Awakening to Feel Our Freedom

Last Friday, my friend Marcela had a gathering to commemorate the
Day of the Dead. She had food left over, so on Saturday she and I
invited a group of women to come over, sit in a circle, and talk
about what we’ve been feeling since September 11. To our surprise,
most of the people we called came, even if they had prior plans.
For the 13 of us who gathered, it was a huge relief to acknowledge
aloud how surreal it is to be going through the normal motions of
our lives, as if 9/11 hadn’t really changed anything. As one woman

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said, ‘In my heart, I know that the change surrounds us so
completely, like water we swim in, that we can’t begin to
comprehend it.’

For me, the genesis of the gathering was the fear I felt in the
pit of my stomach when I realized that my babies are draft age.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what is worth fighting for,
about what freedom and independence mean to me, about how powerless
most of us feel to live our lives and our convictions fully. I know
that many of the luxuries I take for granted are predicated on
economic injustice and the plundering of non-renewable
resources–and the changes I manage to make in my way of life are
minuscule and incremental.

If you throw a frog into boiling water, it’ll jump out, I’ve
heard, but if you put it in tepid water and heat the water
gradually, the frog will boil to death. The analogy is obvious, but
none of us seems to know where the fulcrum for change is, so we
just lie back, enveloped by that soothing warmth.

Marcela, who is Chilean, reminded me that September 11 was also
the date when Chile’s longtime democracy was overthrown by a
military coup orchestrated in part by the CIA. The year was 1973.
The coup was followed by waves of terror, by curfews, greatly
restricted freedom of expression, and the death or disappearance of
3,000 people. According to Marcela, the dictatorship’s grip was
cemented by government policy that effectively stupefied the
population: an edict forbidding groups from gathering coupled with
a steady diet of televised sports and entertainment in lieu of
public discourse.

The dictators’ ban on groups made perfect sense. As Margaret
Mead said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed
citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever

What became apparent to those of us who gathered last week was
that we had no answers–nor, for that matter, did we even have clear
questions. But there was a strong and shared longing to awaken. As
one participant said, ‘I know I have a warrior in me and she wants
to become active.’ So what do you do when you don’t know what to
do? Here are some things my friends are doing: creating a
bibliography of novels and memoirs about the Middle East;
volunteering in a soup kitchen; joining the local volunteer fire
department; studying the history and culture of Afghanistan;
donating money; fasting and praying.

As I write this, the fast of Ramadan is about to begin–an
occasion for all of us to reflect. Virginia Coyle, who has led
vision fasts for hundreds of people, says the purpose of fasting,
across religions and through time, is to remove the familiar and
disrupt our habits so that our attention is freed for deeper
questions: What is our common good? Who will stand up? What do I
really care about? What am I here to do?

We need to be asking ourselves these questions. We need to
encourage each other. And we need to exercise our freedom to gather
in small groups–so we don’t take that freedom for granted.

Ten years ago Utne Reader launched the Neighborhood Salon
Association, which, at its peak, helped 20,000 people talk to each
other in their living rooms. I’d like to propose that we relaunch
the conversation–with an intention for action. But let’s keep it
simple. We might invite a few friends; light a candle; pass around
something beautiful as a talking object; and, after asking for
clarity and wisdom, talk. Then let’s keep talking (and add in
singing and dancing).

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