Archives for posts with tag: Oxford University CS Lewis Society

A Desire for Brains & Just Two More Weeks

I woke up one morning about halfway through Trinity (spring) Term to start my day–another long one spent working on revisions for final exams in the library at Harris Manchester College–and pulled on my jeans only to notice how loose they fit. I had hardly noticed it, but all of a sudden I could tell I had lost some serious weight. That’s what happens, I guess, when I’m spending so much time revising for finals that I don’t hkeave time to eat a second dinner at night.

I was just a couple weeks away from finals, at this point, and I was really beginning to feel the pressure. Not only was I fighting off fatigue, from day after long day spent in the library revising (usually arriving just after 9.00 in the morning, staying until the doors closed at 11.00 in the evening, and then returning to the Kilns to study for several more hours), but I was also worrying about how much material I had left to cover. I was worried about whether or not I was going to be able to get through everything I wanted to cover before exams arrived.

But, after several months of day-after-day of this routine, mostly I was just fighting off feeling like a zombie.

On one afternoon, in particular, I stumbled out of the Radcliffe Camera after several uninterrupted hours of Old Testament revisions, into the sunlight and in desperate need of a coffee. And I felt like a zombie, stumbling about on the cobblestone footpath as tourists walked by with their cameras in the afternoon sun.

The words, “Brains, brains,…” came to mind, as I made my way to the coffee shop, like some undead creature straight out of a 1960’s low-budget zombie flick. And given my current state, that of preparing for final exams, the irony of a desire for brains was cutting.

I took 15 minutes to spoil myself with a sandwich and coffee, which I enjoyed in the sun-drenched lawn that circles the Rad Cam. Black metal gates separate the Radcliffe Camera and its green grass lawn from street traffic, leaving tourists standing on the outside looking in, snapping photos. Sitting on the stone bench enjoying my caffeine and sandwich, with tourists in sunglasses snapping photos staring at me and the Rad Cam, I had never felt so much like a zoo exhibit in my life.

“Just two more weeks…,” I thought to myself as I finished my coffee and made my way back inside the Rad Cam for more revisions.

Missing Home

Following a week’s worth of intensive revisions, I woke up Saturday morning really missing home. I had had my head down on studies so much of the time that I had hardly had a chance to think about missing home for a while. But then, all of a sudden, it caught up with me like a wave.

I found myself missing Jen, and just wanting to be with her again. Thinking about being together with her again, I found myself trying to remember how she smells when I hug her. I wondered if I’d recognize the smell of her perfume when I saw her again, and then I tried to reassure myself that I would, in fact, smell her perfume again.

I found myself just missing having that someone to talk with, to share life with, and to be honest with. The thing is, when you’re married, you can say things to your spouse you can’t say to anyone else. Things you’re thinking. The kind of things that, if you were to share with anyone else, they’d think you were just plain evil. But you can share them with your spouse, because they know you’re evil. Because they live with you.

I found myself missing my family back in the States. I was missing all my favorite spots back in the Northwest, by the water, with the snow-capped mountains in the background. I was missing our favorite restaurants and late nights spent at the lake in the summer.

But riding my bike home from the market on this particular sunny Saturday morning, I reminded myself that I’m not always going to have sunny Saturday mornings at the Kilns. And as much as I was missing home, I tried to remind myself that I really ought to enjoy this while it lasts.

Casting Crowns at the Kilns

The following day was Mother’s Day back in the States (its one of those holidays that is celebrated on a different date here in the UK), and so I made sure to ring up my mom to wish her a happy one.

She was surprised to hear from me, it seemed, but very happy to hear my voice, at the same time. Being neck-deep in revisions, I really hadn’t had much extra time to talk with anyone back home as much as I normally did.

A couple of the members from the band Casting Crowns had stopped by the Kilns that afternoon for a tea, as they were in the area and a recent short-term scholar in residence here at the house had invited them over. It was great to meet them, though I had to excuse myself after just a few minutes to work on my Greek.

“Guess who’s here at the house?” I asked my Mom during our call.

“Who?”

“Have you heard of Casting Crowns?”

“No way! I remember going to their show last summer,” she told me, in a voice that rang of excitement.” Do you think they’ll remember me?”

I smiled, and I told her I was sure they would.

A Real Decision on Our Hands

I was working from the library in Harris Manchester the next day when I received an e-mail from Duke. They apologized for the delay, and explained that they were now forwarding me a letter dated from nearly a month earlier, which congratulated me on being accepted for the Master’s program in Theology, starting in August.

It was now nearly June, and apparently the original letter was sent to me on April 19. Only a few weeks after I submitted my application.

Reading over the acceptance letter, I found myself so excited, and I couldn’t help but smile from my second-story desk in the HMC library.

I rode my bike home that evening laughing to myself in the darkness as I passed through the city center. Laughing at the fact that, less than two years after leaving home, leaving a job in marketing and PR, I now had offers to study graduate-level Theology at both Oxford and Duke.

It all just seemed so unreal to me. But now, at last, we had a real decision on our hands.

Feeling Tired & Feeling Refreshed

Just a couple days later, I found myself feeling incredibly tired. For the first time, I felt so tired from the long days of studying that I felt like I no longer cared about my final exam marks as much as I longed just to be done.

I felt sore from sitting on the hard, wooden library chairs for hours on end, day after day. So much so that it hurt to sit down in the morning.

I also began having this terrible fear that I wouldn’t be able to recall anything I had been studying when my final exams finally arrived. This thought would wake me up at night, and I’d have trouble getting back to sleep.

I pictured myself sitting to take my exam, flipping open my question set and drawing a blank. I pictured myself sitting in that massive room upstairs in the Exams Schools, filled with other finalists, and just staring at my paper for three hours…

And then, in the midst of these fears and fatigue, seemingly out of nowhere, I remembered the look on Hayley’s face when she first found out I had been accepted to Oxford. I found myself picturing the look of sadness in her eyes when she knew we would soon be leaving. And then I remembered her words that came just a few days later, through text message:

I know you’re going to impact a lot of lives. You have mine.”

Those were the last words she sent me before she passed away, two years earlier.

And then, just as suddenly, I found myself looking forward to the arrival of our baby girl, Emma. And a smile spread across my face as I pictured her growing up before our eyes.

I felt myself realizing that, one day, she will ask me me about this time. About our journey to England and our time in Oxford. And it was then, when I pictured Emma asking about this experience at some far off future date, that I knew I will want to tell her I gave it my all. I knew I would want to tell her that it was worth it, to not be by her mother’s side all those months. And that her mother did not go through all of that for nothing.

And when I had considered of all that, I found myself realizing, no matter how tired I was of this seeming endless routine, no matter how completely exhausted I was, I simply could not give this any less than my all.

Refreshing Words of Encouragement

It was later that same day when I received a phone call from a professor friend of mine from the States. Steve. I met Steve last year, while giving a tour of the Kilns to a group of his students, and we had stayed in touch ever since.

Steve’s a big-time CS Lewis fan, which I appreciate, and he’s also one of the kindest people I have ever met in my life. He’s one of those few people who, when you’re talking with them, make you feel as though there is nothing else at all going on in the world.

There were several Lewis scholars from the States who just so happened to be in Oxford for a few days, on their way to different places in England and other parts of Europe, and who were gathering at The Trout for dinner that evening. Steve phoned to ask if I’d be interested in sharing a cab ride to the restaurant, and I told him that sounded like the perfect break from revisions.

I filled Steve in on our situation since we last spoke as the cab carried us from the city center through Port Meadow, Wolvercote, and finally to our restaurant. I told Steve that, after sharing some rather disappointing news with him previously, we now had two options, and a decision to make.

“Oh, good. Ryan, when you told me that news initially, I was so sorry, but I also just had this feeling that everything was going to turn out wonderfully,” Steve told me in a voice of encouragement and a confident smile. “And it appears it has.”

I was beaming from my seat in the rear of the cab, seated across from Steve on the bench seat, knowing how tough a time that had been, and, at the same time, how thankful I was to now have such options.

“Well, either way, they are both great options, Ryan,” Steve said to me as our cab pulled up to the front of the restaurant. “Congratulations. You’ve worked hard, and you’ve earned it!”

I thanked Steve for his kind words, for his encouragement along the way, and we made our way inside the Trout, only to find Walter Hooper, Jerry Root, Christopher Mitchell, and the rest of the gang standing at the bar. After a round of “Hellos,” “Heys,” and hugs, we ordered our food at the bar and took our drinks to the outdoor patio, that overlooks the rushing river passing by.

I met a woman who had only just accepted a teaching position at Duke, and who had completed her DPhil here at Oxford several years earlier. We talked about the funny nuances of studying at Oxford as an American, about the characters you run into in the basement of the Radcliffe Camera, and about our options for the following year.

After several hours of laughter and great company, our group walked the 10-minute journey to the Wolvercote bus stop, with the smell of Jerry’s pipe tobacco floating through the air. It was the perfect accent to the view of the sunset going down over Port Meadow.

We caught a bus back to the city center, and when I said my goodbyes, Jerry lifted me off the ground with a bear hug before holding my shoulders at arm’s length and making a point to encourage me in the work I was doing for the Oxford University CS Lewis Society.

“The Society is in very good shape,” he told me in his deep voice, with his eyes beaming from behind his thick glasses. “You should be proud.”

I thanked Jerry for the great evening, for his kind words, and then Steve and I walked together along Broad Street: he to his B&B, and I to Harris Manchester College.

We stopped at the corner where Lewis first stayed when he arrived in Oxford, just across the street from Harris Manchester, which also happens to be not far from the house Tolkien lived when he received his first book rejection letter (which Steve pointed out to me).

Steve gave me a large, warm hug, he told me it was a blessing to know me, and that if there was ever anything I needed from a Professor in Texas, just to let him know. I thanked him for his generosity, I told him the evening had been a breath of fresh air in a rather tired time, and that I looked forward to being in touch.

Walking back to the college library that evening, I felt more refreshed than I had in a long, long time. And I felt ready for the final stretch before exams.

Honored to Be a Godfather

I sat down at my computer at my second-story desk, still beaming from the evening’s dinner and conversation, when I opened up an e-mail from Olli. He wanted to invite me to he and Salla’s son’s baptism that weekend, and he asked if I’d be willing to be Tobias’s godfather.

He said it’d be a nice way to always stay in touch, even when we’re separated by the Atlantic Ocean. And even after such an incredible evening, I could not remember the last time I was so honored.

My Meeting with Philip

I had a meeting with Philip Kennedy the following afternoon, to discuss my collections results for Modern Theology, in preparation for finals.

We met in his office at 4.00 in the afternoon, and he apologize to me if he seemed tired, explaining that he had already had six meetings that day. I told him that was a lot of meetings for one day, and I thanked him for taking the time to meet with me.

We went over my collections results, and he told me he intentionally marks collections very strictly so as to motivate students to work extra hard for the real exams. And then, about halfway through our review of my results, he began telling me about a recent dinner he was at.

“I’m not very politically correct,” he said as a preface to his story, and which I interrupted by saying, “which I appreciate.”

He smiled, then continued.

“I was invited to this dinner event for the University when something very dangerous happened… They left me alone with a bishop!” he said to me with a look of shock. “That’s a very dangerous thing, as I nearly always say something that results in a fight!”

I laughed outloud.

“But I didn’t this time, because he was a nice man.”

At one point in the conversation he asked me how I would describe England.

“In two words,” I said, “to be brief, ‘Post-Christian.'”

He looked surprised.

“Well that’s very diplomatic of you,” he said, before rolling out a long list of rather negative descriptives, which ended with “hedonists.”

I told him I thought we were all hedonists. And he agreed.

Later on, he told me he didn’t envy me, bringing a baby into this world.

“It’s just such a horrible place,” he said, shaking his head and looking rather hopeless.

I told him I agreed, but that I was already preparing how I was going to teach her to handle it all. I told him I was writing her a letter.

“But she won’t be able to read when she arrives,” he pointed out to me.

“No, but she will one day.”

I told him there was this great quote from Mother Teresa that says,

Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.”

I told him I thought there was something in that. I told him this quote reminded me of Jesus, and what he came to accomplish: not to run away from the pain and hurt and ugliness, nor to simply remove us from it, but to redeem it, from the inside out, and then to use us to continue that mission. Without getting tired.

I told Philip that I found reassurance in the fact that, even though things were really ugly at the moment, I was able to welcome Emma into the world knowing that things were going to be okay. Knowing that they were already being redeemed.

He smiled. And nodded. And we returned to our revisions discussion.

Falling Asleep on my Bike Ride Home

Riding home that night, I was so tired that I nearly stopped halfway up Headington Hill to walk the rest of the way, or to look for someone to walk my bike for me. But I kept going.

About halfway home after Headington Hill I began worrying that I’d fall asleep on the way home, while still on my bike, as I was so tired.

And then I imagined the headlines of the local newspapers the next day:

Oxford bus hits bicyclist. But not to worry, bus driver certain bicyclist was asleep.”

I was nearly home when I passed the palm tree that stands at the bottom of Kilns Lane. It’s branches were dry and brittle, and they hung heavy in the dark night air.

I nearly spoke outloud when I passed it, to tell it I knew how it felt. It had been a cold, long, and dark spring, and I was just barely hanging in there after the grueling, endless cycle of revisions.

Like the palm tree, there was only a hint of life left in me as I turned onto Lewis Close that evening and pulled into the Kilns.

“Just one more week before exams…,” I told myself as I slipped under my bed covers that evening and closed my eyes for a few hours of sleep.

False Alarm & A Different Ballgame

I woke up Saturday morning, just one week before my exams, with a mixture of excitement and anxiousness, all at the same time. I was excited to finally be getting close to just being done with this exhausting routine. At the same time, I was also anxious to actually sit down and know that this was it…

I spent the day in the library at college with my head down on studies, and several other finalists were doing the same. The look of anxiety and fatigue was visible on all our faces.

At one point in the afternoon I made my way downstairs to use the restroom, which is when I heard several jets pass by overhead, more loudly than I had ever heard before. And not just once, but several times.

My first thought was “Terrorists?” And then, “Would that mean finals are cancelled?”

I ran back upstairs to the library just as Mahdi and Evelina, two other finalists, came running out of the library.

“Is it terrorists?” Mahdi asked with an excited grin as we all looked out the windows toward the sky.

“We were hoping it’d be terrorists,” Evelina said, following after Mahdi with a smile, “So we wouldn’t have to take our exams.”

Turns out it wasn’t terrorists. Just a local airshow.

But that’s how bad things are just a week before Oxford finals: people would rather face a terrorist attack than their exams.

Dinner With John & John

I had dinner that evening with two of my good friends: John Ash and John Adams. Both Johns are studying theology at Wycliffe Hall here in Oxford, both of them are preparing to enter ministry full time, and all three of us were just a week away from starting finals.

We talked about theology and exams from our seats around the dinner table in John Ash’s dining room that evening as we ate. He mentioned a girl he had recently been talking with, before a revisions tutorial, who confessed to him that she hadn’t slept for more than two hours a night for the past several months, because of her anxiety over finals.

Apparently she shared with him that she had dreamt of coming to Oxford since she was just five years old, and that she had this terrible fear that her entire life was going to unravel before her eyes if she didn’t do well on these exams.

“And she was completely serious,” John said to us.

John Adams, whose wife is a doctor, talked about the fact that Oxford hospitals always see a spike in patients this time of year, because of finalists and anxiety, and that there was currently a four-week waiting period to get in.

“So, even if you are suffering from sleep deprivation…” he said, allowing his sentence to run off into silence, in a sign of hopelessness.

Just the week before, I had heard that about 60 percent of patients currently being seen at hospital in Oxfordshire are Oxford finalists.

I shared with the guys what I had been told by another finalist, a story about a finalist from the year before who had an offer from Harvard, and who had committed suicide just the week before exams because she couldn’t handle the pressure.

After a brief pause, John Ash went on to tell us what he said to this girl who had hardly slept in months, in light of her fear and anxiety.

“I’m not sure where she’s at, or what she believes, even, but after listening to her, I told her that I am not as worried as I could be,” he recounted to us.

“I told her I could be a lot more anxious, or worried, but I’m not, because millions of years after these exams have passed, when I am worshipping Jesus, I am confident no one is going to turn around and ask, ‘Hey John, by the way, how’d you do on your exams? Oh… Uh, are you sure you should be this close?'”

We all laughed, and John Adams nodded.

“That’s right,” John Adams said, now more serious. “We’ll be taking the same exams as everyone else, but it’s a completely different ball game for us.”

While my anxiety would only grow from that point on, in light of my approaching exams, that conversation would repeatedly come to mind, helping me fight off the thoughts that my life was going to completely unravel if I didn’t do well on my finals.

Last Week Before Exams

Tuesday morning was a warm, sun-drenched day as I made my way from the Kilns to the library on my bike. It was warm in a way it hadn’t been for ages.

The city smelled like flowers as I crossed over Magdalene Bridge and entered High Street, and all of a sudden it felt as though everything was waking up from a long, cold winter.

I passed by several finalists walking along High Street in their sub fuscs covered in glitter and paint, and I couldn’t help but smile. I couldn’t help but smile because I couldn’t wait to smile like that. I couldn’t wait to have my exams behind me, to be covered in confetti and silly string, and to be returning home to finally see Jen again.

And it made me excited, just to think about it. The finish line was so close I could taste it.

A Conversation With CS Lewis’s Stepson

Although I had a lot of work to get through, I took a break to head to the Oxford University CS Lewis Society Tuesday night. And although I had been terribly excited for the evening’s speaker, I struggled to step away from my work, feeling the pressure of my looming exams.

I had written an e-mail to CS Lewis’s Stepson, Douglas Gresham, earlier in the year, to see if he might be visiting Oxford in the near future, and to ask if he might be willing to address the Society when, and if, he did.

He had written back to me, not long after, and said that, while he didn’t have plans to visit the city, he very well might if he had an invitation. So I extended the invite and he warmly accepted it.

I had been looking forward to Douglas’s talk for some time, and it was a pleasure to hear, first-hand, his memories of his time here in Oxford with CS Lewis and his mother, Joy Davidman. To hear about his memories from living at the Kilns.

It was incredible to stand there, in the packed room of St John’s College, and to listen to his memories of what it was like to lose his mother to cancer, and then to share that grieving process with his stepfather, CS Lewis.

Very generously, after talking for nearly an hour, Douglas took questions until after 10.00 that night. Afterward, when he had signed several autographs and smiled for several photos, I walked him back to his hotel on High Street.

And as we walked, I thanked Douglas for his generosity, and for sharing such personal stories. He had shared with everyone about how painful it was not only to lose his mother to cancer, but also to lose his father to suicide, and his stepfather, CS Lewis, to heart failure.

“Everyone close to me was gone within just a few years,” he shared with the group.

I told him I really admired and appreciated his honesty, as not everyone is so open about such painful experiences.

“No,” he said with a pause, “but perhaps more should be.”

And I agreed.

A Voice of Confirmation

For the first time in a very long time, I woke up Wednesday morning nearly eight hours after going to bed. My body was desperate for sleep, and all of my tutors and supervisors had been emphasizing just how important it was to get plenty of rest that last week before finals began.

And even though I had slept for nearly eight hours, I felt like I had hardly slept at all. I was so anxious for exams to begin and my mind seemed to race, even in my sleep.

I made it to Harris Manchester just as the College library was opening that morning, and I ran into Sue, the librarian, halfway up the stone staircase that leads to the library.

After telling me “good morning,” and asking if I was getting any sleep these days, she went on to ask about my plans for after finals.

“Will you be returning next year, Ryan?” she asked.

“Well, we have an offer to do the MSt here,” I told her, ” but we also have an offer from Duke, back in the States.”

“Oh, well Duke’s a lovely school,” she said. “That’s not an easy decision.”

“No, it’s not,” I admitted. “And I’m not sure if you heard or not, but we’re expecting our first over the summer, so that’s an obvious attraction, too.”

“Yes, of course,” she said. And after pausing for a moment, and smiling, she looked me in the eyes and said rather matter-of-factly, “Well, Duke’s the right one,”

“Thank you, Sue,” I told her with a wide smile.

“Not that you have to go, mind you.”

“No, of course,” I said. “But thank you.”

The Last Day Before Finals

I woke up Friday morning, the last day before finals, feeling completely overwhelmed with anxiety. I felt like throwing up several times as I got ready to head to college, and I could not remember ever feeling so anxious in my life.

I met God in prayer several times on my bike ride to college that morning. I asked that He might help make the anxiety relent, and that I might be reminded to trust in Him.

And by the time I parked my bike at college, and after finishing several rounds of prayer, I felt like He was reminding me. I felt like He was reminding me that He had brought us here for His glory, and that He would see me through this, for His glory. I felt like He was reminding me that He would use all of this for His glory.

I was reading over notes and Scripture for my first final exam the following day, on the Old Testament, when I read Psalm 73. And as I sat there behind my desk on the second-story floor of the college library, comfort I cannot now describe swept over me as I read these words:

You hold my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel,

and afterwards you will receive me

with honour.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart

and my portion for ever.

But for me it is good to be near God;

I have made the Lord God my refuge,

to tell of all your works.

And even though I had felt completely overwhelmed with anxiety only moments earlier, to the point of being sick to my stomach, I suddenly felt calm in a way I hadn’t in months. I suddenly felt ready to sit my final exams, which I would do in less than 24 hours.

The  Start of Trinity Term

After several dark, dark months that stretched from the end of Hilary (winter) term through the two months of spring break, months filled with valleys and challenges of the sort I have rarely experienced, things began to suddenly feel brighter at the start of Trinity term. Though it involved collections preparations (preparing for exams on papers from the previous term), and loads of revisions (preparations for final exams), and though I still had no idea what the next year looked like for us, in light of my recent disappointing news, the start of Trinity term was also an encouraging time.

It was encouraging because I suddenly found myself filled with reminders of how much I had to be thankful for: for my incredible wife, who loved and supported me in the valleys; for the fact that I would soon be completing my studies at Oxford, something I had only dreamt of doing for so long; and for the quickly approaching arrival of our first child, Emma.

I was working on collections preparations several days before the start of Trinity term from my second-story desk in the Harris Manchester college library one afternoon when a rather massive rainstorm rolled through Oxford. It was the kind of rainstorm that rolls in quick and comes down hard, beating the pavement with pellet-sized blows. Dark clouds covered the sky and, for a moment, it looked as though it might not ever let up.

But it didn’t last long, and soon, the clouds broke, once again revealing the bright blue background beneath.

And while I didn’t realize it at the time, the transition from that terrible storm to the bright blue sky painted something of a picture of how things would soon be unfolding for us.

A Bit of Good News

I was work on revisions the following week, on the other side of collections, when I received a note from the Oxford Graduate Studies office. And I knew, immediately, it was the news of their decision.

Hesitantly, I opened the e-mail, which confirmed my suspicion, and which directed me to open an attached letter to know whether I had been offered a spot or not. It all seemed so repetitive, and anti-climactic, like a set of russian nesting dolls.

My heart sank as I opened the attachment, even before I had read the first sentence. I had an overwhelming feeling I had not been offered a position, and the return of the guilt and feelings of inadequacy were too much for me to bear.

But then I read on, and I was shocked by what I read…

“Dear Mr Ryan Pemberton,

I am delighted to inform you that your application for admission to the University of Oxford as a graduate student has been successful. . . . Our admissions round is incredibly competitive, and we would like to congratulate you most warmly on your success.”

A smile enveloped my face as read these words. I really could not believe it, and I was still in awe when I forwarded the letter to Jennifer.

I quickly returned to my studies, with what felt like a newfound excitement and motivation for my work. My offer had been a conditional one; all MSt offers for current Oxford students are, I had been told. Knowing I had to get a certain mark on my finals was certainly good motivation to keep at it, particularly when revisions prep seemed to go on and on, with no end in sight.

Several minutes had gone by before I paused from my work and sat back in my chair. Allowing the news to set in, I turned to look out the window at the white clouds in the pale blue sky, and I heard the words repeated,

“…I am delighted to inform you that your application for admission to the University of Oxford as a graduate student has been successful…”

Still wearing a grin, I took a break from revisions to grab a sandwich from the ATS, an early dinner. And suddenly, stepping outside, everything seemed so much brighter.

My general malaise for Oxford, which had set in following my initial denial, began to fade and, in its place, I found myself once again falling head over heels in love with Oxford. Like an old girlfriend who, after telling you she’s not that into you, and that ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ gives you a call and asks if you’d be interested in doing something sometime.

At the time of the break up, you tell yourself it was actually a good thing. You tell yourself she wasn’t right for you, and you make some half-hearted comments to your good friends about how you knew, deep down, it would never have worked out. That it never works out with girls who–I don’t know–wear watches.

And then your good friends, since they are good friends, furrow their brows, nod their head in agreement, and say something like, “Hmmm…, yes. Girls with watches. Never trust them.”

All the while, you’re not so-secretly feeling sorry for yourself, and they’re not so-secretly feeling sorry for you.

I was walking on air as I made my way to the ATS, to see their old familiar faces waiting to take my sandwich order. Oxford had broken my heart, but boy was she beautiful.

At the same time, my heart really had been leading me toward Duke in the six weeks or so since I had first heard back from Oxford, and had made the decision to apply to Duke, inspired by Stanley Hauerwas and his work on Narrative Theology. Jen had been feeling the same way. We were both feeling like we were being led in that direction, even though we were discussing this decision with 6,000 miles in-between us, and we were excited about the possibilities for us there.

I could tell this wasn’t going to be an easy decision, and I couldn’t wait for Jen to wake up and read the news.

A Job Opportunity

Just an hour later, after returning to the library, I heard from the Senior Editor of a Christian magazine back home who I’d done some writing for, and who I am friends with. He was asking about my plans for the following year, and he mentioned that he had an “awesome editorial gig” coming up he’d like to consider me for, if I was interested.

The job just so happened to be in our old hometown, close to family. With a baby on the way, that had an obvious appeal.

In a couple of hours, I went from having no idea what the next year had in store, to being overwhelmed by potential opportunities.

I Skyped in with Jen a little later in the day. She said she received my e-mail and, after reading what I wrote to her, introducing the e-mail from Oxford’s Graduate Studies Committee, she was shocked to find out I had been accepted, because of how I presented it. I told her I was shocked, too. She told me congratulations, that that was a big deal.

And then I told her about the job. “Oh wow…” she said, with big eyes. “That sounds like it’d be a great fit with what you’d like to do.”

“Yeah, kind of perfect, in a lot of ways. And the fact that it came to me, in an economy like this, is pretty incredible.”

“And it’d be close to family,” she said with a smile, while Khloe peeked in the screen from beside her, wearing her crooked grin.

“And it’d be close to family,” I said, smiling and nodding. “Lots to think and pray about.”

Making Our Decision a Little Easier

I stayed up until 4.00 a.m. the next morning, putting together all my materials this Editor friend had asked for. My CV, writing samples, etc. And then, on just a few hours of sleep, I took a quick break from revisions to take an editing test the next day.

It all felt a bit rushed, and I had no idea how I’d done, but I figured I had at least given it my best, and we’d see what happened.

The following day, just two days after getting a note about the opportunity, I received a note letting me know that they’d decided not to offer this position after all. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little let down, particularly after the hurried pace of getting everything submitted.

I shared the news with Jen that evening, wondering how she’d take it, and knowing how appealing a job close to family would be for her, with Emma’s arrival quickly approaching.

“Well, that makes our decision a little easier,” she said with an encouraging smile.

I told her I agreed. We still had Duke to hear back from. And it would still be a very difficult decision.

Still, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. And feel a hint of failure.

Guys’ Night Out

I celebrated the end of that week with a Guys’ Night Out with Olli and his 10-year old son, Elias. We went to watch the new Avengers movie, and to grab some dinner afterward.

Driving to the theatre, Olli asked about my potential editorial job offer, and whether I’d heard anything.

“Yeah,” I told him, “I did hear back from them, and they decided to not hire the position after all.”

“Yessssss,” he said with a wide grin, without missing a beat.

I laughed out loud. Olli’s not the type to get excited about much at all, and so I told him I appreciated it, knowing he was rooting for our staying in Oxford for another year.

After the movie, the three of us tucked into an Asian restaurant to grab some dinner, and to recap our thoughts on the movie.

We talked about the movie for a while, comparing it to other superhero films, before we returned to our conversation about next year, and Olli asked what I thought I’d do if we heard back from Duke with another acceptance letter.

And it was at that point that I realized I hadn’t shared with Olli about losing Hayley shortly before arriving here, and how that loss made me realize how much I wanted to write in a way that reaches those who might not otherwise care to read or listen to teaching on Him. To help others to see Him more clearly, when they might not otherwise, and about why I came here in the first place.

“So, that will give you a bit more background on what it is I want to do, and why we set out to do this in the first place,” I told Olli from my seat across the table, while Elias listened to The Two Towers audio on his headphones from beside him.

“I feel like God has opened some really big doors for us along the way, as we’ve set out to do this, and I want to respect that with this decision”

News I Wasn’t Expecting

Monday of the following week was the first sunny morning in days. It energized me as I opened up the blinds and the sunlight poured into Warnie’s old rooms. I had a bit of time before I had to be in the city center, so I decided to throw on my shoes and I went for a run, for the first time in ages. And it felt great.

After cleaning up and grabbing a quick bite, I took the bus into the city center and got off at High Street. And as soon as I stepped off the bus I heard my name from behind me, “Hey Ryan.”

I turned around to find Ollie standing with a smile and a cup of Starbucks in one hand.

“Hey Olli! Funny running into you here… Hey, that looks good,” I said to him, pointing toward his cup. “I need to go get one of those.”

“Yeah,” he said, raising his cup with a smile. And then his voice become more serious in tone.

“Well, we came to a decision about next year…”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, knowing they had planned on deciding over the weekend, and fully expecting to hear they’d be here in Oxford for another year.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, but we weighed out all the pros and cons, and we decided to head back home, to Finland, for next year.”

My heart sank at the sound of his words, and I’m sure my face showed it. It felt like I had been denied by Oxford all over again.

“Oh wow…,” I said, struggling for words. “I wasn’t expecting that!”

He told me it had not been an easy year, and with a new baby having just arrived, they thought they’d really appreciate being a bit closer to family. They’d also be able to save quite a bit, being back home, he told me, and that it’d be a chance to refresh themselves a bit before applying for some posts in the US for the following year.

“Wowwww…” I repeated, drawing out the word. “Well, that will certainly have an impact on our decision for next year.”

We talked for several more minutes before Olli had to get to a lecture in the Exam Schools. I said goodbye, and that we’d have to catch up soon. I crossed the High Street and made my way down the snaking back alley toward Harris Manchester.

I had been reading from Matthew’s Gospel on the bus, and my thumb was still holding my place in the small Bible in my hand, but I didn’t feel like reading after that. In fact, I found I had to fight back tears as I walked down the sunlit stone sidewalk.

Olli and Salla had become some of my best friends here in Oxford. But more than that, they had been like family. And I couldn’t imagine coming back here without them. It really would be a tough, tough decision.

Two Years Later

Several days after that surprising news was May 1, the anniversary of Hayley’s death, and it was the first time I’d be spending it alone, as Jen was still back in Washington. I hadn’t been looking forward to that day, knowing it was coming, and it was all I could do to get out of bed that morning. I stumbled through the day, just wanting to crawl into a hole.

So I did the next best thing and I went to the basement of the Rad Cam to study. The dimly lit room seemed like a bit of an escape from the reality of the day, as I figured I could probably go there without anyone recognizing me. I just didn’t feel like talking. With anyone.

I took a quick break from studies that afternoon, to get some caffeine, and I ended up running into Max and Britton and Rich in a coffee shop. They were surprised to see me, as I hadn’t seen them for a while, being buried in revisions work, and I felt embarrassed for looking like a zombie. With deep eye bags, and dressed in all black (which I didn’t notice until halfway through the day).

I stumbled my way through a conversation, and I was envious for the life they seemed to exude, and which I appeared to lack.

After a few minutes of awkward conversation, I explained that I needed to get back to my studies, and I made my way back to the cavernous Rad Cam for more revisions.

The Oxford University CS Lewis Society met that evening. And were it not for the fact that Myriam, our Secretary, was sitting her final exams (English comes before Theology), which required me to be present for the Society’s meeting, as President, I would have remained in the dark Rad Cam basement.

So I went, and it ended up being good that I did. It felt like a breath of fresh air for my grief-constricted lungs.

Peter, an older English gentleman and former Society Treasurer, drove Debbie and I back to the Kilns that evening, after the meeting. The two of them talked about the evening’s speaker from the front seat. They talked about Peter’s dog and wife. They talked about a lot of things, while I sat quietly in the backseat, staring out the window into the dark nothingness as we drove, thankful not to have to talk, and not to have to take the bus.

I thanked Peter for the ride when we arrived at the Kilns that evening. We entered the house, dimly lit, and Debbie asked how I was doing. I told her I was tired. That revisions seemed endless at this point.

Then, when I could tell there was more to her question, with her pressing, sympathetic eyes, I told her I was having a tough time, but I was feeling pretty good about getting out of bed this morning.

She told me Jen had informed her about Hayley’s anniversary, that I would likely be having a pretty tough day, and that she was sorry. She told me she was praying for us, and I thanked her for that.

She said the words I wrote that day for Hayley were beautiful. I thanked her for that, too. Then I retreated to my room, in the darkness, and replied to a long list of e-mails that read, “I’m praying for you,” and “my prayers are with you.” I was thankful for each and every one of them, but they all served as a painful reminder.

By the time I finally made it to bed that night it was after 1.00 in the morning, and I was so thankful to finally retreat to the comforts of my bed. And when I did, the oddest picture came to me…

This may sound funny, coming from someone who’s such an enthusiast of CS Lewis’s writing, but I’m not much of a reader of the Chronicles of Narnia series. I never did as a kid, and I only got halfway through the series when I picked them up later on. I know, I know…

But anyways, I had this picture in my mind as I got ready for bed that evening. It was of a giant lion lying at the head of my bed, where my pillows sat, who was inviting me to come lay down. To rest my head in the warm fur of his gently rising and lowering side.

And there was nothing I wanted more than to do just that. I knew, once I did, that I’d be safe. That none of the darkness of this day would be able to get me there.

So I did. And they didn’t. And all was suddenly better. Not that this loss or the grief was no longer there, but that it was now somehow absent, in the comforts of this resting spot.

And I know it sounds funny, but I fell asleep with a half-smile on my face, with my hands gripping the soft pillows under my head with thankfulness.

Deciding to Stick it Out

Jen and I had a chance to catch up on Skype the following night. She asked how I was doing, as, apparently, Debbie told her she thought it’d be best if Jen were here with me for my finals. She told Jen she could tell I was really missing home, and that she was sure I’d do better having her here.

But I told Jen I wasn’t so sure. I told Jen I knew I wanted her here. I told her I knew I wanted her here so bad. But that I also knew I nearly always felt guilty for not knowing my studies better, even with her back at home, and for any time I didn’t have my nose in my revisions.

And so, in that sense, I told Jen the thought of having her here made me a bit anxious, knowing I’d want to be with her, but that if I did I’d feel guilty for not studying as much as I possibly could. And, at the same time, knowing that when I was studying, I’d feel guilty for not being with her.

It felt like a lose, lose. And, with watery eyes, I told Jen I thought it’d probably be best just to continue as is, as difficult as it was, with the promise of seeing one another again, of being together again, in only seven weeks. She told me she agreed, as difficult as it was, and I was so thankful to know we were on the same page.

Chasing My Own Tail

I was thinking about this decision the following day, on my bike ride home, when I realized that, for me, the worst part about being alone is the mental circles I run. It feels a bit like I’m chasing my own mental tail, most times, without ever actually really getting anywhere.

It feels like I’m constantly bumping into the walls of my own mind, and I long for a voice from the outside to break up the shallowness of my own thoughts.

And it reminded me of something Lewis wrote years ago, on the value of reading other authors:

“In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself…I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see.”

And I wasn’t completely sure that was what Lewis was getting at, in this quote, but it was at that point that I feel like I knew, perhaps for the first time, what he meant.

Wondering if I Wasn’t Going Crazy

For whatever reason, that weekend felt like the cumulation of the great weight of being away from my wife for the past five months. It felt like I felt, all at once, the weight of being away for our first pregnancy and the stress of finals, and worrying about deciding on next year. It felt like all of these things came to a head and sat down on my shoulders all at once.

And I found myself thinking that this arrangement that I had been in for so long just wasn’t good for a person: that of being alone, and focusing so much energy one one’s studies. And on one’s own performance.

I hardly thought about others during this time. And I hated that. It felt like my soul was going bad and turning sour, from all the inward focus.

I remember feeling like I now knew why God invented marriage, and why I was not meant to be on my own.

I was in a funk. I didn’t want to be around others, but I felt so alone, at the same time. I really felt like I was going crazy. I’ve only felt that way a few times in my life, usually from a lack of sleep, but I felt that way on this day.

I remember going to the market that evening to get groceries, and just wandering the aisles as though I were half asleep. Nothing sounded good to me, which, for a guy who typically eats two dinners an evening, is a sure sign something was off.

But since my refrigerator was only holding a single egg and some condiments, I knew I needed to get something. So I picked out a few staples that I knew I usually enjoy, even though they didn’t sound any good to me at the moment, and I returned home.

Jen called me a few minutes after I got in, and I told her I felt like I was going crazy. I told her I felt like I just didn’t have anything left, and I just wanted to come home. I told her I didn’t even care about my exams anymore, that I just wanted to be together.

She nodded, and she told me she understood. I told her I was just struggling to imagine how all of this could possibly be worth it. I told her I never imagined our first pregnancy would be spent 6,000 miles apart. I told her no one does.

She nodded again. But then then told me she was sure it’d be worth it, and that we wouldn’t be going through all of this if it wasn’t.

“It just doesn’t make sense that a guy from Everson would get into Oxford if it weren’t going to be used in a big way…,” Jen told me, with a voice of assurance, before making a terrible grimace all of a sudden.

“Owwww!… Oh, that was weird,” she said, making a face.

“I think Emma just turned over,” she said making a face, again. This time with a laugh.

I smiled. And knowing I would soon be holding our little girl in my arms, I knew that would make this all seem worth it.

Helicopter Backflips and Envying Families

Olli and Elias stopped by the next day, in the morning, to pick me up and spend the day at a nearby flight show that was taking place. And we had a great time.

We watched helicopters do backflips and airplanes soar by while doing barrel rolls. We sat in the grass and ate cornish pasties and bacon baps.

Olli laid down, fully extended, in the grass, and Elias sat on him to take in the show. I watched young families walk past us, pushing strollers carrying kids wearing brightly colored rubber boots. And all of a sudden I realized how very much I wanted a family of my own, and how difficult it was to know this was just around the corner for us, and to be away from it all.

You don’t realize how hungry you are until you get to a restaurant and wait for your order to arrive. And, when you’re hungry, the last thing you want to do is sit in a restaurant and watch others eat.

Looming Finals

Week three of Trinity Term brought with it a flood of Oxford students wearing their sub fuscs around the city. On their way to and from exams.

When you see other finalists, or when you’re a finalist and others see you, the question that’s inevitably asked is, “How’re you feeling about finals?” And the response is never good.

Even if they try to pretend as though they’re doing all right, it’s a bit like asking someone how they’re feeling about their funeral.

“Well, they’re three weeks away,” I would say with a shrug. “Ready or not.”

Infinite Times Smarter Than You

The thing about Oxford that I notice is that sometimes you’ll see someone and you’ll catch yourself judging them for something they are wearing that you find funny. At least I do.

For example, you might think, “That guy woke up and thought, ‘Yep, it’s got to be the red trousers today.'”

But then, just as soon as you catch this though passing through your mind, it’s met head on by another thought. One that reminds you that this guy is infinite times smarter than you. At least.

And you exchange smiles and say, “Hello,” politely, as you pass on your bikes.

Praying for Clarity

Jen and I had been talking every night about our plans for next year, and we each committed to praying over the decision. Hoping for clarity, which had escaped us so far. We both saw pros and cons to each school, and if Duke came through with an acceptance, we really didn’t know what we’d decide.

But one night, after spending a full day in the library, I was riding home to the Kilns, up Headington hill, and praying about this decision.

I began praying at the foot of the hill that He would make this decision clear for us, and by the time I arrived back at the Kilns that evening, I felt peace about the decision. Everything felt brighter. And all of a sudden, everything was suddenly clear, in a way it hadn’t been before.

Finals didn’t seem to weigh on me as they had been for so long. I knew I’d do my best, and that I’d soon be returning home. And all of a sudden I found myself so thankful for this journey.

The Thought of Leaving Oxford

I returned to the library the next day, for more revisions, and as I did, the thought of leaving Oxford pained me. The thought of not returning seemed crazy. Coming here truly has been an incredible experience, of the sort I could not have imagined before we left.

It’s a bit like falling in love with your dream girl, daydreaming about her for years, and then one day waking up to find out you’re married to your dream girl, and finding all your dreams for all those years were a pale reflection of how incredible she actually was.

That’s a bit like what this experience has been like for me. And the thought of giving up Oxford–my dreamgirl–pained me.

I remember a conversation I had with a pastor friend of mine years before we ever made this journey. We met for lunch and I told him I felt like I could go anywhere as long as Jen was with me. I told him I felt like she was my family, and how that was all that I needed.

And now, here I am, 6,000 miles away from home, and Jen is not with me. I couldn’t help but wonder if, somehow, that wasn’t intentional.

I wondered if this was not, in some small way, God saying, “Actually, rather than relying on your wife to get you through, I’d like you to rely on me.”

Similarly, I remember getting to a point where, while working in a marketing and PR firm back home, in a job I loved, I fell head-over-heels in love with Oxford. And I remember it was at that point that I said to God in prayer, “Okay, I’m willing to leave home and my career to study theology, but only if it’s at Oxford.”

And now, I quietly wondered if this wasn’t, in some small way, Him saying, “This is what I’d like you to do: give up your dreamgirl. First your wife, then Oxford. And make me your dream.”

I wondered if this entire journey has not been, in a rather complicated way, a process of God smashing all of my idols. Leaving me with nothing but Him, in the hope that I will finally see He is all I really need.

Good Theology Makes us DO something

A professor friend of mine by the name of Jeff visited Oxford during Trinity Term, from Seattle. He was on sabbatical, and he came here to spend a few months with his family, getting some of his own work done, but also enjoying Oxford with his wife and three girls.

He was giving a lecture at the Hall he was staying at one evening when he invited me along. It was on Theology & Literature, and I had no idea when I accepted the invitation just what an incredible impact it would have on me, and how much clarity it would bring to our decision for next year.

After the lecture, one of the Dominicans of the Hall in which the lecture was hosted spoke up, made a few comments on the talk, and then he said something that I thought was so good, and which has stuck with me to this day.

He said, “Good Theology makes us DO something.”

I smiled, and Jeff nodded. He mentioned that theology needs to become imaginative in order to be effective. He mentioned that Theology has lost that. And he said the problem with Theology, at the moment, is that people don’t think it has anything to do with truth.

And in a way I cannot now properly describe, with those two comments, I had confirmation for the peace I had first felt on that bike ride home the week before. When I prayed on Headington Hill and arrived home with the kind of peace that I’ve only had a few times before. That’s when I realized what we have to do.

Even though we were still waiting to hear back on their decision, that’s when I realized, the solution is Narrative Theology, and the place is Duke.


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