Jen and I caught a bus home after our date night on Friday. It was a cool night, and we were anxious to get inside the warm home and escape the cold by the time we had walked from our bus stop. But just as we opened the door, a taxi pulled up outside the house, which I thought was odd, considering it was now 12:30 in the morning. I remembered our good friend Cole, who’s currently studying at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, was visiting for the weekend, and I wondered if this was him.

I watched as the cab door opened up and a dark silhouette stepped out onto the street. Sure enough, it was Cole. I recognized his profile as Cole handed the cab driver his fare, and so I waited at the door to welcome him.

“Haaaaaay!” he said as he drug his luggage through the gate and to where we stood at the doorway. We welcomed him with hugs and caught up from the kitchen. He had grabbed a late dinner from a kebab van in the city center, and I made myself a bowl of cereal while the three of us talked. Friends don’t let friends eat alone…

It was nearly 1:00 in the morning by the time we said “goodnight” to Cole and made our way to bed. Cole would be joining us for Guy Fawkes Day fireworks in South Park the next day, just as the three of us had done the year before.

Saturday: Day with Jen & Guy Fawkes Day

Jen and I started off Saturday with a trip to the Oxford city center. It had been a busy week, and we planned to spend the day together before catching the fireworks display in the park with the rest of the house that night.

After showering and grabbing a quick breakfast, we caught a bus to the city center. Our bus made a quick stop in Headington, a small village just outside of the city center, and my eyes caught a small boy walking behind his parents. He was carrying a long, plastic sword that was nearly as tall as he was. He stopped for a moment to try and “sheath” the sword into the front of his pants, but quickly realized doing so would prevent him from walking. His parents stopped to look back and find the boy in the middle of this dilemma. I laughed. And asked Jen if our boy could have a plastic sword one day. “Of course,” she said. I grinned widely.

We got off the bus at High Street, and we tucked into a small antique shop near the Exam Schools building. We thumbed through a large collection of old Oxford photos and illustrations, pausing to show the other any ones that we particularly liked. Finally, after looking through dozens and dozens of matted illustrations, we decided on an old drawing of High Street, complete with a carriage, one of the Radcliffe Camera, with several Oxford students in their cap and gowns, and one of the Bridge of Sighs. We talked about how great the pictures would look framed in our future home some day as we made our way out of the antique shop, across the High Street, and down a narrow lane that leads toward the heart of the city center.

It was a beautiful, clear, cool day as we walked through this cobblestone lane with leaves on ground. The stone footpath was covered in rich oranges and reds and yellows. And it was almost as if Oxford had dressed up in its finest Autumn-inspired outfit, just for us. Fallen leaves were draped across the cobblestone lane leading us beneath the Bridge of Sighs and finally up to the Radcliffe Camera, illustrations of which we carried in our plastic bag.

The streets were packed as we made it to Broad Street. Jen had wanted to try on some boots, and so we polka-dotted the city center with our stops in a handful of different shoe stores. We took a brief break from our shopping to wander down to the Alternative Tuck Shop and order two paninis for lunch, which we enjoyed from the dark leather couches of the Junior Common Room of my college. We didn’t manage to find a pair of boots for Jen, but we did enjoy spending the day together. It was a wonderful time, and something we don’t get to do nearly enough.

We returned to the Kilns in the middle of the afternoon, while the sky was still a light shade of blue, with streaks of white clouds drifting slowly by. And, as Jen searched for her keys to open the door, I found my eyes wandering to the small blue plaque on the side of the house, the one that identifies the home as where C.S. Lewis lived from 1930 to 1963, and to the windows that look into his old bedroom, and it was then that I realized, perhaps for the first time, how truly incredible it is that we live here.

Lighting Guy Fawkes on Fire & Fireworks in South Park

That evening, Jen and I and Cole made our way to South Park, where Guy Fawkes Day was being celebrated, along with Debbie and Jonathan, who are living at the Kilns, and David Naugle, a short-term scholar from Dallas. We walked the long way around, passing through the nature reserve in the dark. Around the pond where Lewis used to swim and go punting, and through the field with its tall grass. We walked in a line, with Jonathan leading the way. Jonathan walks between the city center and the Kilns every day, which takes about an hour, so he’s well-practiced. He keeps a good pace, and the rest of us did our best to keep up with him.

As we made it out of the nature reserve and onto the streets, we found ourselves walking amongst a large crowd of people, all making their way to the Fireworks display. I talked with Cole as we walked. We had left the house a little later than we should have, and so we were wondering if we’d make it on-time.

I joked that I had told those in charge that we might be a little late arriving, and so we didn’t need to worry about the show starting without us. Cole played along with the joke.

“Ladies and gentleman, has anyone seen a tall, handsome, intelligent fellow?…” Cole said. “And his friend Ryan Pemberton?”

I laughed out loud.

We passed through the gate leading into South Park only to find it lined with large carnival rides that lit up the night skyline, and food vendors that filled the air with scents of grilled sausages and hot mulled wine. It felt a bit like being at the county fair back home. And I loved it.

“Does being here make anyone else want a hot dog?” I asked.

“It does me,” said Cole.

“Just you two, I think,” said Debbie, the vegetarian in the group.

We found our way toward the front of the crowd that had gathered in the eastern end of the park for fireworks. The show had yet to begin, and we stood should-to-shoulder as we waited in the crowd.

Apparently my comment about hot dogs had stuck with Cole, as he soon took food orders from our group and left to hunt down hot dogs while the rest of us waited for the fireworks to begin. Less than 10 minutes later, they had begun.

The percussion was so loud you could feel it in your chest as the fireworks exploded into the black night sky in bursts of reds and blues and yellows. Those standing around us ghasped in awe, as did I.

“They were all out of hot dogs, so I got us burgers instead,” Cole said as he made it back to where we were standing in the crowd. The fireworks were building up to a grand finale, and we all stared skyward, faces lit up by the display, as we enjoyed our warm, tinfoil-wrapped burgers.

After the fireworks had finished, a giant, 50-foot tall effigy was lit on fire, and the crowd watched as it went from a small fire to a roaring blaze.

Limb by limb the effigy was torn down by the flickering tongue of the flames, and we all stood there, looking on, almost as if we were bystanders to a crime. But it was no crime. It was just a typical Guy Fawkes Day celebration in England. It seemed so primitive and barbaric. So pagan.

The crowd dwindled as the statue crumbled, leaving little more than a bonfire, and soon we were making our way out of the crowd and back toward the Kilns. But before we had gone, Debbie and Cole let us know they wouldn’t be able to leave without a ride on the merry-go-round. And they were serious.

The rest of us watched as they purchased their tickets and found a seat on the ride, each choosing their own “horse” before it began. But before the merry-go-round could begin its rotation, it became clear that not everyone was going to be able to have their own horse. A small girl was left looking for a free seat when Cole noticed and offered her his. Realizing this left him without his own horse, he took the front seat of the horse Debbie had been on.

“Nooooo…” I said in a hushed voice, realizing that not only would Debbie and Cole be riding the merry-go-round, but they’d be sharing the same horse!

As the ride began, they both looked over at us with embarrassed grins, Cole from the front of the horse, and Debbie from the seat just behind him. I burst into laughter, in disbelief of the scene.

Neither one of them were about to let the opportunity go by without hamming it up, so they made different poses on each rotation as they passed by us. Cole would extend his arms out into the air, as if he were flying, and Debbie would lean back and swat at the horse’s rear end, while the three of us laughed uncontrollably from our spot just beyond the ride. I cannot remember the last time I laughed so hard.

We caught a bus back to the Kilns that night. Jonathan had returned before us, to finish dinner preparations. Our meal was ready not long after we returned, and we all sat down to an incredible dinner in the dining room.

Jonathan is an amazing cook, and we enjoyed a truly inspired meal over much laughter as we explained the scene of Cole and Debbie on the merry-go-round to Jonathan. It was a great day, and a great night, and it didn’t end until nearly 2:00 the next morning.

Sunday: Magdalene Chapel & Shadow proves the sunshine

Jen and I attended church at Magdalene Chapel on Sunday morning, in the college where Lewis taught when he was here in Oxford. David, the short-term scholar from Dallas, joined us.

Magdalene is one of my favorite college chapels here in Oxford. It’s massive, and it has an incredible number of ornate carvings spread throughout its walls. The ceiling is a high-arching wooden structure, and the walls are lined with stained-glass windows. On this particular morning, a ray of light came dancing into the room through one of the front, corner stained glass windows in the chapel, in rather dramatic fashion, just as the choir–a mix of men and boys–began the morning hymns. It was an incredible, beautiful service, and I was so glad we had attended.

Afterward, we wandered a short way down High Street to the Grand Cafe for brunch. The Grand Cafe is England’s oldest coffee house, and David had never been before, so we thought it would be a nice place to follow up the service we had just enjoyed together.

We talked about the Switchfoot concert David would be attending the next week in Cambridge over our hot breakfast and coffee. David told us how he knew Switchfoot’s lead singer, Jon Foreman, and that a lot of the band’s lyrics had been influenced by his father, a pastor in California. I shared with him my favorite Switchfoot lyrics: “the shadow proves the Sunshine.” We agreed it was a beautiful line; theologically weighty and poetic.

We finished our breakfast, took care of the bill, and then we made our way back to the Kilns on a particularly sunny Sunday afternoon. It was nice to get back home early and enjoy a restful day before the start of another week.

5th week

Monday: Lincoln College’s most famous alum & Proud of you

In contrast to the weekend’s sunny weather, Monday arrived with a thick blanket of fog. The air was wet from it, and your clothes would pick up the moisture as you walked. “This feels like the England as so many know it,” I thought to myself as I made my short walk to the bus stop, en route to the city center and college.

After several hours of reading, I clicked off my desk lamp in the Harris Manchester Library and rode my bike to Lincoln College, where I’d be meeting Rich and Max and Britton for lunch. We’ve been meeting together once a week, on Mondays, to share life and lunch, and then pray together.

I hadn’t been to Lincoln College before, but it is a beautiful college in the middle of the city center. It’s small, but I’ve found myself liking the smaller colleges lately. They’re less intimidating.

We followed Britton through several courtyards and down a small stone staircase to an underground room lined with old wooden tables and flatscreen monitors on the walls. At the end of the room was a bar, where students where placing their food orders. The whole thing looked like a rather modern pub, and it was.

“I’m a little jealous that Lincoln has its own pub,” I confessed to Britton and the rest of the guys. “But this is great!”

We placed our orders, sandwiches and soup, and retired to a small alcove that looked a bit like a bomb shelter in the corner of the room.

“This place is amazing,” I said as we sat with our lunches. The guys agreed, nodding their heads as we dug into our food.

“Yeah, I think it used to be a wine cellar,” Britton told us as we ate.

“That makes sense,” said Max.

We were in awe of what an incredible deal Lincoln was for lunch, as well. For £1.95, I got a bowl of soup and a sandwich. It was incredible, really.

We had a great time of prayer, as we wrapped up our meal and time together. Walking out of the underground pub, we followed Britton along a cobblestone walkway, and it felt a bit like we’d traveled back in time.

Britton showed us the College’s chapel and dining hall as we toured the grounds. In the dining hall, Britton made sure to point out a large portrait of John Wesley, most famous for founding the Methodist Movement.

“He’s probably our most famous alum,” Britton told us.

“Meh…” I said with a smirk.

Rich laughed. “Yeah, not that big of a deal,” he said sarcastically.

Proud of You

Back in the library at Harris Manchester, I found my studies interrupted by a Skype call from my Mom. She calls me fairly often when I’m in the library, and, since I’m almost always wearing my earphones to listen to music while I read, I’m able to hear her without interrupting anyone else. I type my responses, and she speaks to me. It’s a routine we’ve got down as I’m often in the library when she calls.

The call was brief, and after a bit of small-talk, my Mom’s voice took on a more serious tone.

“Ryan, I’ve been meaning to tell you,” she said as she began. “I’ve been thinking about it and, I think if C.S. Lewis was alive today, he’d be so proud of what you’re doing.”

My eyes focused and the skin on my face tightened. Even though I couldn’t talk anyways, being in the library, I found I had to stop. I put my head down, and it was all I could do to stop the tears from welling up in my eyes.

My Mom didn’t know it, but I had been feeling a bit disillusioned at the time. I was having a tough time, wondering about the future, what we were going to do after my studies here, and all. The idea of what Lewis would’ve thought about all of this, were he alive, had never crossed my mind, but it meant so very much.

My Mom had to go, as she was on a break at work and now had to get back to things there, but she could see how much her comment had meant, even though I could hardly type.

No One Will Ever Believe You

Jen and I had a Skype call with her family that night, from our study at the Kilns. We were talking with Jen’s mom when we heard a knock on the door. I was closest to it, so I got up from my seat and opened the door. It was Debbie, and she was asking if Jen’s book was available. I looked back to Jen, who seemed to know what she was asking for, and she handed me a small romance novel from the desk.

I looked at the book she was handing me, and turned to hand it to Debbie with a look of surprise. Debbie is, perhaps, the last person you’d expect to be reading such a book. Debbie teaches Medieval Literature at a University back in Tennessee, when she’s not the Warden here at the Kilns. She likes things like knights and horses and Beowulf, and she invites her students to (secretly) bring their swords to class to show her.

I thought it was hilarious that Debbie would actually be reading a romance novel, and she smiled as I handed the book to her.

“No one will ever believe you, Ryan,” she said to me with a wide grin, almost as if to read my thoughts.

Tuesday: Our Finnish Friends

I had a lunch meeting with a guy from Finland by the name of Jason on Tuesday. Jason had spoken to the Lewis Society last year, and I had been in touch with him over the summer about joining us again this year. He had told me that he’d be stopping through Oxford on his way to a conference in the States in November, and we agreed that it’d be nice to meet up for lunch while he was in town.

At 12:30, I walked around the corner from College to the King’s Arms, a small pub where we’d be meeting for lunch. Jason was standing in front of the pub when I arrived, dressed in a black turtleneck and blue jeans. Though I’m not terribly tall, I’m not used to looking up to speak to most people, but I had to with Jason.

Jason stands at least 6’3″, and his hair is shaved short. He has a deep voice, with a strong Finnish accent, which paired with his height to make me feel just a bit less manly than I had when I arrived.

“Hello, Ryan” Jason said, greeting me with a firm shake. His wide grin was the only thing that made his presence less than intimidating.

We tucked into the pub and ordered some lunch before finding a seat near the front of the pub. It was cool outside, and while I’m not usually much of a chili fan, I ordered a hot bowl of it to warm up.

We enjoyed a great conversation over lunch. He sharing his story with me, and then vice versa. And it was funny how closely our stories lined up. We had both read C.S. Lewis at the age of 19 for the first time, and his writing had changed the course of each of our lives in a rather dramatic way.

Jason had been planning to pursue a law degree when he first read Lewis. It wasn’t long after that, he explained to me from our seat in the pub, that he asked himself what he would do if money were not an option, and if he could do everything. Once he asked himself that question, he told me, he decided he’d actually like to study theology. I laughed as he told me about this experience. It was funny just how similar it was to mine.

At one point in the conversation, Jason recommended a book called A Severe Mercy to me. It was a book that had been recommended to me several times before, by people who knew we were coming to Oxford, but I had yet to pick it up. It was a book about an American couple who moved to Oxford for studies as non-believers, and who came to the Christian faith largely through C.S. Lewis’s writing and their later friendship with him, and how the husband dealt with the loss of his wife in later life.

Jason told me he typically had about 20 copies of the book on-hand at his home, and that it was his “go-to” present for newlyweds, as it had some incredible lessons for marriage and life. I hadn’t been persuaded to read the book before, but after hearing this, I told Jason I’d have around the Kilns for a copy as soon as I got home that night.

“I think you’d get a lot from it,” Jason told me, matter-of-factly, “They have a very similar story as you and Jen.”

I thanked Jason for what had been an incredibly encouraging conversation as we made our way out of the pub, and he invited me along to dinner that evening. I hadn’t planned to go, as I had lots to do, but Jason said he’d like to introduce me to his colleagues here at Oxford over dinner at the Eagle & Child before the Lewis Society met that night. I told him I’d do my best to be there, as we exchanged another firm handshake and I made my way back to the Harris Manchester Library to get some more reading done.

Finnish Survivor & Walter’s Warm Welcome

After an afternoon of reading, I gave in and made my way across town to the Eagle & Child for dinner. Jen had texted me that afternoon to let me know her and Debbie would be going, and I couldn’t not go at that point. I walked into the pub only to find that nearly everyone else had already arrived. Jen was seated behind a long wooden table as I entered. I exchanged smiles with Jen before saying “hello” to Debbie and Jason and several others as I made my way around the table to sit beside her.

After several minutes of introductions to Jason’s Finnish colleagues who were joining us for the evening, we made our way to the counter to place our orders and then settled in to wait for our meals to arrive.

Debbie mentioned that Jason was on the Finland version of Survivor, and he nodded embarrassingly as Debbie rolled her head back with laughter. I was stunned.

“This will be another conversation,” Jason said to me, from across the table, with a look of complete seriousness.

I laughed.

“All right, yeah. I’d love to hear about it,” I told him.

He ended up telling us a bit about the experience over dinner as it arrived. About how he went for days without anything to eat or drink to start the show, and then about winning a competition toward the end of the show that rewarded he and another (male) contestant with an incredible formal dinner while the other (female) contests were forced to watch.

He told us about how the competition consisted of carrying melted butter by the mouthful across the sandy beach and filling up a bucket. The result was being covered in butter and eating as much as he could while several girls, who were chained up, for dramatic effect, were forced to watch.

“None of us had eaten for days,” he told us, wearing a broad smile as he remembered the scene. “It was quite the picture!”

Apparently he nearly won, too, making it to day 42 of the 45-day competition.

After a laughter-riddled meal, we left Eagle & Child and made our way to the Lewis Society meeting just a few buildings down on St Giles Street.

The meeting went very well, and afterward, Jennifer and I caught up with Walter, who lit up when he saw Jennifer.

“Well helloooo,” Walter said to her with a hug as soon as he saw her. It was the first time Walter had seen Jen since we had returned, and he did a double-take to make sure it was, in fact, her.

“You look genuinely happy,” Walter said to Jen after their hug. I looked over to Jen, and she really did.

“Is it love?” Walter asked with a bit of a coy smile. Jen smiled embarrassingly in return.

I laughed.

“That must be a rhetorical question, Walter,” I said with a grin.

“He really gets better every day, doesn’t he?” Walter asked, looking back to Jen.

I asked if Walter wanted help down the stairs, as he was on his way out to catch a cab when we caught up with him, and I helped him down the narrow, spiraling stone staircase before saying “goodbye” and making our way back to the Kilns.

Wednesday: Tour with Rob & If You Were to Write About This Year…

On Wednesday night we invited our good friend Rob over to the Kilns for a visit. He had never been before, and he would be leaving in a couple days to return to Washington State to join his wife, Vanessa, so we were happy to see him once more before he left.

Rob and I ended up making the last leg of the journey to the Kilns together, as our paths crossed (I on foot, with groceries in hand, and he on his bike) during the last mile of the trip. The air was cool, and we were both dressed warm. We caught up on how things had been going as we made our way to the Kilns together.

When we arrived, Jen met us at the door and let us know that she had just put on some water for tea, if we wanted some. We both agreed that sounded perfect after the cool-air walk, and so the three of us gathered in the kitchen and talked over hot, English tea.

We talked about what it’d be like to transition back to life in the States. We talked about finding jobs and re-adjusting to the cultural differences, after adjusting to life in the UK. We talked about how odd it will be to hang out again when we’re back in Washington, now that we’ve only known each other in England. And then I showed Rob around the house, pointing out interesting photos and telling stories along the way.

It was a much more informal tour than what I’m used to, and it was great. Rob would ask questions as we walked, and we’d talk about the books he had read. Rob had previously recommended I read A Severe Mercy, and so I mentioned to him that I had finally picked it up.

At the end of the tour, Debbie and Jen met us back at the front of the house. I introduced Rob to Debbie, and told her that Rob’s wife, Vanessa, had been at the house for the girls’ high tea that Jen threw last year.

“Ahhh, okay,” she said, connecting the dots.

We said our goodbyes to Rob, making tentative plans to get together again when we were back in the States for Christmas, and then he was off.

A Late-Night Visitor

Jen and I enjoyed dinner from the kitchen that night, which tends to be a rather social time when people are at home. Jonathan and David had gathered in the kitchen with us while we ate, and Debbie joined us later. There was a knock on the door as we were finishing our meal, and everyone looked around to make sure we were all there before giving one another puzzled looks, as if to say, “Who else could be knocking at this time?”

But I knew who it was before I even got up to check.

“Oh, it’s Tom,” I said, getting up and making my way to the front door.

Tom is a good friend of mine here in Oxford. He works at Ravi Zacharias Ministry, and he had given a talk the week before on the topic of topic of how a good God could allow suffering, which I had attended the week before.

I introduced Tom to Debbie and David, as he knows Jonathan (they grew up together) and Jen, and then we took a short walk to the Ampleforth Arms to catch up. There were only a handful of guys in the pub when we arrived, most of whom were watching a soccer match on a widescreen tv hanging from one of the walls. Tom and I tucked into a pair of overstuffed leather couches in the front of the pub, and we enjoyed catching up on life and church and studies.

I also asked Tom about balancing marriage and work and parenting, as he’s a few years ahead of me, and he and his wife have a young daughter at home. I talked about some of my goals, pausing to hear Tom’s advice, and I told him how much I appreciate the life of the mind here in Oxford.

“I feel like my mind is alive and at work here,” I told him, “in way I haven’t found anywhere else.”

Tom smiled, and nodded, in a way that told me he knew exactly what I meant, and we made our way back to the Kilns in the cool night air.

It was nearly 11:00 when we returned, and as we turned onto Lewis Close, Tom commented on how incredible it must be to me to be here and to be so involved with C.S. Lewis.

“Giving tours, living in his home,” Tom began.

“President of the Lewis Society, writing my essay on him…” I finished.

He smiled.

“If you were to write about what this year might look like before all of this,…” Tom began.

“…It would not have compared with this.” I said, finishing his sentence. Again, a wide smile from Tom.

Thursday: High Tea at the Kilns

Jen and Debbie put together a high tea at the Kilns on Thursday afternoon, as we had a new scholar arriving from the States, an English Professor from Montreat College in North Carolina by the name of Don King. Our Finnish friends were still in town, as well, and so they were invited to join us, too.

That afternoon, there were nearly 15 of us gathered around the dining room table, which was now overflowing with freshly baked scones, cucumber sandwiches, two kinds of hot-out-of-the-oven cookies and tea, along with fresh jams, lemon curd and coddled cream for the scones. It was quite the sight.

We talked about Lewis and his wife Joy Davidman and love as we dug into the food and tea. Everyone agreed, the food was amazing, and we let Jen and Debbie know they had done a great job.

Don recently published a book on Joy, who was married to C.S. Lewis for three years before she passed away. She was quite the fiery Jewish New York woman before she was converted to Christianity, in large part through Lewis’s writings, and Don shared some of her earlier writing with us so we could get a sense of her personality.

He read a review Joy had written about a film that had, rather overtly, been produced to drum up efforts for the second World War, particularly among male viewers. It had us all laughing out loud. One part of the review, in particular, made a rather pointed attack on the main actresses inability to act, which, apparently, was made up by her looks.

“Although if she were to wear a brazier,” Don read Joy’s review aloud, “suddenly her acting skills would drop dramatically.”

Everyone around the table was squinting with laughter at Joy’s writing.

“I can see why Lewis would’ve loved this woman,” I said, in between laughs.

“Yes, but what does she really think?!” Jason asked with a loud, affirmative voice of authority, and half a smile. We all laughed even harder.

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