Saturday: London the day after the Royal Wedding

This was Steve’s third time visiting us in England since we moved over. Steve had never been to London before, and we hadn’t made a trip there on either of his two previous trips. His fiance, Jamie, is an avid traveler, and, having been to London, she insisted that he needed to go.

I was sure Jamie would strangle him if I sent Steve back without a trip to London yet again. I didn’t want my best friend to be strangled, so I decided we’d better make it happen. (I’m just kidding, by the way. Jamie’s great. And I don’t think she actually strangles people.)

So Saturday morning Steve and I hopped on a bus and headed to the city. As we pulled out of the bus station, the driver came on the intercom and welcomed us. He told us about how long it’d take to get to London, and after a few minutes of chatter, he told us to make sure our seatbelts were on. I thought this was funny, because the seat in front of me was taller than I was, which I figured would make sure I wasn’t going anywhere in the event of an emergency stop. Steve obediently put his on, while I looked out the window at the countryside passing by on this sunny morning.

“Do I need to go tell the bus driver the guy next to me isn’t wearing his seat belt?” Steve joked, turning toward me. I laughed. “Yeah, actually,” I replied. “I’d love to see how that goes for you.”

I asked him what, in particular, he was hoping to take in while we were there. He told me he wasn’t a big sight-seeing guy, and so a lot of the typical sights he could probably do without. He said he would be interested in seeing Westminster Abbey, though, as it was the day after the Royal Wedding and all. I told him I’d take him to Harrod’s, too, as I figured he’d like to see that.

My eyes grew heavy as we talked and soon I found myself drifting into a bit of a nap while the bus scooted smoothly along the freeway, leading us through the countryside and toward London.

We picked up a map shortly after arriving in London. I found Harrod’s on the map and soon we were off in that direction. Walking past Hyde Park. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the park was interspersed with people enjoying being outside on this particularly nice afternoon. Some with their dogs. Some with their kids. A handful of couples.

We passed a small men’s clothing store along the way. With a window full of ties on display. Steve wanted to step inside to see if anything stood out to him for his wedding, so we did. There was a long table in the middle of the store overflowing with ties in neat rows, organized by color. Steve picked through them while I made my way around the store, glancing at ties and suit jackets.

The owner of the store came up from a staircase that led downstairs and asked us if we needed any help. Steve told him we were looking for some ties for his wedding, and so they talked for a bit. He ended up finding a tie he liked. For himself. So he picked it up for his wedding.

As we were checking out, I asked the shop owner what the previous day had been like for him. The day of the Royal Wedding.

“Slow,” he said. He told us this side of town, even though it wasn’t far from Westminster Abbey or Buckingham Palace, was just empty. That it was a bit of a ghost town. Because people were either at one of those two locations for the big day, or watching it on TV.

We thanked him for the tie and continued to make our way to Harrods. When we finally arrived a couple miles later, we took in the store’s window displays, filled with different designs of Royal Wedding cakes. Some were big and extravagant, others were more modern and simple. Some were covered in great displays of the Union Jack, others were a bit more subtle. After taking in more than 30 Royal Wedding cake designs, we walked through the large double doors and found our way around Harrods.

We passed through the watch selection in the jewelry department, with glass cases filled with rows of watches that cost as much as a small home, before entering the market and restaurants section of Harrod’s first floor. Steve found Laduree, a small, french bakery known for its macaroons, and bought a small box filled with a variety of flavors. He shared with me that Laduree was the creator of the French macaroon. He was happy.

We continued upstairs, passing through the men’s department, filled with suits and ties, and we noticed the opera music playing over the speaker system. Or, at least, that’s what we assumed we were hearing. We rounded a corner only to find a woman in a gown with a white shawl over her shoulders standing on a balcony and singing. “Much more impressive than a speaker system,” I thought to myself.

After we had enough of Harrod’s, we made our way across West London and found our way to Westminster Abbey, the site of the Royal Wedding the day before. I had been to Westminster Abbey several times, but I had never seen it so busy. There were people lined up around the entire block, waiting to get inside for a tour. The lawn in front of the large church was filled with people as well. We snapped a couple quick pictures and then escaped from what felt like a mob scene.

Across the street from Westminster Abbey is Parliament and Big Ben. Since Steve hadn’t been before, we made the short walk around Parliament’s expansive building and halfway across the large bridge that crosses the River Thames so we could take in the view. The view from Westminster Bridge, with Parliament and Big Ben on one side, and the London Eye on the other, is my favorite view in all of London. It’s really quite something.

From there, we made our way back across town and walked around Buckingham Palace, which wasn’t nearly as busy as Westminster Abbey, but it was still full of its fair share of tourists snapping photos. City workers were still working on tearing down large platforms and scaffolding, which we assumed were used to house the media from all around the world on the big day. Most of the chairs had been removed, it looked like, but a few stragglers gave a hint as to just how big this event had been.

When we had snapped some photos in front of Buckingham Palace, we walked along St. James Park and made our way back toward Marble Arch, where we had been dropped off by our bus earlier that day. Neither one of us had eaten since that morning, and it was now nearly 5:00. We found a pub along the way, thanks to a young British guy in a top-hat and tuxedo standing in front of a hotel, and we both ordered large burgers at the bar when we arrived. It was a nice end to Steve’s first time in London, sitting there in the wood-covered pub, with something like five different TVs all playing video and running commentary of the previous day’s wedding events. We clinked our water glasses together and dug into our burgers when they arrived, wasting little time in our hunger.

The Marble Arch bus stop was only a short walk from the pub and we were soon speeding northwest on the M40, the large bus scooting along smoothly in the evening air.

Sunday: 1 Year Later & Roses on the River

Sunday was a tough day. We knew it would be. May 1 was the one-year anniversary of saying goodbye to our sister, Hayley. We knew it’d be made extra difficult being away from our family. Being so far from home. Neither one of us were looking forward to this day. But we wanted to use it to remember Hayley. In a special way. I had picked up a bunch of roses. Pink. Hayley’s favorite color. Two days earlier. And I had a plan on how we could use them to make sure Hayley was honored, even from here in Oxford.

Steve was gone when we woke up that morning. He left for the city center, wanting to give us space. It wasn’t expected, or even suggested, but he’s thoughtful that way.

We slept in a bit and, when we both were up, I made us breakfast. We took our time that morning. And when we were finally ready, we left the house and made our way toward the river. To the Cherwell River Boathouse. I carried Hayley’s pink roses in my hand. And Jen’s hand in my other.

Walking down a gravel lane about a half-mile from our home, the small pebbles crunching beneath our feet, we came up to the boathouse. A long, wooden building with a low roof that sloped toward the river. Several tables were spread out on one side of the building. And there was an open door halfway down the front of the building, facing the river, where you could rent boats. I handed the man behind the desk my debit card, a guy around my age, with tattoos on his arm and large, circular earrings. He asked how long we wanted it for, and I told him an hour would do. He pointed us toward the next room over. A large, open garage. And told us to grab our punting pole, seat cushions, and a paddle and then head to our boat. Anyone we wanted. So we did.

Jen got in first. I handed her the pole and the cushions and the paddle. I untied the rope that fastened the punt to the dock and then hurried to enter the boat before it gently scooted away, out into the smooth-surfaced river.

“You want me to go first, to get us out of here?” Jen asked me, standing at the rear of the boat with the long pole in her hand. “That way you can see how to do it and then take it from there?”

“Sure. Yeah, that sounds good,” I said, taking a seat in the center of the boat as we glided softly into the middle of the river. Jen used the long pole to straighten us out and then, just like that, we were moving north along the river. Floating as the boat rocked ever so gently from side to side.

“You really know what you’re doing,” I told Jen, from my seat in the boat, she standing several feet behind me. “I could get used to this.”

There were a handful of other boats on the water that day, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly busy. It still felt a bit like an escape. It was still relaxing.

“Okay, are you ready to take it from here?” Jen asked me, after we had made it a ways from the dock. And the other boats.

“Yeah, yeah I can do that, I guess,” I said, somewhat hesitantly. I was enjoying my seat. And the ride. But I also definitely wanted to give punting a shot.

Jen and I traded spots, her now sitting in the middle of the boat, and me now standing at the rear. I used the pole to push off the bottom of the river, and quickly noticed it wasn’t nearly as easy as Jen made it look. The bottom of the river was quite muddy, which meant the pole would stick with each shove. It took some getting used to, but soon we were moving again.

“Use your pole to steer us,” Jen told me. “Like a rudder. Let it float and gently move it from side to side.”

When we had made it a ways further, and when there were no longer any boats around, Jen opened the bouquet of roses. And handed me one. I let the pole rest gently in one hand, and took the rose in the other. I shared a memory of Hayley. Jen smiled. Then I laid the rose softly on the surface of the river. And watched it float along the side of the boat, with tears in my eyes, before trailing behind us.

When it was a ways off, I returned to punting, taking the pole in my hand and pushing off the bottom of the river. We moved along a bit further and then Jen took a rose for herself. She held it in one hand, turning it over and over while sharing a memory of Hayley. One that meant a lot to her. Before reaching her arm over the side of the boat and placing the pink rose on the river. Then, slowly, it was floating along behind us.

We continued along the river. Sharing memories. And dropping roses. Until all that was left was a string of roses. And a string of our memories. Of Hayley. Of our sister. Who left us long before we thought she should.

When all our roses were gone, I said a short prayer. Thanking God for the gift of memories. And for the gift of the time we had with Hayley. Time we wouldn’t trade for anything. For, even though this pain seemed so deep that afternoon while floating along the river, the joy of those memories was deeper. And even though we floated along with tears in our eyes, we also floated along with joy in our hearts. From each memory. And from the knowledge that, where her pain once resided, now there was only Light and Joy and Peace.

I was thankful for that time with my wife. We had not been looking forward to this day. But it turned out much better than either one of us imagined. We ended it with a night of worship at St. Aldate’s, dinner at Tom’s Thai pub, and ice cream at G&D’s. And laughter. Around a table full of friends.

I’m learning that’s how it seems to go. Life. We fear so much. And then, time and time again, He shows up. Bringing with Him light for the darkness we so fear.

That’s how May 1 was for us. Where we thought we’d find only pain and hurt and darkness, there was joy and laughter, even amongst the tears. He is good. Even in the valleys, He is good.

Tuesday: Saying ‘Goodbye’ to Steve, Saying ‘Hello’ to Greek

Tuesday was the day we said ‘goodbye’ to Steve and I said ‘hello’ to my first official day of Trinity Term, my last term of my first year at Oxford.

We called a cab for Steve and I rode with him back to Gloucester Green, along the same route we had walked so many times before. Back and forth between the city center and our home on Northmoor Road. We had had another great time with Steve here in Oxford, and I told him how much we appreciated him taking the time to come visit us.

The cab driver let us out at Gloucester Green, in a circle of large buses coming and going. I said ‘goodbye’ to Steve before he boarded one of the large buses himself and made his way back to London. Back to the airport. And back to the States.

It’s rare to have a friend who’s willing to travel so far to visit, I thought to myself as I made my way across the city center. To cross the Atlantic several times, as Steve has for us. What an incredible gift, I thought to myself. But soon, those warm thoughts were lost in a feeling of being completely overwhelmed by my return to Greek.

I wouldn’t be taking Greek this term as I had the two terms before. Not three times a week, with regular quizzes and translations to submit. Instead, I’d merely be sitting in on a translation class, where we’d walk through the text together and take turns reading and translating the text verse by verse. Much better than the nightmare I woke up to three times a week the previous terms, I figured.

Rhona had sent out an e-mail telling us about the different reading classes available to us this term. One by her, and another by another tutor, Nick King at Campion Hall. I had met Nick before. He’s a very nice, older British man. With a head of silver grey hair, neatly kept, and a sharp witted sense of humor. I chose Nick’s class for the term, not merely for his humor, or for a change, so much as because he would be covering the text I would be tested on as part of my final exams the following spring. That seemed to be the most obvious choice for me.

In her e-mail, Rhona said there’d be no need to prepare for our first day. So I didn’t. Entering Campion Hall, I made my way into a large room with a group huddled in a circle around a group of tables that had been squeezed together to form a large rectangle. Books were piled up in the middle of the table, and the group had just begun reading a passage from Matthew. In Greek. I took a seat on the right side of the circle and quickly noticed two good friends from Rhona’s class: Emily, on one side of the circle, and Lyndon on the other. Lyndon gave me a smile and a gentle wave.

Quickly, I realized everyone in the room was quite proficient in their Greek reading and translation, moving through the text at a dizzying pace. The reading didn’t scare me, but it was the translation that made me rather nervous. Soon, it was my turn. I read aloud my verse and then gave my best at translating, stumbling through a series of unfamiliar Greek words. The fact that I had hardly looked at my Greek over the two-month long vacation certainly didn’t help.

I soon found myself stuck on a word I was completely stumped on. I shook my head and confessed to Nick, who was seated across the large circle from me, that I had no idea what the translation was. The circle of students around the table were quiet, eyes on Nick and myself. He told me it was very similar to the Latin word of the same meaning, thinking surely that would be of help. It wasn’t. It was, instead, merely a reminder of another word I don’t know, and a bit like pouring salt in an open wound.

“Sorry,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “I don’t know Latin.” Someone else piped in with the answer and soon we were moving quickly back around the circle.

I felt horrible. Ashamed at how atrocious my Greek was, particularly in a group of students who were so proficient. I was quickly reminded Oxford attracts some sizable brains.

Before packing up and leaving for the afternoon, I noticed the students to my left and my right had notes on the text. From the looks of it, they had walked through the Greek and written out their translation in English.

“Well that would’ve saved me some embarrassment,” I thought to myself as I packed up my things. I caught up with Emily and Lyndon outside of Campion Hall afterwards. First Emily, then Lyndon. Emily seemed to share my sense of being completely overwhelmed with the return to Greek, which I appreciated, as I iced my wounds from the embarrassing scene. Lyndon fared better than us both, but he, too, shared in our sentiments when he caught up with us. Particularly with Nick’s attempt to use Latin to spur on my Greek.

“Don’t you love that?” Lyndon said with a smile and a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

It was an embarrassing first showing, to be sure, but it helped to know that, at least some of the others, had prepared in advance. I’d make sure I did the same come next week.

Wednesday: Open Forum & Atheism

I spent most of Wednesday working on my essay for the week, which was due Thursday evening. It was on the European Reformation. A topic I’m not well-versed in, which meant I needed to sink extra time into my reading just to get up to speed on the topic.

Wednesday night provided a break from the essay work, though, as it was our first Open Forum evening of the new term. We decided to change things up a bit with the Open Forum this term, choosing to have one worldview represented each week. We’d invite someone from a particular background, be it Atheism, Buddhism, Catholicism, etc., and give them 10-15 minutes to talk about their beliefs. After that, we’d spend the rest of the time in Q&A.

For our first night, we invited Alex to talk about Atheism. Alex is the president of the Oxford Atheist Society, so he was a perfect choice for the evening. And he did a great job.

Alex shared with us why he thought “Atheist” is a fair title, even though many in his camp tend to take issue with it. He explained their point, that we don’t have to carry a title because we don’t believe in fairies, yet we do when we don’t believe in God. He explained that many Atheists take it for granted that anyone would believe in God, but Alex said this is the case anytime you aren’t in the majority. And Theists have always been in the majority. Alex is a smart guy. He’s young, still in his early 20’s, and I appreciate his reasoning.

He talked a bit more about his own personal beliefs before we opened things up for questions. Jen was joining us this evening, along with her friend and co-worker Melissa from the Kilns. Jen asked Alex about the path that had brought him from Catholicism to Atheism. He had shared this story with us on a previous occasion, but Jen hadn’t been there. He gave us the condensed version, and then fielded some more questions.

I asked Alex something that had been on my mind, while listening to him talk. I asked him how his beliefs impact his life or the lives around him on a daily basis. In a practical way.

He looked almost confused by the question. Scrunching his eyebrows behind his glasses as he thought about the question for a few seconds before answering.

“It doesn’t,” he said, looking toward me. “But I don’t think we should look to such beliefs to do that.”

We wrapped up the night on that note, and I found myself chewing on his comment as we left the meeting. I agreed, we certainly shouldn’t “choose” our religion based on what it does for us. Or others. We should believe something because it’s true, and not for what it does for us. Which is why I believe the Christian account.

But Christianity does more than that. More than merely accounting for creation and our role in it, this faith reminds me I’m not the center of the universe, a reminder I often need. Christianity calls me to die to myself, to serve others and to love God with all I have. Christianity warns me against spending my short time on this earth worshipping myself or created things, which comes so easily to us. And I think that makes a difference, both in my life and in the lives of those around me.

I compared this with Alex’s response to my question: “How does your faith impact your life and the lives of those around you?” . . . “It doesn’t.”

How sad, I thought to myself, as we made our walk back north to Northmoor Road. And, as we made our way back home, I was wondering if Alex was thinking the same thing about his beliefs.

Thursday: Senior Tutor Mtg

Thursday morning I was scheduled to sit down with the Senior Tutor and Principal at College. To review my academic progress, and make sure everything was going okay. Everyone at Harris Manchester has this meeting at the start of the term, which means these meetings are super short. Only five minutes or so.

I made my way out of the library Thursday morning and up the wooden staircase leading to the Principal’s office for my meeting. Principal Waller met me at the door with a big, beaming smile and a warm, British, “Hello.”

He asked me if I wanted a cup of tea, and I thanked him but said, “No thank you.”

Lesley, the Senior Tutor, was seated at a desk near the window with some papers in her hand. My tutors’ reports, I assumed. She looked up from them as I entered and welcomed me.

Lesley is pretty straightforward, which I appreciate, so there was little small-talk. I had plenty of work to get back to in submitting my first week’s essay, and I’m sure the fact that they had plenty of other students to see helped, too.

“Well, we’re very happy with your work,” Lesley said, looking from her papers to me with a warm smile. Principal Waller looked at me and smiled as well. I thanked them, and I told them I was very happy to hear that. And then I let their words set in while they continued to talk.

It’s just that, it’s still a little unreal for me to hear that. That Oxford is happy with my work . . . Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d hear that.

After several minutes, I made my way back down the stairs leading to Principal Waller’s office, down the hallway and up the stairs leading to the Harris Manchester library. To wrap up my essay, which would take up the rest of my day.

Friday: My first European Reformation Tutorial

I made my way to Wycliffe Hall Friday morning for my first tutorial of the term. Wycliffe Hall is one of the few evangelical schools at Oxford. It’s where Lyndon is a member. My tutor for this paper teaches for Wycliffe, which is why my tutorial was there, in his office.

Walking up to Wycliffe, I met my classmate for the term. John Ash. I had met John during my first term at Oxford. When I had come to Wycliffe for lunch with another John I knew. From Greek class. John’s a tall guy. Maybe 6’2″. With dark brown hair and an athletic frame. I found out later he’s a rower.

“Ryan, good to see you again,” he said, greeting me with a smile. “I thought I recognized your name,” he commented, referring to the e-mail our tutor Andrew had sent out to us both before the start of the term.

We entered through a tall door and climbed a wooden, spiral staircase. We found Andrew’s door at the top of the stairs and, knocking, heard him answer from within.

“Hello,” he answered, in his low, British accent. “Come in.”

We did. Andrew stood up from his seat in the middle of the cramped office space. Cramped because it was not only small, but because it was filled to the brim with books and boxes. Bookshelves lined the walls of his triangle-shaped office, climbing high up into the ceiling. And boxes sat around the office’s floor, stacked on one another, leaving just enough room for three chairs.

Andrew is a younger guy, with close-shaven hair that’s nearly as long as the scruffy beard on his face. He has big, attentive eyes, and he welcomed us as we entered the room.

“Hello,” he said, greeting us. “Squeeze in and find a chair.”

I turned my shoulders and did my best to squeeze around him and into the chair on the opposite side of the small room. Taking my seat, Andrew and John did the same before he welcomed us.

We talked briefly about what brought us here to Oxford, and what we’ve been working on up to this point. Andrew then opened with a short prayer, which I’ve never had in a tutorial before, and I thought was great. A moment later we were launching headfirst into the paper we had submitted the night before, in response to the question, “Why did the Western Church prove to be so vulnerable to the critique of Reformers from the second decade of the sixteenth century?”

As I said, the European Reformation is a topic I’m almost completely unfamiliar with, and, even after my week’s reading, it showed. John took the lead on most of the questions, and I filled in the gaps where I could. It was the first time I had been outnumbered in my tutorial: both Andrew and Jonathan being British. Andrew works at a nearby church, when he’s not teaching, and John’s Dad is apparently a well-known Christian writer in England, on top of working in churches around the country. They have a lot in common, and very quickly I felt I was playing the role of outsider. I wondered, to myself, if they noticed.

Soon, our hour was up, Andrew was wishing us a good week, and John and I were making our way back downstairs and out into the open air courtyard behind Wycliffe Hall. It was a sunny day, and I was now officially done with my first week of the term. John and I chatted for a bit from outside Andrew’s office. He told me he and his wife were in the process of buying a home, and so he had his hands full of that when he wasn’t working on this paper.

“I’ve recently inherited a chunk of money, and so we found a very small home nearby,” he explained to me. “It’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re excited.” Listening to John talk about his home remodel project, I realized I had absolutely no excuse not to find time for my paper in comparison.

I told John it was great to see him again, and that I looked forward to our conversation the following week before saying “goodbye.” Hopping on my bike and leaving Wycliffe Hall, I shook my head at the thought that I only had seven weeks left before the end of my first year at Oxford.

“Nearly there,” I thought to myself as I rode toward the library to find my books for the following week’s essay.

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