As my time abroad continues, I am feeling called to resist the urge to check my phone for messages, emails, and updates. I have very limited data to use while in England, so I’ve turned it off entirely, and I can only get internet access when I’m back at the hotel, where there is a reliable (if molasses-slow) WiFi connection.
I have to admit: it’s shaping up to be a really great time to be far away from America, unplugged from the headline deluge and tweetstorm feedback loop.
That being said, even in this sacred, quiet place, the troubles of home are on my mind. This is supposed to be a travelogue, however, so let’s talk about something from my travels:
We have breakfast included at our hotel — hot and/or cold food, coffee and/or tea, butter and/or jam, the works. It’s a small place — 15 rooms in all — and it’s almost entirely filled with choristers from All Saints Beverly Hills like myself.
ALMOST entirely. This morning, I mysteriously awoke before my alarm (despite a late night drinking local cider at the pub) and was the first down to breakfast, where I looked wistfully out at cloudy Sadler Street and listening to to the local radio station music they pipe into the dining room. I was shortly thereafter joined by one other early riser, who sat at my table. Then an older British lady sat down at the table behind me, dining alone. I had nearly finished my meal (of mushrooms on toast) when the rector of All Saints, who is along with us on our pilgrimage, came in and greeted us warmly, then sat down at a nearby table to await the breakfast companion he’d planned to meet.
“The mass was just beautiful last night,” he said to us, referring to the eucharist for the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was referring to a rich and transcendent service we’d had the privilege to sing yesterday at 5:15, complete with the incense and communion and pomp and circumstance that won’t be featured at most of our evensongs. I told him that it had felt good while we were singing as well, and we began talking about the incense and how it was different from the incense back home.
From behind me, so quietly that I don’t think it was meant to be heard, came a “Shhh!” Apparently the older woman behind me was upset that she could no longer enjoy her breakfast with the pop hits of Dragon Radio, UK as her only soundtrack. The other two men hadn’t noticed, and they also didn’t here as she continued her bitter muttering. “I don’t want to hear your conversation,” she said to herself, but of course she wanted to say it to us, and I could hear the subtext of “you horrible loud Americans” in her voice (whether or not that subtext was intended). I clammed up. I suddenly felt very rude.
But then I felt angry. We were talking about INCENSE, for God’s sake, and in a public place! There were three of us, but soon the dining room would be full of American church music nerds and she’d have to shout if she wanted her objections to register. I’m not sure whether or not she intended to be heard at all, but I had, and I was now annoyed. I left the room, finished with my breakfast and coffee and unwilling to stew in my mixed feelings of both tourist guilt and self-righteousness. As I left, I found myself thinking that in America, at least we have the decency, when alone in public, to voice our annoyed gripes only in our own heads, and not aloud in a passive-aggressive whisper.
And then I nearly laughed at the thought. Like, what total bullshit. We have nasty old ladies in America. We have passive-aggressive whispers and aggressive-aggressive whispers and entitled customers and people who want everyone else to just shut up. We have lots of people like the Boots Pharmacy patron I overheard on Monday scoffing “that’s ridiculous!” when the clerk told her she’d have to pay 5 pence if she wanted a bag. And the other day, when I was so bowled over by the hospitality of the pub owner who reopened the kitchen for us? We have people like that in America too. Of course we do, because people are people and there is every type of person everywhere.
It might sound like a stretch to connect this to the white supremacy shit show that is happening in America right now, but the angry voice that I had to shut down in my own mind is not entirely different from the louder, angrier voice that so many in this world don’t, or won’t shut down. It said — for the briefest moment, mind you, in an otherwise amazing morning and week thus far — it said “these people are different from me and I hate that about them.” But the thing is, there is no “them.” Or, if we say that there is an “Us” and a “Them” (my “Us” might be women, Americans, writers, singers, etc.) we must remember that every group is made up of unique human beings who are no more or less human than ourselves, who have differences as well as similarities, who have good days and bad days and good moments and bad moments. One nasty old British lady comment doesn’t reflect on British people (or old ladies) any more than Katy Perry’s latest interview reflects on me as a female, American singer.
Look, I don’t think any Neo Nazis are going to read this. I don’t know if anyone at all will read this, but one reason I often keep my mouth shut on social media about matters of social justice is that I have very little contact with those who disagree with me — and not by design, but by…oh, let’s call it the grace of God. So, speaking to my “Us,” I see now that I have written myself into a quagmire. If we are casting aside “Us versus Them” and seeing “Them” as a group of unique individuals, how do we shut down groups of people who, en masse, are working to support the opposite of this belief? How do we stop White Supremacists, or religious militant organizations, or even Republican congressmen if we can’t see “Them” as “Them” and see ourselves as “Us,” the justice warriors on the right side of history?
I don’t know. That’s a hard question. I’m not there, that’s for sure. As much as I loathe to generalize about groups of people, I’m not ready to sit down with an individual Klansman, say, and get to know him as a human being. But from deep in my heart, I hear the question simmering: How much in this life can any one of really us do in any way but as an individual speaking to another individual? When we vote or call our senators, it is with our one individual voice. Anything we do, even if we all do it together (as with a rally or a march) is an action that we take on our own. And the individual on the other end, hearing us or seeing us, is the only mind we can affect. We will have more luck changing one individual’s mind, over and over again, than we will ever have by trying to change “Them.”
I’m going to go back to my peaceful pilgrimage now. I’m going to shut my laptop, leave the hotel, and go out into the world to see this new and different place. I am a stranger here, but it is still my world, as the whole world belongs to us all, equally. I will try to be easy, be grateful, be humble, and remember to treat whomever I meet as a part of that equal, universal Us that we aim for.