On the Oxford Essay.

He sat down at the kitchen table and opened up his laptop. It buzzed and moaned as it started up. He stretched and groaned, his frame outlined by the blue-gray light of the rainy morning. With twelve-clicks, the screen flew into a flurry. Safari popped up with six tabs, Chrome opened up to a Youtube playlist of Taylor Swift (it was a late night), a 2,693 word essay on early 20th-century Middle Eastern history grimaced back at him, and Spotify required an update of his “present country” status. For all intents and purposes, Spotify still thought he was in living in the US, and thus assumed he was trying to cheat the system. It refuses any attempts to fix it, and he still doesn’t know why. Quickly minimizing three of the four windows, he stared at the essay. It stared back.

Term at Oxford began a few weeks back. At first, it was slow and surprisingly lax with assignments. The first week, endearingly called “Fresher’s Week,” barely changed from the previous vacation week. I had two meetings, one with my primary tutor and another with my secondary tutor, that lasted a good fifteen minutes each.

There was a white van sitting in the pebble-covered drive. He walked up to the front door of 18 Lathbury Road. Facing the door, a dark-blue color, he debated for a minute or two on whether he should knock or ring the door bell. Mind made up, he raised his fist to the door. As he went to knock, the tutor opened the door. “Oh, hello. I saw you coming up the drive,” the tutor said. “Please, come in and to the left.” He walked through the door, and into the small hallway. Laying on a half-table, a large orange cat stretched out its paws. Her claws flexed out, and scratched quietly against the wood surface. “Hello, kit-kat,” he said. Inside the sitting room, he sat down on a striped, high-backed armchair with a cat pillow. The tutor, with gray Wilde-esque, hair, sat down across from him. Conversation began, and he soon realized trying to listen to the tutor’s whispery, accented voice would be the most difficult aspect of the tutorial.

Tutorials,  Oxford University’s system of education, soon took on its true form. In one week, I had two essays due: a 2,000 word essay on the influence of the Peace Settlement after WWI on the shaping of the Middle East, and a 3,000 word essay on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. The library and my headphones became my two closest aids. A week prior, I was sitting in cafes with friends, and talking about the clubs I might join. I said I would try the Lewis Club (interesting talks on different aspects of Lewis and his fellow Inklings – went once, and regret not going since), the Christ Church football team (went to one game, and effectively convinced myself I should never play football again), the Fencing team (never went), and the Muse Society (speed-dating for making friends). The Uni life felt relaxed.

It was nerves. Mostly. The other part was the apparent lack of books in his college library. “How can they not have Tribes and State-formation in the Middle East?” he asked himself as he scrolled through the list of books located in the closed stack of the Bodleian Library. Despair took hold of his heart. He wouldn’t have enough time to do all of his reading, and he only had three sources as of this afternoon. He shut his laptop, and packed his things up. Pushing the wooden chair back from the large study table, he flinched at the eerrrrreaaaccchhhh! of wood sliding against wood. A few heads turned his direction, and he shrugged in apology. Walking toward the door, the wood boards underneath his feet moaned. “For such a quiet place, it sure likes to make noise,” he thought as he opened the creaking door to the main hall of the library.

I love Oxford. It is beautiful, poetic, and dynamic. A real sense of magic emanates from every street corner, tree stump, and meadow. Yes, I am happy here, but I look forward to home. To “peace and quiet and good tilled earth.”

Keep on keeping on,
J.S.U.

                               Through the Looking Glass King Charles - a throne amidst parliament                                        A GateDumbledore!? A door and path Bridge of Sighs Towering Light. Old Tom A Staircase from my Childhood Oxford Walls Cloisters The Meadows

It All Begins With A Map.

A response to a friend’s blog post:

I am no good at words.

A few years ago, I would have said differently. It was on the page that my tripping tongue found its footing. Pretentious and arrogant, I said, “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” After two years of college, the only statement that still holds true from Vladimir Nabokov’s quote is “I speak like a child.” It was a depressing realization, but a necessary one.

What once seemed like good writing became silly and juvenile. The essays and stories I wrote felt unfinished. By calling myself a writer, I had foolishly rushed into a world dominated by men and women far more talented. Bogged down by the feeling I was inadequate as a writer, I would write to prove myself wrong. The result would be disappointing, and I would validate my feeling of inadequacy. I circled the realm of words from the outside with head lowered, desperately wanting to get in.

During this time, I had lost focus on why I write. All that mattered was the feeling that I was never going to be good enough. I trapped myself in my own miserableness.

I did not start writing to become a writer. The writing was a product of the stories I wanted to tell. When I was younger, around nine or ten years old, I use to draw maps of fantastical lands. Each map would contain upside-down V mountain ranges, winding rivers, vast woods, oceans, and the occasional whirlpool. In this newly fashioned geography, I would place cities and towns. The next step was to go through the new map and name cities and mountains and rivers and oceans. It was hardly the final step, though. The map needed a story. And so I wrote.

Writing is a means to create. From idea to thought to pen and paper, the story takes shape. The rambling thoughts become solid, and a world comes to be. And so I write.

Occasionally, I stop writing. If one calls himself a writer, this is the second greatest sin he can commit.

If I stop writing, then I fail to tell the stories waiting for pen and paper. That is why I write even though words come sluggishly to my mind. Writing is the way I understand life. Before I write, the jumbled words form half-thoughts and feelings about the world around me. After I write, I sometimes stumble across a truth that I needed to remember. One day, I hope to share some of those treasured truths with others. And so I will continue to write.

Thanks for reading.

Keep on keeping on,

J.

Eyes Around Oxford #2

Teatime

Tea.

It is a culture here in England, a lost thing to American sensibilities. After all, tea was a historical dispute between the states and the monarchy. The former dumped it in the ocean while the latter snobbed it up with “pinky out.” Ignoring the harsh history involving the beverage, tea does seem to play a much larger social role on the other side of the Atlantic. Here in Oxford (i.e. all of England) one can find several cafes and pubs offering tea. This is commonplace. Even in America, there are many cafes and restaurants that offer tea and coffee. And yet, Americans do tea wrong. Maybe we find the process of teatime tea-dious. I’m American, and I love tea. It is a comfort drink, and many times reminds me of my time at home in Hershey. I assure you, reader, many Americans love tea. I have only met a few people who say they do not enjoy tea. They are to be shunned. As Americans, our love for tea is limited though. There is a mountain too high and a river too deep separating us from the full joy that is tea.

That joy is called cream tea.

During my first Sunday in Oxford, a group of four or five ended up at a café called the Vaults and Garden. It is a small café located in Oxford’s Old Congregation House of 1320. For many of us, we had no idea what cream tea meant. One of my friends thought it might be something similar to a frappe. I insisted it was plain tea with milk. It is neither of those silly ideas. Cream tea consists of a tea of your choice (an entire pot of tea in some cases), and a scone or two. To accompany the scones, cafes give a side of jam and a side of clotted cream as spreads. The combination of the two is heavenly. The cream tea is not the only reason why the British do tea correctly. It is the idea of Afternoon Tea that rights all wrongs between America and Britain. At least, it does for me. Afternoon tea starts around midday. It is a time to enjoy conversation and a cuppa. More so, it is a break from the bustle of life. Coming from one of the busiest cities in the world, I found the slower speed of Oxford, and the calming atmosphere of teatime a pleasant and welcomed change. It is this tradition I feel I might miss most about England.

I must not be too hasty with my generalizations. This facetious claim of mine stands on wobbly pillars. Teatime can be found anywhere in the world. It is no longer a British tradition. However, England does have consistency when it comes to setting aside a period of time for the sole enjoyment of tea and conversation. The location of the tea doesn’t matter. Tea, in its nature, is a drink that calms and comforts wherever it is consumed. No, location comes second. Tea is wonderful whether it is a cup in the hands of an American boy watching Newsies, or it is in a porcelain teacup held by a hand with pinky extended.

It seems I steeped this discussion too long. I close with this: drink tea unabashedly.

Keep on keeping on,

J.S.U.

IMG_4071

“Oxford” by C.S. Lewis

It is well that there are palaces of peace
And discipline and dreaming and desire,
Lest we forget our heritage and cease
The Spirit’s work—to hunger and aspire:

Lest we forget that we were born divine,
Now tangled in red battle’s animal net,
Murder the work and lust the anodyne,
Pains of the beast ‘gainst bestial solace set.

But this shall never be: to us remains
One city that has nothing of the beast,
That was not built for gross, material gains,
Sharp, wolfish power or empire’s glutted feast.

We are not wholly brute. To us remains
A clean, sweet city lulled by ancient streams,
A place of visions and of loosening chains,
A refuge of the elect, a tower of dreams.

She was not builded out of common stone
But out of all men’s yearning and all prayer
That she might live, eternally our own,
The Spirit’s stronghold—barred against despair.

A Summary.

“Oxford is the most dangerous place to which a young man can be sent.” – Anthony Trollope

And so it begins.

The man’s chair reclined all the way back. My TV screen gone aided me little in my attempt to escape the cramped atmosphere of the Boeing 747. One would think there would be more space on British Airway’s third largest plane. Unfortunately, I did not have the luxury of Business or First Class.

It was a long flight. At one point, I spilled my tea on my lap. Halfway across the Atlantic, they turned off the lights. I sat in the dark trying to read by the light of my tiny TV screen. Sleep avoided my every attempt.

Though it might sound like a rough flight, overall it went smoothly. Reaching Heathrow Airport definitely brightened my day. Then I reached customs. The confusion of non-Euro passports versus Euro passports lines and the shear number of people in a not-big-enough-room made me reevaluate my desire to travel. I waited, with some company including a South African man on a business/vacation trip, for about an hour.

After getting through customs unscathed but exhausted, a fellow student and I made our way to the Oxford bus queue outside of the airport. We met another student from our program at the bus stop. As expected, I stood off to the side, and immediately pulled out a book to “read.” A reflex that has proved handy before, but I didn’t want it to rear itself in a place where I wanted to talk to everyone. Becoming more conversational is one of my goals while at Oxford (besides being recognized as brilliant, and asked to stay at the university forever).

The bus provided me an opportunity to view the passing English countryside. Rolling hills and large, dark forests surrounded the flip-flopped road. Not a single billboard or advertisement lined the highway. Road signs were infrequent. At some point I fell asleep to the rumbling of the bus and the music playing from my headphones. My nap didn’t last long. I jerked awake, not wanting to sleep until later that night in order to avoid a nasty spell of jet lag.

At the end of the hour or so bus ride from London to Oxford, I stepped off the bus and proceeded to head to my new flat in Summertown. (The current condition of the flat might deserve its own story). I quickly deposited my luggage, and headed out to explore my new home.

The city itself is made up of residential brick and stone buildings mixed with storefronts. Many buildings have stores on the street level with flats and offices on the second level. No building besides the older stone buildings of the university reach above two floors. There is a mixture of old and new: restaurants located in buildings from the 14th century, paved streets blending into cobblestone roads, and castle-like turrets filling the skyline of the city.

Every where you go in Oxford there is history made present. A short exploration of the city reveals that Oxford – from our flat (named “Banbury Lodge” as agreed on by all flatmates) to our first pub “The Rose and Crown” all the way to Christ’s Church and the Commons where we fell asleep underneath a willow tree – contains a rich history of stories and memories.

Oxford is where fairytales no longer fall short of reality, and where modernity falls in love with the past. It claims the hearts and imaginations of all who visit. It is a good place, and I expect to fall in love with it more every day.

I hope to write more of my experience in Oxford, and I hope you enjoyed this brief catch-up of my first couple days.

Keep on keeping on,

J.S.U.

“I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all like an opera.” – William Butler Yeats