My Take Aways from Oxford: Memories to cherish in lockdown life
Final-year Modern Languages student, Madeleine Davies-Brown, remembers both the high and lows points of student life, while sharing her 'take aways' from Oxford.
When Hilary came to an end, I felt like I had been plucked from a life I loved, surrounded by bustle and friends, and suddenly dropped into the deep end on my own. None of us knew when life would return to normal, and while worrying about the health of the nation, I was also concerned for my mental health – the isolation sounded unsettlingly similar to darker times in my life, and indeed lockdown can feel like a sinkhole. On the last Saturday of term, my best friend suddenly booked a last-minute flight to the country she feared she wouldn’t be able to get home to, and I saw our last Trinity term in Oxford go with her. Like many finalists, some of my time in lockdown has been spent mourning the send-off we had all envisaged and coming to terms with a new way of sitting exams and saying goodbye to our home in St Hilda’s.
The first few weeks of lockdown were admittedly difficult. The world hit the pause button at a time of great transition, and suddenly, retrospectively tedious worries about finding a job were replaced with much more important ones nationwide. I grappled with putting various words on paper but the feeling was just an empty space where words should be. Without a goodbye to the life I had in Oxford, it did not feel like a new beginning, but rather an endless extension of this strange present we are all living in. Revising for finals meant guarding my mind on so many fronts – what if I find myself equally as isolated when the world outside is moving again? What if things don’t work out with finding a job and new friends? What if I can’t cope with lockdown? But I am impressed with my transition out of the vibrant Fulford flat, full of colourful laughs, into a quiet existence in Chorley. I am trying to simply continue onwards without constantly wrestling with futility – do I really need to wash my hair today? What does one more day of cereal and tortellini mean in the middle of a global pandemic? In a way, old worries slipping away in place of new ones has taught me that a lot of our concerns, particularly our loneliness, is relative, based solely off what everyone around us is doing and how much we feel we ought to be doing the same. These days, I try to focus on the here and now to stay strong: I let myself sleep for as long as I need to, scour Solo for revision material outside at my little garden table, and then fall asleep again in the evening, watching Desperate Housewives.
There are still days when missing Oxford hits like a tonne of bricks. My time there was not done, it was only just beginning; my first two years were a personal battle, and only in my fourth year did I really stop to breathe it all in. When the sun shines and I am lucky enough to enjoy it from my garden, I can’t help but wish I was basking alongside the Cherwell that runs directly through college. The warm breeze sends me back to first year Trinity when my friend and I would sunbathe and swim between prelims. It was a difficult term, but they are pockets of light in the darkness. I had often felt that those years had a lot to answer for, but now I am only sorry that I wasn’t able to appreciate it for another term. When I write about Oxford, I think of the city’s spirit, the way it looks beautiful in sun and snow, with blossom and with crimson leaves. Every corner is magnificent, but my sweetest moments always struck me cycling the side streets and free-wheeling home down High Street – waiting at the traffic lights on Magdalen Bridge and catching the sun setting behind Magdalen Tower.
Far more than I expected to, I miss my college bedroom. I miss falling asleep reading in daylight and wake up a couple of hours later to darkness pouring in through the wide-open curtains. The windows framed the blurry glow from the passing headlights and streetlamps down Iffley, pooling warm puddles on the pavement. I could always hear each car that passed without exception. They were my personal clock – a car, nothing, nothing, nothing, a car – must be about 6am. Usually I would go to close the curtains, to shut out the world I was too groggy to be a part of, and see people running laps on the outdoor track across the road. There was something relaxing about watching them when all I could hear were car engines. I would imagine the faraway sounds, panting and running feet, and imagined how it must feel to be hot and sweaty in the chilling spring air. The feeling of being far removed from the earth would fade with each lap, but in lockdown, it’s sometimes as though I’m trapped in those moments immediately following an impromptu afternoon nap, and I’m still waiting for somebody to put me back. Memories like this enter my head in fragmented stills – a sunny afternoon here, a smile there – and I try to watch them back in the same way I would watch the sleepy traffic.
Paradoxically, I feel particularly connected to Oxford. I can smell it in grass clippings and the distinct breeze that swept over the Cherwell, I can hear it in the cheesy throwback playlists we’d play on loop in Christ Church Meadows. I can feel it in those first moments of waking up and those long exasperating evenings screaming into my laptop. These are not just memories; they are vivid tableaus. They are four years of turbulence preserved in fragments of time. My four years here have demanded everything from me and they’ve given an awful lot back. In this city, I have loved and I have been hurt, I have learned and discovered and grown. And, even when it felt like the furthest thing from it, Oxford has been my home since October 2016 – through the good, the bad, the absolutely horrendous, and the utterly amazing. Oxford is a city that has seen me fall apart but it is also the place where I built myself up, and both parts of that are equally important to the person I will be graduating as. We have to find a new way to close the chapter, but if I could have hit the pause button to absorb it for a while longer, I would have. I hold on to the little moments when I would look around the room and realise how lucky I was: it’s 4am, we’re all holding hands and singing Circle of Life, and I feel whole; or it’s 11pm, Hilda’s just won the much-coveted Cuppers trophy for the first time ever, the bar is alive, people are on chairs, tables, shoulders, and in that moment we are all champions. These are my take-aways from Oxford: not the online exams or German irregular verbs, but the nights in which I felt alive, free, loved.