My friend recently wrote to me in a letter, View your months in Oxford as the relationship you are currently in. A relationship with a city is a beautiful thing…the hardships, the trials, the exploration and the novelties that come with tasting, seeing, feeling, doing.
I am coming to fall in love with this city built on books and the desire to learn. There is something both humbling and uplifting about walking down St. Giles as a young student, listening to the church-bells toll solemnly. Oxford is such a kind, patient place, and over the course of a term, it invites you to take life a little slowly, a little more whimsically. Why not stop by the Ashmolean Museum to say good afternoon to a plaster Nike of Samothrace, even if she has nothing to do with your studies? Why not take a detour into this lovely old bookshop? Why not tremble at the grace of a poem floating through the lines of a book you happen to pick up there, and carry whispering in your head all the way home?
Like all relationships, falling in love with a city is confusing. You get lost in wrong turns. You hesitate on taking new steps, in venturing too far. You slant your habits and language around your beloved: this library is too deathly silent to breathe, and this café makes the softest and sweetest of waffles to enjoy once an essay is over. The tutorial system offers so much more time, like a smooth cube of clay to chisel at will. Education comes from more than the classroom: a scintillating talk given at a neighboring college, or a local poetry slam, or a long, thought-provoking conversation with a friend on activism and free speech…
Oxford continues to surprise me.
It was an academically stressful week, with one four-thousand-word essay and another two-thousand-word essay due. But it was pleasant to curl up in my chair and feel the soft smear of my pencil against paper. It was pleasant to sit under the soft glow of my lamp as I sipped tea and listened to the pattering rain, as I thought about vengeful Miss Havisham in her mansion of cobwebs and cold wedding cakes. The space around me shivered with her spidery candles and storm-swept rage, and I wrote and wrote, and was warm, and quietly happy. And when my tutors read my essays and declared that they were pleased—no, impressed, a compliment they gave for the first time this whole term—I felt immense relief balloon in my chest. So I am learning and growing, after all.
Valentine’s day has dawned and died, and I am gazing at a red rose I received from my off-campus studies program. Taped to my wall, it is drying to a papery semblance of its first beauty. Even so, it retains a quaint charm.
Sometimes, being abroad alone can be terribly lonely. (And I’m not talking about Oxford so much as most of my college life away from my family and country, even while I was in America.) Sometimes, I wish I could just stop running, running, endlessly running—whether to gulp down another massive book, or churn out another essay. There are times when I just want to lay down my head and feel at home. For growing is glorious, but you cannot really feel at home inside it. This temptation has been so strong: to settle for peace, to stay where I am, to choose what will make me happiest (at the moment) rather than what will help me grow.
Yet I am so, so grateful for Oxford, where I am continually pushed out of my comfort zone, and can belong in a place where I know cannot be home. In growth, everything becomes worthy of gratitude: the glisten on the edge of a teacup, the rich weight of a favorite book in my backpack—the kind of books I could not have afforded in Korea. Everything is worthy of attention.
So, yes. I want to keep running, even if so many wonderful, far more brilliant students are running miles faster than I am, and accomplishing so much more. I want to keep growing, even if that means always being a little homesick. And I want to allow myself to take detours along the way, to get surprised by life, and cherish gratitude for all the little memories. After all, isn’t that what falling in love is all about?