As a child in the mid-70’s, I owned a record player. You know, one of those ancient machines that amplifies the vibrations of a diamond-tipped needle wobbling through grooves etched in a spinning piece of vinyl. The record I played most was Free to Be … You and Me, a collection of songs and stories that distilled the best messages of feminism, peace, love, and understanding from the 1960’s and delivered them to my open and eager heart.
In “Boy Meets Girl,” Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas laid the groundwork for my opinions on gender identity and stereotypes, with the reminder that “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
In “When we Grow Up,” Diana Ross encouraged me to cultivate a healthy and confident self-image, telling me “I like what I look like, and you’re nice small. We don’t have to change at all.”
Dan Greenburg’s poem “Don’t Dress Your Cat In An Apron” gave me courage to follow my heart, saying “A person should do what [they like] to / A person’s a person that way.”
In “Dudley Pippin,” a wise school principal explained true bravery – that “a sissy is someone who doesn’t cry because he’s afraid someone will call him a sissy if he does cry,” and Rosy Grier drove home the message in “It’s Alright to Cry,” singing that “it’s all right to feel things, though the feelings may be strange.”
In “William’s Doll,” Alan Alda showed me a boy could “care for his baby as every good father should learn to do” without giving up his masculinity and inspired me to spend my child’s first year as a stay-at-home dad.
“Atalanta” encouraged me to reject “princess” stereotypes, to see and support women as equals. And “Girl Land” followed with a story of the absurd theme park where girls had to wait for the boys to open the door to the Fun House, which always seemed to me ridiculously unfair.
Listening to this album again today flooded me once again with the innocent hopes and dreams of my 70’s childhood. It invited me once again to create a world where we are all truly free to be ourselves, where we honor and support one another as individuals. Almost fifty years later, its messages still rang true as I contemplated #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #LGBTQIA, gender equality, and so many other pernicious modern social issues around how we treat one another.
Being human comes with a powerful internal drive to find and express our selves. We stumble through our brief lifetimes in search of meaning, purpose, and connection, constantly discovering and integrating new pieces of our identities, pushing back at the social forces that limit us.
When we truly internalize that shared humanity, recognize each other as individuals seeking similar goals on different paths, we can approach one another with kindness. We can react with compassion instead of anger. We can encourage and support each other, accept and amplify and celebrate our differences without letting them challenge our own self-image and self-worth. We can create a better world by treating others the way we wish to be treated. We can truly, finally, allow everyone to be Free.
update: The morning after writing this, I played a few tracks from Free to Be … for my own elementary-school-aged children. Their response: “Dad, this is so weird … is this what messed you up as a child?!” Maybe the 70’s need to remain in the 70’s after all!