I’ve been thinking a bit more about my brief, weekend visit to England, the country of my birth. Forget the stereotypes: I ate well, everyone I met was warm and friendly to a fault, and the sun shone happily throughout my visit—though I’ll admit I brought that with me from California.
As those who have been following The Buddha Diaries know, I was in the Cotswolds—ferried there from Heathrow on my arrival by my sister and her generous friend, and returning to the airport four days later on the early morning bus from Cirencester—and saw nothing but this small corner of the country with its rolling hills and its villages of beautiful stone cottages whose exterior, at least, has nobly withstood the test of centuries. Not having been in England in the winter time for many years, I was struck by the pervasive silvery pallor of the light, and by the still green hills contrasting with the wonderful, intricately skeletal outlines of the trees and the pale blue of the sky. Early morning, there was frost on the ground. And everywhere, the birds sang.
How much of this I have in the bloodstream and the long, often all too narrow avenues of memory! The countryside sang to me, like the birds, and its song plucked at responsive chords somewhere deep within—call it heart, call it soul, call it consciousness… And I realized that in America I do live the life of an exile. I have made my life in this adopted country for now nearly half a century, and am grateful for all the fulfillment those forty-plus years have brought my way. And yet… I recognize that I am at heart an exile.
With the current election campaign so much in my thoughts before I left—I flew out on the Wednesday following “Super Tuesday”—I had been hoping to get some perspective on America from across the pond. As it turned out, however, I heard barely a word about Obama, Clinton, McCain or Huckabee, and the enquiries I had planned to make seemed somehow, well… irrelevant. No question but that my former fellow-countrymen—those who ventured any opinion at all—are looking forward to the exeunt omnia of Bush and his gang who couldn’t shoot straight, and to the return of America to the community of nations. But they have, as they say, their own fish to fry. The newspapers I saw, and the television new reports, paid scant attention to the American presidential election. Of far greater interest and concern was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s quickly infamous gaffe about sharia law.
There is a civility, I think, still evident in English life. And by that I mean not just good manners, that dreaded “politeness” that threatens to stifle the kind of intimacy we value—perhaps over-value—this side of the Atlantic. I mean a sense of civic responsibility, a respect for others that is in some way structured into the history and the social life of the country. It’s the kind of civility that takes, for example, universal health care (socialized medicine!) as a given; that provides non-grudging care for the elderly and the destitute and schools for the young and transportation systems that make it relatively easy to get around; that recognizes the importance of a cultural life. All those things, in a word, that we “taxpayers” here in America fight so hard to avoid having to pay for with “our money.”
And of course things are not perfect over there. Of course there are those who get left behind, there are the horror stories about those who slip between the interstices of the safety net. But there is nonetheless a general understanding, I think, and a general consensus that any human society is a complex, constantly changing organism, and that each part of it must bear a certain responsibility for carrying its fair share of the common load.
Such are the thoughts, anyway, that I brought back with me from my lightning visit “home.” I could, of course, be perversely mistaken. I could be immersing myself in a romantic nostalgia for a place that never really was. But I like to think I wasn’t.