The most idealistic I have ever felt was the summer I turned 21 in a small but famous city called Oxford. I was there to take a class on Victorian literature and essentially enjoy the benefits of taking an Oxford course without actually having to take an Oxford course. It was my first brush with the culture of the ancient empire that spawned the inception of my own home country. It seemed the city, imprinted with the ideas of the brightest minds in history, was built for learning. It was possible to sit where C.S. Lewis once sat and get a pint of beer. Of course, there were papers to be written and criticisms to be read, but mostly it was a time of late sunsets and long walks in grassy meadows and Pimms filled to the brim with cut strawberries. I met many people. The locals kept telling us that the warm summer nights were unusual and wouldn’t last, but they did—all summer long.
When I returned to Duke, I tried desperately to hold the entire experience and all I had learned close to me. I put up photos on my wall, read a lot of Emily Dickinson and tried to see the best in people. If I had a bad day, I would put on some Hot Chip and dwell on better times. But the familiar faces and places kept slipping away into that obscurity where forgotten memories go. Oxford became something more than a place; it became something to strive for. I was determined to go back.
A year later, I did. I was working in London, in an internship I had found after months of cold-calls and emails. I took the X90 north-west with my best friend and watched the green grass roll past. My heart was pounding. Then we were on High St and all of it was right there. A strange pain settled in my chest. Still there were the tourists in their chattering masses and the beige, towering walls. Still there was the busker who sang Fleetwood Mac. Still there was the coffee shop that I had loved with all my caffeinated heart. But the faces behind the counter were foreign to me. Where there once had been construction was now a shiny set of stairs. I gathered the courage to ask about the barista whom I had befriended a year ago. The new girl shook her head and told me he had moved to Germany.
Here’s the thing about time: it stops for no one. The city had stayed much the same, but each little change that I had not lived through was a tiny adjustment that pushed it further away from me. I had thought that I could recreate the memory of a place. But being there was like being in someone else’s dream. It was not my Oxford anymore. The old faces, the old friends, they had taken their own parts of Oxford and they had moved on. I still loved the city with its endless pubs and romantic atmosphere, but now it was only just a place to me, albeit a place with too many good memories. Time had been passing all along, and I had not been living it in real time. I had been living in the promise of something else: a time and place that simply no longer existed.
Our experience of time can be a powerful coping mechanism. As I begin my senior year, I am reminded all the more of how frightening it is to not know what is ahead. It is tempting for me to live in the glow of good times in order to get over this. But of course, it is possible to live in the past so deeply that it consumes you. Places are air-brushed, people are idolized, and we think about could-haves and should-have-beens. In itself, that is not bad, but to live in the past is to inescapably exist with fragments of regret.
Should we live in the promise of the future then? This is something we at Duke are particularly good at. We often plan our futures out to each scheduled hour, leaving very little doubt about what comes next. Foresight is an amazing knack. If there are goals to achieve and dreams to attain, living this way is the path to success. However, it inevitably robs us of a little of the novelty of living in the immediate present. It rests on the idea that, one day, we can stop the ceaseless striving because we will have fulfilled our ambitions. It suggests that the events of our lives are not only predictable but controllable. I don’t know if that is true.
The past doesn’t have to color every decision we make. The future does not necessarily have to be known for happiness to be found. Why had I been so happy at Oxford? I suppose the irony of it dawned on me after I had thought over it some. That summer was the closest I had truly been to living in present time. I was happy at Oxford because I never knew what was around the corner. I was happy because the things I had done in the past did not matter. What was important was the day-to-day—the books I was reading and the sun in the mornings and the people I encountered. Things made sense, for a brief time, because it felt as if I was living exactly as I was supposed to. It’s how I imagine it’s supposed to be when you are young and naïve and the world is still tender, still undiscovered, still fresh. And we are. And it is.