Talking Tolkien

Last night I saw the movie Tolkien and I highly recommend it to everyone!  A wholesome movie about a great person and one of the top 5 influences in my life.  The movie documented the fundamental moments of Tolkien’s formation that was behind his masterpieces The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.  And as I relived his early life through early adulthood, I thought about how much Tolkien and his works were instrumental in my own growth.   Here are the six key moments when the works of Tolkien formed me and changed me.

  1. My First Book Purchase – The first books that I bought with my own money (you can read about how I earned that money here https://weightlossleadership.com/2018/01/14/a-penny-a-minute-a-lifetime-of-lessons/) was the box set of the Lord of the Rings.  I have posted a picture of the Two Towers to show you just how much value for the money I got! Two Towers book well used I remember buying them like it was yesterday at Quakerbridge mall and then using the remaining buck and change on the new entry at McDonald’s – a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and Fries (1973) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quarter_Pounder .  I raced home put my name on the cover in case someone tried to take it and devoured the books like I did the Quarter Pounder.  I have now read those same books with pages falling out at least once a year.  The first time I read them all in a weekend.  For a ten-year boy in the 70’s, it was the equivalent of a new Harry Potter book (which my children equally devoured).  I remember cowering in the bed as I read about the Black Riders for the first time and adding Frodo and Sam to my evening prayers.
  2. Bonding with my best friend – My best friend in elementary through middle school was Paul.  He loved the Lord of the Rings as much or more than me and we talked about it endlessly.  He also introduced me to the Lord of the Rings allusions in Led Zeppelin songs such as Misty Mountain Hop and some Galadriel references in Stairway to Heaven.  He also had pictures from the Lord of the Rings calendars decorating his room where we worked on building rockets for Mr. Pickett’s rocketry club.  We parted ways in high school as our lives took different turns (The Road Goes Ever On!).  But I will never forget the joy I had in discussing the latest calendar and references to LOTR by Led Zeppelin!
  3. Love of Family – My Dad was a Steelworker, no-nonsense Blue-Collar man.  He did not care for Fantasy, elves and hobbits.  In contrast, I was like Frasier to my Dad’s Marty Crane.  All through 1978, I looked for every news item on the upcoming rendition of the Lord of the Rings from Ralph Bashki.  My dad got tickets for the opening day for the whole family, because he knew how much I loved it.   He also got me for Christmas the LP Soundtrack.  The movie was not good but my whole family sat through it as I tried to explain what was happening.  They sat through it and tried to cheer me up as I was disappointed.  Even though my brother David still ribs me by humming the March of the Orcs, I never felt more loved since my family showed their kindness and support for something I cared about.
  4. My Senior High School Thesis – I love to write and get just as much joy from writing as I do from reading LOTR.  I feel exhilaration after writing each one of my blogs and unlike most loved writing essays for school.  My senior thesis for High School was one of my favorites – Christ Imagery in the Lord of the Rings!  I am not sure if that is even a topic that is allowed in school’s today.  I learned so much from studying this subject.  Unlike Lewis who is clearly allegorical in the Narnia series, Tolkien is more subtle but nonetheless profound.  Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf all represent elements of Christ.  Frodo the clearest as he carries the heavy burden to Mount Doom.  Aragorn as a king in disguise that leads to a new Kingdom.  Gandalf perhaps the least subtle as he arises from the dead in white after battling the Balrog.  Tolkien did not like allegory, but he did understand those fundamental truths that our highest calling is to sacrifice.  I still remember the exhilaration of getting an A on the paper, but more so the feeling that the LOTR revealed a deeper truth!
  5. Falling for the Fellowship – I waited for 23 years for the next movie version for the Lord of Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring.  My wife and I had four kids waiting for its arrival!  My oldest daughter Kate was at the age where she could stay up late to catch the movie with me on the first day (BTW – she is an English teacher!).  It came out the day before I had to lead an Oral presentation for the biggest deal in my career.  Nevertheless, I got the only 2 last tickets available for the midnight showing on the first day.  In the last two seats behind a bar that partially obstructed my view, I and my daughter waited in anticipation.  I was literally praying that it would not be like the earlier movie.  I will not lie to you.  When the scene of the Shire and Gandalf came on the screen, I wept tears of joy.  Peter Jackson had captured the essence of the books that defined my life.  The decency of the Hobbits.  The goodness of Gandalf and the evil of the Dark Riders that used to make me shake in my bed so many years ago.  This will sound like the ultimate geek, but I count that first viewing of the Fellowship as one of the top 10 moments in my life.  (BTW It inspired me to win the most important job of my career the next day!).
  6. Dancing in the Glade – I thought nothing would ever match the scene of the Shire but last night’s scene from the  Tolkien movie did it.  My favorite story from Tolkien is not LOTR but one chapter from the Silmarillion – Of “Beren and Luthien”.  I love it for three reasons.  1.  It examines the love between people of two different cultures (Elves and Man).  2.  Beren and Luthien fight against all odds to defeat evil. 3.  Last and most important, it shows the never-ending love between a man and his wife.  For the uninitiated, Beren and Luthien Tinuviel represent J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife Edith.  They were married for over 50 years.  Edith was Tolkien’s muse and the anchor to his life.  The image took my breath away as I sat next to my wife of 32+ years and thought of her in that glade.   In the movie, they show Edith dancing in the woods in England, the image that Tolkien explains in his poem below. 

“The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinuviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.” (Read more here – https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/luthien).

Grave of JRR Tolkien
True Love Never Fails

Six events that shaped a life!  Thank you, J.R.R. Tolkien and the makers of this film, for making this film that explains the life of this man who shaped me and so many others!

Change in Midlife, Mid-flight!

I hate flying on planes; doubly so after a hard week at work on a late flight.  Such was the case when I boarded a plane back to Austin a few years ago.  Little did I know that my temperament and life was going to change in mid-flight!

Photo by Ross Parmly on Unsplash
A change occurs midflight

I had just settled into my aisle seat.  I always get an aisle seat, especially back then when I was a bit north of 250.  I had already gotten up one time for the person in the window seat.  Now I was spreading out hoping against hope that I could dissuade someone from taking the middle seat.  It was not to be. 

Near the end of on-boarding, a young clean-cut guy asked if the seat next to me was taken. People were pressing so he was standing directly to the side of me, blocking my way from getting out. I said in an abrupt manner, “I could let you in if you would move and stop blocking my path.” The lady behind him caught my grumpy facial expression, took pity on him, and moved back so I could let him in. Yeah, I thought, I now had a tall occupant with wide shoulders occupying the seat next to me. Fun! Time to lean out in the aisle a little more.

I glanced over to size up my neighbor, since by this time I was feeling a little bad about how I acted.  I noticed three things off the bat that were different.  First the guy was reading a religious book; something not expected from a young man without a collar.  Equally unique was the Miraculous Medal around his neck; something you do not often see except on a Nun.  Lastly, I noticed he had a rosary in his lap. 

Thinking I had a priest or a seminarian next to me, I began feeling even more sheepish than I did before.  So, I decided to try and make amends for the way I acted and strike up a conversation.   I reached out my hand to my neighbor and said, “Hey I am sorry about how grumpy I was a moment ago.  My name is Don.”  He replied his name was Travis Moran and we struck up a conversation.   

Wanting to find out more about Travis, I said, “I noticed from the religious book and the rosary that you must be Catholic. I am too, even though a few moments ago I may not have appeared to be. I was just about to listen to a podcast of Father Mike Schmitz. Have you heard of him?” Those who regularly read my blogs know I am a devoted listener to Father Mike Schmitz’s podcasts. He is an excellent speaker whose lessons on life and God are inspired. Travis promptly pulled out his cell phone and showed me a picture of him with Father Mike and others. Travis had just been to the SEEK conference in San Antonio and heard Father Mike and others evangelize. This was the first indication that maybe Travis and my meeting was not by chance.

For the first time in a long time, I decided to talk to the person next to me on the plane.  I usually do not like to talk on planes.  But this was unbelievable.  Travis is an amazing young man. He was discerning to be a priest when he got another calling to be a physical therapist for Special Needs kids in Connecticut.  Working with his father and others, he treats autistic and other special needs children at Crossroads Physical Therapy.  I was so impressed by his kindness and devotion to God that I was not sure if it was all real so I looked him up (see http://www.quchronicle.com/2011/12/this-is-me-a-man-with-faith/).

I now asked him about book that he was he reading.   It was called 33 Days to Morning Glory.  He explained that the book was a 33 day retreat to grow closer and consecrate yourself to Jesus through the intercession of Mary.  Ok, I thought.  A little deep for me but he was so devoted I listened attentively.  Maybe God was speaking to me. 

We talked for another 20 minutes or so until Travis asked if he could take time out and say his daily rosary.  As we closed our conversation, he told me he was praying his daily rosary today for my intention.  I thanked him.  Later as we left the plane, we shook hands and I told him how much I enjoyed the conversation and prayers.  Little did I know that this was not the end of this change that started in mid-flight.

I could not get the conversation with Travis or that book out of my mind on the drive back home.  So that night I went on to Amazon and purchased 33 Days to Morning Glory  see here https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13559128-33-days-to-morning-glory.

Or so I thought! Instead with at that late hour, I through blurry eyes bought another book: 33 Days to Merciful Love! Noting that I ordered the wrong book, I later bought 33 Days to Morning Glory. After reading a few chapters of each book, I put them aside as work and life distracted me. The original spark faded until several months later, when God broke through again.

I was on a work trip in Raleigh, North Carolina. I could not sleep and got up at 4 O’clock. Wanting to get some restless energy out, I walked the streets of Raleigh with my earbuds in, listening to the latest podcast from Father Mike. It was the opening homily for Lent and as he finished, he told his parishioners at UMD that he had a book for all of them. The book was 33 Days to Merciful Love! Here is the actual podcast with the link to the book https://soundcloud.com/bulldogcatholic/wholehearted-part-i-go-big-be-small I have never felt God’s presence in my life more, as a tingle ran down my spine.

Third time is the charm.  I could not ignore the message any longer.  I performed both internal retreats covered in the books.  At the end, I consecrated myself to Jesus through Mary.  It was a life changing experience and though not yet all the way there, those retreats have helped me to grow closer to the Lord.   I now hope to bring others closer to Jesus both as a Core Team member with the Life Teen ministry.  

I still tear up thinking about this change in Mid-flight and Mid-life.  I hope this true-life message inspires you to put down that iPhone on the plane and to be a little more kind to the person in the seat next to you.  It just might be God trying to talk to you!