How do you set yourself free without letting yourself go?

Bathhouse ceiling, Hot Springs, AR

Vagabond, writer, and general bad-ass Andrea Enright pounded out a two-sentence blog entry from Egypt yesterday that read:

I cut my own hair today and I’m actually pleased. I’m not sure whether this is a sign of self-sufficiency or frighteningly decreasing standards.

More later on the zeal and drive of this dotcommer-turned-road warrior (whose haircut is, I’m sure, more than competently executed). Her point is one I’ve wanted to riff on ever since my late-March stopover in Hot Springs, Arkansas:

How do you set yourself free without letting yourself go?

Go. As in, over the edge.

I contemplated this at 2 a.m. on a cold spring morning, shivering outside the grand yet locked doors of an art deco hotel in Hot Springs National Park. Despite our prior calls, and furtive ringing of the bell, all was utterly still.

Lazy jazz music played over the outdoor speakers. Inside, the hotel lobby looked worn but elegant, drenched in an eerie pink lighting that doubtlessly hid its flaws. It was heavy on ambiance, which was only heightened by the late hour of our arrival.

But no one was answering the door. Someone was asleep at the switch.

Literally, as it happened, someone was asleep. Peering into the office window, I watched as a hefty female figure with matted gray hair rolled off a sofa and shoved her thick feet into flip-flops. She shuffled toward the glass door, hitching up her elastic waist skirt (fetching in one era or another, I’m sure). She was wearing a dozen shades of purple, which kinda made me shudder, since much of my wardrobe is a deep plum color.

“Good eeev-e-ning. I’m Syylvia.”

Despite her totally spooky presence, Sylvia had undeniable spark, even at 2 a.m. But bless her, she had long since let herself go. As she checked us in, Sylvia told us about how her Siamese cats kept stealing her reading glasses. “I have to keep three pairs on hand,” she said. “They steal my keys, too.”

Hmm. I talk about my cats a lot, but I don’t accuse them of being criminals.

I stood there, bleary-eyed from the long haul through Tupelo, and imagined how Sylvia might have come to Hot Springs decades ago. She would have been funny, energetic, and attractive, with olive skin that darkened in the Southern sun. Leaving behind the rat race up in Jersey (her accent betrayed her) she’d have had high hopes for this once-bustling resort town, and possibly a spa obsession that rivals my own.

So what had happened to drive this sweet, spirited woman over the edge? I decide to chalk it up to isolation. Hot Springs is probably pretty slow in the off-season. And maybe Sylvia, for all her charm, didn’t really click with the locals.

Isolation. I’m talking about a freelancer’s worst enemy.

As I write this, I am sitting in a café surrounded by fellow freelancers (yep, I can spot ‘em) of the notoriously kooky Bay Area ilk. One guy—an unemployed contractor—struck up a conversation with me and told me what he recently learned from a consultation with the Psychic Institute, that the dense sea of jellyfish recently witnessed by fishermen is an apocalyptic omen and will eventually prompt Bush to call for a police state. He didn’t really seem crazy, just very much out of the loop.

I wanted to say, “Dude, you seem like a nice guy. Don’t you know you can’t say those things to strangers?” He probably hadn’t talked to anyone in days. I felt sympathetic and almost guilty when I pardoned myself from our conversation to take a call from a new client.

Anyone who takes himself out of a structured environment—a job, a country, a marriage—for an extended time is forced to invent his own code of conduct. The process of finding the code that’s uniquely your own is quite beautiful, but can also become a dance with the dark side. When we allow ourselves the true freedom to express ourselves, we sometimes achieve wild success, and sometimes utter disaster.

And so we have to be careful. I love my fishnet stockings—and wore them to my 9 to 5 job when I was feeling cheeky—but I’ll leave them at home for my client meeting tomorrow.

But we have to keep it loose, too. I quit my job and began traveling to rediscover myself on new terms. So I have to experiment, notice what works, and be forgiving of myself when I look like an asshole.

Given the stakes, I’d say we’re lucky if the worst we do is inflict a bad haircut. Andrea, you are too fabulous.

And Sylvia, I predict a renaissance for you ….

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