Closure is a tricky thing.
Attaining it for unrealized dreams even more so.
More years back than I’d care to think about, I had the unbelievable good fortune of studying abroad at Oxford University. It was the actualization of a dream I didn’t know I had, and the entire experience was a rare case of the right people coalescing at the right place at the right time in our lives. In that one short Michaelmas term I finally realized I’m actually pretty smart, met people I have a good chance at being friends with for the rest of my life, and began my love affair with Britain. More importantly, I found my potential amidst the cobbled streets, between the musty books, and in the never-ending cycle of papers to write.
Oxford, the university, the town, the people there, all became a symbol of the best I could be. The workload was the heaviest any of us had ever experienced, but I got through it – I kicked its ass actually – and made fantastic grades. I left my comfort zone not only academically, but socially too. I went out and drank, danced, and came home at all hours- something I’d never done before, or even much since. I developed a massive schoolgirl crush on one of my tutors and played at flirting with him through oh-so clever quips about human sexuality in Rosseau’s state of nature. I embraced the spontaneity that my type-A self generally can’t fathom; throwing a handful of clothes in a bag, jumping in a car, and road tripping through an unfamiliar country with friends. Hell, just not seeing my family for months on end was diversion for me.
Everything was different in Oxford. I was different.
At the end of term, for the first time, I felt ready to grow up; to let this way more awesome version of myself become the future me. I left Oxford feeling in control of my life, my future, and comfortable in my own skin.
Too bad that person only existed in Oxford.
I had another year left in college and it was so dreadfully dull and stupid I pretty much stopped bothering to go to class. I’d spent an entire term learning to think for myself instead of merely babbling back verbatim the professor’s personal opinion, and readjusting just pissed me off. I could skip entire weeks of class and still half-ass my way to an A. I was bored. Everything was wrong. I was a petulant little shit.
I just wanted to go back.
Over the years, after college, and in grad school, especially as I began working full time, all I wanted was to go back. I’d dream of applying for a graduate program at Oxford, and when I was at my lowest I’d spend hours looking at all the different field of studies that piqued my interest. I had the grades. I could pull together the recommendations. I could do it. I could be that person again. I could live in the glorious edge of having potential and fulfilling it, where all that mattered is the pursuit of knowledge.
It was a beautiful possibility.
The programs were my academic wet dream- I could bury myself in political philosophy for years. I could spend all the money I’ve saved while working on a self-indulgent brain-gasm. My friends who were still in academia encouraged me constantly, my mother said do it, and my dad, ever the rationalist, said “And what kind of job are you going to get with that degree?”
He was right.
It was entirely impractical. I’d be pursuing something that would make me unbearably happy, but what other point would it serve? Get a MA, then stick around for the PhD and hope to find a college that had enough funds to still have a political philosophy program in the recesssion? Unlikely. Throw all that money at it then return to marketing to make real money again? Pointless.
But oh how it called to me.
It was my go-to escapist fantasy. The world sucks and I can run away to a world where all I have to rely on is my brain, living in my favorite place on earth, going out for drinks and dancing in a place I feel safe…God it was a glorious dream and I cherished it.
Five years after I left Oxford, I returned.
This time as a tourist, without my proverbial key to the kingdom (ie Bodleian library card). I still remembered it like the back of my hand and I walked around like an annoying old fart reminiscing about the good old days, “Well I used to go to…” and “This is the best kabob van in town,” and “Oh that’s where we used to…” boring my traveling companions to tears.
Walking around Oxford was live action scrapbook. All the memories, inside jokes, and stupid stories came back, but with a veneer of nostalgia instead of connection. I wasn’t attached to it any longer, no matter how desperately I had wanted to be, and seeing the students graduating and the fireworks over the city celebrating, for the first time I didn’t think, “This could be mine.”
The time had passed for it to be a reality.
There were new students, new inside jokes, new places to haunt, and none of them could ever have been as glorious as my memories of the times and people who had shared them with me. I could also never be that person again. Too many years, too many grown-up experiences had hardened the youthful naivety that gave me the courage to mine the depths of my self-indulgent passions.
It had been an incredible dream but it was finally time to let it go. To let it be someone else’s and to find new ones that were perhaps a little more realistic, a little more practical, and a lot less escapist. I’ll probably always remember sitting in O’Neills last summer, where I had spent my very first night in Oxford, and realizing that the memories were finally just the past.
Oxford was a place I could greet as a long lost friend, instead of a reminder of what could have been.
I felt grown-up again in that moment, again ready to let go, to move forward. It was a powerful realization to know I finally had the closure to admit that my academic career was over. I’ll never be 21 again. Admitting that and finally realizing that growing up is just as much not getting your heart’s content and closing doors as it is opening new ones, made me realize maybe I’m finally ready to grow up.
But don’t test me, because if you handed me that acceptance letter I’d probably be gone before you blinked.