Road to Home: Notes On the Freedom of Both

March 30, 2020
Bill Payne

I’m sitting outside in the sun. A few days ago, the ground was covered in snow. It is in the mid-40s, mid-afternoon, here in Montana, the beginning of spring. Listening to a symphony of birds chirping and chattering in the trees near where I’m sitting, the song of a chickadee adds to the chorus every now and then, their music coming in waves, stopping abruptly, unmasking the silence beneath, then starting up again as if on cue.

Later, back in the house, I now hear a trio of birds singing. Little trills with a slight crescendo then tapering off. Now silence again. It is peaceful. Polly is out on the catio (a patio for our cat Albus, as well as for us) painting different samples of stains, ocher and green, on selected pieces of wood, eyeing up what might look best when the project to paint the deck of the patio is entered into with conviction. She is used to the rhythm of being at home. 

We are not on an order of Shelter in Place in Montana, as of yet. In what seems a year ago (it was two weeks ago) I was in Philadelphia playing at the Ardmore Music Hall with the New Orleans Suspects, Fred Tackett, John Gros, and Bonerama. It was the last gasp before the bottom fell out. There were plenty of hugs and handshakes (something we knew we shouldn’t be doing) that evening, following an inspired set of music. The gig was on March 7. I flew home the next day. Accepting that the world has been turned upside down, that it is serious, and that we are at a loss as to what the future holds, has, for some, myself included, been a slow realization. We are all in this together, yet separate.

Now at home, the simple act of listening, of immersing myself into a less frenetic present, has put my focus on the importance of living in the moment. I have a blank slate, more or less: it is the ultimate freedom. 

Freedom is a word that conjures expressions of core values, of time honored notions, of atmospherics, of debatable metrics, of simple truths. The word is anchored in a righteous nod towards the many shades of freedom: God-given rights, free speech, the freedom to choose our lifestyle, a woman’s freedom over her own body, freedom to vote. Of these, the freedom of choice is central. They or so intertwined as to be inseparable. We cast a wide net with the word freedom, providing both refuge and hope to those with high aspirations and ideals, or deception and cover to those that would manipulate and exploit its meaning. Freedom is complicated, messy, and necessary. 

When you internalize freedom, there is a recognition of framing it in a context that bolsters your beliefs, what you’re willing to accept. Moreover, it often conveniently conforms to what suits your needs. With the world shutting down, the most disruptive aspect of freedom is being put in the headlock of limitations, directly affecting freedom of choice. By limiting choices, our basic sense and understanding of freedom is now in question. Reality is the great equalizer, though. Nothing like staring at a wall of books and trying to decide what to read. Seeing boxes full of papers that need sorting, hidden within them avenues to long sidelined projects. Photos waiting on the computer to investigate and work on. I’ve had very little time in the last few years to even contemplate working on much of anything at home. 

Freedom is what confronts me now at home, the open-ended proposition. What I’ve noticed most is a lack of urgency to do anything. I’m not on a schedule. It feels somewhat surreal.

Thankfully, there’s something I can lean on: discipline. It is not an errant concept, thanks to my music teacher Ruth Fiske Neuman. I learned very early what it really meant. Ruth Neuman, who taught me piano and pipe organ from age five through fifteen, was the vessel of that instruction, literally and figuratively. I had to practice the piano, not just play it. The two concepts were fortunately enjoined in my musical  education. I was allowed to do both under Mrs. Neuman’s watchful eye. 

Another powerful lesson that later helped me understand myself took place early on with lasting repercussions. When I was in elementary school – George Washington, in Ventura, California – I was in second or third grade. I was chosen, along with approximately six other students, to take part in an experiment that the principal, Mrs. Dooley, organized. We were ushered out of our classrooms and led down a few steps to a small courtyard in the middle of the school. Surrounded with windows, we were situated on the ground floor of what were two or three stories above us, also with windows; it was a quiet place filled with ample sunshine and shade. 

The crux of the experiment was to evaluate what a child might do within an allotted time and space, armed with an array of creative tools: paints, Playdough, crayons, paper, and whatever else we might request. Interestingly, there were no group activities; it was about the individual. We were told we had full reign (freedom) to do what we would like. I asked if I could break the windows. One of the teachers told me, “Well, I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you want to, go ahead.” I had no intention of breaking anything. For me, it was about understanding the rules. 

What were the limitations? Just how far might I take it? I tried painting for a while. I remember asking what I should paint and received nothing in the way of instruction or encouragement other than to paint what I’d like. Nothing. Playing with the Playdough was even less inspiring. Watching what the other kids were doing, they seemed busy as bees. Discouraged, I finally gave up. I never fully participated again.

I don’t recall the experiment going longer than another session or so. And though I was too young to put it into context at the time, I later realized that without some form of guidance, I was overwhelmed and directionless. Ruth Neuman had provided me with plenty of direction in my musical pursuits. Parameters, at least for me, were then and are now important.

I’m just at the beginning stage of this freedom at home, as most of us are. Whether it is weeks or months, time will go by without the rituals of the road I’ve become accustomed to. It is exciting. It is daunting. It is time to create new rituals. 


Home sweet home in Montana, March 2020 

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