In Oxford you never have to be alone. But then, you might never be known either. Oxford can be a profoundly lonely place. This is a river-fast, rush to talk and write and do a thousand things city. Night or morning, there is always a talk or a group to be attended, a debate to be had, a dinner to savor, a person to be seen, a task to be done. What is harder to come by is that safe place of friendship where the hurry fades, that quiet space where the worries can emerge, or grief be shared, or where you can simply be tired and seen for the bundle of hopes and fears and delights that human beings always are.
I was sitting in a coffee shop the other day and got downright tickled at the suppressed but obvious need of every person there to be seen, to smile, to know. The chill of the day had driven a dozen of us to the blue-walled, richly scented refuge of that little café where we hunched over books and pretended to be deaf to all distraction. None of us really needed to be there – the plethora of free libraries in Oxford means no one ever needs to study in a coffee shop and I knew very well that I was there because I was feeling lonely, with Thomas at orientations all week and my old friends mostly moved away and that feeling of there being no one to call. I found myself wanting desperately to strike up a conversation with the girl next to me, or the English lit. student across the table. But the hush was self-conscious and stubborn.
Until the door opened and a new girl arrived, a sturdy pile of books in her arms. I scanned the titles and found them surprisingly familiar and without thinking, glanced at her face. She smiled and my eye was caught and I gave her what was, I’m sure, a shy, sheepish grin. Unaware of the unspoken law of shy silence, she sat with noisy ease of movement, complimented the barista on her necklace, plopped her book on the table, and apologized to her seatmate for jostling his chair. He looked up and, wonder of wonders, smiled too. And I watched that whole room crackle and thrill with friendliness. People loosened their muscles, smiled, jostled their books, even laughed. It was remarkable. That one girl, in her ease and joy allowed the rest of us to look up, out of our loneliness, to smile, to see and be seen in a remarkably powerful way. The atmosphere changed because of her presence.
That’s exactly the kind of warm, heart-quickening, life-renewing atmosphere I want my little house here in Oxford to have. Something I have learned quickly here, something I have also remembered afresh from many years of struggle is that it takes only one person to break the silence of loneliness. We live in such a hurried, impersonal world, in which isolation increases by the day. That most people are on the deep side of lonely, that they yearn to be seen and heartily known is a fact I am convinced of from top to toe. I think most people are waiting, even if they barely know it, for someone to ask them a question about their life or hope or struggles or need, a fact which makes me a little bolder every day in reaching out. It takes only a word, a smile, the offer of a cup of tea together to invite another soul into the circle of shelter in which one can be known and loved.
Home is the place where we are seen. Home - be it student flat, cottage, bungalow, closet, or mansion - is meant to be a place where people come to be deeply known, to rest, to belong. Whatever small space you possess, it is the kingdom in which your love can create an air that is the oxygen of peace for those who enter it. By the meals you craft, by the candles you light (I do love my candles), by the words you speak, and the door you open, you are the maker of a world in which friendship becomes possible. In this new season, as I revel in my own first home, I'm challenging myself to reach out, to move beyond my loneliness at old friends being gone and to use this space of mine as a place where friendships can grow, where strangers come to be companions, where bosom friendships (as Anne of Green Gables would say) begin.
Breathe In: Companionship of Words
I suppose, having talked about opening your home, it's a bit counter-intuitive to start by talking about the companionship, not of people, but of minds and words. But good books, and the souls behind them, have companioned and nourished my heart through many seasons. And I think when we speak of loneliness, and of overcoming isolation, a first step to take can be into the communion of other active, loving minds whose life and excitement make you ready to share your own.
Novels accomplish this for me. In my moments of crisis, when the landscape of my own mind and soul were fogged and dim with confusion or loneliness, there have been several stories that stepped into my imagination as friends. The worlds they had made and the people they presented were a refuge to me. Wendell Berry’s Port William and his warm-hearted Hannah Coulter. The Eliot family and their home of Damerosehay in Elizabeth Goudge’s Pilgrim’s Inn. The artistic grit of Thea in Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark. Nouwen’s story of God’s mercy traced through his contemplations on Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal returned.
They sheltered me. When I was blinded by doubt, I journeyed on by the vibrant light of their created worlds. As I struggled toward courage, as I worked toward new hope in times of exhaustion, those stories were my refuge. I was nourished by the power of what they presented as possible. I sheltered within their scenes, stood beside their characters, then stood back on my own two feet to reclaim my own vision and walk the long road required to bring it to life. Friendship, companionship, community; these were some of the most vivid realities those stories helped me to grasp afresh and begin to create once more in my own life.
Breathe Out: The Tea & Avonlea Club
Anne of Avonlea was also one of those books. I grew up reading the Anne books and watching the 'Anne of Green Gables/Anne of Avonlea' miniseries once a year. It was tradition. Come fall, come the first turning of the leaves, we kids would help my mom peel apples for applesauce, or we girls would sip a fresh-made cup of hot chocolate and watch the charming tale of Anne - her friendships, her wonder at the world - all over again. In England now, far from my family, I ache for those old traditions and stories to shape my days, I yearn for the friendship reflected in the innocence and wonder of the Anne books.
So, I'm going to start a 'Tea and Avonlea' Club. It will consist of simply a baked autumnal treat, a pot of tea, an hour of reminiscent movie-watching, and time for conversation after. I'm inviting my new women friends as I find them, hoping to create a place where we can relax and enjoy, savouring the friendship of Anne and Diana (if you don't know this story, get thee forth and read!) and letting it inspire us to our own camaraderie. It's a small step, a light-hearted opening of possibility, but it's the first on the road to new friendship.
Will deeper things come? I hope so. I hope that this open door of good food and fellowship will become the ground for longer conversations, for small disasters shared, for meals offered, for prayers said, for new traditions formed. What I do know is that if I don't begin, none of it will happen. If I sit behind my closed doors, looking out my windows with lonely eyes, life will never grow. But if I bake a cake and open the door instead... that first step is the tilled ground of friendship. I'll open my door, sweeten the deal with tea and Avonlea, and see what good things grow...
This week's treat? A Caramel Apple Upside-Down Cake. It was delicious. And so incredibly easy. It went so fast I didn't even get a picture...
Reading: Well, I'm currently up to my eyeballs in academic preparation, which includes a good biography of George MacDonald (by William Raeper), the author whose imaginative novel Phantastes 'baptised' the imagination of C.S. Lewis. With his deep, deep grasp of the fatherly love of God, and his belief in beauty as a force of God's goodness, MacDonald has become a beloved voice in my spiritual formation. His At the Back of the North Wind, and Lillith are strange and wondrous favorite tales.
Listening: A friend recently sent me the album Ghost of a King by The Grey Havens, and I am so enjoying the redemptive lyrics and hopeful, golden, acoustically-toned music.
Join us next week for the continuing series on The Lifegiving Home.