Personal Essay, Madeline Scott
I don’t think I know what freedom truly feels like.
For as long as I can remember, there has always been some greater force or another in my life guiding my actions. Reining me in. Keeping me on a short leash. Be it religion, my family, my academic career, or my own expectations; I feel like I have been eternally entangled in a web of attachments and commitments. Some of these strings have felt like blessings; I wouldn’t give up my family for anything, even if I were somehow promised the truest sense of freedom in exchange. Others have, at times, felt like the total opposite.
I couldn’t stay up all night reading the book I never wanted to put down as a child; I had school in the morning, so my parents said I had to go to sleep.
I couldn’t buy the first dress that made me feel beautiful, that made me feel like myself; the skirt was too short and the neckline too low for my religion’s dictates, and so I had to find a more modest alternative.
I couldn’t allow myself a full night’s sleep in middle school, high school, or college; if I went to bed early, work wouldn’t get done, and my grades would slip. My grades can never slip.
I’ve tried to taste freedom before, searching for it within the natural world that seemed so distant from the other aspects of my life. I walked into the sparse woods next to my childhood home and wandered amongst the thick copses of pines in the mountains surrounding my university. I tried to hide in the deep greens of the trees’ leaves and the thick black shadows they cast on the forest ground. I could never entirely lose myself in these spaces, though. At the back of my mind was the constant reminder that I had something I needed to return to eventually– readings, essays, work, appointments, real life. Every entrance into the wilderness came with a preset ultimatum for my exiting. I found no freedom in this.
I tried to catch a glimpse of freedom through dance. Before I left for college, I took dance classes for twelve years – ballet, tap, jazz, modern, lyrical. For those twelve years, dance was my temporary escape from reality. Each time I walked into a dance studio, each time I stepped up to the smooth wooden barre, each time I slipped my feet into a different pair of lovingly worn-out dancing shoes, I was forced to leave the troubles of my external life behind. I could focus on nothing but the placement of my arms, the turnout in my feet and hips, the height of my leaps, the smoothness of my body’s lines. Nothing mattered in dance class but the work I put into my craft and what I had to show for it at the end of the day. Still, though, class always came to an end, and I would eventually have to leave the studio. After each class, I had to return home and prepare for the next day of my life. After my final dance class in high school and my final recital performance at my childhood studio, I drifted away from that world, and I have yet to find my reentry. Dance, for a while, felt like freedom; still, it was fleeting.
I tried to find freedom in driving. As soon as I got my driver’s license, I started going on drives with no destination in mind. I drove aimlessly, winding through the familiar roads of my hometown for hours on end, looping around and around and around. I would open every window in my car, blasting music loud enough for the whole town to hear, attempting to overstimulate as many of my senses as I could. The wind in my hair, the rushing of my heartbeat, surely this is what freedom feels like! But there were still rules of the road that had to be followed. There were speed limits and stop signs and stoplights. There were the town lines that I would run into if I drove far enough, those invisible limits that might as well have been a brick wall forcing me to turn around and go back from whence I came. There was my family, texting and calling me if I was ever gone too long, imploring me to return home before it got dark. There was no freedom in driving – not enough of it, anyhow.
When I was a child on car rides with my parents, I often imagined a person running alongside the car. This person never had a name or a face; it barely had a discernible shape. Rather, I imagined it as a kind of animated stick figure keeping pace with our speeding minivan. As it ran, it would seamlessly conquer any obstacle in its path; it bounded over road signs and treated power lines like monkey bars. It would scale cell phone towers with inhuman grace and speed and would meet us at the bottom to continue its journey without even breaking a sweat. When we reached our destination, this figure didn’t stop with us. Instead, I saw it keep running, sprinting into the horizon until I couldn’t picture it any longer.
I think that might be what freedom feels like.