What If…

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge “What if you slept…”

What do our dreams tell us of heaven?

The last few nights I have dreamed of those with whom I once had a warm friendship but no longer do. My dreams were of grace and reconciliation, of walking and talking together and rediscovering our common goals and beliefs rather than dwelling on estrangement and sadness as we’ve gone our separate ways.

Upon waking, I wonder what vision of heaven this could be: finding the lost treasure of connection that I allowed to let go. Restoring a friendship is a strange and beautiful flower plucked in a dream. I must hold it gently in my hand as the precious gem it is.

What then is possible? And what now?

Merely to Be There

That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, “a perfect house, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”
Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.
~J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire,
with the kettle just beginning to sing!
~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Hobbit

We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will;
then it’s time to break our necks for home.
~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm

Every now and then, I forget to turn off the lights in the barn. I usually notice just before I go to bed, when the farm’s boundaries seem to have drawn in close. That light makes the barn seem farther away than it is — a distance I’m going to have to travel before I sleep. The weather makes no difference. Neither does the time of year.

Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg  from A Light in the Barn

I have always been, and always will be a home-body. As a child, I was hopelessly homesick and miserable whenever I visited overnight somewhere else: not my bed, not my window, not anything that was familiar and comfortable. Going away to college was an ordeal and I had to do two runs at it to finally feel at home somewhere else. I traveled plenty during those young adult years and adapted to new and exotic environs, but never easily.

I haven’t changed much in my older years. Even now, travel is fraught with anxiety for me, not anticipation. I secretly had hoped for a prolonged stay-cation for a change rather than rushing about at break-neck speed when we had a few days off from work. I must be careful for what I wish for, as it is now seven months of stay-and-work-at-home with only two brief sojourns to visit out of town children.

It has been blissful — yet I dare not say that out loud as so many people don’t do well staying at home and are kicking the traces to be set free.

Not so me. I am content on our farm, appreciating our “perfect house, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”

Merely allowed to just be here is my ultimate answer to weariness, fear and sadness.

Exists to be Lost

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness

and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:

as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious.
~Lisel Mueller “In Passing” from Alive Together

Each one of us is like a swelling bud hanging heavy and waiting on the stem — already but not quite yet.

Such is the late afternoon light of an October day.
There is an air of mystery in a honeyed moment of illumination
knowing something more is coming.

Not just the inevitable darkness when we all must sleep.
Not just opening wide to what we cannot yet understand.
No more peering through a glass darkly.

Breaking into blossom means losing what exists now,
this momentary glow of full ripeness,
to become part of the light itself.

Listening for Hoof Beats

Every night, no matter where I am
when I lie down, I turn
my back on half the world.

At home, it’s the east I ignore,
with its theatres and silverware,
as I face the adventurous west.

But when I’m on the road
in some hotel’s room 213 or 402
I could be pointed anywhere,

yet I hardly care as long as you
are there facing the other way
so we are defended in all degrees

and my left ear is pressing down
as if listening for hoof beats in the ground.

~Billy Collins “Sleeping on My Side” from Whale Day and Other Poems

It seems amazing we can actually sleep at all, knowing all the hazards out there beyond the bedroom walls

– whether it is pandemic viral particles floating in the air, or pollution from wildfires, or ozone layer depletion or “the-big-one-any-moment” earthquake, or an errant nuclear missile launch, or bands of roving bandits –

it is a wonder we can quiet our minds at all.

When I was about 8 years old, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I didn’t sleep for several days, fearful if I slept, then the world would end and me with it, without even knowing the bomb had hit. Somehow, my staying awake saved the world from destruction and no one, not one single person, ever thanked me for it.

There is always so terribly much to fear if you really think about it. We are constantly lying with our ears to the ground, listening for the hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, wondering how close they have come to our bedside.

These days I take comfort in knowing I don’t always need to be on high alert. I know, in fact, His eye is on the sparrow and He watches over me.

So I can sleep.

Get Up and Go About the Day

Light wakes us – there’s the sun
climbing the mountains’ rim, spilling across the valley,
finding our faces.
It is July,

between the hay and harvest,
a time at arm’s length from all other time…

It is the time
to set aside all vigil, good or ill,
to loosen the fixed gaze of our attention
as dandelions let seedlings to the wind.
Wake with the light.
Get up and go about the day and watch
its surfaces that brighten with the sun.
~Kerry Hardie from “Sleep in Summer”

Saying good-bye to July
is admitting summer is already half-baked
and so are we–
we are still doughy
and not nearly done enough.

The rush to autumn is breathless.
We want to hold on tight
to our longish days
and our sweaty nights
for just a little while longer…

Please, oh please
grant us light
and steady us for the task
of getting ready and letting go.

Thorns Have Roses

You love the roses – so do I. I wish
The sky would rain down roses, as they rain
From off the shaken bush. Why will it not?
Then all the valley would be pink and white
And soft to tread on. They would fall as light
As feathers, smelling sweet; and it would be
Like sleeping and like waking, all at once!
~George Eliot
from “The Spanish Gypsy”

It was gardener/author Alphonse Karr in the mid-19th century who wrote that even though most people grumble about roses having thorns,  he was grateful that thorns have roses.

There was a time when thorns were not part of our world, when we knew nothing of suffering and death. Yet in pursuing and desiring more than we were already generously given, we received more than we bargained for. We are still paying for that decision; we continue to reel under the thorns our choices produce — every day there is more bloodletting.

So a Rose was sent to adorn the thorns.

And what did we do? We chose thorns to make Him bleed and still do to this day.

A fragrant rose blooms beautiful,
bleeding amid the thorns,
raining down as we sleep and wake,
and will to the endless day.

Abandon entouré d’abandon, tendresse touchant aux tendresses…
C’est ton intérieur qui sans cesse se caresse, dirait-on;
se caresse en soi-même, par son propre reflet éclairé.
Ainsi tu inventes le thème du Narcisse exaucé.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Dirait-on” from his French Poetry collection ‘Les chansons de la rose’

(Literal translation of “So They Say” from “The Song of the Rose”)
Abandon enveloping abandon, Tenderness brushing tendernesses,
Who you are sustains you eternally, so they say;
Your very being is nourished by its own enlightened reflection;
So you compose the theme of Narcissus redeemed.

http://www.classicalchops.org/videos/morten-lauridsen-how-he-wrote-dirait-on

Known and Unknown

As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
   Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
   Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
   And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
   Nor wholly reassured and comforted
   By promises of others in their stead,
   Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
   Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
   Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
   Being too full of sleep to understand
   How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “Nature”

I remember being reluctant to go to bed as a child; I could miss something important that the adults waited to do until after I was asleep, or I wasn’t sure that I wanted to turn myself over to my dreams.

I had a period of time when I was in third grade (during the Cuban missile crisis) when I really was terrified to go to sleep, and ended up reading comic books during the night hours, trying to keep myself distracted from whatever fears I harbored. My mother, frantic for sleep herself during this worrisome time, consulted my pediatrician who prescribed orange juice with a tablespoon of brandy – for me, not for her. She was outraged at the thought, being a teetotaler, so bought no brandy for me (or for herself). I eventually got over my sleep issues, but not my worried heart.

The unknown is always more frightening than the known, and the older I got, the more I learned during 24 years of formal education and training, the more I realized I didn’t know. There would be no end to it. Even though I still spend several hours a week reading for required and non-required continuing medical education, I don’t crack the surface of everything that is news in my profession. There is a whole lot that I need to un-learn because it is now proven that it is no longer valid as it originally was over four decades of medical practice.

During the last three months of COVID-19, it is like drinking from several firehoses at once, as data on this previously unknown virus comes piecemeal from countless sources: the studies are rushed and sample sizes are small, conclusions are tentative, often barely peer-reviewed and sometimes disproven the next week by another study. What was considered “fact” a month ago may no longer be so.

So I know I must settle into the reality that there will always be plenty of unknowns, particularly as I reluctantly let go of life’s playthings one by one.

The unknown will always transcend the known on this side of the veil so I appreciate that I am gently led, in faith, to that long-awaited sleep that was so elusive before.

He Accepts Us As We Are: Resisting Sleep

When I meet my little one at the crib’s rail,
   he sways like a
rocking chair
   that has just been left.

Outside, warm snow cozies
   down the drowsy spines of gray
jonagolds, kissing
   the sleepy bangs of grass.

Finger brushing his cheek, I say
    Time to sleep, but he keeps
looking at me with eyes slowly sweeping
   over my face.

The faithful wind shushes
   sleepy boughs,
lays them down and
   covers them with deep, easy breath.

My boy and I both
   yawn. Trust how close I feel.
He curls into his blanket,
 Okay, I will.

~Matthew Miller “I Will Miss Winter Nights”

The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart “The Hundred Names of Love”

Each of many nights comforting a child resisting sleep,
each of many moments rocking them in the dark,
lulling them into the trusting soft velvet of dreams~
I feel the budding of blossomed love
that our God must feel for each of us,
unfurling until there is no inner spiral left,
and each petal of me, one by one, opens wide,
grateful.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller


Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.

The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.

Izhe kheruvimy tayno, tayno obrazuyushche, obrazuyushche,
I zhivotvoryashchey Troytsye,
trisvyatuyu pyesn’, trisvyatuyu pyesn’ pripyevashche, pripyevashche, trisvyatuyu pyesn’ pripyevashche.
Vsyakoye nynye, nynye zhityeskoye otlozhim popyecheniye, otlozhim, otlozhim, otlozhim, popyecheniye.
Amin’.
Yako da Tsarya vsyekh podymyem,
Yako da Tsarya vsyekh podymyem, vsyekh podymem!
Angelskimi nyevidimo dorinosima chinmi,
dorinosima chinmi, alleluia!


Let us represent the cherubim in mystic harmony, mystic harmony,
praise the Father, Son and Spirit,
raise our three-fold song, raise our three-fold song,
praise the Trinity, praise the Trinity,
Praise our three-fold song to the Trinity,
Let us now cast aside, cast aside, let us cast aside all this earthly life,
cast aside, cast aside, cast aside, all this earthly life.
Amen.
King of all, we may receive God the King, we may receive Him!
He who in glory enters in with mighty hosts of angels,
with mighty hosts of angels. Alleluia!

He Loves Us As We Are: Being Watched Over

As a father steals into his child’s half-lit bedroom
slowly, quietly, standing long and long
counting the breaths before finally slipping
back out, taking care not to wake her,

and as that night-lit child is fully awake the whole
time, with closed eyes, measured breathing,
savoring a delicious blessing she couldn’t
name but will remember her whole life,

how often we feel we’re being watched over,
or that we’re secretly looking in on the ones
we love, even when they are far away,
or even as they are lost in the sleep

no one wakes from—what we know
and what we feel can fully coincide, like love
and worry, like taking care in full silence
and secrecy, like darkness and light together.

~David Graham “Listening for Your Name

“How I long for the months gone by,
    for the days when God watched over me,
when his lamp shone on my head
    and by his light I walked through darkness!
Job 29:2-3

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
~Mary Oliver, “The Uses of Sorrow”


The season of Lent
is a box full of darkness
given to us by Someone who loves us
enough to watch over us even as we sleep.

The Light is already here
but the darkness has not yet dissipated.

It takes a lifetime to understand,
if we ever do:
we are watched over
as we watch over one another.

By opening the gift of darkness,
we allow a Light in
where none was before.

Light pours through the cracks
of our sorrow and brokenness
as we are watched with care,
as we illuminate amid the shadows,
as we are loved with the deepest of concern.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

Another sleepless night
I’m turning in my bed
Long before the red sun rises

In these early hours
I’m falling again
Into the river of my worries

When the river runs away
I find a shelter in your name

Jesus, only light on the shore
Only hope in the storm
Jesus, let me fly to your side
There I would hide, Jesus

Hear my anxious prayer
The beating of my heart
The pulse and the measure of my unbelief
Speak your words to me
Before I come apart
Help me believe in what I cannot see
Before the river runs away
I will call upon your name

Jesus, only light on the shore
Only hope in the storm
Jesus, let me fly to your side
There I would hide, Jesus
~Elaine Rubenstein, Fernando Ortega

The Snow Shining

The children are sleeping
and the cows and chickens are sleeping,
and the grass itself
is sleeping.
The machines are off
and the neighbor’s lights,
a half mile away, are out,
and the moon is hanging
like a powdered face
in a darkened room,
and the snow
is shining under stars
the way we are shining here
in our cold skins
under warm quilts.

There is no season, no grass
gone brown, no cold,
and no one to say we are anything
but beautiful, swimming together
across the wide channel of night.
~David Romtvedt from “Still” in Some Church

In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.

I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark,
containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning.
I give you the life I have let live for the love of you:
a clump of orange-blooming weeds beside the road,
the young orchard waiting in the snow, our own life
that we have planted in the ground, as I
have planted mine in you.
~Wendell Berry from “The Country of Marriage”

Again we find ourselves alone together ~
shining in a warmth we find in each other
planted so deeply we cannot always know
where one ends and another begins,
a commonwealth of shared everything~
the soft beauty of touch and tears:
no matter what comes next.
Mine is yours.