Worth Having

Information is a fluid, flowing, dangerous thing. There’s a reason why the oppressed are cut off from its stream. It is because in the hands of one person, a tight-knit group, or a disorganized mass – information is powerful.

I have a tattoo on my back. It looks like this:

I decided to get it when I was thirteen. I waited until I was eighteen to actually have it done. I thought I’d always remember the date, just like I remember some of the other significant dates in my life: birthdays, the day my father died, the day I lost my virginity, the day I thought I physically wouldn’t survive heartbreak… But no. I know that I got my tattoo sometime in May of 2009, a month or so before my nineteenth birthday.

Some people think the tattoo means something about me that it doesn’t, necessarily, mean. And that’s fine. Our appearances project things, and I was always aware that my tattoo would do that to some people who were familiar with the books.

Others think that the thing is just a generic, boring, “tribal”-design rose, and that’s alright as well. Anyone who gets to know me will, most likely, ask me about it at some point.

Until very recently, I could sum up the meaning of my tattoo in the words that I found beautiful when I was thirteen and that I still do: Love as thou wilt. To me, that means a variety of things, but most of all – and most importantly – a freedom to love and be loved with equality, without judgement, without others being biased against you for no real reason except some arbitrary notion of “norms.”

Recently, I’ve come to realize that my tattoo is significant for another reason, one I hadn’t even planned on and hadn’t thought of at the time of getting it. Being in Oxford, studying intensively, being so incredibly focused on getting the most out of this year not only academically but socially as well – these things have reminded me of another of my favorite quotes from the book that inspired my tattoo:

“All knowledge is worth having.”

It is. For instance, that heartbreak, that I thought I’d never recover from? Learning to deal with it, live through it, and continue beyond it: that was knowledge worth having. My father dying, though I’d never wish it on anyone who had as wonderful a relationship with their parents as I did – being in the hospital with him, growing up faster than any fifteen-sixteen-year old should, watching him slip away into morphine dreams, when his face was thin enough that his already papery cheeks seemed like they wouldn’t stand the weight of my lips – even that. Even that was, and is, knowledge worth having.

Being at Oxford is full of experiences like this. Many have been awesome – inspiring jaw-dropping awe in the full sense of the word and requiring new species of either intellectual or emotional butterflies to stretch their wings free of their cocoons in order to flutter around my belly.

Some experiences have been terrible, like the day I needed to breathe very, very slowly in order to not burst out sobbing when I reached the Office of Student Affairs after running, all the way from the computer room, to tell them that the file they’d told me to print wasn’t online. I needed to register with the police, I was afraid of being kicked out of the country, and nobody apologized for making me run around campus when they had five computers and two printers right there in the room with them and the responsibility for getting this process done wasn’t mine alone because I couldn’t produce the information that the border-control people needed. I was very abrupt and quite rude that day and I still feel bad about it. But you know what? All knowledge is worth having.

Other experiences have been bittersweet: a blue sweater getting hailed on, an earring lost at a dance, waking up to a filthy apartment as the only evidence of a massive party the night before.

With renewed meaning and love of my tattoo, I regard Week Two of term as having ended on a good, if uneventful, note. Uneventful for me, that is. I have plenty of stories that I have heard from other people. Gossip is one of my favorite things. I don’t spread it. I acquire it. Because all knowledge is worth having.

Advertisements

My First Publication

I am honored, terrified, ecstatic, nervous, pleased, proud (and so many other adjectives that seem quite incompetent to describe the strange muddle of emotions in me) to share with you the following link, which leads directly to my first ever credited publication:

http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/18949/master-plotto-week-two-winner-ilana-masad.html

The fact that this piece was written, sent out, and has won a competition while I am here, at Oxford, is not lost upon me. These last few weeks – less than four since I arrived – have been some of the most incredible in my life.

Why? I can’t put my finger on it. Something in me has been unfastened, a door has opened, and breaths of fresh air are allowed in and out. Maybe it’s the lack of any extremely close confidants, as yet. Being an unknown quantity to so many people, all at once, used to be a horrible, crippling and terrifying experience for me in the past; When I got back to Sarah Lawrence, healthier and more whole than I’d been, with a huge chunk of myself suddenly taken away, as if removed by an operation, a phantom pain still clung to me, throbbing. By now, that phantom has become, once more, a solid part of me and my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But back then, I threw myself vulnerable, emotionally naked, into the arms of a student body that didn’t remember I existed, and I learned how to protect myself just enough – not too much – so as to obtain the required scratches and calluses to make me able to survive in that wilderness. I am now, again, in a new place, but this time with a home base, a camp, to return to, and I’m thankful for it.

My point, I suppose, is that, as undefinable as this feeling is, it has something to do with where I am. Maybe it’s the lovely sweaters I keep seeing people wearing. Maybe it’s the plethora of accents. Maybe it’s the vibrancy of so many other brains, throbbing at the same time in their race to study, read, write, talk, study, read, write, talk ad nauseum.

Whatever it is, I’m glad Oxford is here and I’m glad I am in Oxford.

Ten in Seven

Henry James’s novels are, by no accounts, easy reading, but nor are they exactly the painfully long mazes in which one loses oneself between the commas and semicolons, only to be found, panting, some three paragraphs later, with still very little idea of what has just taken place. Rather, the novel that I spent the end of 0th week and the beginning of 1st week reading, was a mixture of deliciously complex sentences couched between smooth and subtle dialogue that played across my mind like nursery rhymes for adults, so full were they of questionable double-entendres and humorous perhaps-allusions.

Wednesday was a daze, lived between the covers of The Ambassadors, waiting for Strether and Waymarsh and Chad and Mrs. Procock and the rest of them to figure themselves out. I fell asleep with my lamp on and woke up with my early alarm, thinking it was still the middle of the night. But, alas, it was only a cloudy and dreary English morning, and I still hadn’t reached the last page.

My luck held out and I reached the English Faculty Library, where bowls were filled with little squares. At first, blearily tired as I was, I rather suspected they might be condoms with literary quotes on their covers, but no, they were only little info cards to stick in one’s wallet. Shame, really. I would have loved to have a condom in my wallet with the words “‘Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish!” splashed across the front. A good way to let a partner know you’re on your period and a fantastic conversation piece to boot.

But I digress. After finishing the book – which took an hour, because I was nearly falling asleep in the comfortable chairs, black ones, with lovely wide backs to them that one can really lean on – I rose and began to search the shelves for critical work by other authors. I found five books, two of which turned out to be irrelevant to me, and only one article online that seemed to hold any truly helpful wisdom or readable writing. Remember, friends, that I was running on minimal sleep – some six hours in the past forty-eight.

At 10:00, I began to write. At 17:00, I got up, with a completed essay, ten pages long (including the bibliography – let’s not quibble, though). I don’t think I’ve ever felt my brain working so hard. The time flashed by in fits and bursts, making my stomach roil a little harder whenever I dared look at the clock. If I were a robot, there would have been steam coming out of my head, whistling like a teapot, rust flaking away from my hinges and oil dripping out of my eye-sockets.

At 17:45 I sat in my tutor’s office, with the printed essay in his hands. He was impressed that I’d read the entire book and admitted that it was a tall order. He said nine pages was enough – I’d been laboring under the impression that he’d asked for 10-12 and that I was slightly under the mark – and that I’d used my sources well. He told me I had to simplify my prose and stop splitting my infinitives. I didn’t know anyone cared about split infinitives anymore; I thought that we were liberal about those these days. I got a mark of 70 on the paper, which, in Oxonian terms means, apparently, an A.

My sigh of relief may have created a brilliant set of majestic waves all the way out in the middle of the English Channel, where no one, except for a few confused meteorologists watching the satellites, saw them.

Wahooing and Bopping

The plan had, originally, been to go to a ritzy, snobby kind of club. I’d been told to get a bit dolled up, to make sure I could get in. Once we were all out, though, walking the long way on a taxi-less Friday night, we discovered, en masse, that we wanted to have more fun than that.

Of course, I say that as if I had a lot to do with the decision, where in truth I would have followed wherever we went that evening, even if we ended up with a boombox under a dripping oak tree. Just so long as I could dance. I’d spent the entire day, from the moment I’d woken up until the moment I was in the club, dancing wildly in my head, shaking my ass and waving my arms and thrusting my head up and down in time to invented music. I had energy to spend and I was going to spend it.

Tipsy – I’ve been to clubs stone-cold sober, and I find that the experience is really not as fun – I went through the double doors, payed my five quid, had my wrist stamped, and checked my coat. All the while, I was impatient, my knees already loosening up and my shoulders and neck tightening in anticipation for the soon-to-come movement. The music was loud, familiar as an old friend; not in its specifics – I couldn’t mouth along the words to the songs nearly as well as everybody else could – but in the general sense. It was the kind of music that wants to be danced to. When it comes on the radio, while you’re driving down the freeway, you drum your fingers on the steering wheel and unconsciously speed up. When it’s on at a bar, you start to smile. When it’s on at a doctor’s office, you want to laugh, because it’s so, so wrong for the setting.

I danced. For some two or three hours. The night ended with chips bought out of a 24-hour food truck. I counted the night as a massive success and just what I needed.

As if that wasn’t enough, the next night was Wadham’s first College Bop. The student body turns up in droves, dressed in the silliest costumes imaginable – but many put real effort into them, coming up with puns that get the meaning of their outfit across, while others take the time to sew their costumes painstakingly together. It’s a mixture of the ridiculous, the frenzied and the greatest fun.

The theme for this bop was DRESS AS YOUR SUBJECT. I was lazy. I bought a white shirt for a pound at Primark on Saturday and wrote – had my flatmate help me write, to be specific, since she has better penmanship than I – “MY AMERICAN ACCENT IS FAKE.” Hence, my subject is – drum roll, please – English! I’m sure you’re rolling around in your chairs, clutching you’re tummies, in fits of helpless giggles. And if you’re just rolling your eyes, well, to be fair, that’s really how I feel about it too.

I enjoyed the evening – I won’t deny that for one moment – but I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. That might have to do, partly, with having been dropped off the shoulders of a friend during a crucial and traditional part of the evening (The Mandela, as this serious business is called) and it might have been because I had some awkward moments that I wish I could erase. Other moments, of course, as with every mixed experience, I wouldn’t erase for the world – the dancing, from start to finish, was incredible.

I think, if I’m honest, I wanted to be a fly on the wall that night. I wanted to watch and watch and watch. I wanted to take in everything, every expression, every gesture, every hookup and flirtation and smashed expectation and fulfilled fantasy. I wanted to eavesdrop on every conversation between people I’d never met and be able to watch them drunkenly talk about serious things while wrapped in togas or boxed in by cardboard structures.

There will be other bops. There will be other nights of wild dancing. But I will never be able to both experience and watch an event at one and the same time. Oh, for that Time-Turner; oh, for that shape-shifting ability; oh, for that daemon who could watch and listen for me; oh, as usual, for more hours in the day.

Catweazle and Stinky

Thursday night I spent at a community center in Cowley. Walking there, in the rain, I spied a diner-like restaurant and got nostalgic for New York, but that, so far, has been the only specifically American thing that I’ve missed. The culture shock has really only been a positive, so far, and has mostly been far from shocking; having know my parents various English friends throughout my life must have prepared my somewhat. Perhaps my great love for traveling to London several times with one who I am happy to call one of my closest friends now helped.

Back to the community center. I was looking for the open-mic night event, but before finding the proper room, I stumbled on an adult martial arts lesson of some sort in which the students all wore black robes rather than the white I’ve always seen. I also accidentally walked into a ballroom-dancing lesson, thinking at first that the music was, perhaps, what I should be following in order to arrive at my destination.

Finally, though, I found Catweazle, the event I had been searching for. By the time it started, the place was packed with a mix of people, from university age teenagers to several late middle-aged men and women. There were chairs, couches, cushions on the floor, and people standing in back near the bar as well. The air was lit with candles and a soft orange and red glow. The crowd was supportive, the musicians were all talented, and the few who recited poetry or performed in some other way were either fantastic or interesting to watch.

I walked back to college with a friend who had been performing – she was feeling ill and was half-burning up with fever, the poor dear, but somehow managed to sing and perform incredibly, without a hitch – and then, since the drizzle had turned, by this point, into real rain, I decided to catch the bus back across town to where I live.

At the bus stop I saw a street-dweller with a dog – rather a fad among Oxford homeless, it seems – and she was only half there. Either drunk or drugged, I’m not certain, but either way, she was blundering around, trying to get her dog to stop jumping up on people. He was starving, trying to get at people’s food, but he was a lovely little thing, not aggressive at all. Nor was the woman, for that matter – she was constantly apologizing for the dog’s behavior, and seemed half uncomfortable with the whole situation. But then again, she also mumbled about trying to feed the dog and trying to get money for it. Suddenly, out of the shadows, loomed a man hugging a bottle of amber alcohol – it had no label, so I’m not positive as to what it was exactly – but he appeared like a drunken Dracula, leering at the little woman with her dog. She seemed to have been waiting for him though since she greeted him amicably enough at first. They talked with a couple of drunk teenagers who were waiting for the bus and who asked about the dog, and the tall man with the bottle implied that the dog was only hers, and she pushed him back saying that he could spend less on the bottle he was holding. He giggled and hugged his bottle closer. They were both so clean, so well-dressed, relatively, that I was simultaneously impressed with the quality of Oxford’s outreach and inclusion of street people in its community while also being incredibly depressed. The range of alcoholics I’ve known has been wide – from abusive husbands to the most intelligent woman I’ve ever had the privilege to know – but this strange couple with the dog made me want to weep for how many caricature-like characteristics they displayed in the brief ten minutes I had to watch them. It was as if, in the toy-town of Oxford, they were wind-up toy street people, tame and clean and well-taken care of. Better than the alternative, of course; but why must a town have miserable people in it in order to be complete?

Scattershot

Most days I walk out of my apartment and take a right into the quad. The sky is usually a mixture of gray and blue, and sometimes I get confused and don’t understand where the drops are coming from until I realize that the wind is blowing them onto my face from the branches of the still-leafy trees. I take a left at the edge of the quad and hit a blue gate that isn’t nearly as attractive as the blue doors that are so prevalent in this town.

The gate swings open at the touch of a button and I’m free of the gated, satellite compound in which I reside. Now I have two options. Either I swing right, walk through the car-park, up a pathway beside a gym and its adjacent community center, left at another small alleyway and then reach the high street; or I take a left, walk down Ferry Pool Road, take a right and reach the high street that way. Both ways lead to the number 2 bus. All ways lead to the number 2 bus.

I usually walk, when the weather is nice. It’s 1.7 miles to Wadham College, an old and hollow square building built in 1610 by a woman who didn’t believe in women but believe in her husband. The building branched out, sprouted arms and legs and fingers and extra, slightly misshapen limbs. It swallowed up buildings that existed before it was ever thought up and created structures so hideous that professors to this day are ashamed of them. It created a little ventilation roof that sticks up across a second-floor outdoor walkway in order to help convince the taxman that two buildings were actually separate and thus, some complicated manner, to save some quarter million pounds. It keeps a modern statue of a man with no legs or stomach sitting in a chair in an out of the way garden because the statue is not very pretty but it is by a rather important artist and must be displayed somewhere, after all.

Oxford is a world of incongruencies and inconsistencies. Today I had a conversation with a man on the bus about the size of my phone, followed by a mutual tut-tutting at people’s lack of consideration when they climbed on before an old, tottering man had finished making his slow way off the big step from the bus to the ground. He nodded goodbye to me, saying “See you,” when he got off the bus.

I met a tutor who speaks oddly but who clearly loves her work and enjoys discussing it and engaging in it. I met a tutor who is all business but whose brain I want to own and whose knowledge of books I wish I already had.

Every second of every day feels wasted because I can only do one thing at a time rather than twelve. I want to read walk read bike read run write write write write play dance make love ride charge throw catch begin end complete endure become evolve react understand invest feel exist be do.