Friday: Last day of my first week back & Known by a stranger

Friday was the last day of my first week back. I was exhausted by this point, but I was encouraged to know I had nearly made it to the end of the week. I had already wrapped up and delivered a presentation for one class, and an essay for another. Now there was just one more essay standing between me and the weekend.

I spent most of the day Friday in the library at Harris Manchester. Punching out an essay. My only breaks came when I had to run downstairs to use the bathroom, or to grab a cup of tea.

On one trip back upstairs, after grabbing a cup of tea, I ran into Katrina, the librarian, as she was also returning to the library.

Turning to me as she opened the library door, Katrina said, “You know you’re welcome to use the loo upstairs,” referring to the old bathroom on the second story at Harris Manchester, a bathroom I rarely use because I always assumed it was a faculty bathroom.

“It’s a bit Victorian, but you’re welcome to it,” Katrina continued, using the word “victorian” as a bit of a euphemism, and not merely referring to its architecture. “Men don’t seem to mind. But women have different standards, you know,” Katrina said with a bit of a smirk.

By 5:00 that evening, I was putting the finishing touches on my essay e-mail and hitting “send.” It was a huge relief, to have my first week’s worth of studies in the bag. I hardly had time to eat and to sleep that week, and so it was a great feeling to have it behind me. Knowing I’d have at least a few days to catch my breath a bit before my next deadline.

Jen had heard from her friend Chelsea shortly after we returned. She asked if Jen might be interested in joining her for a book group with some other gals that meets one Friday night each month. Apparently their first book was “The Help,” a book Jen had just wrapped up while we were back home. Their first meeting was our first Friday back, so Jen made plans to join Chelsea for that.

Since I had a test to take the following Friday, a test I was making up from the week I was still back in the States, I decided I’d just stick around the library that Friday night, get back to some e-mails and prepare for that test. Not the most exciting way to spend my first Friday back in Oxford, but I did have a test to prepar for, and that way I could meet up with Jen and we could catch a bus back to the Kilns together.

By 11:00 that night, I still hadn’t heard from Jen and I was now being kicked out of the library. I know, I know… What kind of library closes at 11:00 on a Friday night? The kind that can hardly call itself an Oxford Library, that’s what kind!

…Dear Harris Manchester Library: I’m sorry. That was just a joke. You’re a fantastic library. You know I love you.

So, after gathering up my things and leaving Harris Manchester, I made my way across the city center to meet up with Jen. It was late, as I mentioned, and the city center was hopping from people coming and going from colleges and the clubs.

Jen’s book group was wrapping up just as I made it to the other side of town, which worked out nicely, and so we met up and made our way to the bus stop together. Jen had really enjoyed the group, and she told me about it as we walked.

“I actually knew several girls there, from my small group last year,” she told me. “And apparently one of the girls who I didn’t know knew you.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked with surprise. “Who was that?”

“Well, when we went around to introduce ourselves, I said my name, and I said my husband was here studying Theology for his second degree when one of the girls in the group asked if my husband’s name is Ryan.” Jen paused for a moment. “I said, “Yeah… How do you know that?”

I laughed out loud, awkwardly. It’s always a bit awkward when you wife is told by another woman, who she hasn’t met before, that she knows you.

“That’s weird,” I said, still having no idea who she was talking about, and trying to think of who it might be. “Who was it?” I asked.

“Well apparently her husband was your tutor (“Professor”) when you first came over. David.”

“Oh yeah?” I said in a bit of an “Ah ha” moment. “That’s cool you met David’s wife. He’s a great guy!”

“Yeah, she said he had you last year, and that he thinks really highly of you.”

“Oh wow,” I said with more surprise in my voice. “That’s really cool.”

I was so glad Jen had a good time that night. Even more so, I was thankful to have my first week back behind me. And, as we hopped on a bus and made our way back to the Kilns for the night, I was thankful to have the weekend ahead of me to catch up on some much-needed rest.

Saturday: A non-American tour, Moving our things into the Kilns & Dinner with the Mercers

I woke up late Saturday morning. Around 10. It was the first time I had been able to sleep much since we had returned, and I took full advantage of it, not climbing out of bed until after 10.

I made my way down the long, narrow hallway that leads from our bedroom to the front of the house and walked into the sun-warmed kitchen, with the warm sun rays still pouring into the kitchen on this particular late morning. The sun shone in through the windows, striking the worn, red-tiled floor and spilling all over the kitchen walls. And as I gathered up some things for breakfast, I found myself thinking it’s funny how quickly this place has grown to feel like home.

I had a tour that afternoon. For a local family (a grandmother with her daughter, her daughter’s husband and their two kids), as well as a group of international students from London. It was a unique tour in that I was the only American in the room. That almost never happens.

The grandmother and her family showed up first. Jen told me about her when she had booked the tour. Apparently this woman’s husband had been a student of Lewis’s when he taught here at Oxford, and she hadn’t been to the Kilns since Lewis invited the two of them over for a meal. She was just starting to tell me her memories of the house when the front doorbell rang.

“You’d better get that,” she said, pausing from her story and pointing her head in the direction of the door.

“Yeah, I suppose I should,” I said, with a bit of a pause. “It’s just that I’d really like to hear your story!”

We ended up starting the tour right away, as the group from London was late arriving. The tour went great, but I was a bit nervous, having this woman on my tour who had actually been here at the Kilns as a guest when Lewis lived here.

I wrapped up the tour at the front of the house and I was shaking hands with several of the students from London when the grandmother and her family passed by me on their way out. She looked as though she didn’t want to interrupt me, but I made a point to say “goodbye.” She thanked me for the tour, as did her family, and a few moments later they were gone.

I was really hoping to hear more from her, about her memories of Lewis and her time in the house, but it wasn’t going to happen this day. I hoped that, maybe someday, she’d visit us again.

Moving the rest of our things into the Kilns

Shortly after the tour left, the doorbell rang. It was Jarred. A good friend of mine who’s doing his PhD work here at Oxford. He and his wife, Chelsea (the gal who invited Jen along to the book group) are from Florida, and they have two young sons.

Jarred and Chelsea have a car, so I had wrangled him into helping us move the rest of our things from our old place to the Kilns. I didn’t know how I’d get it there otherwise, so I was certainly thankful for his help.

Jarred had never been to the Kilns before, so I gave him a quick tour before we made our way across town, to the North side of Oxford, to gather up all of our boxes we had left behind.

We parked in front of the house, on the street, and made our way across the gravel driveway underfoot. I pointed out the house across the street from where we were walking, to the blue plague that hung high on the front of its exterior.

“That’s Tolkien’s old house,” I told Jarred as we walked. “Apparently that’s where he wrote The Lord of The Rings.”

“Oh wow!..” Jarred said, commenting on how many incredible people have lived their lives here in Oxfordshire.

I struggled to remember the door code of the large home when we arrived, but by the third or fourth try, I had managed to get it open. I went to let Jane & Justin know I was there, collecting my things, while Jarred began gathering boxes and taking them to the car. I had let Jane know we’d be stopping by the day before, and she said to make sure to say “hello.”

I didn’t find Jane, but I did manage to find Justin. He welcomed me with a large smile and asked how I was doing. I could tell by the surprised look on his face that Jane probably hadn’t told him I would be coming by that day. I hadn’t seen him since June, so it was good to see him again.

Back in our old flat, I helped Jarred with the rest of the boxes and, as we were wrapping up, I heard Jane’s voice call up the stairs to our old bedroom, where Jarred and I were.

“Hello? Ryan? Are you up there?”

Jane has a beautiful British accent. Very posh. And it was great to hear it again.

“Hi Jane,” I called downstairs as I turned to go see her.

Apparently the family was just preparing to leave, as Felix and Dan (their two sons) were by the car in the front driveway. I’m much closer to Felix than I am to Dan, as Felix was generally around when we lived here, whereas Dan was typically away in boarding school.

“Hey, Felix, it’s great to see you again,” I said with a smile, reaching out to shake his hand.

“It’s good to see you again,” he said, returning my handshake and smiling himself. He has a grin that always looks a bit sheepish. It was so good to see him again.

“You’ve grown a bit since I last saw you, haven’t you?” I asked. He smiled again. Sheepishly, again.

“Yes, I believe he has,” Jane said with a nod. Felix shrugged his shoulders.

I said my goodbyes as they pulled their large Mercedes out of the gravel driveway and helped Jarred with the rest of the boxes.

Driving out of the neighborhood, with Jarred and Chelsea’s car packed full of boxes, I told Jarred it was so good to see this neighborhood again, but it was also weird to be leaving.

“This is the nicest neighborhood either of us have ever lived in,” I told him. “And the nicest neighborhood we will likely ever live.”

Thinking back to my memories of Jane and her family, I thought about how much I enjoyed my time there, at our old flat. And how much I enjoyed getting to know them, as bizarre as it was sometimes.

“I’m never quite sure how to act or what to talk about when I’m with them,” I confessed to Jarred as we drove down the British highway, across town toward the Kilns. “I’m not used to talking with people who get invited to Elton John’s place for dinner parties, and who know J.K. Rowling.”

Jarred just laughed.

We returned to the Kilns and unloaded our boxes into the library before getting Jen and making our way back across town, this time to Jarred and Chelsea’s place. They had moved over the summer, while we were back in the States, and we were looking forward to seeing their new home. They had invited us over to dinner that evening, after Jarred helped me move. I told him I owed him one.

“Or two, I guess.”

Dinner with the Mercers

Pulling up to their flat and getting out of the car, we could hear Noah’s voice call from behind the door, making known our arrival. Noah is just over two years old, and he’s a ball of energy.

Chelsea finished preparing dinner while Jen and I visited with Jarred in the living room. Owen, their youngest, is just over a year, and he’s recently learned how to walk. The last time we saw him, he was crawling, but now he’s taken off, walking non-stop to anything he can. He walked, constantly, back and forth across and around the living room while we talked.

Noah, their oldest boy, ran back and forth from Jen and I, exchanging hugs each time. He’d hop on Jen’s lap, give her a hug and then run over to me and do the same thing. Over and over again while we talked with Jarred. Apparently he was pretty excited to see us again.

This took Chelsea completely off guard when she came into the living room to ask us what we’d like to drink. Her face revealed her state of disbelief.

“I really can’t emphasize it enough, but he’s never like this,” she said. “Not with anyone but us.”

Jarred put the kids to bed, letting them tell us “goodnight” first, and then the four of us gathered around the dinner table. We had a great time catching up with them both. Exchanging stories from our trips home, to the States, over the summer. They had went back for a few weeks in August, whereas we were back for the entire time, of course, and so it was nice to share with others who know what those transitions look like.

Chelsea’s parents work for the airline industry, so they always get really good rates. The only catch is that they have to fly stand-by, which means they don’t always get the flight they were planning on taking. They told us about their many experiences of having to sleep over in cities and catch a different flight. But, considering how cheap they fly, I figured it’d be worth it.

I looked over to Jen and told her we needed someone in the family who worked for the airlines. She agreed.

We enjoyed some chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven for dessert. They were still warm and gooey when they hit the table.

“Have you ever had brown-kie?” Chelsea asked us from across the table as we dug into the cookies.

“Brown-kie?…” I repeated her words wearing a look of confusion. “No, no I don’t think I have… What is it?”

“Well, you are in for a treat,” Chelsea told us matter-of-factly. “Brown-kie is brownies baked with chocolate chip cookie dough over top, and served with vanilla ice cream.”

With my mouth hanging wide open, I nearly dropped the cookie I had in my hand.

“That’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard in my life!” I said. Jarred laughed. Chelsea nodded in agreement.

“I know, right?” she said. “It’s brownie plus chocolate chip cookie. Brown-kie.”

I told them we’d have to have brown-kie the next time we got together, before continuing our conversation.

A few minutes later, after we had completely changed topics, I stopped the conversation to say, “I’m sorry, I’m having trouble focusing… All I can think of is about how much I’d like to get my hands on some brown-kie right about now.”

It was nearly 11:00 by this time, so Jen and I thanked Jarred and Chelsea for a wonderful evening, a very tasty dinner, and for helping us move.

“No problem,” Jarred said, getting up from the table. “Let me get my keys and I’ll take you guys home.”

“Oh no, we can catch the bus,” I said. “It stops not far from here, and we have bus passes, so it’s no problem.”

Jarred asked if we were sure, and I assured him we were.

“You’ve already helped us so much today, with the move, and it was so nice to join you guys for dinner. Next time we’ll take care of dinner.”

“Deal,” Chelsea said.

We exchanged hugs with the both of them and then made our way back toward the city center, along the river that cuts through the West side of town, and to the bus stop. It was a great evening, catching up with friends, and it helped having all of our things now at the Kilns. It certainly made it feel like we were really setting into life back in Oxford. And to the year ahead of us.

Sunday: David, Switchfoot & A palm tree in Oxford

Our first Sunday back was a lazy day, spent mostly at the Kilns. We unpacked several of the boxes we had brought over the night before, doing our best to find room for everything.

Living at the Kilns is a bit like living in a museum, as people are constantly coming through to see everything. So we kind of have to make sure that our personal things don’t take away from the fact that this was Lewis’s brother’s room.

That afternoon, a philosophy professor and writer from Dallas by the name of David Naugle arrived at the Kilns. I knew he was arriving that day, as Debbie had told me he would be before she left for an out-of-town conference the day before. David would be staying for a few weeks, she told me. As a scholar in residence. Apparently he’s working on a screenplay based loosely on the life of Augustine, but adapted for a modern audience. One of his books was named “Book of the Year” in the Philosophy & Ethics category by Christianity Today a few years back.

David’s a really nice guy. And even though we’re separated by a couple generations, I was surprised by how involved with current pop culture he is. We got talking in the kitchen shortly after he arrived, and somehow or another it came up that he was going to the Switchfoot show in Cambridge in a few weeks. Before leaving to return home. I didn’t even know Switchfoot was playing in the UK. I knew they had just put a new album out, so I guess it made sense.

He told me he knows Jon Foreman, frontman for Switchfoot, and he ended up showing me some photos from a recent private acoustic performance he had played at David’s home back in Texas.

“Oh wow!” I said, checking out the photos of Jon playing from David’s home. “That’s incredible!”

David informed me the Switchfoot show was now completely sold out, but that he’d get in touch with Jon to see about holding some extra tickets at the door for us, if Jen and I were interested in going.

“Uh, yeah, that’d be great,” I told him. “We understand if it doesn’t work, of course, but we’d love to see them again.”

We talked a bit more, from our seats in the kitchen, and he mentioned the idea of getting Jon and the rest of the guys from Switchfoot to stop in for a visit at the Kilns while they were in England, if they had time.

“Jon wrote a song for one of the recent Narnia films,” David told me, “So I’m sure they’d like to see the house, maybe even play a few songs, if they had time.”

And that’s when I laughed out loud.

“That’d be completely unreal,” I told David, still laughing.

“Well I’ll run it by Debbie later, see what she says, and then I’ll get in touch with Jon. Who knows, if it works out, that could be a lot of fun.”

I thanked David for the conversation, told him I’m sure we’d be catching up more during his time here, and I excused myself to the back of the Kilns, to our bedroom, where Jen was, to get some work done.

I had been looking forward to attending a service at St Aldate’s, where we usually attend here in Oxford. Simon Ponsonby, the vicar for the evening service, is a really solid theologian, and a great speaker. I always find I really appreciate his teaching.

Jen told me to go ahead and go on to church without her, as she wasn’t feeling up to traveling to town. She said she just wanted to stay down for the evening, but that I should go ahead and go. Making sure she was actually okay with me going, before I did so, I went ahead and left. Making my way to town, with her blessing.

A palm tree in Oxford

Shortly after 5:00 that evening, as I left the house, it was already getting dark. The night air was brisk, and my trip to town provided a nice time of reflection.

I had made this walk many times before, but it was on this particular trip that I noticed something that I had never seen before. At the end of Kilns Lane, the road that leads up a slight incline to Lewis Close, the road the Kilns is on, I noticed a tallish tree, standing just off the street, on the corner. What was peculiar about this tree was not its height, though, what made it stand out is that it was a palm tree. And it made me smile, thinking how very out of place it seemed. A palm tree, in Oxford. It’s maybe the last thing you’d expect to see.

And yet, almost just as soon as I noticed it, I felt as though I could somehow relate to this tree. As it stood there, in the dark, inconspicuously. Almost as if not to make eye contact with anyone, so as not to give away its presence. Wondering if anyone notices it, and being careful not to catch the attention of those native trees that actually do belong here in Oxford. Being careful to fit in.

As I continued to make my way down the lane that evening, walking to the bus stop to catch the number 8 bus that would take me to church, I couldn’t help but think how I felt a bit like that palm tree. Just waiting for someone to notice me and call attention to the fact that I don’t actually belong here. In Oxford. At the Kilns. At the helm of the Lewis Society. In any of it.

And I found comfort in this thought as I walked through the cool night air on my way to church. I found comfort in the thought that even if no one else understands those feelings of just waiting for someone to notice I don’t actually belong here–in the middle of this life that truly feels as though I’ve gone to bed one night only to wake up in someone else’s shoes, uprooted and set down in a completely foreign world–this tree does. This palm tree in Oxford knows exactly what it feels like.

But now that you know, now that you know about this palm tree in Oxford, do me a favor: don’t tell anyone. Don’t blow its cover. Let’s let it enjoy its time here while it lasts. For one day, someone will notice a palm tree doesn’t belong in England. And on that day, it will be time for this palm tree to go home. But until then, let it pretend. Let it pretend for just a little bit longer to fit into this incredible place called Oxford.

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