Here’s the second of a monthly series of columns I’ll be writing from abroad, as originally published in my hometown paper, the Barrington Courier-Review.
I started having trouble sleeping a few weeks ago. I don’t know if it’s late-onset jetlag or something in the water here, but my dreams have been super-vivid, my back and legs ache in the mornings and most times, I wake up expecting to be able to fly or thinking that I own a horse named Padre. (For all you dream interpreters and psychoanalysts out there, make of that what you can and let me know what you conclude.) I’ve since proceeded to rearrange all the furniture in my room according to the basic principles of feng shui and, perhaps most importantly, I’ve replaced my university-provided plastic mattress with a foam one I found on Oxford’s local version of Craigslist. Although my sleeping has gotten better and my dreams less dramatic, the muscle soreness persists. In a recent moment of brilliance, I realized that the aches probably have less to do with feng shui and more to do with the fact that, for the first time in six years, I’ve started riding a bicycle again.
Living in Oxford generally requires that you own a bike and that you use it often, because several centuries of history and development have resulted in a bit more urban sprawl than on a lot of American college campuses. Despite constant protest from my legs and thighs, I’ve committed to the way of life here and insist on cycling around town on a colorful, Schwinn-like secondhand road bike that screams “American trying to fit into the local scene.” One morning, I decided to track just how far I traveled during the day, and the end tally was around seven miles: 1.4 miles to class, 0.6 miles to lunch, another 1.5 miles to another class, and then 2 miles back home. Then, a nighttime cycle of 0.8 miles to the pub and the subsequent return trip on foot. No wonder I’m always hungry here; the food portions are noticeably smaller and I’m doing a lot more “exercise” just getting from place to place.
But in mapping out my life for a day, I also realized how tiny a loop our daily lives cover. If you take a piece of paper to represent “The Wider World” and draw in the places you frequent, then it’ll probably consist of a few regular stops in a miniscule square of space: home, work, the grocery store and the gym, and maybe a bar or movie theater once in awhile. I’m not claiming that this is a life-changing revelation, as I’m sure we’re all aware of how easy it is to become comfortable with a routine and never question it. Instead, I’m more perplexed by how easily I settled into my life here and got sucked into everything habitual, in ways that are eerily similar to my life back in the States: I wake up, eat a bowl of Cheerios, try and get some schoolwork done, contemplate doing laundry and decide not to, go to class, eat lunch, go back to class, go home, do some more work, eat dinner and then go out for the night. Of course, little things change it up – a British movie marathon with friends, a cappella rehearsal, rowing or tennis practice – but essentially, I’m doing the same thing, day in and day out.
Routine, of course, is a form of protection: it’s something familiar to hold onto amidst change and uncertainty. Even so, I was shocked out of my serene life here last week when I was talking with my dad and he asked, point-blank, what I was going to do next year after graduating.
“Are you going to find a job? I think you should go to grad school. I mean, more grad school. But when will you decide? When will you know?” he said.
It was a reminder that bigger, broader, life-quest-related questions and conundrums are always out there, hovering over you as you scour your local grocery store for Easy Mac, buy sweatpants and gorge yourself on fish and chips. It’s all those questions about what you want to do – or what you are meant to do, if you believe in fate – that I did a pretty good job of glossing over as an undergraduate. But Oxford ripped that band-aid off pretty quickly.
Here, orientation for new students involves a three-day extravaganza called the “Freshers’ Fair,” where every single student group claims a stall and dresses it up with streamers, neon-colored fliers and candy to try and get you to sign up for their club. There are so many student groups and so many freshers that you’re only allotted a two-hour time slot during which you can enter the Examination Schools, where the fair is held, and peruse the offerings. Going through each room was what I imagine old school warfare was like in having to battle your way through hordes of people – but fortunately without bayonets and actual weapons involved. (Upon exiting, you have to go through a Domino’s pizza stand, where they give you a coupon and a free slice of pizza to make sure you don’t faint from all the exertion.)
At the fair, there was a stand for a group called “High Impact Careers” offering colorful posters of some sort. (I initially thought the group name was a euphemism for investment banking, but knew it wasn’t when I saw the “Oxford Investment and Finance Society” right next it.) I quickly went over to the table to claim one of the posters as a room decoration without, hopefully, having to sign up for anything.
A minute later, I had snagged the poster and slinked away without being noticed. Success! I was hoping the poster was for a Disney movie of some sort – Lion King? Toy Story? – and then I actually looked at it. Simba and Woody were nowhere to be found; instead, it was an orange piece of paper with brown stick figures patterned across the background, with white text that said the following:
Those, I think, are the big pressures behind my generation’s insecurities and ambitions, and they are also a pretty apt summary of most parents’ (irrational) expectations for their children. The problem is, just being aware of that doesn’t help reconcile the “I don’t know what I want to do with my life yet” feeling and the “But I know I want to make a difference and be happy etc. etc.” feeling.
The most wisdom I can offer comes from something I thought of during rehearsal for Out of the Blue, the a cappella group I joined at school. We’re preparing for our first concert next week at an ice cream shop, and one of our songs is “Stop,” a Spice Girls tune from the late ’90s. I’m not sure what was going through the Spice Girls’ minds when they were writing it, but their lyrics are oddly relevant to my ongoing musings.
“Don’t you know it’s going too fast?
Racing so hard you know it won’t last.
Don’t you know, why can’t you see?
Slow it down, read the signs so you know
just where you’re going.
Stop right now, thank you very much,
I need somebody with the human touch.
Hey you, always on the run,
gotta slow it down baby, gotta have some fun.”
And so, I’ve decided to live the next month à la Spice Girls wisdom and see what happens. I’ll keep you posted.