You mean, I said slowly, that you use your freedom to decide whether you want to be bound by the rules of your congregation?
Fiona looked at me strangely. She thought for a good moment, looking around in the tidy cottage of the church elder everyone respected. I know Aunt Melissy sometimes takes apprentices from the outside, she answered slowly and I realized that I had said “you” as if this congregation was – as it was – strange to me in custom. I didn’t answer but instead busied myself with pouring the boiling water over the herbs in the old teapot. My mind didn’t race. It was clear and slow as was the girl who observed my every move. When she realized that I wouldn’t comment she started talking again, carefully weighing her words. Freedom, she said, I guess at some point in history that meant to do whatever you want. Whenever you want to do it. I looked at her, dressed in her plain farmgirl Sunday best dress. She surprised me, too. Must be wonderful, Fiona said, to do as you wish only. Of course, out here it would leave you and others hang out to dry. We all depend on each other. Especially now. She talked much like a girl of my own time.
I considered what she had said. She didn’t really answer my question about the contract. But she had given me her own definition of freedom. It was very simple. Do as you wish whenever you feel like it. That was the measure of my time. And for good reason, too. Though it was not truly like that. I had to go to school in my time, too, no discussion. My mother had to pay the mortgage for our house, my outdoorsy father had to spend most of his life indoors in an office to make the kind of money he needed to support the life he thought he was expected to live and also fulfill his obligations towards his children, his ex-wife and his new wife. My parents could not just walk out on us kids without breaking some kind of social contract and “freedom” would not be accepted as an excuse. They could walk out on us in the same way Fiona’s mother could saddle a horse and take off but just like Fiona’s mother they wouldn’t do it. Personal freedom featured fairly low when it came to their life decisions. Yes, my father left the family and had married again. But he still went to that office and in some way nothing really had changed all that much as far as I cold see, just that he had exchanged some of the people in his life for others. It made me angry thinking of it but it didn’t change that he still cared for us. As for my mother, yes, she painted day and night but she was still preparing disgustingly healthy meals for us and made sure we in turn were keeping up with our duties. I mean, she phrased it differently but it meant just that. She wanted us to find out what was right for ourselves but if you took a wrong turn, she annoyingly already waited for you behind the corner. Freedom – what did that really mean even in my world?
I decided to try out something else on the girl. I set the mugs out in front of our places and slid into the bench right next to her. She had already cupped her hands around her mug and enjoyed the warmth of the ceramic. I did the same with my mug. The steam rose up to my face. Warmth in winter was a luxury in early 19th century Vermont. Then I recited into the steam just as I had in class: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The Declaration of Independence. 1776. I looked into the dark ceramic mug. Then I added: “A free man is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do”, Thomas Hobbes, another one of my father’s favorites. I took a sip, too hot, and I waited for Fiona to reply. This was the strangest conversation I had ever had. Two girls in farmdresses. Fiona looked at me. Exactly she answered. But freedom is not ‘A liberty for everyone to do what he likes, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws.’ Freedom is constrained by laws in both the state of nature and political society. Freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature. Freedom of people under government is to be under no restraint apart from standing rules to live by that are common to everyone in the society and made by the lawmaking power established in it.” I admit I stared at her. She laughed. My mother has permission to train me, she said. I didn’t know, Aunt Melissy did the same with you.