The patter of drops on the concrete in the yard below my bedroom window reminds me of Paris, too many years ago: photographs in black and white (which suit the city so well), sodden toes of suede boots bought on sale on the Boule’ Mich, scents of roasting chestnuts and fresh espresso, the buttery warmth of a croissant begging to be devoured. Those 10 pounds gained were well worth it.
I chose my college because it offered a study year abroad, and it was the cliché life-changing experience. Not only for my (finally) more proficient spoken French: I lived in a city for the first time, with all that entails. I learned to walk fast and dodge pedestrians like bullets. I mastered the complex public transport system, holding my breath at pungent smells and elbowing aggressive space invaders. I argued with the dry cleaner who ruined my friend’s jacket. I fell on the metro stairs and availed myself of the free French medical system. I doodled in boring literature lectures in a Sorbonne amphitheater, with teachers who read directly from the study guide, as if we couldn’t read ourselves. I tutored a French student in English for baguette and camembert money. And I felt free and independent for the first time, a feeling I value almost more than anything.
It makes me wonder about freedom: on which our country was founded and for which the French started a revolution. We fight for “enduring freedom” in far away lands. We snarl when people threaten our freedom of speech, of religion, of the right to bear arms. Yet what is it really? I often call it a feeling, especially when standing on top of a rock pile in Joshua Tree. It is an immeasurable abstract, but we know concretely when we don’t have it. It is constrained by culture and by ethical behavior: I am not free to punch you in the eye without consequences. Thus it is limited by the necessity of the freedom of those around us.
Can anyone be truly free when those around us are not? If we are not all free to love whom we choose, to bear children when we choose, to seek the healthcare and the education we choose, to live a life without violence or hatred … who is this American freedom for? I wonder as the rain hits the concrete below me and my mind wanders dreamily away from grading tests to a relatively free time and place: perhaps freedom is not a constant state, but ephemeral and evolving, like youth, beauty, and love.
It does not make me value freedom any less.