9. This and That

2018.07.27  Some random observations about life in and around Oxford.

  1. Water drama.  I reported previously that the boiler serving my stairwell and the one next door goes out regularly, cutting off hot water until it is re-lit. Turns out the boiler is seriously broken, and repairs will take 7-10 days. So the housing office notified all affected students (about 20 of us) that we had been relocated to rooms with hot water. When I picked up the key to my new and improved room, I was directed to a building across and down the street from the Exeter campus. The building itself is nondescript and not attached to Exeter or any other campus. The room itself can only be accessed by four flights of stairs and is reminiscent of the Best Westerns my family stayed in on our annual summer road trips from Texas to Colorado in the 60’s. So I did something that ONE MUST NOT DO in England.  I complained!  Sort of. As politely as I know how.  Pretty please, could I just keep my pretty room with crown moldings, 12-foot ceilings, served by just one flight of stairs, located less than 60 seconds from the dining hall, chapel and all of my classes, and with 8-foot curved windows that open to let in the breeze? Please? The porter insisted that it was necessary that I have hot water  I insisted that it was not. He said he felt obliged to give me the hot shower that I had paid for.  I assured him (oh so nicely) that I would prefer the room that looks like Oxford that I had paid for.  So it’s settled. Cold water it is. Brrrrrrr!
  2. Souvenir shops. There may not be as many along Broad and Cornmarket Streets as there are along International Drive, but they are equally annoying.  The merchandise is of similarly poor quality and most of it has nothing to do with Oxford.  It’s all about Hogwarts.
  3. Being on Time. Around here, if class is scheduled to begin at 9:00, it may well begin at 8:58. Or 8:55.  But not 9:01. If you wander in at 9:02 you are considered rude. It you show up at 9:05 the door will be locked. Most of my international classmates are accustomed to arriving at least ten minutes prior to class.  Out of respect for the tutor.  I am appalled at how careless many of us in the States are about being on time (mea culpa!) and am determined to better.
  4. Notebook. Everyone has one.  And it bears no resemblance to the spiral versions we and our children carried to class.  They are much smaller, and most are inexpensive and bound in cardboard. That’s important because they tend to fill up very quickly. I’ve seen a few bound in exquisite leather. Like the one used by the Duke.  More about him later.  I happened to grab one of just the right size from an assortment of “journals I promise to write in someday” in a last minute packing frenzy.  The felt cover features a bird embroidered in red.  I’m sure it is a cardinal. (Cathy Jones Murray and Aunt Ruth, are you getting this?)  Totally uncool by Oxford standards but highly significant to me because the cardinal has been a symbol of hope during the last ten hellish months. It goes with me everywhere and I write in it constantly.  I will miss it when it’s full – which will be very soon.
  5. Food. Our tuition includes a full meal plan which is good news and bad news because the food is bi-polar.  We have had a few meals that were surprisingly good.  I enjoy the European-style breakfast which features, among other things, cold cuts and an assortment of fresh crusty breads. And, the best part, mounds of lovely berries.  Which are actually served at every meal.  Every day.  Lunches and dinners are less reliable. We were served lamb one evening and although I was skeptical, it was very tasty.  Chicken has been on the menu several times and been consistently delicious. The most unfortunate menu offering so far was “beef enchiladas.” Think unappetizing looking beef stew accompanied by a cross between naan and a tortilla.  And grey “guacamole.” I didn’t go near it. Good thing there was lettuce, some vinegar and lots of those lovely berries.
  6. The Duke.  He’s not actually a duke but he is, in fact, in line (distantly) to become one, and his third great grandfather was an earl.  I’m speaking about the tutor of my second seminar class. During our first session, I was intrigued by his very refined speech and mannerisms and his vague resemblance to Lord Dashwood, in the teenybopper movie, “What a Girl Wants,” which my girls (and I) watched repeatedly.  So I googled him.  Nobility credentials aside, he’s an accomplished novelist, book reviewer scholar, and librarian.  His class on writing fiction seems to be more theoretical than practical and he speaks just above a whisper.  We all lean forward in our seats during class as if we are hanging on every word when, in fact, we can’t hear the words well enough to know whether we want to hang on them or not! So whoever draws the black bean before class tomorrow has to tell the Duke to speak up.

Time for Scottish folk dancing lessons!  Should be interesting .  .  .

Cardinal journal

My Journal








8. The Rubber Hits the Road

2018.07.26  OK. This is really scary. My first Big Assignment is due tomorrow morning.  It must describe a superlative moment in my life.  With authenticity. Vulnerability. And (hopefully) a modicum of literary style. And we must be willing to share it.  So here goes:


Hundreds of miniature lamps hung by twenty-foot silver-toned cords from the soaring ceiling of Houston’s Jesse Jones Hall.  They illuminated the auditorium below, their light dancing off the jewelry and beaded bags of the softly murmuring patrons in the audience.  Off the silver and brass-toned instruments of the musicians.  And off the           [ haven’t found the right word yet  ] of the choristers, who were shifting their weight from one foot to the other as they stood on risers behind the orchestra, patiently waiting.

At the appointed moment, the concertmaster took the stage and was greeted with warm applause.  He bowed briefly, took his seat, and nodded toward the principal oboist, who had just adjusted her glasses and carefully run a microfiber cloth over the mouthpiece of her instrument.  She raised it to her lips and the clear tone of the A-above-middle-C filled the hall. The other musicians joined in, blowing, striking, plucking. and bowing their strings, creating a familiar, and not-at-all unpleasant, cacophony as they all sought their way to the A.

Twenty-seven-year-old Kathy Johnson had observed this the ritual many times and it always thrilled her. But tonight, it was extra special.  Because she was on the stage! On the risers, second row, third from the left, with the other members of the Houston Symphony Chorale. The Houston Symphony Chorale!

Kathy was at a difficult point in her life. Despite academic and professional success, she was haunted by the fear that she was a dilettante.  She had worked hard for her grades without always embracing the learning.  She had volunteered for various causes to meet the right people, and do the right thing, without passion for the cause itself.  And she had attended church for the same reasons. She longed for love, and had attracted the attention of some extraordinary young men, but had tended to hide her true self behind high and thick walls.

Nevertheless, she had moved a piano into her tiny apartment and practiced tirelessly for weeks to prepare for her audition for a place in the Chorale. Not so she could make connections.  Or add a new line to her bio.  No, this effort was strictly for the love of music.  Classical music. And because she loved, truly loved, to sing.

The instruments joined in unison at the A-above-middle-C and the auditorium grew quiet. The silence was pierced by a smattering of claps as a few in the audience spied the maestro. The applause swelled to a sustained and enthusiastic ovation as visiting conductor Sergiu Comissiona shook the concertmaster’s hand and assumed his place on the podium.  He announced the first selection of the evening, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. He raised his baton. Kathy knew this piece would be difficult to sing.  And not just because of the tricky notes.

The first movement sounds foreboding. Threatening. Like gathering storm clouds about to explode in fury. Which they do. And then the storm passes. The dissonant music resolves into a harmonic and reassuring major C triad.  And then the cycle begins again. Kathy sang her heart out, even as she fought unwanted images of her mother’s bi-polar episodes, which pretty much defined her childhood, and caused her to build high and thick walls, and bore a frightening similarity to the progression of the music. She concentrated on the translation of the Latin lyrics she had rehearsed so diligently.  “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and see my tears. I am a broken seeker who wants to know you. Let me recover my strength.”

The second movement is a bit lighter, consisting mostly of higher-pitched phrases from winds and strings. It offers hope, describing the journey out of a pit, the setting of one’s feet upon a rock, and the finding of a new song.

The defining element of the Symphony of Psalms is the third and final movement. The lyrics take the listener in a new direction.  Laudate Dominum! Glory to God!  Igor Stravinsky was raised in the Russian Orthodox Church but abandoned his faith in his teens and remained estranged until his forties. Then he experienced a spiritual rebirth and envisioned the Symphony of Psalms as an admission of doubt followed by an affirmation of faith and praise.

As Kathy took all this in, singing her second soprano part to the absolute best of her ability, among far more accomplished singers, accompanied by a major symphony orchestra, led by an internationally acclaimed conductor, she was overwhelmed with a sense of peace, purpose, and hope. An understanding that she had the ability, and more importantly the desire, to pursue the important things in life for their own sake.  The realization that honestly and vulnerability are the antidote to the paralysis of high and thick walls. And the knowledge that, like Stravinsky, she was not required to walk that path alone.

The music swelled toward its climax. Agitation and anxiety giving way to hope. Dissonance and disharmony giving way to the lilting and the lyrical.  The final bars brought the Symphony of Psalms to its final sublime resolution – an exquisite major C chord that seemed to begin among the lowest notes of any known register and soar all the way to heaven.  Laudate, Laudate, Laudate.     Dominum.

Beads of perspiration on her brow, tears running down her cheeks, her eyes aglow and a smile on her face, Kathy experienced something she had never felt before.

Pure. Unadulterated. Joy.



7. Dorm Life

2018.07.25  Greetings from Stairwell 3, Room 2a. For a three-hundred-year-old building, this isn’t so bad.  The room is sparse, but comfortable, and what it lacks in amenities it more than makes up for in charm.  Tall arched windows that open wide.  Crown molding.  Twelve foot ceilings.

There are a few wrinkles.  The boiler has shut down twice since I’ve been here so I have yet to have a hot shower.  With temperatures ten degrees above normal, (hmmmmm) it is quite stuffy and warm.  Observation: this seems to bother me far more than it bothers most of my classmates.  Guess it’s because although Florida is miserably hot outside, it’s typically downright cold inside – all year long. Not so much here – and certainly not in a college dorm.  Or classroom.  Or dining hall. So by late afternoon, it can be pretty uncomfortable. So meet my new best friend:


My Best Friend

Here are the views from my two windows:


View 2


And here are a couple of shots from the room itself.

Desk                    Bed

A very nice place to write                                     Bad bedspread but comfy bed!

And finally . . . sometimes you get a set-up that’s just too good.  That happened to me today.  Most of the Oxford Colleges, including Exeter, are open to the public from 2 to 4 PM  each day.  The larger and better known colleges, like Christ Church, where scenes from Harry Potter were filmed, require advance reservations and charge admission.  Exeter does not. People just wander in.  So I ran out to do a couple of errands this morning and returned to campus just before my 11:15 class. A group of tourists were standing around the gate, partially blocking my way, and looking at the “College is Now Closed” sign in disappointment.

College closed

As I edged to the front of the group and started to walk past, one man, assuming I suppose, that I was a rude American, called out, “Can’t you see the college is closed?”  I turned around, gave him my brightest smile and replied, “Actually, I go here.”



6. At Last – Class!

2018.07.23  Now for the heart of the matter.  Each day we have one 90-minute lecture and one two-hour seminar.  The daily lectures cover a wide variety of topics of general interest to aspiring writers.  All forty-five program participants are expected to attend. Here are a few of the topics:

  • Researching your fiction.
  • Dramatizing your passion (the syllabus says dramatising.  There are very few z’s here.
  • Effect of new media on writing.
  • Making your own path: self-publishing.

And eleven more.

The seminars are geared toward specific interests and levels of experience.  We Intermediates (there are no beginners here – I had to apply for a waiver) have a pre-determined program.  Creative Non-Fiction meets Monday and Wednesday. Intermediate Fiction meets Tuesday and Thursday. So today, I met the Creative Non-Fiction class for the first time.

My tutor’s name (there are no teachers here) is Susannah Rickert and she is brilliant, engaging and lovely.   But she told us not to be lured into complacency or mediocrity by her friendliness: she will mark us (there are no grades here) to Oxford standards and is reputed to be one of the hardest markers here. She pointed out that only Shakespeare could expect a 100%.  That leaves the 90’s for the likes of Jane Austen and C.S. Lewis. You get the idea. She suggested that we should be delighted with a 65.

There are ten of us in her seminar and she warmed us up with a very simple exercise.  Write three things about yourself that are not apparent from your appearance or bio – but with a twist.  One must be a fabrication.  It was an ice-breaker of course but also a command to get the creative juices flowing.

These were mine.

  • I once sang the National Anthem at a major league baseball game.
  • I am a thyroid cancer survivor
  • A friend of mine crashed Princess Diana’s wedding.

You Texans know the answer, but my classmates did not.  The first one they ruled out was the Royal Wedding. Not possible, they said. Clearly they never met Joanie Powell!

Then they looked at me with deep concern and said “Did you really have thyroid cancer?  So sorry. How are you doing?” Of course I never did and I am beyond thankful that Cyndy Powell no longer does.

So that leaves the baseball game.  Houston Astros. 1993.  My dear friend Frank Rynd had a lot to do with that!

Our main lesson for the day was The Third Rail.  In literature. The third rail, in engineering, of course, is the is the conductor of electrical current that powers subways and other rail-based electrical transportation.  And if a person on the platform should fall, or be pushed, onto that rail, electrocution is certain.  Which leads to the third rail in politics.  An issue so charged that if you touch, you die.  Social security maybe?

In writing it is completely different.  It is the central thread, unseen by the reader, that runs between the meandering tracks of plots, subplots, and characters. It is the energy, coming from the author’s beliefs, emotion, and passion, that drives the story and keeps it on track.

The two hours flew by and I was sorry when it was time to go. Not sure I have ever felt that way about a two-hour class – or any class for that matter. Looking forward to tomorrow!



5. Dinner at Hogwarts?

2018.07.22   Finally!  Registration Day at Exeter College.  I woke up excited but strangely unsettled. What am I doing here?  Do I even want to be here?  Am I willing to put in the work?  And even if I do, can I cut it? Will the other “students” be friendly?  Am I ready to leave the comfort and convenience of this hotel for the austerity of a college dorm? And of course, what should I wear?  (I am mindful of the fact that the last time I stressed out about what to wear on the first day of school was well over forty years ago.)

The biggest question, however, was logistical and I had been fretting about it for months.  How will I, a budding senior citizen traveling alone, get my two heavy bags and assorted accessories the 400 yards that stretch between me and my destination? The streets are, as previously noted, confusing,  “paved” with cobblestones, and teeming with crowds of tourists, mostly boisterous, energetic, and sometimes impatient students.  And finally, the chilling words from the school’s information packet danced before my eyes.  “Please note that your room will be situated between the 4th and the 9th floors of your building.  No one will be available to assist with your luggage and there are no lifts.”

Although I was anxious to get started, I took a few minutes to read my daily devotional.  The message, which, as usual, had been written specifically for me, said (loosely paraphrased), “Settle down. This is not all about you. Relax, have faith and watch for direction and blessings from Me. The rest will fall into place.”

Those words resonated but I couldn’t sit still long enough to properly  reflect on them.  After my cursory reading, I jumped up and dashed around the corner to my usual coffee shop.  But this morning it wasn’t a coffee shop.  It was  HILLSONG CHURCH!  With Sunday worship just getting underway.


I knew Hillsong, a world wide network of churches based in Australia, primarily for their worship music but had never attended a service.  I hadn’t planned on going to church because I had “too much to do”.  But it was instantly clear that I was supposed to be there.  I forgot about being in a hurry, grabbed a coffee, let one of the friendly guys in a red vest point me to a seat, and peacefully soaked up the music and the message for the next hour and a half.  The sermon, which, as usual, had been written specifically for me, said (loosely paraphrased) “Remember Whose idea it was for you to come to Oxford.  There is a purpose for your time here, and for what comes after.  Trust Me, be vulnerable and authentic, and enjoy.”

“OK ,” I said. “Amen. And thank You.”

After the service I hurried back to the hotel, quickly finished packing and took my bags downstairs. Then I moved them, one at a time, to the college.  Three ten-minute round trips. Not so bad.  The porter checked me in, handed me a room key and said “Stairwell 3.”  With my heart in my mouth, I set out to find it, dreading the prospect of nine flights of stairs. Well is seems that Stairway 3 serves only THREE floors and my room is on the second,  Much ado about nothing! With room key and name tag in hand, I was now official!

Nametag              Room Key (2)

The champagne welcome reception was held in the Fellows’ Garden.  It is a lovely walled space that, as the name suggests, is reserved for the fellows of Exeter College.  We got to meet many of the faculty, and then were led out into the quad to queue up the formal dinner in the Great Hall.  The Hall at Exeter, built in 1618, is imposing and beautiful. It is not, however, the hall featured in the Harry Potter movies.  That would be the Hall at Christ Church College, which is older (1520), larger, and even more grand.  But these realities did not dampen our enthusiasm.  We gleefully took videos and pictures of one another as if we were indeed at Hogwarts.

Dining Hall Steps                           Dining Hall Photo

         Steps to the Great Hall                                       Taking It All In!

As we continued to marvel at our surroundings, there was a thump at the door, and the Oxford dons, in their impressive (and in a few cases not so impressive) robes filed in.  We lesser beings had been instructed to stand, which we did.  When the occupants of the head table had taken their places, there was a loud thumping on the floor.  A mace, maybe?  Then Latin words were intoned, all were seated, and the festivities began.





















4. Prep Day

2018.07.21  Last day at the Randolph.  I spent most of the day reading – what a luxury! We are supposed to be reading with a critical eye and ear for style. This is to help us discern how we would like our own style to evolve. Today I focused on one of the books from our reading list, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller. It’s a compelling memoir of her childhood in Rhodesia as the daughter of white settlers during the devastating 1970’s civil war. Fuller employs detailed and lengthy visual and sensory descriptions of the heat, insects, etc. to make the story’s setting come alive.  Sadly, as is often the case, my ADD-afflicted self became restless and I began to skim over them. That suggests that I do not possess the patience to write that way.  (Not that I could touch her work!)


Reading List

The Reading List

I also spent more time on the streets of Oxford.  They are a teeming mass of humanity – mostly young  people who are clearly from all over the world. Skin colors, languages and mannerisms are wonderfully diverse.  Ethnic food establishments, especially noodle houses, appear 2-3 times in a single block with some, well, other, varieties mixed in.

Five guys                 KFC

The last thing on my list for the day was to attend one of the many concerts offered around Oxford each evening.  They are advertised by placards leaned against fences, doors, and bike racks.  My affiliation with the Bach Festival Society, led me to the Oxford Early Music Festival’s “Bach Night”.  I bought my ticket and rehearsed the route to the Exeter College Chapel, just a five minute walk away.

Concert placard

The concert was due to start at 8:00 PM and wouldn’t you know!  At 7:30 the skies opened up and the first significant rain in almost a month soaked Central Oxford.  I admit I had a raincoat and umbrella, but a walk at night, even just a five minute one, in a downpour turned me, once again, into a chicken.  I settled in with a pot of tea (ok, it was a glass of Merlot), one of my books, and called it a night!




3. Settling In

2018.07.20  Today my mission was to learn my way around Central Oxford and to enjoy this lovely hotel. I have two more days here before moving to the austerity of a college dorm.  First up was breakfast in the hotel dining room. The phrase “Full English Breakfast” on the menu caught my eye and I thought perhaps I should try it – for the experience.  Then I read the description:  pork sausage, cured back bacon, black pudding, grilled plum tomatoes, flat cap mushrooms, potato fritter, baked beans, and free range eggs.

I found an image of a Full English Breakfast that matches this description.  Looks a bit heavy to me.

Full English Breakfast

So I opted for the sausage roll instead.

Sausage Roll


It was quite good.  You Baylor and Waco people may notice that it is quite similar to my usual order at Vitek’s.  Except it came with Grey Poupon instead of BBQ sauce and cost three times more.  Sweet tea?  Nope!

Next task was to slay the geography dragon.  New plan.  Download step by step directions instead of trying to follow the interactive map, and use a compass app.  BINGO!

I found Exeter College easily. It’s across the street from Jesus College and next door to Lincoln College. All Souls College is around the corner while The Queen’s College is a couple of blocks away.  These are thirty-three more, and all of them comprise The University of Oxford.  Each one I have seen so far consists of a green completely enclosed by walls and buildings with several points of entry through very large and in some cases unmarked gates.  Exeter College is built around such a green.  Sadly it’s not very green.  I’m including a stock internet image alongside one I took yesterday.

Exeter College                    Exeter College Live

Internet stock photo.                                                      Actual photo today

I repeat.  Hottest, driest summer in 100 years.  Hmmmmmmm.

Across the street from Exeter is Blackwell’s Bookstore.  It’s imposing, beautiful, and must have most of the books in the world worth reading.  It’s most impressive feature, though, is its staff.  I showed one of them my reading list, from which I wanted to select three books. He knew them all and had read all but one.  (Sara Howard, one of them was The Periodic Table!)


Blackwell’s Booksellers

After the bookstore adventure I enjoyed some time at the hotel spa.  I rarely indulge in spa treatments.  However, after the physical and emotional strain of packing up the house my family has lived in for the last eighteen years and moving to a new one (which immediately preceded my departure for England) I decided some pampering was in order.  Then it was time for tea.  I opted for the celebration menu.