In 2018, we commissioned 51 authors from 25 countries to write essays exploring ideas about freedom for The Freedom Papers, a publication produced in partnership with Gutter Magazine. Five of these essays, including the one featured below, were commissioned by young programmers aged 8-14 who were working with us as part of the Year of Young People 2018. Read on for Nicola Davies' essay, and visit guttermag.co.uk to purchase a copy of The Freedom Papers.
You can find Freedom leading the rebellion, battering at the prison gates and shouting outside the palace window, calling dictators to account. But Freedom’s other work, her main occupation in fact, is much quieter. She goes about the world making small changes, creating moments of opportunity, so subtle, so small sometimes, that you might not notice them. The office window left open, so the blackbird song splashes over your desk? Freedom did that. The narrow path that winds over the meadow into the trees? Freedom made it. The branch high in the apple tree where you once sat swinging your legs? Freedom put that there.
I spent a lot of time with Freedom when I was small. I felt her the moment that I learned to run. She was in the joy of my bare feet flying over summer grass and the air rushing to my lungs. She was with me as I crouched in flower beds and broke the ice on puddles; we watched ants and jumped waves together. Often, we didn’t do much at all. She liked a certain kind of aimlessness and she’d stay quietly at my side as I gazed at the light coming through the leaves or sloshed through mud in my wellies. I was a timid child, and wanting to be with Freedom made me braver, hardier. I never found her indoors, with the telly on and the radiators turned up high. She was never where the grass was mowed neat or flowers grew in straight lines. She was always outside the boundaries of things, in secret creases of the world where wild things flourished; in messy dens, thistle patches, strand lines, woods.
Freedom still came around when I was in my teens and twenties. We had some of our best times then, adventures: hitching across Ontario and New York State, sailing off the coast of Newfoundland and Sri Lanka. She was in the bend of the open road, the clicks of sperm whales underneath the hull, the sudden flash of flying fish breaking from the silky surface of a tropical sea. She liked storms, starlit nights and dawn. Danger too. Once, we stood in the prow of a sailboat in swells big enough to swallow the mast and shrieked with joy. Another time she helped me battle with a slipping anchor on a lee shore. But it wasn’t just excitement that drew her; often the simplest things would bring her to my side. She spent a whole afternoon with me whilst I bathed and washed my clothes in a wild river in Labrador. Freedom always liked tents and campfires. I can hardly remember stirring a pot over a Primus, or washing up in a lake, when she wasn’t there.
As I got caught up with work and kids I knew I wouldn’t see Freedom much, but by then I had learned where to find her. I only had to run down a beach towards the sea or walk out onto the grass before anyone was awake, and she’d be beside me again, even if only for a moment. And, as always, she’d turn up in unexpected places: stepping through the sunshine on a New York street to brush my shoulder, or sitting down beside me at a little bus station, somewhere where I didn’t speak the language.
I know she’s never very far away. Every time I close my study door and choose to run instead of do another hour’s work, or sit and watch the bees with my morning tea, she’s there to whisper to me about what really matters, what really makes life worth living. I value her company more and more as I grow older, and I’m hungry for more of it. Nowadays, I seek her out. I knew she’d be waiting under water with the turtles on a reef in Sulawesi and on a mountain ledge in Armenia. She brushed my cheek as I stared at the stars between the clouds of an Amazon storm and sang along in the back of a truck on a dirt road in the Garo Hills. She still likes a bit of risk. She was on my shoulder all afternoon when I did my first real bit of mountain biking down a valley in the Highlands. She is still good at making me braver.
I worry about people that I meet who just don’t know that she exists. They’ve never met her because she isn’t where they spend their time, indoors, in front of screens. Without her company, her cool, electrifying touch, they have learned to live a life where being safe is paramount, where thrill is delivered second hand and the only power is the ownership of objects. They don’t know that such a life is no life at all, it is a life spent in service of someone else’s profits.
But Freedom is powerful. The smallest brush with her can be enough to change a life. The greatest gift you can give any child, give yourself, is the opportunity to meet her and let her work her magic. Remember, you don’t need to travel far. Make a den in a nettle patch, cook on a fire, spend a night under the stars, run down a beach, and she’ll be there, ready. Once you know her, things and stuff won’t be so important. Follow where she leads and soon you could be under the stars in the desert, or chasing down a mountain side, or riding a wave. And in her presence you will find yourself. You will be free.
Copyright © 2018, Nicola Davies. All rights reserved.
Supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund through Creative Scotland.