Remembering Oxford

Dreams are funny things. All too often, the things we anticipate and build up in our minds turn into a bitter disappointment. We all wake up and wonder, is that all there is? Oxford turned into a defining moment because I woke up and realized all that I was.

Dread and fear marked my first few weeks in Oxford. Doubt crept into the core of my being. I found that I couldn’t relax at all. I seemed so average in comparison to my peers. They all seemed so refined, so well read, so spectacular. How am I ever going to fit in? I wondered.

This stemmed from a fear of failure. I became convinced that my writing was trite, my conclusions unimpressive, and generally I felt unworthy of being in the program. I refused to let myself relax and let down my hair. Tension filled my body and it refused to go away. My sleep cycle was unnatural throughout the first month. I stayed up all night and slept all day. The absence of a normal schedule proved to be too much. I needed structure and balance. Instead, I had free time to think, analyze, and in general, to drive myself mad. I wanted so desperately to impress, yet felt my performance fell flat.

And then, a remarkable thing happened. I stopped caring. I became a man who wanted to enjoy my time in this unique setting and not stress out too much about the whole thing. Here I was surrounded by brilliant thinkers, magnificent buildings, and wonderful libraries. I decided to soak it all in and make every day count. Surprisingly, my social life and my academic performance turned around as my mood brightened.

Something changed. I’m not sure what exactly happened, but I got into the zone. Everything clicked and I felt like I spent my days walking on water. It sure felt different, but good, and right. I found that by being outgoing, the life of the party, and taking an interest in others, my mind freed up and began to perform. Suddenly the clutter that had filled my brain cleared up and allowed my mind to focus. I spent enough time on my studies but used all my spare time conversing with others and enjoying life. The most important thing I learned was not to strive too hard but to enjoy all aspects of an experience.

There is a season for all things. Don’t focus on what you can’t control. Just do the best you can. Fortunately, God gave me a wonderful brain and an ability to skate by without obsessing over the little things.

Wednesdays were special days. Each week, we met on that afternoon at Crick Court. Tea time for the program gave us all a special break in the weekly schedule to stop our work and enjoy the company of others. I spent several happy afternoons listening to my friends converse and catching up with the new essay projects others pursued. After awhile, it was time to begin dinner preparations.

I spent those Wednesday afternoons and evenings going grocery shopping and preparing dinner. My buddy Tim and I left Crick Court and walked a few blocks over to the grocery store. On the way, we decided what we wanted to eat. Tim then got out his handy cook book and looked up the ingredients needed for the dish.

British grocery stores are something else. They lack the selection and variety of their American counterparts. It is really simple but can become incredibly discouraging when you’re looking for a specialty item. Anyway, Tim had lots of practice making different soups. I teased him about it, but his youth in North Dakota gave him ample time to practice these skills. This lad knew how to cook too; I found myself simply following his command in the kitchen.

Our walks back to the house gave Tim and I plenty of time to get to know one another. Tim is what I would call a metro-sexual. He loves shopping and has a great concern for his appearance. He also loves to sing in public. I loved spending the afternoons with him, but a little bit of Tim went a long way. By the time our day was over, I usually didn’t need to see him for a few days.

Tim had a great interest in Ireland. His parents spent time on the Emerald Isle as missionaries. Several weekends during term he caught a flight from London to Dublin where he met up with old friends and went shopping for new outfits. Tim always enjoyed looking over fashion magazines and finding a distinct, refined look. But, Tim also enjoyed talking about politics and culture. Anytime I had my full of his fashion talk, I found a way to segue the conversation back to those subjects. Several afternoons, I found myself just asking a series of questions and letting Tim ramble on. He possessed such an interesting mind; I could listen to him go on for hours about the most mundane of topics. In many ways, it foreshadowed our experience when you would bring up a question and I would pontificate about that and a whole other series of issues in a long winding answer. The only difference was that Tim did all this stone cold sober. He was really something else when you went to the pub with him.

I only went to the pub with Tim a couple times. We were not “boys,” but merely friendly acquaintances. My pub treks often took place on Wednesday nights after cleaning up the kitchen. This evening always proved to be my last hurrah for the week. You see, my tutorials took place on Friday morning and Monday afternoon. Now, I spent most of my Thursdays writing the research paper. Every other weekend (as my Monday tutorials occurred each fortnight) I spent immersed in economics material. Those essays were due midday on Sunday. Thus, Wednesday often proved the last respite until Sunday evening.

My best mate in the house was Doug Fisher. This young man was absolutely fascinating. We were two of the least religious guys in the house. Doug was an atheist. He also studied philosophy and loved to ramble on about existentialism. Russian literature and history also fascinated him and he talked often about becoming fluent in the language. Needless to say, I found Doug fascinating. Moreover, he never annoyed me and really like to drink. We spent our Wednesday evenings at the pub. We had a few favorite ones: the Turf (where Bill Clinton famously did not “inhale”) was a great one near the Bodleian, the King’s arms was another fine establishment across the way from the libraries, but the closest one to the house was the Lamb and Flag. That became our weekly spot. Many of our classmates preferred the more famous establishment across the street: The Eagle and Child. That was the famous C.S. Lewis spot. Doug and I both felt that place was too cramped. We preferred the more open place across the street. There, Doug and I commiserated over our weekly essays and talked about life in general.

Doug spent the semester studying Plato and The Republic. I found myself inundated with bits of philosophy and other tidbits he’d picked up during the week. Mr. Fisher always enjoyed contrasting Plato with Aristotle and bringing that back to current events. Anytime the conversation got dull, we talked about the women of the house and who we’d want to get drunk with. So many of the girls were real beauties but very religious. Only a few let their guards down. Most seemed up tight and really preachy about their faith. Doug and I both found that unattractive and really concluded that if we had to spend time with any of them, it would be with a girl named Aubrey.

Aubrey was a real joy. She was so sweet, so pretty, and so off limits. During the term, her boyfriend had come across the pond and asked for her hand in marriage. The whole house was in an uproar and talked about the news for days. Aubrey handled the situation with such grace and class. She just went about her business and patiently answered question after question about the impending nuptials.

She never had an unkind word to say about anyone and sped through her course work. I’m serious; we all thought she was a machine. She had such an uncanny way of zipping through her essays flawlessly and then going about the rest of her week. When conversations turned to a religious nature, Aubrey always discussed her faith frankly. She held deep convictions but understood if others didn’t agree with her positions. She walked her faith and refused to talk at you about any outrageous behavior. Several times I came home drunk as a skunk. Aubrey would always just say, “Cameron, I hope things are going alright. Is there anything I can do for you?”

It really was amazing. I became convinced that if I returned to faith that I would copy her direction. Something about being a friend, loving others, helping those in need, and being an example to non-believers really resonated with me. So many Christians should learn from this kindred soul.

Anyway, Doug and I caroused until the wee hours. We got back to the house and often found ourselves watching dvds or continuing our discussion over tea. Finally, the night ended and reality set in again.

Thursdays were always stressful days. I still felt unsure about my writing but seemed to make progress as the weeks went by. My tutors noticed improvement and complimented my work. Finally, the stressful eight week term came to a close.

But, our work was not done. Part of the program required us to write a long essay, a 4,000 word assignment that we had “spent” the term working on. Only Aubrey managed to find the time to research and prepare for this mad finish. The rest of us had to research and write the thing in just six days. By this time, we all ran on adrenaline and caffeine. None of us slept much. We all lamented the thought of leaving Oxford but all wanted to be done with the work.

Fortunately, I chose a topic that expanded on an early assignment. I reflected on Jeremy Bentham and 19th century British reforms. My focus was on utilitarianism and the expansion of the franchise. Lots of the leg work had taken place months earlier and I had never let Bentham drift far from my thoughts. I spent two days re-familiarizing myself with his works in the library. Then, I sat down to write.

Nothing, I mean nothing seemed easier. It really flowed out so effortlessly. I put on some music and started typing. Weezer proved a steady companion during the next day and a half. I finished in record time and marched home feeling great about myself. The work was over. Hallelujah!!! When my friends inquired about my progress, I told them my draft was done, I planned on doing some minor revisions, and then would turn the paper in later that evening. Jaws dropped. Most could not believe my time! They had noticed a guy who procrastinated and always seemed the last to finish.

That was me until the change in my demeanor. Dread prevented me from letting my papers flow. I literally could not pull the trigger. Once I gave up control and decided to relax, things fell into place. What a relief, what a lesson, what an experience.

Looking back, I wished I changed my ways weeks earlier. But, I wouldn’t change my experience for anything. This time exemplified the term “growing pains.” I needed to fail, I had to struggle, I chose to doubt. This helped me evolve and shaped the man I would become. For that, I will always be grateful.

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3 comments

  1. That was gorgeous to read!

  2. Andrew Hagstrom · · Reply

    Hey Cameron, you really expressed your experience at Oxford well. Ever thought about being an author? I just want to let you know that you were not alone. In fact, I had a very similar experience. I really felt out of my element during the first several weeks – thrown together with a lot of very intelligent and eloquent people from all across America. It was hard to relax in that kind of environment. I have always been an introvert, so it was not easy for me to engage in group dynamics. I felt a lot of pressure to succeed and to impress, and I often worried that I was not performing at the same level as my peers. I turned to the guitar and to music for the most part to release my nervous energy. I drank a little bit (surprise, surprise), but I did not feel at liberty to drink excessively because of alcohol addiction in my family; in any case, I don’t know how much that would have helped anyway. I’m glad that you were able relax and to find your way out of the whole predicament. I guess the key is not caring what other people think and not taking anything too seriously. I can’t say that I had the same enlightenment experience or a-ha moment. I did well in all my classes, but I don’t think I was entirely adjusted to the whole environment even by the time I left. I certainly have learned from looking back at my Oxford experience in perspective. Someone once said that life is 1 percent what happens to you and 99 percent how you respond to it. I went to Oxford and was disappointed because what I found fell short of my expectations. If I had chosen to respond positively to the environment and chosen not to care what others thought of me, I would have had a much better time. The quality of my experience was determined by how I responded to it. I may not learned the lesson the easy way, but I certainly learned it. Thanks for sharing your experience. It helped me grapple with the root of my own struggles. Hope all is well with you.

    In Christ, Andrew

  3. Hey Cameron, I just stumbled across your blog and really enjoyed reading this reflection. Makes me feel quite a bit nostalgic–hard to believe we’re coming up on two years.

    I had a similar reaction to Oxford, especially during the first three or four weeks. One of the driving impetuses behind my desire to go was to see if I could really hack it as an academic. It took me a little while to figure it out, but I think Oxford was transformative in giving me that confidence, and the existential change for me was basically the same as the moment you describe as not caring. I think of it like the character Peter in Office Space.

    Hope you’re well.

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