"Untitled, The Whole Shebang, 2000," © Eduardo Del Valle and Mirta Gomez, Courtesy of the Artists and Hemphill Fine Arts. C-Print.
“Untitled, The Whole Shebang, 2000,” © Eduardo Del Valle and Mirta Gomez, Courtesy of the Artists and Hemphill Fine Arts. C-Print.

In a windy spring evening last year, shortly after the 139th American soldier had died in Iraq and President Bush had declared an end to “major combat operations,” my partner, Brian, and I drove to our local Borders bookstore, met up with a bunch of strangers huddled around a truck in the parking lot, and signed our names to a petition on the clipboard someone was passing from hand to hand. Within a few weeks, I was standing outside a summer arts festival wearing a button reading “Howard Dean for America” and trying to give voter registration forms to passing strangers.

I had never volunteered in a political campaign before. Partly because I came of age during the Vietnam War, and partly because I was born in South Africa and have never felt completely American, I had long defined “politics” as going to peace demonstrations, writing checks to the Sierra Club, and, almost as an afterthought, voting. I had been far more devoted to my practice as a Buddhist than to my practice as a citizen.

In my thirties, I hadn’t thought twice about rising each day before dawn, putting on a whitejubon (undershirt) and a heavy black kimono, and driving through half-deserted streets in my odd, un-American clothes to sit facing a wall in the basement of the San Franciso Zen Center. In my forties, I’d willingly spent $700 every year or so to fly from California to France and study with the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Nowadays I consider my time well spent when I get up early to sit alone, or recite the lay precepts with others at our local community center.

But before the Iraq war, I had never written a substantial check to a political candidate or given a single hour to electoral democracy. Except at my first Brownie troop meeting, when they taught us flag folding, I had never touched, much less owned, an American flag. I’d been an onlooker in my own country.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.