Of all the amazing locations in fantasy books, Rivendell has always been one of those I've most wished to visit. Its peaceful beauty and the respite it offers from the cares of normal life draw me to it, making me wish the valley of Imladris were real.
I never realized that it- or somewhere very like it- is, and not only that, but I've visited there a half-dozen times.
White Sulpher Springs, the eastern conference center for Officer's Christian Fellowship, is not home to elven lords, nor is it located near the Misty Mountains (though it is found in the Allegheny Mountains, which get pretty foggy in the mornings). But the things that really make me want to visit Rivendell are found there all the same. It's a beautiful place, particularly in the early mornings, when the air is still cool (even in August), the sky is just waking up, and there's still mist over the forest-covered mountains. Nearly every morning, I'd do my devotions in a rocking chair on the back porch and stare out at the sky, the hills, and the gravel road that winds past pastures and into the trees. It's peaceful, a place apart from the troubles of everyday. There's delicious food, singing at every meal and throughout the day, good company, and good discussions.
And, for me, it's Rivendell in another way: a Last Homely House to welcome me before I bid farewell to Virginia and set off for whatever adventures New York has to offer. And as Rivendell provided rest for Frodo and Bilbo and a place for them to prepare for the rest of their adventure, so White Sulpher Springs gave the same to me.
I wasn't at White Sulpher Springs to relax- not by a long shot. I was staying there as part of Support Staff, a team of sixteen highschoolers (eight guys, eight girls) who work around the hotel and help keep it running. The guys work outside, chopping wood and mowing lawns and such. The girls take care of cleaning and meal prep; in the two weeks I was there, I vacuumed halls and stairs, dusted almost every room at least once, washed far too many windows, cleaned bathrooms (a less unpleasant job than it sounds), prepared and served drinks, set tables, washed silverware (not a task for the squeemish- the water gets very greasy very fast), and more. It was hard work- but not as tedious as I feared.
And once our chores were done- and most days, that happened by noon, or perhaps two at the latest, excluding dinner prep- we were free to do as we pleased. There were events most days which we had to help with, true: International Night on Monday (I got to wear a kilt!), ice cream social at the old hotel on Tuesday, Western Night on Wednesday (at which I learned how to square dance and do the Virginia Reel, both of which are more fun than I expected), a picnic and games on Thursday, new guests on Friday, and afternoon tea on Sunday. But the events are fun, and staff is not only allowed but strongly encouraged to enjoy them- a good thing, since we occasionally outnumbered the guests.
And almost every night, after dinner and worship music and before the speaker for the retreat started talking, there was Family Hour, a sort of talent show for guests and staff alike to use their gifts to praise God. I read The Mercy Song one night; many people sang or played some instrument. One Support Staff girl, Anna, who's fluent in sign language, signed to a new song almost every night. Then, on Monday nights, after the speaker's message was over, we had Skit Night, a chance for all sorts of hilarious. On one of these, I got to read The Pen and the Sword- and it was amazing. I've never been confident speaking in front of people, but that evening, well- I was already wearing a kilt, and I love my poem, and I just decided to go full-on bard, being as dramatic as possible with my introduction and poem, and I owned it.
And when there were no events and no chores, I had books to read or poetry to write- or, if I wanted, friends to hang out with. The Support Staff girls did more than support the hotel; we supported each other. I can't even begin to name all the times when I or another girl was struggling with something and one or more of the others stepped in to encourage whoever it was. The encouragement took many forms: a helping hand with chores when someone was tired or overwhelmed, a listening ear when someone needed to talk, hugs and strengthening words and comfort food on the second Wednesday when square dancing went sour for two of us (one of whom was me- Accidental Exile syndrome kicked in, for the only time in those weeks). Sometimes, the person doing the encouraging didn't even know how big of an impact they'd made. But always, someone was there when we needed them.
Oh, and on the note of awesome people: I got to meet an online friend of mine, Jenna, since she was Assistant Supervisor for the Girls' Staff. She's even more awesome in real life than online: funny and kind and patient and creative. The first International Night, she wore a Laketown costume she'd made for when she went to see one of the Hobbit movies, and one afternoon, we got to chat about life and books and just random stuff, and it was lovely.
But White Sulpher Springs, like Rivendell, is more than a place of peace and enjoyment. It's a stronghold against the dark, and for me, as I mentioned before, a place of preparation for the journey ahead. The first was evident in devotions every morning, in worship songs in the evenings and at every meal, in frequent prayer, and in so many other things. The latter? Part of that preparation was indeed all the things I mentioned before, the chance for peace and relaxation before insanity hits. Another part was the encouragement from others who've been where I am. But the biggest part was the lessons I learned, one in particular: choosing joy, and what that looks like.
Part of the lesson came indeed from the devotions and formal lessons. But most of it came, actually, from the work I had to do. I, being an average teen, don't particularly enjoy housework. Having come there expecting to work made it a little easier, but there were still days when I just didn't want to do anything. When I had to choose joy or choose to sulk. Before, I'd always had this idea- even though I knew better- that choosing joy meant being happy about what's going on, or at least being happy period. But it's not that. Joy isn't being happy about work or hardship. It's singing anyway.
See, I usually have my iPod when I work at home. But electronics aren't allowed for WSS Support Staff. So if I wanted music, I had to sing it myself. On good days, I did, so long as no one was around to object- I had a few songs on repeat for most of the two weeks: some Andrew Peterson, one or two Celtic songs, some Owl City. But on bad days, one day in particular when I was tired and my whole body ached and I just wanted to sit down and moan, singing was hard.
But I did it anyway. And, funny thing, when you're singing- particularly when you're singing Andrew Peterson's "Nothing to Say", it's hard to be miserable. You can still be tired, you can still be sore, but sadness? That's hard to hold onto because your focus goes elsewhere.
I'm no longer at White Sulpher Springs; I'm at my house, in the midst of packing so we can say final goodbyes and leave for our new home. My personal life is currently contained in thirty-three boxes, two backpacks, and a suitcase. At the end of the week, I have two goodbye parties- one hosted by my youth group, the other by my Bible study. And after that- I'm gone, heading into the Misty Mountains (or New York, however you want to look at it) and hoping I don't run into any orcs or goblins or freak blizzards.
But no matter what happens, I'm going to keep singing.