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Love, Memory, and the Kindness of Old Friends

I'm writing now from the third of a trio of houses, where I've been loaned a computer and internet connection. For the past three nights, old companions have offered to put me up in their homes, often with little to no notice. They have given me wine and food and gossip, offered up spare beds and couches, taken hours from their days in order to welcome me back into their fold. This comfort has framed six hours in an English manor watching an old friend embark on a new and fantastic phase of her life. It's resulted in a great deal of overly-purple prose, and I'm almost embarassed to share this with you, but at the same time this short trip has left me refreshed, grounded, and grateful in a way that's almost religious. I hope you'll forgive me for inflicting the excess verbiage on you, and take it as an honest wish to somehow feebly share this.

First thing's first...

Forget the flight, an eminently moderate affair with the normal number of screaming babies, obnoxious fellow-travellers, and cramped legroom. Leaving customs I was met by three of my college friends with a house near Gatwick. We didn't get back from the airport until 1 AM, and they'd offered to drive me to the wedding the next day, but Mr. R and Ms. G (who will be getting married themselves this summer, when my job will keep me from attending) opened bottle after bottle of wine from her father's survey of French vineyards. Glasses got refilled, and discussion moved from movies we'd seen to the more serious topic of weddings and babies. We've reached the time of life when such things are becoming more common among our acquaintances. We're growing old.

The Wedding

R. and Mr. M, one of our oldest friends, drove me off in the morning, still slightly hung-over. A combination of expectation and jet-lag played merry hell with my metabolism, and it was a good thing that M. was there to navigate. The bride had picked a lovely but rather isolated manor house as the backdrop for her wedding, and as the car inched its way up the narrow lane to the venue we were never convinced that we weren't lost.

I arrived a little early and waited for the wedding party to appear. Langshott Manor, though claiming to date from the sixteenth century, shows itself quite well for its age. Most of the tudor-style rooms were of adequate height, although I had to duck in some of the doorways. White china and tablecloths set against a background of oak, plush and ornate chairs, crisp and thoroughly polite staff--the Bride had arranged a paradigmatic English wedding. It's not often that I dress in my best suit and a pressed white shirt and yet feel frumpy and somewhat out of place.

My present had been unwrapped early by the security screeners at La Guardia, and hastily rewrapped before my arrival, its original elegance somewhat overwhelmed by the hasty, clumsy, and somewhat drunken application of Scotch Tape. If anyone noticed, however, they were kind enough not to comment.

It's tempting to describe the ceremony in detail, but that somehow feels an invasion of the privacy of the Bride and Groom. I'll limit myself to a few brief glimpses. The couple managed everything except the weather (also typically English). The Bride's party consisted of friends, local family, and a large contingent who had flown from Thailand; the Groom's party spanned family to friends. Somehow, the ceremony combined an air of elegance and informality: the Bride and Groom themselves were models of grace, but the onlookers were warm and genuinely delighted. I've sat through weddings before where patience as been a duty exercised on behalf of friendship, but this was infused--every second--with an honest joy for the couple that radiated from all involved.

Even the Gods of Irony seemed to take the day off, and although my creaky camera batteries seemed determined to fail, they perked themselves up long enough to snap a few frames after the Bride and Groom signed the wedding register. I have one photo that's fixed in my memory. She's looking up at him, and he's standing behind her, and for a moment they've turned away from the cameras in front of which they've been dutifully smiling. And in that instant, when they're looking at each other... there's something being said between them that I'm certain that I don't understand. It's some kind of culmination--that the ceremony is over, that their life is beginning, I don't know. But it's beautiful, and every so often over this weekend I've been taking my little digital camera out of my bag and calling up that image as a reminder of a moment of utter, utter joy.

Just in case they read this: Mr. and Mrs. W., thank you very much for inviting me to your wedding. Sometimes people as cynical as I need these road to Damascus moments to scrape the plaque off our souls. It reminds us that when we caution others to be wary and careful, when we remind them of all the ways in which the world is a painful and dangerous place, we are simply and utterly wrong. If a mind can make a hell of heaven, still every so often heaven makes its whispers heard.

Much Regained, Much Remembered
After the ceremony, one of the Bride's friends approached me with a little bundle of irony. Remember that dictionary that I lost in the post when I returned to America? The one that I bought again last month? Well, long ago I had two of them. One, however, I loaned to a friend of the Bride's in my second year of college, almost ten years ago. At the wedding, this friend introduced herself again, and gave me a small bag with the first Nelson's I ever bought. So once again, I'm back at college with two copies of the same dictionary.

Events like that tend to echo strangely with me. A few years ago while I was living in Oxford, another American student brought me a glass butterfly with broken wings so that I could repair it. This I did, but she never quite came back to pick it up. When I left to return home, one of my Oxford friends offered to keep it until I could take it home with me safely. I picked it up again tonight so that I can take it home and mail in to Boston, where its owner is getting married next month.

And then to Oxford
I'd left the fury of New York exam preparation barely thinking about what I was going to do when I got here. I had arranged somewhere to stay on Friday, and on Sunday, but on Saturday I was only saved by the intervention of Ms. F, who kindly offered the couch in her home. Her fellow housemate and landlord, Mr. A., didn't object to unexpected visitors, and so I got to recover from the unexpected emotion of the wedding by indulging in one of my favorite Oxford rituals.

Ms. F. lives in a house with an attached conservatory, which although colder than the rest of the house is very nicely ventilated. Over the years, Ms. F. had often invited me to have dinner or drinks, and one of us would bring port and the other cigars. Neither of us smoke that often, but we'd settle our nerves by fiddling with cigar-preparations, sipping cheap-but-cheerful tawnies, and doing our best to keep the bloody cigars lit as the conservatory filled with bitter, flavorful smoke. I'd tell her of my latest romance, or we'd talk about our work, or she'd hint about her writing.

This time I'm afraid that I was less than coherent, because if my description of the wedding above is unpolished in recollection, immediately after the fact it was made blurry by the nearness of emotion. And after I'd spoken out the rough draft, she sighed and smoked and told me about her own changes. She and her own romance (the Mr. M. mentioned above) are soon to leave Oxford on a year's trip around the globe. As she told me of their plans for America and Asia, I twirled my port glass and wondered about how things were changing.

The Oxford Thai
That was last night. I woke up late today and wandered off for lunch with Ms. F. Afterwards her landlord insisted that as it was raining, he'd drive me to the last of my three shelters. There I found six or seven of my old friends sitting around an obscure and complicated board game in the front room. It was a familiar Sunday ritual, and when I saw it the wave of nostalgia that had been washing over me was complete. I was back in Oxford.

When I say 'Oxford,' I often mean not only the university, but the Cowley area to the east where many of the older students and young working adults live. It's small and vibrant, with a strong ethnic community from India and Pakistan. (If you're in Oxford, this is the best place in the city to get a variety of quality curry.) With the sun shining through a cold breeze, Cowley has a smell completely different from New York: the same auto exhaust tinged with slightly more diesel; Morrocan, Indian, Thai, Chinese, or Polish restaurants open their doors and expel brief hints of meats and spices; and despite the traffic and the commerce, there's a hint of trees and gardens. This time of year, there's even the promise of barbeques to come.

Most of my friends live around this area, congregated in house-shares. They give their houses creative, amusing, or ironic names like "Fraggle Rock" (cheerful, happy people), "Little Shop" (with one man, two women, and a really scary plant), or "Bosnia" (a poorly-maintained but inexpensive residence which after the housewarming party looked like a bomb had hit it). Every summer some people swap houses or new ones open up. And here I was, walking into a front room again, and listening to them welcome me back to the fold. Whatever else had changed, this was constant.

And suddenly I realized that even if things at Columbia went as badly as I could imagine, even if I never became a lawyer, this would be here: friends, companions, people who collectively or individually knew all my secrets. For an evening I let every concern I had drift back to New York, and greedily let them fill me with comfort and protection and acceptance.

Finally 8:30 rolled around, and we bundled together in cars and drove to the Oxford Thai. Mr. M. and I had first come here--an unpretentious place with simple furniture, modest prices, and great Thai food--as a weekly habit several years ago, shortly after it opened. Then he invited a few friends, as did I. They invited others. In two years, this has now snowballed to the point where not only do we often take up the whole basement on Sunday nights, but we're often spilling over onto the ground floor as well.

And here the story of this trip comes to a fitting and circular ending. Because the owner of the Oxford Thai knows me. I was introduced to him all those years ago by the mother of the Bride. Tonight I got to tell him about her getting married yesterday, just before I slipped down into basement to follow me old friends, where I could listen to how their lives were changing, learn how they were growing older, and meet the newer additions to our circle of friends.

As I write this, Exam Watch reads just over thirty days to the moment when I'll sit down to start my Constitutional Law exam. Before I left, I wondered if I could justify the time this trip has taken, the classes I'll miss on Monday. But now that my friends have gone to bed and this weekend is over, I'm sitting here writing with tears in my eyes and joy in my heart and a strange and quiet determination. The work can be made up. The money this cost can be earned, paid back with interest. And when I sit down to take that still-fearful exam, I'm going to do it with perspective: that this law I'm studying is my dream, and I want it not because of my grade-obsessed myopia but because it's the life I've chosen. And if I work myself near to madness for grades and career, take an eighty-hour job for money and foresake marriage or family, it will be because--and this is true--I deeply, dearly love this odd and strange thing called the Law. And if that choice doesn't give me the smile on the face of the Bride in that photo, or the merry laughter and cheery openness of my friends as I walked into their parlour, then I have merely made a wrong choice. Choices can be undone. The world will remain the same wonderful, joyful place that we watched as the Groom said his vows; people will remain the same lovely, bewildering madness that they have always been. And to my friends who welcomed me this weekend, I'd like to give thanks for providing me with their comfort, their friendship, and the standards by which I should measure my decisions.

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Comments

What a lovely-sounding weekend. Have a safe trip back...
I was back in Oxford a couple of weeks ago myself and you're right on the money with everything, we're incredibly lucky with our friends.
I was back in Oxford a couple of weeks ago myself and you're right on the money with everything, we're incredibly lucky with our friends.
We're growing old. I admire the way you're able to say that like it's a good thing.
To both Tony and Martin - it's been wonderful to see you in Oxford recently. Come back and see us again before too long...

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