What is freedom?

seagull

What is freedom?

What does freedom look like to you? Should we all seek to have the same concept of human freedoms or are they always going to be culturally-relative? Perhaps there are different levels of freedom, all equally valid yet some more fundamental to the entire human race than others?

Freedom takes many forms

For as I talk about ‘freedom lifestyle’ (such as the ability to travel when and where you want, to educate your children as you please, to trust that you will always have enough financial and material resources to get by, to engage in mutual relationships with whomever you choose, to simplify your routines that you may do more of what you love, and to construct whatever personal image you desire), I am also aware that the idea of freedom takes on a much different form for many people of the world.

The ‘freedom lifestyle’ I so enjoy discussing is a prime example of the privilege of WEIRD societies (that is, Western, educatied, industrialised, rich, democratic societies – but certainly quite weird too). It is painful and sickening to see the injustices against human rights taking place on a daily basis across the globe – yet rather than be wholly ashamed at our unconsciously colonial concept of freedom and personal autonomy, I wish that others had the opportunities that I have had for self-actualisation. This is not about throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Speaking from this place of privilege, I can see how strongly our concept of freedom is interlinked with the individualist ideology of neoliberalism. Whilst having such personal autonomy is a huge luxury, it can also be a curse – for in seeking this autonomy, we inevitably disconnect in some way from the community, the collective, ending up in our own little bubbles in which the freedom to seek personal gratification detaches us from the needs of the ‘tribe’.

This is one of the cons that many full-time worldschooling families find – enjoying independence yet yearning for deep human connections. Whilst the culture of the internet is quickly creating ‘global communities’, I wonder at how much strength and integrity these actually have in the rootless, fluctuating nature of them (and I’m referring to those communities that actually end up having physical meetings, not just online communications). Or is this just an extension of the idea of being free to choose our friends if not our family – choosing where we go to if not where we come from, yet never quite sure how strong the new bonds are until something tests them?

While I can thus tar the love of travel as weakening social bonds even as we develop cross-border friendship, the versatility and survival mechanisms of humans that have resulted in the anthropocene are what drive us to seek to explore new terrain just as much as we seek to set down roots.

It seems freedom is a spectrum – whilst I write about our adventures as a family that enjoys to travel, I also write about the basic universal freedoms that human beings should have, but are kept from through apartheid and denying freedom of speech.

But does ultimate personal freedom come at an expense, discarding the very values that have bound human beings together in kinship through the ages?

Boys in the mountains

Freedom is choice

Of course, not everyone can choose freedom – let this not play down the struggles of those who are oppressed, wrongly incarcerated, or living with war. And the spiritual freedom which often gets people through such trials needs another post entirely (in the meantime, read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning as an example of the spiritual resilience of survival). Yet you know you have freedom when you have choices – when your life isn’t mapped out ahead of you just because of where you were born or who you were born to, when you know you can choose to stay or go, when you know if you don’t like something you can change it.

We should be so grateful for all the freedoms we have in a society such as ours – to not take them for granted and neither to eschew them (I absolutely believe you should take advantage of any new opportunities that life offers you, even if it does make you more self-conscious about your privileged status in the world – perhaps a necessary realisation to make to truly appreciate our rich lives and respect the lives of those born without the same status?).

However, our freedom to make such choices puts us under other psychological pressures. What if you make the wrong decision? What if you regret the choice you made? What if your choice as an individual has repercussions for the lives of others? What if? What if?

It seems that the more personal freedom we have, the less we rely (or are able to rely) on interpersonal relationships to guide us – that we are free precisely because nobody else necessarily relies on us in a physical manner, that we may not rely on anybody else to provide for us, and that no other can make our decisions for us. Yes, often our choices will seem conflicting and indecision will loom precisely because we are weighing up what the best thing is for our families and other loved ones, and others’ opinions certainly abound, but ultimately we make the final decisions – and then individually shoulder all the blame when things go wrong or take all the praise when they work out.

Yet in a society where you have less choices available and therefore less decisions to make, you also have less stress relating to indecision and whether or not you are really “following your heart”. We are indeed blessed by having so much say over the direction of our lives – and then cursed when the analysis paralysis kicks in! The social conformity of collectivistic culture is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for those who recognise the beauty of the simple life.

What we sometimes forget is that, much like we limit choices for a child so as to not overwhelm them, we are also free to limit our own choices. Just because an option is available doesn’t mean it has to end up on your plate. In a culture of sensory overload and information overload, it becomes all the more important to engage in activities that simplify and streamline our lives. It can seem like an uphill battle at times but, as counter-intuitive as it seems to those who have grown up under rampant consumerism, minimalism is a lifestyle that invites in many freedoms. Less really is more.

We are sold the same options when it comes to embarking on relationships – I’ve come to see this freedom as inherently tainted with fear, because we’re all just one out of “plenty of fish” that could be discarded as “too this” or “too that” barely seconds after being caught. All the tears shed and days wasted trying to decide whether to leave a relationship or “is this really an expression of love?” – only to find myself in my mid-30s and a single parent to 4 children with the grand realisation that love isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice. It’s a state of being.

Yet the wrong relationships can significantly limit our freedom, and there may be occasion to choose personal independence above the desire for relationship. Despite this, freedom should always have a synonym in love, and freedom does not have to be at odds with commitment. Human mothers are not supposed to raise children in solitude, and this is one reason why social contracts of wedlock exist. While they may have different social issues to address, I can understand why so many cultures remain stable through the practice of arranged marriages. Unfortunately, individualistic independence and relationships of codependence seem more prevalent than freedom-granting relationships of interdependence.

Freedom is love

If love is freedom, freedom is love. I believe that those who truly love are not afraid of others’ freedom.

I believe freedom is always fought for from a place of love – that I will campaign against the oppression of strangers in other countries because I actually love the human race, for all the misdeeds we commit and quirks we have.

I believe that anyone who seeks to oppress others – restricting the freedoms of other human beings due to their ethnicity, religion, class, or any other socially-constructed label we use – is an agent of fear who is deprived of love and seeking to deprive others in turn.

I believe that freedom is the state you find yourself in when your first port of call in each moment is to tune into the love that resides within yourself (it’s never really about what other people are doing). Wherever you find yourself – as a willing hermit, in an unhappy marriage, or alongside your soulmate – true love within yourself creates spiritual freedom, and this is such pure freedom as it does not depend on any other human’s approval or affirmation.

Unfortunately, human love may come up against policies that restrict freedom, something that has become more of a headline story since EU nationals have started feeling the effects of anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK.

I also believe that freedom is the ultimate test for any human relationship – that as soon as we cling to another person or rely on them or their actions for our happiness, we are living in a state that is not actually conducive with real love. Relationships grow because they have room to grow. Only when we can give one another this space and still find one another on the other side are we ready to commit in confidence. Because if love is the basis of your relationship and if love is freedom, then so too should your relationship be one of freedom.

Fire & Water

Freedom is not opposed to commitment

Of course not, for I am committed to freedom!

So, I have learnt that I deeply respect those who find comfort in marriage and in making the choice each and every day to work alongside another person, finding their mutual balance between freedom and security.

I used to be something of a commitment-phobe – this doesn’t just apply to intimate relationships, but to ideas, interests, plans, and places. I’ve only been in my current hometown for the length of time I have by taking one day at a time and interspersing the past 14 years with lots of travelling, lots of visitors, and lots of daydreaming about emigrating – if someone had told me when I first moved to Weymouth that I would still be here over 14 years later, I would have laughed!

It’s not in my nature to settle – and certainly not for less than I deserve. We need the freedom to discern when we should persevere and when we should let go.

At the beginning of 2017 I finally put a full stop on an abusive relationship (one of our freedoms – indeed, rights – must be the power to walk away from dysfunctional relationships). I then focused on all the things that would make me feel ‘free’ – paying off debt, enroling on business and psychology courses, reconnecting with old friends, making new friends, pursuing minimalism, having live-in helpers through Workaway, and chasing our worldschooling dreams.

The freedom to step back and take refuge from a bad situation is necessary in order to remember your light – in the midst of something, you cannot see the woods for the trees. The combination of utilising my power to walk away and recognising the dynamics that had been at play was a huge lesson about freedom and choice. Only by having the freedom to get out of a negative situation, find myself in a contrasting situation, and therefore take on a new perspective did I realise what I actually wanted to commit to.

I found myself committing to a path with my self-development that I am still walking over 3 years later.

I found myself making a significant financial investment into something that I would have to follow through to make it worth the cost.

I found myself gaining comfort in routines and schedules, and putting procrastination into the past due to a commitment to just getting things done as they needed doing.

When you’re not fully committed, you do things by halves. A person or an employer or a project will never get the absolute best of you when half of your heart is elsewhere – and neither will you necessarily see the best of yourself (even if you know your ‘true potential’ – knowing what could be is no substitute for acting upon it).

Hence, I recognised it was my commitment to freedom at all costs that prevented me from making the most of what the previous few years had offered me – that stopped me from learning my children’s Imazighen family’s first language (“What’s the point if my future isn’t here?”), that took goal-setting as a contract against freedom (“But if I commit to this I won’t be free to discover what other paths could have been!”). Options are freedom but inaction is a cage made of fear.

Freedom is emotional freedom

When I’m happy and full of energy, everybody knows about it – I’m sharing my new ideas, connecting with friends to arrange meet-ups, being generous with my time, and possibly recounting not-so-happy moments because of the spiritual and psychological revelations that have dawned on me through them (yes, I’m happy today!).

When I’m not-so-happy, I hide away until the storm has passed, making sure no-one ever takes pity on me or sees me tearful. Much of 2017-2018 was spent in this state as I slowly recovered my sense of self and dealt with another unexpected pregnancy that coinciding with moving into a brand new chapter.

I have lost count of the number of times in my life when I’ve bluntly been told to stop crying because the person I’m with can’t handle my emotions. Too many of us have been taught to lock our feelings away, restraining ourselves lest we make another person feel uncomfortable. However, I know that it takes great strength to be vulnerable, and that we will never be free for as long as we keep things bottled up inside – prisoners of our own making.

I sincerely tell my friends to see me as a shoulder to cry on and to never go it alone if they don’t have to (I have often found this offer taken up, touched by the trust shown in me in being the person they open up to) – yet do I take my own advice?

Part of my reticence to discuss big emotions as they happen is that I also believe we can choose how far to head into our emotional responses – we should never deny or repress our emotions, but neither should we feed them or be governed by them. We should be mindful when they arise (“Oh, hello anger!”), but do we need to act on them and allow them to consume us? No. No, we really do not need to announce things to our entire Facebook friends list each time something remotely shitty happens – let it go. Meditate instead.

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There is a great freedom to be had by not feeding the negative thought-forms and nurturing the positive instead. I’m not naïve about the pitfalls and oversights of positive psychology – not if it buries things that need expressing or expects individuals to put on a brave face when they genuinely need the support of a fellow human. Yet if we approached our mental health like our physical health, we’d maybe be more conscious of what we put into our minds (and the minds of others) and the control we actually have – and enjoy the freedom that is found through regaining that control.

So while we should feel free to be open-hearted when things are difficult we should also endeavour to reclaim our power from negative emotions – it is so liberating to realise that changing how you feel is often just about changing the way you think about something.

This is about all the big emotions, whether we label them good or bad. Don’t be afraid to show that you’re hurting. But also don’t be afraid to tell someone you love them, that they light up your life, that your day has been made thanks to their very presence. True emotional freedom does not fear rejection because it is all about the expression, not the outcome.

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Freedom is cultural

Do not think you understand the full concept of freedom coming solely from your own cultural perspective. This point is well-illustrated by the somewhat simplistic but thought-provoking image of a bikini-clad woman and a woman in Islamic hijab, both pitying the other for what patriarchy has done to them.

Both they and every opinion in between come from different cultural perspectives. Certainly some people will be wearing what they do because they are expected to, whilst others have made a conscious decision through their own free-will (or think they have; the concepts of free will and subjectivity have less to do with personal autonomy than we tend to assume). Deciding that one style of dress is about freedom and another about oppression is not helpful in unravelling what’s at play – looking at the bigger picture, you’d start questioning uniforms of any kind.

Depending on the inherent values in your culture of upbringing, you will have different notions of what freedom entails and whether it is more or less important in the grand scheme of things.

As an educated woman, I often find myself feeling conflicted by the imperialistic push to grant a Western-style education to underprivileged women in developing countries. We should only go into such endeavours with a full understanding of the impact it has on the societies as a whole – an easy oversight to make if you go into it believing your own cultural background is the ‘right’ one.

This is where the individual and the collective comes into play. How much should we put individual self-actualisation on hold for the good of the collective? When are we actually just sacrificing traditions that bind communities on the altar of the West’s latest social paradigm? When is what we think is good (education) actually bad (indoctrinisation)? As usual, balance should be the operative word here.

I write this considering the impact of state education in Morocco on the country’s indigenous heritage – as soon as you encourage the indigenous Imazighen women to become Arabised by the state education system, you encourage them to leave behind their culture. And with that comes the death of indigenous languages and a further move towards cultural hegemony – and I tend to feel that reduced diversity in a country ultimately leads to reduced freedom of expression, one of those freedoms we are so quick to defend.

These women may not have financial or academic capital, but they have huge cultural capital – as with most women’s issues, where their power lies is also what society will try to undermine and distort. To truly honour and emancipate them would be to enable them to gain literacy in their own language first and foremost.

We can see in our own society how the ’emancipation’ of women is turning in on itself, leading to less freedom of choice – honouring those who try to be everything (wife, mother, career woman, fun-loving friend, and preferably on the PTA too) and undermining those who believe that their 24/7 role as a mother, homemaker, and wife is quite enough (and not just enough, but exactly where they feel their purpose lies). If emancipation means freedom, it should always be about the freedom to choose. This also goes for bikinis, burqas, and anything in between.

Also, I have learnt that when your Muslim partner wants to accompany you on all your outings, it is not because of a lack of trust in you or with the intention of limiting your freedom – it is a matter of honour, of being seen as a protector and provider, to be there for you if anything goes wrong or anyone tries to hassle you. Forgive me for using an analogy of a child in this case (quite enough infantilising of women occurs), but I shall relate it to being the relaxed parent in a park full of helicopter parents – as soon as your child falls off something because you were 3 metres away letting them get on with it rather than right under them waiting for them to fall, you’re going to be seen as the one in the wrong. Likewise, a shame-based culture, such as those in the Middle East and Asia, will try to limit problems by not letting them happen in the first place. I’m not saying I like this (although it was often reassuring) or think it’s right (I am that relaxed parent) but so could someone question a guilt-based culture, which places a higher value on autonomy yet in which it is increasingly difficult to feel a sense of shared social values.

Talk about culture clash. However, it has helped me to understand how stressful mixed-heritage relationships are upon people, quite apart from the usual pressures of relationships. And that whilst we may have the freedom to travel and to pursue a relationship with someone living in another continent, that very freedom brings the sharp contrast of shortcomings in social capital to the partner who has a less privileged passport.

Conscious freedom

Our freedom should be used to understand and enhance the lives of those around us rather than be solely about personal autonomy. Rob Greenfield is an example of someone who possibly lives the ultimate freedom lifestyle, using his lack of attachment to money, property, and possessions to serve people and the planet.

Though I warned against our attempts to ‘fix’ developing nations and am also sceptical of certain forms of voluntourism, there are always ways in which we can use our freedoms to benefit others – whether our financial freedom allows us to help those less well-off, our emotional freedom allows us to support those going through dark days, or our physical freedom allows us to assist those who are dependent on others to care for them.

Whilst we can be conscious of our privilege in ‘free’ nations (I use that term tentatively in regards to the lack of psychologically freedom of those bound by consumerism and the false narratives of mainstream media), are we conscious of how our background influences the way we think about freedom? And what do we miss out on if we put freedom on a pedestal above other aspects of a well-rounded life, such as community and security?

Our pick ‘n’ mix personal freedom replaces solid communities with disparate networks – it does not make meaningful human contact impossible, but it makes it more difficult. Networks facilitate connections – but it is community that supports those connections.

Over recent weeks I’ve been given a reminder of how selfish Western individualism is. And how isolating. And how my “Woohoo, freedom lifestyle!” smile hides the reality of suffering from strong, independent woman syndrome. I found myself nodding in recognition upon reading an article about how individualism results in social isolation and another about how mothers suffer with the lack of genuine community.

Yet herein is the dichotomy and a reminder that we cannot have our cake and eat it too. Spiritually and emotionally we may be as free as our thoughts allow, yet physically we are bound by more than we care to admit, always subject to the laws, traditions, and social code of wherever we find ourselves – and always somewhat drawn to conform and fit in. But that very desire to fit in and create shared values is what binds us to others and fosters the solidarity of community.

Conscious freedom not only means recognising our place amongst others in the world as a whole but also recognising if we are remaining centred in ourselves in a mindful way that seeks connection with other people or in an egoic way that ends up isolating us from other people.

Freedom is planning

In my new-found security of sticking to my plans and projects, I’ve been starkly aware of times when I’ve let go just before achieving a goal, or dishonoured myself by refusing to make a commitment. The freedom to change is responsible for many an incomplete project, meaning I have few finished products to be proud of despite being a self-confessed ‘idea machine‘.

The freedom of not planning too much too far in advance becomes a ball and chain when we notice that the years have gone by and there is so much we could have achieved if we had our eye on the long-term goal rather than pursuing the freedom of total spontaneity. That pursuit can cost your dreams, which you shall receive a rude reminder of when the ultimate freedom of death comes knocking.

To achieve our true potential we must sometimes shelter what we have sown when the winds of change blow rather than taking to our wings and abandoning our seedlings to the storm. The grass can never be greener if we do not stay to watch it grow.

So, I resolve to integrate these lessons – to move into tomorrow appreciating how much choice and variety my freedom affords me whilst being mindful of the decisions I then make. To know that the privilege of freedom should not be taken for granted and squandered, but used to promise ourselves to the greater good. To focus on choosing commitment when it is called for and choosing love in all situations.

This has just skimmed the surface of the various layers of freedom and how it can be conceptualised – do let me know in the comments below what resonated for you, and which aspects you may like to explore more.

 

From Clutter to Clarity

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Something pivotal happened this year in our journey to be ‘free to be family’.

I recognised a long time ago that a great source of daily stress as a single mother, home-maker and home educator was the amount of clutter I was surrounded by. My ideal home-life was locked away in a land of dreams, somewhere behind the mountain of washing, the sea of shiny plastic tat and the pyramids of paperwork. Yes, I tried to make it fun (Look at my abundance! The evidence of a lively family life! The gorgeous, glittery, sticky mess of my toddler exploring the overflowing craft supplies again!), and yet . . .

Disclaimer: this post includes associate links to relevant resources.

Much too often, the need to clean up got in the way of actually playing and connecting with my children. Before I could even clean, I had to tidy. Whole days could be spent just moving and organising our possessions – whole days of feeling guilty because instead of spending quality time with my children, I was grizzling over all the toys and paper and other miscellany that had accumulated everywhere.

I’ve never considered myself a big consumer, yet the evidence of a typical life in a consumerist society was on display in my home – as well as the evidence of a frugalista’s inability to say no to freebies and hand-me-downs.

Catching the travel bug instigated the desire for less, a realisation that both myself and my children could relax when on the move in a way we couldn’t at home. The simplicity of living out of a suitcase in sparse hotel rooms!

So, inspired by a vision to ultimately be free to pack it all up and fit my life inside a camper van if the whim occurred, I returned from my first trip to Morocco in 2010 with a desperate need to declutter. On subsequent trips to the developing nation I also noted the benefits of having non-materialistic children who were grateful for the simple things in life.

I’m not a hoarder by any stretch of the imagination, yet it still seemed like I was unduly hemmed in by material possessions. I recognised that personal freedom involved ensuring that these possessions lessen their grip on me.

Quite apart from whether we choose to travel or not, the root of it was that I wanted a family life that was as happy and harmonious as possible – and I had identified that a home full of the distraction of ‘stuff’ was not helping me to achieve this aim.

I had found my ‘why’ for decluttering but I had not found my method.

Having been making trip after trip to the charity shop with donations for nearly 5 years, yet still feeling overwhelmed by the amount of clutter I was surrounded by, early in 2016 I decided to implement the Konmari technique of decluttering and tidying. It showed me how half-hearted, sentimental and unmethodical my previous attempts to remove the clutter had been – I had been trying to fix my disorderliness in a very disorderly way.

The Konmari method was developed by Marie Kondo, an organising consultant whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying would suggest that she has an obsessive compulsive need to tidy and organise. Some of her suggestions seemed odd (I’d certainly never ascribed animism to the contents of my underwear drawer), yet I decided to trust the system and see where it took me. Nothing to lose after already spending 5 years of my life attempting to achieve a more minimalist lifestyle.

The basic method with the Konmari technique is to hold each item individually and decide whether or not it brings you joy. It’s an instinctive and intuitive process and, while it doesn’t float everyone’s boat, I love it. It is a clear indicator of what we really want to have in our homes – the place that should be our sanctuary.

It means that what we are left with are items that we truly value and enjoy.

The method is not without its critics. Using a term like ‘joy’ can seem a wishy-washy concept when the problem and solution appears very practical. One criticism might be “Well, my clothes pegs don’t bring me joy, but I’d be stuck without them – what a ridiculous premise to base your decluttering on!”

Let’s pick this apart. The word ‘joy’ is usually associated with a high energy sense of bliss and, indeed, most of us do not look at our clothes pegs and feel quite so strongly about them. But let’s turn it around. Imagine if you came to hang your washing out and there were no clothes pegs. What then? What if you can only hang your washing out just the way you like it with those pegs? I will admit, I am quite particular about the way I hang the clothes out on the washing line (given that my ironing board was decluttered many years ago), and the pegs are part of a routine that does lead to the simple pleasure of having crease-free, air-freshened clothes. It is a very tiny part of the jigsaw that makes up my experience of living joyfully – but it is still a part of it and the jigsaw would be incomplete without it (and how annoying is it when you realise there’s a jigsaw piece missing?!).

We have to consider everything’s place within and effect upon the bigger picture.

All of these little things – the mundane everyday items that make our lives more convenient – they add up to comprise our own, unique version of what constitutes a ‘joyful life’. Other people may well be glad to declutter those pegs straight out of the ‘random’ drawer (you know, that drawer in the kitchen full of bits and bobs that have no real home? Apparently, everyone has one – until you decide to declutter Konmari-style!).

Similarly, Joshua Becker – a ‘rational minimalist’ and author of The More of Less – uses the concept of bringing joy to the decluttering process but covers his back from the criticisms aimed at Konmari by also including the concept of need – “If you love it or need it”. Unfortunately, I think the word ‘need’ can be even more vague in the decluttering process than the word ‘joy’. We can believe we need something, but do we really? Advertisers create needs where none before existed. ‘Needs’ have developed in consumerist societies that, in the grand scheme of things, are not needs at all.

A skewed concept of need also encourages the “But I might need it one day!” blockage that prevents us from decluttering effectively.

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are many things taking up space in our lives that do not come under the banners of safety, survival or social well-being. And, as many luxuries as we have available to us, how many really assist us on the path to self-actualisation? I would suggest that true self-actualisation is better achieved with minimal belongings – and minimal accrual of other unnecessary cultural clutter. There are so many options that we have in an individualist culture to layer up our self-image and ego with both material and intellectual resources as if self-realisation is taking place, yet there is a big difference between self-actualisation and self-indulgence.

The other side of this is that we can consider what we really want to be surrounded by, what genuinely resonates with us and expresses our individual styles – not out of a false need to “keep up with the Jones’” or show off, but in order to feel in harmony with our environment.

With home décor, it may be an easy task to know what we really like and what we really don’t like. For more functional items, it is a time to reassess. I definitely do not espouse the Konmari habit of just throwing things out (how wasteful and environmentally destructive), but I do encourage people to really think about the replacements they make when items do come to the end of their life or otherwise become redundant.

When my toaster stopped working earlier in the year, I decided it would be nice to have the worktop space back (having reduced items on the worktop to just the toaster and the kettle) and I would do toast under the oven grill instead. It does the job without taking up unnecessary room, hence we’re still just using the grill – a much more multi-functional product than the toaster ever was anyway!

Likewise, when my kettle stopped working, I decided to boil water on the stove. However, this really wasn’t the most efficient way to make frequent mugs of tea, so I recognised that I actually quite like owning a kettle. This doubled as an opportunity to choose something I liked aesthetically (read: brings me joy to glance upon) rather than just buying something based on its price – so, a funky glass kettle that lights up the water blue it was!

Decluttering doesn’t just involve getting rid of what you already have – it means making more conscious, considered decisions about what you let into your home in the first place.

One of the best things about minimalist living when you’re on a budget is that you can invest in the few quality items that you really love rather than living by the false economy of spending less per item in order to acquire more. It also means that your sense of abundance is not measured just by the level of your income.

Buying new items only when absolutely necessary and reassessing habitual purchases means that I can afford to do something that is truly important to our family – travel. As well as the practical day-to-day freedom that decluttering has brought us in our home, it has refined our entire lifestyle in numerous ways.

We live in a privileged society, but our material wealth has a way of distracting us from what is actually important – it can distract some of us from even considering what is actually important, so entrenched is the social conditioning in which some people even consider ‘shopping’ a valid pastime. Is this what anyone truly wants to recall of their lives when they are on their deathbed?

Living with less has also increased our gratitude for what we have – consciously choosing that which promotes a sense of love and joy allows us to genuinely count our blessings. Freed from the lure of the next consumerist fix we can be free to follow our hearts, which invariably releases us to focus on our inner values and our relationships with other human beings rather than the pressure to conform and our relationships with inanimate objects.

Remember:

“Clutter is not just physical stuff. It’s old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits. Clutter is anything that does not support your better self.” – Eleanor Brownn

Have you successfully decluttered? Do you want to but don’t know where to start? Share your story with me below – I’d love to hear what inspired you or what’s stopping you.

For further inspiration:

A Story of Hope: Palestine in a Picture Book?

A poignant yet optimistic look at how conflict affects children comes in the shape of A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope, an Amnesty International-endorsed picture book by Michael Foreman.

A Child's Garden

Today seems an appropriate day to feature this book, as it marks the first anniversary of the commencement of Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Israeli offensive against Gaza – and the anniversary of my realisation of how ignorant I was to the history and politics of the Palestinian campaign.

Yes, I’d often observed the ‘Free Palestine’ posters over the years and the issues spoken of in the mainstream media were at the periphery of my awareness. Yet, really, I was uninformed and uninterested for a long time – it’s a sad fact that the amount of causes to campaign for and injustices out there mean we cannot lend our attention and time to everything that may deserve our recognition. And, in truth, certain issues tend to resonate with us more than others.

Yet last year, largely due to following independent press such as Scriptonite Daily via social media, I suddenly became aware of the slow genocide of the Palestinian people. Watching a live stream of a journalist reporting from within Gaza as air strikes took place and she conveyed the horror of hearing children screaming in the streets below, it became more than ‘just another news story’.

Then I picked up A Child’s Garden during a browse of the children’s picture books in our local library. Although no specific conflict was explicitly mentioned in the blurb, it seemed to me that the inspiration was the issue of Israel-Palestine. The illustrations appeared to allude to Palestine for many reasons: one group of people clearly in a position of superiority over another; white-washed high-rise blocks looming beyond wire fencing; families living amidst rubble in a situation of oppression and segregation; people dreaming of their return to hills dotted with date palms.

It was very evident that the issue at stake was the repatriation of land.

I found this book both disturbing yet hopeful. For, indeed, what have the Palestinian people got at the moment without hope? The alternative is too sickening to contemplate, and especially at the hands of a group of people who were themselves persecuted by a regime bent on ethnic cleansing (whilst not all Israelis are Jews and not all Jews are Zionists, et cetera, let’s not forget that the State of Israel was officially created after millions of Jewish people were killed or displaced by the Nazis – and that the topic of this post renders me immune to Godwin’s Law!).

The book reminded me of the character and fortitude of El-Phil, a vibrant Palestinian villager in Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s documentary, 5 Broken Cameras. Amidst the chaos, uncertainty and tragedy, there was still something or someone who could raise the energy and raise a smile, a child-like need to play in spite of the pain. There is also more than a hint of defiance – and the awareness that the alternative to hope is utter despair.

Illustrated to drive these points home, the symbols of peace and hope sit vibrantly in colour against a background of grey; the green and seeking tendrils of creeping plants teasing the fences, the rainbow wings of birds knowing the freedom of the skies. Through children and nature, differences are diminished and our true birth-rights brought forth.

A Child’s Garden was a thought-provoking yet gentle means by which to continue a conversation with FreeToBeP about war and oppressive regimes. The book works on many levels without introducing issues or images that are too harsh to present to a child, allowing parent and child to set their own tone for discussion. There is no bloodshed and no death, yet there are walls, sadness and segregation. The hardships of families living in war-torn countries may be softened but the emotiveness is not lost  – personal loss is conveyed through the brutal removal of a lovingly-tended plant rather than the heart-breaking bereavement of beloved kin.

Call me naïve but the very fact that this issue can be so carefully and appropriately portrayed in a ‘mere’ picture book speaks volumes about the nature of war and peace.

The answer is simple if only we value other members of the human race. Is that really so hard to do?

Peace and freedom are natural states craved by the scarred yet innocent children in this book. There is a simplicity many of us would do well to emulate: the children do not wish to engage in complex politics about Zionism or Hamas or the IDF, they wish to engage with the land of their forebears.

Likewise, I won’t pretend to know all the politics but what I do know is that something which, technically, holds millions of people hostage whilst systematically stealing their land and slowly killing them off is not a situation a fellow human being should tolerate.

We know the big players are generally corrupt and do not necessarily stand for the wishes of the civilians. We know our own government pays lip service to peace-keeping as they simultaneously trade weapons or engage in wars that result in untold amounts of ‘collateral damage’ (talk about dehumanising – in layman’s terms, that’s the murder of innocent civilians).

Whatever Hamas or the IDF do, it is not a simple narrative of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Even as Israeli MPs demonise unborn Palestinian children, there are Israeli human rights activists fighting for the interests of people living in Gaza and the West Bank. As pro-Palestine campaigners are accused of anti-Semitism (in secular countries no less!), alongside them exist Jews against Zionism. For as many people who believe in the two-state solution there are probably just as many who don’t; those who will never recognise a Palestine and those who will never recognise an Israel.

Hence, we could go around in circles with the politics, just as the conflicts and ceasefires do. The crux of the matter is that there are thousands of innocent families being forced from their homes with nowhere to go, children forced to grow up in a blockaded war zone without even hope of escaping to the loftier status of asylum-seeker. Children like yours or mine who just happen to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some of those children will, with enough misery and pain to fuel their righteous anger, go on to be the vengeful extremists of the future.

Some of those children will, with enough empathy and passion to fuel their righteous anger, go on to be the peace-makers and peace-keepers of the future.

So, let’s at least stop feeding our own children stories about ‘us’ and ‘them’, about the ‘need’ for armaments and war. The world is already quick to tell them this.

Let’s instead teach them to see the humanity in everyone, irrespective of their nation, religion or culture.

Let’s teach them to seek information beyond what the BBC tells them.

I don’t want my children to grow up in fear and suspicion of the world, but I do pray that they see the people rather than the propaganda, that they think about making the world better rather than making do, that they recognise small ways to help make big differences, and – as per A Child’s Garden – that they give thanks when hope and simple pleasures sustain the dream of freedom.

And, in time, may that dream of freedom come true.

Learn more? Links below:

Palestine Solidarity Campaign

5 Broken Cameras

The Parkour Guide to Gaza

The Congruent Blogger

Integrity

Congruence: in counselling terms, this refers to the outer self being in harmony with the inner self – that what you display to others reflects what is occurring in your inner world. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you disclose your every thought or feeling, but that you find a way to present yourself authentically.

I have been reflecting on whether this blog is in accordance with the above.

Free To Be was inspired by my travels to Morocco and launched at a time when I was seriously considering emigration; I was expecting baby number 3 and investing in work that I could ultimately do from anywhere in the world. It felt like an exciting time and I knew I had to write about my travels and what it means to be part of the human family.

The themes of peace and freedom and adventure ran through those first posts.

Peace.

Freedom.

Adventure.

The biggest questions I had when I began blogging were:

“Do I really want to share these personal stories with the whole world?”

and

“If I present myself as this person, don’t I have to continue to be her?”

How can I be honest and real without compromising my privacy or my Geminian tendency to, well, just change my mind about anything and everything? And not just change my mind, but my entire lifestyle on occasion (for I continue to shake off labels that I once upon a time made use of to shape my identity).

In the past I posted a personal social media status at least once per week, but this gradually diminished to big life events only (at least the birth of a child is a fact that can’t be altered!). My personal opinions can be garnered through calls to petitions and choice news stories – in someone else’s words of course.

It was from a sense of feeling more private that I decided to go public. I finally felt safe in my own skin and no longer needed my friends to comment on day-to-day trivialities for my sense of self-esteem. Hence, I gained the courage to invite strangers to comment on my writing; writing that is generally sourced from experience, sometimes garnished with facts yet often doused in personal philosophies and opinion – always an expression of one’s sense of self.

I just hoped to offer something that could inspire others or be a call to action, with a life of inspiration and action to provide such material – to walk the walk as I talk the talk.

Yet I occasionally feel, for as balanced and open as my accounts of our travels have been, our family circumstances have been less exotic and more excruciating than might be assumed. I have many articles drafted regarding travel advice for Morocco, being part of a mixed race family, language learning and other topics, all liberally seasoned with personal anecdotes which include many casual mentions of FreeToBeB as if our cross-border relationship is normal and sustainable – for it is neither. Between issues of finance, language, immigration law, culture and religion to downright personality clashes, it is – frankly – incredible that it survived its first year, let alone four years and two babies.

The question on everyone’s lips: When is the next trip to Morocco?

The answer: Sadly, less of a when and more of an if.

So, as I found myself at the mercy of a 6 year old’s distress at a 2 year old’s temper with a baby wailing in my arms at 8pm on a rainy winter’s night in Britain, seven months beyond any adventures abroad, feeling somewhat alone and isolated, and wondering why the universe was testing me in such a way (and breathe!), I pondered those themes.

Peace?

Freedom?

Adventure?

Thus, from this low point, I questioned my congruence this week with regards to this blog, wondering how the person reading these posts perceives the person writing them; wondering if my current lifestyle lives up to what the blurb promises.

Where is the peace?

Where is the freedom?

Where is the adventure?

Well, the answer to these is right here.

Even as I castigated myself for yearning for the icing on the cake in the modern mother’s repertoire (i.e. time to myself), I also knew that was not the solution.

We don’t fight the monsters by running away; we don’t escape the inner demons by changing our outer environment.

For anyone who’s ever read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now or even has a basic understanding of living mindfully, you will know that the power always resides in the very moment that you feel powerless.

And so I realised:

Where there is love, there is peace.

Where there is thought, there is freedom.

Where there are children, there is adventure.

Winter as a home educating single mum with a new baby has been challenging. But I like a challenge. And within that adventure, we are free to be family – for there is many a country where home educators or single mothers would fare a lot worse than I do in the UK.

And there is always, always peace when staring upon a sleeping baby’s face.

It all begins at home.

A part of me feels like I’m grasping at straws, that I have lost the person who wrote the inaugural How I Caught the Travel Bug.

Yet as I centred myself and dealt with the siblings’ squabbles, I found that person.

FreeToBeP screamed (real tears and all) as his little sister angrily disagreed with something he said. He chose the misery of wanting everyone to agree with his stance – isn’t that how wars are started?

And so I thought of a quote that I’d spotted on my social media news feed earlier that day:

“It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them. So throw away your baggage and go forward. There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. Lightly my darling…” (Aldous Huxley, Island)

“Choose the happy path, P.” I advised, before doling out suggestions on how to cope better (note to readers: I was taking my own advice as I said it – for I do not always handle such bickering with such grace!).

And as part of the happy path I tried to lead him upon, I thought of all the memories I hope to make with my children this year, all the opportunities we have to make life one big adventure . . .

Aha! Here comes that train of thought which includes getting the camping gear out, attending festivals, booking flights, travelling to new places, trying new things, meeting new people and, yes, perhaps even emigrating. Yes, here comes the fever of the travel bug.

If having children has taught me anything, it’s that I still have a lot to learn. And as we learn, we grow. And as we grow, we change.

As such, I can always give my promise that at any moment my writing comes from the heart and that congruence exists despite a change of heart. If anything, it is all the more congruent in that I invite you along for the journey, as witness!

And I can always give my promise that for as long as this blog exists, I shall be striving towards those themes even as they seem to elude me:

Peace.

Freedom.

Adventure.

Raif Badawi: A Lesson in Human Rights

free raif

Yesterday evening we attended a touching tribute to Raif Badawi, the liberal Saudi blogger who is in the midst of a sentence of floggings and imprisonment for daring to speak his mind.

Having found out about the candlelit vigil late in the afternoon, the children were given little warning of our unusual evening outing to Weymouth Pavilion. Yet they approached the small crowd beside the theatre in good spirits and were cautiously intrigued by the flickering flames. One attentive lady soon assigned FreeToBeP the task of keeping the candles alight as a gentle sea breeze ensured the steady snuffing out of the many tealights.

My children may not have understood why we were there, but their presence seemed poignant. It was one of those moments where I can understand (if not agree with) people who don’t wish to have children due to the sort of world that they would be being brought into.

FreeToBeP and FreeToBeZ both adopted a natural reverence – whilst they may not have fully appreciated the occasion intellectually, they certainly seemed to intuitively.

Initially, it appeared difficult to know how much to disclose about such a case as Badawi’s to a child – I don’t want to wrap my kids in cotton wool, yet equally don’t want them fearing that the world is a cruel place. But, really, the explanations came naturally and in a language that FreeToBeP would understand.

I gently explained that in some countries, people can be punished for doing exactly what I do: expressing opinions publicly by way of an online blog and encouraging people to share information, think outside the box and question life, the universe and everything.

I gently explained that this man has children who know their daddy is being hurt, and that it’s important to try to free him so that he can be reunited with his family.

I gently explained that we were attending to show that we care about other human beings and don’t agree with people being treated cruelly, that when we know someone is being mistreated we must speak out against it.

Somewhat black and white explanations maybe, but more than sufficient for a six year old who is at liberty to ask further questions if my initial words don’t suffice.

I hope that by attending such events, I’m not merely focusing on the negative happenings of the world but showing my children how much compassion and hope there is between people despite the brutality of others; that through solidarity with our fellow humans – even a stranger in another country – we can affect change and our children will grow up to live that change.

The simple message was Yes, bad things happen, but good people rally together to make things better.

The children were a huge credit to me, FreeToBeP conscientiously being the flame-keeper and FreeToBeZ the observant bystander: both of them calm and contained and careful in both speech and action. I have no doubt that they, on some level, perceived the energy of the event and responded accordingly.

The general atmosphere was one of quiet respect – it was sociable, hopeful and yet suitably solemn. We were a fairly small gathering yet not insignificant – for if no one stood up in protest, the world would be a free for all in quite a different way to the one Raif Badawi calls for.

Yes, there are many atrocities taking place the world over – each and every day witnesses the suffering of numerous warzones and injustices against innocent people. But some stories captivate the collective consciousness more than others (or someone tell me this is due to media spin!) and call on us to respond, to take action, to say “enough is enough”.

burning candles

As our candles stood as symbols of hope, so has Raif Badawi’s case become a symbol of the right to free speech.

He is just one of countless scapegoated people, yet in speaking out against the inhumanity shown towards one, we speak out against inhumanity in general.

As my children tended to the tiny flames, so I saw the tiny flames that they are – the next generation who will light the way forward.

In allowing our children to take part in peaceful activism and empowering them to believe that they can change the world, may they be the lights of hope that pave the way to a future where freedom of expression is a birthright the world over.

 

To sign the petition against the punishment of Raif Badawi, please visit Amnesty International here.

To read extracts from the blog that got Raif Badawi into trouble, visit The Guardian’s article here.

A local account of the evening’s vigil can be found at the Dorset Echo website here.