I Used To Pray For Dreams

In those moments before sleep slipped
me into its hypnotist’s
trance and silence,
I’d ask God to tell me stories.
I’d wish for them like presents wrapped in paper,
surreal surprises,
joys too big for boxes.

My head upon my pillow,
I used to call up a kind of catalogue,
a running list I’d keep
of what I’d like to meet
once I’d lost count of sheep.

Before slumber
took me under it’s spell
I’d recall in
my mind’s eye a heavy volume
of black and white drawings—
crocodiles, 
ventriloquists, 
trapeze, 
bows and arrows, 
and thingamajig contraptions—
carefully selecting one or two things
before asking God to weave them into my dreams,
into impossible adventures.

I'd listen to classical music, 
staticky and tinny
from my tiny
powder-blue alarm-clock-radio, 
and imagine ballets and battles,
initiating the weaving of the webs
I wished my dreams would finish.

I'd squeeze my eyes shut tight
until whole galaxies of stars
of blue and yellow and pink
would spin and sparkle
and I’d fly out among them
and beg to be flown further
while I was under.

Then somewhere along the way I stopped. 

Maybe they became profane or vain
or all too real, 
no longer revealing places I longed to go. 
I don't know.

Perhaps
I dismissed all of this
as fantasy
and naiveté— 
the unsophisticatedness
of childhood bliss.
But I wish
only this:
to dream again!

Process

What is your process for taking an idea all the way through to a finished product? 

There’s no simple answer, no magic bullet, no one solution that works one-hundred percent of the time. 

Besides, you have to figure out whether or not what you have is really an idea to begin with because my definition of an idea is something that has some life, it has legs, it’s sort of running out the door while you’re still getting your pants on. More often than not, what I have first is a thought not an idea. A thought is something that captures your attention or stirs you up a little. It’s that line you underlined in that book you’re reading. It’s the quote you stumbled across. It’s the photograph that made you lean in. It’s the conversation you keep mulling over. It’s a spark and not much else. 

The first step in your process has to be finding a way of fanning that spark into flame, finding your method of turning that thought into an actionable idea. For some people it’s a mood board, an inspiration wall, or a brainstorm. For me, it’s most often writing.

When I start trying to articulate the thing I sometimes discover that all I really have are a few disconnected pieces without enough of the sinewy stuff to make them hang together. The thoughts are not yet an idea. I push and I prod, but I can’t seem to make it make sense anymore. Then it’s time to stop hyperventilating in an attempt to get that ember burning, and just let it die, or go dormant at the very least.

But sometimes the writing just begins to burn. I’m caught up. It may smoke a lot, but in those curls and wisps I can see riveting scenes and moving moments. Most often, that’s when the thought becomes an idea for me, and the process starts to take care of itself a little bit—not because the way is clear or easy, but because I’m suddenly compelled to keep piling all the logs on that I can to keep that thing burning. My heart is all wrapped up in it. 

So writing is almost always the first step for me. 

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately. And by that I mean that I’ve been staring out the window for long stretches of time, after which I get up and make myself a cup of coffee. 

Then I sit down again at my desk and glare at a mostly blank page while I debate for two or three minutes whether or not I should write down the sentence I just thought of because it might be genius or it might be as bad as I’m starting to think it is. Finally, in a glorious 10-minute flurry of activity I write some actual words. 

Creativity is, by its very nature, an inefficient process, if it’s a process at all. 

A Month of Mornings

The plaster is peeling from our kitchen ceiling. The washroom fan is covered in dust. There’s an oil slick the size of Montana on the driveway. And for the last several months the bedroom walls have displayed a few two-foot swatches we painted so that we could pick a color, but we never got around to choosing.

These are things I almost never notice. I only bring them up because I just walked around my house and tried to notice them on purpose. Over the weekend I learned the term hemmablind, a Swedish word that means “blind to things at home.” It’s typically used in a negative way to refer to all the flaws we fail to notice once we’ve become accustomed to them—the dirt around a doorknob, the scratched paint on the banister, and the curtains that aren’t quite level along the floor. 

But we’re blind to all kinds of things that are part of home to us. We grow accustomed to our possessions, our neighborhoods, and even our people. Maybe one of the curses and blessings of friendships and even marriage is a healthy dose of hemmablind-ness, a familiarity that allows us to settle in with one another so deeply that we fail to see each other’s flaws. Hemmablindness ain’t all bad unless it means that we aren’t really present, aren’t really taking note of the things worth noting. But sometimes we need something to shake us out of being hemmablind so that we can see what we need to work on… or even to remind us why what we have is so great.

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed being back in the midwest after so many years in southern California is because of seasons. If being hemmablind were a disease, the shift of seasons is the vaccination. How can one become overly familiar with the world when it is being drastically repainted every three months? The pastel spring ushers in the emerald summer, which gives way to the rust and ochre of autumn, all of it finally surrendering to the whitewashed winter. It’s new again and again and again and again.

For the last month, my early-morning run through the marshland near my home has perfectly aligned with the entrance of autumn. The procrastination of dawn has meant that my month has been full of sunrises. The cold air and warm earth have colluded to grant a mist that renders everything magical. And the crisp mornings have made me feel like I can run for hours. 

During this perfect month of mornings I’ve had so many moments when I’ve had to stop and look around and smile and snap a photo and take it all in with a deep and delicious I-am-here-and-fully-here kind of breath. 

Already, as the days grow shorter, I’m spending more of my run in the dark. My fingertips are going numb as cool surrenders to the cold. The mist has metamorphosized into frost. The change is sad in a way, but it’s making me look at everything from the beginning again, helping to banish my blindness, helping me see just how good home can be.

Here are a few photos from this month:

Dare To Care

On Monday night I wanted to do anything other than watch the debate. It was the end of a really good day off, one that happened to land on the first day that has felt like fall—crisp, breezy, and sun-soaked. We’d whiled away the day with long walks, bargain-hunting, a little cooking, and a long bedtime-story session. All I’d wanted to do to cap off such a good day was to curl up on the couch in the living room with a great book and a glass of wine. 

But there was this little nagging question in my head: Should I watch?

My first answer was an emphatic NO!

And not because I’m somehow disengaged from the democratic process. I stay “in it” through articles I read and radio reports and podcasts I listen to. But debates are not my thing. I don’t find them particularly informative or entertaining.

Mostly, I knew it would provoke me. I knew it would add fuel to the fire of my frustration. I knew I’d end up laughing, crying, or shouting. (I avoid that kind of confrontation… even if it’s with the television.) And after such a blessed day of rest I was loathe to get worked up about… well… everything.

But there was that question again: Should I watch? Was there a good reason to get worked up, to do something beyond my comfort zone?

The memory of a tiny little book popped into my head. Two days earlier I’d finished reading Out of Solitude by Henri Nouwen. (In truth, it’s little more than a pamphlet, but by calling it a book I feel a lot more accomplished for having read it.) Rarely has such a tiny book created such a tectonic shift in my thinking, sticking with me in soul-shaping ways. (I underlined at least a quarter of it.) The second chapter talks about caring. Care and caring are such dissipated words. They’ve come to mean less well-meaning things, having been neutered by overuse and misuse. But the way Nouwen talks about care is bold and brave and really, really hard. 

The word care finds its roots in the Gothic Kara, which means lament. The basic meaning of care is “to grieve, to experience sorrow, to cry out with.”

Nouwen says that to truly do the selfless and humanizing work of caring we must slow down enough that we hold off our impulses to fix, manipulate, and control our pain and the pain of others. Even the best-intentioned do-gooders among us can sometimes steamroll through the heartache of those we intend to help as we barrel forth on our way to fixing everything. Nouwen would argue that by doing this we are robbing them of some of what makes them (and us) human. 

He’s talking full-on, heartbreaking empathy. I don’t want to do that. It sounds awkward and painful.

But as I sat there and allowed myself to be a little convicted I started thinking about all the people who might watch the debate that night, people who are different than me. I imagined people who would have their eyes glued to the screen while their fingers clutched a paystub or a social security check that they were sure wouldn’t see them through next week. I thought of people who would be filling out immigration forms or asylum petitions. I thought of those who feel they have no voice who wondered if one of the candidates would speak for them or might hear them at the very least. I thought of military families and law-enforcement families. I thought of people worldwide who are caught up in conflicts or who are causing conflicts who have their eyes on who will be our next leader. All of these people would be anxiously watching the debate because our next leader will dramatically alter their lives and their livelihoods. These people are uninsulated by the ease I enjoy, one that affords me the luxury of choosing a good book over a debate that might get me a little fired up. 

And perhaps I’m overspiritualizing this whole thing, but I felt like God was asking me to push my caring beyond the boundaries of my usual categories, hammering home the words of Philippians 2: In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Well, if that perspective doesn’t influence the way I act, the questions I ask, the reasons I vote…

One of Nouwen’s lines that I underlined was this: Dare to care.

So Monday night I watched the debate. I watched it with eyes for all those who would watch with anxious, heavy, and wounded hearts. And as everyone continues to debate who won, who got the best burn, and who got the facts straight, I don’t think I’m any more educated or informed, entertained or convinced. 

But I have come away a little more caring.