In a 1970 interview of Nina Simone the interviewer asks Simone what freedom means to her. The clip of her response that’s usually shared as proof of her unfaltering fearlessness, “I’ll tell you what freedom means is to me: no fear,” omits the preceding statements where she admits she’s only truly felt free a few times in her life and that freedom is something that she can’t describe, like being in love. Despite how the clip is usually perceived, she was expressing the crushing paradox of not being free in the world while still knowing yourself to be free within, and the utter longing for the glorious, fleeting moments when the inner and outer realities meet, for which mere words can never do justice. The parts that usually get left out of the shared clip show her as vulnerable, not like the fearless titan of the world’s imagination. But hers is not the fragility of breakable glass; it is the vulnerability of being human, that is, a being in the midst of a struggle to marry the inner truth to the outer world which may not abide, grasping for that elusive feeling in order to stretch out those fleeting moments into something with form, something which may bring comfort to life, and light a way through darkness.
I think the first part of feeling free is time— knowing how to use the day’s hours to accomplish not only the things necessary for survival, but also for all the extra sweetness that takes you to the realm beyond survival, the realms which are only yours to create.
A few Saturdays ago, my husband, Mat, and I lay in bed ignoring my ringing phone. We didn’t know the number, it was early, and Mat had just returned to Benin after a five-day trip to New York. When we got around to the calls, we found out they were from the neighbors who live by the land we have purchased to build our house. We hired them, a group of five men, to clear the land (it had been totally wild) and a relationship ensued where they keep an eye on the property and call us if anything suspicious goes on. That day they were calling to say that a man had shown up claiming that the trees on our land belonged to him and was threatening to have the neighbors arrested for cutting them down. We got dressed and showed up. Suddenly, I began to feel the terrible dread of having an otherwise free day stolen. I looked at Mat and said, “I hope this doesn’t take all day.”
In Benin, one unexpected situation can take hours and there are always unexpected situations. But time here feels different, as it usually does in new places. In the way vacation days can seem interminably long and busy work days inexplicably short, different places call for a different relationship with time. The hours are the same, but it’s as if they do magic tricks when you’re looking the other way. Like a child baffled by a magician’s sleight of hand, I sometimes find myself looking at the time and wondering, “How did you do that?”. At the end of the day, feeling free isn’t about whether you have time or not, it’s how you feel about it, how you perceive its passing. It isn’t whether the day’s hours are actually merciful; the feeling of freedom is hinged upon being in such a relationship with time that you know it is not your enemy, that you can, no matter what goes wrong, still be at peace with your side of the Earth’s rotation around the sun.
One of our friends in New York recently said in passing that in Benin, we must sit around and reflect all day. We made a joke of it, before telling him that much of our time is occupied with trips to bureaucratic offices and going through the processes of making our move official. Most processes aren’t clear cut and offices aren’t always organized places with clearly displayed hours and websites that list the required documents for each request. This isn’t to mention that we both work five days a week. When you live in a foreign country and work from home, it’s easy for people to forget that you also have a busy work day. Days have a way of feeling longer when you’re learning new things, and our days always feel long.
And yet, 2018 was only one year.
It began with boarding a flight to Benin in early January with a plan to come back to New York in August to close up shop on our apartment. Within a month of being in Benin we had located land to buy that was near the house we were renting. We had gotten into the flow of life in our new neighborhood, eating all the street food in walking distance, meeting neighbors, and settling in. But then, for all the exuberance, I had many weeks of depression over not being sure we were making the right choice. I wondered if I should have gotten a job with a company in New York before diving into freelancing in a foreign country right after grad school. Language was more of a professional mountain to climb than I had anticipated. Using a foreign language professionally is a different ball game than speaking it conversationally. But then somehow, stories began to take shape and slowly but surely I picked up steam.
Right when I was finally getting into the swing of work, we learned that Mat’s U.S. citizenship requirements didn’t allow him more than six consecutive months out of the country. Before we knew it, we were back in New York waiting for Mat’s naturalization interview. While the weeks of waiting turned into months, I learned that I needed surgery for the removal of several large uterine fibroids. I had the surgery in September and by October, we had moved out of our apartment and were boarding a flight back to Benin. We came back to the same house which we had been renting and resumed the land purchasing process.
And then, like a train barreling through tunnels on thundering tracks, we approached the end of 2018.
On New Year’s Eve, I put on a cocktail dress, picked up a pizza and took it home. In the morning, I had taken Mat to the airport to get a flight to New York for for the final step of naturalization— the oath ceremony. As the sun began to set on the day, I built a small altar, burned sage, and wrote myself a letter. I reviewed the wisdom teachings that I studied throughout the year, and wrote in detail the things that had passed for which I am grateful. I’d been invited to a friend’s family dinner, but after getting dressed, I decided that ordering pizza and catching up on a TV show was more my speed. Later, pulled outside by a surprise burst of fireworks, I stood on the lawn barefoot, and realized the day felt a bit like the year: I wondered where it had went, but still it felt gloriously long. For a few passing moments, I felt completely fearless and free.
One afternoon a few days later, I stopped by a store a few doors down from our house and one of the daughters of the family who runs the store approached with a smile to ask me if I spoke Fon, a local language. When I told her I didn’t, her smile turned into a baffled frown. She was confused because Mat is learning Fon and she thought that I was the Beninese person teaching him. The encounter reminded me that, because our days here are so full of learning, it feels as if we’ve been here forever. But for everyone else life still moves at a normal pace. For them, we’ve only been here for a few short months. No matter how comfortable we have gotten, we are still a curiosity.
Maybe everyone has some varying degree of Nina Simone’s relationship to freedom— the push and pull of feeling free inside and then being confronted with how free the world around you allows you to be. I know that here, building a life in the country that makes my heart sing, feels like freedom. It makes me optimistic even on the hardest days. But there are other parts— like constantly being different, not being sure if I belong, getting used to the flow of time— that make me feel exactly the opposite of free. Maybe it’s the confronting of that paradox, day in and day out, that builds the fearlessness that Nina Simone said defined freedom for her. This year, may we find ourselves moving with time and the possibilities that lie within our own agency, balancing fear and freedom, making choices that set us free.