I had a dream: the discipline of freedom

I was going to write a winter blog post, but instead, I found myself writing up a dream I woke up with this morning. I recalled it in great detail and, while still escaping from the tangles of the dream, I realized that it contained a life lesson that is very valuable to me at this precise point in time. And I’d like to share it with you. It can be summed up in one word: drop. But I’ll simply recount the dream to you first, before I jump to any conclusions. To reward you for the strenuous labour of reading, I will intersperse the paragraphs with pictures from a hike in the Bucegi last summer – the yellow stripe from Bran to Omu Peak.

The dream

I dropped my brand-new laptop on the lawn outside the block of flats where a good friend of mine lived. I was meeting with a girl I haven’t seen in years – and another, unidentifiable woman. Both looked very professional. We were going to have some sort of business meeting at my friend’s. I picked up the laptop without much ado; it didn’t seem like a big deal.

Once inside the building, we took the lift to the twenty-first floor, where, apparently, my friend lived. The lift was huge and strange: it occupied almost half the floor space of the building and had a crescent shape, with entrances at either end of the very open structure. A buzzing crowd filled it up. Then the lift jammed: the cord of my laptop charger had caught in the shaft. It was then that I noticed that the screen of my laptop had cracked in a thousand directions as well. I felt utterly dismayed at the discovery.

A businessman we had met outside the building and who was now in the lift with us quickly phoned a friend who, he said, could repair the screen for 1200 euros – but he’d do it for 200 as a favour to his friend. ‘That’d be more than the laptop cost!’ I exclaimed. In the dream, we never reached our destination – my friend’s flat. I knew what it looked like and longed to be there; to meet him and be reassured by his presence. But we remained stuck, and the dream stopped there.

Reconstructing the dream

When I woke up, I started reconstructing the dream, and I suddenly realized that I’d been carrying way too much: the laptop, the charger, a notebook and some other stuff – all hastily gathered under my arm. Clearly, that had been why I’d dropped my computer.

I think the lesson from this dream is simple and glaringly obvious: if you carry too much, you will not reach your destination, your goal. In order to do so you must drop everything that is unnecessary clutter (not your laptop). Hold on to what you really want to have, to do, to achieve – and do not rush into anything.

So there’s my lesson for 2020: don’t fill up the gaps immeditately now that you’ve finished the guidebook. Recover from the craziness that has been 2019 and wisely consider how to use the vacant time and energy. I have so many ideas and wishes, ideals and plans – but I can’t possibly fulfill them all. So I’m going to have to pick and choose, and not feel frustrated about that.

Bernstein on freedom

That leads me to another lesson which I recently learned from one of the greatest conductors and teachers ever: Leonard Bernstein. Over the past few months, I have been watching his Young People’s Concerts before bedtime. (Go on, click that link – Youtube will open in a new tab.) From the late fifties to the early seventies, Bernstein conducted fifty-three concerts for a young audience – teaching them about classical music and, incidentally, life. Thankfully, most of these were televised and recorded so that we can still learn from this delightful and brilliant man. Only last week I watched his ‘Forever Beethoven!‘ performance, in which he delivers a very powerful and concise lecture on the notion of freedom. The core is summed up in these two sentences:

Freedom means being free to make decisions, to determine on a course. But decision means choice; and choice is impossible without rejection.

Freedom isn’t “boundless liberty, as some hippies like to think”. The ‘do whatever you like’ attitude eventually limits our freedom, since it inevitably results in chaos and conflict. No, Bernstein says:

Real freedom must contain within itself the freedom to un-choose, to censor oneself, to limit oneself.

Rejection is simply the other side of the coin: choosing one thing means choosing one thing over all the others. In plain English, I suppose, this is known as ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it too’. Of course you can choose to do different things in life, but there are limits: to our time, our energy, our capabilities, our means. So we’re going to have to choose.

If we are to live in peace, Bernstein concludes, we have to practice the discipline of freedom – “combining the right to choose freely, and the gift of choosing wisely”. Now Bernstein specifically refers to Beethoven and democracy, but I feel free to apply this to my personal life as well. And I’m very glad to have learned to think about freedom from a different, more positive perspective than I used to do. I am now more grateful that I have the right and the opportunity to choose freely; I am working on the “gift of choosing wisely” – and ungrudgingly – part.

Putting this wisdom in practice

Practically, for me this means I need to differentiate between all the things that are thrown at me and the things that I really want to do; between the ‘I think I ought to’ and ‘I want to’; between ‘I could’ and ‘I’m actualy going to do’. I could start working on becoming a fully-fledged mountain guide right now but what I actually want is to simply hike more. I could start expanding my skillset like crazy (climbing! winter skills!) but deep down I know that I don’t want to prioritize this right now. What I want to do in 2020 is this:

  1. Hike alone.
  2. Hike with Wilbert.
  3. Hike with friends.

The ‘Hike alone’ bit is at the top of the list for a reason. I know, I have hiked alone extensively, but mostly very purposefully over the last three years. Now, I want to hike without having to put together a book; without an overarching goal. I really need breathing time. Just me and the mountains. Of course, I’ll want to go to Romania again. It looks like a book launch in Bucharest might be in the cards, but mostly I want to explore more trails – there is no end of them – and revisit my favourite areas. I am planning to hike the length of Hadrian’s Wall with a friend in May and the Karnische Höhenweg with Wilbert in summer. And ideally, the Camino Portugues in autumn.

And then there is my job at the travel bookstore – enjoying my job and doing it well will be my other significant goal. A third goal, but subjected to the others, will be promoting my guidebook. This is something I have really enjoyed doing so far, but I need to keep this within bounds. Like my wonderful Sales Manager at Cicerone Press said: “It doesn’t all have to be done at once. The book will be around for the next twenty years.” I’ll try to bear that in mind.

The long list of Things I Want To Accomplish One Day will have to wait. If, by some miracle, I suddenly have heaps of time and energy on my hand – which isn’t likely to happen considering the goals I’ve already set and the heaps of self-care I need as a highly sensitive person in a crazily loud and mercilessly buzzing world – I may choose to have a go at one of the items on said list. Such as learning to practise jiu-jitsu, writing poetry, working on a novel, running a half marathon, learn about graphic design and html and SEO and online marketing, learning more languages, write blog posts. See how hard it is? I’m going to have to check myself if I find myself going down too many paths at once. Thankfully, it is impossible to do everything at once. If it could, I might try it – the outcome of that course of action is easy to predict.

A helpful tool

What I find a really helpful tool to help make my choices is this simple question, which someone shared with me a while back (thank you Gregor):
What do I want now?
This, in effect, encapsulate four separate questions:
1. What do I want now?
2. What do I want now?
3. What do I want now?
4. What do I want now?

Perhaps what triggered this dream was a couple of lines from a poem by Sylvia Plath I read last night:

I wait and ache. I have been healing
There is a great deal else to do.

Sylvia Plath, Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices

I feel this so poignantly much of the time: “there is a great deal else to do”. Yes, there is so much else to do. But than what? Than healing; self-care; than taking time to stop and reflect on what you are doing, what is happening inside yourself and around you. Time to decide on what really matters most to you; to decide on what you really want to spend your preciously limited time on. As Goethe put it so well:

Wer Großes will, muß sich zusammenraffen;
In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,
Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Natur und Kunst

Roughly translated: ‘Who wants great things must pull themselves together / Restriction is what first reveals the master / And only the law can set us free.’ Now that last line may not sound very exciting, but it is true: if you create some rules to live by and stick to them – if you restrict yourself to focus on the goals you want to reach, then that will set you free to do what you want. So that is going to be my overarching principle for 2020: drop the superfluous so that I can do what I feel to be essential. Ready, set, go!

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