Welcome to the Guesthouse
MindLetter post written by Dr Kitty Wheater.
Music thumps joyfully from open windows. Cars filled with suitcases and duvets have descended on Newington. On the Meadows, small gaggles peer at iPhones. ‘I have no idea where we are,’ says a girl in a cropped top, braving an Edinburgh autumn. ‘I think Marchmont is this way.’
If it is you with the iPhone, the duvet, the joy: you have travelled a long road to get here. Over the past six months, your education was profoundly disrupted. Your plans were so thrown into the air, you may have thought twice about coming to university at all. Perhaps you were one of many thousands whose grades were affected by the A Level debacle, and you tossed and turned for sleepless nights before your place here was confirmed. And – bigger, deeper, more visceral than these – you or your family may have been unwell, and suffered great losses.
Welcome. We’re so glad to see you.
If it is you, returning, with your University of Edinburgh hoodie that says ‘I’ve been here before’, and your vocabulary that is fluent in King’s Buildings, EUSA, and George Square: things are going to be a little different this year. You learned a lot, in spring and summer, about yourself and how you work. Lockdown may have suited you: with less travel time and social pressure, it may have given you a strange and unlikely freedom. Or it may have pushed you to your limits. Perhaps loved ones felt far way, and ennui, procrastination, and imposter syndrome flourished in isolation.
Welcome back. Let’s be COVID-weary together.
The word ‘welcome’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘wilcuma’, which means desired guest. Every summer, the guesthouse of the University empties, shuffles around the room allocations, and prepares to refill. To feed the hungry minds about to descend, we re-plan lectures, rebuild bookings systems, catch up on new research, tot up finance, rethink courses, streamline admin chains. We brush off old ideas and assess them for waterproofing. At some point, exhausted, we take a holiday. And then we cancel the autoreply, and open the front doors.
This year we have done much more than that. Our staff and students have responded to the COVID crisis with extraordinary dedication and perseverance, often during considerable personal struggle. They have thought out, in microscopic detail, every implication of what it means to run a hybrid class, and have a certain flow of people through a particular corridor, and determine that those living, working, and studying in our buildings will be safe, and ensure that amidst the greatest public health challenge in a century, ideas, debate, and excellence can thrive.
This is because you are desired guests. You come under our roof, for a year or three, and we give you a home base to venture into new worlds: Shakespeare, the Scottish philosophers, the poverty of historicism, nanotechnologies, postcolonialism, the best of the worst political orders, the ethical turn in anthropology, biomarkers for dementia, the quirks of the quark, and, just maybe, emerging zoonotic diseases.
You will talk, and write, and argue, and forge intellectual alliances. Your presence is very much desired – in part, because we know that you are with us only for a short time. While you are here, we want to give you opportunities of mind that you will carry with you when you go, that will nourish your curiosity in dark times, and expand your sense of what’s possible in the good.
And – here is something else about guests. Sometimes they are unexpected.
‘This being human is a guesthouse,’ wrote the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi:
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
It happened in the thirteenth century, and, particularly in these new circumstances, it may happen now. You open your suitcase when you arrive or come back, and discover that nestled alongside your Tefal pan and Bluetooth speaker, there is trepidation; loneliness; doubt, and self-doubt; there are a million questions, rolling through your mind like beads from a broken string.
And if you are the steward of the guesthouse, with your pre-recorded lectures, and vast spreadsheet of contingency plans, and dizzying list of Zoom links, and fluorescent ‘keep your distance’ signs flashing before your eyes when you close them to sleep at night – you may be disappointed, weary, self-critical.
Guest and steward alike may wonder: how do I respond to these guests?
This is what Rumi suggested:
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
Now, neither ResLife nor the Estates Furniture Store will be thrilled if guests start flinging furniture around. But sometimes, Rumi seems to say, there are some really fine sofas waiting in the wings – and things get uncomfortable first. The chair breaks beneath you, and those beads from the broken string turn up in your socks.
‘Be grateful for whoever comes,’ writes Rumi, ‘because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.’
The loneliness lurking in the suitcase, painful though it is, is doing something important. Things are, after all, not quite as you wished them to be. Acknowledge that; mourn it a little. Let it move through you, so that after a while, you can sit up, and blink, and start to sense this community as it is, alive and thrumming. Connection is in the fabric of a university; it has been carefully built, not just over a summer, not just to meet the challenges of COVID, but over decades and centuries. So don’t dwell in your loneliness for too long. You are our desired guest, and there is a seat at the table for you.
And when you are the steward, and you are weary – your weariness is welcome. Make space for it. Lie low, where you can, and replenish; take a breathing space, over and over, if you need. Then, delight in the curiosity and energy of our guests. Alongside the tiredness, and the shiny fluorescent signs that say ‘keep your distance’, and the million questions rolling like beads all over the floor, we are so pleased to see them.
Welcome, whatever you carry in your suitcase at the start of this semester. It’s going to be an adventure, and there will be some Fawlty Towers moments. But we have strong foundations, exceptional people, and great scenery. The front doors are open. See you soon.