“return”

The following essay made its debut onstage at Write Club Atlanta on February 28, 2015. 

When I returned home from school on December 17, 2003, my day was only just beginning. Bouncing with a ferocious amount of enthusiasm, I bounded up the stairs and started getting ready. I tore myself free from the trappings of my boring, everyday clothes, and changed into a white button-down shirt, a pair of men’s trousers that I had hacked shorter with a pair of kitchen scissors, a yellow vest that my grandmother had made for me, and finally, a beautiful, purple cloak that my best friend Ali had sewn.

The doorbell rang. They were here! Ali, Jane, and Christie stood at my front door, and I ushered them inside delightedly. Ali held in her hand a special accessory for the evening: a bag of doll hair. Of course! Our costumes would be perfect now. I mean, what self-respecting Hobbit dares attend opening night of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” without hair on her feet?

Ali had already applied her own doll hair, and her Pippin costume looked amazing. She handed me the bag of remaining follicles, and I dashed up to the kitchen, eager to finish my Merry ensemble. After all, Christie and Jane were already dressed, as Arwen and Aragorn respectively. It was time to go! I was fourteen-years-old, shiny and new to the world of cosplay. I hadn’t heard of Spirit Gum yet, so I rummaged through the junk drawer until I uncovered the first adhesive I could get my impatient, nerdy fingers on: wood glue.

Without pausing to consider any future ramifications of my actions, I smeared liberal amounts of Elmer’s wood glue over the tops of my pale, tender girl-feet, and then sprinkled those same feet with curly, dark doll hair. Unfortunately for movie-going Hobbits, Regal Cinemas does require shoes inside its theaters, so, with all the dignity I could muster, I slid my halfling pube-toes into a pair of bright orange Old Navy flip flips.

There I stood: a fourteen-year-old, 5’9” Hobbit with gel-scrunched wavy hair, a vest made out of felt, and doll hair wood-glued to my feet. It was the happiest I had ever been. I was with my very best friends in the entire world, and we were about to finally see what was surely going to be the greatest film in the history of cinema.

Nobody at Dacula High School loved “The Lord of the Rings” like my friends and I loved “The Lord of the Rings.” When “The Fellowship of the Ring” first came out on DVD, we piled into my basement and rewound our favorite moments over and over. We memorized the birthdays and favorite colors of all the actors, so that we might wear the appropriate color to school on the appropriate date. On August 28, for example, we dressed in blue and wore handmade signs around our necks that said, “Happy Birthday, Billy Boyd!”

We wrote fan fiction in a notebook that we passed among one another in between classes; lengthy tales featuring our friendships and inevitable romances with members of the cast. For each of us, there was only one cast member on which you could have a crush-monopoly, and it was forbidden for another girl to express affections for that actor. We judiciously declared Orlando Bloom off limits; sort of the Switzerland of our raging teenage fangirl hormones. I was in love with Dominic Monaghan, who played Merry. One time I saw a picture of Dominic Monaghan wearing blue nail polish and eating a purple lollipop, so then I wore blue nail polish and ate a purple lollipop.

We used to hang out in the computer lab before class every day of 8th grade, and continually refresh the Lordoftherings.net home page. Back in the day, one of the actors greeted you when you logged on to the site. We would refresh over and over again, never not enthralled to hear the voices of our heroes.

Our journey of loving and anticipating the “Lord of the Rings” films was an epic one for my friends and me. The fictional world of Middle-earth as well as the reality of the cast and crew working in New Zealand dominated our time together. For just as much as we wanted to actually live in the Shire or in Rivendell, so too we wanted to live in Wellington and spend our days surfing with Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd, and playing pranks on Viggo Mortensen, and listening to music with Elijah Wood. It was life-affirming for young, passionate nerds to see the fun and friendship experienced by the members of the cast and crew. The same explosive love we carried in our hearts for books and movies that made us targets of ridicule at school could one day result in a project as wonderful as the “Lord of the Rings” films. We were so excited about “Return of the King.” Nothing else had ever felt so important.

As the movie started, we clasped each other hands and hardly dared to breathe for the next three hours. With each of the fade-to-black fake-out endings, my heart nearly stopped; I wasn’t ready to be done. Besides, there was only ever one correct way for the trilogy to end. It was still just 2003. Peter Jackson hadn’t let us down yet.

“Well, I’m back,” said Samwise Gamgee, and then he shut his round, yellow door. And it was over. We clapped thunderously and wiped our tired, weepy eyes, and then my mom drove everyone home.  Ali, Jane, Christie, and I hugged tightly as we bid one another farewell.

I returned home, and told my mom “good night.” And then I was alone in my bedroom. My heart still pounded with exhilaration. I looked around my room. The light stung my eyes after so many hours in the dark movie theatre. Objects in my room that normally brought me joy or comfort seemed strange and alien to me now. My dolphin wallpaper, my well-stocked bookshelf, my stuffed animals… I resented each one of them for reminding me of my life outside of “Lord of the Rings.” A quiet sadness crept over my swiftly-deflating heart. It was really over, and I was home.

Returning home after any-sized adventure is scary. Standing in my childhood bedroom, my Hobbit cloak draped over my shoulders, I tried to be brave even though I felt very small and frightened. The real world loomed quiet and vaster than I could ever comprehend. I worried that nothing else would ever matter to me as much as the “Lord of the Rings” movies did. Being a “Lord of the Rings” nerd had been my chief identity for the last three years. Who was I now, without the “Lord of the Rings?”

Perhaps more than anything, though, my heart broke for the cast and crew that I loved. If I felt so sad about the movies being over, what must it have been like for them? I imagined their final day of shooting, like the end of the school year times a million. Did they hug and cry and promise to keep in touch after they each returned home? There was no summer break for the Fellowship now, just a New Age that could afford them no promise of their continued love besides what they themselves were willing and able to muster.

My friends and I were in the ninth grade. We still had three years of high school together, but the end was in sight. A morning would come soon when we did not all return to the same hallways, but when we ventured forward and apart to colleges across the state and even across the country. Without the glue of our shared Lord of the Rings fandom coupled with physical proximity, I was concerned that our love for one another would fade.

As I changed out of my Hobbit costume and ripped the sticky, matted doll hair from my feet, I thought about Sam. I thought about how brave he was, to watch his very best friend sail away to the Undying Lands without him. I thought about the courage it must take to let someone go after going through such a tremendous and harrowing adventure with them. Finally, I thought of the fearlessness it takes to return home, and discover the courage to trust that your story is never truly ended.

For, of course, my story would go on, as would my friends’, after this night, after high school, and even after days that we could not yet foresee. And we would continue to play roles in one another’s tales. At Ali’s wedding, for example, the rest of us served collectively as her ring bearers and walked down the aisle to “Concerning Hobbits.” We were literally her Fellowship of the Ring, and we would be brave like Sam and continue to love one another to the end of all things.

So, in the early hours of December 18, 2003, my heart aching with love, gratitude, excitement, and not an insignificant amount of sorrow, I crawled into bed. I was fourteen-years-old, and the road went ever on and on. Alone in the dark, I curled into a ball and tugged a stuffed animal close to my heart.

“Well,” I whispered. “I’m back.”

music suggestion: “the breaking of the fellowship” by howard shore

drink suggestion: whatever you want, as long as it comes in pints

it’s something that i’m s’posed to be

This looks familiar, vaguely familiar.

My alarm goes off, and I can’t. It feels like there’s something far heavier than my flannel bunny sheets and blue fleece blanket pressing down on my chest. The contents of my brain and heart resemble the results of when I try to make a slow cooker soup from a Buzzfeed recipe; enthusiastically pursued, but ultimately mushy and disappointing. I have slept for nine hours, and I am exhausted.

I hope that something better comes along.

My alarm is going off, because I’m supposed to go to yoga. It’s 8 am, and if I’m to make a 9:30 yoga class, I need to get up now, get dressed, eat a small breakfast, and start my 1.8 mile trek to the yoga studio by 8:45am at the latest.

“You like yoga,” the Nice Voice reasons. “You feel good after yoga!”

“Also, you’re fat and awful, and yoga will help fix that,” snarls the Unhelpful Voice.

“What’s the point of anything?” offers Depression.

“Come on! Get up! You’ll have fun! Endorphins are good for us!” Nice Voice is eager, but she’s already sounding panicked and feeble.

“Get out of bed, bitch. You can’t stay in bed and watch old SNL sketches online for an hour and a half again. You’re a lazy whore, and no one likes you. Do you think Amy Poehler and Tina Fey got where they are by staying in bed all morning and skipping yoga?” hisses the Unhelpful Voice.

“You’ll never be like Amy and Tina anyway,” Depression mutters. “And it’s cold outside.”

Unhelpful Voice knows my tricks. I slide my phone off of my nightstand, and bury deeper into the covers to watch Debbie Downer and Haunted Elevator each for the seven hundredth time. Admiring the sheer perfection that is Rachel Dratch helps to quiet the voices for a little bit.

8:15am.

“You can still make it,” whispers Nice Voice, full of encouragement and kindness. “The cold air will feel good on your face! You’ll wake up, and then you’ll want to write all day long, and you’ll finally come up with something amazing! Go for it! I believe in you!”

8:30am. Time to watch every Stefon appearance on Weekend Update. Bill Hader’s incredible.

“Okay, last sketch! You can do it! You can get breakfast afterwards! You can go to Starbucks, and it’ll be okay because you’ll have worked out! Please, Dani! Get out of bed!” Nice Voice is begging. She’ll do anything.

“I hate you so much,” Unhelpful Voice doesn’t need to yell this one. Her voice is quiet, pure, unwavering.

8:46am.

“Whatever.” Fair point, Depression.

This could become a habit.

Fast forward through every Emmy Awards opening monologue over the past four years– Andy Samberg’s stint was underrated, by the way– to 9:30am. No one is expecting me in person until 12:30pm, but I’m still embarrassed by my morning’s activities. I finally slouch off to the bathroom, unable to put off facing the day any longer.

I note my reflection in the mirror long enough to agonize over the blemishes on my face and the squish of my belly.

“Should’ve gone to yoga,” whispers Unhelpful Voice.

The orange pill bottle sits next to the bullshit Salicylic Acid-laced acne remover that doesn’t. Fucking. Do anything. It’s been a little over a week since I increased my dosage to two pills. Mood stabilizers. There’s currently a sheet of paper in my bedside drawer, upon which a doctor who went to college and knows things typed the phrase, “Bipolar II.” It’s been about four weeks of taking the medicine, too early to note anything besides a little nausea.

Now begins the changin’, mental rearrangin’, nothing’s really where it’s at.

A renewed sense of determination overtakes me as I step into the living room. The vacuumed floor floods me with a treacherous sense of peace.

“Psst,” Nice Voice, again. Cautious. “You can still do some yoga, if you want to. That still counts, right?”

I decide that it does still count. I light a lavender and sage candle, roll out my purple yoga mat, and go to my laptop to settle on a musical selection.

“This counts,” repeats Nice Voice, growing firmer as I set about this small self-care ritual.

But what music to accompany my solitary sun salutations? Something to pump me up? Something to calm me down? Tears start to well in my eyes and my breathing speeds up when what I need hops out of nowhere and punches me right in the heart.

Already sniffling, I type “Muppet Movie” into the Spotify search bar.

As Kermit’s banjo starts to plink, I step onto my mat. My eyes feel too big, I imagine I look crazy, I don’t know how to breathe anymore, my fingers are shaking, I feel like throwing up, I want everything to stop, I want everything to go away, I want to go away. I can’t, Kermit, I can’t. I’m sorry. I love you.

Why are there so many songs about rainbows? And what’s on the other side?

Beginning to quietly sob, I force myself through some easy stretches, through a sun salutation or two, through Tree Pose, which I genuinely enjoy. Nice Voice was right. I do like this. I do feel a little better.

I return to The Muppets pretty frequently when I feel like throwing in the proverbial towel. I’m not always okay these days, and I know there will be more mornings when the mere notion of getting out of bed and making a piece of toast fills me with a completely overwhelming sense of panic and despair. Deep in my gut, though, past the anxiety and the depression and the bipolar II, live the lessons of the Muppets. Gonzo’s enthusiasm and unwavering bravery. Rowlf’s pragmatic coolness. Fozzie’s ability to still find joy in his craft even in the face of cruelty and failure. The Electric Mayhem’s contagious glee in the creation and sharing of their art.

Kermit’s hope. Kermit’s determination. Kermit’s quiet struggle to be enough, to be a leader, to take care of himself and his friends, to accept that he’ll make mistakes along the way. Kermit’s realization that, “I guess I was wrong when I said I never promised anyone. I promised me.”

I promised me. I promised Kermit. I remember how to breathe. I find Star Pose. I fill my Star with breath. I promise to keep breathing. I’ll need it if I’m going to keep chasing rainbows with Kermit.

Someday we’ll find it.

music suggestion: “the muppet movie” soundtrack, of course

hot drink suggestion: it’s not easy bein’ green tea with a little lemon