Note: this essay was written in the summer of 2018.
Going on a trip to “find yourself” after an emotionally traumatic event is a venerable old cliche, yet it happened to me. It was not on purpose and I did not recognize until some years later, but visiting Oxford in 2008 for three weeks as a sponsor for a high school summer program at the St. Hugh’s College of Oxford University was a turning point in my life.
I’m always cautious about over sentimentalizing something, but I think I can say objectively that Oxford was a turning point in my life. Not the exact point, of course; I was already in the process of redefining who I was, though still far from achieving it. As most things are in life, it was a very long, very slow process.
Ten years ago when I came to Oxford, I was a husk of a person; desperate for acceptance, gutted of validation, and in need of someone to simply acknowledge that I was a good person (not exactly the strongest endorsement of a sponsor responsible for overseeing high schoolers). I was in the middle of a divorce and coping with all the painful implications and new realities that accompany such an event; for the few years leading up to it and then afterwards, I was in a deep depression.
In the months leading up to the Oxford trip though, I had had enough and began to move on from the sad, beaten down Derek to at least a Derek I wanted to be more like. I began reading more; an activity that had always been a part of my identity but had let slide. To commemorate this change in myself, I bought a bookcase. I began painting and writing once again. I began transforming the house into something that reflected myself, my tastes and interests, rather than what once was. I was still sad and tired, but I had chosen to turn a corner.
I would elaborate more, but it would be no fun to read, and I don’t want to revisit it. What I have offered though is important background to know, for these were the conditions under which I traveled to Oxford. It was as if the trip existed out of time, book-ended by the chaos that existed before I stepped onto the plane and also greeted me when I returned. But in the three weeks which I was in Oxford, I was born anew.
Mind you, at this point, the internet was still newish and smart phones did not exist; I was only able to access my email once or twice a week in the campus computer lab. To call home to my children, I had to purchase an international calling card (which I only used twice due to the price) and so relied primarily on post cards for communication. To put it simply, I was cut off. This isolation allowed me time away, as did the three weeks; if it had been one week, I don’t think the transformation would have occurred.
I was also surrounded by lovely people who cared about me and for me; who helped heal me whether they realized it or not. I experienced a life changing sermon at the St. Aldates Church about suffering and the wilderness experience. I was given the space needed to re-imagine myself.
All this significance was wrapped up in the physical space that is Oxford; in the streets and architecture, the shops and churches, the welcoming atmosphere of academia.
There is a saying associated with the University of Oxford: that it is not a place, but an idea. Yes, of course Oxford is a place, but so much more to me. To see once again the city center, the spires, the Bodleian and Radcliffe, St. Mary’s, the small little side streets, the pubs, and just to be in the space – oh how wonderful – but it is not the buildings from which the significance comes; it was the time that I spent there. There was so much more hardship that came after when I returned to the United States, some very dark times, but then came 2009 and Kirsten and life began again.
She was with me this summer in Oxford along with my mother-in-law. How different and wonderful life is now.
It was very strange to be in Oxford again, actually; like meeting up with an old friend you hadn’t spoken to in 10 years; long enough to still know each other, but both very different.
I had been in Oxford long enough the first time for it to feel like I knew the place, not just a city I visited for a few days; so to stand again in the quad of the Bodleian Library, to visit Blackwell’s Bookshop, to walk down the small street of North Parade, was all very weird.
We stopped into the Rose and Crown pub to have a cider and I thought how strange it was to be sitting in the same place 10 years removed. We walked to the back gate of St. Hugh’s; it was like looking at a painting in which the context was all wrong. I could not help but think of Heraclitus’ quote,
You can never step into the same river twice for new waters are ever flowing.
But how wonderful to do it all with Kirsten, to share with her my love of the place. I’m sure it was not the same in her eyes, and why would it be? Perhaps to her, it was just another crowded, busy, touristy European place. The city felt a bit that way to me. It seemed far more crowded than 10 years ago, but it was still good to be there, in the view of the buildings and colleges that I came to love, the pubs and moss covered walls, the church yards and quiet corners, that city of dreaming spires, Oxfordshire.
Compliment this essay on memory and experience with Memory, Identity, and a Trip to Disney Magic Kingdom
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