What does it mean to be free?
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
It was an old homeless mission — run-down on the surface, but underneath was a grand intent. A refuge for pariahs. And on this morning like every other morning, the outcasts waited for the doors to open, huddled into an organized mess. The ones in weathered green shirts were the staff, though one could hardly tell.
The sun was just rising, but inside, the kitchen was already humming. The green shirts were getting ready, the dining hall was being set. Everything was on schedule — almost.
In the washroom were two stragglers just beginning their day. The sink was a long trough with multiple faucets. Washing at the basin was Takahashi, the staff graybeard. Beside him was Ben, newly welcomed into the fold.
As part of his shaving ritual, Takahashi removed his shirt. Ben brushed his teeth. Glancing over at Takahashi, Ben saw a tattoo that encompassed the whole of Takahashi's back. It was a samurai in iron leg shackles wielding a broken sword, fending off demons. Hiding behind the samurai was a small boy. Ben was both curious and fearful — a common alchemy of emotions. He spat softly into the sink.
Takahashi was conscious of his scarred and muscled appearance. The ends of his lips had stopped traveling the distance of a smile long ago. The remains of a man who had both wanted to be left alone and respected. Ben was a suburban kid who, up until recently, popped his collar. He was also a slave to the demons of addiction. Takahashi found him sleeping on the street and brought him to the mission.
Takahashi picked up his razor and began to shave his head. Ben couldn't help but notice the unpleasantness of the process. A dull razor, and only soap and water for barrier. Nonetheless, this had been Takahashi's daily ritual since before Ben had arrived.
"Why do you shave your head?" Ben asked with some trepidation.
Not expecting morning conversation from the previously silent Ben, Takahashi replied, "Say it again?"
"Why do you shave your head?" Ben asked even more faintly.
Ordinarily, Takahashi did not answer questions he deemed irrelevant, but Ben hadn't spoken until then. These were not normal circumstances.
"I don't know," he said, as the razor traced the side of his head. "They used to have lice outbreaks at my lock-up. Been shaving my head since."
Takahashi suddenly became motionless. Never having to explain this unconscious routine, he needed time to gather his thoughts — not only to explain it to Ben but also to himself.
"Just habit now," Takahashi said.
In thinking about himself and his own behaviors, Takahashi saw a universal truth.
"I guess there's a difference between a man who is free and a man who's been freed," Takahashi said finally.
Then, in the same way one slipped into worn shoes, Takahashi lowered himself to the trough and rinsed his head. Ben regarded Takahashi's statement and then himself.
In the dining hall, people ate as usual — as they always did.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art – Stephen Nachmanovitch
- Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity – Edward Slingerland
- The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life – Michael Puett, Christine Gross-Loh