Sitting in a willow tree…

That little girl delighted in the freedom from choice, from not having to decide, the freedom of just letting her self be.

This story has beginnings in so many places, a tapestry with many threads. But to begin, I am going to share a view through a window into one woman’s exploration of  freedom and authenticity during a time of uncertainty and radical, system-wide transformation.  The narrative will reflect the identity work of a corporate misfit come social activist, a woman once burdened by expectation, angry and confused by social norms, but who is now free of the fear imposed by both.

Once upon a time, I was a small girl sitting in a willow tree, imagining a life as a princess, living my life in a castle full of magic and mystery, protected and loved by my prince. It sounds like a fairy tale, but my fairy tale came true. Perhaps you will recognise it if I tell it like this…

Once, in an ordinary suburban neighbourhood,  I was a young wife and mother, imaging life as a successful professional, living in my lovely home full of beautiful things, protected and loved by my husband.  It sounds like the perfect life, but I was slowly coming undone. Fragmented, I was desperate for routine contentment to soothe my restless spirit.

As it has happened so many times now, my husband is the one who opened the door to growth and wisdom for me, this time by introducing me to ‘coffee table’ existential philosophy. A book left casually lying about, a curious mind and an early morning coffee later and my life lay before me, completely unraveled and bare.

The fairy tale, my constructed reality, carefully pieced together exactly as we had been taught – education, love, marriage, mortgage, children, career….check, check, check, fuck. Why the fuck wasn’t it working? What the fuck was I doing wrong? The answer was, I believed; in all the wrong things.

When we choose to meet the expectations that society has constructed for us, we give up our freedom to live an authentic life. We stop allowing ourselves to just be, to allow our strengths and passions to emerge through play and through service. We direct and channel our energy into something that society will deem appropriate or perhaps aspirational for someone of our social standing and rarely take time to reflect and notice the tension, the friction, the signs of cognitive dissonance that hint at the incongruence between your lived experience and your inner, authentic self.

And so, after many mistakes and a lot of self loathing,  I wanted to know, who am I when I strip back everything society has told me I am? When i take off the layers of identity that I have chased, accepted,  tolerated, endured and even resisted, what lies beneath? Is it possible to know who you are, your authentic self, in a world where most of our stories are constructed and construed to control and manipulate how you see the world and yourself? Is it my self that I loathed or the layers placed upon me?

The pandemic has given us a chance to pause, to slow down and notice things we wouldn’t have previously noticed. Like many others, I have let unnecessary burdens drop away, I have learned to speak more of my truth and know that there is more to come, and I have rekindled a connection to that little girl in the willow tree.  Dreaming of magic and castles wasn’t the only thing she did, she talked to the birds and the trees, made potions from flowers, chanted affirmations to herself and loved the joy of play.
That little girl delighted in the freedom from choice, from not having to decide, the freedom of just letting her self be.

As an adult, reconnecting with the inner child, I discovered something I thought I had ‘grown out of’.  As children we are largely unburdened by choice and the obligations borne of our obsession with the various permutations of security, highlighted by threats such as scarcity and competition. In this unburdened state we experience a freedom that is gradually overcome by the erosion of conditioning, discipline, laws, policies, governance, rules, rules, rules. And every time, you are faced with a choice – ‘compliance or non-compliance’? Keeping us locked up in a system of constant choice, the illusion of freedom comes from complying. Compliance ensures us freedom from reprimand, freedom from guilt and shame, at least it should? Uncertainty makes this hard though, we become too scared to play and just be ; what if I make a mistake? what if I’m wrong?

But how can we ‘get it wrong’ when there is no one right way? Why do we lock ourselves into patterns of passive compliance and only challenge the things that make it hard to ignore the dissonance? Most of us are plagued by apathy of one form or another, addicted to the modern ‘opiates of the masses’, a learned helplessness  that comes from knowing that compliance is the only way to maintain the level of freedom we have come to tolerate and accept in exchange for tokens of security.

In sitting again with that little girl in her willow tree, I have re-learned the art of ‘just being’ and I have reconnected with what it means to me, to play. To be in my garden, to create art and beautiful images, to dance and move freely, to laugh and be at ease with people I love and respect.  I have re-discovered a beautiful sense of freedom and authenticity; and an overwhelming sense of duty to use this gift in service of the social transformations needed to re-imagine, co-create and give rise to an inclusive, fair, safe and sustainable world for all.

I believe in a world in which we feel secure enough in ourselves to just be, to allow our trues selves to be seen and heard, to be that little girl in the willow tree dreaming of magic and love, with a mind as free as the birds she watched soar in the sky. A mind in which anything is possible.
And I hope that one day, once upon a time, there will be a story about an old woman sitting under a tree, sharing stories of flying with the birds, living a life of love and truth, protected and loved by her partner and soul connections. A messy, loving, authentic, ordinary life.

May your choices reflect your hopes not your fears

Nelson Mandela

That little girl delighted in the freedom from choice, from not having to decide, the freedom of just letting her self be.
May your choices reflect your hopes not your fears ~ Nelson Mandela
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