What does it mean to be FREE?

More importantly, what does it mean to YOU to be free? It’s a question I’ve been coddiwompling my way through. Many of my peers are too. Life is a constant reassessment, but it needn’t be a minefield: “We’re not the same person we were a year ago, a month ago, or a week ago. We’re constantly changing. Experiences don’t stop. That’s life.” So, let’s deal with it like badasses by celebrating our experiences and our life. Let’s lay claim to that pirouetting, hop-scotching, mischievous little soul within us all. To that inner jumping jack, that is SO over the airtight lid.

Let me get one thing clear: I despise the idea of not being free and that at times others decide what I can and can’t do. Yet, at the same time, I’m anything but anti-establishment. By nature, I’m a bit of a stickler for following rules – I have even created several in my own household for heaven’s sake, so I must be a bit of a fan. So, either I’m a living oxymoron or an actual moron.  So, where is the balance to be found?

‘Being free’ is multi-faceted and multi-layered and very open to personal interpretation. Let’s start with the rules society inflicts (negative) or bestows (positive) on us. So, what is it? Positive or negative? Does it squish our freedom? Intellectually I understand that a world without rules, regulations, boundaries, and even religion (from a moral guideline standpoint), is not a livable solution. Even when we waddle around as toddlers, we crave guidelines. It’s been proven that tweens, teens, and young adults with boundaries feel secure, despite the slamming of doors that may point to the contrary. As adults, most of us acknowledge that society in general needs rules to thrive and to provide a united front against wrong versus right – the alternative would be anarchy. (We can argue that not all societies are fair, but that’s a more in-depth discussion, and for the purpose of this post is not what I’m delving into).

I mean, imagine these scenarios. Social media is flooded with quotes that encourage “living by your own rules.” I think we need to be cautious with that sweeping statement. Defying rules is all good and well, Charlie, until you’re locked in a holding cell after walking around Gateway Shopping Centre buck-naked “because this is what mother nature intended.” Or, worse still, being carried away by a gat-vol mob after muscling your way to the front of the home affairs queue because “I don’t do queues, and it’s far too hot for me to wait in line.” So, while we could theoretically choose to be free from societal rules, the consequences bear the irony of freedom-defying shackles. In this context, regulations provide us with freedom from chaos.

The relationship between societal rules and freedom is just one aspect. Freedom is so many things. It is both literal and abstract. It’s physical and mental. It’s inside us and all around us. It has height and breadth. And there are choices you can make to maximise your freedom. But you need to open your eyes. You need to be awake. You need to notice what freedom is not before you can identify what it is. Then make the changes you need to. Please. Do it for yourself.

Let’s look at a simple but highly relatable example. Mornings. Rush-hour traffic to be precise. Tomorrow when you’re navigating your way through the seemingly syrup-laden highway, use the time to look at yourself. I don’t mean stare longingly at yourself in the rearview mirror – you don’t want to rear-end the silver Audi A4 with the ‘2hot4u’ personalised number plate. Well, actually, you do, and you should, but let’s choose to follow the rules in this case. What I mean is take a moment to peer inwardly. Introspection isn’t a cliché, it’s a necessity.

How free are you feeling? You’re most likely half-way through your mind-numbing morning route. A course as well-worn as Keith Richards’ liver, except with far less colourful stories to convey. You drove past Ed-the-Barber Shop and the Mexican restaurant that has changed names three times, but never its décor. These landmarks are wallpaper to you, so you no longer notice them. You’ve most likely dropped the children at school, telling them to “tuck and roll” because parking space is about as scarce as Eskom’s resources. They made their way through the school gates with lead-heavy bags and a lunchbox that contains (amongst other things) an apple they won’t and never have eaten. At least you can give your conscience a pat for attempting to get one fruit closer to the prescribed 5-a-day quota. They’re now in the hands of the school system, and you’re office-bound.

You’ll be running at least five minutes late. At least. You’re most likely gridlocked in sloth-slow traffic with your windows rolled up. You’re listening to the same cheeseball DJ who, despite growing up in Durban, has managed to acquire a hot potato, Queen’s English accent. You’ve just lost your sh*t at the taxi that cut you off as he abruptly and illegally swung out the emergency lane. Your first grateful thought for the day has been a nod of appreciation for your ABS brakes – an absolute necessity on South African roads. Again, ask yourself, just how free are you feeling? How happy?

Now that you’re done with your contemplation take a gander at your fellow commuters. Poor sods. The miserable is tangible. It may be a sweeping statement, but honestly, how often do you spot someone with even a hint of a smile? The emptiness is full. The irony of rush hour is that there’s very little rush to be had both in terms of speed or excitement. We are required to adhere to regimented times. We need to make that meeting. To meet those deadlines. We need to make money. And to make matter worse, it is we humans who have orchestrated it. Sapiens by Yuval Noah gives fascinating insight into the origin of money. The book also examines our Hunter-Gatherer history and how we inadvertently curbed our freedom in an attempt to make life easier. Read it – it’s intriguing.

But doom and gloom be damned. Personally, I refuse to accept that lightness can’t be found. I have challenged myself to let go of what I can’t control (like societal rules, rush hour, and the need to make money), but to actively change the things I can. It’s just the beginning of my journey, but I’m getting somewhere.

I have my humble little list of ways to elevate a sense of freedom within our unchangeable confines. I hope you extract some nuggets that resonate with you.

1. Roll down your car windows

Crime is a South African reality, and it steals not just our belongings, but our freedom too. We’re stuck behind walls that are invariably adorned with ‘you’re REALLY not welcome’ electric fencing. We don’t get to move around as freely as we should. So, do the next best thing. Next time you’re driving in rush hour traffic, roll your window down. Don’t imprison yourself in your car too. There’s a reason dogs stick their heads out car windows – they epitomise pure delight as their tongue lolls and their jowls flap (post 40 years you may just find your jowls flapping too J). It’s a wallop of dopamine and liberation straight to the face. The wind is nature at her most playful. Let her rough and tumble with you. Let her blow-dry your freshly washed hair. Yes, it may tangle your hair, but it’ll untangle your emotions. Which is more important?

2. Update your playlist

The radio does have its good days. There are some laughs to be had, but dear lord, there is also a deluge of cringe-worthy cheesiness. Both in terms of DJ commentary and several song lyrics. And that’s nothing. The news reader then delivers a barrage of negativity that is tantamount to a school hall of children learning to play the recorder. I just want to block my ears and run for the hills. I choose to be free from negativity first thing in the morning. It doesn’t mean I remain uninformed and ignorant. Later in the day, the dam wall invariably bursts, and news comes flooding my way via a plethora of devices. However, this way, I haven’t allowed it to set my tone for the day. Be mindful of what you listen to.

Instead, update your playlist. Be it banging tunes, sing-along mainstream, or instrumental. Choose the music that makes you happy. It may even be an uplifting podcast (this is something I need to explore further). Be fiercely and selfishly protective of your mind and what you feed it. And can we agree to be unapologetic about singing and seat-dancing in the car. Those are my favourite type of people! Trust me, the other commuters may look like they’re judging you, but actually, they want to be you. Well, that’s what I tell myself anyway.

My daughter doubles as a DJ when we drive to school in the mornings. The playlist is a real box of chocolates – right from Billie Eilish to INXS to Pearl Jam (yes, she’s a convert). We love this time together. We sing along vehemently. We seat dance shamelessly. And we ignore concerned/judgemental looks from other drivers. 

The other morning as we approached a red robot, my little DJ ceased her bobbing and turned the volume down to an unprecedented low. I looked at her, confused by this unusual behaviour.

‘Mom, do you know that this is the volume most people listen to their music at?’

‘Ya, my angel, I know. I suppose that’s considered a more respectable volume.’

‘Bunch of weirdos.’ She giggled and gave the volume dial a sharp twist to the right.

Yes, my love, be yourself. Be unapologetically you.

3. You’ve heard it before: soak up the small things.

The birds called me outside early this morning. Well, not in so many words (although if they did know my name, my life would be complete). But let’s just say they beckoned me with their sheer volume and volumes. I spotted at least eight different species. The pretty kind. The ones blessed with colours that pop against the forest of green in our back yard. They were attracted by low flying insects with juicy interiors and had cast aside any territorial bickering due to the infinite smorgasbord on offer.

I had my green tea. I was comfy too; oversized pyjama top and threadbare unmatching shorts that rewarded my loyalty with a worn-in comfort that only time brings. I realised I was content. With this simplicity. With this moment. This Nutribullet of birds, green tea, a Great Dane at my feet was all I needed to feel free, to feel grateful.

Take in real-life moments like these. Less of us are, because we live in an age where we take more note of nature in a top-trending video. Be sure you aren’t watching birds on your device instead of the ones in flight right above you. Look up and giggle at the swallows lined up like first-graders on the telephone wire. Then look down and admire the strength of a teensy ant towing a moth eight times its size. Notice the twinkle of dewy drops on freshly cut grass. Then breathe in the smell of the newly cut grass – does it take you back perhaps? 

Be mindful. Be present. Maybe you have everything you need right now to feel free.  

4. Free yourself from negative people

You should always be there for those that are truly struggling. But some people just don’t want to be helped. Instead, they clutch on to their stories, choosing to be defined by them. I don’t do walking melodramas. You shouldn’t either. Protect yourself from those that suck away your positivity with the same force they suck at a marrow bone. And that’s not a pretty picture, right?

There is one such mother I have met that is hard-wired to radiate her woe-is-me energy across areas the size of a hockey AstroTurf. I swear I can sense her before I see her. An empath affliction. This is someone who has more money than can be spent in a lifetime, a long-suffering, I mean devoted, husband and two adorable children. She recently returned from an “excruciating” trip to yet another exotic island location. No talk of crystal waters and sundowner cocktails. No. All she could talk about was how sore her neck was after the long flight. Shame – she had to go for multiple massages, poor thing. Nothing like a neck and shoulder massage for the ultimate torture. Bleh!

Permanently negative people will make you feel like the walls are closing in – free yourself from them. You’re fully entitled to. This includes abusive and controlling marriages. No one needs to or should be controlled. Don’t allow it. You can always choose freedom, as impossibly dark and dense as the cloud may seem.

5. Get out your head.

I’m the last one to preach. I overthink. All. The. Time. Being inside my head is about as peaceful as the London Underground. However, I choose to be non-defeatist and have put changes in place to hush my internal rhetoric. The ability to wag a finger at that incessant yapping is the ultimate freedom. “Stop overthinking. You’re breaking your own heart” – it’s futile, it’s self-destruction over problems that almost never arise, and it’s like translucent Tippex over past experiences. Our thoughts can create immense internal joy, or they can perpetuate dis-ease. We cannot underestimate the power of the words we feed ourselves – are your ingredients carcinogenic, or are they power foods packed with antioxidants? Would you talk to those you care about in the same way you speak to yourself? Look after your heart, protect its right to be open and free.

The basic principle is we can’t change the past. It is as fixed as misplaced superglue between your thumb and pointer finger. And if you do pull it apart, it’s only going to hurt, right? The past is often associated with guilt, shame, and sadness, but these are useless emotions because you can’t back up. Reverse is for cars, not time. Learn from your mistakes, and then be sure not to chuck these negative emotions in the orange recycle bag. Black bags only, please.

And what of the future? Of course, it’s healthy to formulate goals and work towards self-betterment. It’s what moves us forward and creates our spiritual growth. After all, we’re on this earth to learn. However, it cannot become obsessive, the future affords no one complete control. This is why living in the future creates feelings of unease, disappointment, of believing we are not enough. It robs us of living now despite our quirks and flaws. So, seek the balance, little human.

For me, hot-yoga arrived at precisely the right time. I had done a little yoga before but never ‘got’ it. And I’m not talking about perfecting the downward dog or happy baby pose, I’m talking about emotionally. Before my ‘aha’ moment, I was doing yoga to exercise my body, not my mind. Turns out, it does both. The spiritual freedom yoga brings is blissful. It’s my tranquil sanctuary. On my mat, my inner critic is muted. My worries are softened, and any feelings of guilt or of not being enough are replaced with perspective. I believe there is a yoga studio for everyone. Mine is Gurucat in Umhlanga. Noble silence is practiced in the studio, and the hot yoga adds further opportunity just to sweat it all out. I feel like ‘I got this’ after a yoga session. Give yoga a try. Please.

Then there’s meditation. Alright, so, this is still a distant land for me. At times, my mind actually gets louder. If there’s an itch to be had, then meditation is when I manifest it to the fore. However, I take heart in knowing that I am at least trying. Really hard. And one day, I will arrive at that place of peace, even if it’s just fleeting at first.

I’ve recently downloaded a meditation APP called Insight Timer. Wow, just wow. There are over 3 000 free meditations. The first guided meditation I randomly picked transported me away to a babbling brook, where I was encouraged to place my thoughts on the leaves that floated by. It was a magical, soulful 20-minute escape. Give it a go. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

What you hold on to controls you. What you release frees you. Let go.

6. Be you-ishly you. Stuff the rest.

I think I can pat myself on the back in this regard. I’ve made changes that have allowed me to be me. I was crippled by what others thought of me. Mortified by mothers that turned their backs when I tried to join their ‘circle.’ You know the kind; those chatterer-clicks that thrive on gossip as they await the release of their children from school. I was more focused on converting those that didn’t like me, instead of embracing those that do. Today I am blessed with an abundance of people that not only accept me for me but love me for me. As I do them. What a sense of freedom that brings. Being around those that allow you to just be you. Flaws and all.

I balance being highly responsible (which I am 90% of the time) with skipping barefoot whenever the opportunity permits. I have a tattoo. Actually, I have two. Both have significant, deep meaning for me. I think beer tastes better straight from the bottle. I dance whenever there’s a beat to be heard – in fact, I don’t know how not to. I frequently meet new, interesting people, because I open myself to that. I delight in their stories. It keeps the stale life at bay by offering fresh perspectives and new insightful learnings. Many have become lifelong friends and I am so grateful for all the memories. There has been a spontaneous microlight flight (which I swore I’d never do). I’ve watched in awe as a newfound friend took to the Oyster Box piano with the skills of Elton John (security was not impressed, but the guests certainly were). I’ve had 11pm curfew nights end at 2am because we’ve found ourselves invited to the club owner’s VIP table complete with sparklers and free-flowing champagne. Who says no to sparklers and high-end champagne? But, you know what, I have no regrets. Regret would be looking back one day with no unbelievable memories to smile back on. I’d rather my stories made my grandchildren giggle one day, not yawn. I hope I show them that I lead a life with just the right amount of responsibility and fun.

7. Choose freedom. It’s there for the taking.

I am gradually making plans to free myself from an oversubscription of material trappings. The big car, the big house, and the walk-in wardrobe (just kidding – I’ve never had one of those). We’re at a stage in our life where fashioning a future with more fluidity and flexibility is closer. As a writer, I am free to work from anywhere. It’s a special kind of freedom not to be desk-bound, and with today’s technology, remote work is a possibility for a growing number of professions – hopefully yours is one of them.

We all have the freedom to choose between living and existing. Sure, we’re answerable to others (especially our loved ones) and have responsibilities. But that doesn’t mean we’re trapped. When we open our minds and our hearts, our eyes will catch the glints of freedom that are beckoning our souls. Life is more than just your go-to group of friends, the same three restaurants, and rush-hour traffic. So, don’t miss out. And be sure that the brightest light in your life, isn’t the one shining from your cellphone.

Let’s just coddiwomple

x Keryn