For One Day Only
In case anyone was wondering, the city of Oxford, England is no different than it was since I last left it. Which perhaps justifies the fact that for the last year of my life, I have expended many breaths and words and tears wishing I was there.
“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”
― C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
And I finally went back for one day only.
The train rolled across the countryside from London Paddington to the Oxford station, zooming past memories and conversations of last spring. I sat comfortably jet-lagged in my window seat, anticipating the glorious reunion of my feet with Oxford's pavement, my lungs with Oxford's air, my veins full of hot tea, my eyes taking in visions creaky old pubs and the rhythms of British life as I always knew them.
I was met by cold air and nostalgia as I stepped off the platform. Thrown back in time, I could hardly process what I was thinking and feeling. I don't know if you've seen any Harry Potter movies, but you know when wizards apparate to their destination and they squeeze through time and space and suddenly land with their eyes wide as they try to get their bearings? Well, stepping into Oxford again felt sort of like that.
Feet on the ground, backpack on tight, I set out again to find my bearings and revisit what I'd been missing for so long.
But things are different when you go for one day only. It’s different when you return to find your friends are back at home and the memories really are just memories, leaving you on the streets, pierced by cold and sentimentality. The city I know so well seemed to have forgotten I’d ever been there. I was another tourist on Broad Street, another visiting American, another girl who paid 4 pounds to walk around the cathedral she used to be a tour guide at every Tuesday afternoon.
I had a moment of realization walking around to my favorite places that day in the cold. I had been running after something that I couldn't pin down. I'd been longing for a joy that can't be repeated.
Retrace your footsteps in a familiar place. Try to find that feeling you thought would be there and I promise you, it’s like chasing a shadow. Look at a map and the streets will not have changed and you’ll know them as well as you ever have, but know you won’t ever catch exactly what you are searching for.
C.S. Lewis says,
“All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still 'about to be'."
When I lived in Oxford, I had a professor that taught me this lesson – that the joys and longings we so desperately want to perfectly capture are fleeting. We can spend all of our days telling ourselves that yesterday was always better and tomorrow doesn't have a chance.
But isn't it funny how long it takes to learn truths sometimes. The very city I lived and loved and studied in wasn't done teaching me til I returned for one day only.
Oxford reminds me that home is temporary. Oxford points my compass towards something outside of myself and my desires. For so long, I spun in circles trying to get back to where I had been, only to be reoriented upon return.
For one day only, I quietly revisited a former version of myself, recreated moments, retraced my footsteps. I left quicker than I would have liked, of course. But I know that I must move ever onward in pursuit of the new days and destinations ahead.
If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
– C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory