The joy of civility

I’m sitting in Oxford — a bastion of civility that has roots running back at least 700 years. There is something about this town that relaxes me more than almost any other. I love mainland Europe, but so much of it seems to be on the ropes, as it were. It is as if the true glory of its civilization, though different in each country and each city, and impossible to pinpoint in time, is nonetheless a remembered experience. Various places have evolved with greater or lesser degress of success, but they all, in some fashion, seem to be curators of their own identity.

Not so, Oxford. The physically stolid reality of stone and brick has something to do with it, but it is by no means central. What is magical about Oxford is the ongoing nature of its intellectual life. There seems to have been no intellectual high point from which all else is measured. As the Brits themselves say, “England endures.”

I wake to birdsong and a thousand scents of flowers and trees, loll lazily into the morning, attend lectures on 17th century England with the students, then ride my bike among the streets and shops and bookstores and meadows. In the evening, my wife and I and any interested students seek out the concerts and films that abound in the town. It is a magical experience after years in the cultural diaspora of northern Minnesota.

The magic, however, is more than a function of place. It is also a function of deep gratitude. Most of us, upon reaching adulthood, cease to become learners in the academic sense. We attend brush-up classes or evening lectures or dig into some job-related materials to enhance our own knowledge. But unless we live and participate in a university community that is vibrant with opportunity, we cease being explorers beyond our own intellectual frontiers. I am surely a victim of this syndrome.

I’ve spent the last three years arm wrestling the story of Joseph into some manageable shape, and it has been intellectual hand-to-hand combat. Libraries, archives, museums, tribal centers, interviews, newspaper morgues, historical societies — these have been my battlegrounds, and all for the purpose of synthesizing materials into a story that I can offer to you. I’ve been doing the heavy lifting so that you can benefit from the fruits of my labor.

Here in Oxford I am benefitting from the fruits of others’ labors. Whether it be a lecture by a deeply learned person or a concert of Hildegard Von Bingen’s music, I am receiving the gift of another’s hard won skills and knowledge. And it makes me both grateful and thankful.

Where I live in Minnesota gives me spiritual nourishment. Oxford gives me intellectual nourishment. Together they are rounding out the man. Hopefully, I’ll be able to use this time of integration and rejuvenation to find something of value to pass on to you when I once again begin writing in a few days.

I hope you are all well.

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