Monday, May 11, 2015

Top As!

Oh, Oxford. We've been here for 8 days and we'd be content to stay here for another 800. Sean found a sign today that says, "There are few greater temptations on Earth than to stay permanently in Oxford," and it's not hard to see why. I actually had no idea that a place like Oxford could exist, and now that I'm here I feel like I've stumbled into paradise. We are completely head over heels in love with this beautiful city. You would have to have a soul made of pure ice to be able to resist the charm of this place: green meadows, stone colleges, brick houses, cobblestone streets, ancient libraries, cozy pubs, frothy pints, rain showers, books, hot cups of tea, beautiful old churches, domes and spires, quiet rivers, history everywhere, the wisdom of the ages, Lewis, Tolkien and all your favorite English stories hovering around each corner, and the entire time feeling like you've finally, finally made it to Hogwarts.

Our days begin with walking Riley to school, and then we turn and head towards the City Centre and a new adventure. On Wednesday we visited Christ Church College--one of the oldest and most beautiful of all the Oxford colleges, of which there are many. The thing about Oxford is that there's no campus for Oxford University--the city is the campus and scattered throughout its streets are dozens of colleges encompassing whole worlds of wonder behind their exclusive stone walls. You want to talk about feeling left out? It's enough to drive you crazy wandering around the city, peeking through fences and doorways at magnificent chapels and libraries, quads and cloisters at which you gaze longingly but of which you cannot be a part. Thank goodness for visiting hours, when--for the price of a few pounds--the colleges allow you into these mysterious old grounds and buildings for a glimpse of the academic and spiritual life that has been going on here for almost 800 years.

Christ Church College is simply breathtaking. We got to visit the staircase that they used as the entrance to the Great Hall in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Alas, the hall there, which was used as the model for the movie set's version of the Great Hall, was closed for construction. That was more than a bit upsetting! But we did get to take a free tour of the Christ Church Cathedral. Our guide, after finding out our state of origin, kept referring to us as 'The Californians' and calling the US 'your place'. I could barely contain a smile at hearing the whole massive space of the United States of America referred to so inconsequentially as 'your place'. You know, just our little country.

It always amazes me how so much time and effort can be put into planning a trip, and then, inevitably, moments that you never could've planned just come along and sweep you off your feet. I think one of the most important aspects of traveling is making yourself available for a moment like that to arise. When I was planning our trip, I looked into visiting the Cotswolds but wasn't sure how to make it work, so I just let it go. And then a friend of a friend offered to take us for an afternoon in the country and the Cotswolds--so we found ourselves in a wood full of bluebells, straight out of a fairytale, and then driving past fields of the brightest golden rapeseed, and then wandering around the little town of Burford, complete with medieval stone houses and low-ceilinged pubs.

One of the nice things about spending such a long time here is that we've gotten to experience Oxford slowly, discovering new parts and pockets of it in our daily walks. Thursday morning we saw the Divinity School, the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theater, and the Bridge of Sighs. My absolute favorite was the Divinity School, a single, soaring room in which Oxford students used to attend lectures and take oral exams. It is probably the most beautiful room that I've ever been inside of in my entire life. I've been thinking a lot about the way space effects us, and I'm sure that learning and discussing in a room like that would significantly contribute to the quality of the education. I could live in that one room quite happily for the rest of my life.

On Friday morning we had an appointment to peek in at the Duke Humphries Library--no pictures allowed. Then we were free to roam Oxford for hours, and this is really the fun part: just wandering around, walking down whatever street or alley looks interesting, learning the feel of the place from your own two feet, and ducking into pubs or cafes whenever it starts to rain to enjoy a pint or a cup of tea. We saw the door and the lamppost which supposedly inspired Lewis's Narnia, and we spent a happy couple of hours walking around Christ Church meadow, admiring the little goslings and their parents, looking for birds, walking along the river, and picking dandelions--all with a view of Oxford's dreaming spires. My stuffy nose and the terrible exchange rate were perhaps the only two things reminding me that perfection doesn't actually exist on this side of heaven.

We spent that afternoon inside the hallowed walls of Magdalen College, where C.S. Lewis lived and taught for many years. What a place. I think for the rest of my life I'll be able to close my eyes and remember the peace and beauty of the grounds and buildings there...the grey chapel filled with organ music, the silent medieval cloisters, the low arched doorways, the hall full of windows and intricately carved wood, the trees and meadows along the River Cherwell. It's a place of beauty at which we got to have just a glimpse, but the overwhelming feeling I walked away with was gladness and thankfulness that such a place exists in the world. You know how you have friends that you think of and you just feel better knowing they're alive in the world? There are places whose very existence gives comfort, and Magdalen College is one of them.

One of my happiest moments was walking home after spending a morning at Oxford's National History Museum, and coming across a group of students playing Quidditch in University Park. AHHHHH!!!! What happiness is mine! We had a long, lovely, muddy walk home along the river, through huge green meadows overflowing with fat dandelions and little yellow wildflowers. When the sun does come out here it is so cheerful and warm and makes you feel utterly buoyant. We saw three huge deer just bounding through a meadow in the broad daylight!

Saturday evening we attended Evensong in Christ Church Cathedral. We sang Be Thou My Vision by candlelight with the sun's evening rays pouring through the stained glass windows in a church that was built in the 1100's. I couldn't stop touching the wood and the stone, soaking up the feeling of being a part of something so much bigger than myself.

Saturday night we did a mini-version of a pub crawl, ending the evening by sharing a pint at The Eagle & Child and toasting to "Lewis, and Tolkien, and the Inklings, and Narnia, and Middle Earth, and all that is good and true and beautiful in the world."

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Day of the Dancing Trees

Today was like something out of a dream.

Sean and I woke up early to walk our little friend to school. The sky was grey and spitting, the wind cold and blustering. We were decked out in Wellies and raincoats and walking down streets lined with brick houses and green trees and yards full of flowers.

Once she was safely dropped off, we set off to explore Oxford together, after a couple of days of mostly staying inside to recover from jet-lag. (Although yesterday was a bank holiday and we did go punting down the river to the Victoria Arms--a huge stone restaurant set on a sprawling lawn dotted with picnic tables. We drank pints and watched the kids play and made friends with a pair of beautiful hunting dogs.) All the streets were lovely and beckoning and so perfectly charming that I wanted to take pictures of everything I saw, but even that wouldn't have captured the essence of it, so I just tried to enjoy it.

We wandered into some bookshops, of course, and then got coffee at the Missing Bean, and then over to the Ashmolean. Yay for free museums!

We saw:

1. The irons that held Thomas Cranmer imprisoned before he was burned at the stake. That was quite powerful for me, given the influence that The Book of Common Prayer has had in my life.

2. The lantern Guy Fawkes was holding when he was caught under the houses of Parliament about to blow the whole place sky high!

3. Powhatan's Mantle: a huge leather skin decorated with tiny white seashells that belonged to Pocahontas's father. The mantle used to hang on a wall in the museum, but people were taking the shells off of it home for souvenirs. So now it is encased in glass.

4. The Alfred Jewel, which was housed in its own special vaulted glass case.  It's a man depicted in enamel and then set in gold--probably made in the 800's--but found when a farmer was digging in his field in the 1600's. I just love the idea of a simple farmer finding that artifact one day as he was unsuspectingly going about his business.

By the time we walked home the sun had come out, and everything was green and blooming and wondrous. When I was planning this trip, I didn't realize that it would be spring when we were in Oxford. Spring has never meant much to me seasonally, but I'm so glad now that we are here in the spring. The wind is blowing the white flower petals from the trees into the air like snow, and it's so fun to see the petals scudding down the street when the wind picks up as if they are racing each other.

In the afternoon we walked once more back to Riley's school to pick her up. She was waiting for us expectantly. First we went to the park and looked for snails, walked by the canal, played on the swings and the teeter-totter. It was so windy, it could've almost blown a person over. But there are so many trees here, and the wind in the trees sounds so beautiful, and the leaves look so pretty being blown about. I told Riley that the trees looked like they were dancing, and she said, "Maybe it's Dancing Tree Day."

On the walk home we stopped for hot chocolate and buttery croissants. Riley acted out scenes from Despicable Me 2 and had us laughing so hard. Behind the counter was a giant jar of green olives that Riley and I kept looking at longingly after discovering that we share a mutual love for them. Sean walked up to the waiter and asked if he could get a couple of olives for us, and came back with a cup full of green olives which we ate with great relish.

Tonight we ate pizza, watched Tin-Tin, played games and did puzzles until bedtime.

Being silly on the swings! 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Second Jerry

As any true Seinfeld fan will tell you, there's a Seinfeld episode for just about every situation one encounters in life. True to form, there's a Seinfeld episode for our flight to London.

The episode is Season 4, Episode 12: The Airport, in which Jerry and Elaine are trying to get back to New York, and there is only one seat left in first class. Jerry famously opines about how he can't let Elaine have that seat because he has flown first class and therefore knows what he what he would be missing should he not take it. Elaine, having never flown first class, won't be pained because she won't know what she's missing out on. Or so the logic goes. Jerry ends up sitting in first class where he hits it off with a supermodel and together they drink champagne and eat ice cream and have a grand old time. Elaine meanwhile, is crammed back in coach, miserable and uncomfortable with the guy beside her falling asleep on her shoulder and many other unfortunate occurrences.

This is a much discussed and recounted episode in the Thomas family, given that my father-in-law was a pilot for many years, and my mother-in-law was a flight attendant. They've had countless experiences flying for both work and personal trips, and they know the differences between first class and coach. Because of all this airline work, they also have stand-by flying privileges, meaning they can use empty seats to fly for free when there are seats available. And sometimes, just every now and then, these extra seats are in first class

Well, Sean flew stand-by to London and I booked a ticket in coach. At the last minute, Sean got upgraded to Business-First, and then the moment of truth came: Who would get that highly desirable seat? Or more accurately, that tremendously comfortable bed?? We had just a few minutes to decide, and it was agonizing. Should we just sit together in coach as planned? Should Sean take the seat because he's flown International First Class before and would know how much he was missing? Should I get the seat so I could have that once in a lifetime experience???

Sean let me have it. He said someone should enjoy it, and it should be me. I gathered up my stuff and hurried to the front of the plane, half-elated, but half-guilty about leaving my sweet husband back in coach. (The only way I managed to barely assuage my conscience was that he had a whole row to himself to stretch out and watch movies that would never interest me.) It was far into the flight before I realized that Sean is the second Jerry. Let me explain. The Bible calls Christ the new, or second, Adam because he came to earth and did what Adam could not do. (Namely living a righteous life in complete submission to the Father's will.) Now I'm definitely not comparing Sean to Christ right now, but I don't mind comparing him to a better version of Jerry Seinfeld. Sean, the new Jerry, did what the old Jerry could not do: he gave up the seat that he wanted out kindness for someone else. I suppose you could say that Jerry wasn't able to make that choice because he had never shaped his character through selfless acts to make such a decision, while Sean repeatedly denies himself for me and those he loves, and therefore able to do the generous deed. Anyway, I'm completely overdoing it with this analogy but I love Seinfeld and I love Sean, so just humor me.

Getting back to the flight, I settled into my seat, in a row with three business men, all more than double my age. I felt more than a bit out of place. But Sean had commissioned me to enjoy the full weight of the experience, to eat everything they brought me, and try not to sleep too much and miss out on the glory of it all. (Though perhaps being able to sleep in a completely flat bed IS the glory of it!)

Feeling the need to enjoy it completely for the both of us, I spent the next ten hours lounging in a chair/bed, watching free movies, refreshing my face with warm washcloths, drinking red wine, eating course after course of the most delicious food (there were lots of olives!), and feeling like the Queen of England.

Mixed nuts served in a warm bowl
Melon and kalamata olives
Salad with fresh tomatoes, more olives!, croutons, and delicate shavings of asiago cheese

Beef tenderloin with asiago broth
Steamed asparagus
Potato gnocchi
Dinner roll
And red wine that I never once had to ask to be refilled. Practically the minute I took a sip they were there adding more to my glass.

After Dinner:
Cheese & crackers
A delightful little glass of port

Ice cream sundae

I explained the situation to my flight attendant, and she asked if I'd like to take an ice cream sundae and a glass of Scotch back to Sean. I don't know if I've ever felt happier, navigating the narrow dark aisle, bearing treats for Sean, and knowing how happy it would make him. We visited a little bit, and then it was back to living the high life for me. 

I laid my chair out flat, plopped my fat white pillow behind my head, and snuggled down under my fleece blanket to watch movies, and read, and sleep while our plane arched across the sky toward London and sunlight.

When we landed they said, "Welcome to London! We have a new royal baby--a little princess!" People on the plane started clapping and cheering, and I thought to myself, "This must be a dream!"

My mom told me that she was praying I'd be blown away by this trip. I would say that so far her prayers have been answered abundantly.

Timmy, the only bear in first class! 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Last Night in the Nursery

The night before a move (and trust me, we’ve had many of them) Sean and I usually lay in bed, feeling a bit melancholy and wistful in the darkness. One of us finally states what we’re both thinking: “Well, tonight is our last night in the nursery.” The line, of course, comes from Peter Pan, when Wendy is informed by her frustrated father that it will be her last night in the nursery with her brothers and tomorrow she will have to Grow Up. 

I can remember watching that movie as a child, and feeling the sharpness of that break. Tonight is comfort, and security, and familiarity—tomorrow is new, and unknown, and frightening. What I didn’t realize as a child was how often life involves leaving the nursery. I thought once was enough. You are a child, and then you Grow Up, and it’s over and done. The realization of my adult life is that you're never done growing up. We leap over a hurdle into a strange and new world. We learn to live in that world. We make it as cozy and as comfortable as we can, and often times hope we can stay in our protected little nest forever. And then, before you know it, it’s time for the next challenge! 

I’m tempted to resent all the change, and the disruption, and the circumstances that call me forward. But what I have to do is to try to push it all aside and bury down deep into the true things of life. The truth is that the purpose of life is not to be comfortable. (Thank God for that. Comfort, at the end of the day, is really such a small thing to live for.) The point of life is a journey home, and a journey requires movement. We must fare forward when our time comes. 

A quote that’s been helping me a lot lately comes from the painter, Georgia O’Keefe. She once remarked, “I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”

My instinct is usually to avoid the things that scare me, so I love this reminder that just because a thing is frightening doesn’t mean that’s a good reason not to do it. I also like the humanity of it. Fear is one of our most common experiences, but it’s something we often feel like we need to dismiss or ignore or hide away where no one can ever find out the truth about how terrified we are. It’s so much healthier to just admit the fear is there, but that it’s not the last word on who you are or what you're capable of. 

So yes, I’m scared to leave the nursery once more, and venture out into the great wide world. But fearful is not the only thing I am. I’m also brave, and adventurous, and loved, and super excited for this trip that we’ve worked so hard to make a reality. 

Tonight, the nursery. Tomorrow, we fly to London!