Friday, December 09, 2005

Haiku and Absolute Freedom

Every December, I set up my Haiku Hut at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's annual Winterfest. I write custom haiku on any subject for people, with the proceeds going to the SFBC. (I look sardonic in this year's picture, but really I was just woozy from a stomach bug that had taken me down hard the day before.)

This is the fourth Winterfest where I've haiku-hutted (did you know that was a verb?), and I love, love, love it. As you'd expect, I get lots of requests for bike-themed haiku, with transit, peace, and cold weather also popular topics. I have a bevvy of repeat customers, too. For example, one fellow has commissioned a haiku each year for his son, with the first one coming a few weeks before the little guy was even born. And I can't count how many people have told me, "I still have that haiku you wrote for me a few years ago! I keep it in my wallet/on my fridge/in my cubicle." There's an art not only to writing the poem itself, but also to discerning the story behind the requested subject. I always know I've done my job if the person gets teary-eyed.

Given that the haiku only cost $2-5 (a rather low-stake investment, and a fundraiser no less!), I'm always touched that people take the process of choosing a subject incredibly seriously. At the same time, a lot of people freeze when faced with choosing what they want from the realm of all possibilities -- they're overwhelmed by the absolute freedom.

I understand that feeling. When I was graduating from college, I didn't have a plan for my next step for quite some time. The story had always gone: "high school, college, Ph.D." But I discovered I didn't want to go on to a Ph.D., at least not in nuclear fusion. (Yes, I really did study nuclear fusion.) I decided at the last possible moment to apply to one M.A. program in English to study Shakespeare (a long-time passion). So between December when the application was due, until late April when I'd hear their decision, I had no idea what the future would hold. What if I didn't get in? In sharp contrast to almost everyone around me, with their grad school or job prospects already lined up, I had nothing.

Even as I was daunted (and occasionally freaked out) by looking out into the void, I also ~s a v o r e d~ it. I could choose. I could explore. I could go in any direction that intrigued me. I had agency. My life had possibilities I'd never even considered before. What a gift to understand this so viscerally at 21.

It's the same reason I don't take my sweetie for granted. When we first met, she had just started a one-year AmeriCorps stint, and she moved into my flat when it was over. I told her that I knew she could do anything, go anywhere -- so the fact that she chose to stay with me meant everything. I still believe we make that choice every day. (Well, maybe less so on grey dreary days, when the inertia of staying snuggled under the covers is pretty darn strong.)

Real freedom and real choice have divinity to them. They call us to bring our authentic selves to the table and take responsibility for the direction of our lives. It was hard at first -- terrifying, at times -- to own up to the fact that I'm the one behind the wheel of this life of mine. (To the extent that anyone is driving at any given moment.) One taste of that wide-openness, though, and there was no going back. You can pretend to go back, or act like you don't know better, but this kind of deep knowledge can't be unlearned. Once I loosened my death-grip on the stories I told myself about what I was "supposed" to do and just followed my energy where it wanted to flow, taking responsibility felt just like freedom.

When people get that panicked look trying to think of a subject for a haiku, I ask them what seems "up" for them lately. Because their authentic selves have been working on something, whether the person knows it consciously or not. There's some corner of their lives where growth is underway. And if they listen to what their lives are trying to tell them, they just might hear poetry.


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