Defining Freedom, Part One.

Somehow I’ve fallen back into the habit of reading and thinking about multiple books at once.  This school year I’ve been a bit off with my writing about what I’m reading–I have posts planned in my mind that never make it to my laptop.  In the chaos that is now my reading life, though, some unexpected patterns have arisen and I thought it would be interesting to unpack them.  The first will be on Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, by title and by topic.  Continuing thoughts will follow about the concept of freedom in my rereading of both Jonathan Safron Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.  I am about to write about the resolution for one of the characters, and while I don’t think it won’t take away from the book, don’t read ahead if you already have Freedom on your book list.  

Freedom is complex and multi-layered, so it is impossible to treat it as a whole in a single post.  The aspect I want to think about comes from the story of the main characters’ son, Joey.  He has grown up spoiled by his mother, a disappointment to his father and in general pretty selfish in all of his life pursuits.  He has been in a relationship with the girl next door, two years his senior, since early adolescence.  Their connection and relationship has been a mainstay in his life, to the point where he moved next door as a 17 year old.  Her entire world revolves around him, but when he goes off to college he seeks out girls who would better fit in to his imagined future: sophisticated, wealthy and influential.  However, he remains incapable of severing himself from Connie.  They decide to get married on the spur of the moment, yet keep it secret and Joey is pursuing other girls.  And then.

The freedom that comes from understanding who you are. Joey’s moment came when he accidently swallowed his wedding ring and it came back out while he was on a trip with the girl he’d been chasing after for a number of years–the girl who he thought was his fantasy.  But.

“He was the person who’d handled his own shit to get his wedding ring back.  This wasn’t the person he thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones.” (432)

This is the kind of freedom that I’m not sure Joey’s parents understood as they were raising him. They seemed to be tip toeing around parts of themselves and restraining opinions in fear and leaving life that needed to be discussed untouched and unexplored–leaving both of them ultimately uncomfortable in their own skin.  Seeing their son understand this before they did–especially when he was trying on so many different personas throughout his college experience–was incredibly surprising as a reader.  I thought that Joey would be the kind of person who is a serial leaver: always looking for the next person who might fit his idea of perfection, never realizing that perfection never exists up close.  That kind of living gives the mirage of freedom, but is actually quite the opposite.

This fall, maybe because I was turning 30 and intentionally thinking about it, I realized that somewhere along the line I became myself: the Ohio and the New York in me all seemed to sort out and settle where it needed to be–and this was incredibly freeing.  To live in a place where you know who you are what what you are seeking allows you to not have the burden of carrying what other people might be thinking.  And of course there is the part about the Truth I believe in–something about the story of grace and love–that leads me to freedom and reminds me of what matters.

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