“… unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
It is the dream-come-true moment that lodges itself in our memories.
The day the baby was born. Or the day you wore the cap and gown. Or the day you moved in.
It isn’t that you’ve forgotten. It is only that time does heal and dreams-come-true are complicated. They ask so much of you. When you are changing diapers in the night or ripping out weeds for a new garden you do not have much energy to spare for looking back.
Which may be why I have written so much about dreams-come-true and so little of letting them die.
Because no dream lives that has not yet died.
Some call this surrender. They describe it as letting go. Giving back to God. Release.
I prefer to call it planting.
First there is the dream. It seems to have come at once from somewhere deep within and somewhere so far beyond yourself that the only explanation is divine. God has whispered, and your eyes are now open.
That is the seed.
Then comes the next day. Which turns out to be not all that different from the day before. The dream appeared to be so real, so startling and immediate, but life seems not to have noticed. Life is much the same as ever.
We each have our own way of living these days. Some of us wrestle and rage. We cry and we grip and we will not let go until, utterly spent, we drop the seed and we bury it.
Others of us begin to doubt almost immediately. I can live without this, we say. Maybe it was never meant to be, we tell ourselves.
This is how dreams die. How they are buried in dark dirt.
This is how we live with dry bones.
Waking up is difficult. Resurrection, even of the figurative sort, can be painful.
T.S. Eliot warned us:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
It is painful to dream again. To risk a broken heart. To walk through a valley of dry bones and say I believe.
But, oh friends, I am convinced. It is the only way to live.
I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. … Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.
On Monday, an envelope stuffed with papers arrived in my mailbox. I knew it was coming, but I still caught my breath when I saw it there.
It sat on the kitchen table while we gathered groceries and medications and swimsuits. School begins on Monday, but we were squeezing in one small family vacation before calling summer quits.
Late at night, with our bags packed and our kids in their beds, I read the papers. I signed the papers. There was no time to visit the post office, so I packed the papers with everything else the next morning.
We drove north toward Ithaca, New York. The Finger Lakes, they call them. It’s a storybook landscape of mountains and water and red Dutch-style barns. The kind of landscape I found only in books when I was a child growing up in Texas.
Just the right landscape for a dream-come-true.
Now that I’ve left those papers at a post office in Ithaca I can tell you this:
Dry bones do live and this autumn and winter I’ll be writing a book.
I’ll be writing a book for Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. … Then you will know that I am the Lord.
And I pray, Let it be to me according to your word.
Let it be, let it be, let it be.
Step One. Read books. Lots of them.
People will tell you to put down your books and join the real world, for heaven’s sake. They will remind you that you live in a university dorm or an apartment reached by only a sliver of light or a temporary rental and do not even think of wasting time or money on land you do not own, but you would do well to smile and say nothing. Go on. Read. Read your books and dream your dreams. You are storing up treasures in heaven.
Step Two. Pay attention to desire.
When winter wears on and you cannot stand it one more day, lean in to that ache. Accept that the two things you want most in life, a garden and a baby, may never be yours. But take heart. The moment you break under the weight of longing is the moment you wash out an old yogurt container and fill it with dirt and a few grass seeds. When the grass seeds sprout you will run your hand over cool greenness while icy snow tap-taps against the window. The smell of a few blades of grass snipped with kitchen scissors is the smell of hope.
Step Three. Try and fail.
When a friend invites you to share a plot in the neighborhood community garden, say yes. Say yes, even though you don’t actually know anything about growing vegetables. Commit to reading more books with titles like Practical Kitchen Gardens and fewer books with watercolor illustrations and titles like Roses I Have Loved. Say yes even though you are hugely pregnant and you cannot exactly bend over. When your firstborn, your longed-for baby girl, arrives that September, your friend will bring you pasta made with tomatoes and basil you did little to tend. For the rest of your days that combination of flavors will recall your daughter’s sleepy infant smile.
Step Four. Live without.
Trade your community garden plot in a northern city for a Florida backyard dominated by concrete pavers and chlorinated water. Watch your potted flowers shrivel and die beneath the showery splashes of three children. Look at those children and remember that God does sometimes give us the desires of our hearts. Pray for the garden of your dreams. Pray for those impractical, impossible roses.
Step Five. Dig.
When you come home to your own bit of earth at last, dig. Scatter your seeds widely and see what takes root. Do not despair when the groundhog churns holes, rabbits nibble tulips, and two chickens vanish in the night. Despite all that you do not possess (knowledge, time, energy, even, some days, vision), spring will come and seeds will grow. Desire is sometimes deep buried. Rock the baby girl, the fourth-born child you never knew you always wanted, while the snow tap-taps against the window.
Step Six. Rest.
After long days of ripping invasive vines and clearing weed trees, sit still in the shady spot you’ve made. Sit still long enough to notice the smell of memory. It is the almost-forgotten smell of your father’s roses, the roses your mother sent you out to cut just before guests arrived for dinner. Follow that smell around the curve of the just-cleared fence until you find it. A wild rambler, like but not like all the wild roses growing on the edges of this place. This one is not white but blush pink. This one does not sit like a stubborn tangle of thorns, but drapes gracefully across the ruined stones of the old barn. This one does not give out a whisper of spiciness but, rather, smells like rose-with-a-capital-R. It smells like the real deal.
Ask yourself if a garden is a thing made by human hands or a free gift of God.
Wonder, for the first time, if God’s glory can be cultivated. Perhaps it is a gift to be tended a thousand different ways in every place and every season.
For all your days.
You were made for the impossible thing.
You were made for the goal you cannot conceivably achieve. You were made for the task you are ill-equipped to manage. The high bar you can never reach.
You were made for the thing that terrifies you the most. The thing those others can do but never you.
You were made for the dream too good even to dream.
Some of you know this. You have already seen that the impossible thing slowly, gradually becomes more than just an impossible thing. It becomes a prayer. In other words, impossibility is shot through with cruel desire. You hardly know how it happens, but somehow you begin to want this impossible thing.
Until, one day (but truly it is never one day; it is always slowly over many days) the prayer is answered. The promise inherent in prayer is fulfilled. And the impossible thing becomes a gift, given freely.
Writing is my impossible thing. It is the dream I buried in a million books. Books I was convinced I could never write.
My friend Cara Strickland, a writer of delicious details, sent a few questions my way. They are questions meant for writers, but I’ve been considering them with all our many impossible dreams in mind.
I am working on noticing.
The more I notice, the more convinced I become that our lives, and the world in which we live them, are not the chaotic, meaningless jumbles they often appear to be.
When I notice the connections among a few dots, I write out those connections here on this blog. I try to do this once per week, but dots do not always obey our commands (pleas, bribes, etc.) to reveal their associations.
But I keep showing up and, sometimes, I am rewarded.
Slowly (very slowly), I am also writing out the connections among some bigger dots. Dots like homesickness and desire and kingdom come. I am gathering up these bits in a file called “My Book.” We shall see whether the title of this computer file proves itself prophetic.
- How does your work differ from others of its genre?
One of my greatest fears is that it does not. That, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. But I find in the Psalms a command that has also become my prayer: “sing to the Lord a new song.”
I think this is why we are here on this planet. To sing to our God a new song. But, like most commands we find in the Bible, it is impossible. It asks too much. Every word I write rings in my ears like an echo of some other, better writer.
But I am learning to stand in the river that is the source of every new thing. I am learning to recognize the new when it bubbles up like a spring. New words, new stories, new beauties, new mercies. New is the keyword of the kingdom of God, and we are Christ’s own. We hold the keys to the kingdom.
- Why do you write what you do?
I write because the world holds so much beauty my heart would break if I couldn’t pause and gather some of it up.
I write because there is a river, and it has filled me with good news. Somehow I, the quiet one, the cautious one, want only to “go up on a high mountain” and shout “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9).
- How does your writing process work?
It works like this: I stand near a sink overflowing with dirty dishes, a paper calendar in hand. I carve out quiet time. This is exhausting, difficult work. My knife is never sharp enough. And then, typically, I must let go of the time I have so carefully cut away. The baby does not nap, or the preschooler will not fulfill the “quiet” portion of his afternoon quiet-time obligation, or school is canceled, or I get sick, and on and on it goes.
Until, while wiping the counters or raking leaves or changing a diaper, I am visited by an image. Maybe two. The beginnings of a story.
My friend Laura Lynn Brown sings beautiful songs. She sings with words (you can find her award-winning essay “Fifty Things About My Mother” at Slate). She sings with paintbrush and pencil. She sings with an Irish flute. I’m passing the baton of these questions on to her. Look for her own thoughts on writing and the writing process at her website in the coming weeks.
Now tell me. How do you sing your own new song?
“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”
“It is our desire, after all, that makes us most like God.”
(Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament)
We are, all of us, so hungry.
My children dream of sugar, and I crave hot, buttery toast. I spied the first white flowers in the strawberry bed, and now all I can think about is warm, rich red.
We hunger for food and drink. Not once or twice but every day with regularity, like well-loved timepieces. Our hunger is new every morning.
We hunger for touch and for love and for happiness. We hunger for purpose and meaning and beauty.
But we are so terrified of our appetites. So afraid of our hunger. Desire is a dirty word.
Maybe we are terrified by thoughts of sin and shame and selfishness. Maybe we are haunted by a fear of scarcity. My hunger is too big. There can never be enough.
But the Bread of Life has appeared to us, and he has told us: Do not be afraid.
“This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!” (Psalm 118:23)
Our constant hunger bears the image of an even greater hunger. A beautiful, generative, truly terrifying hunger. This is the hunger that gave birth to spring. To stars. To nations.
Within the small boundaries of my own backyard fence, this hunger birthed wild, waving forsythia and two spinning daughters. Unleashed, this hunger envisioned nodding daffodils and wild violets that pour themselves out like a river.
This hunger spoke a tree so shocking, so pink, it burns my eyes like a sun.
“This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!” (Psalm 118:23)
The sour cherry tree beyond my kitchen window is in bloom. The flowers are dainty. They are white ghosted with silvery green.
But the smell … it is nectar and roses and honey on the wind.
The air, like the breath of God himself, teases us. Tempts us. This is purposeful scent. This is devious scent. We can close our eyes and stop up our ears. We can harden our hearts with walls of fear, but the breeze slides past all of it.
And nectar and roses and honey say what are you hungry for?
What is your heart’s desire?
Our Easter feast began the day before, on Saturday morning. One hundred or so neighbors. Two thousand or so eggs. Warm sunshine and hot coffee. Conversation and sticky children.
Or maybe it began earlier that week. When my sister and her four children tumbled, along with the crayons and crumpled napkins, from their minivan. A three-day road trip from Florida suddenly ended.
It is Easter, and we have feasted. On cousins sprouting like weeds and epic games of Monopoly. On baby chickens discovering bugs and grass and baby lettuces discovering rain.
We have feasted on hard-boiled eggs turned somewhat unappetizing shades of blue and my mother’s recipe for Greek chicken.
But mostly, we have feasted on time. On moments stretching into days spent at the table side-by-side with family.
Family, for us, has always been feast or famine. Separated by miles, our mailing addresses like stars in a far-flung constellation, we do not relate casually. There is no dropping by. No Sunday lunches then home again. No Christmas gifts delivered in person. No grandparents to babysit for date night.
We have only not enough (telephone calls and emails) or too much (three daily cycles of the dishwasher and four of laundry just to keep the show running).
We know Lenten hunger, and we know Easter fullness.
Feast days leave little space for story-making. Not storytelling. There is time for that as we sit at table. Storytelling is a necessary part of celebration.
But story-making is born of hunger rather than plenty. It is our longing that reveals the contours of new dreams and new stories. Because we hunger, because we do not have, because we suffer, we search for meaning like desperate sailors search for land.
We search for cool blue in desert wastes. We search for Kelly green in stubborn snow.
In winter, we toss in our sleep, and we dream of spring.
In spring, we sleep dreamlessly and wake refreshed.
“For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”