by Joe Shea
July 4, 2014
July 4, 2014 -- The word has echoed in my thoughts again and again over the past few years: "Freedom." "Freedom." "Freedom," a formless thought says, as though to warn me it is in danger, as such thoughts usually do.
Is freedom in danger? I'll leave that to the politicians to debate.
Personally, despite some cancer-related ills that I am mostly over, I am enjoying more freedom than at any other time in my life.
By the grace of God, our Founding Fathers and FDR, I get $741 every month that allows me to pay all my current bills and live modestly in the condominium I bought from our parents' estate in 2007. My $138 in food stamps means I won't go hungry unless I aim to gain another 100 pounds.
And through the wonders of Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, I enjoy the services of a home health aide who keeps my home clean, my beds made and the laundry washed, and also drives me to appointments when my car is "in the shop" or not running, as it has been for five of the last seven months.
All of that adds up to something I have never enjoyed in a life that, after my comfortable teenage years, was mostly dominated by incessant want.
Living in Beverly Hills after I lost a job that brought me there from New York City, over several months in 1979 I dined on only a bowl of rice a day and lost more than 90 pounds, getting down to a 28" waist from 48" a year earlier (today it's 52").
Jobs that fell my way would sometimes relieve the want for a few days, weeks, or even months at a time, but for the most part I lived without the ordinary pleasure - like a car, a place of my own, a day of regular meals - for most of my life. In one job, I was a nanny, caring for, driving and cooking for two adolescent kids of a female lawyer who was a single mom. In another, I cleaned dog poop from the backyard of a couple too lazy to do it themselves; it smelled so bad I actually vomited into a pile of it.
The struggle to pay rent, to keep writing, to stay physically active and to celebrate living was a long and hard one until I reached my 50s.
Money started coming in then, from my employer, from The American Reporter, from articles for the LA Weekly and the occasional Los Angeles Times Op=Eds I wrote, and from my parents, who rarely denied me anything I ever asked for, although I always tried to never ask for much.
Many times, it was a $10 check from my late Mom that kept me going for a week, at least until things improved in the last couple of decades and I was able to begin to pay her back.
Now, at 67, I am actually beginning to enjoy a freedom I thought I might never have. I can pay my bills, eat fairly well and - when the car is running - drive up to Georgia to see my brother and sister-in-law once or twice a year. My home is in an irrevocable trust that lets my family pay the taxes and homeowner's fees until I pass away, when they will be repaid from its sale.
I guess that all adds up to freedom - the ability to do what I want, when I want, with the resources I need to do it. I've got a pretty slim budget, but again, by the grace of God, it's enough. I rarely forget to offer fervent prayers of thanks.
But I don't think all that is what the little voice saying "Freedom" every so often is really talking about.
While the freedom to do what I want, when I want, is a blessing, I think true freedom comes from within.
If I am merely the product of my parents, my religion, my upbringing and my times, I don't think I am truly free.
To me, freedom in the most profound sense is a mobility of emotion, being and thought that transcends our ordinary experience and our human bodies and savors the great miracle of our very existence in a universe of dead stars and planets that life has never touched.
Life is the prerequisite of freedom, of course. And I am not referring to "life" as the things that happen day to day, but to that force that animates us when we live, and as a tree falls, leaves us when we die.
To me, that life is an essence of the divine; it is the presence of God in us.
For all the tinkering they do with its forms and functions, science has never truly discovered what life is and where it comes from.
It is certainly not the result of some primordial lightning bolt striking a prehistoric cell in the warm oceans of our origins; it is far more essential than that.
I believe that one of the great privileges of my own 67 years has been to experience that ultimate nub of life, that essential drop that keeps me going. It is an indelibly beautiful sweetness, a gentle and ovberwhelmingly powerful gift that, once touched, is beyond compare to any other experience.
How did I get to that experinece of essential life? For the most part, through suffering and surrender.
It came when I gave up my ordered personality into a nameless light of beingness, a rising within that captured my entire physical being in a numinous dreamlike state that lasted only for seconds, but whose presence defined me for days afterward.
That euphoria was dispelled several days later and only when a Frenchman I knew, for no reason I can think of, told me my friend Ian Grossman had been killed - shot down by the Beverly Hills police.
It was a damnable lie, as I quickly learned, and as we sat there side by side at a coffee shop counter, my precious experience was shocked away and I threw an angry punch at him. Soon we were rolling around on the floor behind the counter, punching and screaming and wrestling, right there in front of a big, well-dressed Friday night crowd at the Café Beverly Hills.
Why he told me that lie I will never know, but it took away all but the memory I have just shared of a transcendent experience that will remain part of me forever.
What I had given up, one evening a few days before, that catalyzed that experience of freedom was, until that defining moment, the most precious detritus of my vibrant life.
They were the found objects I'd placed on the small Buddhist altar where I chanted, day and night, for five years, along with a personal letter from President Ronald Reagan about organized crime - a gracious response to a note I'd sent to him.
Each one of these precious things was carefully folded into the pages of the leather-bound, navy blue, gold-trimmed and engraved international edition of the first Beverly Hills Goldbook, listing me as Editor-in-Chief, and containing a coda that was my paean to world peace.
It was the first book I had ever published, given to me as a gift by the publisher, Pati Slesinger, and together those things - a three-inch piece of tan poplar bark soft as buckskin, a small white feather, a smooth black stone polished by a stream, a long quote from Emerson in the careful hand of a girlfriend who died - represented everything of real importance to me.
I left them that night on the doorstep of a woman I had loved so fiercely I could not stand it, over whose loss I'd bitterly wept at least a hundred times.
It was the deepest act of surrender I could make, and as so many acts in the last gasps of love will be, it was dismissed by her as meaningless. She gave the book away to Ikeda University in Japan, with the Reagan letter still inside.
But when I went home that night and lay in bed and closed my eyes an hour later, within me a light appeared; it glowed over my heart and slowly grew deeper.
I followed instinct and let myself be drawn up into it, and there, as though suddenly immersed in the bath of my mother's womb, in utter peace and happiness, I found the essence and terrible beauty of life itself.
It can mean many things, depending on one's individual circumstances, but to me, beyond the freedom of my everyday life, it means everything - all I am, all I have, and all I ever will be.
Let freedom ring! Let it sing from a thousand choir lofts, from roofs of shacks and palaces, from boulders and towers, from deserts and fields and forests, from birds and fires and the wind. Freedom is only everything.
Write Joe Shea at email@example.com.