After Steve left last Wednesday morning, I was off to class. To Greek. Steve told me I should tell people back home I’m doing much better in Greek now. That my hard work has paid off. I told him I thought that would sound like bragging, and that no one want to read someone bragging.

He insisted people from back home would appreciate hearing it. So…here’s one of my latest tests.

If my bragging upsets you, I am sorry. Drop me a comment, and I’ll send you Steve’s e-mail so you can let him know.

Americans in the Library

I spent most of Wednesday in the library, celebrating being done with two essays and a large Greek exam  with, you got it, more studies. But I knew I had a date night with Jen waiting for me, so that was my carrot.

There was a large group of people gathered on the stairs leading up to the Harris Manchester library when I arrived. It looked like a tour. I thought I’d wait at the bottom until they cleared, but one of them encouraged me to go through. I squeezed my way about halfway up the stairs while Principal Waller led the tour, talking to the group, before finally realizing I wasn’t going to be able to make it any further. I stopped and waited.

Several people in the group noticed I wasn’t a part of the group and said ‘hi.’ I asked where the tour was from. They told me BYU. I spoke up, to say something, and they immediately noticed my accent. Or lack thereof.

“An American!” one of the girls said in an excited voice. They asked where I was from.

“Seattle. Or just north of Seattle.”

“Do you go here?” another asked me.

“Yeah.”

“Really?” the same person asked, with big eyes.

It was kind of funny. I haven’t had a response like that in a while. No one at Oxford is impressed that you go to Oxford. At least, no more than a bird is impressed by the fact that other birds can fly.

“Yeah. I just moved here,” I told them in a whisper, so as not to make a nuisance to the entire tour. “It’s my second degree. A complete career change.”

“Good for you!”

I managed to make my way upstairs after several minutes. To my old, familiar studying spot. By the window. On the second floor. We don’t have assigned seating in the library, but everyone certainly has their favorite spot. And it’s a small enough school it typically works out everyone gets their spot. And everyone knows where there spot is. I’d probably be frustrated to find someone in the spot I always study. So human of me, isn’t it?

Working away that afternoon, I remember Steve’s response when I introduced him to the library the week before.

“This place is amazing,” he had said with a smile as we walked on the hardwood floor underfoot. He had been able to get a lot of work done for his business from here.

After several hours of plugging away on some reading, I hopped on my bike and rode home. I had a date night with my wife. First time in months. And I was so excited.

Pizza Hut & Die Hard

Jen wanted pizza. And we had seen a Pizza Hut the week before. We thought we’d treat ourselves to a very American dinner. So we did. And we loved it, shamelessly.

The waitress had a thick English accent. She was probably in her early twenties. With long, frazzled blonde hair. Incredibly upbeat. With a smile that took up most of her face.

She told us how she loved America when she went. She had gone to Florida before. The weather in Florida must seem a bit like heaven for someone who grew up in England.

And I found myself thinking about Hayley as she served us. Hayley used to be a waitress. And I knew she’d wear that beautiful smile of hers for every customer. Making them feel like they were the only important thing in the world. And it made me miss her.

But we had a great time. Jen and I. Catching up. Laughing. Enjoying our pizza.

We put some in a box and made our way home, stopping by the market on the way. To pick up a few things. And, as we walked out of the market that night, bags of groceries in hand, I found myself thinking, “This is our new life. This is how it’s going to be for the next while for us.”

We put in Die Hard when we got home. Sitting on the couch next to Jen, watching Bruce Willis beat up helicopters and fighter jets, I couldn’t help thinking how great this all was. I was so happy.

Friday: Dinner with Rob & Vanessa from Seattle

I got an email from Rob Friday afternoon. Asking if Jen and I were interested in coming over for dinner with he and his wife. Rob’s the guy I mentioned previously who came from Seattle. The guy with a scarf and long hair. The one who looks much more Oxford than I do. But, with the long hair, he definitely had a leg up on me. A bit of an unfair advantage.

The four of us had been trying to get together once Jen was all settled in, so I was excited to get the invite. Rob was a super nice guy. Figured his wife would be the same. Well, a super nice gal, that is.

Jen and I walked from our place to theirs Friday night. It had been raining off and on all day, so I was pretty grateful when we stepped out the front door to find it dry.

“The rain’s stopped,” I said, turning to Jen. “Perfect timing.”

We made it about 15 feet down the road when it started drizzling. Softly at first, but then harder. Until it we conceded and put up the umbrella (singular). Jen had her hood, which is a good thing, because apparently it’s a skill to hold an umbrella over your wife while walking. I had no idea, but apparently it is. A skill I have yet to master. Suffice it to say, we decided next time we’d be bringing two umbrellas…

After only a handful of detours (we had never been to their neighborhood before), we managed to find our way to Rob and Vanessa’s place. 15 pounds heavier from our rain-drenched clothes.

Rob greeted us at the door with a huge grin and a welcoming, “Hellooo.” Vanessa came up just behind him. It was great to see him again, and nice to meet her. The warmth of their apartment was just as welcoming. We were happy to hand them our sopping wet jackets and umbrella and dry off. I looked at my soaked jeans and considered handing them over, too, but I decided that’d be a bit of a steep icebreaker. “Better keep them on,” I thought to myself. It was our first time over, after all.

We had a great time getting to know Rob and Vanessa. Vanessa made tacos. Chicken and beef. With all the fixings. Cilantro. Limes. Tomatoes. Sour cream. Cheese. Avocados. They were amazing. I didn’t think I’d be eating any Mexican food here in Oxford. I’ve already had it twice in my first month.

It was so nice talking with another American couple. Sharing stories of the transition experience. About making the crazy decision to go overseas for school. About saying “goodbye” to friends and family.

We talked about what brought us here. I always appreciate hearing that. People have amazing stories. I’m always encouraged when I stop long enough to listen.

Rob was involved in some non-profit work before coming here to Oxford. After spending some time in the corporate world, he told us. The long hair came with the departure from the corporate world, Vanessa explained. Seemed like a good way to stick it to the man to me.

Both Rob and Vanessa are super down to earth. Very welcoming. Very friendly. Very funny. Great people to be around. Rob’s the kind of guy who will tell you he went to college “out of state,” rather than drop the name of the elite school he attended. A good lesson, for sure.

Vanessa told us how she was from Eastern Washington, and asked us not to hold it against her. I told her I was already thinking of jokes.

She told us about how she was working at Children’s Hospital before they left to come here. As a nurse. And about how she was wanting to setup a child birthing center back in Seattle someday. Jen told her that her sister Leann was having her first child in January, and that she’d be flying back home to be there with her.

“This is going to be messy,” Vanessa said, just before biting into her taco, which I didn’t realize at the time. I thought she was talking about the birth. I just about spit my dinner across the table all over Rob I laughed so hard. I may have cried a little bit.

“I meant the taco,” Vanessa explained, in-between laughs.

We talked and laughed for several hours. Vanessa brought us dessert. Pumpkin ice cream and pumpkin bars.

“You must’ve known I was coming,” I said as she returned from the kitchen. I’m a sucker for all things pumpkin.

I’m starting to wonder if someone sent a memo ahead of us, before we arrived in Oxford. Apparently only people who know how to cook are having us over. We’ve been blessed with some amazing food, that’s for sure. And some amazing company.

We’re looking forward to taking some trips with Rob and Vanessa at some point. Touring around Oxford. Maybe further. That is, if Rob and I can steal away from our studies long enough.

Saturday: Lighting Guy Fawkes on Fire

We went to fireworks Saturday night. A couple from our small group at church on Thursday night said they’d be going, if anyone wanted to meet up with them. We did. The Pembertons aren’t ones to miss out on fireworks.

And I’m so glad we went. It was amazing.

Cole ended up joining us. We had plans for dinner before finding out about the fireworks. He had missed it the previous year, so he was wanting to go anyways. It worked out perfectly.

Apparently it was a national holiday here in England. Guy Fawkes day. Or weekend. Which would explain the fireworks we had heard walking to Rob and Vanessa’s the night before.

For those not big on history (like me), apparently Guy Fawkes is the name of a man (I’d say “guy,” but that’d just sound funny) who tried to blow up the House of Lords here in England back in the 1600’s. Fortunately, they managed to catch him before everything went off, saving the lives of many. Except his. To this day, the English celebrate the prevention of Fawke’s plan by lighting off fireworks and (I’m not kidding here) and lighting giant replicas of him on fire. Moral of the story, don’t try to blow up the English. They won’t let it slide.

I’m thinking about bringing this tradition home with me. I told Jen I was going to build a lifelike, wooden statue of a person next Fourth of July and light it on fire to go along with the fireworks. I’ll just tell the cops it’s okay, they’re doing it in England. I’m sure they’ll understand.

We walked a couple miles to a nearby park Saturday night. It looked like a county fair when we arrived. Complete with straw on the ground and carnival rides lighting up the night. It was great. People were everywhere. Thousands, easily. There were stands selling food. Stands with people singing. And stands selling t-shirts. I felt like we were back home at a county fair.

We grabbed some dinner and waited for the show to start. Cheeseburger for Jen. Roast pork sandwiches for Cole and I. Yep, it definitely felt like home.

It wasn’t long before the fireworks began. And they were amazing. Better than I expected. It must’ve lasted for about 30 minutes or so. The crowd was gathered tightly together. Heads craned upward, taking in the show.

I looked over at Cole about halfway through the fireworks and asked him how much he’d give me to start singing, “God Bless America.” He laughed. Told me he’d give me a part on the back. I decided against it.

They really were beautiful. The fireworks.

And it was at this point I found myself remembering something I had read a few days before. Something Lyndon had posted on his blog.

It was about his transition from the world of bond trading to studying theology here at Oxford. And why he decided to make that change.

At the end of his post, he included a quote from a reporter by the name of Matthew Parris. A professed Atheist. He had this to say about the Christian faith:

The New Testament offers a picture of a God who does not sound at all vague to me. He has sent his son to Earth. He has distinct plans both for his son and for mankind. He knows each of us personally and can communicate directly with us. We are capable of forming a direct relationship, individually with him, and are commanded to try. We are told this can be done only through his son. And we are offered the prospect of eternal life – an afterlife of happy, blissful or glorious circumstances…

Friends, if I believe that, or even a tenth of that… I would drop my job, sell my house, throw away my possessions, leave my acquaintances and set out into the world burning with the desire to know more and, when I had found out more, to act upon it and tell others.

And as I watched the fireworks explode into bright whites and blues and reds and oranges across the night sky, I found myself thinking, “what if people actually believed this stuff?” What if we didn’t just believe it, but what if we lived like we believed it? I think that would be something beautiful. Like fireworks. Lighting up the night’s sky. I think it would be so beautiful people would stop to take it in. I think they’d tell their friends about what they’d seen. And, as they closed their eyes to go to bed at night, I think the scene would play again before the darks of their eyelids. And they’d go to sleep with a smile on their face, thinking about how beautiful it was. Like fireworks.

Sunday: Tea at Walter Hooper’s House

I sent Walter a thank you note after our trip to The Kilns last week. Thanking him for showing us around. For sharing his stories of CS Lewis with us. And for taking the time to read my book.

He got back to me and told me it was his pleasure. And that he’d love to have us over for tea sometime. Just Jen and I. At his home. He wasn’t far from where we are living. We were happy to take him up on the offer.

We arrived around 5 after 4:00 on Sunday afternoon, and Walter greeted us with the door open. “Come in, come in,” he said with a smile, in that warm voice. As warm as the air seeping from his open door.

His home was amazing. A flat on the ground floor of a large multi-story building. We caught a glimpse of his living room from the walk up, on the gravel path leading to the front of his flat. Tall statues and green plants peaked out through his windows. I wondered if it was his. It was.

The hallway when you enter is lined with photographs. Many of the Pope. Many of Lewis. One group of photos was mostly of Lewis. Three rows of three photos. Mostly at the Kilns. The photo of Lewis Walter had pointed out to me from our tea at the Kilns was there. The one he took of Lewis, the last photo taken of him. Amazing. And one photo in the middle of the bunch was of Lewis with a younger looking man in a suit. He looked remarkably like a younger version of Walter.

“And who’s this one of?” I asked, half-jokingly.

“Oh, that one. You know, I used to know, but now I can’t remember,” Walter said, playing it off.

“Oh yeah?” I laughed. I love the fact that his sense of humor is as dry as mine. Makes me feel uncomfortable when I’m not expecting it, as I’m sure others are who don’t know me.

He invited us into the living room and continued to show us around. His living room was amazing. A fireplace sat in the middle of one wall, a fire blazing inside, with two statue busts perched on columns on either side. On either side of the columns were bookshelves. 10-feet high. Lots of old books. A 10-feet tall statue of…someone I can’t now recall stood in the corner opposite the fireplace. Walter told us how this statue was special because the original (“This is just plaster, of course,” he told us) was created in 450 BC, and it was the first time motion was created in a statue. He explained how previously the Egyptians created statues with their arms at their side. “But look what happens to all the rest of the muscles in the body when this lower leg is lifted,” he pointed out to us.

A large, oversized sofa sat in the middle of the room, with a table before it and two high-back chairs on either side of the table. The fireplace providing a wonderful view for the seating. It was a perfect setup for hosting.

He introduced us to Blessed Lucy of Narnia. His cat. Who was perched comfortably on the back of the couch. Soaking in a late afternoon nap.

“Now, I want you to take lots of notes from Jennifer on how to be a lady,” Walter spoke to her closely and firmly. She didn’t seem fazed.

He showed us into the dining room, and he pointed out a table in the corner of the room. A table that was built for CS Lewis when he was just five years old. To do his studies at.

Sitting on the table was a humidor for tobacco Lewis had bought while he was in college here at Oxford.

“But it’s not his tobacco,” Walter told us, opening it up to show the contents.

He pointed out several illustrations on another wall. Original artwork created for the Silver Chair. Framed. On his wall.

I was blown away at each point.

Walter then invited us to have a seat at the large, wooden table in the middle of the room. Several old books were sitting on it. He’d open the cover of one, introduce it to us, and then move it in front of us to look at. They were Lewis’ old books. From his personal library. With his handwritten notes still in the margins.

I couldn’t believe it. I was so overwhelmed with joy. I had to fight back the tears I was so excited.

Walter pointed out how Lewis used to index all of his books by subject. He might find something on a particular page that he appreciated, then he’d index it himself in the back of the book for later use. Amazing. Apparently he’d do this with all of his books. A copy of Dante’s work, which was highly influential to Lewis was there. As well as several others. Some in Latin. Some in Italian. And Lewis notes were in the corresponding language. This man was truly brilliant. And here, before me, were the notes he’d later refer to to pen such books as Surprised by Joy, and others. I was speechless.

Walter had prepared some tea for us, so we moved to the large chairs in front of the fire and sat down. He took the couch with Blessed Lucy of Narnia resting quietly behind him, curled up into a ball.

My book, which I had left with him several days before, was resting on the table in front of the fire.

He asked how we took our tea. Both with sugar and milk. An English / American hybrid, I suppose. And then he poured each saucer and, holding the sugar, presented them to us so that we could serve as much sugar to fit our tastes.

Along with the tea, he served us what are called digestive biscuits. The name sounded terrible. I told him they’d never get away with that in the States. He told us they were Lewis’ favorite. And I wasn’t about to turn them down. I probably had five before the afternoon was through.

They were “semi-sweet,” he explained to us. And they were. Like a graham cracker, but not quite as sweet. They were great, actually. Jen and I both agreed.

Taking his seat in the large couch, he began telling me his thoughts on my book.

Walter has been writing for the past 40 years. Writing and compiling, I should say. Before that, he taught English at the University of Kentucky. He reads prolifically. He knows his stuff.

Which is probably why the next part of the afternoon meant so much. Walter told me his thoughts on my book. He had read it. And I’m glad Jen was there. Were she not, I would probably forever be left wondering if it was actually all just a dream.

It was not. We left Walter’s home that evening warm, even as we stepped out into the cold. Maybe it was the wine he insisted we try before leaving. But I think it had more to do with his response to my book. I was speechless. I felt encouraged in a way I can’t quite put into words. But I knew, at that point, that this path had been confirmed for me. There in Walter’s living room, in front of the fire, that afternoon. I wanted to write. In a way that would help others see Him more clearly. The fact that Walter saw something in hands&feet assured me of that.

So much has happened already in such a short period of time. Incredible things. Things I never thought possible. And I’m terribly excited about what lies ahead.

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