Of all the authors I've ever read, I think I talk about Tolkien the most. Anyone who reads this blog knows of my love for his work, which borders on obsession. I remember the day I told my friends that I loved Lord of the Rings. I had never mentioned it before, and they were shocked to hear that I loved it so much. I was surprised I had never talked about it before! So much of what goes on in my head has been influenced by Tolkien's beautiful words. True, it doesn't come up a lot in the course of being an opera singer: we just don't talk about hobbits that much. But all the same, it was strange to me that I had never spoken of my deep love of all things Tolkien. I realize that Lord of the Rings is well-beloved all around the world, but I had never encountered them before I was twelve. Before I entered seventh grade, I had to read The Hobbit for summer reading. At first glance at the cover, I didn't think I would like it very much. To my surprise and delight, I loved it. And thus the love affair was born.
Since The Hobbit was so good, I knew I had to get my hands on the next books. I can't remember when I read them for the first time -- I think I was in eighth grade. I'm sorry to have to say that I don't even remember my initial reaction to them, other than the fact that I LOVED THEM. I saw the movies (never as good as the books, but in this case, still awesome), and I put the books down for a while. It wasn't for several more years that I began my now-custom of rereading the trilogy every summer (For this summer, I'm currently on The Two Towers).
I don't think I noticed the impact that those books had on me for a while after that. I remember ideas slowly taking shape, but they were not at the forefront of my mind. They were my favorite books, sure, but I never knew the impact they were having on me until around Christmas of 2013.
I had just been through a rocky patch of life and a hard semester, so I went to see a counselor, just to talk (I'm a firm believer in the power of seeing a licensed professional just to help you sort things out). This woman, Sally, is a friend of my mom's, so I knew I could trust her. I talked at length about the difficulties of that semester, and I don't know how it happened, but somehow, some way, in the course of that conversation, I found myself talking about my Favorite Books of All Time. I spoke of how much I loved them, and she asked me why.
At first I didn't know how to answer, but then I felt something swelling within me, like a light and a strong wind and mountains in the north. I clutched at the pillow I was holding in my lap and started to talk about how beautiful the books were. They were full of nature and trees and tall mountains and bright stars and the kind of world I yearn for. But then my words shifted focus, and I began to speak of the way they made me feel: adventurous.
The best part of the books, in my opinion, is Tolkien's own invention: the hobbits. When the stories begin, we find both of them, Bilbo and Frodo, in pretty much the same kind of place: comfortable and safe and very contented. One point Tolkien makes is that hobbits are very sensible creatures and don't like to have adventures. He uses that word: adventure. Both of these hobbits have adventure-spirit within them. They come from a family of more adventurous individuals -- distantly so, but it's in their blood. Both of them feel the slight tug, the pull of something greater than themselves and the lives they lead in comfort and safety. But they allow it to be drowned out in the humdrum activity of Life As They Know It.
Something comes along -- usually Gandalf -- or something happens, and they find it impossible to stay where they are. Frodo knows he cannot stay: it is unsafe. Bilbo is pulled by some driving force that comes from he knows not where. He doesn't understand it; indeed, he hardly knows what is happening, but somehow he finds himself out the door and on the Road. And then they are off, through darkness and hunger and thirst and war and disunity and terror and more fear than they ever thought their little selves could handle. They constantly ask themselves why they ever left, and they never fail to wish themselves back at home in front of a cozy fireplace. But somehow they trek on, and in addition to the darkness and fear, they encounter light and beauty so great it makes them physically ache.
This is the part of the story that everyone is interested in. In the dark parts, we feel fear with them. In the beautiful places, we rejoice with them, while we know they will have to go on. I know what happens, but I promise you that I still am afraid for Frodo and Sam when they travel with Gollum. I still get angry at my books when Denethor is acting like an idiot (which is often, if you've never read the books). I still admire the beauty of the tower cities that I've never seen.
The point is this: no one is interested in a comfortable life. We don't think that makes good story. We wouldn't read a book like that. It wouldn't grab our attention. To us, it would be a book in which Nothing Happened.
We are created as part of a Story, with a capital S. Sure, we may feel that our lives are ordinary. I don't think that doing the dishes or writing my personal statement for graduate school applications is exciting. It's nothing like the darkness and the fear that we see in our favorite books.
Or is it?
Every day, we encounter darkness. Every day, we are afraid. Every day, we receive beauty we could never fathom -- but sometimes we don't notice it because it comes in small packages that look like dispatches wrapped in brown paper, not jewels cased in velvet. I have never had a day where I didn't struggle through some kind of wickedness or darkness that was assailing me, or wander through an impenetrable fog. I've never had a day that felt comfortable, and I'm willing to bet that you haven't, either.
Our lives are adventures. We don't always recognize it because it's us. It doesn't look like the kind we read about in old books (with old book smell). It looks like regular life. But regular life is the Adventure.
There are dark parts and light parts and parts filled with the gray of ordinary. There is brightness of dawn and pitch black of deep night and the fog of What The Heck Is Going On. But if that isn't adventure, I don't know what is.
At the end of Tolkien's amazing books, the hobbits return to their homeland. They go back to their lives -- where else would they go? -- but they are never, ever the same.
The rollicking up and down of our lives never ceases, so I wouldn't say that we ever get a break from the adventure, though we sometimes want it. I can't tell you the number of times I've called my mom and told her that I wanted everything to please, just stop. Maybe you feel that way, too. But the truth of the matter is this: our adventures leave us changed. We may come out of a dark place into one that faces the light of the sun, but we are never the same.
Adventure changes you. And it changed the hobbits. After they came home, they never had the same lookout on life. They kept craving something more, something beyond what they knew, something adventurous. They had that adventure-call in them before, beckoning them beyond the woods and the mountains. They had just never paid attention to it. But now that they had tasted it, they could not avoid it anymore.
The same thing happens to us. Once we have heeded the call of something bigger and greater than ourselves, we can never ignore it again. We may try, but we cannot resist.
That's what I want for my life, y'all. That's the entire premise of this blog. I want to live that way: bigger than myself, on some great adventure beyond the horizon. Sometimes I feel so small and little, like I'm constricted. But the secret that I'm learning is that smallness is adventurous, because sometimes it feels dark. When you're in a place that feels tight and claustrophobic, it's dark and dim. But in those moments, you're walking through adventure. Adventure happens in the small, too.
That's why I write here: to remind myself of that. To remind myself that life is an adventure, big or small.
To tell the truth, I feel the adventure-joy rising up in my heart all the time. Sometimes real life drowns it out, and I don't notice it as much. But when I spend a lot of time reading or thinking, as I have this summer, the call to something greater starts to rise in me again, and it aches. I'm reminded of the experience C.S. Lewis referred to as Joy: a heartache of longing and yearning for the greatness of Something Else (for him it was associated with Northernness and Norse-ness). His autobiography Surprised By Joy deals with this very phenomenon. At the end of the book, he tells the reader that he realized that the experience of Joy, the longing for something great and beautiful outside yourself, is meant to point us back to God.
God is so far beyond and high above and deep around us. If we feel the Joy-ache, the Adventure-ache, shouldn't we assume that that desire is for Him? After all, He made it.
He is the only One Who can satisfy a longing that seems to pierce my entire being, that shakes me to my core and makes me ache for the kind of adventures I read about in Lord of the Rings. He made that desire for Himself. So, really, when I yearn for adventure, I am yearning for God. And He is the Adventure.
And now that I have encountered Jesus -- now that I have met and experienced The Adventure Himself -- oh, I will never be the same.