Just when I was settling in, the second lockdown hit. The first news that the UK government would impose new restrictions sent me into a tailspin: I imagined myself trapped in my room for four more weeks of self-isolation, cut off from library access just when it was most critical for me to do research for my upcoming term essay.
In the end, as is almost always the case, my fears outstripped reality.
Thanks to an exemption for university activities, my studies have continued basically uninterrupted. Instead I’ve felt the impact in smaller but significant ways: losing contact with my church community as worship shifted back online, canceling a trip to visit my friends in London, facing rows of darkened shop windows every day as I trek back and forth between libraries.
The Christian community at Pusey House has been my saving grace:
Like so many institutions sheltered under the umbrella of ‘the University of Oxford,’ Pusey House claims an ambiguous identity that defies easy definition. Since you can read all about the circumstances of its founding, I’ll confine myself to relating my personal experience of the place: It enjoys the happy combination of a study-friendly library, magnificent medieval-style chapel, and luxurious space for hospitality.
Thanks to a recommendation from my indispensable insider Audrey, I subscribed early in the term to their Scriptorium events: prayer, study, fellowship, from 9am-5pm, three times a week. In a season bogged down in caution tape, sign-up sheets, one-way signs, and all the other paraphernalia that translate to social distancing in the university context, I cannot describe how refreshing it is to simply exist in an open space with other human beings engaged in study and worship. The good people at Pusey also invited me to their Wednesday morning vocation class (sample discussion topic: the legitimacy and benefits of typological readings of Scripture, in the context of Anglican liturgy?) and film discussion group (including the quirky British film Billy Liar, the disturbing yet thought-provoking Blade Runner, the slightly less disturbing and even more thought-provoking Spanish film Intacto, wrapping up with my beloved It’s a Wonderful Life for the week before Christmas).
My heart broke when the November lockdown in the UK barred me from joining Pusey House’s morning and evening prayer services in person. They use the Book of Common Prayer, which for me recalls halcyon days at the John Jay Institute in Philadelphia – albeit with prayers for the Queen rather than the President. Twice daily recourse to prayer somehow grounds and relieves my spirit, even when I struggle to focus on God instead of tabulating my groceries list. It was a long four weeks until the house reopened for public worship – in a blaze of glory, with a spectacular caroling choir service for Advent.
Outside of the academic sphere, the city offers a wealth of churches, rooted in history and varied as autumn leaves. Every morning I pass the Catholic church patroned by Tolkien, Newman, and my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The city church, St Michael’s, boasts a Norman-era tower. Their liturgy follows a prayer book assembled in the 1600s. My fellow congregants are often pursuing or recently finished with degrees in theology, church history, medieval studies. This has been the greatest blessing of university life for me: instant, pervasive, intellectual Christian community.
It amazes me that I’m spending more time studying than I ever did as an undergraduate – and far less time in class! My dedicated class time during Michaelmas Term (October – December) amounted to five or six hours a week: 30 minutes for beginner Arabic, the rest divided between the theory of comparative literature and imperial world literature (1880-1935). That doesn’t sound too insubstantial – but this schedule lasted for only six weeks! Then the program gifted me an entire month to complete my first graduate assignment: 5000 words on imperial literature.
I meet few other literature students, so my self-account has become a well-practiced refrain: We talk about how other people talk about talking about books. The theoretical component rises to a level of abstraction that I would never have anticipated. We spent two hours discussing, for instance, whether “WORLD LITERATURE” was best understood as WORLD + LITERATURE, or WORLD x LITERATURE, or WORLD / LITERATURE… or any other mathematical formula you might imagine. In case you’re thinking we never have any fun, let me append this quote from one of my favorite reading assignments so far, Franco Moretti’s essay on the data science of novel titles:
“Robinson Crusoe’s [title] mentioned an episode that doesn’t even appear in the novel (An account how he was at last as strangely delivered by PYRATES: pyrates? what pyrates?)…”
My imperial literature course has acquainted me with some long-neglected novels: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim – along with more uncommon authors like Olive Schreiner (South Africa) and Katherine Mansfield (New Zealand). My personal research led me to a South African author whom I now greatly admire: Sol Plaatje, political activist and translator of Shakespeare into Setswana. His fellow South African literary critic paid him this tribute: ‘He never became bitter, although he had cause to be.’
Audrey continues to shower me with blessings: the warmth of home hospitality, an introduction to a South African friend, lamb dinner before the second lockdown hit!
Meanwhile I’m reveling in full kitchen access and biweekly deliveries of surplus produce from Oddbox, the company my friends in London recommended:
Oxford impressed me with its autumn attire – the first time in two years that I’ve soaked in the turning colors. Before the depths of winter overwhelmed us with brown and gray, the fiercely vibrant holly bushes captured my eyes on every journey to the library through University Park.
To make the best of my limited travel opportunities, I committed to playing the library tourist this term. I stretched my schedule (and my legs) to accommodate visits to every book-bound institution currently accessible to visitors, from the tiny Latin American library to the industrial grade behemoth near the house for Rhodes Scholars. When my research turned up rare documents from South African history, I indulged myself in perusing 19th century pamphlets and micro-film bibliographies. The photo heading this blog entry features the multi-volume Afrikaans dictionary that I dragged down from an upper shelf in the Taylorian, for digging up definitions on an ambitious detour through a collection of Afrikaans ghost stories.
Undaunted by the lockdown, Keble College’s Middle Common Room (MCR) marshalled a slew of socially distanced events to muster up some holiday cheer. My flatmates and I also made tentative gestures towards getting to know one another: chats, dinner, pulling Christmas crackers together! (The British and Australian representatives tutored the German and myself in this last endeavor.)
On Sundays, I devote time to art, correspondence, and sleep. After my first week of 9am-5pm study, I hibernated for something like ten hours – who knew that the life of the mind could tax the body so much!