When I was 26, I had my first (and so far only) time-travel experience.
It happened on a Wednesday evening, New Year’s Eve, after boarding a flight in San Francisco destined for Taipei, Taiwan. By the time I’d landed, it was Thursday night, January 1st. My plane had encountered what could only be a crease in the fabric of reality: first traveling west, regressing through the time zones until abruptly, somewhere over the Pacific, jumping forward several hours to the end of the next day. I would not get to count down the new year that New Year’s Eve, and my “lost time” incident remains unexplained.
At least, that’s how I felt when I got off the plane in Taipei, having passed 12 hours in the air but somehow closer to 24 hours on the clock after crossing the International Date Line. I’ve never been able to sleep on flights, so to while away the time I watched a parade of movies that only served to make me mildly seasick and compound my fatigue.
Needless to say, as I found my way through the airport I was exhausted, disoriented, a little woozy, and cramped from my long confinement in Economy. And although I had my feet safely back on terra firma, I was alone, I didn’t know an iota of Chinese, I had a little less than $300 to my name, and I had no idea where I was going next.
If you search for “freedom quotes” on GoodReads, you’ll find close to 8,500 entries. This seems like a lot until you realize that categories like “Inspirational Quotes” and “Love Quotes” have five and ten times that number. Even the category “Quotes Quotes,” which as far as I can tell simply lists any quotations people like for any reason, has more than 15,000 entries.
It’s always been interesting to me how often we reach for the pithy wisdom of a quote to get our heads around a complicated or ephemeral concept. Our faith that out-of-context lines from James Baldwin or Oscar Wilde will somehow reveal to us the true metaphysical nature of abstractions like “courage” (or in this case, “freedom”) is perennially absolute.
A few (at least two but no more than four) weeks before my interdimensional airline odyssey, I’d impulsively agreed to a semester-length internship teaching conversational English at a private middle school in Hsinchu province, Northwest Taiwan. Normally, the person in my position would have endured a months-long application and screening process and proved at least some level of Chinese language proficiency. I’d only landed the gig because the person they’d picked came down with strep throat and her doctor recommended against international travel. In desperation, the school had reached out to my university’s English department asking if anyone would possibly be available. My qualifications were basically that I had a warm body and an active passport, but I said I’d be interested. As the only respondent, that turned out to be enough.
I’d decided to go to Taiwan for no other reason than that I didn’t know what else to do with myself. The close of the fall semester saw me complete my degree requirements. I didn’t have enough money to continue living in my apartment, I hadn’t had any luck finding a job, I couldn’t stomach the idea of moving home, and I was in denial about the commitment hesitancy a new relationship was causing in me. Rather than face the hard reality of, well, reality, I suppose I thought an expenses-paid jaunt in Asia would allow me to escape into a world free of consequence and obligation.
James Baldwin once said, completely without context I am sure, “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.” Pretty nice thought, I’d say.
Yoga practitioners are familiar with utthita tadasana, the five-pointed star pose. In this pose, I am told, a person spreads her feet as far apart as possible while remaining standing, and stretches her arms out perpendicular to the body. Simultaneously, she tries to elevate her head, elongating the spine. The purpose of this pose is to realign the spine, open up the chest, and energize the body.
The pose invites the yogi to more fully exert the freedom to occupy space in the world, to claim the “right to be here.” The simple fact of taking up space, of having matter and distinguishing your atoms from those around you, gives you the freedom to exist in that space.
I had not been on Taiwanese soil for more than 30 minutes before I knew I would be deported. In my less-than-cogent state brought on by the effects of time travel and poor inflight entertainment choices, I had improperly filled out my customs declaration, and as a result, the dutiful customs agent expected me to have a great deal of paperwork I knew nothing about.
I tried telling him someone from the school was supposed to meet me, that I hadn’t been told I needed all this paperwork; when asked who this person was and who they represented I could only say I didn’t know them and couldn’t begin to pronounce the name of the school. All the agent could do was tell me again that I didn’t have the necessary papers, the complexities of which far exceeded the load capacity of our meager linguistic bridge.
I saw an immediate future where spending the night in some airport holding cell until being escorted back to my own country by indignant law enforcement officials was somehow the most realistic outcome. Where to that point I had relished my self-liberation from troubles and cares, I now saw that all I had managed to choose for myself was an international criminal record. There was no choice I could now make to influence that fate; all I could do was experience what would befall me. I had no right at all to be where I was, and yet I was there.
There is another pose in yoga, tadasana or the mountain pose, which also teaches us how to occupy space. It is a foundational pose for many other standing poses, and it encourages stability and groundedness.
The mountain is rooted strongly to its place, not tossed about by the wind or the ocean. It does not expand outward so much as inward, implying a sense of self-acceptance and surety.
Fortunately for me (though perhaps not so interestingly for you), my time-travel ordeal has the most mundane of conclusions. The customs agent hadn’t even really begun to question what an idiot American like me was doing in his country without documentation when his colleague arrived with my liaison from the school, who promptly cleared everything up. We were soon on our way. I suppose there’s something in this story about not knowing the value of freedom until its absence is threatened, but that feels a little contrived, don’t you think?
The five-pointed star pose teaches us that the space we occupy is ours, is us, and is, therefore, a sacred right. And mountain pose teaches us to ground. So we have a mandate to freely and serenely occupy the space that is us; to ignore that mandate in ourselves or in others is the highest of metaphysical crimes.
Freedom has always been a term with many fraught connotations, more now than ever as the political and cultural ties that bind our society continue to fray. We try to mold it to fit our ideologies or desires or contort it to justify our missteps and vulnerabilities. But I don’t think living freely means just doing what you want; nor does it mean pretending actions, even thoughtless ones, don’t carry consequences. Maybe freedom, at the end of the day, is simply no more or less than the ability to know and celebrate oneself.
I can’t remember if Oscar Wilde said that or not.
Chase Harrison is a novelist and WSS staff writer based in Salt Lake City.
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