30 November 2005
The following article appeared in the January 2006 edition of FORTY THREE, the monthly newsletter of the Oxford Friends Meeting.
NEW FORUM FOR ADVENTUROUS CONVERSATION
How have your priorities changed over the years? What have you learned about the different varieties of love in the course of your life? What are the limits of your compassion?
These were just some the questions discussed at a Muse Conversation Lunch held on November 30th at The Friends' Meeting House in Oxford. The event was organised by The Oxford Muse, a charity founded by the historian Theodore Zeldin to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life.
The lunch was part of the Muse's project to create new kinds of conversation in the city between individuals of different backgrounds, cultures and generations. The thirty participants included Quakers from the Oxford Friends' Meeting and volunteers from the Muse (many of them students). They were seated in pairs with someone they didn't know and given the Muse's Menu of Conversation to stimulate the discussion. The Menu contains questions on many different aspects of life – such as friendship, curiosity, hope and families – and is used to stimulate an exchange of experiences and thoughts about life that goes beyond trivial chat on conventional subjects.
Within minutes of starting, the Long Room and Garden Room were filled with the buzz of adventurous conversations while the participants enjoyed a free meal of organic soup and bread served by the Muse. There was a general consensus that these were just the kind of conversations that the city – and all communities – needed to bring people together, to overcome social divides, and to help discover the thoughts, feelings and talents of individuals we may walk past every day in the street.
One participant said afterwards: 'I loved this: the immediate bonding, the openness, the safety.' Another, who felt that her conversation was 'the beginning of a journey', described it as 'fascinating, mind-opening and curiously rewarding'. Still another wrote: 'To me, a ninety-year-old widower living alone, this was an enjoyable occasion. I was fortunate in being paired with a woman who shared many of my own tastes and prejudices. We were able to talk on the same wavelength, which is a joy in itself.'
This is not the first time that such a Conversation Meal has taken place. The Muse has organised them, for example, for community organisations in Leeds, for the world's business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and for youth groups in Rwanda (in collaboration with the Never Again international youth network). The Muse plans further conversation events in Oxford, including a city-wide conversation picnic to be organised with the support of the cultural agency Oxford Inspires.
The Muse aims to spread these one-to-one conversations in an effort to create mutual understanding and respect. While government and other institutions can play a role in challenging social injustice and overcoming the inequalities that divide us, the personal connection between individuals is the starting point to generate the empathy, openness and tolerance required to invent a new society.
The Oxford Muse is also calling on Oxfordshire residents from all walks of life to take part in its 'portrait project', in which individuals talk about their own lives in their own words, with the results being published both in book form and on the web. Many of the portraits created so far are available on the Muse website at http://oxfordmuse.com. To take part please contact the Project Coordinator, Roman Krznaric, on 01865-791421, firstname.lastname@example.org.