It was all Lanier Ivester’s fault. She was the one who had gotten me into this mess. She was the one to blame. Well, okay, fine, to be entirely truthful, my predicament could also be pinned on Sally Clarkson. Those two temptresses had gotten me into this mess. I was alone, in a strange country, and afraid of what would happen next.
I was in the middle of an unfamiliar neighborhood that could accurately be described as “Dursley-ish”—tattered streets and drawn curtains, a pot-holed road winding through beige tract houses. I had taken the city bus, exited a stop too early, and was now all alone, lost, and wandering suburban Oxfordshire.
It was just after Hutchmoot two years ago. I had mentioned to Lanier and Sally that I was spending a couple of weeks in England for both work and familial obligations, but that I had three days to myself and was excited to visit my favorite spots in London again.
“You should visit Sarah up in Oxford if you have the time,” Sally suggested. “Have you ever been?”
“No,” I said. “I haven’t.”
“Oh, John Cal, you must must go,” Lanier implored, “It may be too late in the season to go punting, but it’s the perfect setting for a bottle of champagne.”
“Eh, I dunno.” I replied skeptically. “Last time I was in London, I missed Harry Potter World and wanted to spend more time in shopping at Harrods.”
But they pleaded, and told me about the easy bus ride, the Evensong, and even where I could find a cheap dorm room to spend the weekend. But now I was lost.
I’ve been known to be the kind of person that is underwhelmed by life. I’m not sure if it’s my cynical nature, my personal baggage, or that I grew up in Hawaii. When paradise is the touchstone of normality that you measurably compare the rest of life to, you’re bound to be at least somewhat disappointed.
I saw the eclipse a few months ago. It was okay. I like dogs fine, but don’t care much for the cuteness of puppies. For five years, I lived in a cabin in the woods on the shores of Big Lake, at the foot of majestic Mount Washington. I could see the lake’s glassy visage from my bedroom window.
“You didn’t tell me it was so beautiful here,” my friend Ben Yancer said when he came to visit, Cannon SLR in hand.
“Oh, sorry. I forgot.”
Even Pete Peterson, when deciding to move Hutchmoot to Christ Community Church, was so elated to have me see the new luxurious kitchen I’d be making supper in. “It’s fine,” I said when he took me on the tour a month ago.
“Fine?” he asked, bewildered.
“Yeah. It’ll work okay.”
I had taken the bus to tour the Kilns, the C. S. Lewis estate, and was so confused that it was in such a normal neighborhood. This was not Narnia or Professor Kirk’s country estate. This was normal, and normal is not what I signed up for.
I ambled up a side street and finally found the house. Okay, I thought in my snobbery, this was slightly better than the houses that surrounded it, and after finding the front door, I was greeted by what I’d find out later was a tour volunteer telling me I was twenty minutes too early, and no, there was nowhere inside the house I could wait. The cold exterior dampness would have to do.
“You could go walk around the pond out back,” she offered.
A pond, great, I thought.
“It’s been saved as a nature preserve,” she said, “and quite peaceful. Just be careful in the mud,” she called as I made my way to a rickety old gate.
I was in a foul mood after the bus ride and getting myself lost. I would go to an Evensong later, an evening Anglican worship service full of liturgy and singing. I would have a drink in the Eagle & Child, and sit in the other Rabbit Room while texting Eric Peters and Andrew Peterson, trying to find the hidden ledger that Rabbit Roomers are supposed to sign. I would hear the music and inhale a pint of ale. My soul would be soothed—eventually—but as for now, I was having none of it.
The pond was muddy, and wearing dress shoes to set myself apart from the “regular tourists” seeing the Lewis estate didn’t help. It was wet and cold, and after five minutes of seeing all I needed to, I found a bench and sat to bide the rest of my time in purgatory.
I was so tired from the red-eye the night before that my eyes closed in protest. In the darkness, I began to hear birds singing, and felt the wind’s pleasant chill across my face. In my mind’s eye there was a fox coming up from behind a nearby fallen tree, and squirrels passing notes to the dryads. “Narnia,” I whispered.
I could imagine Lewis sitting there, near the pond that was once his, that has since been surrounded by housing developments; and it would be easy for us to picture him mourning the loss of the estate he loved and built, but then again, “It was never about Narnia,” he writes. We must learn what Aslan is called in the reality of our own world.
The eventual tour was wonderful and soothing, but it truly was after Evensong, that my soul was satiated. There was a beautiful solo by what seemed to be a college-aged gentlemen—grace and, of course, light, which is the poultice I use for most of what ails me. After the service, however, I saw the same man running the courtyards of the church, his choir robes slung about to reveal the t-shirt and cargo pants beneath. He was at the doors of the campus getting his kebab take away, before what I suppose was a night filled with studying for his engineering exams. The image of fantasy, of imagination and expectation, collided again with reality.
Hutchmoot is over tomorrow, but once you’ve left, I promise Aslan is waiting there for you too, though you may have to learn him by his other names. Our expectations of what something is, and could be often get the best of us; and I would like to be clear that I believe imagination is so important, to believe there is something more, something bigger than what we can see. But the images are meant to spur what happens in our . . . realities.
So, in honor of Lewis, Chicken Tikka Masala, Naan, and Chutney, and Raita. It’s not perhaps, what we imagine, but these too are real British foods. I hope that the reality of these tastes will allow you courage to face the beautiful realities of your everyday life. I know . . . it’s not the Kilns, or the Eagle and Child. It’s not an Evensong, and it is surely not Hutchmoot, with it’s ever ready community, and comfort, and peace.
But we were only ever brought here so we could go back there, back home, with perhaps a little more courage.
So courage, courage dear ones. We are all between the paws of the one true Aslan.
A “John of all trades,” John Cal works as a writer, speaker, chef, and baker, but he also dabbled as an event planner, programming director, dance aerobics instructor, and professional ukuleleist, before accidentally managing to get himself roped into cooking for Hutchmoot for years on end. A bowtie and postcard enthusiast, John recently spent a year ambling the country with his Clumber Spaniel, Lucy in a vintage 13’ Scamp Trailer and is working on an essay collection about his travels.