Saturday, June 25, 2016

Poetry Jag!

I joined a writer's group in the fall, and every month we have a theme on which we all write. A couple of months ago, the assignment was to write a "For Sale" ad in 100 words or less. Mine came out as poetry. (Note that in the second example, the legal disclaimer wasn't part of the word count.) I wrote the poems days after the death of Prince, who is the "legend" referred to in the second poem.

Immortality Can Be Yours!

For Sale: Immortality
Don't believe me?
Tell me--
Do we remember Sun Tzu for his victories by the sword?
His battles are forgotten,
his sword turned to rust,
but The Art of War lives on,
read and studied still today.
Two thousand years and another half thousand,
and the name Sun Tzu lives on.
(Not that he actually wrote the book--
it is enough that he has been given credit.)
The pen is indeed the mightier.
For sale: Immortality.
Available at your local Dollarama--
a notebook and a pen.
Two dollars and fifty cents (plus tax).



Reflections on the Death of a Legend

For Sale: Fame and Fortune.
Ten million views on YouTube!
A hundred thousand followers on Twitter!
Many thousands of friends--
if only on Facebook.

Your Name In Lights!!!!

Two payment plans available:

Get it now:
ZERO DOWN!
(Balance payable in four installments:
Your self-respect,
your morals,
your soul,
your life.)

Or put it on layaway:
Small daily installments of blood, sweat, tears and toil required.
(With balance of
your soul
your life
payable upon delivery.)

CALL THE NUMBER ON YOUR SCREEN NOW! THIS OFFER IS TIME LIMITED AND MAY NOT BE REPEATED!

(Legal Disclaimer: Read the fine print before you buy. Side effects may include family and marital discord, alcohol and drug abuse, anorexia, plastic surgery, depression and suicidal thoughts and actions. This product is not recommended for pregnant and nursing women, children, people with children, or anyone who is already happy with life. Purchaser agrees to assume all responsibility and liability for any negative repercussions, listed or unlisted. Purchaser agrees to pay agent fifteen percent of all gross revenues earned while this contract is in force.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

I Believe

The colours flow from the tube:
Cadmium Red
Ochre Yellow
Burnt Sienna
Cobalt Blue
The ever-so-descriptive Mars Black
The ubiquitous Titanium White.
Pure ribbons of paint
Mix
And become a rainbow.
Taken up by a brush and applied to canvas
A world emerges:
Green trees and brown fields and blue sky and puffy white clouds.
Sunset.
Moonrise.
If there is no such thing as magic,
Then what is this?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Things We Found in the Fire

Reading: Acts 2

My son David preached yesterday, and his sermon reminded the congregation that the images surrounding Pentecost of "tongues of flame" aren't always comfortable ones. In ordinary years, the average congregant might perhaps equate those flames with the warmth of a fire on the hearth, or in a wood stove. Perhaps we might think of roasting marshmallows over a campfire or a candle-lit dinner with a loved one.

Warmth, beauty, sustenance--these are the associations we might make with the fire and flames of Pentecost in an ordinary year.

But as David pointed out, this isn't an ordinary year. Fire still rages over vast areas of Northern Alberta, and the entire city of Fort McMurray has been evacuated. "Only" two lives lost (if one can describe anyone's death as "only two lives"), and those in a motor vehicle accident, not in the fire itself. But eighty thousand people are now homeless and unemployed, and many of those will never return home or work in Fort McMurray again. Parts of the city have been destroyed by fire, while much of the rest will likely sustain damage from the smoke and heat.

Tell the people of Fort McMurray or anyone whose home, business, school or place of worship has been consumed by fire that flames are warm, sustaining and nurturing! The truth is that those small, tame fires are merely seeds of something that can grow to be much bigger. Given the right encouragement, a campfire can consume a city.

Believe it or not, those raging, out-of-control fires are necessary. A forest fire is nature's way of clearing out dead growth and underbrush, and preparing a nutrient-rich seed bed for new life. Certain pine cones will only open to release the seeds within when heated to extreme temperatures. Numerous species of animals and birds, including deer and black bears, thrive in the aftermath of a forest fire. The death and destruction of the old brings about life for the new.

And so we come to a bunch of men and women, some hundred and twenty persons in all, hiding, meeting in small groups, comforting one another and grieving for the past, as those in transition are wont to do.

Then roaring through their gathering with the ferocity and violence of a Northern Alberta forest fire comes the Holy Spirit.

Come, Holy Spirit. Come.

If we had any knowledge of the true power of that invocation, many of us would never utter it again.

That roaring power immediately destroyed that tiny gathering of Messianic Jews. They began babbling in languages they'd never learned to speak. Onlookers accused them of being drunk--at nine o'clock in the morning! The tongues like fire raged, burning away their protective cocoon. They left the room where they were gathered and began to witness to the people of the city. They stopped speaking their own language, and told the story of the Risen Christ in tongues that their listeners understood.

And within days, one hundred and twenty Messianic Jews became over three thousand Christians. The raging fires of Pentecost had given birth to the Christian Church.

We sit in our pews today, and we have once again dwindled. Two thousand years of traditions and doctrine and being embraced by the political establishment have grown up around the pillars of our faith, sometimes choking them, and certainly smothering new ideas. We have become more afraid of losing our positions of influence with the governing bodies of our countries than we are of losing our evangelistic roots. Many of our churches today are insular, pursuing what they perceive as "their God-given mission," in isolation from other congregations of the faithful and from the world. The majority of congregations today aren't any bigger than that scared little group of first century Messianic Jews, and many of them are much smaller.

And so we huddle in our little congregations on Sunday mornings, speaking our own languages, preaching to the converted, and fearing the future.

Come, Holy Spirit. Come.

Burn away our fear and shame. Make us drunk with the possibility of new life. Blow away our cloak of respectability, and teach us to speak the languages of the masses outside our door.

Teach us to prophesy. Fill us with dreams. Boot us out of our sanctuaries and into the world. Impel us to act.

Prepare us as a seed bed to nurture new life.

Come, Holy Spirit. Come!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

RIP Dad

It's finally over.

Two years ago (shortly before my son went berserk) my father slid all the way into dementia. He'd been showing signs for a few years, but sometime around Christmas he attacked my mother as she was sitting at the table. A couple of weeks later, he attacked my sister-in-law. My younger brother only found out because he'd phoned Mom to tell her that his son had been in a serious snowmobile accident (he recovered).

My brother called me, and we urged Mom to put Dad into a nursing home. Instead, she decided to ask for home care. The night before the home care assessment was to happen, Dad struck again, this time attacking my brother. They called 911, and Dad was taken to hospital. I'm told that once there, he got out of bed, wandered around a bit, then got back into bed.

He never walked again.

When I visited on the weekend, he was unable to speak coherently, and I wasn't certain he recognized me.

He was in the hospital for a few weeks, but once his condition stabilized, he was moved to the long-term care wing. At that point, his OHIP-subsidized stay ended. Unable to pay both a mortgage and my Dad's costs, Mom put the farm up for sale.

At this point, my brother and sister-in-law, who were both hoarders, both chain smokers, and both alcoholics, were living with my parents. Neither had worked in years, they lived out in the country, and it was winter. They were present for every single showing, and there were many at first.

Unsurprisingly, no offers on the place were forthcoming, despite its being over a hundred acres of bush in cottage country.

My brother and his wife did manage to get away on the long weekend in May, and I brought a friend up to the farm to clean. We did what we could, and by the end of the weekend the kitchen, front entrance, and bathroom were decluttered and cleaner, if not exactly clean. We put odor eaters in every room.

Then my brother and sister-in-law came home and immediately dumped their bags on the kitchen table, sat down in the living room, lit up and popped open beers.

Despite this, the next week garnered an offer, conditional on an acceptable home inspection.

A crack in the foundation was discovered.

Instead of purchasing the inspection report (it was offered for less than half of the cost of the inspection) and selling the place as-is, my mother elected to travel into major debt territory and call in a contractor to fix it.

My brother decided to stay and "help" the contractor, despite the fact that he'd lined up a place to live and a job in Welland, where his buddy lives. My brother still insists he saved my mother money, but I calculate her loss at thousands of dollars. He actually slowed down the contractor (he didn't follow through on jobs he'd been assigned), and I would not clean while he was in the house.

In order to encourage him to leave, and to save a little money, my mother cut off the satellite service. They watched DVDs instead. By this time, Mom had moved in with me, at least part-time, and we were making weekly three and a half hour trips (one way) to keep an eye on how things were going. My mother threatened in June to cut off the electricity, but before she needed to carry out that threat, the company hired to clean out the septic tank discovered major problems, and the water was shut off.

That forced them out, but by then it was the beginning of July, and the house was off the market. We'd missed the big wave of people wanting to buy in that area (by July, most of them had bought or were waiting until the following spring.) Cleaning began in earnest. I traveled up to the farm at least once every week with anyone who would come along to help. We emptied out the trash (seven dumpster loads), took about twenty car loads of stuff to the thrift store, and brought piles of stuff home. I filled up my basement, then a storage locker. We cleaned tar and ash and soot off of just about every surface. We cleaned mouse poop out of the pantry and every single cupboard. Then Mom decided that the kitchen needed to be redone.

Finances became critical. I was spending over a hundred dollars a week going up to the farm, and I had to take out a ten thousand dollar loan in my own name in order to keep the contractor working and the other wolves at bay.

Finally in October, with the house mostly cleared out and a new septic system and foundation, as well as the beginnings of a new kitchen, the house went back on the market. Being in vacation country, there were few showings during the fall and winter. And one of the showings resulted in one of the "prospective buyers" returning on his own, driving over the new septic bed with his pickup, and appropriating some of the tools my brother had left in an unlocked outbuilding.

The house did sell the following spring--Mom received two offers on the same day! The major debts were paid off, and we finally were able to sleep at night.

Meanwhile, Dad had been moved to a nursing home in Fergus, about half an hour from where I live. It wasn't great, but it was close enough for Mom and I to visit often. After about a year, Dad was offered a place in a better home only ten minutes away.

At first, Dad would often be awake when we visited. Sometimes he would recognize us, and sometimes he wouldn't. Once he even had a somewhat coherent conversation with Mom, but by winter of 2014 he'd stopped talking entirely. He did enjoy music therapy right up until the end, but he didn't respond to much else. Most of our visits in the final few months of his life were very short.

My brother and sister-in-law, surprisingly enough, are doing reasonably well. For the first time since they married, they have their own place, and my brother found a decent job which lasted for well over a year. He was recently laid off, but he's looking for work, as well as calling his former boss, hoping for a recall. They have friends and they do volunteer work. Life isn't perfect, but they are now adults and no longer anyone's responsibility but their own.

Dad died on Monday, February 15th, 2016 after a short illness. In the week preceding his death, my younger brother and his wife, my son and his husband, and my daughter all had a chance to visit and say goodbyes. His funeral was not large, but friends and family came from all over, including one of my childhood friends I hadn't seen in over thirty years, and a first cousin once removed who I'd never met, but who lives less than ten minutes away.

It's finally over, and new life begins for my mother, brothers, and me.

I'm glad.

I know Dad never wanted for this long drawn ordeal to happen. I'm sure he's glad too.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Lessons from Olympic Hockey

I'll confess up front--I didn't actually watch any of the Olympic hockey games straight through. That being said, I do deliver the daily paper, and this being Canada, the fortunes of our teams have been front page news after every single game. It's very hard to miss, even if you live in a cave, which I don't.

The men's tournament has left me with some thoughts about life in general. The US and Canada, arch-rivals that they are, were both undefeated until they met each other in the semi-finals. However, the roads to the semi-finals seemed quite different from where I watched. The Canadian team, despite being one of the two favourites to win the gold, seemed to struggle. Their wins were not easy ones. The US team, the other favourite, won their games easily and went into the semi-final game with a confidence that the Canadians didn't have.

At least, that's how it felt here in Guelph. Before the semi-final game, those I talked to did not seem to feel that the outcome of the match was a foregone conclusion, and everyone agreed that Team Canada would have to tighten their collective laces if they wanted to advance to the finals. The US team, on the other hand, seemed to be brimming with confidence.

We all now know the outcome of the story, and our men came home with gold medals around their necks.

The US team, however, went on to lose their match with Finland for the bronze in spectacular style. It almost seems as if they gave up. Go for gold, or go home seemed to be the attitude.

Now, as I said, I'm not really "up" on all the news, and I don't know any of the players personally, so I don't have the inside track. I only know what it looks like from my little corner of Ontario. Nor am I trying to put down the US team or boast about Canada. I think, if Canada had lost the semi-finals and the US had won, that Finland still would have had more than a slim chance to take the bronze. The US and Canadian teams aren't really all that different, nor are our attitudes towards winning and losing.

What I really got from this tournament was the awareness that being really good at something, and having it easy (especially in the early rounds), is actually a disadvantage when the going gets rough, as it eventually most definitely will.

In my own case, I managed to make it through grade school, and high school, and undergraduate and even graduate school on the strength of my native intelligence and my ability to write well. Those were the preliminary rounds of life, and I aced them. Not one single assignment that I can remember submitting in all those years of school was anything more than a first draft. Very few of them took more than a day or so to write. Including a few twenty page tomes!

And now I'm out here in real life, and like so many others who did exceptionally well in school, I'm foundering, not because I can't work, but because I never learned HOW! I'm like the writerly version of the US team. I can write well, very well indeed. But when push comes to shove, I can't muster the effort to even go for the bronze, especially since I'm well aware that I have the talent to go for the gold.

So what have I learned from these last two weeks of hockey, skiing, hockey, skating, hockey... (You get the picture. Sometimes I think there's only one winter sport that matters to most Canadians...)

I need to lace up my skates, so to speak, and get my moves on. I'm 53 years old. I have stories to tell you, stories you will never read if I don't get to work and write them down, revise them, and PUBLISH them. I have to accept that maybe I won't win the gold. Maybe my stories won't win me the fame of J.K. Rowling or Tolkein or even Dan Brown. Maybe instead, I won't even win a medal.

But it's certain that I won't even be in the game if I don't start clicking the keys on my keyboard every day. It's certain that if I don't write and revise and publish, I won't even have a shot at the tournament, let alone a medal.

And I need to remember, as the US team does (and all of the members of all of the teams that didn't even make it past the preliminaries) that even making it to the Olympics (or to the level of being a published author) is so rare as to be an incredible acheivement on its own. Only one team, or one person, can be the top in anything. Almost all of the rest of humanity must be content with less than the gold. That doesn't make our efforts any less worthwhile.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

In the Silence Wisdom

This morning I read a blog post by a young woman who had facial reconstruction on Thursday. She writes:

"So, I had a lot of plans for my days off. I was going to finish writing my book, enjoy some comfy time on my couch with snacks and movies, and enjoy the peace and quiet.

REALITY CHECK.

Or, what I could really be doing, is nothing. NOTHING."

She goes on to say that, "But as I am learning more and more, I plan, God laughs. Maybe this is what I needed. Time for reflection. Time to be trapped in my head a little bit. Time, for once in my life, to focus on absolutely nothing but me, and just process. I can't say that I have ever in my entire life had time to focus on just me."

Her words resonated deeply, when less than an hour later, I was sitting in church singing "If you follow and love, you'll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be." (I Am the Light of the World, by Jim Strathdee)

And of course, a scripture verse came to mind, from 1 Kings 19:11-13:

[The Word of the LORD] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (KJV)

Her words resonated deeply because on Wednesday, I spent thirteen hours sitting in an emergency exam room, watching my youngest, who was zoned out on Atavan and codeine, as they tried to figure out why he had suddenly changed from a good-humoured but autistic young man into a raging demon who literally broke down walls (and other things). They did x-rays, and ultrasounds, and urine and blood tests, and...

Everything came back normal. The best we can figure out is that he MIGHT have an ear infection, which was what the emerg doctor said Monday morning. But the antibiotics hadn't made any noticable difference by Wednesday, which was why we ended up back in emerg. With a police escort, I might add.

At any rate, while he was lying zoned out on the bed, I had time to sit and think and read.

And to contemplate where I had been and where I was going to go. Those thirteen hours of being mostly alone in my head constituted a watershed moment for me.

First off, I finally came to accept in both head and heart that I would never, ever be able to take a job outside the home again. While this behaviour is definitely not normal, even normal events mean that someone (meaning Mom) has to be home. If the weather is bad and Robin can't go to work. If he's got a cold, or a dentist or doctor appointment. Even if he does go to work, I need to drive him there at nine, and pick him up at 3:30, and be on call in between those hours in case there's a problem.

My head knew this, of course, but my heart was saying, "But I've got these nifty degrees, and I'd love so much to work for a non-profit or a church or something. Maybe even just part time? Please?"

Reality? I've had trouble this week finding time to deliver my papers. And sleep. And do the dishes and the laundry.

So, in the silence, God was with me. "What are you doing here, Ruth?"

And out of the silence, a new seed was planted. Reading two recent books on how to make both a life and a living, and thinking about my real mission in life. About why I am where I am. About what I am doing here.

I am, of course, here to help myself, my family, and my brothers and sisters around the world to live a better life. I have particular skills that I have developed over the years, and some innate talents and passions that have always been there.

I can write about these, and help others develop them. I can speak, and preach, and do other things.

Partway through, I realized that I have family members who might be willing co-conspiritors, most notably my sort-of ex-husband ("sort-of" because we're separated, but not divorced, and we work together to raise our family and keep things running smoothly). Sitting in emergency gave us time to talk about that, too.

He read the first little bit of the book (Be a Free Range Human, by Marianne Cantwell) while I was at lunch, and remarked when I got back that he now had a clearer idea of where I was trying to go. We talked about some ideas I'd had, and even though he has no plans to quit his job (he loves it, even if he does complain about it daily), he's on board to help out as he can and encourage.

Out of the silence wisdom, and a fledgling idea that just maybe will lead to a better life for myself and others.

And a lot of work. I have no doubt about that, but I'm up to it.

I just need to remember to take time every once in a while to listen in silence, to hear God speaking, so that the path and the purpose will remain clear.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"Fan" is Just Short for "Fanatic"

Okay. I've been promising this post to various people for years now, and I figure I might as well start off 2014 right and get 'er done.

The question has always been, "Ruth, why are you so enthused about Lord of the Rings."

Okay, so the word "enthused" might be a bit bland and lifeless compared to the reality. I've read the books at least once every year (usually starting in January) since I was seventeen. That's a lot of reads. The first time I read it, I hid the books under my desk and read during math class. Which might have something to do with the fact that I had to repeat that class the following year, but no matter. It gave me another year of math class to read the books. Again. I've gone through at least four complete sets of the books.

When the animated version of LotR came out, I watched it several times, and was beyond disappointed that it was never finished. I waited, and waited, and waited for someone to do it right and make the movie.

Let's just say that Peter Jackson et al. & Cineplex Entertainment have made a bundle off me and leave it at that, shall we? Or perhaps I should tell you the whole truth.

Fellowship:
19 viewings in theatres. The movie came out in December. I was still searching out second run theatres and larger multiplexes in June and July to see it.

Two Towers: 17 times in theatres. The Two Towers is actually my favourite of the books, but my least favourite of the movies. Not sure if it's the fact that as the middle movie it has no real beginning and no real end, or the fact that the music wasn't as great as the others.

Return of the King: Overboard on this one--21 times in theatres.

All of those numbers include a "Triple Tuesday" where I saw all three movies (including the extended versions of the first two) in the theatre, one after the other. That day, I earned the everlasting enmity of my dearest only daughter, because I was sent to buy five tickets, and there was only one ticket left to buy. I wasn't going to leave it unbought, was I? And since I'm the one that could drive, and I wasn't going to pick her up at one in the morning after SHE watched the movies and I didn't, she was left at home to sulk. She's been sulking for ten years now, but never fear! She may talk to me next year, if I manage to get to the tickets for The Hobbit triple showing in time to get more than one.

And of course I own all the DVDs, both theatrical release and extended editions, complete with bonus discs.

So the question is, "Why?"

I mean, other people like the books, and more like the movies. But they're not fanatics about it, or if they are, they're clearly not in my league. Well, most of them aren't, anyhow. The existence of this house proves that some folks are more fanatical than I am, or at least proves that some fans have more money than I have.

It has to do with the nature of the story itself, and the depth of the story and of the world it takes place in.

The world of Middle Earth was not thought up in a week, in preparation for NaNo. It wasn't developed over the course of a year, with cultures and differing political and dress codes sketched out. It was developed over a period of twenty years. The world has a history. And myths and legends that are not only stories the characters tell one another, but part of the fabric of the tale. Frodo's starglass has a history that starts long before the book begins, and continues long after it. Aragorn and Arwen and Galadriel and Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin and Gimli and Legolas aren't just characters, who maybe have brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers who are named, but instead who have complete genealogies mapped out in the back of the book, complete with little stories of some of the more notable ancestors and descendents. Geography isn't just there for scenery shots, it has a real bearing on the story and how it develops. And it goes without saying that a book where there are different languages not only for each species, but also for each country within the species (Rohan and Gondor, or the differing elvish languages, for example) seems much more real than a book where the characters travel from country to country and the only thing that really changes is the mode of dress.

It's that depth that helps me lose myself. Reading Lord of the Rings is not really like reading a book. It's more like going away on vacation to an exotic world, one to which I'd move in a heartbeat if it were a real one. (I have this fantasy about opening a retreat for writers called Rivendell.)

The other thing that hooks me is the nature of the story itself. Epic fantasy, by definition, is the story of good versus evil. But most of these stories seem to me to be lacking in the reality department. People are complex, and no-one is ever all evil or all good. Tolkien gets this right. Even Sauron was not always evil. Saruman was not always evil. And those who are definitely good, people like Bilbo and Frodo and Gandalf and Aragorn, are tempted and seduced by evil, and may not always overcome it completely. There are wrong and right actions, but there is also grace and forgiveness offered, and sometimes even received.

Even more important to me is the way in which the bad guy is overcome. Even in my own writing, the good side and the bad side tend to use the same weapons, and they tend to be deadly. The real message of Lord of the Rings, one I've actually preached in a sermon, is not that might makes right. The real message is that the only way to defeat the enemy is to throw away the power that is so tempting to misuse. To throw away the Ring of Power. Because to use might to assert your dominance won't free the slaves or save the environment or bring in universal peace and prosperity. It will just replace one dictatorial government with another.

Tolkien knew this, and so do the wisest of his characters.

Gandalf: "No! With that power I should have power too great and terrible... Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good."

Galadriel: "And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen... All shall love me and despair!" When Sam later urges her to take the ring saying, "You'd put things to rights. You'd stop them digging up the gaffer and turning him adrift. You'd make some folk pay for their dirty work," she replies, "I would! That is how it would begin. But it would not stop with that, alas!"

In contrast, the "heroic" characters, Boromir the brave warrior captain of Gondor, and his father Denethor, a wise and respected leader of men, fail at the test. They lust after the power contained in the Ring, so much so that they cast aside all honour in attempts to gain the Ring by force. Yet Tolkien shows them to be not evil, but pitiable. They simply cannot envision a world where peace can be achieved by anything except strength of arms.

One fact that's fairly well known but conveniently forgotten by many if not most readers is that Lord of the Rings is not just fantasy fiction, but Christian fantasy fiction. Tolkien doesn't talk much about God in the books, and about Christ not at all, but the entire framework of the world reflects a Roman Catholic cosmology (I could go into depth about it, but that would be an entire book's worth of pretty dense comparison, I think), and the basic moral ethos of the main characters (Gandalf in particular) comes right out of the New Testament.

One speech of Gandalf's stands out in this regard. Frodo has just declared that it is a pity that Bilbo didn't kill Gollum when he first had the chance, and Gandalf says, "Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity." Gandalf is telling Frodo that pity and mercy are not gifts you give to the person you are sparing, given because you feel sorry for the other. They're necessary for the survival of your own soul. When Frodo finally comes face to face with Gollum, he understands this truth: Gollum is what he will become if he fails to show the same pity and mercy that Bilbo showed.

Lord of the Rings is not a perfect book. In my head, I know that. There are a few parts where I cringe: one in particular where Tolkien uses the phrase "like an express train" and my little hobbit self wants to ask, "What in Middle Earth is an express train?" I would have liked to have more stories about the women in the book, particularly Galadriel and her granddaughter Arwen, who are not nearly as self-effacing as Lord of the Rings makes them seem. (But you'll have to read The Silmarillion in order to understand just how badass Galadriel really is). The language can be a bit dense for some, and the descriptions are a little too long in parts, even given that the book was written by someone with a Victorian mindset. But in all my life of reading, I haven't yet found another book that comes anywhere near as close to perfection as Lord of the Rings. (We'll leave the Bible out of consideration here, because they're not really in the same class of reading for me.)

And believe me, I've looked.