Collij ov NorfwesLundun: taking things at face value

I like the second half of the week. It’s when I exchange the classrooms of SOAS for the College of Northwest London where I mentor an Afghan teenager.

Just back from there now. I’m internally warm from cycling through the frostiness but my ears are bright red, icy and tingling. Must get one of those under-helmet headwarmer things for such times as these. I am defrosting myself with a cup of tea and some Bob Marley. It’s amazing how warming reggae is – quasi-physically and existentially – when it’s cold and grey outside. Rise up this mornin’, Smiled with the risin’ sun, Three little birds… Anyways…

Each week, I wend my way through the residential suburban streets of NorfwesLundun; not a St Johns Wood or Cronulla kind of suburbs but the more plain, peeling, non-descript, middle-of-nowhere streets that you wouldn’t really go to unless you lived there. And even if you lived there, you’d probably aspire to be elsewhere.

I remember, many moons ago, driving through a similar area and announcing decidedly that I could NEVER live or work in such a nothingy kind of place. To which UJ, with that characteristic twinkle in his eye and just a dash of prophetic wisdom, had quickly responded that I shouldn’t be so sure. I imagine his smile of warm vindication at the sight of me happily cycling through the same type of area that I’d disparaged all those years ago, no longer with disdain but with contentment and a sense of rightness. If I have to be in England, I may as well be here. Right?

Each week, I arrive at the grey-brown-concrete-brick-fusion monstrosity that is the College of Northwest London and lock my bike up in the shelter where multiple signs warn me that I do so at my own risk. I say aurevoir to my bike, hoping that it won’t be the last time I see it, and loiter in reception by the security barriers feeling a bit disconcerted by all the ‘no hoods’ posters.

Someone I chatted to recently was really taken aback that I was mentoring an Afghan teenage boy. It crossed too many cultural barriers, apparently, and seemed utterly inappropriate. I didn’t know her all that well and did a pretty poor job at responding to her question marks, even though I got where she was coming from. Her concerns came into my head when I went to the college for the first time and stopped to ask some yoof for directions. Jostling each other with friendly aggression, bantering loudly in non-English-speaking voices and wearing hoods that would’ve been banned in college, they looked just a tad unapproachable. But I figured they’d be able to help and, sure enough, they responded with (unexpected?) politeness and eagerness.

Reflecting on those negative/questioning comments in the face of this scenario, and many others like it, I am pondering the woman at the well incident; that much-celebrated faux pas interaction. I find myself asking for wisdom in my daily negotiations of the multiple social and cultural barriers which so often crop up in this crazy mishmash of a city and threaten to impede the path to relationship and (divine?) encounter.

The teenagers by the college. The woman at the well. It looks like our propensity to categorise, fear, spurn and pre-judge strangers is far from being a recent phenomenon.

It reminds me of the time in Oxford last year when we cut through the graveyard. I never usually walked that way at night but on this occasion I was flanked by two male friends who were quick to assure me of their strength and bravery. Suddenly, approaching us, there was a solitary, darkly-clad hooded figure who looked menacing and a bit dodgy. ‘See,’ I said, ‘this place is full of scary people. I told you we should have stuck to the road’. The boys manned-up in preparation but, as we got closer, the hooded figure looked up and I recognised the face of one of my yoof group. ‘Hi Emily’, he said smilingly as he passed. Right, so that didn’t really prove my point. ‘You know all the dodgy people anyway’, my friends teased. Touché.

But he wasn’t dodgy. Just a person who I happened to know. I just wish it was more intuitive to take people at face value, just as they are, without all the layers of meaning and assumption with which we smother them. Or do I mean it the other way round? That I wish we didn’t take people at face value, but that we instinctively saw instead the layers of time, love and life that have shaped them into the people they are? Or maybe I mean a bit of both?

Hum.

…Sayin’: One Love! What about the One Heart? (One Heart!) What about the – ? Let’s get together and feel all right. I’m pleadin’ to mankind! (One Love!); Oh, Lord! (One Heart) Wo-ooh! Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right; Let’s get together and feel all right…

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