Saturday, September 3, 2016

My City of Dreaming Spires

It's amazing the difference a year can make. A year ago, I was sitting on my living room floor, wondering what the next year would bring. Would I like Oxford? Would I make friends? Did I make the right choice?

Now, looking back, it's hard to believe that there ever was another choice. This year of Oxford was made for me, and I was made for it. It was challenging. But it was golden.

And I am oh-so-grateful for the opportunity I had to study there. To live there. To love there and cry there and just be there. So, so grateful.

I've decided to include a personal essay that I wrote one of the main lessons I learned while at Oxford. If anything, I hope it will capture some of the wonder of the city, the necessity of growing pains, and the beauty of choosing to belong.

Oxford is a city of tales. From Dorthoy Sayers to Philip Pullman, great thinkers and storytellers have drawn on the conversation and atmosphere of Oxford to create wonder and inspire inquiry. There must be something in the Cherwell water, some river spirit that breathes imagination into poets, novelists, artists, and even professors.

Sooner or later, Oxford becomes a part of everyone's story.

When it comes down to it, I suppose the main reason I went to Oxford is because I wanted to make Oxford a part of my story. I applied for graduate work at Oxford because I thought it would challenge me and give me tools and opportunities to become a better scholar . . . but I ultimately came because it is what my heart wanted. I yearned for these yawning, century-old buildings and cobblestone streets to become my own; I wanted to lose myself in the bookshelves of the Bodleian; I hoped to fulfill all of my wildest Hogwarts dreams by simply stepping into the Corpus Christi dining hall. Oxford was my idea of heaven, with history, books, and endless possibilities for learning and growth at my fingertips.

I soon found that heaven can be overrated.

After the initial wonder of arriving in Oxford ("Look at these gardens! Listen to those bells! Feel that English rain!"), real life knocked at my door and, without asking permission, settled in. My course was challenging and I worried that I would not have the amount of time I would like for adventuring or exploring. I ached for my close relationships back home. That English rain continued to pour and painted everything grey and gloomy.

The bright, shiny pin of reality burst my ambitions. There was no possible way I could do everything that I wanted to do--rowing happened the same time as that club's opening social, which was on the opposite side of town from the lecture I needed to attend, and I hadn't even started on the readings. All the same, as an incorrigible overachiever, I still attempted to do everything, afraid to miss out on Instagram moments, afraid that missing out on opportunities meant that I would not have that "perfect" Oxford experience I dreamed of having.

One night after a formal hall, I was struck with a sense of world-weariness. It frightened me because I had not expected to feel so empty at the place of my dreams. As I walked along Magdalen Bridge, it dawned on me that I was experiencing something that I had only read about in books. I was feeling the pangs of poshlost', an untranslatable Russian term best described when someone aims for "the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive" (V. Nabokov).

I had analyzed Russian literary characters who had wasted their lives because of poshlost', and now I analyzed its effects in myself. I was trying too hard to be everything to everyone, which left me feeling superficial, stretched, and selfish. If I could not change my outlook, I could see my graduate experience at Oxford leaving me hollow and disillusioned. The prospect scared me.

However, being able to name that fear empowered me. It allowed me to take control of the situation. That night was a crossroads for me as I assessed what I honestly wanted out of my Oxford experience. I was chasing the phantom of a dream--a "perfect" Oxford experience that didn't exist--instead of simply breathing the night air, enjoying the intellectual struggle, and engaging myself in the relationships around me. I did not want the "falsely beautiful" in my life; I did not want a social media saga. I wanted to engage myself in what mattered most--relationships and growth, both as a scholar and as an individual.

I did not have to go to every single networking event, extemporaneous seminar, or fancy dinner. The perfect did not have to become an enemy of the good. Opportunities would come and go, but missing out on one or two (or even a couple hundred) did not mean missing out on my Oxford dreams. I had to choose what was most important to me, and then fully immerse myself in those experiences and friendships, meeting the good and the bad with determination and grace.

Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned here is that life at Oxford is just that: life. There are challenges, including tears, loneliness, long nights in the library, and blisters from cobblestoned streets. There are regrets. There are events I wish I could have atteneded and people I wish I could have become better friends with.

My Oxford experience has been far from perfect. But it has been very good. Oxford has become mine . . . but not in the way I expected. To be honest, I was expecting perfection--a glorified version of all of my favorite Oxford stories rolled into one. The reality is much better than the dream, because it is something I can hold, critcize, and ultimately love, not just idealize.

At the same time, Oxford can never completely be mine, just as I will never completely belong to Oxford. Oxford has lived so many lives, and there are so many lives in Oxford. So many times and seasons are lost to me; there are evensongs and brunches I never attended; societies I never joined; different colleges I never properly visited. Those parts of Oxford belong to someone else's city of dreaming spires.

But for me, my Oxford consists of library epiphanies, Merton Street in morning glow, Magdalen Bridge by moonlight, jogging in Port Meadow, and a hearty dose of friendship. It is not everything, but it is more than enough to be a part of my story, to soak into my skin and fill my soul.

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