MY COUNTRY: REFLECTIONS OF A LONG-TIME EXILE

For reasons known only to my unconscious mind the line from that patriotic hymn
popped up in my head this morning as I sat in meditation: “My country ‘tis of thee.”

And then the question followed naturally from my conscious mind: Where is my country? Where do I belong?

I have been living in America for nearly sixty of my eighty-five years and it still does not
feel like “my country.” Indeed, in consequence of recent cultural and political events, it feels
less than ever like “my country”. I am not patriotic. I have always been skeptical of the whole
notion of patriotism. In my mind it is associated with war. Perhaps the first poem to inspire me
to become a writer was that haunting evocation of the vile truth of war in Wilfred Owens’s
“Dulce et Decorum” whose last line, after the ghastly spectacle of a fellow soldier choked into
an agonizing death by gas, his body stacked unceremoniously onto a cart, evoked, bitterly, “that
old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.” It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country. I
have never since been able to worship at the altar of patriotism.

I understand that there are certain positive values associated with the love of one’s
country, even though these are not values that my own heart connects with. I also wish to
avoid being glib or naïve. National borders exist, along with the need to respect territorial rights
and integrity. I would be outraged should France decide to send troops across the Channel to
invade the country of my birth; or should Mexican tanks cross the border with the U.S. and
cause death and destruction as they shatter American cities. I am as disgusted with the memory
of Hitler’s call to arms in the name of Vaterland and his invasion of Poland—and later other
countries—as I am by Mother Russia, the more recent pretext used by Putin to invade the
country of Ukraine and wreak devastation there. But by the same token, the boastful call of
America First sends shivers down my spine. There is an important distinction to be made
between patriotism and nationalism—something different and infinitely more dangerous.

Still, all this conceded I’m left wondering: what is “my country”? I am an old exile. The
geographical borders on world maps mean little to me personally. I left the country of my birth
when I was twenty-three years old, living first in Germany, then in Canada before coming to
America. For reasons having mostly to do with practicality—I felt an obligation to be able to
cast a vote in elections that affected my life; I wanted to be able to apply for grants and
fellowships available only to citizens—I became an American national in 1972. I should perhaps
have read the tea leaves back then: faced with questions to be answered “under penalty of
perjury”, I chose to lie in order to qualify as an American. Had I ever knowingly committed a
crime? Yes, I had smoked marijuana, a crime in those days. I answered, No. What would have
been the point in answering this question with the truth? Had I ever committed adultery—why
were they asking this? Well, um, yes… Alas, in the course of my first marriage, I strayed. But
would I say so on my citizenship application? No, of course not. (I wrote an op-ed piece about
this irony, published for obvious reasons anonymously in the Los Angeles Times: “To Become an
American, He Had to Lie”).

When I look about me today, I no longer see the America that welcomed me in 1964. I
see a country where lies are accepted by vast numbers of Americans as the unquestioned truth; where rampant social injustice is met with a shrug and a refusal to contemplate reform; where
political parties (well, one in particular) seeks to gain advantage by subterfuge and deceit rather
than by an appeal to the popular votes; where a loud-mouthed, willfully ignorant minority holds
sway over the majority of their fellow citizens; where violence simmers constantly not far
below the surface and too often breaks out in the form of the demented personal animus of
mass shootings or the public hysteria of an attack on the very seat of democracy, the US
Capitol. Where even our vaunted democracy is under siege.

It pains me to say it, but I feel like a stranger in America today. It does not feel like
home. It does not feel like “my country.”

There are times these days when I contemplate a return to the country of my origin. I
think of it fondly, but perhaps only with nostalgia. I hold in my heart the memory of small
villages, communities where, despite all the gossip and petty animosities, there is a certain
cohesion, a feeling of belonging. I hold in my heart, too, the unmatched, verdant beauty of the
English countryside, the elegance of ancient trees, the unceasing flow of streams and rivers… All
this calls to me across the years and oceans. In many ways—in the words of that old Gilbert and
Sullivan ditty from “HMS Pinafore”—“In spite of all temptations/To belong to other Nations/He
remains an Englishman.” (Sing it! It’s fun!)

No, I have no geographical affiliations. Borders, to my mind, remain purely artificial,
invented by human beings for their own political or tribal purposes. Animals do not respect
them, after all, and they are possessed of an intelligence deeper, more rooted in nature, more
connected to the universe and more mysterious than our own. And yet some part of me still
needs a country, a place to call home, so I am coming to define “my country” instead as a
country of the heart.

What does this mean? I suppose it means the place where I feel at most home. Not just
the physical home where Ellie and I live together, a lovely refuge from the noise and chaos of
the world out-there. We are fortunate to have such a place where we are privileged, and
comfortable. No, at home is those places where I feel connected, at ease, known, recognized
and accepted with love for who I am; places defined by the people who inhabit them rather
than by their physical location. I think first and foremost of family, to whom I feel connected
even though we are widespread—in England, Iowa, California—and even though we are not
connected in the traditional or conventional way, celebrating holidays and festivals together,
for example, over family meals. We are disparate, connected by the kinship of shared blood and
the love that comes with that. I regret that we do not live closer to each other, as “close-knit”
families did in earlier human days. But regret is insufficient to compensate fully for the painful
realities of space and time.

I think, too, of other refuges. Last Sunday, after sitting in meditation for an hour with a
small group of friends as I have done on Sunday mornings for now a quarter century—though
not as often as I would like in recent months—I realized: This is my home! And said as much out
loud. And I have other, similar homes. I have the small sitting group I started several years ago
at our Los Angeles home; because of the Covid epidemic, we have been meeting mostly for the
past two years on Zoom, but I still feel that heart-connection that I’m talking about. In the same
way, I have the small support group of artists that Ellie started; there have been many changes
along the way, but the core group has been meeting monthly for more than twenty years.
Another “home.”

Then, too, I have the group of about ten men of respectable age who meet monthly to
share the various experiences of “Conscious Aging.” These are all men who share years of work
as participants and leaders in rescuing, first themselves, then countless other men, from lives of
toxic masculinity; men who have learned to know and trust their hearts; men who have found
their strength in vulnerability and have discovered the source of their power in both fierce and
tender manhood. Like my family, we are widely dispersed, but gather on our computer screens
and even the short single hour we spend together feels like coming home. I know little, for the
most part, about these men’s personal lives, and yet I know them well, and they know me. We
sit as of old, as elders, in communion, as though in some digital kiva, where hearts and minds
are open and where words are true.

There are wider circles, too, that define “my country.” Friends, spread far and wide and
through decades of time. Other men friends, Michael, Scott and Corky, Bill the poet, Gary and
Peter, artists, men I never or rarely see. My friend Ben comes to mind; we were friends at
school when we were eight or ten years old, at a time when I had few other friends. I have seen
him only once since, when we were both already in our 70s. I do not know how to explain the
connection that I feel with him; only that is there. As with another friend from those days,
another Michael, who lives in Barcelona. There is my friend, Susan, who lives in Sydney,
Australia. I was in love with her—she has forgotten!—when I was twenty years old. We have
reconnected in recent years; I spoke to her just the other day on a video call. There are other
women I have loved, and who loved me; I think I never stop loving someone, even long after
not seeing or hearing from her ever again. It’s that same place in the heart: my country. I think
of Shel and Linda, 35 years our neighbors. Of men and women who were once my students,
long ago, and who became my friends: Jim, Judy, Tom..; And of course there are more recent
friends, Mary and Brian, Mary and Stuart, Sharon and Donald, a circle that I know exists, a circle
I can feel existing all around me, like a country.

So this is what gives me a place to be in a world in which I feel otherwise so often dis-
located, alienated, out of place. My country. A country of the heart. A heart-land. A good place
to be.

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