I went to a grocery store and asked how much for a pound of freedom. The grocery store was closed. By Irina Chitas.

This was not how I had intended to start this essay. It’s Sunday, May 24, 2020. I woke up earlier than I would’ve liked. And I woke up with the news that Maria Velho da Costa died yesterday, at the age of 81. New Portuguese Letters changed my life forever, but I wasn’t even going to tell you about them, about that book. I was, and still am, going to talk — in one way or another — about Cravo (Carnation), the set of texts that Maria wrote before, during and after the The Carnation Revolution. So, I had thought to start this essay telling you about a day when I was reading Cravo sitting on the steps of the statue of Camões, in the centre of Lisbon and the center of my world, but I’m still figuring out if that all went downhill. The beginning of the essay and the center of my world. Today the center came crashing down, it simply could not hold on wobbly tightropes as it once did, lightly, easily. But the words live, they are still pretty much here, stretching the tightrope so that we can go back up. So that I can go back up. Let us continue on, then, as Maria has always done. And be it as it may.

“I can assure you that some short art was however performed in the acts and that crowds were seen from within so beautiful that you can cry them and redo another flower.”

It’s about six in the afternoon and I’m sitting on the steps of the statue of Camões reading Cravo, by Maria Velho da Costa. It is Wednesday, May 20 2020. And it is perhaps the first act of my conscious freedom. I’m 30 years old and I’ve always been free, but I’ve never been consciously free. Not in such a solid, material way. Freedom is the couch where I sit on every day without remembering how much it cost. How much it cost me, when I bought it, how much it cost them, who made it, transported it, set it up. Around me — in Camões, not on the couch — there are menacing men in masks. There are couples kissing at the kiosk. There are children running and others riding bicycles. There are also people who are alone with themselves but less and less and less. Beside me there are two friends who talk about their lovers (mistresses, I mean) and listen to fado on a mobile phone. Their hearts are broken, everything is broken. They talk to a homeless guy, Filipe, who is 30 years old like me. He, is from Barreiro, or was from Barreiro, unlike me. Filipe toasts with a fresh beer and says that all he needs is to give up alcohol and methadone, this couple who, he states heavily, saved him from drugs. This is the first time that I’m on the street, alone, just for the sake of being, after lockdown. My existence today has a weight that I never knew I could bear.

“We tremble now because the street has entered us through our houses and the poet has ceased to be the sacred stone of hidden inquiry or he will have to be beheaded without any metaphor.”

It’s about three in the afternoon and I’m standing, shaking, on my tiny balcony in Bairro Alto. It’s Saturday, April 25, 2020. Not many people live on this street. I’m on that tiny balcony waiting for silence. But it starts. From a speaker that looks huge to me in the distance, Grândola Vila Morena blares out. Nobody sings. Nobody talks. Nobody moves. There is no one else on any balcony. The music stops. From another balcony, further down, the same music. Restarting. It went on for more than 40 minutes. Nobody sang. Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. I cried. I exist because I am free. Only and exclusively because I am free. There is no other circumstance in which I could breathe. I don’t sing, I don’t speak, I don’t move, I cry, because I’m free. I’m home alone and I don’t have a fresh carnation. I open Cravo for the first time.

“I don’t know how to accumulate more than hope and patience and sudden courage. I don’t know how to accumulate anything but memory and a fine treatment in receiving, in disbanding.”

It’s almost two in the morning and I am in my microscopic room in utter apathy. It’s Saturday, April 25, 2020. A little while ago, it was Friday, April 24 2020 and my life was profoundly different. I’ve seen lives change faster, I’ll give you that. I’ll also give you that what happens to others is like a stab and when it happens to us it is more like an open-chest surgery from which we don’t know whether we will make it out alive. What I am going to try to explain next is tremendously childish, and perhaps it’s the result of prolonged and assertive isolation that was as monumental as it was nuclear. I already said that before now, I was not aware of my freedom. How much it cost. I didn’t buy it, I didn’t earn it. I don’t know how much it costs by the pound. I know that when the COVID-19 pandemic locked us down in the privilege of our addresses, it did not buy our freedom because the stores also closed in the privilege of their addresses. What the COVID-19 pandemic did was far more manipulative than that. In addition to suffocating us, too literally, it ate things we took for granted. Our work. Our streets. Our hugs. Our shoes inside the house. Our shopping bags that didn’t need disinfecting. Our touches. I am, of course, speaking from my palace of privilege — I still have a house, I still have a job, I still have the Internet where all the faces of all my friends are, I still have friends. What happened now, just happened, in the chimes of our revolutionary day, was the invention of the clear night. My sky is clear of doubts: today, I write because I am free. It was necessary to think that I lost part of my freedom to know that I would not exist without it — such a cliché. The biggest cliché. I hear a shout coming from somewhere outside. The man’s voice says “always”. Like him, I am free.

“You don’t write for the people, you write with the people or not.”

It’s four in the afternoon, more or less, and I’m still on my microscopic sofa in my microscopic living room. It’s Sunday, April 26, 2020. I didn’t leave this exact spot. Yet I am free. Throughout the pages of this magazine that you are now reading, stories of Portuguese people take us, by the hand (what a wild thought that is), to see the world. They were bigger out there. They flew out and brought love back to us. And we are here, writing about them, staring at the walls of our homes, without even remembering what the inside of an airplane looks like, we’re feeling like everything is terminal — pun intended. These Portuguese, these great voices, these talents that do not fit on paper, usually speak of the pride that it is to take a country inside their suitcases. They tell the others, over dinner and wine, what it’s like to live here, on the hills, in the rivers, with salt on your skin. They tell them about “saudade”. And it’s in those moments that they realize that they know where they are from. What they are made of. It’s in those moments that they want to return home. And now, we, we are home. Is this the right time for us, confined, to want to go home? Is this what we’re supposed to feel? Is this weird? Are we there yet? Are we free?

“Nor is there any other freedom for the artist other than to be freeing himself, freeing.”

It’s nine o’clock at night and I just stripped off the clothes I went out with and put them in the washing machine. It’s Friday, May 8, 2020. I saw seagulls, they now inhabit Largo Camões. They are hostile, they are queens, they are hungry, they have their land. They left their blue houses and are now blooming on the white stone, empty of people. I keep coming back to the concept of freedom. At all hours of every day. When carnations embraced rifles, kissing them, what we are today was born. Full streets, happy tears, cries of relief, screams. On April 25 2020, Avenida da Liberdade had no songs, communion, understanding. There were two musicians. Before and after them, silence. We were home. Singing at the window. Before and after, silence. Apart, we stretched our arms to the sky. We called our families. We saw documentaries about our Captains. We dreamed of Largo do Carmo. In 2020, we went back to 1974: if only we could fight on the streets for freedom. Today, we fight at home. Only at home, we are free. I write this because I am free. Living in Portugal is being free. I can see the world because I was born here and, because I was born here, I am free. I’m not a nationalist, but today I made peace with my love for this country. We’re only truly free when we forget our privilege, because it seems natural to us. The right order of things. To be at home on the day that celebrates freedom, to know that I have it, that I carry it in my pockets and in my blood, is to rewrite an identity. I will always act with the awareness that not everyone is like me. Not all are treated as equals. Not everyone has dropped the chains, untied the knots of history — not everyone had someone do it for them, as I had someone do it for me. For them, for those who did not have a 25 April, we will continue to say “25 de Abril Sempre”. For them, we will bring freedom. For them, all the carnations.

“History does not repeat itself, but it is always moving to see people retake, in anguish and hesitation and poorly, their own destinies, their favourite ways of sailing the winds of History.”

Illustration: Carolina Carvalho

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