ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
-poet David Whyte
David Whyte is one of my favorite poets. And this is one of my favorite lines written. It feels good to read. And when I read it, or think it, or say it to myself, it helps me to breathe easier.
But what does it mean, really? What is it to be free?
Harder than you might think to answer.
Is it to be physically free to move about the world? Is it to be mentally free to think whatever you want to think? Is it to be free from oppression of some kind? Or is it financial freedom to chase caprice where it leads you.
For me, one of the things it means is creative freedom. Meaning, freedom to be a full-time creative. Whether that is freedom because my art is self-sustaining or simply that I have the financial independence to be a full-time creative. Whatever the reason, the result is I am able to wake up and make coffee and create all day.
But how do any of us know what we would do with the kind of actual freedom we crave, if it suddenly dropped itself into our life’s lap? What if we accidentally squander it ?
Let me give you an example.
A few months back I was flying back to Reno from San Francisco, where I was working with a team at Stanford Law School on a U.S. Supreme Court case. (It’s a long story, maybe I’ll write about it later.)
I arrived at the airport early. Ludicrously early, to be honest. This happened because I don't like being late to catch a plane. I finished up with the team at Stanford earlier than planned and so I had a few hours to spare. I could have used that time to wander around the campus or any number of things really. But with the unpredictability of Bay Area traffic and the TSA, I thought it was better to just get to the airport. If I'm early, I reasoned, I'll be able to park somewhere and write. Maybe have a glass of wine.
Turns out, there was no traffic. And I have TSA Pre clearance. The result was I arrived at the terminal crazy early, with hours to spare. So this is the story of what I did with all the freedom I created by my early arrival:
(1) I made sure I knew where my gate was. As in I didn’t just trust the signs, but walked all the way to the terminal offshoot where it was, bypassing more than one perfectly good restaurant along the way, where I could have camped out until time to board my flight;
(2) Once I had a visual of my gate, I started looking around for just the perfect place to hang out for a couple of hours. As if that place exists in an airport. Everything is crowded and chaotic and there are typically marginal food and beverage choices. Undaunted by these generally known facts, I still wasted a fair amount of time looking at menus and weighing these imperfect options. Also, I did this even though I ate a late lunch on the Stanford campus and was not remotely hungry. Still, I wanted to have the option of a good snack, you know, just in case one glass turns into two;
(3) The wine bar where I want to sit is packed. So I opt for the pub across the corridor. I scan the menu and am pointed to a small two-top table. Which is good, because at a table there is a better chance I’ll actually write than if I’m at the bar.
I am approached by a waiter in a short amount of time and order a glass of Syrah. Feeling accomplished for no real reason, I pull out my laptop and open a piece on freedom I’ve been starting and stopping for a few weeks, fully prepared to make the most of my free time. Soon, though, the waiter appears again and tells me they are out of the Syrah. The right thing to do probably would be to get up and politely leave the pub. But instead, I calmly order a white wine instead;
(4) And now, of course, I’m distracted. I can't help but look longingly across the corridor and think I really should be sitting in the wine bar, drinking the red wine I really want. (In other words, the wine is always redder in the neighbor's bar.) Not that the wine should have much to do with what I'm doing – or not doing -- with my time. The point was to find a good place to write;
(5) Begrudgingly I sit and drink my (white) wine while I get very little actual writing done because I’m not really present at all but imagining some better situation I should be in, and meanwhile my waiter is nowhere to be seen should I actually make the decision to leave;
(6) And I sulk;
(7) And I try over and over to focus on the page and the words that are there or could be there if I just put forth a little more effort;
(8) But really, I can't stop thinking I should be somewhere else. Like maybe that place I passed on the other side of the terminal with calamari on the menu. Yes, calamari and a draft beer would’ve been a better choice;
(9) But somehow I don’t just get up and walk down there. I resolve to enjoy my glass, write where I am planted, and then pay the bill and then I’ll figure out where else to sit;
(10) Did I mention there's a guy at the next table talking way louder than necessary to the three people sitting right next to him? The one who seems not to understand that he is not in a gymnasium talking to a large crowd without a microphone (I seem to be at a table next to that guy far too often);
(11) Sitting next to the human megaphone makes focusing on writing way harder than it already was. Also, it turns out I really want that calamari;
(12) The silver lining is that he does provide the catalyst I need to actually relocate so I can finally focus (and have that calamari), and so I quickly finish my wine. And then I have to wait another painfully long time before I can catch my waiter's attention and hand him my credit card, with the universal sign of writing something in midair that means, please bring me my bill;
(13) Can we still use the word waiter? ;
(14) Once I pay and I am free to move about the airport cabin once more, I do something interesting. I don't go to the calamari place on the other end of the terminal after all. Instead I check out a deli nearby. I order a chocolate croissant and an Americano to chase it (and the wine). And I sit down to make the most of the rest of my airport freedom;
(15) And then I make another surprising decision. I don't pull out my laptop and work on the piece that is still open on the screen. Instead, I retrieve The Sun magazine from my backpack and start reading. And for a few moments, while I am intending to savor the chocolate croissant but mostly am just inhaling it in spite of myself, I am content. But of course, that doesn’t last long;
(16) I slow down and enjoy my coffee more than I did the croissant. But now bad music is following me all over the airport. Like there’s a channel called Every Song You’re Sure to Hate from the 80's. (No Howard Jones, no early U2 or REM, no iconic Madonna, not even Toto.);
(17) Eventually the music drives me out of the deli and into the purgatory of the open airport once more. It is here I realize I need to find a bathroom (I have downed a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, and a liter of water in pretty short order);
(18) After I take a nature break and find a station to refill my water bottle, I go read the board to check on my boarding status again (even though I can easily do this on my phone). And I finally resign myself to just sit in the waiting area and return to the piece I was trying to write;
(19) A few tortured sentences later it occurs to me that this somewhat absurd series of first-world-problem airport events fits nicely into the piece on freedom I am writing. And also why I ask myself: Is this what I would do with more freedom? Get stuck in these silly eddies of indecision?
I hope not. But part of me is afraid of the answer. There's a voice inside that likes to taunt me by implying that if I had the creative freedom I like to talk about, I would squander too much of it in this kind of neurotic paralysis. (The voice likes to bring up these kinds of things that are impossible to counter, because I’m not yet living in this imagined future to know what I would do.)
I remind the voice how much I have actually accomplished in my normal adult life with the very real world time constraints I do have, in spite of all of my flaws. And then I order a whiskey and get back to writing. Not really. But that was funny to say.
I guess my point is this: Authentic freedom is a little intoxicating. And a little bewildering if you are not used to having it.
It doesn’t really have much to do with what you would do with a couple extra hours in the airport. In fact, eddying out in two airport hours probably means you don’t have enough actual freedom in your life. And that’s why, if you find yourself with a small window of it, the pressure to spend it wisely could easily backfire. But the question still lingers out there: What does freedom actually look and feel like?
Here’s at least one good answer: Be who you truly are. (It is insane, after all, to think you could be anything else.)
If you have no idea who you truly are (or think you don’t), here’s another way to think about it: There are thoughts I know you think you have no right to think. You could not be more wrong about that. Those are the exact thoughts that will lead you where you want to be.
There are desires you have that you think are unreasonable, irresponsible, even impossible. They are not. These desires are the thread that will lead you out of the labyrinth of confusion and despair.
And, there are feelings you have that you think are only tiny pieces of life. They are not. With practice you can spend more and more time in the space of those feelings.
As far as I can tell, these things are what freedom look and feel like. Not how you spend two extra hours in an airport. Not what you may or may not do with a little more spare time.
Because maybe who you truly are actually needs to just fuck off in an airport for two hours in order to recalibrate your creative self and live your truest life. Actually I think that’s more like probably, not maybe.
I am going to continue to follow this thread. You are invited to come along with me if you want.
Until next time…take care of yourself and your world.
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Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable.
His second novel, Painted Oxen, is available wherever books are sold.
You can find it here: