The Chronicles of Oxford Part 2: Standing Up

It is the second day of my program at Oxford, and the third day that I’ve been in town.  Much has happened in that time and within that time a sense of the inability to actually sit and write down some impressions and experiences, for fear of missing something.  So it is with a sense of relief that I am finally sitting down in Blackwell’s Bookshop on High St, directly across from the Bodleian Library and typing on this laptop.

If I try to encapsulate my experience thus far, I have to begin with standing up.

Not right now in Blackwell’s.  I mean two nights ago, in the Exeter Dining Hall.  Here’s what it looks like:

And here’s me with a drink in hand in the Dining Hall:

Notice I’m wearing a suit?  Required.  Our first night consisted of a champagne meet and greet in the Fellow’s Garden, and a four course welcome dinner with wine flowing freely, served and poured by Exeter’s wait staff.  But what really struck me was what happened before we ate.

We stood up.  But why?

As sudden as a light switched turned off, all pre-dinner chit chat in the dining hall stopped, and we all stood as the faculty made their way to the high table, their black robes flowing behind them.  The sense of ceremony in the room was palpable during that moment, and to me, it set the tone for the whole program.  This was a tangible statement of respect for learning.  The positioning of the head table and this ceremonious walk stated very clearly “Learning is set on a pedestal here.   It is worthy of respect.”  For those who are teachers out there:  Can you imagine your students actually standing when you walk into the room?  I really liked that moment.  One might think it smacks of elitism and inequality, but the fact of the matter is, I am not their equal.  They are my literary and educational betters.  But that’s ok.  Because they are taking time to teach me, and who wants to be a student and have a teacher who knows just as much as you do?

My rooms overlook Ship Street, off Turl.  I am situated right in the heart of the University, with Bodleian Library and the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theater next door.

Radcliffe Camera

I’ve met many people thus far, and there is a whole coterie of us representing Florida, especially because of scholarships given out by the ESU.  In addition to the US, however, I’ve had conversations with people from New Zealand, Pakistan, Denmark, Germany, France, and Australia.

Exeter is the college of Tolkien- this is where he studied English Literature and Languages in the early part of the 20th Century.  There is a bust of him in the Exeter Chapel, sculpted by his daughter in law in 1977.

Bust of Tolkien in Exeter Chapel

My mind still feels a bit scattered, but I feel totally at home here.  I am surrounded by wood and stone and grass and books and coffee shops and PUBS.  I am sitting in places my favorite authors sat, and looking at buildings and structures which have been here for centuries.  tolling church bells tell me when to go to lecture.    I was sitting in class in the Morris Room, and noticed elaborate tapestries showcased in each corner.  One girl said, “Those are great replicas of William Morris’s work!”  Our professor gave her an odd look and coolly stated “Ah.  Actually, those are the originals.”

I am still echoing many of my fellow summer students: “I can’t believe I’m here!”

Next: A trip to Canterbury, and what the heck am I actually doing here?

Wandering Tree Examines the Roots: 2009 Year in Review

A scattered mind like mine should relish the chance to take stock of the past, to reflect on where he has been in an attempt to be ever mindful of the Spirit who wishes to drive him forward.  I can say with all honesty that 2009 has been a year of hills and valleys, at times blinded by the sun, and others times trying to see beyond the mist.  It would be fair to say that I’ve traveled further than I ever have, given my trip to England, and interacted with an extraordinarily diverse group of people: pseudo-hippies, fundamentalist Christians, gay-friendly Christians, English pub owners, Baker St. employees, famous actors, less-than-famous ventriloquists, hobbits, gandalfs, and other LOTR fans, Harry Potter fans, AP instructors, New York cabbies, high school teenagers, monks, and authors of ghost stories.  I created a nonprofit, Hobbit Meals,  to aid the relief work of Second Harvest Food Bank, was entrusted with my first AP class, and drank a pint at a pub where Charles Dickens used to hang out.  I went to a Muppet-themed wedding. I saw Phish again for the first time in nearly 10 years, and Bruce Springsteen for my first time ever.  I met Billy Boyd, who sang extremely sad songs.  I finally procured my Professional Teaching Certificate for the state of Florida.  I met Rob Bell and told him about Hobbit Meals, which ended up in one of his sermons (or at least in a travelogue to keep his congregation up to date).  I turned 35.

Travel seemed to be the highlight of the year, with a week-long sojourn at Bonnaroo, where I was given the nickname “Gandalf,” due to my long pipe (filled only with tobacco, folks) and the enormous copy of Lord of the Rings I brought along with me, which I read each morning.  I was also in a “hobbit” frame of mind, allowing the summer break to relax me.  The trip certainly brought some amount of calm to this anxiety-prone spirit.  It was not long after this when my wife and I traveled to England, exploring, in that frantic American tourist kind of way, London, Bath, Oxford, and Edinburgh.  We met up with the Davis family, who were gracious enough to play host to two Yanks in their native country, including a tour of the Harry Potter set at Leavesden Studios.

School started once again, with more than a little anxiety.  The reason and goals for my profession seemed a bit lost to me this semester, therefore constant search for the foundation of my vocation and a renewed sense of a love for literature dominated my thinking from August to December.  Fragmented thoughts on the implication of tweets and the avoidance of Things in Capital Letters echo in my thinking as of late, to be written down in some reasonable semblance of cohesion soon.

Numerous books devoured over the year, including a romp through my C.S. Lewis collection, N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian, Peter Rollins’ Orthodox Heretic, Mcfague’s Speaking in Parables, G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, and other theological writings.  Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, Harold Bloom’s Stories and Poems, Marilynne Robinson’s Death of Adam, and R.W. Emerson’s Essays and Poems are notables.

What of 2010?  Will I journey to England again, thanks to a scholarship for which I am applying?  A family?  Success or failure for my AP students?  A renewed willingness to seek Truth (yes, capitalized), no matter how quaint that might be?  To see the glorious divine comedy and tragedy of life?  Shall it be to the gym, to rid all signs of a contented life?  Perhaps even a short story or two?

Whatever it might be, may I make my ship seaworthy, checking the riggings and knots, hoisting the sails, with no fear for the line on the horizon.

Happy New Year to you all!

4000 Miles for a Pint with the Inklings…

oxford 09 101While I was in England, I had a much anticipated pint at the Eagle and Child, otherwise known as the Bird and Baby, in Oxford.  This was a pub where my two favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to meet and share ideas, a place which had a role in the creation of Middle Earth and Narnia!

Here are some pictures from my time in Oxford, including the Eagle and Child, Addison’s Walk, and Magdalen College:

A Hobbit finds his way into the Eagle and Child guestbook

A Hobbit finds his way into the Eagle and Child guestbook

oxford 09 111

reading the Eagle and Child guestbook

reading the Eagle and Child guestbook

C.S. Lewis plague at Eagle and Child

C.S. Lewis plague at Eagle and Child

Magdalen College

Magdalen College

Addison's Walk, Magdalen College, Oxford

Addison's Walk, Magdalen College, Oxford

Addison's Walk, Magdalen College, Oxford

Addison's Walk, Magdalen College, Oxford