Oxford

something of consequence

Though having only attained fewer than five hours of sleep last night, I went to an Introduction to International Development forum today from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm. Fortunately, it ended on a tremendously inspiring note; at the closing panel, one of the speakers was Gavin Bate, who both cut an imposing, assured figure and recounted the events of his extraordinary life. This is the charity he founded, Moving Mountains Trust, but it was his life story I found most compelling. He said he wanted to do something of consequence. He’s climbed Everest six times, thrice without supplemental oxygen. He’s traversed the Sahara alone. He lived in Nairobi slums for six years. He drove UN equipment in trucks to Somalian refugee camps. Beyond these monumental feats, though, he imparted a perspective of integrity and sincerity with regards to aid volunteering and travel. In a very visceral way, he reminded me of all the personal dreams of wanderlust I harbor; during the last half hour of the panel discussion, I suddenly developed a desire to travel through the French-speaking parts of Africa after my undergraduate years. I have never been particularly drawn towards Africa, to be honest; as it is now, that fleeting, selfish inclination is predicated upon my tenuous grasp of French, which would just about be the only tangible skill I can offer, I think. Then again, I have three more years to develop these interests. I also want to be part of a sailboat expedition. A summer, maybe – probably not the next. I want to bike across western Europe. I want to volunteer on a horse stable. It’s a toss-up between horse stables and lamb farms this Easter, I think. I am ridiculously intrigued by farms.

The narratives of contemporary nomads are irresistibly alluring. I found this article about a parent’s experience with the peripatetic lifestyle:

But I get irritable, from the weariness of packing up our lives and then living out of suitcases until the shipment arrives, the tiresomeness of bureaucratic wrangling with the phone company or the shippers, the not knowing where to find double cream, or even how to ask for it, or how to use the oven properly when I do find it.

Technology is a big help: e-mail and the web keep all six of us connected, not only with each other but with the friends we have left behind … Moving is easier when you read other people’s stories of changing countries. Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” is de rigueur in Belgrade, but reading lesser memoirs can be more helpful. They remind me of the perils of the small-mindedness I showed in the supermarket, and any reluctance to see with fresh eyes and ideas. Judging with a small-town, inhibited attitude will lock me into resentment and failure to grasp the nuances of our new homeland, and I will leave again, in two or three years, none the wiser. I might as well throw myself in, drop my petty concerns and locate my sense of humour. The sooner I get on with it, the more I will enjoy my accidental, wandering life.

It’s not as though I’ve travelled even remotely as far as any of these people. My narrative is nowhere near a tumultuous one, nor even too geographically diverse; upon scrutiny, my journey seems almost nondescript, my pit stops having been in relatively familiar, developed countries. My sight is set relentlessly, almost stubbornly further afield, for all that it takes me some time to adjust to new environments; sometimes, I just forget to tamp down my fear.

This was a poem on my previous blog; still relevant, I think:

Living, we cover vast territories;
imagine your life drawn on a map–
a scribble on the town where you grew up,
each bus trip traced between school
and home, or a clean line across the sea
to a place you flew once. Think of the time
and things we accumulate, all the while growing
more conscious of losing and leaving.
– first gestures, julia spicher kasdorf

My … overwrought personality is inclined to identify D’s arrival as a minor watershed of sorts, or less melodramatically, a reminder of the comfort zone I am (or should be) able to construct out of my own presence. Whether through a conscious effort or simply the natural process of adaptation, the past two weeks have seen burgeoning interest in different social groups, and if anything, it is reassuring, even as it inspires, I admit, reflexive wariness. The companionable silence of my thoughts in the first month seems almost flat in the latter’s disruptive vibrance.

This evening also saw the resurfacing of a hibernating desire to live on the edge. I am not afraid to rehash the cliché that there is something liberating about the fuzzy state of inebriation. Not a conception of alcohol as a crutch, but rather, as I like to think, alcohol as a prism to disassemble reality into enthralling complexities. It is not all substance (ab)use, of course – what is university but the institutionalization of an abject yearning for enlightenment? What is Oxford if not its Platonic ideal? Please don’t take that as arrogance – it is adulation.

On a tangentially related note, accounts of genius so pure it borders insanity gives me a vicarious sort of excitement. Have an excerpt from another Intelligent Life article:

Almost a quarter of a century ago, I was sitting outside the Turf Tavern in Oxford. It was a sunny late-summer day. I was a young reporter and with me, drinking a half-pint of cider, was Roger Penrose, the greatest British mathematician of his generation to apply himself to physics.

Until that drink, Plato’s notion of a pure world of form to which the world perceived by humans was but a shadow was just something I had come across in books. It was familiar intellectual history, but hardly something I would expect anyone actually to believe. By the time our glasses were empty I knew that, at least to Penrose, it was an irreducible reality. The platonic world of pure form was not just as real to him as the cool gold of his drink or the sounds of my stammered questions. It was more real. For all the sunlight, I was a shadow.

I want the sunlight even if it blinds me – for all the bones of romance shadow offers me. I want an idea to grip me so hard it leaves bruises and I can never, ever, ever extricate myself from its hold. I sometimes despair that it is a luxury and a burden gifted only to genius. Last week, I gave D the words I didn’t realize I had: I told him he had a direction, which is always better than a path, because with a direction, you can never be lost. You can wander forever, but you won’t ever be lost. If there is one choice I would make, it is this.

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