North to the Lakes

Yesterday morning we bid farewell to our little cottage in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

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After returning the rental car, we boarded a train North. The first leg was in a local train and required a quick sprint from one station in Birmingham to the next, but we caught the next train. The train ride north was beautiful as the scenery changed from urban and industrial  to hills and eventually mountains. We’re staying quite a ways north–almost by Scotland in the Lake District.

We have absolutely fallen in love with this little town. The town itself is quaint and European looking, but has the same kind of nature-loving chic as Burlington Vermont. Around every corner is some stately mountain peeking through, and we only need to walk a few minutes to be on a lake with a stunning view of the mountains.

These pictures nowhere near capture the beauty, but will hopefully give some sense of the place.

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Stratford-Upon-Avon

After yesterday’s little mishap, I had to rally a good courage to get back behind the wheel, but in the words of king Henry V: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” We made it into Stratford-Upon-Avon, which for two English teachers and Graduate students is a bit like a pilgrimage. I had been there twice before, but going back with my mother who is the utmost of Shakespearean scholars and the teacher of all teachers was pure magic.

Some pictures from Stratford:

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So many names around the town are little winks to Shakespeare’s works and characters.

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Here is the Holy Trinity Church where he is buried:

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I cant help but think that when he was alive and writing he never could have imagined that tourists from around the world would flock to his hometown, and the street names and shops would be sprinkled with his character’s names, or that his face would be an image recognizable world wide, or that his name would be come synonymous with literary brilliance. Or that his birthday would one day be celebrated in an American classroom in 2014 with this edible portrait of his face made by a frazzled and artistically deficient English teacher:

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He simply did the best with what he had.

 

 

Shakespearean [mis]Adventures

Yesterday was, appropriately, much ado. We left Oxford in the morning and took three different trains to Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown. At the Stratford train station we rented a car, which thankfully had automatic transmission. Most rentals are manual, so getting an automatic car was nothing short of miraculous, and I’ll be honest, is something I may or may not have prayed about specifically.

When we arrived at our little bed and breakfast in the countryside outskirts of town, I was beyond excited to have successfully driven a UK car on the other side of the road. However, when we set out again to drive to a local pub, disaster struck. The roads are extremely narrow and winding. These really shouldn’t be two-lane roads, but somehow they manage to race around blind curves and make way for each other with no problem. Unfortunately in one of these instances when I pulled over to make room, we hit a sharp rock that was in the road and the tire blew out. Rim completely to the ground. Image

We drove on it a few more feet, because there is nowhere to pull over and happened to come upon the driveway of a gated manor house/hotel, and there we saw the tire had been punctured completely. We managed to call the rental car company who had an emergency assistance line, but then once the call was made there was nothing to do but wait. For three hours. We had many reasons to be thankful: international cell coverage, an emergency number with the rental and a nice place to pull off to name a few. On top of that, the people at the hotel were lovely. We kept expecting someone to come out and yell at us for being lowlifes on their posh grounds, but instead every person that came out was only concerned for us, and even offered to bring us drinks. Chivalry is not dead in England and cheers to the multiple British men who came to our rescue! The weather was also perfect, and the view was lovely with a pasture full of sheep to keep us entertained.

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When we got word that help was still another hour away, I remembered I had a miniature copy of Henry V with me that I had bought my last visit to Stratford two years ago and kept randomly in my purse. So we set about reading it, and passing the tiny book back and fourth. All things considered, passing the time with the Bard’s own words in his hometown is rather poetic.

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At last help came; our knight in shining auto-repairman clothes. He replaced the tire very quickly, and as it was nearly 9:00 by this point one of the hotel workers told us on his way home to mention his name at the door and we could probably get dinner at the hotel without a reservation.

Throughout the whole ordeal I had been praying for strength, and trying to find ways to be thankful. It’s certainly scary to be stranded on the side of a road in another country with a dying cell phone battery. It would be easy to be stressed, anxious and despair, but when those emotions came I kept returning to the fact that God is still on his throne, and asked Him for grace. We certainly wouldn’t have wished to be stranded on the road for several hours, but at the end of it was a nicer meal than we ever could have imagined. The Manor house was picturesque like something out of Jeeves and Wooster or some turn of the century period movie: Mahogany panels, fireplaces, cathedral windows and gourmet food. The car gazing was good outside, even saw my favorite Aston Martin! People were so kind, and there were two details as well, that struck a particular note with us. First, we entered the reception area and they had a statue of a dog that looked just like Charlie, (much beloved poodle-doodle from back home), and second there was a unicorn tapestry hanging, which my mother has studied at length. These and many other things were reminders of the One who never leaves us nor forsakes us, who takes difficult situations and redeems, bringing beauty where there are setbacks and adventure to a change of plans.

On Imagination

This morning we walked through Christchurch Meadows, which was one of my two favorite running routes the last time I was here. What I did not know at that time is that Alice Liddell, after whom Lewis Carroll famously modeled Alice in Wonderland, grew up playing around those meadows as her father was the dean of Christchurch College. Walking through with that information gave me new eyes, and suddenly we could see whispers of Wonderland everywhere: the thatched roof cottage that traps Alice as she grows, the lazy river, meadows, and the rows of shrubberies with white and red roses. It’s clear to see what may have inspired certain elements of the story.

C.S. Lewis is another Oxford author whose inspiration is evident around the city. The paths and park behind Magdalen, the college where he was a professor, is where he used to go for walks and think of Narnia. One alleyway not too far from Magdalen, contains several elements that served as inspiration to him. Does this faun look familiar?

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What about the lamppost just beyond the faun?Image

Or the lion on this doorway?

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These are exciting to see as a C.S. Lewis fan, but I think there’s also a very important lesson in this. The imagination of these authors could not have been inspired if they had not walked through life with their eyes and minds open. They did not allow their surroundings merely to fade into the background, but they observed, took note, and allowed themselves to be fascinated. What would happen if each of us allowed ourselves to walk around with eyes and minds open? What if we allowed ourselves to dream just a little? The application for writers is obvious, but imagination and ingenuity applies to every profession. With open eye and open mind, you never know what ideas may form for a business presentation, marketing scheme, or an engineering solution. If nothing else, we we walk through life with an appreciation for the beauty, whimsey and the intrigue that lies all around.

 

A morning walk along The Thames

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“Is it so nice as all that?” asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.

“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing—about—in—boats; messing—”

“Look ahead, Rat!” cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.

-Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

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Arrived

We landed this morning after sleeping nary a minute on the plane, so today was a bit of a blur. Let’s be honest-right now is a bit of a blur. Navigating to Oxford out of the airport is so much simpler the second time, and we were able to easily catch the bus. The moment of crossing over into the county of Oxfordshire is so dramatic, because immediately after the sign the road rounds a bend and suddenly the London outskirts has suddenly faded into green pastures and rolling hills. Probably also ethereal choirs sing. (Too many cliches in a row, but work with me–I haven’t slept). We weren’t able to check into our lodgings until 2pm, so we were probably a bit of a shambles wandering around with luggage like the walking dead. However, being back in this city has made my heart so full all day. This city is magic. The entire heart of the city is focused around academia, and a rich history of learning and discovery has taken place here. This evening, while showing my mother around the city, we spotted a gentlemen riding his bicycle in a suit, bowtie and academic robes. That image embodies the city in many ways: whimsy, class and tradition.

I’m running out of coherent thoughts, and I probably shouldn’t flatter myself that the thoughts above are coherent anyway. Therefore I’ll end with two quick pictures and call it a night.

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(I was a little bit obsessed with lamp posts this afternoon.)

An Ode to the Ashley House

Once upon a time, this was the street where we lived:IMG_1529

Over seven years, the Ashley House (so called in reference to a street name) had been peopled with various combinations of young career-aged ladies. As different ones got married or moved away, they passed the lease around. I came to the house just after returning from Oxford two years ago. In the transient area with changing jobs and living situations, the house population shifted and in the fall of this year, the final combination of roomies came together. We didn’t all know each other. Some of us had been friends since childhood, others met through chance meeting. Whatever the circumstances, when we came together in the final year of the Ashley house, something special happened.

Somehow in those nine months we forged a sisterhood. I say forged because it wasn’t all sunshine and lalalala like a music montage with the How I met Your Mother theme music playing in the background. We had difficult conversations, we cried together at the messes in life and maybe left the occasional passive aggressive good-humored and loving note.

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We had our big nights out, and quiet nights in hosting friends. But sometimes the most special moments were the spontaneous ones living life together: being snowed in together, fighting off cookie dough thieves when one of us is baking, the dance parties that can erupt at anytime, handstand competitions so serious we moved the couch out of the way, singing “Let it Go” at the top of our lungs, finding someone who also couldn’t sleep at 3 am and watching Captain America on a school night, trying to find a Christmas tree and going shopping instead, late night chick-fil-a runs, watching sports, fighting over sports, and so, so many talks around the kitchen table. We allowed ourselves the scary “what-ifs” of futures, and we listened to each others’ dreams . Each of the five of us at some point in the year and in some capacity quit her job. One of us is running her own business. One of us is pursuing international missions. Many of us are traveling in the coming year, and whether by the transition to a new job, a different contract, or an extended time off all of us have made room in our lives to chase our dreams.

At the end of this year, our lease was up and because our future plans  had outgrown a one-year lease, we went our separate ways and ended the lease. We packed up and moved out the end of May.

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We entered that house as renters, became friends, and left like family. I like to think of the time in the house as an airport terminal. We needed that time together before we all depart and take off in different directions. I know that I would not have as much courage, without the support system they provided. But the doors are opening now, and it’s time to fly.

 

City of Spires

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City of Spires

Two years ago in August, I climbed Carfax Tower in Oxford at the end of the summer term to say good-bye to the magical city of Oxford. I wore sunglasses to try to hide my ugly-crying from the tourists as I surveyed the city, facing the reality of leaving. Embarrassing and unexpected? Quite. Oxford had been two months of beauty, discovery, and lasting friendships. Those spires meant so much more than architecture. Christ is the beauty in any place, but he used those two months in Oxford to bring healing and renewal after three of the most difficult years of my life leading up to the trip. And tomorrow I will get on a plane and return.