I once read that if you drew a chalk circle round a chicken, it would stay within it and not try to escape. Now Julian Baggini in Welcome to Everytown: a Journey into the English Mind describes hefting where sheep learn to stay within an unfenced area. No need of walls, they just stay put. I never thought sheep very bright and when, a a child, I read about the sheep and the goats in the Bible, I earnestly tried to be a goat, completely missing the point. After all, how would want to be a glum sheep when they could be goats, leaping from rock to rock and eating underwear off clothes lines.
But he points out how most of us are hefted into tight, restricted lives. We don't know why we have invisible boundaries, but feel them tugging if we try to stray. Interesting because I had just been thinking of a lonely, elderly woman friend, who lives a solitary life now her dog has died. How do we get like that?
And the limits are tight. I asked my friend, who at 96 feels she is too old to train another dog, if she would consider a cat. “Certainly not!” Outside the heft.
In an African village, some years ago, a kaleidoscope of gaudy colour, loud music and joyful singing, Ben, a village elder, asked after my father, whom he had met. “Why doesn't he live with you?”
“He wants to be independent,” I replied.
“Why?” A simple word I couldn't answer – and I felt ashamed. Why did he prefer to live alone, with the pride of independence – and the long isolated days? I looked around at Ben's teeming family, dancing barefoot in the heat and dust, every now and then throwing their hands up, crying, “Happy, happy, happy!” Life was poor and hard, but not a sparrow fell.
Yes, we are hefted. I sometimes watch people doing things, particularly group activities, that I know I can't somehow do. I am not a joiner, but is it temperament or hefting? It is like the introvert watching extroverts partying and thinking it would be nice – if one could do it. Or is it a strength to be able to keep myself company? My childhood was very isolated, so I never had a neighborhood like my kids grew up in. Would I have learned different social skills, would I be a member of a church or women's group?
I have friends who are nested into communities, whose church provides solace and structure, who go on group holidays. I feel the invisible line drawn round me. Yet my inner life is rich and I emigrated and embedded in a new culture. I am sometimes wistful, though, for the easy camaraderie I see others have.
Even more subtle are the hidden prohibitions. Today, it seems people have more permissions to be or do whatever they wish – or do they? In the past, it was much more “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, He made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.” We were neatly pigeon holed and hefted into our slots.
I always wondered why back before women's lib, when so many women had the time to write or paint, it was the men (who were often also supporting a family) who actually did it. And it wasn't just the demands of children – there was Victorian writer Henry Williamson, writing with a baby against his shoulder, determined to get his words out.
Yet, when with Herculean effort, we jumped over the chalk ring and unhefted ourselves, look what women have accomplished, how strong we are. My mother, as she died, said sadly she knew she hadn't used her talents. She was very gifted and would have made a brilliant political commentator. Her children grown, she had the time. She watched her days pass pleasantly enough, but inside she pawed the ground like an unexercised horse.
How do I know? Because I am her daughter, freer, but still in many ways hefted into a smaller spot than my soaring, creative soul yearns for. Aren't we all – or are we?
What about Liz Murray, born to drug addicted parents and living on the streets at 16? Homesless, she got through high school in two years, got a scholarship to Harvard and has spoken alongside Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama. She broke the bonds – and if she can do it, we have to give it a try. Looking back I can recognize the silken chords, see where they bit and held me back. With a renewed feeling of freedom then, humbled in the face of Liz, I can step out of the chalk ring, out of the heft. There are possibilities I just couldn't see were there.
Further info on Liz Murray:
Guardian story – short and very moving – link
Breaking Night by Liz Murray – her autobiography
A made-for-TV film about Murray's life – Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story. U-tube link