In July, I got word that I was accepted as a British citizen; in August, I took the declaration, to the Queen, that I would be a loyal subject. Beforehand, I was very casual about it, but then, closer to the time, it became…important to me. I picked out a suit and a tie to wear; I made sure Alice and the kids would be able to watch the ceremony; I cut my own hair to look sharp. In the end, it took about three minutes, with another ten minutes of chatting, and then I was British.
I am British.
And it doesn’t really change anything – I could already vote, pay taxes, work, get benefits. The only thing now is that I can come back whenever I want, even after years abroad, and I can get a British passport. It won’t change my day-to-day life.
But as a citizen, I am also…accepted. I am part of the group, the club, one that a lot of other people around the world want to join – that people die trying to join.
And it has changed the way I see my self. Before, I was an American by birth, by default; I know the 50 states, I know the first stanza to the Star Spangled Banner, and when I see an American flag, I often mentally recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I follow American politics, and take personally foreigners’ slights to America. America is part of who I am.
Just before the festivals started in August, there was a group of American tourists on the street, all looking at their phones, trying to find something. I stopped and asked if they needed help; after telling them where they needed to go (Cafe Maradona for Italian food), they asked me if I lived here, and what it was like. They were older, from Virginia, so I told them the truth: for all its faults, America really does do things a lot better than most other countries, and while I do like living here for a lot of reasons, I have never felt more American, more grateful to be American, and more grateful that America exists. I almost got teary-eyed.
Being British hit me in late August; I didn’t have time to think about it before then. We spent a lot of August moving; our apartment is getting renovated, and we had to move out of it before we moved into our temporary apartment, so we had to float in between other places for a few weeks. First, we moved in with Nicholas’ godparents just south of the Meadows; Charlotte is an incredible fundraiser, and Charlie is a prominent architect, and we lived with them for a few days before flying down to Somerset, where Alice and the boys stayed with Alice’s parents and I stayed in a pub. I decided early on to create a routine for myself, to stay sane:
- Rise early and exercise;
- Go to a grocery store and get a salad for breakfast;
- Go to a grocery store and get a salad for lunch;
- Alice’s parents for evening and dinner;
- Return to the pub and get a pint of farmhouse cider and write and read.
Wells, where I was staying, is a small city that is immediately surrounded by countryside. My morning runs took me up to the cathedral, then past the Bishop’s palace and out to Dulcote, Dinder and Croscombe through farms, cattle grazing, corn fields, and some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. (On my first run, my watch told me that I had set a record for calories burned per kilometre; I suspect it was because I had to high-step through fields to dodge the cow shit everywhere.) One morning, I was meditating on the difference between England and Scotland, and suddenly realized: the issue of independence for Scotland is no longer remote, no longer abstract, no longer academic for me as a person, or for my family. It is real and personal, because these are my countries, too; I am not a passive, outside observer of what is happening here, the divisions and connections and rifts and ties, but a participant in them. I am not a tourist; I am a willing, voluntary citizen.
And just as Americans are raised to believe that they have duties to America, I now have duties and obligations to Britain and to Scotland, ones that are, if anything, more important than my duties to America. American duties were thrust upon me; I voluntarily put the duties to Britain on my shoulders, and I take that seriously.
I (name) do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that on becoming a British Citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law.
I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.
More than that: I have the personal obligation to improve my community, contribute, build. I am imposing upon myself the role of an active, informed, engaged citizen.
I had my forty-third birthday. Soon after I turned forty, I was looking in the mirror and saw long, black hairs sticking out of my ears – inch-long, thick, luscious. Ever since, I have been checking to see if they return, and, when they pop out, I pluck them immediately. On my forty-third birthday, I woke up in the pub, went to the bathroom to put my contacts in, and saw little collections of tiny black hairs on the sides of my nose. They must have been there before, and I didn’t notice them? Or were they new? There were too many to pluck. What ever happened to those Biore strips, the nose ones that they marketed to teenagers in the 1990s to get rid of blackheads – are those available still? Would they pull these out? Would they cause some sort of physical addiction, where I would need to use them every week or risk what looks like a beard growing out of my nose? If there was a war, and supplies were compromised, would I end up staying indoors more, a hermit because of my nose hair tufts? All of these questions raced through my mind as I stared at my newly forty-three-year-old face in the mirror in the bathroom of Room One of the City Arms Pub in Wells, Somerset, England.
My birthday was good; we went to the sea, and Daniel dug in the sand, and we had fish and chips, and I got to spend four hours on my own, thinking and writing a letter to my future self – my forty-four-year-old self. I will read it in a year and then see if I accomplished all of my goals and plans.
I read more books in August than July:
- The Sun Also Rises – my early-summer reading, which was delayed this year; excellent, as always, although it did make me want to drink more (as it always does). I have a love-hate relationship with alcohol; it is expensive, and takes up so much time, and I am useless if I drink, but I do love the process of drinking, the tastes, the sensations, the impressions of terroir that it gives me. And this year, I looked up the hotels in Burguete, and decided that I want to go there with the family and fish in the Irati river.
- Careless People – a book about the events that inspired The Great Gatsby. I wanted to read it before I read Gatsby this year; it was incredibly enlightening, if not the best-written book. It made me appreciate so much more about Gatsby, and Fitzgerald, and to see their lives as so much more tragic than I had realized. Highly recommended for Gatsby fans (Ben, Step, I am looking at you…)
- 7 Rules of Power: Surprising – But True – Advice on How to Get Things Done and Advance Your Career, Jeffrey Pfeffer. I had been intending to get this for months, but didn’t, and I now wish I had. It is excellent, and he makes a bold claim about how following these rules will lead to changes within a year, and often within eight weeks. Three days after finishing it, I was offered the chance to get involved in a committee at the Royal Scots Club; I had been trying for years to be involved in some way, and now I might be chairing the committee responsible for outreach and new members. This…is exciting. I have to keep learning and applying the lessons, but I think it will be fruitful.
- The Great Gatsby – even better, and more meaningful, this year because of Careless People.
I returned to Edinburgh a day before Alice and the kids – I had to move all of our stuff into the new place. In the day I was back, I went to Jiu-Jitsu, read, packed, and went out to dinner with my friend Lex. We talked about life, in a way I haven’t talked about life in a long time; we are now two forty-something men, each with two sons, each immigrants, each citizens, each trying to figure our ways through the world, but at some point, we also agreed that we were at our relative heights – that our twenties and thirties were nice, but that right now, we are better than we ever have been.
Kids: Daniel started at a nursery, but first, we were moving a lot, so he missed a few weeks, and then the Queen died, and since his nursery is on the procession path that her coffin is taking, and in the middle of her lying in rest in Edinburgh, the nursery was shut down for a while. He has been having a tough time with the moving and change and transition, but he is resilient – sometimes he is unsettled, but often he is incredibly upbeat. He is growing so fast – this morning, he stretched out in the bath tub and almost reached the head and foot of the bath.
Nick is also growing – he smiles, and looks people in the eye, and makes friends with everyone. He likes grabbing things and putting them in his mouth. He did his first giggle, a baby giggle; he is really trying to sit up and roll over and engage with the world. He is still so, so soft. He loves looking out; I used to be able to walk outside with him in the sling and he would be asleep within a minute, but now, he just looks at everything, always scanning, always turning, and he only goes to sleep when we get back into the house.
And as brothers, they are amazing – Daniel often checks on Nick to make sure he is OK, and Nick will look at Daniel and give him a huge, broad grin. It is so lovely to see. If anything, Daniel is starting to break with me – he will ask me what I prefer of two options, and, when I express my preference, he will tell me that he likes the other thing for the exact opposite reason than mine. It is sometimes just interesting, but also sometimes practical: when we get Pain aux Raisins to eat, he will eat the outside, and I will eat the inside. I don’t think he prefers the outside, really, but he knows I prefer the inside, so he is contrarian, and it works out well for me.
And one lesson that I learned: when we were staying with Charlotte and Charlie, I was in the kitchen when one of their daughters, Lucy, came down to get the door. She was completely dressed up, even though she was just hanging out upstairs, alone. Later, I asked why; she was actually going on a date, she said, and I mentioned that I thought she was just dressed up because she wanted to look her best at all times. “Oh, yeah – we do that a lot, actually,” she said. “I got it from my mom. She always wants to look her best and feel her best, and they go together.” I thought: what an amazing practical philosophy to live by – excellence as a concrete habit.
And that, kids, was August and part of September.