Monday, 28 April 2014

XII. A New Chapter—A Novel Opportunity

Twelve is a special number for me. A magical one. Not just because I was born on the 12th of April, but also because it appears in so many other contexts: time (twelve hours on a clock, twelve months in a year), religion (twelve apostles), and food (twelve eggs in a dozen) are just a few examples. I believe in coincidences. And I've known that regardless of its topic, this chapter would be special. I hope you will agree.

Many momentous life events have occurred since my last chapter. I graduated from Columbia in May 2012, and plunged into not one, but two real jobs: first at Pearson Education, then at a boutique media agency in Manhattan called 10 Speed Labs (they could not have been more different). Last August, I made the big decision to pursue the Masters in English Language at Oxford.

There was literally no transition between any of these momentous events: I began work at Pearson the Monday after graduation (which had been on a Wednesday), before which I moved back to New Jersey for a few days; I moved back into New York the following week. I left Pearson on a Friday and began work at 10 Speed the following Monday; I was still wrapping up 10 Speed threads the day before I departed for Oxford (my flight was at 8am in the morning—I began packing at 9pm and slept at most 30 minutes).

Returning to Oxford was one of the most difficult choices I have ever faced, as everything was going quite well at 10 Speed; my learning curve was far steeper than it had been at university. I sensed, however, that I wanted to expand my possibilities even further—I was not ready to settle down, and I did not want to live in New York City for much longer. I yearned to return to Oxford, the place where I had felt so much at home, and where I had experienced the most personal growth. It was a #nowornever decision, as I would not apply again—and were I to refuse the opportunity, I would probably spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened had I accepted it. Ultimately, it was a gut feeling.

I know it was the right decision. I have found happiness here, a greater happiness than I had ever found in New York. I have found my muse again. And something that I had previously deemed impossible (indeed, unthinkable) is now possible—I have an opportunity to stay here, for at least the next three years. But more on this in a later chapter, as it is not set in stone.

Needless to say, 2012 and 2013 were years of big changes, and 2014 has been momentous on a whole new level, even though it is not even halfway over yet. In the past three years I have had more personal and professional growth than I had in all the years leading up to 2012. And it is still just the beginning; there is so much more growth to be had.

This chapter was supposed to focus on New York. It was meant to be a testament to the city of all cities, in all of its maddening magnificence and magnificent madness (we had a true love-hate relationship). I even had the perfect title: "New York, I Love—and Hate—You." I have already written at least half of the chapter, detailing all of the incredible new experiences I had, all of the exceptional people I met, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, and all of my apartment crises. I meant to publish this over my winter vacation, but because I chose to embark on a spontaneous trip to the Continent (visiting ten cities in five countries over six days), I was unable to do so.

This chapter will not be about New York City. Those words do not feel right, at least not for this very moment. It would be too artificial. Something even more momentous has happened, and it has consumed me over the past two weeks. It is still consuming me right now, and it is the direct source of my words. I have been writing again, more than I have written in a very long time. Pages and pages and pages of words, both typewritten and handwritten (scribbled onto Post-its, notepads, loose sheets of paper—anything I could find at the moment in which they surfaced in my mind). And now I have finally made the time and space to organise them and share them with the world.

My New York City lifestyle does, however, presage what has happened. I will even begin with an NYC allusion: last summer, I remember seeing a construction sign across the street from Bryant Park (in front of 475 Fifth Avenue), and feeling the words on it resonate with me: "A new chapter. A novel opportunity." It is the title of this entry because it encapsulates where I am in life right now. Never before have I felt these words to be so true.

Of all the chapters I have written thus far, this one is the most risky—even more so than Chapter VII. The words that I am about to share make me feel highly vulnerable and exposed, to others and to myself. Perhaps I am revealing too much. Then again, that is the tenor of this entire blovel. If I hid any important detail, it would not feel right. Everything I am about to write feels right.

I want my story to serve as an example, both for myself and for other people. I want it to raise awareness of what we have, and to prevent us from making similar mistakes. I am a leader, after all, and this is leading through failure. In the words of John Quincy Adams, "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader." Leadership is about giving and sharing—it is not about telling others what to do, but more about telling others what you have done (both the successes and the failures).

Ever since my last chapter, I've been afflicted with this condition, this habit of "action" rather than "reaction." Call it carpe diem, YOLO, seizing the moment, or any other such phrase. What's important to note is that action is self-reinforcing—a vicious cycle, if you will, but I prefer not to use a term with such negative connotations, because I've had loads of fun, in the midst of all the madness. Moreover, my perception of what is possible has been expanded.

Ironically enough, I kept "doing" things with the very intent to write about them, but the more I did the more difficult it all was to digest. So much was happening; so much still is happening—a slow and steady (or, at times, fast and furious) accumulation of events, people, places, situations, feelings, experiences—accompanied by a veritable avalanche of jumbled thoughts and photographs and video clips that I haven't begun to sort through.

There is a healthy equilibrium between passivity and activity that must be established, and I need it back. The only solution is to write, and to write vehemently, with reckless abandon—anytime and anywhere. Hopefully with minimal sacrifice of sleep and health, although I must admit that I am my most productive in the wee hours of the morning. A classic case of Classical conditioning, perhaps? But one that can, and should, change.

Just as action begets action, words beget words. The creative cycle is self-reinforcing. And writing is my therapy. Writing makes me feel more human.

It is through writing that I have been able to reflect upon my hyperactive life, and even to classify myself. I am the Girl Who Wants Everything. I disregard the rule of two thirds (it is said that you can only have two out of three things: a social life, work, and sleep—or family, friends, and work). I desire the best of all the worlds. I will not even settle for three.

I am also a "maximalist." (As opposed to minimalist, which is how my friend Xandra defines herself.) I don't mean this in the political sense, but rather in the lifestyle (and general mentality) sense. I try to maximise everything: every microsecond, every word, every glance. This principle has driven me for as long as I can remember. But now I have taken it too far. It is impossible to have everything and keep all of it.

Over the past four months I have tried to balance an intense academic schedule (which reached the peak of intensity in February and March), a diverse range of extracurriculars, an equally diverse range of work opportunities and job applications, and a full-time relationship. I did not cancel any commitments; rather, the only sacrifice I made was sleep. I have had days on end of two to four hours a night, and did not recharge over the weekends. I found some time to rest over the winter vacation, but my spring vacation was completely overloaded: I helped out for an entire week at the Skoll World Forum, after which I plunged immediately into two weeks of teaching on the Seminar for Advanced English Studies course, which just ended.

Extreme sleep deprivation transforms you on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, even chemical. As Harvard neuroscientists have noted, it induces a state of psychosis. What makes it all the more frightening is that you often don't realise the extent of this change; you convince yourself that you have grown acclimated to sleeping less. The effects are not always obvious, especially if you are immersed in social environments (which provide an adrenaline rush) and regularly consume caffeine. Even if you do recognise that it is happening, you feel as if you cannot really control it, as it becomes a habit. But this is not an excuse: you can control when you sleep. You just have to cancel waking commitments.

I did not cancel these commitments. And in doing so, I jeopardised my own physical and mental health. In doing so, I lost the person who meant the most to me of all the people I have met in Oxford. It is over, completely and irrevocably—and I am no longer in denial. I have made many mistakes before, but this was one of the biggest. Perhaps even the biggest, because it has resulted in the greatest loss I have ever experienced—and because I hurt someone who genuinely cared about me. I was the most immature I have been in a long, long time. As a result of my words and actions, I lost him and I lost myself.

We met at just the right time. I had felt a strange sense of loneliness in December, perhaps due to the dismal weather. I craved companionship to the point where I wrote about this feeling in my private journal. The following evening, we met at a party. He was a friend of the hostess's friend; I was a friend of her friend. The situation could not have been more commonplace, but it also could not have been more extraordinary (due to our antipodal dispositions, and due to the timing). It was the collision of Irony and Circumstance.

I wasn't sure if I liked him at first; I certainly did not trust him. But I knew I had to give him a chance, because I really enjoyed our conversation. He is a remarkable listener—one of the best listeners I have ever met. I had planned to leave the party at 10pm due to lack of sleep and an exhausting day (I had been seven miles north of town for a two-hour interview that directly followed a full-day women's leadership development programme). I also had to begin reading for my essay due the following week, the first written submission for my Masters course.

But I stayed to talk to him, and completely lost track of time. We had an endless and incredibly wide-ranging conversation. I was delighted to hear that he was a Python developer, as it was the language I had been meaning to learn all year (it had in fact been one of my New Year’s resolutions). I was equally delighted to hear that he had lived in Oxfordshire all of his life. He seemed so calm and satisfied with his career, whereas I was not sure where mine was going—I had recently been rejected from an opportunity that I had thought would be perfect, and now had to assess other options. He was actually the first person I told about this.

Most of all, I was attracted to his eloquent and thoughtful manner of speech. I loved the sound of his voice. It was so soft, and yet so precise. It calmed me deeply and invigorated me simultaneously.

One thing led to another, and before I knew it we were in a relationship. We trusted each other. And now I have broken his trust completely. I was too careful—too defensive and self-protective—but also not careful enough. I didn't realise how lucky I was until it was too late. I took him for granted, just the way I took my family for granted. I treated him differently from the way I treat my friends; I showed him too much of my unrestrained self, and too soon. Like my parents and my sister, he saw the immature me as often as he saw the "normal" me—a girl who broke promises, threw temper tantrums over the most trivial of matters, and was highly unreliable. Ironically, the people you are closest to are at once the people you can hurt the most and the people you should take the greatest measures not to hurt. I completely disregarded this.

I am disappointed in myself. Last week I was consumed with guilt and regret, but I have realised that such feelings are counterproductive. I am channeling my guilt and regret into words, into reflections. They are not a panacea in themselves, as promises can be broken. In fact, they already have been. The words are, however, an important step in the processes of recovery and change. I know I can change, especially if I keep writing and publish my thoughts. It heightens my consciousness and propagates actions and shifts in my behaviour. Case in point: I have obtained between nine and ten hours of sleep each night this weekend, and I even had a spontaneous 90-minute nap on Saturday afternoon (I had thought that I was incapable of taking naps). Miracles do happen, and I already feel like a different person. I am no longer as upset as I was, or as plagued with guilt. My vision is clearer, both literally and figuratively.

When did the immaturity begin? It is difficult to pinpoint an exact moment, as in the early weeks of our relationship we did not meet up that often (I needed personal space), and I treated him with as much politeness as I treat my friends. I do remember, however, the first time I deliberately tried to hurt him—it was over a Google chat, on 12 January. Our conversation had been fine until I became absurdly critical about a very small thing: a comment he did not make about a picture of cats. It was a joke, but I escalated it out of proportion, and he did nothing to stop me. The entire time I was doing this I was aware that I should stop, and that I should apologise, but I could not. I sent him email reflections the next morning: "raw and unedited thoughts" that revealed a "fuller glimpse" of a part of myself that "thus far had not been revealed." He forgave me for this, but he did not go on Google chat for the next few days; because of my behaviour it became a sensitive and potentially dangerous medium. This was our first "argument."

Since that conversation, there were many more incidents. Some were silly, others more serious. They were all initiated by me and the things I said or did. He cooked me dinner for no particular reason one weekend, but I became very angry because it took longer than he had anticipated to prepare, so we were unable to go to a film screening. I yelled at him on another occasion for finishing a bottle of wine that he had bought for us earlier in the week (we could easily have gone out and picked up another bottle). I criticised him far more than I complimented him, especially with regard to his attire (in the early days of our relationship he even went out of his way to purchase new trousers and shoes). The criticism stuck, and the compliments were either forgotten or rendered less credible. I didn't tell him how attractive I found him. It is not just what I said and did: there were so many things I didn't say and didn't do. He, on the other hand, showered me with compliments and kindness—he often modified his schedule to accommodate mine.

One of the utmost signs of disrespect is being late. I was late to over half of the things we did together, sometimes by over an hour. He was hardly ever late, and never by more than ten minutes. When I was late, he never criticised me. When he was late, I often criticised him—one flagrant example of this was when he was ten minutes late to a comedy show I wanted to go to (it was in the city centre, two miles away from where he lives). Once he arrived, I told him that I was extremely unhappy and that every minute I waited had been excruciating, because I had so many other important things to do. Every microsecond of my time was precious, I said. I had left choir rehearsal early to be there. I had essay title deadlines and interviews the following week. During the entire show I sat as far away from him as possible. At the very end, as he walked me home (I forced him to do this), I repeated that the evening had been a disaster. He agreed with this and swallowed the blame.

But of course the other things I had to do could not have been more important. If I truly respected him, I would have cancelled them or left early without feeling any regret. His time is precious as well—he has to wake up by 8am every day to go to work; the comedy show had been on a weekday. I made the terrible mistake of valuing my time more than I valued his. Moreover, most of what we did during the week was in the city centre, near where I live; he had to travel a far greater distance. There was one week in which he came to meet me every day, both for various events and to help me learn the Twitter API, and stayed until past midnight on most days. He was making an extreme effort to see me, sacrificing sleep and perhaps even performance at work—an effort that I only mildly acknowledged with a few token thank yous, assuming that the time we spent together would justify everything. I did not even apologise for the criticism.

These incidences had an accretive effect, until they exploded in our first serious argument in early March. Before the argument, we met at an event near the centre of town, from which we headed to the movie theatre to see The Book Thief. He had been hesitant about going to the event, as he had a lot of work to do, but as he was working from home I told him to bring his laptop to the event and continue there, or over the weekend. He did so, but I myself was over an hour late and missed the presentation entirely. We left in the midst of the Q&A session, and I rushed him to the theatre—at one point even running a few metres ahead and encouraging him to run as well—and complained about the fact that we would probably be late. We arrived just on time; the previews were still running. We did not hold hands in the theatre. I cried during the film, due to its intensity, and felt even more emotionally drained.

As we left the theatre, he distanced himself from me. I sensed that something was wrong, and he quickly confirmed this: "I feel as if you have not appreciated me and have abused me verbally." I was so shocked by this statement that I could not respond. We walked back to my house in wavering silence; the tension was so heightened that it felt tangible. I was in denial that we were having our first serious argument—I had previously believed that this would be impossible—but soon accepted the situation and attempted to deal with it. My guard was up, I was unable to think clearly due to extreme fatigue, and my emotions were amok. I could not apologise; I was highly defensive. But deep down, I knew that there was a grain of truth in everything he said.

There was a moment of separation, in which he uttered the words I had believed to be unutterable. We were able to talk it out, however, and reconnected within an hour. Both of us cried because of how close we had come to complete collapse. It was the first time he had cried in many, many years. Our words and tears were enforced with physical actions. Our bodies still responded to and resonated with each other, despite how distanced our thoughts and emotions were. In fact, it was more intense than ever before.

Things were fine the next morning, apart from the fact that I almost fainted in the shower. Our relationship had been shaken, but it also felt stronger because we were able to overcome the argument. I felt an impulse to write about what had happened, to capture and reflect upon our moment of tension before the memories faded so that it would never happen again. I spontaneously wrote him a seven-page letter, preserving my thoughts directly on the page in their raw, unedited form.

The next day, I invited him to a debate at the Oxford Union and gave him the letter. I thought he would open it in a moment of privacy, but he read it straightaway; his eyes flew through the words. When he was finished, he looked over at me and squeezed my hand, as tightly as he had hugged me on the day we met. The following evening, he visited my house with his own token of apology—a small stuffed lamb. I was delighted by the gift, especially because it resembled his peaceful demeanour. We promised each other that we would try to build a future together.

Something changed after that evening. It was like a switch had been flicked on—I was more prone to crying at seemingly unpredictable moments. I cried myself to sleep on several nights the following week. But I also deliberately tried to forget what had happened—I used the letter as a means of forgetting; I thought that everything would be even more secure because I had written it. I convinced myself that the pain of our argument (and our brief separation) would prevent us from separating again. My awareness of my behaviour was raised, but I did not make any efforts to change it. In retrospect, the letter was like my attempt to plaster a small bandage over a gaping wound.

There were a few more incidents after the letter, but everything truly exploded over my birthday weekend. Immediately prior to this weekend, I was immersed for a full five days in the Skoll World Forum, which was one of the most inspirational and humbling experiences I have ever had. It was also one of the most intensive—I began my days at 7.30am and ended at midnight due to late-night screenings that I attended. I only slept an average of three hours per night for six nights in a row, partly due to time-sensitive emails I sent after I returned home, and partly due to my decision to surprise him on his birthday with a cake and an album of all of our photographs.

I did not have time to recover on the evening before my birthday because I had registered for the Code First: Girls conference in London. As it began at 10am the following day, and as I had scheduled an important call at 9am, I had to wake up at six in the morning. The conference was supposed to end at 5pm, so I decided it would be nice to celebrate my birthday in London. I asked him to meet me at a special venue for dinner: sketch, an all-in-one gallery, bar, café, and restaurant designed with whimsy and elegance. I also made reservations for a private networking event in a hotel lounge later that evening. It would be the perfect celebration: artsy, sophisticated, and memorable. My expectations were higher than usual due to recent news I had received and due to the hours of research I had conducted to find the "perfect" place.

I was able to ignore my extreme fatigue during the conference, as the talks (all from women leaders in technology) were fascinating. At the networking reception afterward, I had a wonderful conversation with four other attendees. It was extremely difficult to pull away, even though I knew that I had to leave early to arrive at the restaurant in time. I texted him about being late, continued talking, and texted him again. I was so caught up in the conversation that I lost all sense of time—when I left the conference I knew that I would be delayed by an hour. When I finally found him at the restaurant I did not express my happiness at seeing him, nor did he express his irritation at having waited for so long.

From this moment onward, the negativity increased, and it was entirely propagated by me. I did not thank him for coming all the way from Oxford to dine with me in London (coincidentally his parents had met him in town to celebrate his birthday earlier in the day). I viewed everything through a veil of criticism: I did not like the fact that he did not order something substantive to eat, or the fact that he did not ask me if I wanted to share a bottle of wine. Because my expectations had been blown out of proportion, I was unable to appreciate the things that he did for me—all I could see was what he didn't do.

I excused myself to use the restroom, at which point I became acutely conscious of the fact that my body was physically breaking down from fatigue. It took me ten minutes to relieve myself. Small burning cuts had appeared on my hands from out of nowhere, and a big purple bruise had erupted on my right knee. What I needed most of all was rest—my body was visibly demanding it—but I would not be in bed until midnight at the earliest. I should have returned to Oxford directly after the conference (or cancelled my attendance in the first place).

When I returned to the table, the food and drink had arrived. The negativity continued: I was immediately upset by the fact that he had finished his beer, as I had wanted to have a toast. I was also irrationally upset by the fact that he had tasted one of the mushrooms on my salad—its integrity seemed to have been compromised. I even demanded that he order a new salad (thankfully he did not do this). To make the situation worse, his actual gift had not arrived yet. He presented me instead with a postcard and a butterfly pin. I thanked him but did not express any genuine gratitude.

At the hotel lounge, he asked if I wanted to share a bottle of wine but I was not in the mood for more than a glass. He joked that I was at once an angry woman and a little girl. Upon hearing these words, I immediately lashed out again—I took offense because they were true, and I did not want to acknowledge the truth. I was angry, angrier than I had been in a very long time, at a person who meant so much to me. On another level, I was frustrated with myself and my inability to stop my own madness, and this perpetuated the anger.

I began to cry. The tears grew more and more intense. I cried because I was crying, because I was upset on my birthday. I told him that it had been a perfect day until we met up and that I should have stayed at the conference. I even declared that he had ruined my birthday and that it was the worst celebration ever.

I demanded a birthday cake. It was outrageous that he had not ordered one at the restaurant. The lounge only had a bar, and there were no cakes on the menu. But I needed a cake, and I needed a candle in order to make a birthday wish, and it had to be before midnight.

Trying to make the most of the unfavourable situation, he told me to blow out the candle on the table. I obliged, begrudgingly. We left the hotel soon thereafter to return home. On our way to the bus station, I heightened the negativity of the evening by bringing up positive experiences I had had with other people. I mentioned my birthday celebration in Germany with particular detail, positioning it as the complete antithesis of our evening. I kept mentioning the birthday cake that would not happen on my actual birthday. I was deliberately trying to hurt him, and he was doing nothing to stop me.

The following morning seemed like a new beginning: we slept for eight solid hours, and the weather was glorious. On the surface, I appeared to be fine, but I was still highly sensitive; my body and mind needed more time to heal. I was missing at least forty hours of sleep from just the past ten days alone. I had not been outside of a social situation during that entire period. But the weather was sublime and we decided to go to Blenheim Palace, as originally planned.

Everything was perfect at first: we caught the bus just on time. We picked up a delectable lunch in Woodstock and saw all of the main rooms of the palace, as well as its exhibitions. Then we walked to the cascades because one of the guides had mentioned that it was the most iconic part of the grounds.

When we reached the waterfall, he noted that we should return to the bus stop soon to be back in time for my birthday dinner; I had arranged this celebration with our friends a week prior. I brushed aside his comment, fully immersed in the beautiful landscape. We sat down on a bench nearby for a few minutes, and walked back leisurely to the palace. We assumed a bus would come every half an hour, as that was the schedule for those from Oxford.

From this point, everything began to unravel. We discovered that the main gate was locked—and the bus stop was directly across from this gate. The location of the other exit was unclear, so we had to ask another visitor. It turned out to be a fifteen-minute walk from the main entrance. My fatigue slowed me down considerably. I was getting more and more worried about being late to my own birthday party, and did not have the phone numbers of all of the guests. My steadily mounting anxiety exploded when a dog came running in my direction from around a corner.

"Get away from me!" I screamed, leaping into the only direction away from the dog—directly into the street.

A white car was rapidly approaching. It stopped and swerved around me just in time. The driver looked terrified.

I quickly traversed the rest of the street. He looked at me in disbelief, and as if he did not recognise me. "You almost killed yourself."

I was unable to fully grasp how close I had come to death. My anxiety was still consuming me from the inside. We finally reached the bus stop, ten minutes after the bus had arrived—a bus he had seen as we were walking. The next one would not come for another hour, at which point I would be far too late for my dinner party.

I was at the pinnacle of my hysteria. I refused to let him use my phone to ring for a taxi (his had run out of battery). I began walking away from the bus stop in an attempt to escape the situation. After a few minutes, he came running after me to tell me that a family at the bus stop was also heading to Oxford and had called a taxi.

The taxi was fifteen minutes late. Every extra minute we waited was excruciating. I burst into tears. The negativity of the previous evening was coming back, and it was even more intense because other people would be affected—if I was not at the restaurant in time, my friends would show up, be confused, and eventually leave. It would be an unmitigated disaster, truly the worst birthday ever. The perfect day we had spent together was ruined.

My unreasonable behaviour continued during the taxi ride. I insisted on sitting next to him, at the expense of separating the father from his daughter. The verbal criticism and tears continued. I knew that I would be at least fifteen minutes late, even though he would only be a few minutes late and could explain the situation to everyone. I knew that as much as I might try to hide it, I would be in a dreadful mood, and that this would affect the tenor of the celebration. I was so consumed with negativity that I even accused him of wanting me to be run over by the car.

In the end, things were not as disastrous as I had expected. He went directly to the restaurant; I was able to go home and change into the dress I had prepared for the evening. I was only half an hour late. The conversation flowed freely and took interesting turns. His gift for me had coincidentally arrived that morning—a handmade periwinkle locket crafted by an artisan from the United States. It was truly one of a kind, a piece I would not be able to buy in any store.

He walked me home, but could not stay over because of work the next morning. I thanked him for everything and suggested that we meet again the following day to celebrate our four-month anniversary—and, more importantly, to talk about what had happened. He agreed that this would be important.

The following evening, he came over to my house after work. I myself had just finished my first full day of teaching, eight back-to-back lessons from 9am until 6pm. My guilt over my behaviour had mounted all day, but I was able to suppress it due to my hectic schedule. I knew that I owed him more than an apology—I had to demonstrate that I had fundamentally changed after the events of the weekend, and promise that I would never behave so inappropriately again. I wanted to tell him that I had realised what I needed was not only rest, but also privacy—more time to be alone and to reflect. I wanted to thank him for his overwhelming support and kindness in the face of my insanity.

Most of all, I wanted to tell him how much he meant to me. How he had made my birthday celebrations happen, rather than ruined them. How this had been the most memorable birthday I had ever had, and that I would have asked for nothing more. How I ultimately would have been happy just staying at home and cooking something simple (no cake was necessary); the most important thing was that he was there. The ironies of the whole situation were far too great. And it was entirely my fault—all I wanted to change was my own unacceptable (and unbearable) behaviour.

But it was too late. I knew it was too late when I met him at the gate, and he walked past me without so much as looking at me. I knew it was too late from his tone, which was detached and tinged with bitterness—a bitterness I had also detected in our first argument. I knew it was too late when he sat down, looked at me, and directly stated the words I had not even dared to think he would, or could, ever utter: "I'm breaking up with you. It's over."

Within microseconds, all of my thoughts—the thoughts I had so carefully structured in my head—shattered. I burst into tears. I blubbered a response. I refused to believe what was happening, even though it was undeniable. I knew I could not change his mind, at least not in the heat of that moment, but I could do nothing else but try.

He got up to leave. I could not let him. We struggled at the door. He told me again and again to let him go, but I could not. I grasped for words and blurted things I did not really mean.

The worst aspect of the situation was that he looked like he was in tremendous pain—far more pain than he had been in during our first argument. He was crying for the second time in many years. I finally realised the depth to which I had hurt him. I had hurt him so much that he turned against the person he had felt he could build a future with. The person into whom he had invested so much time and energy and passion. In exchange for his kindness, I had given him criticism and insanity.

Eventually he left. I could not struggle against the inevitable any longer. I had to let him go.

Now, however, I understand that this had to happen. He had no other choice. I would have made the exact same decision were I in his shoes, and I would have done it in the exact same way. Nothing I said could have changed his mind in the moment; I could not have made any promises. In fact, I violated the promise that I made in my previous letter, and thereby our trust: "I am going to be a lot more careful now. I will no longer be as open as I had been, with my thoughts and emotions. And perhaps it is for the best—no one can deal with the unadulterated me, with all of my insanity. Not even my family... I can no longer truly be myself and blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, even if I apologise afterward. I am too much of a monster sometimes and nobody in the world would be able to tolerate it indefinitely. Not even you."

Severe lack of sleep and being immersed in intensive conferences for six days in a row were only part of the cause. The other cause is deeply ironic—I was, in a sense, testing him. Part of me was deliberately trying to push him and find his limits, to see if he would be able to remain calm and stable and deal with me at my peak of insanity.

Why was I doing this? The answer is foolish yet simple: it was an act of self-defence. I have been hurt before, by people I had trusted too early, and I did not want to be hurt again. I wanted to make sure that he cared about me, so much that he would be able to temper my madness. I revealed a side to him that I have only ever revealed to my closest family members in the most stressful situations—not even to my closest friends. I did this because I wanted to protect myself.

But I was so blinded by my madness that I did not acknowledge the obvious, even after I had written it down: everyone has limits. His limits were far wider than those of most people, but they were not unbreachable. And I went too far. It was too much too soon. I said things that I did not truly believe, but only wanted to believe in the heat of the moment. The things I uttered became worse and worse, like a fire feeding upon itself. He, however, always dealt with me in the most gracious possible manner given the circumstances and my beyond irrational behaviour.

Little did I know that due to all of the commitments I had made for April, I would have no time to rest over spring vacation. The personal time and space I had carved out for myself in late December was something I ended up neglecting over the past four months. I have been far too active, too perpetually immersed in social situations. I sought experiences for the sake of seeking experiences, and not always for the experiences in themselves. I have not had any alone time for many, many weeks. I have not had time to stop, rest, recover, and recharge (both physically and mentally). I have not had time to be passive, which is essential to the maintenance of health—and for writing.

Until I met him I had a one-week rule: I could not see anyone, not even people I was dating, more than once every seven days. Meeting more frequently seemed to be logistically impossible, given the number of people I saw and all of the things I did. He broke that rule. He made me change my rhythm—a feat I would have deemed impossible before I met him.

In retrospect, I should not have made as many plans with him as I did over the past several months. I should not have committed to as many extracurriculars as I did, or attended as many events. I wasn’t ready for a full-time relationship, due to my academic workload and everything else I had taken on. I did not have time to reconnect with myself—I deprived myself of a private life, as well as of sleep—and in the process, I completely lost myself. Because he was the person I saw the most outside of formal situations, and because we became so close, he was the target of all of my pent-up negative frustrations. I did not even make time to write them down in my diary, which was not updated between 17 January and 29 March, or between 29 March and now. Day by day, week by week, I became more and more physically and mentally unwell—to the point where I consciously jumped into the street in front of a moving vehicle.

Only after I have lost him irrevocably and completely changed his opinion of me can I actually change myself, and realise how much he meant to me. I know this is a cliché, but it is true. All I have to remember is the pain of our separation. It comes and it goes, and it has diminished in intensity, but it is always there. Over the past two weeks my tears have emerged in the most random of environments, instigated by a spontaneous thought or memory. The pain I have inflicted on him makes it even worse. He cannot bear to look at anything that reminds him of me.

The potential happiness we could have had also adds to the pain. His closest friends liked me. I knew his parents would as well, and I looked forward to walking with them in the wilderness for hours on end (this was something I frequently did with my parents whenever I visited them). We were planning on travelling together over the summer—and I know that when I travel, I am at my most carefree.

Why did the attraction stop? I did not make it clear how much I appreciated him. How could he remain attracted to me if I didn't tell and show him how much I liked and valued him? A relationship has to be mutual, and ours was not fully reciprocal. I did not do for him what he did for me. I did not respect him the way he respected me. He recognised this lack of balance after a couple of months—this led to our first argument—and because I ignored what had happened after writing the letter, perhaps it was inevitable that things had to culminate over my birthday weekend.

There is always a silver lining, however. In this case, the most important positive result is that I am feeling again. More than I have in a very long time. And this forces me to write.

It was not heartbreak. We were not in love. It was far too soon for that. The damage was not severe, but it was also not insignificant. No cheating was involved; no one was physically hurt or abused—it was all emotional and psychological.

I cannot hide anything that he has given me. I do not want to suppress a single memory—rather, I want to recall them all, to prevent myself from behaving this way again. I only have good memories of him, whereas his good memories of me are tainted. I have to be reminded of what I have done—that is the only way I can change.

I was happy. Truly happy. Happier than I had been in a very long time. In a sense this was my first genuine relationship (not complicated by distance, language, or lack of mutual feeling). More importantly, it was the first relationship in which I could begin to imagine a future. In a sense, he was everything that I wanted and needed. He made every other relationship I had been in feel superficial (and certainly every dating situation).

I wrote him another letter, the most honest and heartfelt letter that I have ever written. I even included verbatim extracts from my personal diary—never before have I shared anything from this with other people. I began writing in a state of tears. But every time I reread my words throughout the week, the tears diminished and then stopped entirely. I feel purged and refreshed and relieved. I have a clearer sense of perspective and what my priorities are.

For seven days, I edited the initial spontaneously written draft, so that the final result would represent my thoughts and feelings in the clearest and most honest manner. Uninfluenced by a veil of emotion.

I soon realised, however, that a letter was not enough. It would not convey the complete truth. I decided to write a fictional counterpart that was based on real events. The story of us, told as objectively and empirically as possible (I had to review numerous photographs, Google chats, emails, and text messages for material evidence). Our Chapters, which I had alluded to throughout our entire relationship when we reached particular milestones. In total, my document was 25 pages (single-spaced, Georgia font, size 11—size 10 for footnotes and excerpts from my personal diary). These were all of the words that I could not utter during our confrontation.

I gave him the letter eight days after our separation. I am surprised that he not only let me come over, but also invited me in for tea. I was fully prepared to leave immediately (or be refused a visit in the first place). He did not look too disturbed, and read all 25 pages of what I had written with as much velocity as he had read my first letter. At the end of it, he told me that he had hidden all of my gifts in his closet, and that he would not be able to take them out for awhile. It pained me to hear him say that I had nothing to apologise for. That he was also to blame for potentially taking advantage of me. He never did anything wrong. Nothing can be further from the truth.

He also answered all of my questions with honesty, and listened to me for almost three hours—until he was practically falling asleep. I could talk for as long as I needed; I was the one who initiated my departure at almost midnight. Against all odds, he still respects me. He is still generous. It must have been painful—at one point, as he reached the final page of the letter, his eyes watered—but he didn't stop reading. He allowed me to share my voice, and all of my thoughts and feelings. For the record, I was exactly on time—two minutes early, in fact. I even texted in advance to let him know that I was coming.

And I was surprised by how naturally the conversation flowed. At times it almost felt like the conversations we had when we were together. We actually laughed. It ended with a teasing joke about something that had happened the first time we met, and a smile, and even a hug (which we had thought was impossible). It's a small step, but it is something. One has to laugh in order to recover. Even at the most serious matters—especially at the most serious matters.

At least we can (tentatively) be friends. I feel good about this. And he will teach me Python, as he promised when we first met. He claims this can be done in six hours. It is his language, and I want it to be one of mine as well.

In my letter to him I said that I regretted everything. But my perspective has changed now. Could things have ended up differently? Yes and no. There are so many ifs: if we hadn't missed the bus, if I had left the conference early, if I had obtained more rest. But at the end of the day, this had to happen. Thinking through all of the ifs would be both maddening and useless, as there are infinite possibilities.

Just as importantly, I had to lose him to snap out of denial, once and for all. The best way to learn is to fail completely. This is a startup principle, but it applies just as well to personal relationships. You have to fail not just partially, but so unconditionally that you know you will never make the same mistake again. The learning curve is enormous.

Moreover, our relationship was not all doom and gloom. We shared so many wonderful moments—some were actually cinematic. Highlights include our epic New Year's shenanigans in London (one of the craziest adventures I've ever had), our classic Valentine's Day celebration, and our glorious day in London in late March, when I took him to see Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House (we did seven other things prior to this; everything worked out precisely according to plan).

There were also the long walks and meandering conversations. The Oxford colleges that we explored. The leisurely lunches that we ate at our favourite café in town. The times we read to each other, from a wide variety of books. I could listen to his voice forever; he likes my voice as well (I cannot imagine why).

And there were our moments of intimacy. Our physical chemistry was incredible—explosive, at times. What's more, it kept getting better, even (and especially) in the worst moments of our relationship. I often felt as if I was in a book or a film, but this was real life. There were numerous times in which I showed up on his doorstep, late at night; he greeted me by kissing me immediately, and we continued the passion up the stairs and in his room—there was no space for conversation until we were done, because we were so happy to see each other. Ironically, it was mainly through these moments of intimacy that he knew I was attracted to him. I could only express my feelings physically and verbally when we were very close together.

We even looked good together. He is the perfect height for me, and has the perfect build. A friend of mine pointed out that we have similar facial structures. And I am firmly convinced that physical appearances are not superficial.

He had no idea what he was getting himself into, even after I warned him over Google chat that my life was a maelstrom and that I was crazy. He has had such a peaceful upbringing, and a mostly stable lifestyle. He almost never exhibits extreme emotion. I can tell how good he is on the inside from my interactions with his family, his housemates, and his friends. He had no idea what insanity was or could be.

I, on the other hand, am wild—full of energy and passion—and I have had a very turbulent life (I've moved at least eight times, across three continents). I am caught in the middle of so many things; in one of his first texts, he called me Miss Betwixt because I had used the archaism in public (and been teased for it). The nickname could not have been more apropos: I am betwixt America and England, Oxford and London, West and East, tradition and innovation, academia and entrepreneurship, maturity and naiveté, language and literature, fact and fiction. And so much more.

As I mentioned earlier, the opposition of our dispositions and lifestyles was part of why I found him so attractive. I liked how he was satisfied with his job and optimistic about the future. I wanted him to bring some much-needed stability into my life. And he did. To use a hackneyed metaphor, he was the land to my turbulent sea. The trouble is, I drowned all of his shores with insanity.

Ironically, he is also an Aries. I would never have guessed this. It is subtle, like all of his other qualities: his intelligence, his attractiveness, his voice, his personality, his boldness, his passion, his love of adventure. I read somewhere that when two Aries are together, it is dangerous—but can have potentially incandescent results. I suppose we have proven both of these outcomes to be true.

Part of me wants to start over, even though I know it is impossible. I've moved on, but part of me will still be waiting until the time is right. Call it foolishness or optimism. This might change, but for now it is the truth.

Yes, there are many more proverbial fish in the sea. Yes, there are other opportunities. But he was truly one of a kind, like the periwinkle necklace he gave me for my birthday. I am probably the last fish he wants to consider—rather, I am not even a fish. And I am not in the mood to go fishing. I find it extremely difficult to trust people, and I need to trust people in order to like them. I can easily maintain a conversation and appear to be interested, but this is just a façade.

I want him to see me as a new person. I know it will take time. I don't know how much, but that does not matter. I know I will change. Never before have I been so aware of myself—all of my flaws and strengths. In a sense, he has been my mirror: he has reflected me back upon myself. And I want him to know that the mysterious, fun, vibrant girl he met and shared all of those happy moments with is still here, beneath all of the madness.

People can change. I myself have changed profoundly over the past decade. I used to be shy and quiet—the girl that no one noticed. I was fundamentally unattractive, not liked or popular in the least. I hardly ever raised my hand to speak. When I did speak in a public situation, I stuttered and released the words far too quickly, out of nervousness and self-consciousness. I expressed and defined myself primarily through writing.

Worst of all, I had no personality—I could not be defined. I remember one particular lunch conversation in middle school, when an insightful friend described everyone around the table with one or two adjectives. For everyone else she had a word. Usually a positive word, sometimes a neutral word, and yes, sometimes even a negative word—for she could not only recognise the truth, but was also unafraid to speak it.

When she came to me at the very end, she had nothing. No words. Not even a negative one.

What she said: "I don't know how to describe her. I don't know what to say about her personality." (Not verbatim, but close enough.)

The scariest thing was, I agreed. I, too, did not know how to describe myself. I could not respond. I had no words.

This changed after Columbia. University was a way for me to reinvent and redefine myself, and I seized this opportunity to the fullest possible extent. I could be the girl I had always wanted to be. I could rebel against the girl I had been, by becoming her complete opposite. I gained a lot of self-confidence, especially in my year abroad at Oxford. I became a bit overconfident too, at times.

Now I am gregarious and social, burning with questions and challenges. I define myself through my passion for talking with people. Networking is one of my greatest strengths. I get such a thrill from conversations with individuals I have just met, because each person is a bundle of mystery and possibility. Each person has a story that I am eager to hear.

At the very least, I know that I make a distinctive and positive first impression. I come across as confident, completely unique, effervescent, electric, fascinating, endlessly energetic, incandescent—these are not my words, but rather those of other people, some of which have been recorded in my Rembrandt notebook. Someone even called me the "right path to enlightenment." I certainly did not deserve this...

And I have even become more attractive. Just before I returned to Oxford last October, someone called me an "exceptionally beautiful woman." Due to the context of our relationship (and I mean this in the broadest sense of the word), I knew he was not making a flirtatious remark. He saw something within me. My ability to connect with people, and fascinate them. My inner spark. He said I was a natural at talking to people and igniting conversation. I do not believe that I deserve his words either, but I want them to be true. I want to be beautiful on the inside (I don't think this will ever be the case on the outside).

I am as self-critical as I am self-confident. I have lost a good deal of self-esteem in recent weeks. But I still believe in myself; I still believe that I am fundamentally a good person.

Communication is at once my greatest strength and my greatest weakness, my Achilles' heel. There is a distance between what you mean to say and what other people hear, a distance that I do not always fully acknowledge. Or, as Paula Dijoux put it, there is often an arc of distortion between intent and impact.

Intent is not enough. The arc of distortion is caused by too much focus on the self. It is essential to think about the listener before you speak, in any context. In my moments of madness, I certainly did not do this; I was entirely focused on myself and my intentions, and not nearly enough on him and the impact my words would have. Moreover, only 7% of the impact we have is through words—38% is through tone, and 55% is through body language.

People change, but some things remain the same. I will always be an optimist. I will always hope and persist, persistently. I will always be free-spirited and unconstrained by convention (indeed, I like disrupting the status quo). I will always take bold risks. I will always write.

I am also more convinced than ever before that I want to stay in England. I want to make this place my home, at least for the next few years. It is so full of character and charm. In the past several months, I've gone to London very frequently via both bus and train. The beauty of the landscape struck me—I could read the poetry within it. The rapeseed fields (solid golden blocks stretching as far as the eye can see), sheep-sprinkled meadows, and horses grazing in pastures with foals filled me with wonder. I have so much more to see and experience and explore.

Oxford in particular has expanded my social awareness. I have listened to and been inspired by influential speakers from all over the world, and by other students as well. There is an explosion of events and conferences, across every imaginable subject. I have never before felt so awake.

I feel happier and lighter now. My future is more defined than it has ever been, and I know that things will be better. Above all, anything is possible. Or, in the words of Audrey Hepburn: "Nothing is impossible. The very word itself says 'I'm possible'!"

I do not believe in endings. Only beginnings. Nothing is truly over, because it happened. As Columbia College Dean Valentini said in an interview, "Once you are, you are." Endings are embedded within moments, which are never permanent (not taking into consideration amnesia or Alzheimer's, of course). They are also beginnings, and allow for beginnings.

Things come back. People come back. And words come back. The words are coming back. I knew they would eventually. I am finally letting them go, and giving them full control.

To all of my friends who are reading this, especially those who have experienced a bit of my madness—thank you for supporting, forgiving, and believing in me. To my readers who have been waiting for this chapter for a particularly long time, bearing with all of my broken promises to deliver until now, thank you for your beyond extreme patience. To my parents and sister—thank you for dealing with me when I have displayed my ugliest self. To the one whom I have lost—thank you for too many things to describe in words, and for things that cannot be described altogether. You have given me far more than you are aware.

To everyone who is reading this: thank you for getting to this point. Given the average attention span in the 21st century and the limitless distractions on the Internet, the very fact that you have read this far is miraculous—and inspires me to keep writing.

This chapter is also for someone I will never have the chance to meet, but would have been honoured to: Wally Olins. He, too, was a people person. He loved people and they loved him and his endless energy. He redefined what it means to have a brand, from the individual to the national level. Even though I will never be able to meet him, I am inspired by what he has done. I wonder what he would have thought of this chapter, of my personal brand, and of this entire blovel, which is inspired by people: family, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, even complete strangers. They—you—create the pressure and motivation for me to write.

I shall end with six quotes that I've collected since my last chapter. Quotes that resonate deeply:

"Trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback." —Dutch proverb

"In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit." —Albert Schweitzer

"I can't tell the difference between Life and Art... and I don't want to." —Pandora, from Just 45 Minutes from Broadway

"Recognise that eternal happiness and a true sense of value can only come from within. The bottom line is that there is nothing anybody can say or do to assure you of your value if you aren't sure of it yourself." —Mum, quoting from (To which I add: happiness is when you can be yourself and be respected and appreciated and loved by people who are important to you.)

"Your story only ends when you put the pen down. Never put the pen down; never give up." —Olivia Ojuroye

"GHENT!" (Only one person will understand this one.)

"A writer—and, I believe, generally all persons—must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art." —Jorge Luis Borges

Finally, because words are only 7% of impact, I've recorded a video of myself reading aloud the final section of the final chapter of the fictional piece I wrote for him. When fiction quite literally met fact:

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

XI. Cheerio England, Hello America (Viz., New Jersey Suburbia)

I'm finally back at home, after an extended six-week stay in Oxford that has made this the best summer of my life thus far, followed by a three-day Pearson Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. Back at home, where nothing has changed since I left last October. And I mean that literally—my room is in the exact same condition; every book on my shelf, every item in my closet, every box against the wall, every stuffed animal on top of my dresser is still where it was. Even the bedspread and sheets are the same. It's a wonderful feeling: as much as I embrace change, home for me has to be familiar, has to be comforting. A stable harbour to which you can always return, no matter how long you've been away (and in this case it was over ten continuous months).

More importantly, my parents, sister, and grandparents have not changed either. They welcomed me back with very open arms, and I felt as if I had left only yesterday. No culture shock at all; the jetlag was the only physiological indication that I had been away for such a long time. The heat, however, was insufferable. All 33 degrees (I'm still on the Celsius scale) smacked my face like a solid brick wall when I stepped out of the airport. I think the highest temperature that I experienced in Oxford this summer was 28 degrees, and the humidity was not nearly as high. The weather in England may have bipolar disorder, but that is precisely the reason why I love it; I'm fascinated by the clashing of sunshine and rainclouds, the unpredictable switch between extremes that are never too extreme. The only downside is that you never quite know what to wear—what you put on in the morning is bound to be inappropriate at some later point in the day.

With the overabundance of sunshine, our vegetable garden has been as overproductive as ever. We have tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and string beans of three different varieties every night for dinner, but there's no way we'll be able to finish it all. It's such a welcome relief after eating mostly dining hall and restaurant food, which was always a bit too heavy. And it adds tremendously to the comfort of home; nowhere else can I pop by the kitchen and pluck a freshly picked tomato or cucumber from the table at any time.

There are some new things in my life, though. Some important new things: a laptop and a phone, both of which I really need. I currently have a beautiful silver-white HP Pavilion dv6500 Special Edition notebook, but it's four years old now and still on the Vista operating system. It's also not very portable, as it weighs over seven pounds with the extended battery. As reluctant as I am to let go, I know the time has come, because I have finally found an adequate replacement: the Sony Vaio CA Series laptop in lightning white.

I admit that I bought it mostly because it looks gorgeous, with rounded edges and a special glow from the encasing material. I wanted a white laptop that did not have a black keypad, and this was literally the only one I could find after months of research. I was very tempted by both the Samsung Series 9 and the HP Envy but neither looked or felt completely right, and I didn't have the heart to make the investment. I also knew that I definitely did not want to convert to Mac (purely as a matter of principle—I don't want to own too many Apple products). My new Vaio hasn't arrived yet, so I can't judge its performance, but with an i7 processor and 8 GB of RAM I'm pretty confident that it will be more than up to par.

My new phone is the 4G Blackberry Torch 9810, also in white. That was a much easier decision for me, as getting an iPhone was out of the question; once I saw it in the store I knew I had to buy it (I find it interesting how I'm either absolutely certain that I want something and will make a blind purchase based upon raw instinct alone, or spend loads of time vacillating between the options, carefully weighing all the positives and negatives). I've always resisted the idea of getting a smartphone, as I'm already overly addicted to my e-mail, but the phone I had been using before going abroad was an LG with the most basic of functionalities, and felt completely out of date. I still haven't quite familiarized myself with the layout and features of the Blackberry but I'm sure that in a week or so I'll be twiddling away at hyper speed...

Material possessions aside, I've been relaxing, truly relaxing, for the first time all summer. Perhaps a little too much, as I need to work more on fellowship applications and think about my senior thesis and continue making preparations for the Lexicography Society I plan on launching in the fall. The start of the semester is in just two weeks, and we are going on a family vacation to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina for all of next week. There isn't much flexible time left, and too many things are looming on the horizon; they have become all the more tangible now that I am one degree closer to reality. I'm very excited to be a senior at Columbia, but I am definitely not ready to graduate. I want to be back at Oxford next fall, as none of the graduate programs in the States interest me at the moment, yet that is not at all a guarantee. My backup plan is to get a job and see what happens. The uncertainties are quite daunting. I do trust circumstance and serendipity, however—I always have, for better or worse.

Having said that, I'm going to stop dwelling on the future and look back once again. There's a huge amount of material to reflect upon, and now that I'm physically removed from it all, it'll be much easier to do so. I meant to write this chapter right at the end of Trinity term, but things were more hectic than I had anticipated and the transition to summer was quite abrupt; my job began several days after I moved out of Pembroke. It wasn't nearly as overwhelming as last summer had been, even though I didn't have weekends off and the hours were sometimes quite long. The important difference was that I didn't feel any pressure: having six extra weeks in Oxford without any academic obligations was a miracle.

What was more miraculous was the fact that my office was in Pembroke, so I already knew all of the buildings and administrators. I was living about a mile away in a part of town called Jericho, which has a quaint village-like feel. Walking through Oxford's side streets and main thoroughfares every day was always a delight, and one weekend when my friend Morgan visited I had the opportunity to explore many of the colleges that I hadn't ever been to. I think we overused "lovely" to describe everything—the horticulture is absolutely astounding in its diversity—but you can't use that word enough in England, particularly when enormous specimens of wisteria are involved.

My Street in Jericho

Flowers in Merton College

View from Christ Church Meadow

Worcester College

Magdalen College

Keble College

I was working as the personal assistant to James Basker, the founder and director of Oxbridge Academic Programs. He also happens to be an English professor at Barnard College, so there's a good chance I will see him around campus. Three of the nine Oxbridge programs are based in Oxford, and Pembroke has hosted the original program for high school juniors and seniors (the Oxford Tradition) since its inception in 1985. The students are from all around the world, as are the faculty and staff; it gets more and more international every year. As I detailed in Chapter IX, meeting people from diverse backgrounds is something I thrive upon, and this job allowed me to do just that.

My main responsibility was to manage Professor Basker's very busy schedule, which involved confirming and coordinating numerous appointments. There was also quite a lot of printing, photocopying, and scanning, but it was the complete opposite of the traditional 9-to-5 office job. I never knew what was going to happen each day. I almost always had various errands to run outside the office, such as delivering letters and packages (the post office became my best friend, its lengthy queue my worst enemy) and shopping for all sorts of items and gifts (including a shoe brush and an unlocatable upright desktop file holder). The task I most enjoyed was organising the invitations and catering for two garden parties, one in Oxford and one in Cambridge. Both were well-attended and graced with gorgeous weather and snazzy headwear in the most exquisite of settings.

What I've learned from working these past two summers is this: as organized and borderline obsessive-compulsive as I am, I love randomness. I wouldn't be able to tolerate a monotonous, predictable job. I need something that's crazy enough to always keep me from twiddling my thumbs, but not something so crazy that it'll exhaust all of my mental and physical energy (I don't think my reserves are as boundless as they may seem). My job this summer struck just that balance. It was quite intense at times but I always enjoyed what I did, especially because I found it very easy to get along with Professor Basker, right from the beginning. He is an incredibly accomplished individual, as the success of the Oxbridge programs will attest, and a brilliant academic as well. I sat in on his lecture on Samuel Johnson and could feel his passion from the way he gestured and articulated his thoughts.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the job was the effect it had on my health, as I both ate and slept very well. I had breakfast and dinner with the program, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the hall food in Pembroke was better than it had been during the year, due to a greater selection of main courses and a permanent salad bar. Because breakfast was quite early, I had to wake up at half past seven every morning, which eventually pushed back my bedtime to just before midnight. Given the extremely unhealthy sleep habits that I had developed since high school and perpetuated to some degree at both Columbia and Oxford, this was a miracle. Never again do I want to stay up until three, sometimes even four o'clock in the morning to work on an assignment.

As hectic as the job was, I was able to make a weekend trip to Sheffield to visit family friends, which had not worked out in December due to inclement weather (there was a severe blizzard up north). This time, apart from a delayed bus departure from Oxford, everything was perfect. My hosts were very gracious; even though I had not seen them in fourteen years I felt completely comfortable at their house. It was a veritable stroll down memory lane because I did revisit Broomhill Infant School and actually remembered it—nothing has changed, apart from a Children's Wildlife Garden that has been added on the side. I also saw parts of Sheffield University, including the chemistry lab that my dad used to work in, and a downtown area. The city isn't nearly as industrial-looking as I thought it would be; it's replete with Victorian architecture and there are big trees on every residential street. Walking around is quite a workout, though, due to all the hills.

In the afternoon we drove around the breathtaking Peak District to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which currently has an exhibition by Jaume Plensa featuring human bodies built out of letters, as well as a 50-metre curtain of poetry that visitors are encouraged to jingle as they walk down the main corridor. I'd like to install such a curtain in my own house someday...

Broomhill Infant School

Sheffield University

Downtown Sheffield

Jaume Plensa Exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

My second major goal for the summer was to visit Oxford University Press, and I was able to accomplish it just four days before I left. General visitors aren't allowed to enter—the imposing façade, dominated by four giant columns, isn't very inviting—but fortunately Jesse Sheidlower had connected me with Michael Proffitt, the OED Managing Editor. (Jesse is the Editor at Large and directs the New York office; I had e-mailed him about my plans for a lexicography society.) Michael gave me a tour of the Dictionary offices, which are very open and spacious, but so quiet that I was afraid to breathe as I tiptoed past.

We talked for an hour about everything from the OED and lexicography in general to my specific plans, and he has confirmed the unfortunate fact that dictionary-making is viewed by most people as too esoteric a field for general study. Precisely the opposite is true—lexicographers need to engage directly with the general public, and not exclusively with specialized industries or academia, in order to track the shifting meanings of words and the creation of new ones. My goal for the Society is to spread this awareness through monthly meetings (most of which will feature guest speakers) and smaller workshops; I want to eliminate common misconceptions and demonstrate how important lexicography is as a field, and how it can in fact be studied. I have an incredible network of support and resources for this project, but implementing it may be difficult if there isn't enough student interest. I'm going to do everything I possibly can to get it going, though. One of my friends at Columbia has promised that he will inaugurate a Cheese Appreciation Society if I follow through with this, and if that isn't motivation enough, I don't know what is.

Apart from a brief shopping excursion in London (which was primarily spent in Harrods and Selfridges and resulted in the purchase of a long-sought-for wide-brimmed straw hat), and a day trip to Broughton Castle with the Oxford Tradition, I haven't been to nearly as many places in England as I would have liked. Prior to beginning work this summer, however, I was able to visit the countryside for Tony Allan's birthday party. He's one of David Kirke's good friends, and lives in a village near Oxford surrounded by picturesque open fields. I met many interesting people there, including Tony's lovely daughters and a professional astrologist who read my horoscope.

I'm not incredibly superstitious, but I have always been interested in astrology as a science, because I do think there is something to be said for the location and time of your birth. She first told me some general things that were very appropriate but could also apply to anyone, within reason: I have intense emotions, I am an all-or-nothing person, I can be quite intimidating because when I want to get something done, nothing can stop me. But she also told me something quite specific: that I am a creative writer. Not a journalist or an academic, but a creative writer. The writing was important, she said. I had to keep doing it, because I would go far.

I do believe her. But I also know that there are no guarantees in life. Writing is one of the easiest things to avoid if you can help it, because it is so damn difficult, and it doesn't get much easier with more experience. There will always be some days in which you seriously question yourself. I haven't had too many of them lately, but I also haven't been updating this blog (which I've come to call a "blovel," as it is structured like a novel) as regularly as I had wanted to. "Real life" gets in the way, even if it's the precise thing that you are writing about. The words don't always come by themselves, even when they should, even when there is time and space for them; in fact, they often come by themselves when you don't have the time and space to record them. Or sometimes they come but aren't arranged in the right way. There is always a certain amount of effort that needs to be exerted to get them out properly. It is immensely frustrating but you have to do it, because the rewards are incalculable.

Underneath all of the momentary doubt, I know that I will always keep writing. I may stop temporarily—the hiatus might last for months, even years—but I will always return. I don't know what my profession will be, but I will always have at least one novel-in-progress, including this one. I will always be travelling the scenic route, seeing and doing and exploring and trying new things and meeting new people. That is absolutely essential in order for the writing to continue. And that is how I want to live.

I'm wary that this chapter will be an unwieldy length, but I need to backtrack even further to Trinity term. The ending of my long but brief academic year at Oxford. It had a crazy start due to May Day shenanigans, as I've already recounted, but nothing too ridiculous happened after that. My friend Zach and his friend Zach came to visit for several days, and the timing was perfect. Shortly afterwards, I attended my first ball, at Pembroke, which was infinitely better than prom had been (and it wasn't just because of the exorbitant amount of alcohol). Several weeks prior I went to Stratford-upon-Avon with my friend Xandra to see Cardenio, the "lost" Shakespeare play. Although it wasn't authentic, the storyline was riveting and not at all predictable; we couldn't even tell whether it would be a tragedy or a comedy at the intermission. We also went to see a local production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, which featured a real turtle.

Pembroke Ball

Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre

Near the end of term I worked several shifts for At Your Service, a catering company for high-profile events in the Oxfordshire area. My first was at a wedding at the Conservatory in Luton Hoo Estate's walled garden. I was one of the three people assigned kitchen duty, so I helped the chefs prepare and arrange the food on the plates; it was quite fun (especially the tiny hors d'oeuvres, the parts of which had to be positioned just right). My second event was much more eccentric: a very special birthday party in the countryside. The theme was "Lovefest," and it was displayed quite prominently—there were red heart-shaped signs on the one-way path winding up to the house, "LOVE" in man-sized pink block letters mounted on the hill in the backyard (they looked spectacular when illuminated against the dark sky), roses placed over the plates of all the female guests, banner-length pink and white flags, and a red and white dress code that almost everyone followed. Despite the ostentation, it turned out to be quite a well-coordinated affair. There was live music from an alternative rock band, a roaring bonfire, twenty teepees for the overnight guests, a giant tent for the dinner service, and even a hot air balloon. The planning must have been insane.

Throughout all this, I was taking the two papers that I had been anticipating since Professor Lynda Mugglestone e-mailed me with the list of options last April. I hadn't been sure about Michaelmas or Hilary, but my decision for Trinity was definite: History of the English Language (with a personalised focus on lexicography) and Virginia Woolf. The former was with Professor Mugglestone herself, and the latter was with Alice Stainer, my tutor for the Tennyson paper in Hilary. Once again I was one-on-one for both, and I was able to choose the topics I wanted to write about every week. It was exactly how I had imagined it would be, despite my high expectations. Professor Mugglestone is an absolutely brilliant teacher, overflowing with information about anything and everything related to the English language; I always walked out of tutorial practically vibrating from the energy that had mounted in the room, and feeling both more frustrated with and awed by the complexities of definition. I examined not only the Oxford English Dictionary but also Samuel Johnson's Dictionary and the earliest monolingual English lexicographers, and my final essay was on Urban Dictionary. Because I was scrutinizing definition in practice and as a concept, I had to be more careful than ever before with every single word I chose to use in an essay; the metalinguistic levels were overwhelming.

But it was just the beginning. I've had a general overview of topics that I could easily spend one entire term studying in much greater detail. Coincidentally, Oxford is launching a new MSt in the English Language next October, which is exactly after I graduate from Columbia. It's also paired with internships with the OED, something I hadn't thought was possible. Dare I say too perfect to be true?

My Woolf tutorial was just as intense and incandescent. I revisited two novels that I had read before, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and gained a newfound level of understanding of each. I read five that I hadn't yet encountered: The Voyage Out, Orlando, A Room of One's Own, The Waves, and Between the Acts. Now I am convinced that Virginia Woolf is my writer. I understand her in a way that I have not understood any other novelist; I share her feelings about life and nature and interpersonal relationships. She has captured things that I had thought were ineffable, like the distance that is always present between two people, no matter how intimate they may be. The failure of communication through words. The tension between the realm of consciousness and the material world. The importance of the moment, which is temporally transient but psychologically permanent.

Like Virginia Woolf, I believe in the importance of the moment. I said this in my last chapter and I will say it again. I think of my whole life as composed of them. They are what I remember, what I write about. What I render immortal through the act of writing itself. Moments of feeling, moments of discovery, moments of understanding.

Munich did indeed happen, and it was full of such moments. But I will explain in more detail in Chapter XII, because I want to end this chapter with my tribute to Virginia Woolf—my Mrs. Dalloway party. An event that was an indelible part of my Oxonian experience, because of what it represented: the bringing together of people I knew (but who didn't necessarily know each other) for no ulterior purpose. The underlying principle was what mattered. I had met so many different characters, from literally all walks of life, during my year abroad, and I wanted to gather them all in one room, just to see what would happen. I knew nothing could possibly go wrong, because I had no expectations or even a possible agenda. Once again, I put my entire faith in Circumstance. And she treated me well.

The original date of May 14 didn't work out because there were some issues with the location. But the actual date was more appropriate, as it was the middle of June, exactly when Clarissa hosts her party in the novel. It ended up taking place in the JCR, which was a better environment than I had anticipated. The exact location almost did not matter; it was the particular combination of people that made the evening so magical. Like my New York party, it could not have happened in any other way. It was much more similar to the book than I had imagined possible.

I bought the flowers myself, bright purple osteos that had arrested my eye at the market that morning. I wore my special green dress. I prepared some classy drinks and nibbles, and Sam Baker supplemented this with a remarkable array of his own (including two jugs of homemade elderflower gin that disappeared within minutes). I brought the book and read aloud select passages; there were more spontaneous readings throughout the course of the party from other guests. It was a little flat in the beginning, but quickly came together when more people began to arrive. I swear I can pinpoint the exact moment when everything clicked, and the conversation suddenly became much more free-flowing and dynamic.

Sally came. There was a brief crocus in the flame moment that was completely unexpected, just as it had been for Clarissa. Dr. Bradshaw was there too. He caused quite a stir with his incessant laughter. The Prime Minister also made an appearance, but was much more discreet.

And Peter came, impeccably dressed and with a surprise of his own. He was the last guest to leave.

Septimus did not come. If he had, it would have disrupted the integrity of the party, I think. He was not supposed to come, despite his intention and his promise. Ironically enough, he did commit suicide in a spiritual sense; he seemed very different the next time I saw him. But he was the original inspiration for the party, because he recognised that I was like Clarissa Dalloway. For that I will always have him to thank.

A Party to Remember

One of the trinkets of advice that David Kirke has always given me, and followed scrupulously himself, is "Just connect." That is what started everything in the first place: one simple meeting, one simple connection. That is how it always begins. As long as both parties are willing to take the risk, something will be created. Something will happen. It may be of infinitesimal duration, or it may be as endless as the universe. Who could possibly know?

Oxford, and Europe in general, have allowed me to fulfill Kirke's advice to my greatest possible extent thus far. I am back in America now, but I know I will return someday. I have to. There is so much more that has to be done, so many more connections that have to be made. This also applies to my last year at Columbia, in the most cosmopolitan city in the world. I'm very happy to be back. As magical as England is, it's about time I returned to reality, at least for a little while.