Freedom

10 August 2015

Written for the campfire at the Brighton Buddhist Centre's 2015 Family Retreat. The poetry was penned by Matt Quinn.

Listen to a recording of the story from the campfire.

Hedgrerowdasher was wearing a pair of underpants on his head as he flew into the wide expanse of the beautiful willow tree that hung over the pond. He helped himself to a bowl of caterpillars and nonchalantly plonked himself down on a branch as though there was nothing unusual going on, whatsoever.

Spangle sparrow thought otherwise. "Dad!" she moaned, "You're so embarrassing!" Then, with full dramatic effect, she stormed over to the Mulberry bush on the top lawn. With her beak pointed snootily high in the air, and wings folded firmly across her chest, Spangle made it quite clear that she was UN-IM-PRESSED.

It was the long-awaited week of the retweet, and all the families had just arrived. The hedges and woods around the old rectory house were abuzz with the chatter of excited young fledgelings reacquainting themselves with old friends that they hadn't seen for nearly a year. Teenage fast flyers dashed across the skies; from oak to beech, and on through willow. Then on up to the great chimney stacks that used to billow with smoke during the days when the house was warmed by open fire.

There were the blackbirds who lived in a posh village just outside of town. The Robins, who lived in a shady part of town. The Thrushes lived downtown. The Magpies uptown. The Swallows had been busy travelling, so no one was quite sure where they were from. Or, if they knew, they had long since forgottown. Then there were the Subadassi's, a family of tits who lived in a suburb of an ancient suburb of a suburb of Birddom. Daddy Subadassi had foolishly taken on the role of Chair of the local chapter of the Royal Society for the Betterment of Birds (RSBB). So although they lived on the fringe of the fringes of the fringe, they were tolerated, albeit reluctantly.

The formalities began on the very first evening. All the birds met at the venerable old Copper Beech, which towered over the firepit, just to the south of the house. Here, the wise old owl, head of the RSBB, read an aphorism from the Tibetan Vultures Book of Living and Flying. Then everyone chanted a mantra to Great Speckled Tara while fireflies were offered at the foot of the great tree. As the mantra faded away, a silence fell over the woods and sleep soon beckoned all the families towards its restorative embrace.

After morning meditation and a hearty breakfast of juicy earthworms washed down with marinated pond water, Hedgerowdasher decided to steal away and go and sit quietly under the beech. Deep in contemplative thought, the patriarch of the Sparrow family soon reached a heightened state of focused meditation, called dhyana. That happens very rarely and only to those birds who have a regular devotional practice that has been cultivated over many years. In fact, Hedgerowdasher was about to reach Nirvana. Not this sort of Nirvana - Come As You Are - but a state where one throws off the shackles of what is, essentially, an entirely unsatisfactory, cold, dreary existence and achieves inner peace and a profound recognition of the very essence of life. The kind of enlightenment that can only be witnessed by The Gods. "I am hungry daddy!" shouted Spangle Sparrow in her father's ear, wrenching him out of his reverie. "What is there to eat?" Sparrow asked before Hedgerowdasher had a chance to land back on planet earth and recover his poise, "WHAT. IS. THERE. TO. EAT?" she repeated, indignantly. Unfortunately, that resulted in Hedgerowdasher being in quite the rage when he finally crashed back to reality, so he bundled his daughter back to the willow and shoved her down onto a branch. He then pushed a plate of bugs in front of her. "Eat child!" he said, angrily. But Spangle was a fiery Sparrow. Besides, she was still annoyed by her father's underpants antics. So she pushed the bugs aside, stamped her foot on the branch, and announced, "I don't want your stupid bugs!" before storming out of the willow.

Spangle Sparrow found a hazel bush on which to sulk, and from where she could watch the children from the old rectory house play happily on the lawns. The children were having so much fun! Shouting! Running! Laughing! Rolling! Spangle grew jealous, "How come they're so happy and free?" she moaned to herself. Now, Spangle was a budding musician, and it is at times of great angst that many a songwriter finds inspiration for their songs. "Oo-Doh-Be-Doo. I Wanna Be Like You, " she sang to herself. But then she decided the song would never work. So she threw it away.

Spangle began to feel ever-so-sorry for herself. "I'm nothing like them!" she moaned. "For starters, my dad thinks that it is okay to embarrass me in front of all my friends and rush around with knickers on his head!" Spangle stayed sulking in the hazel bush until early evening, but then she resolved to visit the owl and ask him what it was that made the children so happy and free.

The owl yawned as he opened the door of his home in the magnificent Scots Pine, the tallest tree in the woods. Spangle had woken up Owl, but he was a kindly being and he was glad for the youthful company, so he beckoned in the young bird and sat her down on his comfy wicker sofa. Then he listened, for he was a wise old bird who had that skill. "I'm afraid I can't help you," he said, after awhile. "You see, I'm a bit of a night bird, so I rarely see the children playing as you describe." Spangle was crestfallen, but Owl noticed her beak drop and wings droop, so he quickly made a suggestion. "However, may I propose that you seek the guidance of one or two other animals around here? They may have the answers you are searching for." Spangle brightened, "Who would you recommend?" she asked. "Well," Owl continued, "I'd start with the hare that lives in the field next to these here woods. Then I'd ask the ants that live in that anthill at the foot of the great Cyprus Pine up near the chalet. Finally, I'd try the cockerel that has a roost by the old house. They're bound to offer valuable insights into what it is that makes those children so happy and free."

Spangle soon reached the edge of the woods. "Oh my!" she thought, realising that she had never before ventured so far from the old house. But she soon found herself a safe holly tree to hide in, in which she could barricade herself. It reassured her. What's more, it proferred her a fine view over the field. Soon enough, there was the hare, darting from furrow to furrow, jumping high in the air and thumping its hind legs together in joyous abandon. As the hare skirted the edge of the woods, under the holly, Spangle cleared her throat and called out to the hare, "Excuse me!"

As an interesting aside, here it's worth noting that there was a time when all the animals, humans, bugs, and insects understood one another. But as man began tilling the land and producing goods which he could sell at the market, he began developing secret languages in which he could plot ways to maximise his profit. And as man went forth to explore new lands, different languages developed, and French, Italien, English and so forth evolved. Man soon forgot how to speak to the birds.

The hare looked up at Spangle curiously, He wasn't used to being spoken to by a sparrow, and certainly not by one as young as this. But he was a kindly hare, and he could see that Spangle had some urgent matter to resolve. So he reached up into the holly tree to get closer to the bird so he could hear better. "The children are always having so much fun. They seem so happy and free." Spangle continued, "the Owl thought that you may know why."

"I have seen the children bouncing around like mad march hares, and I know where their freedom lies. I shall give my answer in the form of a rhyme. This is what freedoms is:

It’s to leap with one bound
ten whole feet from the ground
and to fart in the face of your fears.
It’s to laugh like a loon
By the light of the moon
And to tie underpants to your ears.

It’s to dance through the spring
like a crazy young thing
as you paint both your knees blue and red.
It’s to wear frilly frocks
and to put frogs in your socks
and to always put pants on your head.

It’s to wrestle and to box
with the stoat and the fox.
It’s to romp and to wriggle and race.
It’s to fly through the air
with mice in your hair,
as you place underpants on your face.

So come little swallow,
it’s not hard to follow:
don’t you see what it means to be free?
It’s to live without care
the mad life of a hare
and to know I can always be me!"

Spangle sat for a while contemplating the hare's insight. "Hmmmm. Running, jumping, dancing, and boxing are fine things to do. But there must be more to it than that," she thought. "Let's see what the ants think, " and off she flew to the chalet, to visit the anthill there.

Spangle found one of the workers busy carrying a small boulder back to the nest. "Excuse me," said Spangle. The ant put down his rock, clearly glad for the rest, and turned to look at the young fledgling inquisitively. Spangle continued, "The children are always having so much fun. They seem so happy and free. The Owl thought that you may know why."

"I have seen the children working and playing together like a colony of happy ants, and if you promise that you’re not going to eat me, I will tell you where their freedom lies. Let me give my answer in the form of a rhyme:

An ant on its own
has never been known
to jump or to jig or to jest,
but an ant in a crowd
is both happy and loud
and will dance all the way to its nest.

The answer, it’s clear,
Is to keep others near;
ask an ant or a wasp or a bee.
It begins and it ends
with your family and friends.
There’s no other way to be free."

Spangle pondered whether it really could be true that it was family and friends that made the children so happy and free. "Hmmmm. Let me go see what the cockerel thinks," and off she flew up to the old house.

The house was quiet when Spangle arrived; the children were out walking in the woods a little way from the house. These were the woods where the Poplar were so tall because the Elven folk that lived there tended them so lovingly. "Excuse me Mister Cockerel, sir. May I ask you a question?" The cockerel looked at Spangle kindly and gave a friendly nod. "The children are always having so much fun. They seem so happy and free. The Owl thought that you may know why."

"I have seen the children shouting and singing all day long, and especially first thing in the morning while their parents are still asleep! They remind me of a cockerel welcoming the dawn. I shall tell you where their freedom lies. And because I’m very serious about freedom, and rather an eloquent creature, I shall present my answer in iambic pentameter, in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet:

A cockerel’s day begins while it’s still night
The hours aren’t great, I guess, but I don’t care –
What better job than conjuring the light?
My heart is full. I have a song to share.
Each morning I embrace my task. I choose
to rise while it’s still dark. I love to sing!
My cockerel’s crow brings only happy news:
the world’s alive again and every thing
that sleeps will rise to live another day.
I shout the world awake! I sing the joy
of life, I laugh, I yell: Hoorah! Hooray!
Leave yesterday behind. New worlds ahoy!

And freedom? It’s to sing and shout, that’s true,
But more: to find the joy in all you do."

Spangle wondered whether the children's gay abandon really was down to shouting and singing. She sat deep in thought, considering the possibility. So deep, she missed the urgent alarm call of the blackbird and the siren bell of the robin, who had both spotted danger in the form of a large ginger cat. The cat was stealthily creeping up on young Spangle and, unfortunately, by the time she realised the threat, it was too late! Spangle was cornered. She froze. Time stood still, and Spangle's short life flashed before her. She achieved a moment of clarity, "it's not just running and jumping," she thought. "Nor just family and friends. Neither the joy of singing alone. It's all of those things together!"

Spangle screamed, "Daaaaad!" Now, if Spangle had been cornered by a fox, she would have been gobbled up greedily already. But cats arrived in England aboard the ships of ruthless pirates, and it's from them that they learnt their cruelty. A quick, clean kill is not for them. They prefer the tortuous route and instilling maximum fear in their victims. And so it was here. The large cat stopped to delight in Spangle's quivering. To savour the small bird's realisation that she was taking her last breath. But that pause gave the blackbird, and the robin, another opportunity to raise the alarm, and all the other birds joined in. Quite a humdrum rang out from the woods! So much so, the cook came out to see what all the fuss was about. She saw the cat, and what he was up to. She grabbed whatever was nearest, and with a beautifully mindful swish of the broom that she found in her grasp, she lashed out at the nasty cat. "Get out of 'ere you mangy, flea-ridden, god-forsaken heathen of a creature!" Spangle was free!

The next morning, Spangle was sat next to her father on one of the hedgerows in front of the house. Her sisters and brothers were busily buzzing around them, chattering away and trying to decide who was going to be the hunter in their next game of Birdhunt. Suddenly, one of the fathers dashed out of the old rectory house, wearing a pair of knickers on his head. He did two forward rolls and then prostrated himself in front of his daughter, as if in worship. The girl giggled appreciatively, then promptly sat on her father's head. "Dad," Spangle; said. "Yes, daughter?" asked her father. "Are all dad's weird?" Hedgerowdasher smiled, "only the best kind."

Owl landed right next to Spangle. "I hear you had quite an adventure young lady! I hope it was worth it. Did you discover the secret of freedom?" "Yes dear Owl," she replied. "It's about running and jumping and dancing. It's about shouting and singing. It's about vocation and finding joy in work. Then it's about being able to stretch your wings, just when you thought that's impossible." Owl smiled, "I see you learnt well young Spangle." "Oh, and Owl," Spangle continued, "there's one more very secret, important, ingredient in freedom." "What's that?" asked Owl, curious. "It's also about wearing your best underwear on your head."