Tonight, I took a break from writing my final papers (all five of them) in order to play the guitar. I found a couple websites with chords for some of the songs that were most important to me when I was 12 and 13, a lifetime ago: Child ballads, sea shanties, the liberation-themed drinking songs of the Jacobite rebellions. I know these songs well enough that I’m not just limited to strumming rhythmically—I can sing the complicated alto and tenor melodies in tune and audibly, and sing them I did, alone in my room to myself. Visions flashed before my eyes: listening to Silly Wizard sing Jacobite songs on my old CD player that skipped in time to the bumps in the road when I sat in the very back of the school bus the year I lived in Massachusetts. Buying the two-disc Pentangle album Light Flight in a department store in London, then the lengths my mom went to in ordering a replacement from overseas when our car was broken into and the first copy was stolen. The sea shanties I sang as my sister and I spun and danced through the grass in my grandparents’ backyard in Canada. The fictional characters whose lives sprang out of these songs like holograms out of a projector, and who became more real to me and more constant companions in my life than any of the kids my age into whose social lives I had such difficulty integrating. Those were the days when I read for pleasure—trashy Celtic romance novels and Robert Louis Stevenson. Those were the days when I wrote fiction. Those were the days when my teachers gave up correcting my stubbornly British spellings; the days when I’d wear a dress one day and a doublet and knee-breeches the next. And dear god, how I miss those days, when the dress code was strictly 18th-century and I didn’t have to worry about sex or love or how to pay the bills. When I helped my classmates with their Latin translations or their math homework and didn’t have to worry whether I was good enough for grad school. When, if I ever needed a way out, there was a book or a song or a costume drama to provide it.
The last time I was in England it was 2003, right at the peak of this faraway long-lost Anglophilic child’s paradise, and so naturally as I begin to make my plans for next academic year—when I’ll be spending six or seven months in the mother country—I find my thoughts turning there again. Now a cynical 20-year-old with one ear turned towards politics and another towards cultural history, I feel as if I have a more realistic sense of what England means now than I did seven years ago, when I imagined it as a land of Sassenachs somewhere between the Child ballads and Monty Python. And yet the more I learn about Oxford, and about what it will be like to be a student there for six months, the more I find myself invested in a fantasy of Oxford that I not only can’t wait to find in England, I seek to create wherever I am. Oxford means monastic scholarship, and having all the time in the world to do the work you need to do; it means lingering over dining-hall meals; it means long walks in the sunshine and punting on the river; it means beer in dimly-lit pubs. Aside from the constraints of the U.S. drinking age, springtime in Princeton is always, I believe, a chance to make it become fantasy-Oxford: I sprawl on the grass and read in the sunshine; I keep reasonable hours and make steady progress writing essays in the library; I linger at the dinner table, in my friends’ rooms, in my professors’ offices, in the hopes (usually fulfilled) that someone will say something interesting. And I try to put away my fears of the future—whether that’s how the hell I’m going to manage the logistics of putting my life in boxes for the summer, or how I’m going to find a direction in which to take my thesis research, or what I will do with my life in two years with a bachelor’s degree behind me. These are the ugly things—and I have no intention of letting them intrude on my Part-I-of-Brideshead-Revisited idyll. Come a week from Monday, I will have only two years left of university—and if your university career doesn’t look like Arcadia, I mean, what’s the point?
I jest, of course. But Anglophilia past, present, and future reminds me how uneasy I have always been with living entirely in the real world, and how comforting and inner-light-bringing I find my fantasy lives to be when I am far away from the people and the places I call home. When I was little, I wrote my imaginary friends into the routines of my life; so, too, when I bounce from coast to coast and country to country this summer, and move to another country for half of next year, will I imagine that my biological and Princeton families are there with me.
Two decades, half a college education, and still I am so frighteningly far from either understanding myself or being the person I want to be. Still I come away from those conversations where I linger and curse myself for my ignorance or my rhetorical clumsiness, wondering why anyone wants to spend time with a dork like me. And I suppose it is—and always will be, as it always has been—in the life that blossoms alone, late at night in some bedroom I call home, that all that insecurity matters naught, that my imaginary friends reassure me that I have the panache I crave, and that I can still be a scholar—even if on the inside I never grow out of being a dorky mixed-up 12-year-old.