I have always understood the desire to escape, to leave real life behind for a while. It’s not that my life is so bad that I need to get out. I’m thankful for my family and friends, for the roof over my head and the food I always have enough of. Despite my shyness and tendency to prefer books to people, I was rarely picked on. On the occasions I was picked on, it was usually because I didn’t get the joke, and once I did get it, I often felt more mature for not finding it very funny. So no, bullying didn’t scar me.
So why leave?
I don’t know.
And yet, I do. I love new places – I love the thrill of them, the beauty of them, the strangeness of them. France was never high on my destinations list, but I did an exchange there the summer before grade ten. Even stepping into the airport was fantastic, and seeing Paris was a delight. Imagine the joy, then, of a small town in Normandy, of a room on the top floor of the house next to the tall stone church, of the ruins of an abbey just down the street. What curiosity to get breakfast from the baker’s each morning, and to always have apéritif before supper. That month was when I knew I would have to see the world. With my family I saw France again, and Germany. South Africa was the latest step in this, and I loved that, too. None of this on its own satisfied me, though. I reached further away, always thinking about where else I could go, what else I could see.
I know, though, that escaping started even earlier. I can’t remember the first time I wished myself into a story, and I hardly stopped. Narnia, Middle-Earth, Malkier, Regency England, Hogwarts, A Galaxy Far, Far Away, the TARDIS… places that grew in my mind. I have a very vivid imagination, and stories never ended where the pages left off. There was more, and I could step into those lands and be a part of them. They were rich and bright and full of life. They were new and exotic, with hidden dangers and brilliant delights. I wanted to see them and they welcomed me in. When I really settled in, I found the darkness along with the delights. I saw monsters and terrible men. I felt an awful fear. Yet the joy always outweighed everything else, and at the end of all things I found myself in Aslan’s Country or in Valinor, where nothing terrible could last.
I found I loved the person that I was there. I was bolder and stronger. I have always been smart but here I learned what I wanted to and knew whatever was needed. My friends and family in real life were great, but few, and in my head I was recognized (though in real life I feared recognition – and still sometimes do). People sought my advice and let me into their lives. In short, I became a hero. But with that, I ‘grew up’. A hero knows that war is not glorious but something to hate, even when you are standing against creatures of pure evil. The fortunate friend and confidante knows what it is to have your heart cry for the pain of others.
I am sure this is the story of nearly everyone who reads good stories.
When I went away on outtatown this year, I found a place in the real world for the first time. I saw many new places and enjoyed everything about them that was good and amazing. I learned about their darkness, too, and knew to fear it. I found a place among friends where I was recognized for my gifts and taught to grow – what a blessing! My family grew enormously this past year, and I know better than I ever could have imagined what it feels like when your heart cries. For a while, I didn’t have to go into a story to be someone I loved. I was bold and strong and knowledgeable and ready to grow in all of those things.
Now I’m home, and I feel a bit out of place again. I can still see my place in this world quite clearly, and I can see that I have it in me to be everything I imagined I could be. But I often feel held down, and I reach out to the familiar places I have never seen, to the friends I never knew who know me inside out.
And so I will uphold the value of escaping, because without first running away, I would not ever have chosen my own adventures. I would never have imagined I could be more than a meek, geeky girl. And I would never have known that there was something more to reach for. This world can limit us to our hometown and the person everyone thinks we are. I think the Enemy would like us to stay right where we are and never reach for what could be. J. R. R. Tolkien said it better than I:
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”