I was five when I received my first lesson on freedom.
It came in the form of my grandmother’s budgie. The year was 1971, the height of the communist era in Czechoslovakia.
My grandmother lived alone in a two-room flat inside a concrete-paneled apartment building the communist bloc was famous for. She had a habit of releasing her budgie within the confines of her apartment, the bird circling the perimeter of the four walls in a panicked flutter, and one time, even throwing itself against the living room window, landing on the parquet floor in a birdie coma.
On summer weekends, my father, grandmother, and I would travel to her cabin in the Jizerské Mountains, the cage-dwelling budgie next to me on the back seat of my father’s Skoda.
The sun shone brightly in the afternoon. I asked if I could take the budgie out for a walk. “You can,” my grandmother said, “but promise me that you will not open the cage door.”
I nodded my head, but inside, the curiosity of what might happen if I opened that very door was already bubbling up.
The budgie and I strolled into the center of the meadow behind the cabin while bees gathered nectar from the bluebells and daisies. The sun warmed the back of my neck as I set the cage down, taking care the budgie could see above the tall grass.
I imagine my five-year-old self lying on her tummy, chin in hands, while she studied the bright yellow and green bird. Perhaps she chatted with it, hoping it would copy her words: “Pretty bird. Pretty bird,” she may have coaxed. Maybe the budgie gazed back at her, its shiny-marble eyes meeting hers as if trying to communicate a universal truth.
That day in the meadow, as I met the budgie’s gaze, I forgot all about grandmother’s warning and unlatched the cage door.
The time it took for me to complete a round of breath, the budgie took flight, its yellow underwings flashing bright against the August sky.
I see myself in a little-girl squat, my heart beating with excitement and fear. I did not run after the budgie. I watched it fly until its small body disappeared in the green of the forest that framed the meadow.
I returned to my grandmother, knowing she would not understand why I let the budgie free. How could I explain that which I had no explanation for? I lifted the empty cage up to her face, fear atremble inside my tummy.
“What did you do?” Grandma asked. She grabbed the cage from my hand and ran out the door. I followed and for the next hour, we tried to coax the budgie into the safety of the gilded bars. It recognized her voice and, strangely, returned to her outstretched finger for a spell, as if to say its goodbyes to her.
My grandmother grieved that little bird for weeks, the empty cage in her living room, a reminder of its untimely demise.
For decades, I assumed that my grandmother did not think much about her need for freedom. She was a communist through and through. Her freedoms were restricted, and that’s how she liked it. It’s where she felt safe and secure.
Like the budgie, I too lived in a gilded cage most of my life, its bars made strong by the beliefs programmed into me as a child. By seeking out and clutching to my bosom, anyone who showed me a speck of kindness. By being reined in by people-pleasing and chameleonism—the ability to take on the values of others and making them mine.
Even my own body held me prisoner when I gave it away in hopes of receiving love. I chained myself with my own lies. Manipulations handcuffed my wrists together. I gagged the little girl inside me in fear of losing out on the love I was convinced existed outside of me.
How many of us have built our own gilded cages in a foolish attempt to maintain a sense of freedom? How easy is it to give up our power to others with the false belief they will love and take care of us in return? How easy is it to believe lies and betrayals in order to maintain our perception of the world, which is based on nothing more than projections of our fantasies, while our roots are withering from lack of awareness and self-love?
It took me 55 years of flying into the double pane glass and knocking myself unconscious again and again before I realized that freedom is not out there; it is within me.
I now accept that it was never others who kept me imprisoned. I was my own persecutor and jailor, the betrayer of my freedoms. Knowing this truth today, I’m working on setting myself free.
But how, you may be asking? How do we let go of decades of programming and create the kind of self-love that does not require bars to keep us safe?
The road to freedom begins with seven questions.
Take a sheet of paper and answer the following:
What are my values?
What are my principles?
What do I stand for?
What is important to me in my life?
What do I like about myself?
What gifts do I have that are unique to me?
If everything I have today, the house, the car, the career, the partner, my children, if all that was taken away from me, would I still love myself? Why or why not?
It took me months of reflection to arrive at my truth. I’m still coming up with answers. Each time I sit down to ponder ever deeper, the amnesia lifts a little more.
I see clearly the negative self-talk I had used as a whip to keep myself down. The old thoughts that ran rampant and kept me in self-destructive loops. The outdated beliefs that no longer fit; even those beliefs from our collective consciousness are being put to question.
I tease them all apart, a word here, a realization there taking up space on the page; the truth that is “I” slowly taking shape.
Here are some of the values and principles by which I live my life today—those that have dissolved the bars of my cage.
Integrity. Honesty. Connection. Communication. Vulnerability. Authenticity.
Peace. Love. Kindness. Gentleness. Creativity. Inspiration. Ease. Empathy.
When I live my life in accordance with these values and principles, I am fully myself. I do not second-guess my actions or question my intentions. I can go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning knowing that I am in integrity with myself.
And like the budgie, I’m a woman set free.