I’ve always been a rule follower. Even as a kid I never got into trouble. I would sit in my playroom with my denim record player listening to books on 33 1/3 records and follow along with the floppy paperbacks until they nearly fell apart. Other times I wrapped construction paper around empty cereal and cracker boxes to recreate the happy little village from the opening scenes of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. My mother convinced herself that raising kids was much easier than she thought it would be, so along came my little brother. We were polar opposites. I was quiet and calm; he was loud and bouncy. I sat at the table coloring; he soared through the air on a bicycle with wobbly tires. We couldn’t be more dissimilar. In fact, it’s unfortunate but we haven’t seen each other or spoken in about three years. We simply were not compatible.
When I reached middle school, my mother felt relieved when I finally broke a rule. She received a phone call from the principal letting her know that I stacked chairs on top of the scorekeeper’s table in the gym in a vain effort to look through a frosted window into the girls’ locker room. “Finally, he’s normal!” she thought. As far as I can recall, that was the only time I ever received a consequence for behavior outside of nit picky little things like forgetting a pencil or passing a note.
In high school I earned high grades and scored well on the SAT. I earned more than a full scholarship to Appalachian State University and set off to become “an adult.” Of course, I wasn’t really an adult yet. I still lived at home with my parents. Even though I paid for my clothes, my insurance, my vehicle, and my day-to-day expenses, my parents still provided the house and all the expenses that went along with it. Throughout college, I worked every day. In fact, for four straight years I never had a day off. Everyone I tell that story shakes their head in disbelief, but it’s true. No Christmas. No Thanksgiving. No weekends. Nothing. Here’s how my week typically went. I awoke at 5:30 a.m. to be at work by 6:30 to open the before school program at Jonesville Elementary School. I left Jonesville at 8:00 to drive to Boone for my classes. After classes I drove back to Jonesville to open the after school care program. At 6:30 p.m. I reported to work at Comfort Inn as a clerk and auditor until 11:00 at night. To be clear, there were days when I couldn’t work after school care because of a late class at A.S.U. and there were days when I did not report to work at Comfort Inn. But Monday through Friday was taken up with some combination of school and work. On Friday night and Saturday night I worked from 11:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m. as the night auditor. On Sunday at 3:00 p.m. I reported back to the hotel for the evening shift. Hotels run seven days a week, 365 days a year. Since I was the only clerk with no children I worked the holidays so that the others could spend time with their families. So when I say I worked every day for four straight years, one can see how it’s not an exaggeration.
As I prepared for graduation and the beginning of my life as a teacher, family drama reared its ugly head and my life would be thrown into upheaval. We lived in a two bedroom home and my brother and I always shared a room. This wasn’t much of a problem since I worked all the time and we rarely had to interact outside family meals. We were cordial enough and we didn’t openly fuss, though I would never call us friends. We loved each other because we were brothers, but had we not been brothers I doubted if we would ever have crossed paths.
One night I returned home from a long day of work and school to discover a girl sleeping with my brother in his bed. I was taken aback. Were my parent aware of this? How could he be so inconsiderate to bring a girl into our private space, half of which belonged to me? I was appalled. When I found out my parents gave their approval without even discussing it with me, I became angry at them for what I saw as a total lapse of moral judgement. They had their reasons but I felt it was a slap in the face. I was the college graduate. I was the one who worked hard and tried to lift myself up to live a more secure life in the future. Honestly, it broke my heart.
I vowed to kick it into high gear and get out of that house as quickly as I could. It is true that it took another two years for me to move, but I simply didn’t make enough money to live on my own. I left the hotel and Jonesville’s child care programs not long after graduation. When I started teaching, I drove a bus in the morning, taught all day, and then drove a bus in the afternoon. When the money wasn’t enough to make it on my own, I got a job at Home Depot on the evenings and weekends. Once more, I worked seven days a week, although I did have the occasional day off thanks to holidays and vacation. I moved out of my parents’ house (My brother actually left first. He married the girl after she became pregnant. They remain married and now have two children).
For the next three years, I had little to do with my family. I worked all the time and did the best I could to learn how to be an independent adult. But I became overwhelmed. Out of every job I ever did teaching was by far the hardest. It is true that the physical demands aren’t strenuous, but the emotional and psychological demands can wear you down. I finally quit Home Depot because of physical and mental exhaustion. I was broke. I struggled as a beginning teacher and had a mentor who was nothing short of a bully. I had no support mechanism and my family, although only a 20 minute car drive away, might as well haven been on the other side of the planet. I slipped into a deep depression and couldn’t find the path that would lead me out of it.
When you suffer from depression as I did at the time, your perception of reality is warped. Regardless of what life throws your way, you can’t see the goodness because the clouds are too thick to see through the depressive fog. Everything is sadness. I sought medical help but even the doctor knew that I needed something more than medication. I spoke to a friend who was a counselor. She helped me put things in perspective to start the healing process. But I still felt lost.
One day I took a trip to Barnes and Noble which had just opened a location in Winston-Salem. I had no intention of buying anything because I only had money for groceries. For some reason I ended up in the science fiction/fantasy section. This was unusual because I typically read only classic works of literature and these two genres weren’t really on my radar. I saw a copy of Lord of the Rings. I knew that title. The movies were not yet in existence, but somehow I knew that title. I had never read it, but I knew it was a famous book. The darn thing was HUGE, though. But it was early summer and I had nothing else to do. I decided to live on Food Lion brand soup and oyster crackers for a week and bought the book.
The next morning I cranked up the window air conditioning unit in my rented townhouse bedroom (hidden from the landlord since those weren’t allowed!) and I started reading the book. For three straight days I left the bed only to use the bathroom or to get a quick bite to eat from the kitchen. When my eyes drooped from exhaustion, I caught no more than two hours of sleep at at time. The journey through Middle Earth compelled me to move forward. When Gandalf fell at the bridge of Khazad Dum I literally screamed in despair. I felt my throat lock from the parched, rancid air of Mordor as Frodo and Sam disguised themselves as orcs on their way up the slopes of Mount Doom. At the climax of the story, when Frodo fell to the power of the ring and refused to drop it into the fire I screamed, “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” so loudly I was surprised my neighbors didn’t knock on my door. Thank goodness Gollum danced like a fool and fell into the heart of the mountain, destroying the ring and freeing Frodo from its grasp (I always felt that end was bit hokey since Gollum just lost his balance).
Yet of all the glory of that grand adventure, the section that stood most with me was when Frodo arrived at the Grey Havens, preparing to leave Middle Earth to spend his remaining days with the elves in the Undying Lands:
The ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
~Return of the King, Book VI, Chapter 9
At the end of their journey Bilbo and Frodo were granted passage to the Undying Lands where the elves ventured, leaving Middle Earth to the dawn of the Age of Man. Every character is left changed, some for the better, some not so much. Yet the journey ended and goodness prevailed. Several times in that long and difficult journey, the characters felt like giving up. Yet there was a force, and innate desire to push forward that kept them on their path. Should they have failed, darkness would have enveloped the land. In the end, goodness won and the battles and travails were worth it.
I take every book I read to heart. Books are vessels to share the human experience. For an introvert like me, books speak to my brain and my heart much more so than human interaction. That is not to say that I don’t enjoy being around people. I just love books more.
The Lord of the Rings gave me new perspective. I was in the midst of my own personal epic. I was in my own personal Mordor and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to destroy my ring, my resentment of my family and my feelings of worthlessness in my personal and professional lives. I resolved to press forward and make the changes I needed to conclude this part of my life. If Frodo and Sam could find their inner strength, I could find mine.
I reconciled with my parents. I learned a lot over the years. I never walked a mile in their shoes, so it was not fair for me to judge them the way I did. They loved me unconditionally and that would have to be enough. With my brother and sister-in-law, I just accepted that they had a different point of view of the events than I did and nothing would change it. Since I couldn’t change it, I wouldn’t worry about it. My life moved on without skipping a beat.
The Lord of the Rings lifted me out of the funk I was in and gave me a new outlook on life. For years I read it each summer. Only after I became a father and my days were filled with little people to attend to did I stop the yearly ritual. I have to admit; I miss it. I think it’s time to go back to Middle Earth if only for the escapism I’ll feel for the couple of weeks it will take me to read it now that I can no longer binge read. There’s a comfort in knowing that Bilbo, Frodo, Samwise, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimili, and the rest are still waiting for me to return.
The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
~Bilbo on the road to Rivendell, Fellowship of the Ring