Sunday, October 20, 2013

the kilns

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here.
This is the land I have been looking for all my life,
though I never knew it till now...
Come further up, come further in!”

-- C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle.

As a Scholar-in-Residence, sponsored by the C. S. Lewis Foundation, my home during the month I spent at Oxford was Lewis’ own house. The house’s name dates back to the brick manufacture that had long been based at the eastern end of Oxford, in a section called Headington. When Lewis purchased the house in 1930, there had been acres of land encircling the house. Since his passing, in 1963, portions east and north of the house had been sold (as house lots), and a nature reserve bearing Lewis’ name was created south of the house. Publicly accessible, the nature reserve’s land had once been part of The Kilns’ property, and was a favorite place (and literary inspiration) for Lewis and his colleague J. R. R. Tolkien. The gardens around The Kilns, enjoyed by Lewis, his family, friends, and guests, are still as important to the home as the rooms themselves- and the outdoor space contributes to the house’s sense of sanctuary. With layered plants, trees, and flower beds- plus a row of hedges along the road- there are neither walls nor fences around The Kilns. Being in and around the house, I always felt the cottage-sized building and its peripheral gardens were larger than their actual area dimensions.

Views in and from the C. S. Lewis Nature Reserve, Oxford.

The Kilns is maintained by the Foundation both as a historic place to visit, and as a place for scholars to live. The warden of the house emphasizes how the place is a living landmark- compared to a static environment as found in most museums. Scheduled tours are meant to promote awareness of C.S. Lewis, displaying and providing narratives for the grounds and common rooms. For a resident, the house is very much a hands-on and cozy home, in and around which to roam and find respite. And plenty to read: along with the parlor (livingroom) and the study, the northern portion of the house is the C. S. Lewis Study Center. The parlor, which faces the largest portion of the garden, is an intimate space; one side of the fireplace has a complete collection of Lewis’ publications on the wall shelves, and on the other side a collection of Lewis’ favorite books (such as the works of George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, and Boethius, as examples).

The Parlor (above and below). Map of Narnia on wall, above fireplace.

Above: Upstairs rooms
Below: 2 views of the kitchen.

There is a warm and peaceful ambience in the house. Accentuating the furnishings, walls and ledges are decorated with reminders of Lewis (known to his friends and family as Jack), his brother Warren (known as Warnie), Lewis’ wife, Joy, her sons (Lewis’ step-sons) Douglas and David, the Moores, Fred Paxford, and various friends and extended family members’ framed photographs. The library even displays the Lewises marriage certificate. A photo in the kitchen includes one of Lewis’ favorite cats, named “Tom.” Sitting at the dining table, it is easy to imagine Jack and Joy playing scrabble (either in Latin, or Saxon). The dining room also displays the Lewis typewriter, a very well-used Royal portable (which will have its own subsequent essay). Through a month of days, I found my favorite resting spaces in the kitchen, the parlor, and the garden. The caretaker of The Kilns (officially, the Warden) graciously decorates all the rooms with flower arrangements. A modern refrigerator stands discreetly near the vintage “Aga” gas stove, attesting to the coexisting present and past. Like the college buildings within Oxford University, the strong sense of the historic revolves around references to the liminal moment. These are contiguous places of community and of communion.

This very sociable cat's nickname is "Warnie."

The Dining Room

Risinghurst is the neighborhood in which The Kilns is situated. Among centuries-old stone houses, there are clusters of semi-detached town houses and converging lanes. Boarding an Oxford city bus daily, along Kiln Lane, reminders lent themselves to context. The eastern edge of Oxford encompasses the home of C. S. Lewis, some of the beloved haunts of writers called The Inklings, along with the poet Shelley- but it’s also a district filled with houses and shops, apartments and markets, and busy roads. And the paths woven of antiquated passages and new pavement connect The Kilns with University buildings, churches, pubs, and the city Lewis knew as student, teacher, and author.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

place and time

“What was sown in momentariness is raised in still permanence.
What was sown as a becoming rises as being.
Sown in subjectivity, it rises in objectivity.
The transitory secret of two is now a chord in the ultimate music.”

~ C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm

Places and times of embarkation provide reminders of our paths, of our ways and distances already covered. As we begin to clearly sense the verge of discovery, an awareness of the sum of our being emerges. In newness, historic roots are revealed. Even modest and unknown lives find profound significance, when viewed in the context of pilgrimage. Yes, even small steps through fleeting sojourns can represent forward progress and meaning to influence a lifetime.

My father likes to recount how his father, long before I was born, would describe his adventures as he immigrated across Europe and the Atlantic to New York. He built a great career as a portrait photographer, beginning simply and from scratch as a photo retoucher. I’ve been told that he’d say, “I made a living with a pencil,” referring to the essential retouching implement used for brightening negatives. Many years later, my grandmother found about a dozen of his retouching pencils and gave them to me when I went to art college. One of them was in my shirt pocket when I arrived at the University of Oxford this past August to finalize my registration to study there. Having applied this past winter to be a research fellow, I reported to the Clarendon building in my role as Scholar-in-Residence. The writing samples accompanying my fellowship application were drawn from La Vie Graphite. A life brought forward by a pencil.

Above: The Clarendon Building, University of Oxford, England.
Below: Research in the Bodleian Library, using one of my grandfather's pencils.

Clarendon, on Broad Street, is at the northern end of a double quadrangle at the core of the ancient Bodleian Library buildings. Throughout the month after arriving in Oxford, my steps threaded the stone arches of these quads, along with countless lanes, courtyards, and passages. This great opportunity, sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Foundation, permitted me to study the manuscripts of Lewis, and to live in his home, The Kilns. With my identification card, all of the many and varied reading rooms throughout the Bodelian Library’s system became available to me. These are the vast and deep resources (the tunneling Gladstone Link, beneath Radcliffe Square has two underground levels) that serve the entire University of Oxford. In addition to my programme of study with the Lewis archives, there was plenty of time to research and read portions of other collections of personal interest, such as in the Philosophy and Theology Faculties Library. Each search produces adventure. Indeed, there was also time to observe and write. There are many stories.

Bodleian Library, Oxford.

My journal was always close by (pencils only, in Special Collections, as well as in the hallowed Duke Humfrey’s Library). On occasion, looking up from tomes, handwritten documents, or even from a table of tea and scones, the idea of place and time came to mind. Pilgrimage sees the individual aperch on a wooden pier in Maine, as well as in a storied medieval library- and back again. Similar to my grandfather’s mechanical pencil, the soul becomes witness to many places and times. Looking up at wave upon wave of shelved books, interspersed by vaulting latticed windows, the significance and wonder of place and time began to appear unified with the continuum of pursuit. Strolling, visiting, and dining in the city of Oxford, meeting new friends, and returning home to The Kilns every day brought together the pursuits of inspiration, knowledge, and improvement. And needed respite.

At The Kilns, C.S. Lewis' home.

Remembering the cycles of creation as advancing and returning, spreading and recollecting- or as Eriugena described in the Periphyseon: division and resolution- the many facets of these travels are more clearly seen in retrospect. There are numerous photographs and notes to add to my digestion of my sojourn in Oxford, followed by a return journey to Wales. True to any pilgrimage, these experiences and impressions have surely had their effects, though in time I will be able to delineate them. For the time being, I’ve resumed the place and time I’d interrupted so that I could inhabit other places and times, and the present is now something entirely different.