I returned to England last Thursday after a visit home to see my uncle who was losing his life to pancreatic cancer. On Friday, shortly after I’d made it back to Exeter where I live, I got the call that he had died. The swiftness of his passing was a great shock to us all, and I numbly began my preparations for my journey to Oxford to help at a conference there on Sunday.
There was a strange comfort in having my routine disrupted during such a time of emotional turmoil. It meant that I didn’t have to try and get back into the regular dynamics of daily life and pretend that all was going on as normal, not that as a graduate student I have much of a routine anyway. Plus, as I tried to prepare myself for facing the day of my uncle’s funeral when I would be on the other side of the ocean amongst strangers, I was blessed by the outreach of many friendly hands, both old and new.
While I was in Oxford I knew I’d be seeing two very dear friends, both of whom I’d met at Exeter and hadn’t seen for varying legnths of time. I had to spend my days being the friendly face of conference assistance, an easy enough mask to assume, but I was glad to know that people I could share how I was really feeling with would also be there.
One of my friends is a former student of Lincoln College and still has a close community there himself. They very kindly showed me around the library (which is very old, you know) and the multiple serene quads all decked with kindly and fragrant vegetation. However, when we went to see the chapel, the inner doors were locked, which resulted in the following situation.
One evening we were sitting in the Lincoln student bar, complete with mysterious pillars and Lincoln Imp, and we related our inability to gain access to the chapel to the college don (or possibly one of the college dons, I’ve no idea how these things work) who is an old friend of my friend. In an offhand sort of way, he then said, “Well, I can let you in if you want, I’ve got the keys.” Obviously this was said with the expectation that, midnight chapel being the refuge of those with a seriously religious bent, I would say no, thanks very much, very kind offer, &c. This is a mark of how little said don yet knew me.
Sneaking (well, sort of sneaking) into a chapel in the middle of the night? Getting to see something I would otherwise have missed, and that other people don’t get to see because they (perhaps more sensibly) all go there in the day? The obvious answer was yes.
So there we were, four of us (we’d collected a wayward Middlebury student on a summer teaching program on the way), tiptoeing sneakily about the chapel (well, sort of sneakily) and arguing about what the wooden figures on the fronts of the pews were supposed to represent. They’re about eight or ten inches high and beautifully carved. You remember the little firemans who live behind my house? With my natural propensity for applying this novel plural form to everything that comes across my path, they rapidly became the little prophet-mans and little evangelist-mans. I poked Mark’s lion on the nose. But don’t tell anyone.
Our hospitable don then offered to show us the Fellows’ Garden. My friend declined on the grounds of having previously seen it, during the day, when the flowers were actually visible, you know? Myself and the Middlebury Man were still game.
A midnight garden is a strange thing. I’ve actually no idea what time it was, but grant me some poetic licence. Midnight is the time of liminality between days, which perfectly reflected how I was feeling. The future is so uncertain, and so is the past. A liminal state is supposed to be a threshold between two stages or processes, but on this occasion I think it also meant to me questioning the certainty of the stages themselves. For if you can’t question those things when on the threshold in between them, then when can you? And if you’re going to be bleakly existential, then the colors of the plants may as well reflect the colors of your thoughts.
The dark vegetation was lit at strange angles by lights from the top of Lincoln College library, one of the shower rooms nearby, some accent lighting in the Rector’s garden over the fence. I walked quietly round the edges, close to the plants. Sometimes there might be nothing to see in a midnight garden, but sometimes you see what you need to see.