Tuesday: Returning to Oxford

My flight touched down in London at half past 11 on Tuesday morning. A little over nine hours after taking off from San Francisco on Monday afternoon, and nearly a day after leaving Seattle and saying “goodbye” to Jen. She had decided to stick around home for Khloe’s birthday (our first, and only, niece). Her first birthday. I would’ve loved to have been there, but school called.

I slept very little on the flight that passed northeast over the Atlantic, but I didn’t seem too tired as I made the long walk from our recently arrived airplane to customs. I don’t know if it’s just me, but Heathrow seems to be made out of unnecessarily long hallways. If you were to ask someone from England why it is that Heathrow has such long hallways leading from the planes to customs, they’d probably tell you it’s always been that way. And now it’s tradition. Like everything else here. And you can’t argue with that.

15 minutes after getting off my plane, I made it to customs. A long line had formed by the time I arrived, as several planes must’ve all arrived at the same time. I took my place in line and waited, with lots of other people who all looked like they had just been woken up from a nice nap. Hair standing on end from the back of their head. My cell phone began vibrating in my pocket moments later, and I read the words “The Kilns” as I glanced at the screen before answering.

“Hi, this is Ryan,” I said.

“Hi Ryan!” Debbie’s voice cried over the other end, in great excitement. “Welcome back!”

Debbie is the Director at the Kilns. She’s a professor from back in the States, who’s currently on sabbatical to look over things at the Kilns for a time. She told me her and Jonathan (another scholar-in-residence, like me, who also lives at the Kilns) had been eagerly waiting for my return, and that they were happy to have me back. As tough as it was to say goodbye to our friends and family back home–and it was very tough–it was great to return to this kind of a welcome.

Debbie continued on, talking as I slowly creeped my way through the Customs line. Trying not to talk too loudly and disturb the half-asleep travelers around me. Debbie told me her and Jonathan had planned a dinner in my honor for that evening. I was totally taken aback by the gesture. I told her I was really looking forward to gathering my bags and returning to the Kilns as quickly as I could get there.

After an hour-long bus ride on the M40 out of London, Jonathan met me at the bus stop (just a short, 5-minute drive from the Kilns). He pulled up in a tiny car, in a parking lot full of tiny cars, and I thought to myself, “It’s official, I’m back in England.”

Jonathan pulled up beside the curb where I was standing, stepped around the car and welcomed me with a wide grin, a “Happy New Year,” and a hug. Truth be told, I probably welcomed him with a hug. We Americans are big on our hugs.

It was great to see Jonathan again. He wore his trademark, red-tinged 5 o’clock shadow. And we caught up on our Christmas and New Year holidays as he navigated the narrow back roads leading from the park and ride to the Kilns. We pulled up in front of the familiar old brick home a few minutes later, with its blue plaque that hangs on the side of the house, just to the side of the room where C.S. Lewis used to sleep, and suddenly I was very happy to be back.

Jonathan helped me carry my luggage inside, and Debbie greeted us as we entered, “Ryan, hello!” she said warmly, in a loud voice. “Welcome back!” she said in a loud voice as she wrapped me up in a hug. Debbie’s an American. She’s big on hugs.

There were jams and clotted cream sitting out on the counter, and Debbie let me know she was just preparing some scones and tea for me, in case I was hungry.

“Feel free to put your bags down and come have some.”

The sky outside was blue and the sun was pouring in through the kitchen window and spilling over the stone-tiled floor as she talked.

I smiled, thanked Debbie for the very kind welcome, and then made my way down the hallway leading to Warnie’s old rooms (our current rooms), with my luggage in tow.

I stepped into the familiar room, with photos of Jen and I, and another one of Khloe sitting just where we left them on our desk. They were sharing the space with a handwritten “Welcome Home” sign, complete with an American flag and British flag, which I thought was rather patriotic. I smiled as I saw it. “What an incredible welcome,” I thought to myself.

I returned to the kitchen, where Jonathan and Debbie were talking, and Debbie invited me to sit down and help myself to some tea and scones, which she had prepared for my return. I felt so blessed to return to such a warm welcome.

It really is amazing to have two such incredible places, so far apart, that feel like home, I thought to myself while taking a seat and digging into the afternoon tea in the old familiar, stone-floored Kilns kitchen. A friend of Debbie’s arrived a few minutes later, as she was joining Debbie for tea. Debbie introduced Jonathan and I as the scholars in residence, and poured her a cup of tea.

After a couple scones and my tea, I excused myself and returned to my room. My bags were waiting to be unpacked, but the bed looked awfully inviting. Having not slept more than a couple hours during my travels, I laid down and closed my eyes. And all of a sudden, I was so very comfortable in our old, familiar room.

Wednesday: First day back at College

I woke up early Wednesday morning, after collapsing in bed shortly after our house dinner (a very tasty meal Jonathan prepared for us). I usually have a tough time waking up in a foreign bed for the first time, but that wasn’t the case Wednesday morning. Somehow it didn’t feel so foreign.

After a quick shave and a shower, I was on my bike and heading toward the Oxford city center, to get a day’s worth of studies in at Harris Manchester College.

The air was cold as I glided down Headington Hill on my bike, passing all of the old familiar sights. Restaurants. Markets. Schools and neighborhoods, just as I remembered them. I passed through a small roundabout before coming up over Magdalene Bridge and seeing Magdalene Tower rising high into the sky, touching the blue and white brushstroked scene overhead. It was an incredible view, staring at this 500-year old stone-built college, and I caught myself thinking, “I really am back in Oxford…. This is so incredible.”

As I rode past the stone walls towering into the sky on both sides of High Street, I felt totally in awe of it all all over again.

Before Jen and I left Oxford to return home for the holidays, I met a friend from Texas at Eagle and Child. His name is Steve, and he teaches Communications at a large university there. I met Steve on a tour I led for a group at the Kilns last winter. Steve has been to Oxford “more times than I can count,” he told me from our seat in the Rabbit Room of the Eagle and Child that day. He loves it for all of the same reasons I do. For the history and the architecture. For the academic tradition and the fingerprints of C.S. Lewis that still remain to this day.

It was over lunch that day that I told Steve it always feels a bit like I’ve returned to an old dream when I’ve been away from Oxford for a time and come back. I told him it feels a bit like having an incredible dream, not being sure if you’ll ever have it again, and then falling asleep one night and being filled with great joy when you’re suddenly back in the middle of it.

He smiled as I shared this with him that afternoon in early December.

“For me, it’s a bit like returning to Narnia,” he confessed while leaning just slightly over the wooden table, with a smile that acknowledged how silly such a statement might sound. But I quickly wiped away any reason for embarrassment by admitting I knew exactly what he meant.

It was great to see several people I hadn’t seen for over a month as I made my way through Harris Manchester before finding my old familiar spot in the library, upstairs, in the northeast corner beside the window. My desk was still waiting for me, vacant, and I greeted it like an old familiar friend, with a smile, as I took my seat and poured over my notes for the next 10 hours or so.

The Artist

I made it back to the Kilns just after 7:00 Wednesday night, after a long day of studies. I wolfed down a quick dinner before grabbing my jacket and heading back out of the house with Jonathan and Holly (a short-term scholar who’s currently visiting Oxford from California). The house had made plans to go see the movie “The Artist” that night, and I was looking forward to joining them. We picked up Dr Michael Ward on the way, Chaplain of St Peter’s College and Lewis-expert, and we made our way to a theatre outside of the city center, called Vue, which I had never been to.

The theatre was large, with a bowling alley attached, and it had a massive parking lot. There were neon signs on the exterior of the building. When we walked into the theatre, I noticed a sign for an Italian restaurant that was attached to the building, again in neon lights, that read, “American-New York Italian Food,” which I thought was funny. It felt a bit like someone took a shopping center from the States and plopped it down in the middle of England, and then put up a bunch of neon signs to remind people that it really was American.

The movie was great, though. Feel free to skip ahead if you’d rather I don’t spoil it for you, but it ended up putting me in tears. Whether it was intentional or not (I doubt it was), it painted the most incredible picture of salvation and grace I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

The movie starts out in the year 1921, at the height of the silent film era in Hollywood. And we are introduced to George Valentine, the leading man in Hollywood at the time. Everyone worships George, including himself. He has huge portraits of himself that hang in his home, and everyone swoons when they meet him.

But then, things begin to change rapidly with the introduction of “Talkies,” movies with actual audible dialogue. Soon, George Valentine is a washed-up actor who used to be somebody, but who now struggles to make ends-meat by selling off his vast collection of expensive clothes and artwork, including the large portrait of himself that used to hang in his home.

Fast forward to the final, climactic scene, where George escapes from the gigantic palace of a good friend’s home, a friend who had only the day before rescued George from the fire he set inside his own home. And, after escaping the palace she had set him up in, so that he could rest and recover from the fire, George returns to his house.

The interior is ghastly, with remnants of the fire strewn about in a mess. He returns to his burnt up living room, in pride. He simply cannot accept the grace this friend had shown him because, in his pride, he interpreted her help as charity. And he was too proud for charity.

The movie builds to a great crescendo where we see George pull out a small box, and, from that small box, he pulls out a blunt-nosed revolver. Sitting in his burnt up living room, a charcoal-lined mess of a scene, George places the end of the revolver in his mouth and bites down hard as the tears roll down his face. This man who literally had the epicenter of the entertainment world at his fingertips is now but a simple tug of his index finger away from ending his own life. And just then, moments before he pulls the trigger, the friend who had rescued him and placed him in her palace runs into the scene, bringing a sense of urgent light into the darkness. And, suddenly, everything changes.

He removes the gun from his mouth, he stands up, and he embraces her in a hug. And as he does, she begins to cry. After several seconds, she holds him at arm’s length and says to him, “I’m so sorry, George. I only wanted to help you.”

And as she said that, I couldn’t help but cry myself. A few slow tears. It was, for me, an incredible reflection of the way I have chosen evil in my own life. Knowingly.

It was a picture of how I choose ugliness over the beautiful palace He wants to offer me. And how He rushes in to save me from myself. In the middle of the mess I’ve created. And, when He finds me, He does not verbally abuse or accuse me. Instead, He weeps at the mess I’ve made, and He pointedly reminds me that all He ever wanted was to help me.

That, for me, was the picture of grace and salvation I needed. And I was so thankful for it.

Thursday: A Flat Tire and Carb Baskets

After another full day of studying from the library on Thursday, I hopped on my bike around 6:45 that night, and I made my way across the city center in the dark, frigid night air. I was grabbing dinner with two English friends of mine who are currently studying Theology at Wycliffe Hall. Not only do they share a common British nationality, they also share first names. John. I felt outnumbered from the get-go.

I was coasting quite speedily down the hill in front of Christ Church that night, on my way to John (Ash’s) house, when suddenly my back bike tire started to shake. Something didn’t feel right. But I tried to ignore it.

By the time I made it to the bottom of the hill, it had gotten quite a bit worse. It was now bumping up and down. And so I decided to get off and have a look at it. Sure enough, I had a flat. My tire had gone so flat that there was now hardly anything left in it.

“Perfect,” I thought to myself as I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket to give John a ring and explain my situation. I had planned on meeting up with him at his house and then we were going to drive together to John (Adams’) place.

After I explained what had happened, he told me not to worry about it, and that he’d come meet me where I was at. By the time I had pulled my hefty bike to the nearest bike rack to lock it up, John was waiting for me with a look of sympathy.

“So sorry about the bike,” he said with a smile as I opened the passenger door, “But it’s great to see you again.”

We made the 10 minute drive to John Adams’ place while catching up on our holidays, and it wasn’t long before we were pulling into the boarding school where Adams lives with his wife and baby daughter. He’s a chaplain at the school, and so they have a flat right there on the grounds.

We passed a group of boys walking in striped ties and black gowns, looking very Oxford.

“It’s a rather posh school,” John explained to me as we pulled the car into a parking spot just outside of Adams’ flat.

Apparently we had arrived a bit early, as John Adams wasn’t answering when we tried him at his door. Then, after 10 minutes or so of waiting in the near-freezing darkness, John’s cell phone began buzzing. It was John Adams, and he was making his way across the school grounds. We could hear his booming voice as he came, in the open air, so we knew he wasn’t far off.

“Gentleman,” he said welcoming us, “Hello.”

I hadn’t seen John since the spring, so it was really good to see him again.

He had only just finished his chapel service for the evening, and so he was dressed in a tie and black gown himself.

“How do you like my gown?” John asked me as he unlocked the door and led us inside.

“It’s really nice, yeah,” I replied. “I nearly wore mine.”

Both Johns’ wives were currently out of town, one in London and the other in Cambridge, so it was the three of us bachelors getting together for dinner that night.

We caught up on life while our three, individual frozen pizzas baked in the oven. John Ash cut up some vegetables while we talked, before boiling them on the stovetop.

John Adams commented on the new kettle he had just received from his mother-in-law, pointing out how incredibly well it poured.

“Look, no spillage at all,” he said, demonstrating it for us.

I laughed, and told them this was a very English conversation. I told them this is one conversation you’d never hear back home, is guys bragging about the “pourability” of their kettle.

They both looked at me puzzled.

I explained you hardly find kettles back in the States, and certainly not the electric kettles that come standard in every English home. Still they look puzzled.

“You don’t use kettles?” John asked.

“Well, it’s not that we don’t, it’s just not nearly as common,” I explained. “You’ll see more coffee makers, for example, because we tend to drink more coffee, but if you do see a kettle, it’s a stovetop kettle.”

Still they look puzzled, so I quickly tried to move the conversation on, as John checked on our pizzas.

“That black enough, you think?” he asked, staring into stove.

He pulled the pizza out, one by one, and John Ash asked if we minded if we just had the steamed vegetables straight on the pizza, as it covered the entire plate.

None of us minded, so he proceeded.

We set our plates down on the table and John Ash snapped a picture of the scene: pizza completely covering the plate, with thick cut steamed vegetables on top of the pizza.

“It’s not a bad set up, actually,” he commented while snapping a picture with his iPhone. “Carb basket.”

The night was filled with a lot of laughter as we talked and ate. John Ash explained how the remote-control helicopter he received as a Christmas gift had taken quite the beating, and how it now looked a bit like a smashed fly trying to take flight.

We talked about studies and ministry. John Adams told us about the school’s chaplain, “a great guy, really, who preaches the Gospel,” and how he was being removed from the school because apparently a few parents on the Board thought he was a bit too conservative and challenging in his teaching.

We talked about suffering, and how this Chaplain was basically suffering because of his “cross-shaped life.” John Adams kept using that term, cross-shaped life, as he talked about this Chaplain. And as he talked about the lives we are called to live, as followers of Christ.

And I loved it. I loved it in a way I didn’t like. I didn’t like it because I knew I often flee from suffering, and yet that’s the very mark of our faith.

Around 10:00, I explained that I should probably get back home, as I still had a bit of studying to do before my test the next day (“collections”), and so we said our goodbyes and made the short drive back to the city center, John Ash and I. He apologized about my flat as he dropped me off right where I left it, and I hauled it off to College in the cold night air, where I could lock it up safely before catching a bus back to the Kilns.

It was after 11:00 by the time I made it home that night, and I ended up studying until after 1:00 the next morning.

Friday: Collections and Unconventional Fingerprints

After several hours of studying that morning, I made my way to the Exam Schools that afternoon, dressed in my black gown, for collections. At Oxford, rather than taking a test at the end of the term, to see how you know the material, you take a vacation in-between terms and then come back and take a test (“collections”) before starting your next term. Yep, brutal, I know.

I sat in room full of 100 or so other students at 2:00 that afternoon, all of us dressed in our black gowns, and I scribbled away on my essays on John Calvin for the next three hours. By hand. By 5:00, when I finally put my pen down, I could hardly feel my thumb and my index finger. A numbness had set in that would linger for the next several days.

But I was done. All of the studying that I had put in after arriving in Oxford was now put to paper, and I could now wash my hands of it and get ready for the next term. It’s always a relief, that feeling.

I walked back to college in the dark, that evening, before climbing back into my old familiar desk and trudging through all of the e-mails that had piled up during the past few days I had spent studying. Once I had fended off enough e-mail for the day, I got started on my application for school next year. I’m applying to do one more year here in Oxford. For a nine-month MSt in Christian Doctrine.

Jen caught me on Skype after 9:00 that Friday night. I’m sure she assumed I’d be back home at this point. I wasn’t.

“So, where’d you go for dinner,” her words asked in my earphones, likely knowing what my response would be.

“Uhhh, the library?” I typed out, as I was in the library and I couldn’t talk.

“Ryannnn!” she said firmly. “Do I need to sick Debbie on you?”

“No, no you don’t need to sick Debbie on me,” I typed. “But can you guess where I had lunch?”

“Uh, the library,” Jen said in a mocking voice.

“Ding, ding, ding,” I typed. “But don’t get Debbie. I’ll go home soon.”

Jen and I talked for a bit, and it was great to see her again. It really made my day. We laughed together as we talked, separated by a giant ocean and 6,000 miles.

It was after 10:00 by the time I finally shut down my computer and made my way down the stone staircase leading out of the library that night. My phone buzzed in my pocket as I hit the bottom step. It was Debbie, calling to check up on me from the Kilns.

“Are you alive?” she asked with a laugh. “We thought you’d be home by now.”

I took my turn laughing. If only she knew the conversation Jen and I had just had.

“Yep, I’m still alive. But just barely. I’m making my way home now.”

“Okay, good,” she replied, with a bit of relief. “Well we’re looking forward to celebrating the end of your tests. We’ll be waiting for you when you get here.”

I thanked Debbie. Her thoughtfulness put a smile on my face. And it brought some life to my wearied mind.

I made my way out of the college into the cold night air. It had been a cloudless day, and the naked sky provided little cover for the cold. I zipped my jacket up to my neck as I walked, tucked my chin in close, and put my earphones in before turning on some music for my walk to the bus stop.

Unconventional Fingerprints

I was listening to the band Sigur Ros as I strode the stone sidewalks and back alleys that led to the bus stop on High Street that night. If you haven’t heard of Sigur Ros, I couldn’t recommend them more. I’ve only recently stumbled upon their music, which makes me feel bad. I like to think I know a thing or two about good music, about what the kids are listening to these days, but somehow this Icelandic band slipped out of my radar all these years.

The falsetto voice of their front man Jonsi (pronounced “yon-see”) rang in my ears, in dramatic, haunting, lingering tones as I crossed through the shadows of the Oxford alleys, with my hands in my coat pocket. I hugged closely to the stone walls as my feet beat the pavement. The colleges that sat just beyond the high stone walls bordering the alley I walked rose high into the dark sky like castles, and the gaslit lamps stood on each bend of the alley. The whole scene looked almost as though it could be taken straight out of a movie set in the middle ages, and I love it. It may sound funny, since I’ve been here a year and a half now, but all of this still seems so unreal to me at most times.

I laughed to myself as I walked in the late, cold night air, while my shadow chased a few feet behind me. And after several days of sleep-deprived studies, I found myself thinking, “I can’t believe I’m actually here right now… I can’t believe I’m actually studying at the University of Oxford.”

Sigur Ros’s ethereal sound continued to play in my earphones as I walked, and the music seemed to set the mood for the scene. It was perfect, really.

The lead singer of this band Sigur Ros, Jonsi, is something else. He’s blind in one eye. Which really doesn’t matter all that much, actually, because he sings with his eyes closed. He strikes his guitar with a bow and sings not in Icelandic, not even in English, but in something of a gibberish-like concoction of his native tongue. Wherever the melody leads him. He dresses up in rather funky, homemade outfits, too. Complete with feathers. And glitter around his eyes. But his voice… His voice is what strikes you. It’s nothing short of beautiful.

And I found myself thinking about his unconventional approach to music as I hopped on the bus, made my way across town, and then got off the bus a short 10-minute walk away from the Kilns, while Jonsi’s voice continued to play in my ears.

The air was cold as I made my way up the slight incline of Kilns Lane that night. Oxford was tucked in for a night’s sleep as I walked, drumming along with the music on my legs. Houses and cars were covered in a blanket of frost, which made everything glimmer. It was a beautiful scene, and the combination of music and glimmering frost over everything made me want to dance in the cold, open night air. That or a lack of sleep and utter exhaustion. Or both.

But I began to think about the fact that this guy, Jonsi, is doing something completely ridiculous and unconventional to most people. It’s the kind of thing that, when you look at it on paper, most people would say, “Yeah, that sounds like a bad idea…” Dressing up in a head dress and singing in gibberish.

But then you hear it for yourself, and you’re breathless.

And I couldn’t help but think, “I’m so glad Jonsi had the courage to share this gift he’s been blessed with with all of us.” I couldn’t help but think, “We’re blessed by it.”

I got thinking about the fact that we’re all given roughly 80 or so years on this planet. If we’re lucky. And that’s all for our time here. It’s not the end of our story, of course, but it is all we have for this (brief) chapter of history. I got thinking about the fact that we all leave something here. Even if it’s not good, we all leave some sort of fingerprint.

And I got thinking, this world, and those who had the fortune of hearing the musical talents Jonsi has been blessed with, will be better for it. The mark he will have left, just by sharing the gift he’s been given, will matter. And it wouldn’t be the same if he was trying to do what someone else wanted or expected from him. In fact, it would probably be very unlike what he’s doing now. It probably wouldn’t include a feather head dress. Or a mish-mash of gibberish. Instead, it’d be more like what this agent told him to do if he wants to get a record deal. Or what that producer told him they’re looking for. But it’s not. Instead, it’s this unique, unconventional reflection of who He is. And I thought that was beautiful.

I continued to beat my legs with my hands to the sound of the music in my ears as I walked in the cool night air, under the sparkling stars and alongside the glistening cars. And I found myself thinking, “I want to do that.”

I want to leave my fingerprints on this world in a way that no one else can. Because it’s a reflection of the unique gifts God has given me.

I’m sure it sounds funny, but, for some reason I felt like listening to Jonsi pour out his soul in his gibberish, Icelandic falsetto gave me permission to do that. And I hoped, when it was all said and done, that at the end of my time here, the words from my life would matter. That they would find their way to someone and that person would say, “I now see God more clearly because this guy cared enough to share his soul with us.”

That, to me, would be a life worth living.

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