What Happens When I Come Up For Air After Writing A Dissertation

A little over a week ago, I disappeared into an indoor hole called “I Must Finish My Dissertation”, and outside, it began to rain.

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It rained for most of the following week, but I didn’t care because I was one with my computer, attempting to craft a final product of 12000-15000 words that would allow me to pass my course and get the Master’s degree for which I moved to England.

I turned in the dissertation on Friday (hurray!!), and outside, the rain finally ended, the clouds cleared away, and the sun appeared again.  (I’m not making this up.  The weather was beautifully in sync with my schedule.)

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The sun has been shining ever since, and yesterday I looked around and realised that it is no longer summer.

Background Information (because I like to have – and provide – context):  Noelle has long believed that I am the Tree Whisperer because of an incident which happened years ago while we were flatmates in Minnesota.  She came home from work one sunny day early in September – around this time of year – and said something to the effect of: “Christine, aren’t you excited for fall?  The trees are going to change colour any day now!”

I glanced at the trees out the window and said, quite seriously, “Not yet.  I give them about three more weeks.”

She didn’t fully believe me . . . but three weeks later, almost to the day, she came home from work and said, “I saw a tree starting to turn colours today.  My first one of the season.  How did you do that??”

I still don’t know exactly how I knew, but I knew that I knew that the trees needed a few more weeks before they would start to turn those glorious shades of red and orange for the autumn.  They say that American government agents are trained to recognise counterfeit money by studying real money.  It may not be exactly the same thing, but I think that I have spent so much time watching the natural world around me that I can now recognise when a season is in counterfeit mode.  The calendar may still say summer, but the world around me doesn’t believe it anymore.

And the other day, I walked outside, looked up at the sky, and suddenly realised that sometime during that week of clouds and rain and dissertations, England switched from summer to autumn.  The weather is still warm(ish), and the trees are still green, and perhaps I’m the only one who feels the change, but my internal changing-of-the-seasons radar is whispering, “It won’t be long now.  Autumn is almost here…”

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And this makes me happy, because for me, autumn is a season of new beginnings.  Maybe it’s because my life has revolved around school years and term times for so long, or maybe it’s because American football is an autumn sport (Go Big Red), or maybe it’s because for a few fabulous weeks, the world flares up in a glory of red, orange, yellow, and the bluest blue sky you’ve ever seen, enough to satisfy even a colour-lover like me.  Whatever the reason, autumn holds for me a world of possibilities.  And this year is no different.

Last year, I arrived in England wide-eyed with wonder and excitement and with absolutely no idea what the next year would bring.

Today, I’m a little older and (hopefully) a little wiser about the differences between life in America and life in the UK, but each time I go outside and feel the whispers of autumn in the air, I still smile with wonder and excitement.  And with absolutely no idea what the next year will bring.  But autumn is coming, and I am content.

(To all of my American friends celebrating Labor Day and the official final weekend of the American summer season today, sorrynotsorry for reminding you that it’s almost over!)

8 Things I Learned in March

Today I’m joining Emily over at Chatting at the Sky in listing some of the things I learned during the month of March.  She does this every month, sharing everything from the deep and profound to the small and ridiculous in an effort to pause and look back before pressing on into the new month.  I’ve never joined in before, but today, in the interest of procrastination, I thought, “Why not?!”

So, for your entertainment, here are 8 things I learned in March.  (Full disclosure:  This list is not guaranteed to change your life.)


1.  One of my purest joys in life is eating a really good burger.

A photo posted by RED Head!! (@jadeykins_13) on Mar 18, 2015 at 11:29am PDT

Don’t get me wrong, I generally enjoy burgers in any form.  But my idea of a really good burger is a little too American to find easily here in England, so when I do stumble across one, I rejoice.  For several days.

This particular lesson was learned courtesy of the Five Guys in Wimbledon, in case anyone was wondering.  They really do offer heaven in a brown paper bag.


2.  You are never too old to enjoy a toy shop.

Taking Life Seriously

(Via Pinterest)

I don’t have to avoid toy shops just because people seem to think that I’m an adult.  And few things are as fun as dragging a reluctant friend – who thinks that we’re too old to look at toys – into said toy shop and watching her succumb to the joy of Lego® sets and plush stuffed animals.

Also, boys have better toys than girls.  For real.  The boy section was all Star Wars and The Hobbit and Doctor Who and Avengers and Minecraft, while the girl section was basically pink and Barbie-ish.  I think it’s obvious which section we preferred.


3.  I may never be able to speak in an English accent.

Grace:  “Harry Potter.”

Me:  “Hair-y Pawt-terr.”

Abby:  “Potter.”

Me:  “Pawt-tuh.”

Grace:  “Potter.”

Me:  “Pot-tuh.”

Abby:  “Pot.  Say pot.”

Me:  “Pot.”

Abby:  “Now add the rest.”

Me:  “Pot-tuh-er.”

Just trust me when I say it ain’t working…


4.  I generally prefer a Devon cream tea.

Devon cream tea

(Via this website)

Cream teas are not always well known to the average American, but in England, they come in either Devon or Cornwall varieties, and your chosen style just might be a dealbreaker.

Me?  I prefer Devon, meaning that I put the cream on the scone first, and then top it with jam . . . as long as the cream is clotted.  If someone has the audacity to offer me whipped cream instead of clotted cream, I will follow the Cornwall method and put the jam first, cream last.

It’s all about which item makes the best peanut butter in the PB&J method, folks.  (Yes, I did just compare a cream tea to a PB&J sandwich.  This is American-ing at its best.)


5.  If I can’t have a party with kid party games, then I prefer to spend my birthday laughing with just a few good friends.

It’s even better if the night of laughing involves four renditions of the birthday song, classic American rock and roll music, and balloons on sticks.

Also, receiving a homemade medieval castle cake from one of said friends is the icing on the . . . well, cake.


6.  Sometimes it’s okay to hermit like a boss.  Especially if books are involved.

Library

(via Pinterest)

Life can be a whirlwind, even as a student without a full time job.  And sometimes, once the term ends and the campus quiets, I need to spend a few days in my pajamas.  Only leaving my room to forage for food or make a cup of tea.  Not really talking to anyone except over text or social media.  And reading for fun, not for essay research.

Even those of us who are mostly extroverted still occasionally need our alone time to rest and recharge and breathe deep while we listen to the wind try to tear out the trees by their roots outside.  But it’s easy to forget – as a mostly extrovert – that I do need these times.  And in this last month, maybe what I had to learn (or remember) was not so much that I need them, but that it’s okay to take them.  And it isn’t always just another form of procrastination.


7.  To have friends, I need to be a friend.

Or more accurately, to stay in contact with long-distance friends, I can’t sit back and wait for them to contact me.  As the saying goes, relationships are a two-way street.  Also, it turns out that when you move to another country, sometimes your friends from the old one are afraid of making you homesick or getting in the way of your new life if they contact you too often.  And for as many pen pals as I had growing up, apparently I’m not very good anymore at writing letters.  Or emails.

(If you’re reading this and you think I might be talking about you, I probably am.  Please know that I’m sorry for not reaching out to you in some way, shape, or form more often in the last six months, and that I always welcome hearing from you, no matter how long it has been.  And I may not change my non-letter-or-email-writing habits all at once, but I am working on not disappearing entirely into the land of tea and scones.)


And last but certainly not least…

8.  It is perfectly acceptable to buy a Star Wars novel in Oxford.

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(Photo courtesy of Patty Yu)

In other words, it’s okay for me to be me, even if that means buying a Star Wars novel from a bookshop in a city famous for academics, instead of something deep and intelligent and Oxfordish.

Because sometimes a girl just needs to spend some time fighting the forces of the remnants of the Empire with one of the best X-wing squadrons in the galaxy.   Ya know what I mean?


… And that’s it.  Thanks for joining me in my look back at the last month of my life, y’all, and happy April!

My First Tour Group

Hello, and welcome to 2015!

Yes, I realize that I am more than a month late in saying that, but it didn’t feel right to start my first post of this year with anything less.  I also realize that I owe a post with pictures from my adventures over the Christmas break, but that will come later.  I promise.

Today, I’d like to share the experience of my first official group tour.  (Ever, I think…)

Last Saturday, I caught the early morning train to London with Patty and Aphrodite, two friends from my MA course.  We had booked a day tour of a bit of the southeast of England, and we were excited.

We arrived at Victoria Coach Station about 15 minutes before we were supposed to check in . . . to find that there was not actually a specific place to check in.  When a tour’s scheduled departure time came, the tour guide simply showed up at the gate, called out which tour they were leading, and hoped that all of the people who had booked it would hear him or her.  This is not a criticism of the tour.  It seemed to work well enough, and it was apparently the standard practice for all of the tour companies there.  And it led to one of my favourite parts of the day.  You see, my friends periodically observe that everyone talks to me.  I am that person who often gets asked for directions, or to take a photo for a group of tourists.  Total strangers strike up conversations with me, or choose me to be the recipient of their comments in a crowd.  I’m used to it and barely notice it anymore, but people who have not spent much time with me in public often think it’s funny.

On this particular morning, I’m not sure if it was just me or the combination of the three of us, but Patty, Aphrodite, and I soon became the official guides in the coach station.  Each time we turned around, someone was there, holding out their ticket and asking us where they were supposed to go.  One lady didn’t even speak English, but between pointing, showing her our tickets, and the help of a friendly girl sitting nearby, we managed to assure her that she was in the right place for her tour.

By the time our tour was called, we had answered questions for at least nine or ten different families, connected one grateful woman with her tour at a different gate, made sure that a family from Taiwan knew that their tour had been called, and eventually found ourselves at the head of our tour group because all twenty-odd people in it had lined up behind us without us realizing it, apparently assuming that we knew exactly what was going on.

We were still laughing about it at the end of the day.

From the coach station, our tour took us through London and south to Leeds Castle.

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Leeds Castle – which is not anywhere near Leeds itself – was originally built by the Normans in the 12th century, but eventually became known as a Ladies’ Castle because it was given to queens by their kings and was never actually used in a battle (that we learned about, at least).

Several of the rooms in the castle are set up as a reproduction of medieval times.  You would think that the three of us – medieval students all – would have been fascinated by this.  But no, we liked the upstairs rooms with their decor from the 1920s and ’30s, left just as the last private owner had had them.  (Also, in case anyone has wondered about this, we can confirm that alarms may sound if you reach beyond the ropes on a castle tour.)

After the castle, our bus took us to Dover, where our guide gave us ten minutes to walk on the pebbly beach and take pictures of the white-ish cliffs.

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The pavement running along the beach had a stretch of miniature bumps – like small speed bumps – as it ran down a gentle slope, and we couldn’t help giggling as a small boy on a three-wheeled child’s bike hollered with glee all the way down, his voice shaking with each bump.  He looked up at us just as I looked at him and beamed with such joy that I couldn’t help laughing in return, and now as I think back over the day, the sound of his pure delight is what I remember most about Dover.

From Dover, we drove to Canterbury, home of Canterbury Cathedral, the official seat of the Church of England.

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As we arrived in the medieval portion of the city centre, we got a message from Cathy, another friend from our course, that she and her boyfriend had decided on a whim to visit Canterbury and were not far away.  We chased them through the cathedral tour and finally caught up to browse the gift shop together.

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Canterbury cathedral was once the main site for medieval pilgrims in western Christendom, and the nave is still set up as it would have been back then, with no chairs to block the view through to the quire.  The quire itself was closed for an Evensong service, but we were able to visit the Thomas Beckett memorial, the crypts below the building, and see several small chapels.

The last leg of our trip was to Greenwich, on the east side of London and the home of Greenwich Mean Time by which all the nations on earth set their clocks.  Our guide took us through the Naval College, which is beautiful and serves as the site of many films, which was demonstrated by the crew filming there as we walked through.  (I checked online later and discovered that they were apparently filming Now You See Me 2, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Mark Ruffalo, and Michael Caine, among others.)  We watched them make it appear to be raining near one building, and make it appear to be full daylight outside near another.  I didn’t take any pictures because I was trying to be “from Los Angeles” where you stumble into film sets all the time, obviously…

From Greenwich, our guide put us on a river taxi back to our railway station, where we found a weekend street market serving so much wonderful food that we had to walk through it twice before we could make our choices for dinner.

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And then we wound up on a train home with Chris, yet another friend from our course.

By the time we arrived at home, we were giddy with laughter from our review of the day.  From the early morning taxi ride, to the people all assuming we knew what was going on in the coach station, to the new friend we made in our group who just happened to be a medieval student from Canada, to the interesting historical stories our tour guide told even though he had actually studied 19th century Spanish Literature and his dream was to visit Prince Edward Island of Anne of Green Gables fame, to running into not just one but two of our mutual friends at different times throughout the day, to the poor guy who chatted with me about my degree while getting my food for me in the street market and then didn’t know what to think when Aphrodite later mentioned the same degree without either of us revealing that we knew each other…  Well, for all of those reasons, and many others, it was a good day.

And That Has Made All The Difference

It has been a little more than a year since I began announcing to friends and family that I was hoping to go get my Master’s degree . . . and a little less than a year since I made it known that I intended to get said Master’s degree in England.  At first, I told everyone that I was going to study English Literature (which made perfect sense with the England thing, because why not study English literature in the country that created it?).  And then a funny thing happened.

I started researching universities and courses.  And I discovered – to my deep surprise – that I didn’t actually want to study English literature.  At least, not by itself.

To understand why this surprised me so much, let me take you back to a musty-smelling library in a small private university in Minnesota.  Two teenage girls – barely old enough to drive – are hiding from the clear autumn sunshine by taking photos of themselves reading the largest books they could find.  Posing as university students studying literature in an academic library.  And loving every minute of it.

That moment was the culmination of years of reading and writing and reading and writing and reading and writing.  When my parents led a group on an official campus visit to their beloved alma mater that year, I thought it was set in stone that I would someday have a degree in literature under my belt.  I mean, I was even spending my free time pretending to read literature in the library!  Of course I would study it!

And then something happened.  Well, a lot of things happened, actually.  And a whirlwind 2.5 years later, I was graduating from high school and heading off to university . . . as a vocal performance student.  And even though I realized very quickly that my heart wasn’t really in the music department, I avoided the English department and jumped into communication studies instead.

Let me make it clear that I have never regretted getting that degree.  And even though I sometimes wondered why I hadn’t chosen to study literature after all, I knew – throughout all four years of university – that I was not supposed to do more than minor in the English department, although I didn’t really know why.

After university, I worked at several jobs that made use of my communications degree.  And I was content.  But I could never shake the feeling – the wondering – if I had taken the wrong fork in the road.  If I had been meant to study English literature after all, and had let fear and a host of other things stop me.

Last year, when I realized that it was time to think about that Master’s degree, I assumed that this was my chance to finally be the “English Literature Person” again.

Cue my surprise – after much researching and reading – when I realized that I honestly did not want to devote a year (or more) of my life to the pure study of literature.

I wanted to study so much more.

I wanted to know not just what was written, but who wrote it.  And why they wrote it.  And where they wrote it.  And how they wrote it.  And who they wrote it for.  And how much we know about the culture that they lived in, just in case that played a role in the interpretation of what they wrote.  And whether or not what they wrote could tell us more about what was going on in the world around them.  And heck, while we’re at it, I wanted to read things that weren’t even literature.  I would happily read a book of household accounts, as long as they were old and they gave me a little glimpse into the society that produced . . . I don’t know, Shakespeare, maybe?

And then I stumbled upon the world of history.  And as soon as I saw the listing for a Medieval Studies degree program that combined history and literature to get a fuller picture of the Middle Ages, something clicked and I knew I was home.  Academically speaking.

I can’t help looking back at who I was a year ago – when I still thought I was going to study literature all by itself – and smiling.  Because that girl didn’t know what was in store for her.  She didn’t know that she would end up here, in this place.  Looking at manuscripts so old you can’t even breathe on them.  Thinking that a discussion of Beowulf is light lunch conversation.  And playing with swords before lectures.

To quote Doctor Who:

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Some Enchanted Evening

From where I sit, the trees out my window look like they come straight out of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.  One tree after another, layered on top of each other, branches sweeping in all directions like wild swirls of green paint on the canvas of a master.  In this moment, these are not Bob Ross’s “happy little trees” . . . but they do dance under the cloudy sky.

I woke up this morning to a wet world and the coldest day we’ve had since I arrived.  It reminded me of a poem that we studied in my high school English class, a rough English translation of a Russian poem:  “But you’ve been breathing this thick foggy air too long; you wouldn’t believe in anything but the rain.”  I couldn’t help smiling as I walked to class because my sun-baked soul delights in the rain.

I had my first lectures today, and the last one was held in the dim, book-lined tutor’s office while the seven of us sat in a circle and took notes with our laps as the desks.  He wore brown tweed (or something similar to my untrained American eye) and thin-framed spectacles, and sounded exactly how I imagine an Oxford don of eighty years ago would have spoken.  For an hour, he talked to us about royal courts of the Middle Ages, and for that hour, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

In one of my favorite essays, C.S. Lewis writes what has since become a somewhat famous quote:  “He [the reader] does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: this reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”

So many of my favorite stories take place in England that I was a little worried that my expectations would be completely skewed and I would be disappointed by reality.  But days like today remind me that sometimes the stories help to make the pieces of ordinary life feel a little . . . well, extraordinary.