In 2008 I visited Oxford, England, for three weeks as a sponsor for a high school summer program at the St. Hugh’s College of Oxford University.
I’m always cautious about over-sentimentalizing something, but I think I can say objectively that Oxford was a turning point in my life. Not the exact point, of course; I was already in the process of redefining who I was, though still far from achieving it. As most things are in life, it was a very long, very slow process.
Ten years ago when I came to Oxford, I was a husk of a human; desperate for acceptance, gutted of validation, and in need of someone to simply acknowledge I was a good person (not exactly the strongest endorsement of a sponsor responsible for overseeing high schoolers.) I was in the middle of a separation, my wife having requested a divorce, and coping with all the incredibly painful implications that surround such processes; for many months, I was in a spiraling, deep depression.
In the months leading up to the Oxford trip though, I had had enough and began to move on from the sad, beaten down Derek to at least a Derek I wanted to be more like. I began to read more; I bought a bookcase. I began to paint and write (mostly poetry) once again. I began to transform the house into something that reflected myself, my tastes and interests, rather than what once was. I was still sad and tired, but I had chosen to turn a corner.
These were the conditions under which I traveled to Oxford.
It was as if the trip existed out of time, bookended by the chaos that existed before I stepped onto the plane and also greeted me when I returned, but in this three week time, I was born anew.
Mind you, at this point, the internet was still new-ish and smartphones did not exist; I was only able to access my email once or twice a week in the campus computer lab. To call home to my children, I had to purchase an international calling card (which I only used twice due to the price) and so relied primarily on postcards for communication. To put it simply, I was cut off. This isolation allowed me time away, as did the three weeks; if it had been one week, I don’t think the transformation would have occurred.
I was also surrounded by lovely people who cared about me and for me; who helped heal me whether they realized it or not. I experienced a life-changing sermon at the St. Aldate’s Church about suffering and the wilderness experience. I was given the space and encouragement needed to reimagine myself.
And so all this significance was wrapped up in the physical space that Oxford inhabited, in the streets and architecture, the shops and churches, the comforting atmosphere of academia.
I once heard the University of Oxford’s motto was that Oxford is not a place, it is an idea. This is true for me. Yes, of course, Oxford is a place, but it represents so much more to me. To see once again in 2018 the city center, the spires, the Bodleian and Radcliffe, St. Mary’s, the small little side streets, the pubs, just to be in the space – oh how wonderful – but it is not the buildings from which the significance comes; it was the time I spent there. There was so much more hardship that came after when I returned to the United States, some very dark times, but then came 2009 and Kirsten and life began again.
She was with me this summer in Oxford along with my mother-in-law. How different and beautiful life is now.
It was very strange to be in Oxford again, actually; like meeting up with an old friend you hadn’t spoken to in 10 years; long enough to still know each other, but both very different.
The first time I was in Oxford, I was there long enough for it to feel like I knew the place, not just a city I visited for a few days. So to stand again in the quad of the Bodleian Library, to visit Blackwell’s Bookshop, to walk down the small street of North Parade, was all wonderfully weird.
We stopped into the Rose and Crown to have a cider and I thought how strange it was to be sitting in the same place 10 years removed. We walked to the back gate of St. Hugh’s; it was like looking at a painting in which the context was all wrong. I could not help but think of Heraclitus’ quote,
You can never step into the same river twice for new waters are ever flowing.
But how wonderful to do it all with Kirsten, to share with her my love of the place. I’m sure it was not the same in her eyes, and why would it be? Perhaps to her, it was just another crowded, busy, touristy European place. The city felt a bit that way to me. It seemed far more crowded than 10 years ago, but it was still good to be there, in the view of the buildings and colleges that I came to love, the pubs and moss-covered walls, the churchyards and quiet corners, that city of dreaming spires, Oxfordshire.