Back now to Oxford and to a calendar rich with earnest conversations and incubated idealism.
There is a clear desire to place ourselves within collective agendas, working to envision and to bring about sweeping and holistic changes.
We’re now at the halfway mark of Hilary term. After so many consecutively cloudy days in the last couple of months, winter break and North Carolina sunshine seem like eons ago. Back in December the afternoon joggers nodded ‘welcome back’ as we crossed paths on the Bond Park trails in Cary. The sharp smell of pine and cushion of needle matting underfoot were markedly distinct from the deciduous bareness of riverside trail in Christ Church Meadows.
Home. My first term at Oxford was brought into the fold of ongoing conversations begun in high school, connected to the persistent questions discovered in the early months of undergrad, and placed within a tradition of sharing and discerning initiated 17 years ago with Mom’s inquiry, ‘what did you learn in school today?’
A few short weeks of replenishment with home-cooked meals, coffee-shop reunions, bedtime readings by Amena, and then it was onwards to nomadic treks in Egypt. I joined Mohammad and our small caravan of Tar Heel travelers for snapshots of exhilarating adventure. A full day’s travel through the Libyan desert took us far west to Siwa Oasis where throngs of green palm-trees and hot springs disrupted the illusion of infinite waves upon tides of sand dunes.
In the wake of the Copenhagen Climate Conference, I typed out my term paper under a palm umbrella at the Red Sea. One afternoon I took a break to sit on a rock in the water, dabbling with watercolors and relishing a moment of unattached aestheticism. A nudge of cigarette smoke broke the solitary spell and foretold the arrival of the woman with the tattooed hands. She sat at the shore unfolding a purple cloth and called out, “come look, just look”. I smiled to her and tried to brush away the interruption. She laid out small mounds of beaded bags and necklaces. “Come see, come see”. I shook my head “thank you” and turned back to the unspoiled horizon.
But now I couldn’t shake the grim image of thin lips curled around hard gums, angled in a frown. A line very different from the perfect horizon before me. “Come. Look, just look”. I sighed and walked back to shore. She extended the pieces, one at a time – A bag for your cell phone, a bag for your change, a bracelet, an anklet, a necklace, a belt. A key chain, a choker, a headband, a purse. The black tattoos on her hands twitched with the flicking of cigarette ashes. So many lovely pieces for non-existent needs; my appetite was unstirred. “Thank you, but I really don’t need anything, I was just enjoying the view.” the wrinkles and bags heaved and collapsed into a deeper frown, “you don’t like any of it?”
The myth of my unattached contentment dissipated as long, tattooed fingers of guilt stroked my conscience. Despite my innocent delusion of being unbound from material desires, I couldn’t as easily sever connections to this woman. So long as her livelihood was dependent upon an implied contract of exchange, my decisions were not free of consequence. In that moment I could have easily taken a rigid stance, abstaining from unnecessary consumption, but the affirmation of my principle would have been misdirected.
But what’s the point of personal resolve if it cannot be exercised without guilt? The situation brought to mind an email exchange with Dr. Desaix who introduced me to the notion of “apathy-futility.” That term is an incisive reference to the point when one realizes that the world’s problems as so vast and so overwhelming, and falls victim to the conviction that individual agency is impotent in the face of stark reality. It is a dangerous trap. If such complexity is dis-empowering for the lone individual, it is also the glue of collective narrative and action. Twice weekly a refugee women’s sewing and support group – BK Luwo – meets in an upstairs room of the East Oxford Community Center. Theirs is a narrative of collective strength and communal belonging. Ber-Bedo Kelo Lonyo United Women’s Organization — “The first part of the name is Ugandan”, explained Filda, the exuberant founder of the group with the hearty laugh and brightly printed dresses. The name means: living together in harmony brings about ‘Lonyo’ or ‘holistic wealth’. “There is no single English word to capture its meaning”, elaborated Filda, “Lonyo is our shared wealth together.”
A similar story was being told in the garbage-pickers community in Manshiyyet Nasser, Cairo. The Solar Cities project works to bring into reality this very notion of community-based ‘Lonyo’. In Cairo I followed Hanna, a resident of the Coptic community and the site coordinator for the project, and we walked the lanes meandering through heaps of garbage. Hanna showed me the handmade solar panels installed on his rooftop, engineered to provide the luxury of hot water otherwise inaccessible to garbage-pickers. I expressed excitement for the potential expansion of localized energy harvest. His wife skeptically shrugged her eyebrows, “This project will never be scaled up. It’s not in the government’s interest. The formal private energy sector puts money in their pockets. To them, we don’t exist.” She shrugged her shoulders. From the rooftop of Hanna’s building – I could scarcely see to the end of the dense community. 55,000 residents. My stomach sank.
Back now to Oxford and to a calendar rich with earnest conversations and incubated idealism: a Thursday evening discussion group of self-identifying American progressives, Sunday afternoon deliberations on the meaning of ‘the good life’, an interfaith women’s group on Wednesday nights. There is a clear desire to place ourselves within collective agendas, working to envision and to bring about sweeping and holistic changes.
Yet at some point in the past few months, walking from one cloistered library to another warm common room, I’ve forgotten to feel the coldness of the street-side peddlers, and begun to shrug past another vendor of the ‘Big Issue’ homeless magazine. Habituated to the harsh reality, I became detached from problems whose solutions seem to fall far beyond my sphere of influence. Gridlock. I could not think my way out of the paralysis point, so I started volunteering at the Gatehouse. It’s an afternoon shelter open to the homeless to fill the window of time when the day shelter has closed and the night shelter has yet to open. My involvement has a minimal impact, perhaps even inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but it is the beginning of a personal recovery from apathy-futility.
It took a while to realize that while we are reaching for lofty dreams and crafting grand solutions, there are many small gestures that must be conceded to the current order. So we buy the beaded necklaces that might never be worn and pick up copies of the Big Issue that might never be read, we build solar hot water heaters that will give warm baths to just one more household and serve soup to a stranger who may be warm for just another few hours. And we continue to gather in good company – both in person and virtually – to remind each other of the bigger project.
And at all costs, we avoid apathy-futility.