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.
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