Breathing space

So, no one’s saying Oxford is claustrophobic except your Tutor who insists on prescribing regular walks through Port Meadow. But whatever the diagnosis, it is intense and we have to remember, as we go about our ‘elitist’ Oxford lives, that it’s not all about the living, it’s about finding the space to breathe and appreciating the greatness of simply being alive.

It’s about finding the space to breathe

When Trinity closed her golden gates on us, there was a prolonged ‘lump in throat’ period in which I, amongst others, led a precarious existence in a kind of post-prelims purgatory that consisted of morning and afternoon trashings, celebratory lunches and river dips galore. But it was never going to last. Judgement day reared its ugly head and I reluctantly stuffed clothes, bedding and an assortment of unidentifiables into my suitcases, breaking zips and straps in a literal manifestation of the emotional wrench felt as I tore myself from Trinity term, taken aback by what to me felt like a sudden and merciless eviction.

I made it home. Home. (I hear you breathe a sigh of relief as the titular statement seems imminent and the drag-of-an-article seems close to its climax and end.) “Ahhh, where there is space to breathe!” you cry victoriously. But I don’t agree. Surrounded by pedantic parents (a militarian father or maybe a vegetarian mother); a few underactive older, or hyperactive younger, siblings; perhaps a frantic football fanatic or an annoyingly exemplary eat-clean freak (pick ‘n’ mix as you so wish, or, as the case may be, not): Yes, there’s more, but still not quite enough, breathing space.

Here, however, there is.

PHOTO/Jenny Rowe
PHOTO/Jenny Rowe

At the top of The Old Man of Coniston in Cumbria I felt alive.

Enduring a dangerously high rate per minute, heart pumping, calves and quads throbbing: your breath cuts raggedly and embarrassingly rapidly through the silent hills. You reach the summit, though, you were always going to.  Chin tilting toward the skies, away from the rocks and mosses and their ankle-twisting abilities that you’ve been ardently dodging…

[There are moments in which living becomes insignificant and just being trumps all. Financial, educational, professional- all materiality ceases to exist.]

…you pause.

PHOTO/Jenny Rowe
PHOTO/Jenny Rowe

You experience that intake-of-breath-that-instantly-soothes-your-screaming-lungs moment, or that looking-around-you-with-the astonished-expression-of-a-newborn-baby-at-the-(excuse the paradox)’breath-taking’- view moment. As transient as these are they contribute to what James Joyce would have named an ‘epiphany’, or Edgar Allan Poe the ‘dénouement’: the feeling produced by a story that is framed by ‘peripheral narrative details’. (In other words, the biographical specifics of your Oxford education, careering life ambitions or overdraft statements of your savings account are thoughts that dominate the majority of your waking, and probably sleeping, day- simply what our very own Catcher in the Rye would reject as ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap.’)

But the clouds part, the sun beams hit your face. And you remember, not that always-talked-about-but-never-arranged coffee date with an old friend; your summer resolution to run every day (in what world!?); impending summer retakes: but what really matters.

The clouds part, the sun beams hit your face

Like the fact that, in the same way that the Underground in London, or the Metro in Paris, works incognito to supply their respective cities with means to operate: day in, day out, your heart has been an unceasing and unappreciated force pumping energy and endless possibility into your life. Don’t take anything for granted.

I’m not saying that Oxford, or your home, like a parched leech sucks your appreciative faculty dry. Just that this hustle and bustle distracts from the ‘bigger picture’.

Sometimes all we need is a bit of ‘breathing space’. Enough to alter our perspective in order to see what lies at the top of that Utopian hierarchy of well-being. It is only by coincidence that to reach this metaphorical pinnacle I literally had to climb to another.

‘Utopia’ is everywhere

Derived from the Greek ‘ou’, meaning ‘no’, and ‘topos,’ meaning ‘place’ Utopia (idealised still further than Thomas More’s) is the ultimate, unreachable destination of man. But as Wallace Stevens once said ‘the imperfect is our paradise’. ‘Utopia’ is everywhere, not nowhere, but you have to remember to recognise it. Or rather to remember how fortunate you are to be alive and well, to be anywhere at all.

Breathing space can just help you on your way.

PHOTO/Jenny Rowe
PHOTO/Jenny Rowe

NB Although you were warned about the ‘deep’ nature of my aimless musings, it’s less about submersing yourselves, and more about surfacing and taking that breath. That breaking-the-surface-and-drawing-in-the-clean-pure-air moment.