What Makes A Good Life
am currently working on my DPhil in the Faculty of English at the University of Oxford. I work on speculative fiction and urban inequalities, which kind of comes out of having grown up in Johannesburg and being witness to gross inequality there. I do a lot of research on dystopia, so I read a lot of novels about people whose dreams have been dashed, and I read a lot about disaster, which is making living through one a bit strange.
I felt quite overwhelmed by the lockdown. I had just moved house about two weeks before, moving in with my partner. A lot of the work and projects that I had planned had to be put on hold. I run a research network at the Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities, and there are usually in-person research events and seminars, and that’s not possible anymore. And then I also was supposed to go to Amsterdam, Berlin and Chicago around the time of the lockdown, so all of those trips were cancelled as well. Those would have been wonderful trips.
I was feeling at a bit of a loss and a lot that had been going on for me was suddenly cancelled. It seemed like a good idea to get involved in Oxford Together, to give support there, given that I had a lot of free time. I’d been shopping at the Oxford Hub’s shop, and I’d heard about Oxford Together through student channels previously. I saw the call for volunteers online and I thought, ‘Well, I have a DBS check, because I teach,’ and I have a lot of free time, and a bicycle. I don’t have children and my parents live in Cape Town. So I wasn’t putting anyone at risk by getting involved in Oxford Together, and I could do a little bit of good. And it would give me something to do. It sounds like a slightly selfish reason to volunteer, but this pandemic has made me feel quite without purpose. And this is something that I can do and give back using what I have, which at the moment is just a great immune system.
So I did the initial meeting and training. I was put in touch by someone at the Oxford City Council with Elizabeth, who is 83 now and from Dublin, and shielding due to her age and due to an injury. Her daughter and I were in contact initially – it’s kind of a joint effort, her daughter does some of the assistance and then I do a midweek shop and chat. That’s been since April. Then a little bit later on I joined the prescription running team, so I do runs three, four times a week. And then I’ve got another couple. In late May, the person that was supporting them had to go home because he caught Covid, so I stepped in and am now their practical support. So I do a little bit of prescription, picking up and delivering for them and then a weekly shop as well.
Oxford Together made it fairly easy to get involved in the volunteering, it’s kind of the volunteering version of ‘pay what you can.’ It’s been good to encounter an ethos that says, ‘Don’t give us everything. Just give us a little bit, everyone is giving a little bit.’ And then that becomes enough. On the one hand the lockdown feels incredibly long, but it’s not that big an ask when it’s sort of once a week, you know? And it’s great to get out in the sun. I’m also finding that volunteering, which I have done a little bit of before but not in such a sustained way as now, is really fulfilling. The positivity of the group is really excellent, and that people can just be nice and support one another. I’m pleasantly surprised by the goodness of people in this experience.
Part of what I hope will come from the pandemic is that people will live more in their communities and kind of give their time and their money to those places that they live in. So in that sense it’s been really interesting for me, I’ve seen parts of Oxford I would never have gone to otherwise. I’m cycling around, finding nooks and crannies all over the place. I think I’m learning a little bit more about other people’s lives in a way that I hadn’t expected. It’s a period of such isolation, and yet I feel like I have a far better sense of how a lot of people in this country live. When I deliver the stuff I stand two metres away and we talk, which is lovely. Elizabeth is really interesting. She always looks wonderful – it’s 10 o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday and she’s wearing, you know, burgundy and purple velvet.
I’m not a very patient person, and I think this has made me a lot more patient and forgiving. I’ve always been the youngest person in my family, and I’m an only child, so I have that stigma of being a lonely and potentially slightly selfish person. I hope that those are not things that are true about me, but I definitely find that I am more patient with the elderly than I have been before. I get up really early and I like work and I exercise and I’m a very kind of go-getting person and in the past I’ve not been very aware or sufficiently supportive of people who might not be able to work and operate as fast as I do. I mean, maybe it’s partly that these people aren’t my grandmother, who gets on my nerves for other reasons, family reasons. I could be more forgiving, but I definitely find that I’m more patient. And that I’m thinking about what the experience of being elderly in this period is, but also what it is in the long term. I’m very young, I’m 26. And like all young people, I assume immortality. And there is something quite serious about recognising that elderly people have lost a lot of people in their lives, and they’ve lived quite lonely lives, and that this pandemic has made those lives even smaller. I’ve reached out to my grandparents a little bit more as well. This is an experience that’s sort of brought it home to me that I am a lot more caring and tolerant and aware of other people’s needs than I used to be, pushing back against that slight selfishness of youth.
I’ve always been very driven and ambitious and some of those things are changing under the conditions of lockdown. I’m thinking a little bit more about what my career plans might be. The academic job market is shot to hell under the conditions, so I’m thinking more about what I want my life to look like. A lot of what this has done is make me rethink in a big way what I think ambition is, and what I think ambition is for. My sense of ambition has always been about professional success. I think doing this kind of work and volunteering and being forced to stay inside and apart, and put other people ahead, I’ve changed some of those views, and I think my sense of what makes a ‘good’ life is changing. My sense of what constitutes ‘big’ lives and ‘small’ lives is markedly different as well. When someone lives a ‘small’ life, it’s a life that that is community-based, you know, you’re not globetrotting or influencing policy all over the world, but still you might be making the lives of people around you better.
The world is different now, and I think people are living at different paces. I’m very unsettled and I feel very uncertain about what I might do and how to make money, but in good moments I feel galvanised to imagine something else is possible for me. I don’t have to be the person I thought I was going to be when I was 20, or when I was 12. I’m certainly changing my mind about who I think I am, which has been quite useful, if somewhat alarming. That will mean, I hope, more engagement with the communities that I live in, a greater empathy for my grandmother.
I did this pottery course on the 13th of March and then we went into lockdown. I’ve been making air-dry pots since then and now I make cities, I build cities on pots. I think that it’s perhaps inflected by my research, but also the places I can’t go. So I made a Frankfurt pot, I built an Amsterdam pot. I’ve done loads of places, Mumbai, Johannesburg, Cape Town for home. I’m making them as gifts for friends. You know, people I can’t hug, I can give them something that reminds them that I care.