In the summer of 2005, my brother Jeff and I stood in front of a vending machine, staring. We were drawn over to it after cleaning out the car, which our father had threatened to take away if we brought it home dirty. After throwing out food wrappers, shot-gunned beer cans and empty bottles of Jack Daniel’s, the taurus (or “raging bull” as Jeff dubbed it) still smelled of stale alcohol. The vending machine held the key to our problem: air fresheners.
Our eyes moved over the individually wrapped cardboard trees. Never in my life had I seen so many different kinds of air fresheners, and as we scanned the flavors my eyes landed on one with a bald eagle head on it. “I wonder what freedom smells like?” I said to Jeff. He burst out laughing and we agreed, we had to buy it.
What does freedom smell like, and why are Americans so concerned with it that a company would make an air freshener of it? If we truly are free, shouldn’t it smell like everything? Why must we constrain it to one scent?
When one is in love, in the midst of passion and the comfort of reciprocated desire, one does not have to search for answers to find out what love is–what it smells like, feels like–because everything is love. The same goes for freedom. It is not until these things are threatened that we desperately grasp on, scrambling to define them so as not to forget what they were after they are gone.
When Jeff and I unwrapped the air freshener, we discovered what so many other Americans must have already known. Freedom, it turns out, smells like a bowling alley. More specifically, it smells like the sanitizing spray for the shoes. We both wondered if GWB likes bowling.
The car ended up passing my father’s inspection, but looking back on all of it, how much freedom can a car give me? After all, I will always have to stay on the road, always have to pull over for gas, always have to worry about break-downs and repair costs. On the up-side, the only bowling alley in town is pretty much only accessible by car. And we all know what bowling alleys smell like.
What is freedom to me, though? It is running barefoot: calloused feet, hair like ribbons flying, arms pumping and legs exposed. It is diving naked into deep water, coolness sliding across my skin, taking a deep gulp of air as I emerge up on the surface. It is breathing in pine trees and maple leaves as they fall down and turn crunchy in autumn, or fresh mud and melting snow in spring. It is the sound of geese returning after winter, the stillness of crystalized snow, the solitude of a cold, cloudless winter night. Freedom is loving the world with no expectations or apologies. It is dancing in the circle of seasons and embracing the security of constant change, which of course brings death and also rebirth.