The Shadow of Things*

Instead of going home after work, like I say I will, I park my bicycle on The Plain and cross over Magdalen bridge under a dusting of the tiniest snowflakes I have every seen. I detour through the Botanical Gardens, hushed now, and still, a flowerless expanse full of only of sleeping things, frost-bitten leaves and naked trees.

At Christ Church Meadow the Man calls, and we meet by the walls of Merton college, perambulate around the perimeter of the Christ Church playing fields while schoolboys in red rugby sweaters have a football game on the dark green grass.

Later, when he has gone for a coffee, I make my way around the whole of Christ Church meadow. I see three, maybe four other people on my travels, all of them solitary too, all of them shrouded also in a fog. I put my hood up to stay warm and watch the reflections in the green river, and the ice on a barbed-wire fence, and that soft white dust on the pathway.

The snow is kinder here. In Boston, I remember winters where it seemed fierce as a criminal, and just as evil. Even on a good day, it would coat the streets in heavy layers, become one with the ice and mud; and when it fell, it fell. Here it settles; it's gentle on the wind, unobtrusive, and sometimes you think maybe you're imagining it, that your mind has conjured it out of the cold. It's quiet and pretty; as if, so English has it become, it's afraid to offend.

The city looks more fragile these days. You can see the breath escaping the cold lips of every human here. We live this season in a city made of breath, and of frost, which fades under rare sunlight and cracks in the cold. The cyclists keep their eyes down, their scarves close to their mouths, but in spite of this there is a strange invigoration to be had in coasting down the High with a wind on your tail and your cheeks burning. Maybe it's the only way to feel really alive, when everything else has gone so frozen: to move, to work up a sweat, to remind yourself that in spite of the ice, you haven't frozen. There's warmth somewhere here.

From the upper reading room of the Bodleian yesterday I watched the sun set over the Radcliffe Camera. It was the first time I had ever set foot in the Bodleian. All I did was read and write, but I think it changed me; I think I'm a different person, in relation to Oxford, than I was before I entered. The feeling I got inside is the feeling I think I'm supposed to get in churches, but rarely do: reverence, a resonance deep down in the heart. A sense of surrender and of abandon, but happy abandon.

But still, the last few days have been seen through a haze of alienation. I think it's the fog, and the cold; but I blame the weather when conveniant, I know, and maybe partly it's my own introversion, rearing its ugly head, trying to suck me back into myself, trying to turn my thoughts sour. Bits of things seem wrong, somehow, backwards or upside-down, like maybe the painting I'm in is askew. All the right bits are there, but they're slanted, at wrong angles, and I haven't shifted with them. We have hot chocolate at a café on St. Aldates and I feel that I'm in the wrong part of town, somehow, that I've left a bit of myself somewhere else; we have a drink in the pub, at a table close by the door that we've never sat at before, and I'm restless. There's just a bit of me on edge, all the time. Even when I come back from the first truly satisfying run I've had in months (the kind that makes you literally grin while you're still on the street, the kind that's almost like sex, or drink, in the way it exhilerates you), there's something in the greyness of the day and the midday emptiness of the house that makes my own thoughts seem foreign.

I see people I know everywhere now--in the library, in the street, in the pub--and I think this is good, it means that this place is starting to belong to me in the same way that I, for better or worse, belong to it.

I see people I know everywhere now and, in this cold time, this austere time, I feel we don't quite connect, that we can't until the Spring, the thaw; but we watch each other's breath come in a cloud and are bound anyway by the beauty around us, enfolded in the city and her clever fog.

*Oscar Wilde: “I envy you going to Oxford: it is the most flower-like time of one’s life. One sees the shadow of things in silver mirrors.”