Thursday, November 29, 2012

Just A Story: Lord of the Rings

When I was 13 years old, in the deepest throes of my Lord of the Rings fandom days, my family gathered for a reunion in Tennessee. The final movie installment, Return of the King, had released the winter before, and despite being on a 12-year-old’s budget with a 12-year-old’s transportation challenges, I’d managed to scrape together enough allowance to see the movie in theaters 6 times. Now I was eagerly awaiting the DVD release, constantly adding to my memorabilia collection, and wearing a One Ring on a chain around my neck (as I did for at least five years of my life).

During that reunion, I remember a morning where I escaped the hubbub of family breakfast to sit at a table by the lake, watching the morning waves wash the rocks over and over again, imagining it was the sea. My great aunt came out to join me, and she noticed the ring on my chain. I told her about how much I loved the stories, and she listened with a kind of attention adults rarely gave me. When I finished, she sat back and looked at me for a moment. “Mary, what do you think the greatest lesson you’ve learned from those stories is?”

I paused, struggling to put into words the weight of what I drew from that narrative, the fantasy that was more real to me than anything else I’d ever known. “I think it’s that you have to keep going, you have to keep doing the right thing-- even if sometimes you can’t see any hope that you’re going to make it through.”

It’s 2012 now, over eight years since that conversation, over a decade since I first picked up the books or went to see Fellowship of the Ring in the theater. I’ve worked half a dozen jobs, gone to college and earned my B.A., owned my first car, gotten engaged. And yet there is a part of me that is still that kid who dedicated hours to writing poetry in elvish, who put up nearly 300 Lord of the Rings pictures and posters in a hallway. That is not all I am now-- my life is bigger, and my heart holds more. But there will always be a part of me that is still tethered there.

There are very few stories that are “just” a story. We take these stories, these narratives, and they become part of our own story-- and in that way they are incredibly, piercingly real. Lord of the Rings has shaped me in a way very few other stories could. It informed my hobbies, pushed me to make friends with incredible people all over the world, taught me a deeper appreciation for myth and literature, and strengthened and shaped my faith. And it’s not just my story-- that is the beautiful thing. It’s a story I share with everyone else who claims it as a favorite, who has left a piece of themselves in Middle Earth. We might all live it in different ways, for different reasons, and it means different things to different people, but it belongs to all of us equally.

For me the story has become my story because of that simple lesson I could already put into words when I was 13, a truth that became increasingly adamant to me as I grew up and learned that the “real world” was so much darker and harder than even Lord of the Rings could have prepared me for. We all have our journeys through Mordor. We all have our rings to carry, our burdens like chains around our necks, threatening to wear us away to nothing. And in the moments of my life when I can see absolutely no practical reason to believe there is anything on the other side of the dark, when the idea of a return journey after everything that has happened seems impossible-- I remember this story that I claimed as a 10-year-old. You keep going. Even if you don’t get to know how it ends. Even if all the odds are against you. Even if it seems like you’ve lost everything, that the whole world is crumbling. Samwise Gamgee gives the reason well: we hold on because “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.” And sometimes, against all the odds... you reach the end of the fight and find that everything sad comes untrue.

It was never just a story.

“Though here at journey’s end I lie
In darkness buried deep,
Beyond all towers strong and high,
Beyond all mountains steep,
Above all shadows rides the Sun
And Stars forever dwell:
I will not say the day is done,
Nor bid the stars farewell.”
- Return of the King

- Elraen -

Friday, November 9, 2012

Chasing Beauty

Our hearts can be ugly places.

The fight against bitterness, anger, despair, lust, pride, and fear leaves us torn, more like a warzone than the lighthouses our hearts were meant to be-- more like the reactionary sea than the smooth depths of the sky. I think we lose ourselves sometimes in that fight, in that ever-busy attempt to escape the clutter we have collected or the stains that have been painted on us by an equally busy world. Maybe getting lost in introspection, in obsessive self-examination and despair at what we find, is a trademark of the artist. Maybe it is a mark more widespread than that. Regardless, I find myself there often.

This year I learned I had two options: I could let the stone of my heart soften and learn how to soak in grace, or I could let it go completely cold and die. So I seek to soften my heart, even when it means bleeding. And a part of that has been an increasing fight to see beauty, to recognize it.

I learned something a long time ago in the worst days of depression: when you wake up in the morning too crippled to get out of bed, name one thing in life that is beautiful, one thing that gives you cause for hope. It’s harder than it sounds, when you’re in the thick of it and everything inside is a wasteland. It’s a discipline I had to train myself into. Many days, the only thing I could think of to name was my converse, but that was enough. It was one beautiful thing that pulled me outside myself and gave me a taste of gratitude.

We need to remember that there are beautiful things. We need to see them and name them. Maybe because it pulls us outside of ourselves, maybe because the existence of beautiful things gives us hope for our own hearts, so wayward, so reckless, yet slowly being shaped, molded-- made beautiful. I think this is why I am a photographer. I started photography my freshman year of college, in a time when I desperately needed to believe there were still beautiful things in the world. I would go on long walks with my camera over the campus that I hated, forcing myself to stop at details, to capture them, to see beauty.

That has been more important than ever before these past few months. Instagram has become a tool for capturing it, for forcing my eyes to see. Sometimes I write lists of things I saw that day that were beautiful, lists that to other eyes might look strange-- things like the way a favorite singer’s voice climbs to perfectly fill out a high note, the contrast of houses raised high on a ridge against a pale sky, watching two strangers talk like friends on facebook, hearing a brief sentence from someone that shows their heart is brave even in the midst of pain, seeing someone laugh in the tired ordinary of a grocery store. These are beautiful things. I write them down, I let them pull me outside myself. I walk out the door to work at 6:45 early in the morning, see the sun rising all red-gold with the splendor of autumn leaves, and I open my hands and say thank you.

Because for me, that is the necessary response, the part that seals it. I do not belong to the aesthetic school of thought that praises beauty for beauty’s sake. I hear in it an echo of this Grace that pours through the cracks, floods the warzone, fills out the shadows. I hear God echoing through my world, and I say thank you. These beautiful things are not deserved or necessary, but they still show up in my life in a riot of color and song. Gratitude is often the most effective way to pull myself beyond the snare of the shadows.

Some days I don’t have a spark in me left to start a fire, to warm the cold, to clear the cobwebs of a world spinning in the dark. But if I can open my eyes to see one thing-- one beautiful thing in this whole world of contrast-- then there is hope. Grace is still here. Redemption still has stories to tell.

- Elraen -

P.S. I don't often recommend books, but I would highly recommend Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts. That book shaped and solidified much of my view on gratitude and grace.