Oxford has a way of getting under your skin-I’d been there for Oxbridge 2008, been there years earlier for conferences and such. Churches! Libraries! Bookstores! Spires! But every visit had been characterized by hurrying through Oxford: pushing along the crowded sidewalks, running from one conference session to another, busing en masse to see the sights, all good, so very good, but every trip was a little bit breathless, marked more than anything by being on-the-go.
What might happen if I took a seat and stayed a while?
The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to give it a try. I am currently on sabbatical from teaching English at Azusa Pacific University in California. Being on sabbatical gave me the flexibility to think about journeying across the sea and making a dream come true. That’s how I came to spend two weeks in February living and working at The Kilns.
It was an amazing visit, and, as it turned out, there was plenty to do. I took a red double-decker bus into the city most days, working in special collections at the Bodleian. Once I took the oath and got my reader’s card, I was granted access to their manuscript collection, including poems and stories handwritten by Lewis and his friend J. R. R. Tolkien. I spent most of my days sitting at a long library table, juggling three different kinds of magnifying glass, studying layers of scribbled pencil marks, deciphering marginal notes, working out the patterns of edits and corrections, and trying to untangle the complicated composing processes of these authors.
Three manuscript pages in particular posed a problem worthy of Sherlock Holmes: Was that little round burn in the corner of that yellowed paper caused from a bit of ash fallen from Lewis’s cigarette? Or could it have come straight from Tolkien’s pipe?
There were other happy adventures, too. I visited several places beloved by Lewis: the Eagle and Child Pub, the Trout, Addison’s Walk, the Eastgate Hotel. I attended Evensong at Magdalen. I presented a paper about Warren Lewis at the Lewis Society meeting at Pusey House. I had the special joy of connecting with dear friends (Donna, Malcolm, Doug, Walter, Michael, Theresa, Roger) and meeting new ones, too.
There were so many favorite moments, incandescent and magical. Some of the sweetest were the quietest ones, especially time spent lingering at The Kilns. Sitting in the sunlit kitchen, sipping my morning cup of coffee. Looking out the big bay window, watching the big old wood pigeon at the bird feeder. Resting in the
Music Room, filling pages in my journal. Curling up in the Common Room, typing up the day’s research. Sitting back in a big green comfy chair, reading and rereading Volume Three of Lewis’ published letters. Ahhhhh. Just to sit, linger, read, rest, write, reflect. It was a time that deeply refreshed my soul.
The glory of this visit came into focus for me when I attended a church service at Holy Trinity, Lewis’s home church. We took a brisk walk through the frosty morning to the church, less than a mile away. As we drew near, the church bell rang and rang and rang again. Entering through the stone archway, people greeted us and one another with warmth and good cheer: I was struck by the outpouring of tender affection so evident in this comfortable, caring congregation. We took our seats in the long, wooden pew and joined in worship. The prayers and singing were heart-felt. The sermon was a challenge to show the love of God through practical service throughout the community. The Eucharist joined us together and fed us all with the spiritual food of his most precious Body and Blood.
I’m back in California now, my life bustling and crowded, my to-do list urging me to fall back into the frenetic pace of our typical life on-the-go. But when I close my eyes and remember that brick house by the pond, that worn green chair in the common room, that cheeky old wood pigeon saying good morning at the kitchen window, I find that I am somehow happier and more grounded. I am reminded to slow down, breathe deep, refocus my attention on things that matter. I am inclined to pull up a chair, take out my journal, grab a really good book, and maybe take a minute just to stop and sit a while.
Diana Glyer is a professor of English at Azusa Pacific University and the author of The Company They Keep. She will be the featured speaker at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s Southwest Regional Retreat, October 30-November 1, 2009, at Camp Allen in Navasota, Texas.