Monday, November 10, 2008

'Proclaiming our allegiance, our faith, our love for you'

"When you look out at this, does it look like home?" Rachel asked a few weeks ago as the long dark blue First Great Western train sped across the rolling fields of Somerset toward London.

"What, England?" I asked.

"Britain," she said. "Does it look like home to you? It does to me. I look at it and I just get that excited feeling that I am home."

"Yeah, I guess it looks like home. It doesn't not look like home, " I said, looking out the window and remembering a scene in Geraint V. Jones' Zen, when the main character is being driven through southwestern Wales and he wonders to himself that he has never in his life seen anything like it. But the character is from England and had served in Northern Ireland -- bullshit he hadn't seen anything like it. I suppose it's possible to live in Britain and fail to have seen something exactly like southwest Wales but to not have seen anything like it is to have never opened your eyes. All across south Wales and southern England, at least, the landscape is vaguely similar; those "pleasant pastures seen" that they insist on singing about on the other side of the Severn stretch endless from one's train window -- interspersed by jumble towns doing that strange thing of trying to mimic American sprawl without really having any space for the sprawl to go.

But I'm not sure I feel a real connection to it. Not, at least, to that forgettable stretch between Bristol and Swindon. I feel far greater connection to Cardiff. Sometimes, sitting atop Y Garth and looking down on Wales' capital city, or striding through it with a pint or two in my belly, a feeling will come over me of wanting to shout out: "This is my town, you fuckers!"

I'm not sure who I'd be shouting at. Not my fellow Cardiffians, who are an organic part of it all; the drunks and chavs and wealthy and middle-class and moms and dads and kids who are of this place. They are mine as well. And I am theirs. Or want to be. Perhaps I am shouting at Welsh-language culture, which I feel is often too eager to disavow the capital. Perhaps I am shouting to the swirling thoughts in my head that tell me I will never belong to anything.

But this connection fails me sometimes. I feel lost and unwanted. Or I fear that I am abandoning what I have. I have put myself on a course to live in Wales permanently, to make it my home, to set my roots here, to become officially British. But there is that indoctrinated part of me that fears turning against what I am; what I was.

Many moons ago, I was baptised in the Mormon church in an attempt to placate my mother-in-law. This idea was an unmitigated failure, of course. Putting on an Elvis suit and going for a swim was never going to change her mind about me. And an un-guessed side-effect was an overwhelming sense of remorse and regret on my own part. I went into a full on panic. Even though I adhere to the Sikh philosophy that God does not have religion (and therefore it doesn't really matter what rules you impose on yourself in order to be a good person, just that you are a good person), some part of my soul burned at having "betrayed" my United Methodist (a) upbringing.

I'm not sure it's possible to "betray" a United Methodist upbringing without committing a crime. The United Methodists are a pretty relaxed folk. If you want to throw on some white polyester, jump in a pool and stop drinking tea they'll raise an eyebrow but probably won't condemn you to hell for it.

But this is what I felt. It was possibly the only time in my life I have ever felt any sense of religious fear, of having done something REALLY ETERNALLY WRONG.

I wasn't really fearing God, though, but the severing of that connection to my family and my history and my past. I felt a sick terrible guilt at having erased that Methodist baptism I was given as a wee baby, when my mother and father had held me close and a pastor sprinkled water on my ugly little head. I don't attend Methodist church (or any church), but my mom and dad do and it's especially important to Dad and I felt sick at having cut that connection.

In a fit of guilt-driven madness I drove up to Mt. Rose, and climbed to an area that I perceived to be the top where I had a very long mea culpa conversation with God. Effectively, I asked if he could, you know, not file the paper work on that most recent baptism. It was probably the most mad (i.e., insane, not angry) I have ever been. Which is a pretty big statement.

Anyway, you'll be happy to know that after a great deal of weeping at the sky and begging and pleading I walked away feeling that God was willing to let me off. Love makes you do very silly things sometimes. I had desperately wanted to make things easier on my future wife and hadn't considered my own feelings. It was agreed between me and The Creator Of The Universe that all would be forgiven and I would still be allowed to mark "Methodist" on the demographics survey that everyone has to fill out in the afterlife.

All of this loops back to a First Great Western train in southern England because it was there that I got thinking about that eventual day when I will promise to "be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law" (b). Will I suddenly wake up that night in panic, feeling that I have betrayed the United States of America?

I worry about this. Stupidly. I feel an untraceable guilt at the idea of not being American. More specifically, at not being Texan.

"Texas is a state of mind," wrote John Steinbeck. "Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word."

It is my nation. I am of Texas. Its air and water and soil are in me; they were used to form me. That water trickled on my little baby head came from Texas taps. When I lived in Minnesota I was still Texan; it says so on my dark blue U.S. passport. But I am worried about what, if anything, I will feel in that future I am working toward, hoping for, in which I get to carry around a maroon-coloured passport.

(a) I'm kind of picking up that the Methodists in Britain are different than the Methodists I grew up surrounded by, hence the use of "United Methodist." But I don't actually know if there's a difference. Shawn or Dad, if you are reading please clue me in.

(b) Actually, one is allowed to do the citizenship ceremony in Welsh, so my actual words will be something along the lines of: "Yr wyf i'n tyngu i Dduw Hollalluog y byddaf i, ar ôl dod yn ddinesydd Prydeinig, yn ffyddlon ac yn wir deyrngar i'w Mawrhydi y Frenhines Elisabeth yr Ail, ei Hetifeddion a'i Holynwyr, yn unol âr gyfraith."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Remember where you were today; your grandchildren will ask

As I write this, polling stations in the United States' east coast are opening and millions of people are queuing to take part in what feels to be the most important election of my lifetime.

There is the historical element, of course. If the polls are right, the United States will elect its first black leader and we can say once again that the American dream is fulfilled. Few histories are more tragic and painful than that of blacks in America. As a white middle-class kid from the suburbs I won't be so condescending as to pretend to be able to fully comprehend that history or how it feels to carry it around. I also won't suggest that the election of a skinny mixed-race fella from Illinois ties it all up in a neat bow.

I can remember from my own childhood seeing the "whites only" water fountains. The pipes ripped out and rusted, the fountains broken and crumbling, but the sign still there as a reminder that things were really shitty not so long ago. And that's a stench that still hangs in the air in some places. But this election is a chance to leap forward, a chance to show that thundering overwhelming all-consuming promise that lies at the heart of "the unlikely story that is America." (a) It is a chance for us to wave our middle fingers in the air and declare that we will not be chained by the sins of our grandfathers (b).

But the racial element has become a footnote. To me, this election is more important than that. The United States has reached a crossroads in its history. In the last several years we have set ourselves on a path to irrelevance. We have acted as crumbling empires are wont to do and the more cynical of us have declared that the end is nigh and scarpered off to other countries. To me this election has become very simple and very clear: a choice between the end or a new beginning to America. Not America the state, the boundaries, the government, the economy, but America the philosophy; America the shit they sing about. America "the nation built upon the lives and dreams of the sons, daughters, brothers and sisters who left," in the words of Donal.

I'll be honest that either way, I will probably stay right here in Wales. I will probably stay on my course to become a British citizen. But this Welsh experience has taught me that I will never truly cease to be American. I carry it in me; I am of its earth and water and air. And I don't ever want to lose that. I hope to give it to my children: America the philosophy.

I am hoping, I am praying that this election will signal one of those shifts, one of those revolutions that Thomas Jefferson felt were so necessary, in the American mindset. Electing Barack Obama won't put a pretty bow on that story either, but it could write the first chapter. And maybe America can lead for another 100 years.

We'll see.

(b) Full Obama quote is: "In the unlikely story that is America there has never been anything false about hope."

(b) I say that generically. Despite my grandfather's unfortunate occasional use of racially inappropriate language I have never thought of him as racist.