Recollection is like a sea of various shades washing on the dull gray sand of daily living. Nostalgia, or the concept of memories flooding one’s mind as they are triggered by trivial things––like cake crumbs, fine china, or even the musky scent of an old love’s cologne––is the sentimental impact of adventure come and gone and of happiness once felt. There was a lot to wonder about what it meant to be happy. But I felt an even greater intent to discover how my month abroad in the great city and university of Oxford had transformed my life.
I sat in my room completely still. I was staring at the overwhelming pile of clothes with all the tags still attached that sat in a heap of summer shades in the middle of the carpeted floor. The shelves too, were stacked with colorful pens, mugs, tea-boxes, books, and travel guides I’d collected with my new friends from all of our adventuring. My suitcase waited in the corner for me to make a move; it sat wide-open and hungry for every object surrounding me in that 17th century dorm. I was going to have to pack, press, squeeze and gain an additional few pounds of muscle on each arm if I was going to fit them all and be able to lug the wheeled bag over the cobbled road to the coach’s station.
A horsefly buzzed near the lamp of my desk. I let him pester me with his incessant buzz, lest I need to physically remove him and risk prolonging once more, my inevitable departure from my temporary home. Besides, with no air conditioning amidst a heatwave, my window was to remain open until the sunset at ten and a gracious breeze might bless my perspiring flesh.
I walked towards the window as the thought invaded my mind, indeed feeling a warm touch of air caress my neck. I leaned against the frame, allowing my lashes to overcome my vision so that I could hear the distinct strums of a guitar. A woman’s voice rang in a heart-warming vibrato and I cast my pupils down towards the uneven pathways, watching the amalgamation of tourists, schoolboys, and locals wander the alleys of Oxford to the ballad of “Hallelujah.”
I returned to my desk, uncertain of where the fly had vanished. On the sleek oak of the surface rested a pink bookmark I’d purchased from Alice’s Shop on St.Aldate’s Street. The strip of card-stock had a light pink border with an illustration inside of Alice Liddell peering above at Oxford. Printed in the center, were the words “The City of Dreaming Spires” with the name Matthew Arnold typed underneath.
I pursed my lips before stretching my fingers and typing his name on my computer. When works like “Dover Beach” and “The Scholar Gypsy” appeared, I realized I was already familiar with his work.
When I came upon his suggested piece, “Thyrsis,” I read,
This winter-eve is warm,
Humid the air! leafless, yet soft as spring,
The tender purple spray on copse and briers!
And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,
Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!—
I read the words over and over again. There was a certain ethereal quality in the way Arnold portrayed Oxford. Perhaps my interpretation came from the almost unreal experiences I was beginning to treasure having had here. All the fantasy I’d read from the authors affiliated with the university seem to burst to life as if I’d ventured to a realm all of its own. The landscapes of Middle Earth. The burning lantern in the dead winter of Narnia. The wondrous Great Hall of Hogwarts. I’d seen it all. Even the stone engravings on the exterior of the Bodleian Library outside the Sheldonian depicted the wild mane of Aslan, the blithering twins Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and even a Dodo bird (with no hint of a mad queen playing croquet). I’d cruised along the river Isis and sincerely pretended as if I could see Rat and Mole in a riverboat and Toad in a yacht just beyond them. I could imagine a white rabbit scurrying in Port Meadow or baby Lyra being nursed somewhere in the Ruins of Godstow Abbey.
All the while, I was also fearfully waiting for the pinch that would drag me into reality. For four weeks, I’d been in a dream-like state, unsure if waking up was the right thing for me. Truly, I was afraid to leave this place that taught me to be the strongest and happiest version of myself. Was I going to call my mother and announce that I yearned to cancel my ticket and take up residence in a place an ocean and over 40 states away from home? I didn’t want to return to that place where reality strikes like a current in a storm. Where an aching relative slowly fades from life. Where a boy I love holds my old heart in fragments. Where my own mother is infused with a disheartening pain she prays will stop by the time I return.
Maybe if I stay, death can be paused. Maybe the boy would try to find me. Maybe if I stay, they’ll find a cure and I can keep imaging everything is fine back in that place where I was born.
All this thought caused me to desperately require air. I charged out of my room, down the five flights of stairs from my flat, exited Jesus College, and headed out towards the Westgate Mall on Queen Street.
I passed the mixture of people causing Cornmarket Street to be chaotically bustling with noise, food, and shopping bags all before the ripe noon of day. There were young locals flirting and beaming with life, there were vendors selling unique trinkets and paintings, and entertainers on the rocky roads juggling and singing or covered in paint and as still as statues while people spectated. There was always something to see in this place where the people were more colorful than anything around them.
I swerved and dodged bodies until I’d arrived at the enormous opening of the shopping space. I ascended the escalator to the terrace floor and nearly lost my breath when my eyes came upon the scene before me. Spires––towers and columns of thick stone structures protruded into the sky, stately and erect. The pale yellowish bricks of the university colleges were brilliantly accented with the vivid greenery and village-like town that surrounded them.
There was the dome of Radcliffe Camera, and next to it, the gothic tower of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Magdalen Tower with its multiple spires glowed a brilliant gold under the intense beams of the morning star. I could trace out Broad Street, where Blackwell’s Books and the Museum of the History of Science garnered the attention of many tourists. I could scarcely make out the Ashmolean; the tip of its Greek roof gently touching the world’s light blue ceiling.
Oxford is the place of dreams. This city is the epitome of creation; the land where the magical, the scientific, and the religious all blend into something impossibly real. And that is what fantasy is about: making the implausible a world a reader dares to explore, just as I’ve ventured to uncover the magic that encompasses Oxford.
A warm breeze stirred me to goosebumps and struck me into another rumination. I didn’t want to leave. But I couldn’t really stay, could I? As wonderful as this place is, it is not the only city in the world where stories can come to life. I lived a chapter––a wondrous, splendid, and fantastical chapter––in Oxford, but it was time to write my story in the very place where my fears, burdens and traumas have found the home I will always come back to.
At least I know what she’s like, the happiest version of myself, that is. I can hope one day she’ll return, stronger and with a greater glow when I’m able to embrace the life that holds no escape but in the books I read.
Matthew Arnold was quite right in describing Oxford as something beyond seasonal or simplistic in nature. It is magnificent even in the heat, or with all the wide-eyed explorers, and even with all the history that bombards the mind with its richness. I whispered a goodbye and treaded back towards my college, admiring the people who ogled at the lines of storefronts, the thick foliage, and the uneven steps of every road and its pebbles. Oxford, as Arnold put it, is lovely at all times.
As I tucked my new mementos tightly into my bag, leaving behind the spires for my last moments in my 17th century dorm, I heard a buzz. The flittering wings of the horsefly noisily exited my room, and as I shut the window––locking it by my hand forevermore, I smiled. I would never forget this place, this dream. And maybe that was the most important part of this journey, or any journey; that is, we should live in the moment of our greatest adventures and find a place within our minds where we can smile from the memories of them. So every night I close my eyes, no matter where I am, I can always come back to this wondrous place where dreams come to life and fantasy became my reality.