I woke up early Monday morning. Before Jen. Shaved. Showered. And finished packing. I was heading back to Oxford in a few hours. On my own.

Jen’s sister Leann & her husband are expecting their first-born. Any day, at this point. And Jen was going to stick around for an extra few weeks. To lend an extra hand to Leann. And to enjoy her new role as aunt. Baby Khloe’s aunt.

Monday: Tough saying goodbye

I loaded my bags into the car while Jen finished getting ready. I came back through the front door after my second trip to the car just as Jen made her way downstairs. Tim & Rhonda were in the kitchen. Rhonda getting a bowl of cereal before work. Tim struggling to wake up. Earlier than he normally would, to say “goodbye.”

“My shower wakes me up,” he told us with a smile as we gathered in the living room. To say “goodbye.”

Rhonda told me how nice it was to have us home for the holidays. How it made for a really special time. I told her I agreed. And that I was happy we were able to be there.

I hugged them both. Told them I loved them. And we left. It was weird saying “goodbye,” knowing the next time I’d be there it’d be summertime.

“But we’ll see you again in a couple months,” Tim reminded me. “That makes it easier.” Rhonda nodded.

Jen’s parents had just booked tickets to come out and visit us. Along with some of their friends, Monty & Heidi and their two kids. Over spring break. It’d be their first trip to Europe.

“Yeah, that does make it a bit easier. Really looking forward to that time!” I told them as we left.

Jennifer and I stopped into Ben and Leann’s house on the way. To tell them “goodbye” as well. Leann greeted us at the door. We talked for a few minutes. Small talk. Then I told them I was really sorry I wouldn’t be there for Khloe’s birth. They shrugged it off, saying they understood. And thanking me for letting Jen stick around to be there for it. As if I had a choice. I’d rather steal a bear’s dinner than tell Jen she couldn’t be there for the birth of her first niece.

They told me they’d bring the laptop into the birthing room when Khloe arrived. So that I could be there, too.

“But just from the neck up,” Ben clarified. I thanked them both. Hugged them both. Told them both I loved them. And then we left. Making our way to Bellingham, to meet up with some of my family for a “goodbye” breakfast.

It was tough saying goodbye to those two. Ben & Leann. We’ve grown really close over the past year. The four of us. After losing Hayley, in particular. They really are some of our best friends, and it hurt like crazy knowing I wouldn’t be around for Khloe’s big day.

We pulled up to Lee’s about 10 minutes after we were supposed to be there. A restaurant near my Grandpa’s house where we used to eat breakfast when I was a kid growing up. He’d take me there early, before school, and we’d sit near the window as I ate my french toast, and he’d sip his coffee. Black, just like he had at home.

We were late from saying “goodbye” to everyone, so everyone else was at the counter ordering when we walked in. My brother Zach and his girlfriend Vanessa. My sister Lucy. My Mom. My Grandpa. And my best friend Steve, who was joining us, too.

It was great sharing a meal together before I left. I loved seeing Zach order his two plate’s worth of breakfast, and seeing the look on Lucy’s face when she realized she should’ve done the same thing. I loved seeing Mom glow at the image of her three children getting together for breakfast again. I loved watching my Grandpa sip his black coffee, just like all those mornings before. And I loved sitting between my best friend and my wife for the last meal I’d enjoy in Bellingham for the next six months.

Lucy had to head to class before the rest of us left. Zach & Vanessa were taking her, so I walked them to the door and said “goodbye.” I told them I loved them, and I hugged Lucy for a few extra seconds. “I love you, Goose,” I told her. “And I’m so proud of you.”

The five of us talked for a bit longer before leaving. Over coffee and orange juice. Before I said “goodbye” to my Mom. And my Grandpa. My Grandpa’s not much of a hugger, but I hugged him big as we left. My Mom is. And I hugged her big too. Told them both I loved them, and we were on the road. Waving “goodbye” out the driver’s-side window as we pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. A couple quick errands and we were heading to the airport.

Steve and Jen walked me to the airport security line. And we said our “goodbye’s” there, after an hour and a half drive south. I’d be seeing Steve in just over a week, as he would be coming out to Oxford shortly after me. To visit. He was originally planning on coming out with Jen, but he had a speaking engagement come up. So he moved his plans and broke up the three weeks I would otherwise be spending by myself. That was good news in my book. I told him I was looking forward to hanging out with him in Oxford in just over a week, and we said “goodbye” to each other.

I held Jen for a long time before going through security. I eased up on my hug, letting her back a bit so I could look at her. And smile. She told me not to cry. So I fought it. She’s so much tougher than me, and I’m used to it at this point.

I really didn’t want to, but we said our “goodbye’s” and I made my way to the security line, looking back just in time to see Jen smile and wave as she and Steve left. Smiling with that same smile that stole my heart all those years ago from the stage in our high school auditorium. I wasn’t looking forward to being without that smile for the next few weeks, but I was happy to know she’d soon be holding her new baby niece in her arms.

We made a stop in Chicago, and I changed planes on my way to England. Walking the airport hallways, my eyes kept catching young families. A dad walking hand-in-hand with his young son. A young family of four seated, with their backs against the windows, waiting on their plane. And I realized I didn’t want this. Traveling on my own. I’m a married man, and it just didn’t feel right traveling on my own. I didn’t feel complete.

When we got married, our pastor (Craig, a good friend of the family) really emphasized that, when we became married, we went from being two individuals to one, united flesh. He really made a point to tell us that this is what this act meant. And I often use that line, from time to time, with Jen. Mostly when I want to steal something from her plate. “Hey, one flesh, remember?” I’ll say to her.

But that’s how it felt, walking through the airport that night in Chicago, waiting for my plane to board. Like half of a single piece of flesh. And I didn’t like it. I found myself looking forward to the day when we’d be traveling together. With our kids with us. All antsy and excited for the plane ride. And it put a smile on my face, seated there in the airport, waiting to board my flight to England.

Back in Oxford

I landed in London around noon local time on Tuesday, after flying out from Seattle at 3:00 on Monday afternoon. After sleeping most of the way (in complete disregard of the Greek studies I knew I should be working on), I found myself with more energy than I thought I’d have. Which was good, since I still had some traveling to do before I could rest.

I made my way through customs. The man taking my passport asked what I was doing in England. I told him I was going back to school. He asked what I was doing before. I told him I was in Public Relations. He asked what I was studying, as he flipped through my passport. I told him “Theology.” He asked why the change, still looking down. I told him I realized that was what I was passionate about. He stopped, looked up at me with a nod, and then returned to the passport. Stamped it and handed it over.

It was a good reminder for me, as I entered the country. I was here to pursue what I was most passionate about.

I grabbed my bags from the conveyor belt baggage claim and made the long walk through the airport to the bus station. After a short wait, I was on the bus heading to Oxford.

I thought it was funny that the sign leading to Oxford had the city “B’ham” on it, after leaving “Bellingham” a day earlier.

We pulled into Oxford an hour later. And I grabbed a cab for the last leg of my journey back. The driver helped me with my bags as I hopped into the back of the tall, black English cab. He asked where I was coming from. I told him Seattle. He asked if we had snow. I told him not much.

He told me Oxford had been hit pretty hard over the holidays. “About 10 inches,” he told me. “We had to stick to the main roads, and drop people off at the start of the side streets.”

“What’s the weather look like for this week?” I asked him.

“Rain. All week. Just rain.”

“Perfect,” I said from the back seat. “Just like home.”

I paid the driver as we pulled up to 27 Northmoor Road, the house looking just as we left it a month earlier. And he helped me with my bags.

Jane greeted me at the front door. With a hug. And a smile. And a “Happy New Year!”

She pointed to the tower of packages that had piled up while we were gone.

“Christmas packages I presume,” she said. I nodded.

“Yep,” I think so.

I unpacked my bags straight away, knowing I wouldn’t want to deal with it after waking up. It’d also help me put sleep off longer, and get back on the routine here.

I opened up our Christmas cards and packages from Grandpa after unpacking my bags and getting settled in. Don’t worry, I had Jen’s permission.

Even though we had been home with most of these people over the holidays, it was great seeing their smiling faces on the Christmas Cards again. And reading their Christmas wishes.

“We know it will be tough not being home, but we hope it’s a special one,” so many read. And it was a nice reminder of the surprise we were able to give everyone before the holidays. It put a smile on my face.

I opened the package from my Grandpa next. A mix of bike equipment, food and Christmas decor. And a clock. Oh, and two “Sumas, Washington” coffee mugs. (Special thanks to my cousin Matt for those. Only ones in Oxford, I’m sure!)

My Grandpa had just returned from the post office when Jennifer and I surprised him a month earlier. From sending us this package. “Good timing,” I had told him. He looked at me with a smile, still in disbelief that we were there, standing in his living room.

The package also contained a large zip-lock plastic bag. With cards in it. I opened the first one to see that they were Christmas Cards. From my extended family back home. Each one signed to Jennifer and I. Each one with a note inside, telling us how much we were missed. And how the holidays just weren’t the same without us.

“They must’ve been filled out over Thanksgiving,” I thought to myself while opening another. This wasn’t quite what my family was intending when they filled them out, I’m sure, but it was so nice to return to. Thank you all. It means so much.

Pre-Exam Hibernation Mode

Oxford’s breaks between terms are six-weeks long. Which sounds great on paper. But then you realize the amount of work they want you to do in-between terms and realize the word “break” in Oxford means something quite different than it does back home, like so many other words.

Having returned home to the States for the holidays, I took the opportunity to get some work in. The kind of work you get a paycheck for. To help with school. Which left little time for studies. Well, that and trying to catch up with everyone. And preparing a sermon for our home church after being asked.

And so I returned to Oxford feeling totally and completely overwhelmed with the amount of preparation I knew needed to be had before my exams (“collections,” as they call them here) Friday morning. So I put my head down and studied. At home. And at the library. Not even taking time to venture out to the grocery store for several days, but living off anything I could find in our cupboards.

I’m not a fan of soup for dinner. Never been. In fact, I don’t actually consider that a meal. But it was my dinner for three nights in a row while studying. That and oatmeal.

The Day of Collections

I had received a note the day before telling me gowns were required for collections. Not full Sub-Fusc (meaning cap and gown), but gowns were. So I woke up early Friday morning, after staying up until 2:00 a.m. the night before studying, put on my suit, gown and hopped on my bike, en route to collections.

It’s a funny thing, riding a bike in a suit and Oxford gown. I caught several people staring as I rode. Not knowing whether that was because they knew the doom awaiting me on my collections, or if it was just because I looked ridiculous riding a bike while wearing a full suit and gown.

Riding through Oxford again was a weird feeling. Like returning to a familiar dream you’ve had before. Familiar because it’s not the first time you’ve had it, but still foreign because it’s a dream. That’s a bit how it felt, riding through Oxford again, staring up at the large stone buildings that stretched on and on and on into the sky overhead.

I made my way to the library at Harris Manchester and passed through the “Quiet Please, Collections In Progress” paper sign on the door. I was a good 20-minutes early, so I found a seat and took the extra time for some last-minute studies.

About 10 minutes before the exams were scheduled to begin, I realized no one else was in the library. There wasn’t a student in sight. I started to wonder if I had somehow missed out on some critical information, informing me that the collections weren’t being held in the library after all.

I made my way down the stone stairway and found Amanda in the main office. She greeted me and I asked where the exams were being held, as I didn’t see anyone in the library. Immediately she gave me this look like her heart had just sank into her stomach as she thought to herself, “Oh no, I feel horrible for you.”

The first words out of her mouth were, “Don’t panic,” which is never a good sign. She looked up at the clock and, with big eyes, said to me, “You need to be at the Exam Schools, just get there.” Without waiting, I rushed out of the college and hopped on my bike, again, knowing the Exam Schools were several minutes away, and I didn’t have several minutes to spare.

My laptop bag had been thrown hastily over my shoulder, rather than across my body, so it swung as I rode. I approached the final intersection before the Exam schools, squeezing tightly between a line of cars, when my bag struck one of the car’s rear-view mirrors.

“Oh no,” I thought to myself, listening intently for the sound of it to fall and hit the concrete below. Nothing. “It must be okay, then,” I thought to myself.

I was met by a red light, and so I waited to cross the street. The cars turned left (as we would take a free right back home), and I quickly realized the car my bag had struck would soon be passing me. My heart sank.

“Hey!” the man shouted as he pulled up, stopped, rolled down his window and looked at me. “Hey! You hit my car!”

I looked over at his rear-view mirror sheepishly, to see if there was any damage. There wasn’t. From what I could see.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I said, still focusing on making it to the Exam Schools in time for my collections.

“You’re sorry?! You’re SORRY?!” he continued to shout, only several feet from me. I didn’t know what to do, so I just looked ahead, waiting for the light to change.

He ended up speeding off, and I was relieved. I was really hoping to avoid a fight before my exams that morning.

I found my way to the room where my collections were being held and walked through the closed door, just as everyone was turning over their exams to begin. And as I did, everyone looked toward the door to see me walk in late. I quickly realized everyone was wearing their gown, like me, but dressed completely casually otherwise, unlike me.

“Perfect,” I thought to myself. “I’m late for my first collections AND I look like a complete idiot.”

It was like one of those bad dreams that you have, where you’re in front of the class and everyone’s staring at you because you’re either naked or forgot how to spell “the.” Except it wasn’t a dream, and I had an exam to take.

I apologized to the Senior Academic Tutor overseeing the collections and found my seat. Quickly trying to shrug off the rough start and focus on the questions on the paper.

Kicked in the teeth by Greek

The good news is that my first exam of the day wasn’t in Greek. It was my Gospels & Jesus exam. I felt pretty good about the material, and I was fairly confident I had done a decent job after finishing my last essay.

The bad news is that wasn’t my only exam for the day. That afternoon, I took a Greek exam. And by that I mean, I got my teeth kicked in by Greek. I really felt horrible. I had studied the material, not nearly as much as I should have, but I felt like I was seeing the language for the first time. I don’t know if it was the stress of the day, my jetlag fog still setting in, or what, but I was fairly confident someone answering my questions in Spanish would have done at least as well as I did.

I’m not a fan of Greek. Not at all. If Greek and I were to go toe-to-toe in a UFC cage match, I wouldn’t think twice to swinging an illegal, below-the-belt kick to Greek.

Steve told me later that day I probably did better than I thought. I told him if I did better than 50% then I’d be doing better than I thought.

I had spoken with my academic advisor the day before. Telling him I knew my busy holidays were likely to catch up with me on collections. He told me not to worry about it. That collections didn’t actually count for anything, and they weren’t likely to send me home if I did poorly.

“Worst case scenario, we ask you to take them again in a couple weeks,” Dave told me with a smile as we sat across from each other on the leather couches of his office. In the castle-like building of Mansfield College.

I wasn’t excited about the idea of taking another Greek collection again in two weeks, but I figured that wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Riding home after spending most of the day in exams, I was feeling pretty down. Knowing I would have liked to do better. And picturing the look of disappointment Rhona would surely have when she graded my collection. Not quite the way I was hoping to start the term.

It was a sunny afternoon when I left the Exam Schools, so I promised myself a run and some fresh air when I got home. To reward myself for several days worth of hunkering down and studying. And for getting my teeth kicked in.

The sun was beginning to set by the time I got home and changed for a run. Cole texted me and asked if I’d be interested in going to watch a movie (127 Hours) that night. To celebrate having collections behind us. I told him that sounded perfect.

Steve Skyped in with me before taking off for a run. I told him about my day. And that I wasn’t having  such a great time here. He told me he was sorry. And that it would be the kind of day I’d laugh about at some point. He told me to go for a run. And to go watch a movie. I told him that sounded like a good idea.

I ran north. To Summertown. With music playing in my ears. It was dark and people were walking on the sidewalks as busses and cars drove by.

I loved feeling the rhythmic pounding of my feet on the stone sidewalk, and the cool night air on my face. It was incredibly refreshing after the day I had had.

It smelled like garlic bread as I entered Summertown. And I remembered how it smelled like drop-biscuits the first time I ran through the neighborhood, earlier in the fall. And how that smell had reminded me of my Grandpa’s house, growing up. And instantly I was taken back to my Grandpa’s, over the holidays. Into his packed kitchen as everyone filled their plates.

I could see their faces, telling me how nice it was to see me again. To have us home. And suddenly I didn’t feel so far away from home.

Cutting off your arm for a vision

If I was honest with you, I’d tell you it’s been tough since coming back to Oxford. After spending the holidays with friends and family and all that’s comfortable to us. Being able to earn an income again. And then returning to a place that still feels a bit foreign.

If I were being honest with you, I’d tell you there have been several days where I’ve just wanted to head back home, to be with everyone we know again. If I were being honest with you, that’s what I’d say.

Before leaving, I was asked to preach at our church. And so I did. On lessons I’ve learned since going through this process. Saying “goodbye” to a great job and friends and family to go after this dream. And one of the lessons I’ve learned, the lesson I closed with is that the Christian life isn’t a life of comfort. And that’s something I’ve had to remind myself since coming back to Oxford. I’m not here because this is the most comfortable life possible for us. It’s quite the opposite, in a lot of ways. Sure, it’s my dream, but it’s still really tough. But that’s just it. Following after Him, and what He intends to do with your life is rarely the most comfortable plan for your life. It’s something I’ve been learning through all of this. And I’m still learning.

I met Cole at the Theatre Friday night. To see 127 Hours. The real-life story about a man who got stuck while rock climbing, and who ended up cutting off his own arm to escape after several days. After 127 hours, apparently.

We ran into resident Lewis expert Dr. Michael Ward and President of the Oxford Lewis Society David at the theatre. It was good to see those two again. They sat across the aisle from us in the theatre, as we bought our tickets separately.

When you buy your tickets in the UK, you have two choices: standard seating and premium seating. Standard seating is basically the lower-level seating, where you’re looking up at the screen. These seats are also first-come, first-served, as it is in the states for everyone. But premium seating, premium seating seats are elevated, so you’re looking straight ahead at the screen. And they’re reserved, so you know exactly where you’re sitting ahead of time. Anything to make an extra buck, I suppose… Or pound.

The movie was pretty great. Gruesome, obviously, but pretty great. I’m not one for blood. Not in the least. I’ve always said I’d love to be a Doctor if it weren’t for the blood. But this movie was still definitely worth seeing, even for those of us who feel like taking a bit of a nap at the first sight of blood.

Not to spoil it for anyone, but the movie’s climax really stuck with me. Obviously it is incredible to think of someone cutting off their own arm to set themselves free, but what got him through this experience is what really stuck with me.

Apparently, what got this man through, what led him to decide to cut off his own arm so that he could get free was a vision he had.

While pinned there in that canyon, with no rescue in sight five days after falling into this horrible situation, this guy had a vision. He saw his son. A son he didn’t have at that point. He saw his son playing. And he saw himself playing with his son. Carrying him on his shoulders. And suddenly he was so overwhelmed with this vision that he would stop at nothing to get himself out of there, not even at cutting off his own arm with a cheap, dull knife. Because he believed in that vision. And because he wanted the reality of that vision with every ounce of his being. More so even then his own right arm.

And that’s stuck with me even now. That’s why we’re here. Because, long ago, I had this dream of one day studying at Oxford. Like so many others before me. Men who have changed my life with their writing. Men like Lewis. That I might write in a way that changes lives, too. That I might write in a way that helps others see Him more clearly.

It’s not comfortable. Not all the time. But it is a pretty incredible experience. And it certainly beats cutting off my own arm. And I hope, someday, to be able to look back on all of this and say, “There, right there, that is when He carried out that vision He set on my heart all those years ago.” That’s what I hope for all of this.

Thanks for reading.

 

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