eats stones and leaves

After Elaine prayed for me, there was a bit of a pause. I wasn’t sure whether she would start up again or if she expected me to pray, or if it was just over. She smiled before opening her eyes and saying, “I just got a picture.” The first of several visions Elaine shared with me that night. “I saw water… just… little fountains of water starting to shoot up—not to full height yet, but… does that mean anything to you?” It meant nothing to me. Thinking that she would be expecting something relatively deep, I made a conscious effort to leave my face unchanged as I started formulating some good old fashioned English Major bullshit about water (one of our most fertile symbols). “If it doesn’t mean anything, that’s alright.” My God, she can read me. “I just thought I’d ask…”

“I see the shoots of water as new things God is opening up for you. They’re just starting, but they’re there.”

I told her I’d look  for the little shoots of water. She laughed quietly and said, “Ok.”

—-

Less than ten years ago my father rented a high pressure water gun, the kind used to blast paint off of outdoor surfaces. We were in the front yard, but he needed to get something inside so he handed me the gun, saying, “Don’t touch the water. It could tear your finger off.” I touched the water, just grazed it with my finger. It hurt, but my finger remained attached. Triumph. I later asked my mother for help with the large blister that developed.

—–

Having finished J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy a few hours earlier in Heathrow, I pulled Stoner by John Williams out of my book-crammed backpack. It was a book whose cover caught my attention at Waterstones and Blackwell, two booksellers in Oxford. The cover of the new Vintage Classics edition being sold has three books stacked on top of one another. The blurbs on the back say things like ‘Stoner is a perfect novel,’ ‘A terrific novel of echoing sadness,’ and ‘democratic in how it breaks the heart… It is a triumph of literary endeavor.’ The brief synopsis says it is about William Stoner, who goes to the University of Missouri in 1910 to study agriculture but becomes a teacher instead, marries the wrong woman, leads a quiet life, and is rarely remembered after his death. In the past I read A Separate Peace and, more recently, Brideshead Revisited—both wartime novels involving university students. I loved Brideshead and liked A Separate Peace well enough, so I bought Stoner. By the time my flight touched down in Atlanta I had finished the book’s 288 pages. It was, as a dear professor of mine would say, “dreamy prose.”

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Scotland, For I [Part II]

I may not know much about alcohol, but I do know that morning drinking on the train from Edinburgh to Aberdeen will get you a few odd looks—although probably not as many as you’d expect most other places. The man with the food cart came down the aisle at ten fifteen and asked if I wanted anything. “What beer d’ya have?” I asked him. He looked at his watch with a little concern before hesitantly naming a few labels. I’d never had any of them before, so I employed a tactic that I’ve mastered recently. “Foster’s, please,” I said, nearly cutting him off. I may not know much about alcohol, but other people don’t need to know that, so I play connoisseur as well as the next American twenty-year-old.

“Shake It Out” by Florence & the Machine came onto my iPod and I enjoyed a few moments of victory before the train filled up with Scots. A surly young woman sat next to me. “Don’t judge me,” I told her. “I’ve never drunk on a train before and I wanted my first time to be in Scotland. I swear this isn’t sad.” “No, seems reasonable,” she muttered. I put my earbuds back in.

I wrote in my journal a lot on these train rides. An excerpt written while flying past little Scottish towns:

The steeples on the churches here are dark and bleak. If the Christopher Wrens in London inspire awe and wonder and glory, those here seem to say that there is hard, unglamorous work to do before we can get to where they’re pointing. Protestant work ethic and whatnot.”

The next nine pages of my journal are spent on the metaphor of Christ and his Bride. After that, two pages of quotes from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, including the following:

Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.” (7)

On falling in love with his wife:

…it was human love that reawakened divine love. Put another way, it was pure contingency that caught fire in our lives, and it was Christ whom we found—together, and his presence dependent upon our being together—burning there.” (22-23)

I didn’t understand the brogue of the taxi driver who took me from the train station in Elgin to Pluscarden Abbey, the home of the Benedictine community I was to stay with for the week. I did, however, understand the posh and articulate to the point of theatrical Oxbridge accent of the man who greeted me upon arrival—a young visiting dom, ranked somewhere between priest and monk. “Oh, you’re an Oxford man. Oh, so sorry. I’m a Cambridge man of course, which, as I’m sure you know, is better than Oxford for most things. What college? Wycliffe Hall? OH, so so sorry.” I was surprised and smugly pleased to learn a few days later that the dom was, in fact, a mere New Yorker born and bred who did his undergrad at Cambridge, changed his voice, converted from Episcopalianism, and joined an order.

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Scotland, for I [Part I]

I don’t know much about alcohol, but I know enough to recognize that the air found where Wycliffe Hall’s courtyard spills into Norham Gardens smells like a gin and tonic. Sometimes I just stand there to drink it in.

I don’t know much about alcohol, but I know that I didn’t like the fruity slider I got at the Oxford Union’s club, the Purple Turtle. They have sliders named after every college and hall in Oxford, in addition to the houses of Hogwarts. Whoever came up with the blue-green bubblegum tasting shot for Wycliffe Hall—the Oxford centre for typically conservative Evangelicals—must have particularly savoured the irony of their concoction. Myself and a couple friends each downed one to commemorate the end of our first month at Oxford and the start of our first night out dancing. The decision to go out that night, for me at least, was both a horrible one and a wonderful one. Earlier in the day I had a hell of a time getting my new phone plan to work at the local branch of a UK mobile company, courtesy of their completely incompetent staff and shady business practices. It still doesn’t work. The next morning I needed to wake up at 6:30 to catch a train to Edinburgh, thus beginning the ten days of vacation between my pre-term classes and Michaelmas. I lied to myself saying that I would be able to get sleep on the train (I can’t sleep in moving vehicles), and danced until two in the morning, followed by a happy trip to a kebab stand—the staple English remedy for late night less-than-culinary cravings.

From my journal on the train to Edinburgh, via Birmingham:

I know where you are
but I can’t go there, so I’m
looking for you here

[the names and phone numbers of my contacts in Edinburgh]

I’d like to write something about the women in my life. Something about resilience and loud voices.

When I arrived in Edinburgh, after two hours spent in vain at the local branch of the UK mobile company, I took a taxi to the flat of the couple I was to sleep at for two nights. One perk of having a father who works in the world of academia is the network of kind academics that comes with him. The couple I stayed with are both professors at the University of Edinburgh, in theology and art history. After dropping off my bags, I went to find another couple that my dad arranged for me to hang out with (also professors, both theology). They showed me around the university. I have a disorder that kicks in when I visit most universities: I stop enjoying the place for its own sake and instead start enjoying the life I could potentially be living there—the people I’d know, the buildings I’d live and work in, the air I’d breathe. After a fairly thorough tour of Old Town and New Town, my guides took me to the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, of which they are members. I had a beautiful plate of (well raised) haggis and what will probably be the best whiskey I’ll ever have, which is depressing given that I’m twenty years old. Continue reading

Virtual Travel Letter #1

Hello everyone everywhere,

I’m taking a break from paper writing, so apologies if this letter is bizarre.

Sorry that it’s taken me so long to write. As I think I mentioned in a blog post a week or so ago, they keep us pretty busy here. “Busy hands make idle hearts” or something, right?

Week one was perhaps the busiest due to the various orientations they had scheduled for us. We listened to people talk and walked around a lot. Week one here was also probably the weirdest week one I’ve had in a while. First week at college I was the guy bouncing off the walls saying hello to everyone that I recognized from Facebook. First week sophomore year at college I was the guy bouncing off the walls saying hello to everyone that I recognized from Facebook and their mom (whom I typically did not recognize from Facebook) because I was dorm president. It was my role but I was genuinely excited to meet everyone and love on everyone.

I was very excited to get here, but I was a bit more exhausted by all of the activities than I normally am in week ones. The other people in the program are greatbut the transition away from college was a bit rough. At college I feel known and good about it. Being put in a completely new place with completely new people was an adjustment. I’m all settled in now, though!

OH—I’m studying abroad at Oxford, not sure if that was clear!  I just realized that up to this point, I haven’t mentioned any specifics in this letter. If you don’t know where I am and what I’m doing, this letter could just as easily pass for an update from an optimistic person beginning their sentence in Siberia—that is not the case. I am indeed lucky enough to be studying abroad in Oxford, at Wycliffe Hall. “Hall” pretty much “college with religious affiliation.”

Anyhow, week two was the first week of our regular schedule (pronounced “shed” + “djool,” by the way). We have a lecture or two in the morning along with an education film now and then. Thursdays are for field trips.

I’ve found a nice coffee place called The Missing Bean. It is filled with beautiful hipsters and pretty good espresso. It reminds me of Seattle. It’s odd though: no one has aeropress or Chem X here. Instant coffee is pretty big, as is tea. They’re all about tea here. Who knew?

We’ve visited many cool places in a short amount of time. Please enjoy the pictures I’ve included with my card:

Much love to the family and to the pets. I hope the project you were working on turned out well.

Also, please send money when you can. All of the decadent meals out are surprisingly starting to drain my funds.

Peace and love,

you know who

I’m at Oxford

Since starting this blog, I have generally tried to keep its contents different than what you might find in my journal. My journal mostly contains descriptions of what I do in a particular day in addition to anything that is particularly wearing on my mind. I try to only blog about something if I think that others will either find it interesting, helpful, or well-crafted. The more mundane things go on my Facebook.

But now I am studying in Oxford, with less access to Facebook and less desire to access Facebook. Instead, I will put up a new blog post now and then to keep those I promised I would keep informed informed.

After a looooooong summer of work I packed up everything in the flat I shared with two coworkers over the summer. Looking ahead, when I go back to Seattle in January I will not be living in the same place, so in addition to Oxford packing I had moving packing to do. I had to leave 6:30 am the next morning to catch my flight. As all of my possessions (including my burgeoning library) were being fit together into boxes like the dullest of all 3d block puzzles that someone inevitably gives you for Christmas, I began to lose it. Maddie and Meredith, two of my favorite ladies (and each wonderful poets), held me together until 1:00 am, when the packing was finished. We crammed my luggage into Maddie’s car and drove to Beth’s Diner for a late night breakfast.

Nothing revives like Beth’s.

I got three hours of sleep that night and one hour the next night on my flight to Heathrow from JFK (having flown there from Seattle). I landed in London at 7:30 am, cleared immigration, and hopped aboard an Oxford-bound bus with several other people I recognized from Facebook. I am here with Best Semester’s Scholars’ Semester in Oxford (SSO). I’m a scholar now, Ma.

Myself and two new friends checked in to Wycliffe Hall, our home for the next few months, before finding a pub to eat, drink, and be as merry as one may be after two and a half days with four hours of sleep. Over the past few days, other students and I have journeyed numerous times into the heart of Oxford for books, groceries, tours, and meals. Those trips occur when we weren’t in some sort of orientation for the programme.

We will soon be falling into a regular schedule of classes. Until the Oxford term starts in about five weeks, we will be taking a class called British Landscapes. It is basically an English history and culture class, from what I understand. It may be taken with specific focuses on various disciplines. We will also begin the Seminar class on a discipline of our choosing that. We will meet with a professor once a week as a group until Oxford term starts. After that, we will attend 16 lectures and write a research paper on a topic of our choosing within the selected discipline. For both the Seminar and British Landscape class I chose Art History. A better understanding of art will enrich my understanding of history and increase the areas I can write about. Plus, it gives me an excuse to go to all of the wonderful museums here.

When the Oxford Michelmas term starts, I will be diving into Shakespeare with my primary tutorial. It’s nice because I have one book for that class: William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ha. I won’t read all of it, but I’ll make a good dent. My secondary tutorial will be on Modern Literature. For the purpose of this class, ‘modern’ means 20th century. The authors I’ll read are Waugh, Woolf, Elliot, and Plath.

There it is, a basic summary of my time at Oxford so far. And now, off to bed.