Friday, February 26, 2010

The Oxford Narrative (or, What the World Looks Like If You Spend Your Days at the Bodleian and Your Nights at the Oxford Union For 9 Weeks Without Reprieve)

the laces are only tightened so severely in Oxford, criss crossing up the back, along the neural pathways, in the approach to essay writing or text interpretation or debate tactics or attire so that they can be released more completely with one sharp slice, directing one’s mind (with the swiftness of  aufspritzen/ejaculation/a rocket) down neural corridors that it hadn’t seen before, that hadn’t been there before.  the Oxbridge sex blog, underwear at busstops, "the pull," macabre bicycle seats like limbs and body parts in the bushes, oscar wilde’s sweeping of velvet in the wind that blows down cobblestoned alleys, dorian grey in every lowered lash, in between the lines of every theatre production, the physics student with a quill and red ink spilled at the bodleian, and the distraction of undone collars.  

one is released from everything at oxford.  one doesn’t have to smile.  one can forego pats on the back for nicking the knife edge to the laces of one’s comrades.  one is released from the everyday niceties in favor of argument, even the niceties of everyday banter for ripping debate that takes on the form of being brought to one’s knees by a wave of the hand and a bold, ‘no thank you.’  one is released from the nervous, isolation-oriented, how are you, i'm fine, so busy, so great, neuroses of the modern gaze, to find eyes to be direct and smolderingly-confrontational, everyone smoldering, or with bothered indifference that your smoldering or your misunderstanding is like a fly in their butter, or a twist in their lace, but still they look on with intrigue.  one can be, think, act in any way at all, so long as it is truly leading to the epitome of the unrestrained, in the way that one knows restraint, precision, resolve, determination, discipline, utter withholding of basic needs like sleep, and then at some exact moment opts to cut the corset up the back, and revel in the unrestrained one can only feel in oxford. 

some say oxford lives in a bubble, that it hasn’t come into the 21st century from the 16th, but it seems those people haven’t walked its corridors, stood in its debate rotunda, read its house-bound books, walked its spiral staircases, eavesdropped on its conversations, slunk along its puke-ridden alleys in heels, haven’t tightened the laces and sharpened the blade, or they would know that the bubble oxford dwells in is something not archaic/outdated but is a humanity that has followed a different branch from what one thinks of as our current collective state.  encompassing all that humanity has ever been, holding it in the palm, aware intoxicatingly, precisely, unrestrainedly of what it is the palm holds, that it is crushable, that it is delicate, that it is kissable, that it is meaningless, that it is indestructible, that everything depends upon it, and then lifting it to warm, swollen lips to press against it so that the breath pushes out of it in agony, only to take a gasp of deepest inhale after in sweet repose. 

oxford is raw genius and human wildness smoldering as it laces and unlaces, and frightens the rest of humanity that might stop in for the weekend if they look closely enough to see they are finding a version of humanity that subscribes to a different narrative than one can find elsewhere, as if it is some non-mythical, rawer avalon, athens, atlantis, the stuff of literature, arias, paintings resides here still, the renaissance yet to die off beneath the cement, plastic, wifi, facebook one-liners we've been asked to contend with elsewhere. it is frightening enough to call the lacing and unlacing one will find here a bubble. it is intoxicating enough to cling to it and weep for having to walk out its gates.  or it can also just look nice in a photograph, ‘I went to oxford, here I am standing beside an ancient college where the smartest of the smart have studied for centuries in the smartest of smart attire.’  if only the lacing could be conveyed in such pictures, and the smoldering, and the sound of laces being cut with one deft maneuver, as neural pathways aren’t all that’s released, in every room, under every archway, at every busstop, along every press of lips, and in every gaze that undoes the thought that it takes a 4.0 to get in here and money.  it takes a willingness to hold one’s breath, to put a foot on the dresser to pull more tightly against that which wants to be lax, and to stow a sharpened blade along your inner thigh. that’s what it takes to get into oxford.  and by get into, i mean understand.

and of course there is the afternoon tea and scones if that is simply too much on occasion, or altogether.

(and this is just a post about a particularly prevalent thread woven through a town that has many other threads, i've not lost touch entirely, nor have i become a dorian grey, nor a reveler in surety, don't worry)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A few photos

Naya at a pub (The Mitre) in Oxford with hot chocolate & scones
chatting with her friends Jade & Ella (in Whitefish) on the phone

Naya at the Rollright Stone Circle north of Oxford

Common bird here that I'd never seen before--the Coot

The "Old Library" in the Oxford Union Society where I've been studying the last few days, 
an elitist alternative to the Bodleian,
as if one needed more than the Bodleian.

Naya and my mom in one of the Bodleian's courtyards

The entrance I use to enter the Bodleian, where most of the English lit. is

A walkway on the Christ Church grounds taken this weekend on a beautifully spring-like day

On a recent walk in the Cotswolds (Lower Slaughter to Upper Slaughter)

Naya and Opa at brunch in the Christ Church dining hall

At the Rollright Stone Circle

In the Christ Church courtyard ("Tom quad")

One of the Oxford colleges (Hertford)
 at sunset this weekend

I can't stand the idea of these being memories I look back upon, so much do I love the living of it.  We have one month left here & then will spend April in Paris with some side trips to Baden-Baden, Vienna, Prague...

Friday, February 19, 2010

hell, to me, is being surrounded by surety

I am curious what narrative you dwell in?

(because I've spent the last four days intertwined with an aspect of this question in every manner of scenario as I've been studying postmodernism--Lyotard in my second floor bed on Wytham Street with Italians spoken in the background, Foucault at the Bodleian, seat #207, Lyotard at a cafe filled with professors and students bantering, Lyotard at the Bodleian, seat #402, Foucault at the busstop, Lyotard for eight hours straight, Lyotard tucked under my arm to keep him out of the rain, Foucault like chinese water torture spread out in timed intervals, just when I think I can't handle anymore, there Foucault is again tapping for my attention because I hadn't even read half of what'd been assigned yet).

Sorry, I digress, so to be more plain by asking what narrative you dwell in, I mean what story do you tell yourself or those around you of the way the world has unfolded, is unfolding, will unfold?  As in, how do you make sense of your place in the complexity of life and the world (of postmodern life in the postmodern world)?  (Please please post below, as I genuinely genuinely want to know because it is interesting, but also because I want to know your interior more thoroughly.)

To be yet more plain, when you look at your life, or your niche/passion/career, or the way you interact with people, the way you parent, the way you love, or the way of history, or humanity, in what way do you see it?  Is it progressively stacking?  Progressively unfolding?  Does it have an overarching meaningfulness?  Is it a speck amid chaos, nonlinear, without purpose, without meaning?  Or are you one that tells yourself the narrative that the time for believing in purpose is past? Or are you free of even contemplating the world in this delineating way?  Or are you indifferent altogether and ready to hop off this tiresome blog post (I won't at all hold it against you, as one should mostly listen to one's needs--argh, narrative!)?

I personally have dwelt (do dwell) in one particular story-telling narrative, for as long as I can remember, where I see the world's purpose (and by the world's I mean my purpose, but also the purpose of interaction, the purpose of literature/art, the purpose of education from kindergarten to oxford) to be the removal of ever more hindering layers, the removal of ever more blindspots and assumptions, to expand and push at the edges of intellect and emotional intelligence, and to move ever closer to some thorough version of brilliance for ever increasing numbers of humanity, whereby someday we might collectively stop acting and thinking on behalf of these blindspots, assumptions, and copious layers, and might once and for all act and think from some truer/less encumbered/more brilliant/softer/kinder part of ourselves.

 In my narrative, the human world aims (through its art, philosophy, academia, and literature in particular; but even in its ecological mvmts, human rights developments, etc.) to arrive to its finest, its least held back, its most brilliant.  I see it everywhere to the point that it is amazing that five weeks of heavy-petting of the pages of modernist novels and postmodernist theory books can undo a lifetime of surety when prodded by two genius professors:  namely, that my narrative can be undone & I can step back (at least in moments) from my narrative and look at it and set it down.  And even more I can admit that what to me has seemed very genius and brilliant on my part is actually something dealt with much more thoroughly millennia ago.

Some examples of narratives that humanity has told/ is telling itself:  1) the Christian narrative (certainly we could insert a Muslim narrative, and a Buddhist narrative, an atheist's narrative, etc. here as well) that seeks comfort and surety by assuring us that faith means that nothing permanently bad will happen to us because solid infinity awaits if we will only aim the gaze over the heads of those around us, up and out, heavenward; 2) the 'narrative of emancipation from ignorance and servitude thanks to knowledge' (Socrates, Plato, Kant, Hegel, (S.Brigette), etc.); 3) 'the Marxist narrative of emancipation from exploitation and alienation'; 4) 'the capitalist narrative of emancipation from poverty through technical and industrial development'; 5)  the narrative I see in abundance in Whitefish/the liberal US is the abundance/mindfulness narrative--that angst and humanity's ancient sorrows and neuroses can be fixed if we are simply present with ourselves, our breathing, our blessings; 6) the postmodern scholarly narrative that there is no narrative, no unity, no cohesiveness, no objective that is universal except that, oops, now we are telling the narrative of no narratives; 7) the neo-religious narrative (modern Christian, yogi, new age, pscyhotherapy, otherwise)--that is almost precisely the same as narrative #1 except that it doesn't know it.  (this is by no means meant to be comprehensive & the quotes above are from Lyotard).

I'm rambling on about this (& sorry for the slightly edgy tone on some of the above) because unfortunately I still believe in my narrative (and apparently I am still untangling myself from Lyotard and Foucault).  In my narrative if we notice that we are operating under layers and heavy assumptions it counts for a whole lot more than being oblivious to those layers and assumptions, or even outright denying that they are removable ideologies.  So I ask you to consider your narrative, I suppose, in the hope that the world will be a slightly less opaque place if we take on this exercise together.  Though I am fairly sure that this goal, and my narrative, of making the world less opaque, is as impossible and implausible as any other unifying goal for something so vastly complex and non-unifiable as life and humanity.

Perhaps even more than all I've just said, my point is to clear up the reason that my face gets a bit cloudy and I sigh when people around me speak of their narratives like they are real.  Imagine then the beautiful humility I felt today when my professor's face clouded over a bit and he sighed because before him was someone (me) who spoke of her (my) narrative unknowingly as if it were a real force in the world whilst defending part of my paper.  I love that Oxford makes me acknowledge my blindspots with a rigor and swiftness that I've heard many people say (another narrative, no doubt) can only be accomplished with an intimate relationship where you are plainly mirrored for what you are and what you aren't by another who won't look away.   (Turns out, like all narratives, that this is untrue, we can be mirrored by a vast number of things beyond partnership.)

I hope that all of you who read this post will find that if we acknowledge these stories we operate in, and try to look at them together, we can be even greater/more thorough friends than we are now when we silently disagree, or moodily cloud over, or judge, or fawn over, or avoid certain subjects, or talk about the surface oscillations of our lives like the weather or how pretty the Bodleian is, etc.  How cool would it be if we could use some of the postmodern scholarly methods in our relationships--thorough and as free of assumption as possible, with neither party believing there will ever be a right way, just a multitude of ways to find interesting as speculation.  I won't assume you are going for a humanity filled with Socratic minds if you won't assume I'm going for a life that will lead me to surety.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The mama

Erminia, my Italian landlord/housemate, says that when the father dies he floats away a little at a time like a boat on the sea until you can't feel him anymore; but that the mama is part of you and so you will miss her less.  When you are peeing and look down at your legs, at your nakedness, at your hands you will see your mother, she will be there in your form until you don't exist either, so you will never feel separate from her.

And we three sit at the table listening, my mama to my left, and Naya across from me, Erminia at the fourth seat.  & I am happy that the mama is here.  She is calming to me today.  And as this is/has been rare I sit by it and notice.  Though three inches shorter, the mama has my hands, my eyelashes, my frame, my curves, my way of looking down or out the window instead of always at the eyes, my tendency toward a chill, my escalation of laughing until others think 'geez, what's so funny,' my way of holding a fork, wanting endlessly more of life, etc.  The mama is here.  & Naya's helixed strands revel and pirouette in all the same.

& for fear of over-sentimentality, an image of another story I was once told by someone else with a heavy accent comes to mind--about the idea that when a shark swims in the water it watches for the electricity, and when a person gets in the water the shark sees the electricity, and is shocked by the person's electricity, and the shark need only follow that electrical bolt to find the person (refer back to row boat painting).

No matter the subject or content I'm a sucker for a good story in a heavy accent told with conviction, eye-contact, and precise pausing for effect.  And at least one of these stories is at least partly true, but probably they are both all the way true if you hear them in the right way.

Unrelated post script--if you want to explore truly how far you want/ are willing to go with amplifying your internal world (ie presencing, mindfulness) read Samuel Beckett's Murphy because one way of reading it is to see it as an exploration of how magnified we opt to make the external world we walk in versus the internal world we are.  Tell me about it if you do read it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Love at the Oxford Union

Duz, Naya, and I got decked out last night, took a taxi to Tom Gate, dined at Christ Church, then went to the Oxford Union Society & I secured two guest passes, & after drinks in the private fancy-shmancy bar we went to find a seat for the evening's debate only to find that the listed event had been a spoof to protect Courtney Love from the masses.  She walked in like a rock star & spoke for the next two hours.  I don't feel like posting a critique of her intellect as I mainly walked away feeling sad for an overly rocked life that has left behind a very tired woman without custody for her daughter, still missing the man she quite loves & as she alluded to in the beginning of her speech, I wish she could have attended Oxford instead because the framework of her mind would have flourished as I think she has the archways of genius, though now they've been fairly crushed and just need structural support to keep the whole place from caving in.

I feel the same gap, listening to Courtney Love trying to speak of Ovid and Virgil with prowess though ending up clumsily grasping at it before Classicist students, as I did watching the film Precious.  The resounding question in my mind is why some are so supported while others are so destroyed.  It's uncomfortable to look at anytime, but it is particularly uncomfortable when faced with the crevasse from the upper rotunda of the Oxford Union.  I'd like to make a move, however, that we (and by 'we', perhaps I mean 'I' but really I mean we) abolish any quibbling, tired phrases such as "We are so lucky compared to--" or "I'm so grateful to live where I do/have the opportunities I've had/etc."  These phrases don't do what they seem to--feeling luck/gratitude does not equal presence, it actually in large part equals putting distance so that the crevasse becomes so wide one can no longer even see what it is that the unlucky are doing over there.  It stands in (disguised) as a phrase of thanks for one's own life, but it comes across much more loudly as a justification of why there will be no thorough investigation into those who we are ever so grateful we are not like.  

Will we forever have a class system with elaborate ways of convincing ourselves that it just is as it is, some of us are lucky, and some of us are not?  We've taken quite small steps since the Middle ages, since the Victorian era if the surface differences are seen as such, particularly if we are willing to see the world as not solely composed of that which we allow our gaze to settle on, but see that it is composed of the masses we regularly steer our gaze away from.  

Poverty-mind, according to Pema Chodren, is having a mind that will feel poverty no matter the circumstance & she says that one could be in a quagmire of rape and dire poverty without poverty-mind. There is some truth there, but there is also some averting of the gaze, because I don't know that Pema will ever convince this poverty-mind that my listening to Pema recordings peacefully, well-fed, well-educated, safe will ever help a woman being raped in the Congo, for instance.  But when I get tired of attempting to gaze across the crevasse, I certainly like Pema to pet my mind and tell me I don't have to worry about the others' poverty or poverty-minds, & just should attend to my own.  I think Pema vs. Courtney Love or the Precious protagonist vs. an Oxford student represent the disturbing crevasse that remains gapped and uncrossable, the ancient crevasse that allowed slaves and slaveholders, the very same one.

It seems about time for a major revolution again to me.

The mourning dove outside my window concurs.

Naya just woke up.  Going to start the day.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hot Damn!

Just walked in the door from my first debate at the Oxford Union Society--kicking off the heels and pin-stripe suit I was wearing.  The intellects of all two hundred in the room were lit up as we hung on each word--the proponents brilliant and the opponents geniusly ripping as they hashed out whether or not the British Empire was "a good thing."  My favorite intro line from a floor speaker (anyone is allowed to stand up and insert a comment/heckle/affront during the debate) was "Well, as Henry the VIII said to his wives, 'I won't keep you long'..."  Though the subject was beautifully dense, the humor was liberally applied throughout, including one historian/Oxford don attempting to gain our support of the British Empire's good because it has spread Cricket throughout the world.

The crux:  Do we praise Empire (not just British, but any) for the positives they offered the world's stage--education (Univ. of Oxford), democracy, societal structure, exposure to Western phil/literature/music/art, an international language, promotion of human rights--or do we denounce them for the horrors they've set up that are still playing out--complete squashing of human rights, slavery, postcolonialistic effects, demise of indigenous peoples, environmental destruction, etc.--or do we remove good and bad from the argument altogether, and see it for the complexly historical fact that Empire just was & hasn't to do with morals, never did, never will, but has to do with exploitation/gain--or do we write it off as non-judgeable because a twenty-first century mind shouldn't put the nineteenth century on trial for being nineteenth century?  After two hours of heckling, laughing, hushed hanging, clapping, smiling the debate ended and we all filed out one of two doors, voting on whether we sided with the proponents or the opponents.  Above one door it says 'Noes' and above the other it says "Ays."  And which I walked out of is for you to ascertain/guess & post, for my amusement, if you will.  & tell me for fun, though you couldn't possibly know, I assure you, since you weren't there to hear, which you'd walk out of.  It was a surprisingly waffling experience, so good were the debaters.

And home now, heels kicked off, I'm still smiling from the debate & thinking "Hot damn, I love this town!"  Still, after six weeks, can't believe how brilliant it actually is here.  I'll lie prostrate at Carfax (where High Street, St. Aldates, Queen Street, and Cornmarket street cross at the centre) and weep if the graduate committee doesn't say "Ay."  But, I counsel myself, that I'll be forever thankful for three months of what to me is what I'd need a good portion of heaven to be to want to go there.  Not sure if that reassurance will work so well, however, when the three month timer goes 'ding.'

Also, visited The Dragon School this am--Oxford's prep school--& where I'd like Naya to go next fall--the art wing is a place she would flourish as she deserves to.  & read Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel at the Bod this afternoon--which assured me of my stance on the erasure of the binary way of devising/dividing the world/humanity/ourselves.  & went to a film (American) called 'Precious' late afternoon that made me feel embarrassed for demanding the world be more like Oxford when there are so many someones that have no need for a place like Oxford with doors for voting and heels to walk through them and taxis to ride home in and blogs to detail a world so agonizingly separate from theirs.  & now I must finish the rough draft of my short story on the servant girl at Christ Church to submit to my writing group before I sleep.

Love, love, love when life is this stackedly full of exploring what it is to be a human.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

As if told by smart children

the three-day forecast for Sunday, Monday, Tuesday in Oxford goes like this:
Grey cloud
Grey cloud
White cloud

I'll tell you if I see a difference on Tuesday when the white cloud takes over.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Scary mofos (or rather, scary mos)

              (Painted in 1610, six years before Shakespeare's death.)

I'm sitting here at my desk, a plate of pasta & basil now emptied, a glass of blackcurrant juice instead of port at my right.  Naya is sleeping at her friend Freya's and I've just returned from the theatre.  Tonight it was Medea:  like Beloved's mama (by T. Morrison) she is one of the scary mothers of literature.  Medea offs her children to show her cheating husband what she is made of, for revenge, to maintain control amid chaos, or any other speculation to her motivations.  & Yesterday I took a bus to Stratford-upon-Avon (birthplace & town of William) to visit The Shakespeare Institute as it is one of the places I've been accepted for grad school & thoughts of that swirl--namely that the lecture given was superb, the awareness that I could be there next September is a bit romantic, contrasted with when upon my return to Oxford it felt like home for all its rippling/brimming life and I felt like kissing the cobblestone and the prettily-scarved people jamming the "pavement" (ie sidewalk).  And I met with my tutor today and presented my paper on Marx and his theory of world history, and I knew what I was talking about though press me he did to find a weak seam, and as we walked down the street in the sun post-debate he said, "that was a good essay," & I get the feeling he doesn't really say things like that.  And an hour after that I leaned back on pillows and began Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because I have two days to complete it & several books on Joyce.  And the entire universe seems to be mapped out in my head right now.  I have loads of theories, and four or five stories/novels demanding to be written before they flitter away.  I collapse at the end of each day in satisfaction for the endeavour to actually now be underway.  I'm in the middle of the current here & it's one of those times when the water moves as one mass like an object of water moving down the riverbed versus endless supplies of separate liquidness.  Just perspective, but nonetheless.

Here below is my favorite artistic (Delacroix/Louvre) depiction of Medea because of the soft, pretty flesh of her, including cherub-like coloring, yet note the knife.  It's much more menacing from one who looks sweet than from  one who looks nuts, because then we wonder something about humanity instead of just writing her off as nuts, then she becomes more like us.  Unfortunately the players didn't get that part right tonight, but I felt happy in row six as I'd just had this random conversation with an old man in the foyer who had two versions of Medea propped on his lap--one translated in 1859, the other translated within the last half decade--and he and I compared lines and concurred on which got to the depths and which skimmed across distractedly.  Plus, in row six, I worked out another possible dissertation topic--tracing these "scary" mother characters in literature and art and comparing intricately their varying motivations for undoing their children.  At this moment, Beloved (that is Beloved's mama), is my favorite...but I'd need a year or four in Oxford to sort out all the others I don't yet know about, and to have anything meaningful to say about it.

Long, warm hugs to Blase, Gerda, and Jen--my most dedicated penpals thus far.  Warmth to Melissa for the happy joy I had recently at my pigeonhole--I read your circular thoughts right there before dinner one night.  All the complexity of sweetness to the one who was my undoing yesterday in the Bodleian when your lines became more compelling than Marx's, because I don't know that a gentlemen will cut it--ask Melissa for my ten-line quote that ridiculously simplifies what will.  Pen-tip to pen-tip to Mary because, you know why.  Safe ocean flying to Duz, because he is aloft right now & headed my way by lunchtime tomorrow.  "You are completely unreplaceable" &"I feel like a happy ten year old with my best friend when I talk on Skype with you or send late night emails" to Kari who someday will perhaps wear a little red beret too in Paris, or if not, will certainly ski with me and two black fuzzies many more times before we toss in the towel!  Happy (or murderous, as the case may be, & maybe, unlike Medea, the two go hand in hand in this case) cheetah sightings to my mama who is right about now in Nairobi.  & to Scot, "Scotland is pulling me more and more because of the promise of mountains (albeit small ones) & the affinity I'm beginning to have for the Scottish accent via a stupid BBC show we've been watching" any further travel plans for you and Jack?  And, lastly, cheers, with my blackcurrant juice, to being affected by absolutely everything with utmost rapture.  I can't at all think of what else is the point.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hilary Magdalene

So, I mentioned before, in an earlier blog post that I'm writing a story about one of the women who serve at Christ Church dining hall--as in how did she get there of all places, what is her life, etc.  Well, I've connected with one woman and her name is Hilary Magdalene.  She's quite young, so lovely like a pre-Raphaelite painting, she's very articulate and it pains me a bit that she is there handing us our soups night after night.  Her life has been odd no doubt, and verging on the tragic.  She had been a student of Oxford University about a year ago, but things went awry in her life, namely a man, and a subsequent baby.  The rest you'll have to read the story for, which I am sketching in all the margins of my books, including (hush, hush) on occasion the margins of some of my library books--in pencil!

She looks a bit like this, particularly the hanging tear:

& by the way, I haven't spoken to anyone who works in the hall beyond, "thank you," and thus you'll find that Hilary is fictitious, except that fiction never really is quite fictional.

Anyhow I'm telling you all this because it demonstrates that I am back & well (as is my incredibly socially adept daughter) & I am once again finding life to be tragically too beautiful and short for all that there is fulfilling, sweet, and intricate about it.  I love how the shoulders can carry too much at times only to be followed by their articulate cartwheeling.

Much ado about nothing,