, gang members, and failures instead of the reality, that they are leaders, artists, role models, and survivors.