Why are we here?

February 21, 2009

Oxford

Wycliffe Hall, Oxford

Wycliffe Hall, Oxford

During the fall semester of my senior year, I studied in Oxford, England, at one of Oxford University’s colleges called Wycliffe Hall. The college takes its name from John Wycliffe, who was killed for translating the Bible from Latin into English. 

 

Kieron Winn

Kieron Winn

These months spent living on Pullens Lane were some of the best of my life: chronically late and riding my red bike helter skelter down High Street to discuss my unfortunate use of “inflated rhetoric” with the English poet Kieron Winn or 18th-century novels with a lovely Canadian woman named Emma Plaskitt, who worked as an editor at Oxford University Press; drinking cups of Lapsang Souchong and eating scones with clotted cream and jam at the Q Bar while critiquing poems with my dear friend Nathan Sytsma, now earning his Ph.D. at Yale; and before I forgot one of the strangest events of my life, tagging along to a hare coursing.

 

 

A Hare Coursing

Everyone was wearing tweed, neckties, Wellingtons, and Barbour oilcloth jackets. Rain fell on us all day. The “hounds”—or what I call “beagles”—chased “hares”—or what I call “rabbits”—across sodden fields while all of the participants—us—passed around a big bottle of port and a little flask of Laphroaig, a very peaty single malt from Islay. I met Jules, a counter tenor who lived in London. I met Andy, who was apparently royalty in an Asian country who name I forget. 

 

A hare coursing on a rainy day outside of Oxford.

A hare coursing on a rainy day outside of Oxford.

The beagles eventually found a gap in a fence and went AWOL. We didn’t receive this news until we had fled indoors to the only pub in the middle of all that pastureland and were burning on fingers on “chips”—what I call “french fries”—amidst the aromas of wet wool, beer, and the sour-sweet musk of human bodies that have been outside all day.

We piled back out into the rain then stuffed ourselves into a tiny car to drive on muddy country lanes in a futile effort to help people I did not know locate their pack of rogue hounds. Eventually, we did see the smeared outline of the head huntsman, or whatever you call him, in his white jodhpurs and short green velvet jacket. His name? Crispin?

Thankfully, we learned from him that someone better acquainted with the area and better equipped for the task at hand had rounded up the wet mass of canine who didn’t catch a single hare that day. Somehow, I was okay with missing the sight of their dismembering and devouring him. Oh well. 

We ended up at an ancient farmhouse with stone-floored stables and heavy wooden furniture polished from years of use. Here an older English couple asked us questions about the day and fed us scones and sandwiches and pushed cups of hot tea into our cold hands. I flirted with several girls I didn’t know who went to elite boarding schools in cities that I pronounced incorrectly. How was I supposed to know that “Winchester” wasn’t pronounced WIN-chess-ter but something like WEENches-tuh? Again, oh well. There wasn’t much competition anyway. Most of the English girls I met loved American men. I figured that must be because most of the English men I met looked like they’d crumble if they broke into a run.

Purple Turtle

When I got back to the States, I wrote an essay for a contest put on by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities,the organization that runs the program. They gave me 2nd place. The winner wrote a proem, that I thought was neither good prose nor good poetry. I was probably just bitter though.bench2

The following is an excerpt from that essay:

“Dancing is like anything else: the more seriously you take yourself, the less seriously everybody else takes you. I struck up conversation with a girl, who, like everyone in Oxford it seemed, turned out to be an American. After the customary questions—Where are you from? What school? Where is that? What are you studying?—our conversation petered out. As she stumbled away to the bar or restroom, she yelled over her shoulder: ‘English majors don’t know how to party!’ 

This will be my vocation; a constant struggle of constant change, Jacob’s wrestling with the angel and my wrestling with the Spirit: using words, literature, and my life to share the Good News. This is what Christian English majors do. This is how we party.”

The full two-page essay is still online. I’d completely forgotten about it until two or three days ago.

Funny, I’m still asking and answering the same questions: “Why do I write?” and “Why are we here?”