It is a strange time in our country.
But looking back at any random date in history, it could be argued that things are always complicated and in flux.
As we celebrate Independence Day, I am struck by the fact that freedom almost always comes at a price. It is by its very nature less of a controllable entity and more of a mishmash, a collective of various and sundry opinions and actions that, ideally, could coexist peaceably — but, realistically, rarely ever do.
One might look to the metaphor of a family road trip to understand the complexity of creating peace while freedom reigns.
First off, the people in the front seat of the car often like the windows open. Especially if it’s a convertible — how awesome!
Except being in the back seat of a car on a highway with open front windows is not pleasant. And with the top down, it is its own kind of hell (think bugs in the teeth, hair whipping your face even as you desperately try to tie it back, and so forth.) Yes, freedom looks a lot different in the front than in the back.
Then there’s the music.
These days, it is possible for everyone to listen to their own tunes, but let’s just say the family is going headphones-free and trying to agree on what to listen to together in the car. Who gets to choose? And for how long? Does everyone get a turn picking music, even though one person’s favorite song may highly offend someone else? Do the parents get to decide because they’re “The Parents,” or is it important for them to give their teens some control in family decisions? Maybe everyone gets an hour to play deejay and can do whatever they want? Or maybe the group tries to find music that suits everyone (which could wind up taking longer than the trip itself).
Deciding on what to eat can also be a challenge.
When I used to plan such excursions in advance and buy snacks, I would do my best to find what I thought were fun nibbles for the ride, but sometimes I would still get disappointed groans. “Mom fun” does not always equal “kid fun,” it turns out.
Fruit is not a big hit, yet Doritos and Cheetos — never on my lists — are always child favorites, and I would have never thought to pick up beef jerky or fluorescent Gatorade. So, in time, I started leaving it to others to decide what to bring themselves.
Then, of course, there are the pit stops.
The highly personal need to go to the bathroom is clearly a compulsion people do not control. And yet, faced with bumper-to-bumper traffic on a toll road where the next rest stop is many, many miles away, those in charge of getting from points A to B might ask, “Can it wait?”
My kids have become very good at holding it in. They must have some sort of crazy strategies to distract themselves as we motor along when they are dying to make water, or worse. Sometimes, we offer empty bottles as a last resort, nodding to the fact that not going can be painful — but that stopping would also be a pain.
Have my husband and I built in them a strong resilience, or are our requests to hold it simply cruel? If you ask our boys, their answers might depend on just how generous they’re feeling about The Parents.
I am not always proud of my behavior in the car, even if it is the other parent who provoked a reaction with his angry tone as he demanded that I figure out what the f— Google Maps is doing. I still have the power to smile and forge ahead in those situations, but I do not always avail myself of this choice.
Instead, I am often drawn in to the conflict, lured by the traffic, the rap music blaring from someone’s headphones behind me, the smelly feet shoved through the car’s middle partition, or my all-consuming regret over eating that whole box of Munchkins that I ostensibly bought for “everyone” when nobody else actually wanted any. And god forbid I’m PMS.
No, our family’s high-speed negotiations are not always cordial. Disagreements will often surface, and name-calling will often ensue. And those people ensconced in the back, stuffed in with the dog and any overflow belongings that couldn’t fit in the way back might feel miserable — not to mention slightly suffocated by the situation and their inability to wield any power over it, much as they might try.
In tight quarters, while hurtling down highways, freedom is hard to achieve, even among a small group who ostensibly love one another. But there is always the hope that those noise-cancelling headphones will work, and that the scars of parental disagreement will heal quickly.
And that is why this Independence Day, it is important to acknowledge that freedom for everyone is a tall order — and that as we fight for it, we also remember to throw stones lightly, so that we might all still be friends once we get out of the tight quarters and back into fresh air, with our feet firmly planted on the earth, and plenty of bathrooms nearby.