From time to time, I get blindsided by nostalgia. This isn’t the warm fuzzies or softly sighing kind of nostalgia, but the ambushed and left in a tizzy on the curb type. I blame part of this on the way that memories are stored in an intricate web of sight, sound, and sensation. It’s remarkable what can trigger a memory—a phrase, a word, or a picture. A certain period of time or even a moment can be piled up into a mental closet and stuffed behind a door. Once it’s away, it might stay there, undisturbed for quite a while. But then you hear a snatch of music that fits into that door’s lock like a key, and before you know it, you’re buried in the avalanche that came cascading out of the closet. I hope, at least, that I’m not the only person that this happens to. Usually, it’s possible to fend off this kind of ambush, but sometimes it is simply unavoidable. Not that the experience is altogether unpleasant—not at all! But it does make me drift a little for a few days, feeling a bit removed from the present and wandering around in the past. This past week I find myself back in a place where I know I’ve left part of myself—Oxford.
My high school self walked on the streets of Oxford in clunky black shoes, and, marveling at the beauty of the place, made a wish. It was a hesitant, bumbling wish. I wished that someday, I could come back to those streets and study at the university. Years passed, but I didn’t forget that wish. If anything, it grew stronger as the chance seemed farther and farther out of reach. But that wish did come true.
To my delight, I did come back to Oxford years later, and for several months it was my home. My sister and I lived on the top floor of a dingy brick house beside one of the tributaries of the Thames. To our housemates who rarely came out of their rooms, we were the ghosts creaking in the attic. My room was small and spare, with the loudest pink duvet imaginable on the bed. It really looked the best in the early morning and in the evening when it would match the sunset outside my window.
As October ripened and the term rolled along, I spent a lot of time at that window. The set of drawers installed along the bottom of the window provided a nice ledge to sit on where I could look out over the roofs of our little neighborhood. I did a lot of writing there. And I did a lot of thinking there. This window was rarely open. Autumn often meant the glass was streaked with rain, and winter meant locked windows against the drafts. But it was a beautiful window. I watched days begin and end, wrote stories, poetry, and essays, read Victorian poets, and daydreamed there. On Bonfire Night, I watched fireworks crackle in the dark sky.
I remember it just as fondly as I do walking along the Broad with the winter chill turning conversations to mist and strolling up past Parks with dear friends, talking all the way of the future, the goodness of oven baked macaroni and cheese, how technology changes communication, and how much we wanted to remember these moments. I hope I remember those frosty nights walking under the twinkling Christmas lights strung across the streets, pavements pasted with wet leaves, that particular slant of light when the sun paints the old stones like gold in the late afternoon. And I hope I never forget the view from that window. It wasn’t all contentment and happiness that I saw from there. There was loneliness, exhaustion, and frustration, sometimes tears, too. Looking back, I remember those things, too. But I want to keep those memories along with the good, because their hue makes the watercolor of my memories beautiful. Their color reminds me that it was real. Reminds me that it wasn’t just a dream, but a wish that came true. I wouldn’t trade that view for anything. And when I look out that window again, it makes me hopeful.
Hopeful, if a little fuzzily, distractedly nostalgic. Do you have a view that you treasure?
…Today’s post title comes from a poem I wrote from that improvised window seat…