Joy Harjo – Winter Hols – Day 4

One of the things that I sometimes forget is how much culture I miss out on by apathetically forgetting to seek it out. Sarah Lawrence makes this easy because no one goes to the special events that the college hosts, and so it’s easy to feel like one of the many who are too busy/lazy to attend things. Oxford is the opposite, with debates at the Oxford Union filling up to beyond capacity and talks with editors of famous journals happening around cozy tables in rooms lined with books, so that whenever and wherever something is happening, it feels as if the event is full-up with interested and eager participants.

Luckily, here in Israel, my mother and my friends are helpful in preventing my easily distracted-by-indoor-activities self, and they alert me when there are interesting things going on. Which is how I found myself attending a poetry reading at Tel Aviv University’s Gilman Building today, at 4pm.

Joy Harjo is an American Indian with a long list of awards and prizes to her name. She has a low voice and true-black hair, the kind of black that you try to squint at in order to see something in, the kind of black that gives no reflection. Her right hand was covered in intricate tattoos. She opened with a prayer in the Muskogee tribe’s language, a prayer that asked Eagle to give her strength, and she played a flute that hooted mesmerizing notes.

Her poems mix spiritual, animal images with modern, everyday language. She herself is clearly a mix of old tradition, true belief, and practicality – for you don’t travel halfway around the world and you don’t tell stories of getting good grades in university without a certain degree of ability to get along in the “real” blandness of everyday life.

She sang and played the saxophone too, and read some bits from her memoir. What I found most moving about her were those poems that she clearly knew by heart, because when she spoke them, they weren’t emerging from her mouth so much as from her gut. Her eyes screwed shut and one hand clawed the air while the other was clenched at her side or at her belly. She felt the words and saw them, and spoke them with clarity and skill. She isn’t a spoken-word poet, but she is a poet with the capacity to speak her words well.

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Winter Hols – Days 2 and 3 – Drivers Everywhere

It’s a strange but true fact that having not lived in one, single place for more than four months at a stretch (that is, without leaving to fly off somewhere else) for the past few years, I get acclimated to my new/old environments extremely quickly.

What I find most startling about being in Israel, so far, are the honks. People lean on their car horns at the slightest provocation, whether they’re waiting for someone to come downstairs and want to alert them of their presence, or whether the light has turned green and the car in front of them isn’t moving fast enough. Sometimes, the first person in a line of cars at a green light will honk, just out of habit, you know, but then will realize that it’s their responsibility to start driving first. They won’t look embarrassed, though – Israelis don’t.

This isn’t to say that New York drivers are that much better. They lean on their horns too, all the time, but somehow the sounds of honks, shouts, and rushing traffic is melodious in New York City. It’s expected. Complaining about honking cars in the Big Apple is equivalent to grumbling about buying a CD of dolphin ambient noise and finding out that all you get is the sound of waves and screeches.

Oxford drivers, to be fair, aren’t much better. Alright, they don’t honk – this is why I keep jumping half a mile every time someone does here – but they should maybe start. Honking would be better than that passive aggressive rumble of acceleration. Whenever I cross the street in Oxford, I can hear the cars zooming towards me, just aching to get all that repression out by killing one – just one! Oh, please, they have it coming! – obnoxious, jaywalking student. When I cross the street on my way from ho-hum Summertown towards hooray City Centre, I encounter car after car that almost runs me over, even though I’m crossing at what is clearly an intersection and the only place where I can reasonably cross.

Maybe it’s the small cars and low building in Oxford that are heightening the sound of the cars’ engines, but I don’t think so. I think that there’s a lot of anger in those drivers. It must, after all, be a horrible place to drive in – students walking wherever they want, dashing across the streets whenever the whim takes them, darting off the curbs without so much as a moment’s notice, cyclists streaking around corners with the bravado of Joseph Gordon Levitt in every film ever (he always rides a bike, have you noticed?) and either obeying or ignoring the traffic laws as the mood strikes them. Who would want to drive in Oxford anyway?

Winter Hols – Day 1

Flying from Heathrow to Israel is no laughing matter. First, you need to get from Oxford to Heathrow. True, there’s a bus that takes you there, right from Gloucester Green, but what about poor suckers like me who live all the way out in Summertown? We need to take a bus to the bus. First world problems, right? Right. Okay, but I did need to pull two suitcases – one of them is technically a carry-on, but let’s not kid ourselves, the thing has wheels, it’s a suitcase – over the frosty and uneven sidewalks; I needed to pull both of them onto the first bus; I needed to pull them off the bus without running over any small dogs or children; and I needed to then pull them all the way to the central bus station without running over any unsuspecting feet. I’m glad there aren’t any people wandering around under Invisibility Cloaks here, because my suitcases would be going over all their poor little footsies on the way.

Once at the station, I said goodbye to a new-found dear friend (a rare title, not to be extended lightly) for what was probably the third or fourth time. We had said goodbye at least twice the night before but then somehow managed to talk again and see each other for another hug and chat before I left. I think that might be a measure of friendship – not really wanting to say goodbye to someone because you enjoy their company. At least, I suspect that’s one of my internal measures.

The bus itself was nice. There was a toilet, which, for some reason, always makes me feel very excited. I believe that this is purely because of the complete and utter lack of such facilities on any buses in Israel. They simply don’t exist here, even on buses taking you very long ways. Even on new buses. I’m always surprised and slightly shocked at the absolute genius of providing such a thing on a bus – so smart, so simply, so apparently intuitive a solution to many of the bus-rider’s common discomforts (how many times have YOU heard “Mommy, I have to GO!” or “Hrp… Mmmp…Blaaaaawwwrrrggghhh” on a bus before and wished that there had been a toilet available for the child or the nauseated sod, if only to shut them up?).

Am I in a strange, rather different, slightly cynical and nasty mood tonight? Perhaps. But you must forgive me, reader-and-a-half, for I am tired, I haven’t made all the phone calls that I owe my friends, and I have slept very little and traveled quite a lot in the past twenty-four hours.

I confess, however, that I am very spoiled, having lived in Israel most of my life. I’m used to the airport being twenty minutes, not an hour-and-a-half-plus-many-more-minutes-of-slow-and-jolting-traffic-stop-and-start away.

At Heathrow, El Al put all us Jews and other loonies flying to Israel inside a small space where we were kept safe from everyone who might want to attack us (or maybe kept us consolidated to make easy work for a potential attacker? Who knows?). Our gate was closed off, in other words, but extra security that consisted of bored Israeli El Al workers checking our passports again. I bought a bottle of water and watched as a group of Haredi men got up to pray. I wouldn’t have minded as much if they didn’t do it so loudly. I was very tempted to join them, as I was reading a book that had a white cover. I could have stood among them, starkly in contrast, a woman among the men, hair uncovered, cleavage on display, white-rather-than-black book in my hands, reading fairy-tales that are pronounced as such rather than a prayer-book basing itself on a bible that proclaims itself as ultimate truth that cannot and should not be interfered with.

But I didn’t. I wish I’d had the courage to do so. But honestly? I wanted to get home. I really didn’t need the hassle of being arrested and taken away to await the next flight in a secure room at Heathrow Airport.

Oxford Minus the Crazy

On Thursday afternoon, I finished writing the seventeenth essay of term. Seventeen essays in eight weeks, plus at least as many pages of notes. Yesterday, someone asked me how it was possible to write fifty thousand words in a month – we were discussing NaNoWriMo – and I pointed out to her that both she and I write easily as much here every month without even making an effort. It just happens. Accidentally.

Saturday was eerie. It is the busiest day for tourists, and as I walked down Cornmarket, I could feel their presence, their palpable excitement, but there was something missing. It was the students’ derision, the offsetting ingredient, the eternal cool of the pretend local element. After all, the students aren’t real locals. They’re as temporary as the tourists in their own way. They – that is to say, we – take advantage of Oxford for a certain amount of time. We enjoy its charms, we revel in its beauties, and we use every single drop of the rivers of knowledge it has to offer us. We drain it of its cliches, getting drunk and drugged and heartbroken along the way. We study hard and party harder. We pretend to be more confident and grown up than we are and we give off a worldliness that we need to exude in order to feel.

But Saturday of Eighth Week turns everyone into small critters, blinking rapidly as the cage door is opened. One moment, a frozen shock, and with a shake of the tail there’s a mad dash to get out, get out, get out. I went to Christ Church Picture Gallery to see the artwork there, and as I left via the tourist exit, I could see the line of visitors waiting to enter the Hall, where some of the Harry Potter films were shot, even while students were streaming out with suitcases and backpacks, loading things into their parents’ waiting cars.

By Sunday, I succumbed as well. I slept until three pm. My brain refused to wake up even when my body was aching to stretch and get out of bed. There is a fatigue that comes from such long-term, stressful, continuous work that happens over such a relatively short period of time.

Monday’s Oxford was eerily quiet. The tourists weren’t there, and nor were many students. As the countdown to Christmas echoes the pink lettering across the screen in “Love Actually”, I suspect the town will get emptier and emptier. The locals don’t live in the center, or else will be visiting family somewhere less depressingly empty, and the local students will be going home for the most part, and those who remain here will discover that there isn’t much to do in a university town during Christmas time. There’s a reason why this place has it’s own holiday time, OxMas.

As I sit in Turl Street Kitchen, it’s easy to pretend that it’s term time and everything is normal. After all, it’s still Ninth Week. A young tutor and her student sat beside me and completed their oh-so-cool tutorial, surely their last of the term. They both left smiling. The cafe itself is as full as ever with the usual alternative, interesting crowd. Two dads and their baby, sitting across from one another in the armchairs in the lower room. The cute, pink-shirted barman in front of me, baring his tummy and his red boxers as he reaches up to put glasses away. The dimpled girl smiling at and having coffee with the older woman who may be an aunt, a friend, a mum, a tutor, a woman she’s just met. The blonde and her brunette friend who don’t appear to be listening to one another. The quiet, red-skirted woman with amazing hair hanging over her face, alternately texting and reading her book. “Two hot chocolates!” announces another barista.

The tutor has come back, bringing with her another student. He’s about to look at his essay, which she has returned without too many comments.

But even so, even with a tutorial happening here, there is a sense of relaxation. More than usual. There aren’t as many of us hiding behind laptops, earphones buttoning us away from the world, glancing up impatiently when someone makes too much noise. There aren’t as many people here alone, eyes glazed over as their thoughts pass between their rumbling stomach to their heightened thoughts.

The madness has lifted. For a few brief weeks, the cloud of dank, difficult, crazy concentration is less dense over this city.