United Simplicities of America
2 weeks in LA and Mendocino County, 2 hours North of San Francisco.
Have been unconsciously avoiding America ever since Bush came to office. (Infact, the last time I went, I arrived in San Francisco the day of the Florida debacle.) On all previous occasions, through my 20s, I’d been entranced by the syrupy euphoria of US consumerism (those delicious Jamba Juices! cheap CDs! bookshops that stayed open till 11 and served caffe latte! Nike Town!) Then I read “No Logo” and the joy bled out of Nike trainers. Borders arrived in London and caffeinated bookshopping became a bore. I read Chomsky and America started to seem like a bad habit.
Almost 5 years passed and the sense of subcutaneous disapproval stayed put. I got into Buddhism which took me eastwards but also made the circuits of consumerism less appetizing. But then, 3 weeks ago, I decided to go back for a visit. And to LA of all places.
My best friend Gary was there. I had 2 weeks holiday. There was a monastery in Northern California I wanted to go to. So, big-heartedly, I decided to give the 290 millions Americans in the US of A a second chance.
Of course, I absolutely loved it. America is a great place. Blind and destructive it may be, as it secures the endless supplies of cheap labour and fuel it needs to support its dazzling lifestyle. But once there, you cannot help but be won over by its big-hearted simplicity.
The newspaper journalism is dreadful. Really awful. And the TV news is not much better. But the people are warm and friendly. The sun shines on them. Materially and metereologically and mythically. California is a blessed land. LA is a dream of driving. Warm and sunkissed, sleeking down long paradigmatic boulevards – Sunset, Hollywood, La Cienega, Santa Monica, Melrose… they’re all dreamy names that bring a smile to the lips of even the most politically hard-headed.
While I was there, there was talk of a US job that would mean me relocating immediately to LA. My instinctual and strong response was: No, I cannot truely imagine leaving the depth and rootedness of Europe for this simple inconsequential pleasantness. But after another week I wasn’t so sure.
I travelled up to Abhayagiri Monastery in Mendocino County and sat with the monks there for 4 days. And in the long afternoon walks up to the ridge of the mountains that ringed the monastery’s valley, I felt gloriously and simply human. And I wondered if all that enculturation, that cultural elaboration that being European brings is really all that enriching. Whether the Californian path is just as if not more valid. Simple is a good thing.
Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and stopping off at the sunny spiritual hottubs of Esalen, I also realised that there is a very energetic spiritual life going on in America despite the demonic powers in government. I also reconnected with those Beat poets I used to love as a teenager. The urban looseness of O’Hara. The 50s dislocations of Berryman in the Dream Songs.
It’s all there in the sunshine. The Madonna Inn and Esalen. And I’m not sure that my heart hasn’t melted…