For weeks now my children have not been able to stop themselves from singing April showers bring May flowers. Even the four-year-old, she who serenades her dinner companions every evening with the months-of-the-year ditty she learned in preschool, knows that this song is not yet quite appropriate. But each one of them also knows that it is raining, again, and something new is just there on the far side of the horizon.
And so they sing.
Today is the last day of March, and it is raining cats and dogs. It is raining puddles and mud. It is gushing, washing, rinsing, quenching. I planned to visit the library, but this rain is too much even for the tall, waterproof boots I wear in the garden. It is too much even for my one remaining unbroken umbrella. I am drinking tea and typing these words instead.
Someone sent me a message. You know about trees. Tell me, why is my river birch dripping water? Why is it trickling, oozing, seeping, leaking? Is something wrong?
Nothing is wrong, I told her. All trees know how to sing, but some trees also know how to cry.
When the weather turns from warm to wet, a birch tree will drip, drip, drip.
Last year in Hawaii, I saw trees sheathed in rainbows.
The rainbow eucalyptus thrives in tropical climates. It is happiest in rain-washed places. It sheds its bark, and what remains are long, vertical strips of color: red, orange, green, blue, gray. Rainbows trickle, ooze, seep, and leak their colors down the length of each trunk.
I saw those colors from the car window as we drove toward the North Shore. We had flowery leis in our laps. Later, we tore the string and tossed the flowers and said one more goodbye to the man who died just there, above those waters. Somewhere just to the right of the rainbow and to the left of the singing whale, he went where we cannot yet follow.
I visited my friend this week and saw a rough wooden cross in the corner of her small sitting room. It was our Christmas tree, she told me. Now it is our Easter cross.
I’m sure her tree was beautiful. I have forgotten the name, but she said it was some rare variety: silvery and soft. That beauty is lost. What remains is harsh and looked out of place propped in the corner of the room. It can’t be easy, I thought, to live with this cross.
Some legends say that Jesus’s cross was made from the wood of an aspen tree. Apparently, these trees do grow in that region of the world. No matter where they grow, aspen leaves startle and stir in even a slight breeze. It is said the tree trembles for what it has seen and how it was used.
I read somewhere that in Hebrew the name of this tree is baca. This is also the name of the “Valley of Weeping” mentioned in Psalm 84. When I go to check my memory against the knowledge of the internet, I find that baca might mean balsam-tree. It might mean mulberry.
It seems there are many trees associated with weeping.
In Psalm 84, the Valley of Weeping changes as we walk through it. By the touch of our feet, it becomes a place of springs. Then the early rains come, but they do not bring puddles or mud. They bring blessing.
I do not want to walk through the valley. I am tired of tears (drip, drip, drip). I do not want to trip over the ugly, bare cross in the corner of the room, and I certainly do not want to carry it on my back.
Today, I do not even want the rain.
But I want the rainbows. I want the May flowers. I want, yes I admit, I want the blessing.
I want to know what the trees have always known.
I want to know what it is to be planted, planted so deep and so well, that not even death can pull up these roots.
Oh, death. Where is your sting? You grab at us. You scratch and claw. And what is revealed?
The world is loud and terrible this summer. It is as if the entire planet has tilted on its axis and dipped us all in nightmare.
The grass outside my bedroom window is dotted with yellow maple leaves. I don’t know if this is because summer is already ending or because the largest and oldest of the maple trees is dying. Perhaps it is both.
Land and growing things are broken, nations are broken, bodies and minds are broken. And we respond by shouting at one another.
I indulge in shouting some days, but, mostly, I respond by retreating into silence.
When my children explode over cracked Legos and the last popsicle, I struggle to stay with them in the noise. I want only to slip away, to climb the steps to my bedroom, to sit in the curve of the bow window noticing yellow leaves on the lawn outside.
The world grows louder, and I grow quieter. Sometimes, this feels like wisdom, but I know it is also weakness.
It requires strength to share our stories. To risk being misunderstood.
It requires faith to tell small stories. To believe that what seems to be inadequate is of value.
When my fourth child was born, my body struggled to make milk for her. The hormonal peaks and valleys of that process seemed to switch a lever in my brain.
I became depressed.
I had so many reasons to be happy, but depression sucked all emotion from my mind and filled the emptiness with anxiety. I can remember sitting in my comfortable, soft rocking chair, holding my baby, and trying to remember why I had once cared about babies or repairing old farmhouses or ordering seeds for the spring garden or anything at all. I could no longer remember why it mattered if any of us ever got out of bed.
When I stopped trying to nurse my baby, and the last of my milk dried up, the depression lifted. A severe mercy.
It meant that I knew happiness again.
It meant that I knew sadness again.
Healing looked like a renewed capacity for both joy and sorrow.
This morning I read these words from Psalm 105:
Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
And I remembered what had happened to me after my daughter’s birth and knew that I did have a song of praise.
Thank you, Lord. Thank you for healing me enough to grieve.
When I was young, dreams were easy. I wanted to marry that one boy from the church youth group. I wanted to live in the big city. I wanted a PhD. Later, I wanted (desperately) to have children.
In those days, dreams were like stair steps. One after the other, they fell into place. Some were realized easily, some only after the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears, but they were all my dreams. I could take full credit for the dreaming, and I thanked God when my dreams came true.
Then the day when I exhausted my carefully hoarded stash of dreams. I had thought I carried an endless supply. I imagined I was Mary Poppins reaching deep into her carpet bag. But mine was only an ordinary duffel.
I remember it precisely. I sat at my desk with one dream heavy in my belly and another being typed out word by word on the screen of my computer. I was preparing to defend my PhD dissertation. I was preparing to give birth to my third child. That day, I opened my Bible and read these words: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
I knew then that I had come to the end of my own dreams.
I wasn’t unhappy. I had plans, though they were disconcertingly vague. I wasn’t ungrateful, though I was nine-months tired and dissertation stressed. The problem was that I read the phrase desires of your heart but saw only emptiness. I was no longer a dreamer. Had I ever been?
A few months after the baby and only days after graduation, we moved to Florida. There I learned that heart desires are born in God’s own throne room. I also learned that the door to the throne room is usually found in the wilderness.
Florida was my wilderness, my wandering place. It was the place where my own small plans were broken and then burned. And what was revealed in those flames? Of course. Desire.
We Christians profess selflessness (though too often we practice it as badly as anyone might). But in our profession we come to fear desire. Isn’t it wrong to pay such close attention to my own heart? Aren’t desires like sirens tempting me from the Way?
And so, like some foolish Ulysses, we stop up our ears, we tie ourselves to the mast of our ship, and we focus only on our plans. I will do this today. I will do that tomorrow. When always God is calling us to let go of our plans and listen to his voice.
It is so like the beautiful siren song, but it is calling us, not to our destruction, but to life. The abundance of the wide-awake but dreaming life. A life that will look differently for each of us. A life dreamed up for us alone. Dreamed up by Love and planted within us in the form of desire.
It might take getting lost. It might require fire. It might look like a struggle on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. But the thing that is left is worth everything. Every tear. Every question. Every dark, uncertain day.
The thing that is left is a God-breathed, God-given desire. It reveals the self you were made to be. It turns your gaze toward the One who made you.
The realization of this desire is like coming home after a long, uncertain sea voyage. But this is a home you could never have imagined. It is fully beyond your own capacity for dreaming.
I know this is the way of it when I find myself behind the wheel of a pickup truck. Yes, me. The same me who traded the flat fields and cowboy hats of Texas for skyscrapers and snowflakes. Here I am, driving a truck loaded with mushroom compost and baby trees.
Sitting high in my seat, the view through the tunnel of August corn is washed in golden, late-day light. I can just glimpse a far green hill. It is topped by that perfect couple: a white farmhouse and a red barn.
An Amish family clip-clops by behind their horse, and, for a moment, I cannot fathom how I have come to this place. This beautiful, never-before-imagined place.
And that is a heart’s desire. It is a place prepared for you. A place that satisfies your heart like nothing else.
It is a dream come true, though, walking your own way, you would have never dreamed of it at all.
“The kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. … The kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home …”
– Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry
The two of us. Pre-digital camera. Pre-parenthood. (Just barely) pre-9/11.
I still have the airfare ticket stub marked September 11, 2001. Ten years ago, we didn’t use e-tickets.
Also, there were no smartphones. This partially explains why it isn’t the images of destruction that have stuck with me (images we didn’t get a good look at for nearly a week). It’s the voice of our pilot.
We had just begun our flight from Shannon airport in the west of Ireland home to Chicago, when a deadly-serious voice sounded over the speakers: “Something terrible has happened,” it said. “The FAA has closed all airspace, and we will not be continuing this flight.”
Our plane was grounded in Dublin, a city we hadn’t planned to visit during this, our first, trip to Ireland. Jonathan and I didn’t say anything while we sat on that plane waiting to disembark and collect our luggage packed with dirty laundry. We only looked at each other. Later, we discovered that the image in our minds had been the same: mushroom cloud.
Somehow the actual story was harder to believe. An Irishman with a working cellphone began hearing stories, and they spread quickly from row to row. Attacks? On New York City? Washington D.C.? We shook our heads, said we didn’t believe it.
A few hours later, the airport employee helping me find accommodations in Dublin said it was like something out of a disaster movie. That’s when I understood.
Jonathan left me with the luggage and went searching for a television. He found one at the airport pub. Walking back in my direction, he looked stunned.
I could only pray, “Lord, have mercy.”
For a week, we wandered around the city, feeling as if we might never get home. We guarded our torn ticket stubs as if they were a king’s ransom. We saw confused looks every time we handed them over to another ticketing agent. It was hard for them to understand that when the towers fell we’d been caught in mid-air.
Some small, rational part of our brains kept repeating that if only we knew when we’d be going home we could enjoy this unexpected vacation in Dublin. But we were counting pennies, dodging raindrops, and washing a suitcase full of clothes at the laundromat. It didn’t feel like vacation.
While on vacation we had spent our carefully saved dollars on bed and breakfasts that served Irish porridge with just-picked blackberries. In Dublin, we had a small lumpy bed and were served canned beans on toast. Want to make an American feel wretchedly homesick? Just serve her instant coffee and canned beans on toast.
The world had shifted on its axis, we understood that unimaginable evil could rear its head at any time and in any place, but we couldn’t comfort ourselves with the well-loved and familiar. The flags at half-staff were Irish ones.
After several days in Dublin, we were promised a flight home, but we would need to get back to Shannon airport. We said goodbye to the lumpy bed and took an all-day bus that brought us back across the country, to the place where we had started.
When international airspace reopened, we were there, again, at Shannon airport. They had no record of our names, and we had only our tattered ticket stubs.
We spent one night in the home of a family preparing for their daughter’s wedding. Two stranded German tourists were across the hall from us. The wife said not to worry, we were no bother at all, and she cooked us a big fried breakfast. The husband drove us back to the airport for another try.
At the airport again, we sat on the floor and listened as Aer Lingus employees filled up a plane to Chicago with names called out one by one. When there was exactly one seat left, they called my name. I said that I wouldn’t get on any plane without my husband.
We were wondering whether we could interrupt the wedding weekend with one more night’s stay, when a woman in an official green uniform came running up and shouting, “Does anyone want to go to Baltimore?” We raised our hands. Then, following our guide, we ran.
We also prayed, “God let the doors still be open.”
We weren’t headed home, but it was close enough.
We remembered a friend who lived near D.C. Jonathan, miraculously, remembered his phone number. He picked us up, drove us to his own home, gave us a beautiful, not-at-all lumpy bed.
We managed to find a tiny, out-of-the-way rental car business with one car still on its lot. We took it. Twelve hours later, and one week after 9/11, we slept in our own bed.
“God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
The holy place where the most High dwells.”
(Psalm 46: 1-4)