Is there really freedom in the outdoors?

After a year indoors, a writer remembers the joy — and pressures — of a childhood spent in Utah.

About three months into the pandemic, I found myself standing at the window of my condo near downtown Washington, D.C., cradling my newborn. Outside, the sun was rising. The world seemed plastic. Nothing moved. Absent the usual commotion of honking cars, barking dogs and fast-walking humans, the empty thoroughfare was as quiet as a photograph, yet somehow eerie, as if a black-and-white still of a barren nighttime scene had been colorized and converted into day.

I was on paternal leave, helping with our newborn and a newly homebound 3-year-old, and my wife was back at work, which meant she was back at her laptop. Like everyone else, we’d been forced to shrink and edit our lives to fit inside four walls. This place was still home, but we rarely uttered the word anymore. Home was supposed to be a place you returned to after engaging with the world. What did home mean now? We were still trying to figure that out.

 

Not that we had nothing to do. I’d never been busier; almost every minute of my day was booked. Feeding the baby, changing her diapers, loading the dishwasher, unloading the dishwasher, reading to the toddler, putting on Sesame Street (and rewinding it, because the 3-year-old had to hear a particular song a second time) — an unceasing run-on sentence of survival.

The one thing we avoided was going outside. At the beginning of the pandemic, my wife and I had committed to taking a long walk every day so the kids could feel the sun on their faces. But going outside was no longer a frictionless experience. We became hypervigilant the moment we ventured beyond our door. Don’t touch that! Move away from him! After a few weeks, we silently agreed we needed a break from the process of taking a break.

Everything had changed, but one change took me by surprise. While I was stuck inside, a few of my memories — memories that had never surfaced before — became searingly vivid. I burrowed into them whenever I had a spare moment. One in particular brought me great comfort, and as I stood at the window that morning, I summoned it, unsure why it was so meaningful. It was simple: My brothers and I pause after a long day of playing basketball outside. For some reason, as if on cue, we all turn to face the Wasatch Mountains. No one speaks, we just stand there, and after an unnaturally long period of silence — at least for three teenage boys — my youngest brother slaps the ball out of my hand, and we start playing once more. I had no idea where this memory came from — I couldn’t even be sure it was real — but over the next few days, it prompted me to remember all those years when I spent most of my time outside.

I was born to two Nigerian immigrants in Ogden, Utah, and for the first 13 years of my life, northern Utah was my home. We lived in various cities — Bountiful and Farmington and Salt Lake City — and each time we moved, I forgot the details of our previous apartment. But I always remembered how I felt when I was outside. “Outside” was never tied to a particular location; we played against an unchanging backdrop of plain suburban homes, each of them presiding over perfectly green and manicured lawns. What mattered most to me was the action: the fact we could do almost anything we wanted, that when we were outside our parents were distant, limited gods whose powers waned the farther away from home we wandered. That, when we were outside, we were free.

When I was 8, we moved back to Ogden. As ever, my father was chasing work. He had recently remarried and now faced the prospect of providing for a bigger household: my stepmother, my brother, my two stepbrothers and me. One day, he told us he had an idea. He had visited a long-haul trucking company and asked them how they cleaned their trailers. He learned it was an expensive, complicated process. My father informed them he could do it for a fraction of the cost, and they agreed to give him a shot. In the following days, we accompanied him as he purchased a high-pressure water cleaner and a leaf blower. He told us he had created a new kind of job. 

We often went to work with him. At first, we were awed by the seemingly endless parking lots and the rows and rows of identical trailers, each one dark and incomprehensibly large inside. He worked every day except Sunday, regardless of the weather, and my brothers and I usually accompanied him. Sometimes we were pelted by rain and snow; sometimes, the sun burned through our thin clothes and marked its territory on our backs. My father would leap into a trailer with his leaf blower, run to the back, and blow the debris toward the mouth, where my brothers and I waited with plastic bags, collecting the rotting food and wooden pallet shards and nails. We’d stand back as he blasted the trailers’ ribbed floors with the high-pressure water. Then we’d pick through the gunk for more trash to dump into our bags, until, almost an eternity later, we were finally done.

In the summer, my father stopped cleaning trailers and sold ice cream instead. Every now and then, he drove long miles to deliver packages for various corporations. But his trailer-cleaning business was the one constant. After a few months of accompanying my father to work, I no longer associated life outside with freedom. Even when I played basketball in the sun with my brothers and friends, I knew my leisure had been sponsored in part by my father’s labor. What I sensed but could not express, not quite, was that the fun times I spent outside were a kind of illusion, that beneath the sheen of sun and laughter was our grimy reality, a kind of purgatory that my family — and only my family, it seemed — had to endure.

 Even when I played basketball in the sun with my brothers and friends, I knew my leisure had been sponsored in part by my father’s labor.

I admired my father for his boundless energy and incredible work ethic, for the fact he never paused to rest or even catch his breath. But we all saw how red his eyes were, and how difficult it was for him just to lift his legs into and out of his car. I had no desire to spend my life doing the same. As he worked, my father would tell us he had to spend his days this way because he hadn’t been able to finish college — that if we wanted a different life, all we had to do was excel in school. I thought about the long hours my mother spent at the hospital working as a nurse. I knew her job was incredibly demanding, perhaps more so in certain ways than my father’s, but at least she never had to worry about outlasting the elements. I thought about my friends’ parents, who worked office jobs. I had no idea what people did inside an office, but I’d learned from TV that it involved sitting at a desk and occasionally gossiping with coworkers. Frankly, it looked easy.

I followed my father’s advice and worked hard in school. As I grew older, I spent less time outside, and by the time I finished graduate school, I had cultivated in my mind the perfect vision of an indoor life, a life of offices and museums and hotels and conference centers.

What I realized years later, as I stood at the window and cradled my newborn, was that the pandemic had granted me the opportunity to live a heightened version of the life I’d once wanted. Now, at last, I was always inside. But I needed more. I wanted to feel the sun on my face, that simultaneous feeling of emptiness and wholeness that surged through me whenever I glanced up at the sky. I knew my children were too young to remember much of anything about this moment. But I knew that at some point in the future, my children, too, would find themselves in an uncomfortable circumstance, and they, too, would reach for images from their past to search for clues about the way forward. I could not offer them the Wasatch Mountains, at least not yet, but the park just down the street would do fine for now.   

I called my wife and 3-year-old. We put on our socks and shoes, and our masks. We all took a deep breath and, like astronauts descending from a spaceship to the soil of a dying planet, we tentatively ventured outside.   

Tope Folarin is a Nigerian American writer based in Washington, D.C. He serves as executive director of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Lannan visiting lecturer in creative writing at Georgetown University. His debut novel, A Particular Kind of Black Man, was published by Simon & Schuster.

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