A few of us go to watch a friend’s performance in a student-written ‘light’ play featuring princesses, trolls, an evil supervillain and the “Four Tea Thieves” (pun intended, and complete with their own musical number). It has to be the most interactive performance I’ve ever attended. The audience was made up almost entirely of friends of the cast, and we cheered and aww’d and booed with the rest, sometimes over the voices of the cast. There was a lot of improv.
Theatre is weird like that—the most poorly-writ lines can be brilliant with the right actor, and sometimes the best moments are introduced night-of. Acting is useful—Aristotle’s habitual virtue and all that—actions define a person. It is our choices, Harry, that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities. And didn’t Pascal say that if a person didn’t know to believe, to love God, they should act like it? It’s a poor argument; but then, running water is the best to drink. Still philosophy is useless, motion gives it worth.
In my last Shakespeare tutorial—on As You Like It—I get caught up in the heat of the argument. “And Tolstoy says, ‘What? The fool in Lear isn’t funny! Like, why is this even a thing?’” Dr. Thorpe bursts out laughing, trying to explain—Tolstoy—my paraphrase—maybe not the most elegant diction—I blush, but I do not mind. Dr. Thorpe thinks his student has good ideas, particularly relating to the audience’s relation to the play; but perhaps too shy, retiring, hesitant. Grad school is a competitive world, he says; one has to drown out others to be heard. But without grad school, she could get bored. There’s such a thing as not enough.
In classical theatre—I mean the Greeks—didn’t the actors wear masks? At least theatre is characterized by smiling and frowning masks, for comedy and tragedy. That would make acting vastly different—conveying any emotion would depend on body position, on the timbre of the voice. Or maybe ancient theatre was more like recitation? I wish my glasses were still new. When they were new people looked at me and saw the glasses; now they look at the glasses and see me.
I walk down St. Giles—the regular route to groceries, shopping, church, libraries—the sun is setting. The sky is still sunny blue, but light cloud fingers reach toward the crescent moon, solidifying near the wrist into full-bodied pink. The sandstone of the buildings glows pink in the light, just as much as the glass windows reflect it. I don’t understand it. I didn’t think colors worked that way, pink overshadowing preexisting brown.
My last tutorial with Dr. Ward is on language. Lewis thought language was entirely metaphorical. The less literally we take ourselves—our words, I mean—the better. Words point us to things but will never be things. We can make our language more polysyllabic and duller: we cannot make it more literal. Words give us pictures of the thing itself; the thing itself is always better. I make a rather snarky allusion to a pompous literary criticism text—so many words, so little to say; Dr. Ward laughs aloud. This is an accomplishment; I have to work for his laugh. He thinks his student bright—encourages grad school—but perhaps lacking a little in humor. It’s not personal, he assures her; most Americans are.
Words give us pictures, never the real thing; and reality is iconoclastic—it constantly blasts apart what we think we know. Everything breaks and reforms and tilts and breaks again, and words are not quite solid or quite within my control. I am trying to remember this as I leave England.
I don’t want to leave. I miss home, yes—I miss my family and my friends, and Minnesota snow. I miss conversations with the people I love. But I’m not quite ready to go back.
I’ve lived in libraries for the past few months, reading and writing more words than I ever have before, drinking tea several times a day, baking scones, staying up past 5 am to splash words about haphazardly, hiding food when the librarian arrives to work, rushing out to shower and apply makeup—hail, Caesar, we who are about to die—before I read out my tired words to the one-man jury, hands shaking, wandering home on a delirious post-stress high. A sustained diet of this leaves one feeling dizzy. Without friends—giggling in the library after 2 am, the food group family, games, accents, daily check-ins that could qualify as therapy, rambling stories that end nowhere and yet we are gripping the tables, holding our heads, trying to breathe for laughing—without friends it would have been unbearable. After the haze and sandy motion of the semester, anything else will be a shock. I will have to rebound. (Perhaps, my kind parents may say, reading this, that I already am.)
I will miss walking down the sidewalks, through the park, stuffing my hands in my pockets to avoid the nippy air. A pound in my pocket; no American coins are this thick, this heavy. I will spend it on coffee after noon, or save it for a library locker. Fish and chips, ‘pudding’ referring to everything sweet that one eats with a fork. Realizing that the building I’m standing in is ancient, that people have walked here for centuries, seeing what I see. Feeling the cobblestones no matter how thick my soles are. I am grasping at time here, time with the people. Relationships don’t start and stop with distance; they are living, stretching things. Any friendship worth its name will reach past distance, time, silence, noise.
The next page is entirely shrouded. Just as one cannot say Lewis would have liked, Shakespeare would have thought, one cannot say, this will happen, and in this way. Things never happen the same way twice, and to change is to live. The motion gives it worth. And really, I’m starting to think it’s all improv.
Minnesota, see you in a week—I’ll be so pleased if you are wearing snow when I arrive. Oxford, I respectfully decline to say goodbye until the last possible moment.