I’m picking things up on our second year at Oxford, even though I didn’t have a chance to wrap up last year while we were home over the summer. I apologize. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell the story of how last year finished at another point in time. Until then, here’s how our return to Oxford unfolded…

After being home for three and a half months, it was not easy to say goodbye to our friends and family back home when it came time to return to Oxford. We had grown awfully comfortable back home, and it felt like we were being uprooted all over again. Such is our life for now, it seems. But knowing where we were returning to did make things a bit easier.

Our new home

For those who might not know, we found out just before leaving last spring that we wouldn’t be able to live in the same place this year as we had last year. That was a pretty big disappointment. It was a beautiful home, everything was new, and the neighborhood was the nicest either of us had ever lived in (and likely ever will). As it turns out, the family we were living with (the family that gets invited over to Elton John’s place for parties, to hang with folks like J.K. Rowling and others) needed the space, as their parents were getting older, and they had been staying over more and more.

We understood, of course, but it was tough knowing we wouldn’t be returning to that home that had grown so comfortable to us. Our home search over the summer did not go so well. I’d continue to look for housing options from back in the States, but nothing seemed to come up that was in our budget and close enough to school. And this became more and more stressful the closer we came to making our departure.

Then, in September, I received an e-mail from Debbie, the woman who manages the Kilns here in Oxford (C.S. Lewis’s old home). Debbie is a professor at a university in Tennessee, and she’s on her sabbatical, living here at the Kilns and working on her own studies. Debbie prefaced her e-mail by saying she didn’t know if this was some crazy-Debbie question, or if this was a God thing, but she wanted to let us know that the C.S. Lewis Foundation was considering inviting a couple to live in the Kilns this year, and that she thought we’d be the perfect couple. She asked us to think about it, and to let her know if we were interested.

Those of you who know me, and who know C.S. Lewis is the very reason I’m here, studying theology in Oxford, will know how unreal that offer was to me. And it was. But knowing that Jen would be working for the Foundation, I wanted to make sure that wasn’t too much for her. I wanted to make sure she didn’t feel as though she could never get away from work, or that we were only living here because she knew I’d want to. And so we talked it over. We prayed for a week, and Jen came to me one day, while we were still back home, to let me know she thought this was a great fit for us, and that we should go for it. I agreed.

Our return to Oxford

After leaving home Sunday evening (our 11:40 p.m. flight was pushed back to 1:15 a.m. Monday morning), we touched down in London around 10:30 p.m. local time. We made our way through the meandering Heathrow hallways, through customs, and found our bags, sitting beside the carousel, heavy from their over-capacity packing. I threw them onto a luggage cart with a heave and then we made our way to the bus that would take us north to Oxford (about an hour’s journey).

But as we came out of the arrival’s gate, I noticed I didn’t recognize where we were at. I hadn’t landed here before, apparently, and so I wasn’t sure how to get to the bus station where we’d be catching the Oxford Tube (as there are several different bus stations at Heathrow). We walked toward the door I thought would lead us to the Tube, and I asked a guy who was approaching us if he knew where we could find the Oxford Tube.

“The bus?” he replied with a look of confusion. “I don’t think any more buses run to Oxford at this time of night. You’ll probably need to take a taxi.”

I thanked him and he continued on his way behind us. It was after 11:00, but I was sure the Tube ran later. And a taxi ride was out of the question. That’d surely cost us more than a £100 for the trip.

Quickly I remembered the lanyard around his neck. It was emblazoned with a taxi cab company’s logos.

“A taxi cab driver telling us we have to take a taxi from London to Oxford,” I said aloud, to Jen. “Go figure.”

After some walking, and some more asking (this time from a bus driver), we managed to find the place where our bus would meet us. But once we arrived, I looked on the schedule only to find that the last bus arrived at 11:10. It was now 11:30. My heart sank.

Thankfully, my wife is smarter than I am.

“Ryan,” she said, “the first bus comes at five after midnight. We’re fine.”

Jen and I took a seat on a bench beside the bus stop, under an overhead covering. It was nice to stop for a moment to catch our breath. And to talk. About our journey. About returning to Oxford and all we were doing.

It was raining when we arrived (it always seems to be raining when I arrive here), and the wind was beginning to pick up. The wind swept the rain between the overhead covering and a gap in the wall, so that there was a fine spray on our faces. I hoped the bus would come soon, so that we could escape into its warmth.

I checked my watch. It read 12:05. The bus was scheduled to arrive, and still there was no sight of it. Five more minutes passed and I began to worry we had somehow not read the schedule correctly. I called the number listed on the schedule, only to find the offices were closed (of course). I walked back to the bus station to ask someone if they knew anything about the where our bus might be, and they told me it was likely just running late.

They were right, and five minutes later, our large, looming bus pulled into the bus stop and we were soon being shuttled past the highway road signs on our way north to Oxford. I remembered the first time I traveled to Oxford. I was without Jen. And I remembered passing the same road signs. “Birmingham” is abbreviated as “B’ham” here, and I thought it funny having left “Bellingham” only a day earlier to be passing signs for “B’ham” here, 6,000 miles away.

We got off the bus at a park & ride in East Oxfordshire just after 1:00 in the morning, and we took a cab the short, five minute drive the rest of the way. I paid the cab driver and thanked him for helping us with our massive bags, before we passed through the small metal gate in the hedges and made our way to the front door. I rang the doorbell, and Debbie welcomed us with a warm smile, a hug, and  a loud “Heyyyyyy!” It was so good to see her, and it was an incredible feeling to be at the Kilns again.

The home was warm, and it was just as I remembered it. Quaint and comfortable. Old, in a way that kind of reminds you of your grandparent’s home, but warm and soothing. It was bright, with all the lights on, even in the 1:00 a.m. darkness outside.

We set our bags down in our room (which used to be Lewis’s brother Warnie’s room) and we joined Debbie in the kitchen. She had made some homemade soup that day, and some homemade cookies, and she offered both to us. We took a seat in the kitchen and she happily served us, as we happily accepted it. The warm soup tasted so good after a day’s worth of travels.

Debbie told us all that had happened at the house since we had been gone. About the different conferences that had been held, and about all the interesting people who had come through. She served us a plate of cheese and crackers, and when our soup bowls were empty, she offered to refill them. I was happy to let her.

By 2:00 a.m., both Jen and I were well fed and past tired from our travels. We were happy to say “goodnight” to Debbie and to retire to our bed, which had been done up by Debbie, with two chocolates resting on our pillows. It was so nice to return to Oxford and the Kilns, but this welcome made it that much better.

Tuesday: My first day back in Oxford & classes

My alarm went off at 7:00 on Tuesday morning, less than five hours after I had gone to bed that night, after traveling over night the night before. And yet, surprisingly, I was wide awake. It must have been the adrenaline. Preparing me for what would be an incredibly busy return to my classes. Preparing me to punch out a presentation and two essays in only a few days’ time.

We had returned to Oxford a week later than we would have otherwise. Steve, my best friend, was married the day before we left, and I was the best man in the wedding. So, rather than fly to England for a week, fly home for the weekend, and then fly back to Oxford for the second week of classes, I made arrangements before I left to do my first week’s work from home (which ended up just being reading, as my essays were due second week).

Unlike when we arrived, Tuesday morning was a beautiful day. It was sunny, and the blue skies only carried a handful of floating white clouds. I got ready quickly, only stopping long enough to shower and shave, but not to eat, before I made my way out of the house, down the lane, and onto the bus that would take me into the city center, a 20-minute ride away.

And it was an odd feeling, riding past all these buildings I hadn’t seen for months, still just as I remembered. We drove over Magdalene Bridge and past Magdalene College, where Lewis used to teach, with its large stone tower and stone walls, and we continued along High Street. I got off the bus here, on High Street, and took a shortcut down a curving lane with high stone walls, where all I could see towering over the walls were the high tops of towers from neighboring college. I walked past the entrance to New College (an ironic name, considering it was built in the 1300’s), and continued through an even narrower passage, past several high-climbing, old apartment buildings, past the Turf Tavern (where Bill Clinton used to frequent when he was a Rhodes Scholar here at Oxford, and where an open door revealed a woman behind the bar humming as she cleaned glasses from the night before, and I made my way out onto the road that would take me directly to Harris Manchester College, my first stop for the day.

Walking past the large, stone walls that lead up to the entrance of Harris Manchester, that odd feeling returned. It seemed like I had been away forever, and yet, here it was, just as I remembered it. It was a bit like returning to a dream, a dream I had had long ago. But it wasn’t. It was real. All of it. And I was thrown back into the middle of it just as though I had never left.

I stopped into the front office, to pick up my key to the library, and, as I did, I thought I was going to be attacked.

“Ryannnnn! Helloooooo!” Amanda’s voice came pouring out of the front office window in that beautiful, singing British accent as I entered the room. Amanda works in the office, and she is quite possibly one of the sweetest women I have ever met. And her greeting immediately made me feel welcome.

“It is so good to see you again, Ryan. Welcome back.”

I picked up my key from Amanda, we talked for a few minutes about the summer, and then I was on my way up the large, stone staircase that leads into the library. As I made my through the large, wooden double-doors, I passed by the front desk, where Katrina, one of our librarian’s was working. The look one her face when she saw me was one of, near, shock.

“Ryan?…” she said as I approached her with a smile. “We didn’t know if you were coming back.”

Apparently my delayed return had not been shared with many, as this was the response I received for the next few days. I explained to Katrina why I was late returning, and how much I had to get done in the next few days.

“Well, we’re very happy to have you back, Ryan,” Katrina told me with a smile. “I was beginning to wonder if we had lost you to an American University.”

“Of course not,” I assured her. “Never.”

I continued to pass through the library and up the narrow, spiral staircase. Its metal frame creaking slightly as I climbed. I walked around the upstairs walkway toward where I normally sit to get started on my presentation that was due later that day, only to find the desk where I normally work filled with a pile of books on Economics.

“Of course,” I thought to myself as I sat my bags down on another table. “That’s what I get, I suppose.”

I opened up my computer and used the notes I had gathered while back home to punch out a presentation on John Calvin. I finished it five hours later, just in time, and I scooped up my things before making my way across town, to the Theology Faculty where the class would be held.

As I entered, the first person I saw was David, my first tutor from last year. An American who finished his Dphil here at Oxford and is now teaching. It was great running into him, and he looked very happy to see me.

“Ryan, how are you?” he said with a wide grin as we hugged.

He told me another one of the Theology students at my college had seen him the other day and asked if I wasn’t returning. I told him I had already gotten that as I shared our summer with him.

“So, are you living in the same place, then?” David asked me.

“No, actually. We aren’t. Which was tough. But we’re actually live in the Kilns, in C.S. Lewis’s old place, over in Headington.”

His eyebrows shot up behind his glasses.

“Really?! Oh, wow…”

“Yeah, we’re staying in his brother Warnie’s old bedroom.”

“You’re kidding! Ryan, that’s incredible! And that’s funny, because Julia and I were just talking, and she was saying it’d be nice to check out the CS Lewis Society some night. Is that something you’re still involved in?”

“Yeah, I am. I’m the President now, actually.”

Again, his face exploded with surprise. And he laughed. I told him I’d send him the list of speakers for the term, so that they could have a look and see when they’d like to join us. I also told him we’d love to have them out to the Kilns at some point, if they were ever interested in taking a tour.

“That’d be great. We’d really like that,” he said.

Tea, biscuits and Calvin

As we finished our conversation, John, a classmate of mine from last spring, walked past us, stopping when he noticed it was me. John is in my Calvin class, and I was excited to see him again. I said “goodbye” to David, told him I’d be in touch, and John and I made our way upstairs to our classroom.

We were early when we arrived, but Sarah, our tutor for the Calvin class, wasn’t far behind. I introduced myself to her, and she seemed very happy to meet me in-person (we had been in touch over e-mail while I was still back in the States). She was very nice. Young and upbeat. She excused herself shortly after saying “Hello,” so that she could go make some tea and grab some biscuits (cookies) for our class.

“Welcome back to Oxford,” I thought to myself with a smile.

John and I were scheduled to present that day. He went first. And quickly I felt intimidated for my own presentation. John’s a brilliant guy. But he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. Dressed as if he had just come back from the gym, he poured through his presentation with ease, telling us why he disagreed with this scholar, and what he thought about that scholar. Apparently John’s father is a rather well-known pastor and successful author here in Britain. But, again, you’d never know it. He’d never come right out and say it.

I followed John with my presentation. And it went well, I thought, but I prefaced it by saying it would be quite a bit more thin than John’s. And it was. I finished much more quickly than John did. But Sarah thanked me very much after I was done, and told me she thought it was great. There were four other girls in the class (more than two people in a class is a rarity for Oxford, but it’s typical for our special Theologian classes). We had a brief time of questions following our presentations, over tea and biscuits. And 90-minutes later, we were saying our goodbyes and packing up.

I spoke with John for a few minutes before making my way back to Harris Manchester. I asked him if he had some dental work done over the summer.

“Yeah, I did, actually,” he said with a smile at my having noticed.

He explained that he had gotten into a bike accident over the summer and had some damage done to his front teeth. He said the dentist told him, while they were making the repairs, that they might as well straighten things out a bit for him.

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. You look very American!” I told him with a laugh. He laughed, too.

“All you need now is a bit of bleaching and you’ll fit right in.” He laughed again.

“That’s right, very Hollywood.”

I said “goodbye” to John and made my way toward Harris Manchester. To get a bit more reading done before heading to the Oxford University CS Lewis Society, which meets on Tuesday nights.

And as I walked across the city center, I realized I had yet to eat that day, having been too busy working on my presentation to stop for lunch. I glanced at my watch. It was nearly six now. “Still time to catch the Alternative Tuck and a panini before it closes,” I thought to myself on my walk. If I hurry.

I entered the small sandwich shop just around the corner from Harris Manchester only a few minutes before it closed for the night, and instantly the guys in the shop recognized me. Smiles spread across the faces of those behind the counter. “Hey, are you okay?” they asked me (a traditional greeting here in England, which threw me off the first few times I heard it).

“Yeah, I’m doing really well. Happy to be back,” I told them. “I just got in early this morning, so I’m still adjusting to things, but it’s good to be back.”

We talked for a few minutes while my sandwich was being made. I asked them about their summer, where they had vacationed (in the Lake District), and how business had been (“Better now that school is going again”) before saying “Goodbye” and returning to Harris Manchester and the library. I managed to get a bit of my reading for the next day’s essay done before grabbing my things, again, and returning back across the city center to the CS Lewis Society meeting.

“I’ll be happy to have a bike again,” I thought to myself as I made my way back down Broad Street, between the tall,stone buildings on either side of the road. I never walk this much back home, and it always takes me longer than I imagine. But it does provide a nice opportunity to take in all the old buildings again. Walking past the high walls of Oriel College, I peaked in-between the gate to take in the College’s ivy covered stone walls in all of its grandeur, along with its sweeping green grass lawns. Oxford is such a beautiful place, and there’s nothing like it, so far as I’ve seen, back home.

First night back at the Lewis Society

I made my way to Pusey House (pronounced “pew-sea”), where the Lewis Society meets, and I greeted our speaker for the evening, as he was standing in the doorway talking with the Porter (the official title of the door guards found at all of the colleges and halls here in Oxford). Brendan, our speaker for the evening, is a past President of the Society. He’s an American, I believe, who is wrapping up his Dphil here at Oxford after spending some time in Germany with his wife, another Lewis scholar. He wears a long beard, and he looks a bit like the guy from Iron & Wine. But he’s super nice, soft spoken, and incredibly bright.

We made our way up the tight, stone spiral staircase and shortly after we entered the room, Walter Hooper came in flocked by a large group of students.

“Walter, it’s so good to see you again!” I said, greeting him with a smile.

I asked him if he had brought all these students with him. And he laughed.

“No, I’m afraid not,” he told me, wearing a wide smile. Having only talked once or twice over the summer, by e-mail, It was so good to see him again.

I introduced myself to start the meeting, mentioning a few announcements before introducing our speaker for the night. Brendan took his place at the front of the room to the sound of clapping as I took my seat in the front row. I listened to his talk on “C.S. Lewis on Relations Between the Churches,” and, as I did, I began to wonder quietly to myself, how in the world am I here? How in the world is it possible that I am studying at the same place as this guy?… He’s brilliant. And then I began to wonder how long it’d be before someone in the Society found me out and my role as President was revoked.

An hour and a half later, after the presentation and a brief time of Q&A, I was making my way back across the city center to hop on a bus and return to the Kilns. I hadn’t seen Jen all day, and I was about ready to collapse from fatigue.

I had a business conference call with someone from the States scheduled for 10:30 that night. Jen greeted me at the front door of the Kilns. It was so nice to see her, but it only lasted for a moment as I had to setup in the common room for my call.

An hour later, Jen and I were talking over a bowl of Debbie’s leftover soup in the kitchen. And cookies.

Jen has a tough time adjusting to the time difference coming this way, whereas I’m the opposite. Here, she struggles to fall asleep before 3 or 4 in the morning. And, because of that, she usually doesn’t wake up until well after noon. Other than dealing with the time difference, though, Jen was doing really well. Her and Debbie had spent that afternoon getting things settled here, as a tour had come through.

It was so nice to see her that evening. After my first full day back. I was overcome with fatigue from travel and studies, but also filled with excitement about being back in Oxford, and all that came with it. It was so exciting to me to think that this, this was going to be our home for the next year. And, as tired as I was, I was so excited to think about how it was all going to unfold.

Thanks for reading.

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