When contemplating my upcoming return to the United States after thirty-five years abroad I realized that the prospect terrified me. Analyzing a fear is one method of banishing it, so I decided to consider why my native land held such terror for me.
Back when I was a young man the overriding reality that cast a psychic shadow over the land was the Vietnam war. Whether you understood it or not, whether you believed that it was being fought for a just cause or not, you never knew when you might get the notice to saddle up and head off across the seas and fight the “commie gooks”, as many referred to the Vietnamese people. I personally had nothing against the Vietnamese. I was having enough trouble trying to figure out who I was and what I was supposed to do with my life to worry about a civil war halfway around the world. There were options to the draft, but none of them were very desirable. I could file as a conscientious objector, but such appeals were for the most part not taken seriously. I could refuse to fight, but then I would be tossed into a prison for many years – another of my ongoing fears about which I will presently speak. I could flee to another country such as Canada or Sweden and live in exile; not only did I not want to live my life as a fugitive, but these countries, as I saw them, were cold and remote and unappealing. What, then, was I to do?
Eventually the political system solved that problem for me. The Vietnam War wound down and the draft was suspended just before I was to be called up.
But prison – there was another real fear. Apart from the draft issue, I indulged in certain mind-expanding drugs at the time that were not on the approved recreational substances list. I have gone into details about this elsewhere, notably in my memoir “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search”. Suffice it to say I was in the class of person Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young wrote about in the song “Almost Cut My Hair”, the ones who went all paranoid when they looked into the rear-view mirror and spotted police lights, who glanced furtively in all directions before lighting up a doobie, who gauged their friends by who could be trusted not to go to the narcs in a pinch. I haven’t touched any sort of illegal drugs for more than thirty years; I am not afraid of a drug bust. But old paranoia dies hard. The US prison system is one of the largest in the world, and the country ranks very high on the list of the percentage of the populace behind bars.
In addition, I have always abhorred violence, and compared to the countries in which I have made my homes in the past three and a half decades, the US is an extremely violent nation. Unlike most countries in Europe – indeed most countries of the world – citizens of the United States are allowed to own and carry around guns and other weapons. You never know when some idiot on the street might go off his nut and pull out a gun and start blowing everyone away. I read in the news that it seems to be happening with more and more frequency – not only in the streets but in high schools and universities as well. The violence around me was one of the things that caused me to leave my native land in the first place, the violence epitomized by the film “Taxi Driver”. I also write about my reaction to “Taxi Driver” in “World Without Pain”; it horrified me to the point that it became the catalyst that hastened my departure.
And now I am coming back, coming home. There are many good reasons for doing so, the primary being that due to the economic chaos here Greece is not a fit place for my sons, who are growing up and looking to their futures. Basically it is for their sakes I am returning, but I am excited about the change. It is time to come home, time to face my fears and overcome them. After all, the whole world, not just the US, is a fearful but wonderful place. And if we are in the place we are meant to be, the place where we need to take a stand, there is no better place anywhere. Disadvantages can be found to any location. One thing is sure, though: if you are not in the place you need to be, the place destiny has put you, the place your conscience and sense of honor compel you to be, you might be safer but you will have entered the roles of the living dead, the zombified, the stupified, the redundant, the castoffs, the derelict, the miscreant, the useless. Are we to be ostriches, burying our heads in the sand and exposing our asses to the winds of chance? Better to go where we need to go, no matter where, than to hide on the fringes drained of vitality and a sense of conscience.
And there is much to recommend the USA. There is honor to be found there. Fear alone did not compel me to leave; the main reason was that as a writer I wanted to get a different perspective on life, I wanted to see life through other eyes, other cultures. I feel I have sufficiently accomplished that mission. I think I have paid my dues in foreign lands. I have faced stark contrasts, adventure, otherness. I have lived in India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, Italy, and Greece. Enough, now. It’s time to go home, at least for the present. As for the future, who can say?
One other consideration is that I am returning as broke as when I left, but that does not worry me. I have never had much money, and I have never let the lack of it dictate my decisions. If I had waited until I had amassed a sufficient amount of funds before I embarked upon my grand hitchhiking tour of the world, if I had worked and saved until I had enough to get me through my travels, I never would have left – and I certainly would not have gained whatever insight, wisdom, whatever you want to call it, that I picked up along the way, or found my voice as a writer. No, sometimes you have to just cut loose and go.
Of course I have responsibilities now that I didn’t have back then when I took off by myself, my pack over my shoulder. In particular, I have my sons. Nevertheless, even for their sakes it is sometimes necessary to rip loose from the comfortable, the seemingly-secure, and strike out for the unknown.
So, the unknown it is. The land of my birth is like a foreign country to me. I have made visits now and then, but I always knew I was going to leave again. Now I need to rediscover what it means to live in the USA, to cope with the particular stresses and dangers, to overcome my fears, and to thrive.
Stay tuned for upcoming reports from the new world.