There's something about a current flowing over rocks and finding its way downstream that inspires me and sets my mind to dreaming. That's what happened the year we went camping on Lake Itasca at the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
The mighty Mississippi begins as a gentle, babbling stream. But it takes on a whole different flavor as it winds its way through middle America to the Gulf of Mexico. Small towns dotting the river bank where everyone comes out for the annual 4th of July parade and competes to see who made the best blueberry pie that year. White picket fences and porch swings. Lemonade stands and children playing in the front yard.
It was this idyllic life that my mind craved—a Huck Finn dream of meandering through small towns and floating on a gentle current—a dream of a less demanding life, one where you could enjoy simple pleasures instead of driving hard toward the next big goal.
With this fantasy in mind, I unthinkingly blurted out, "Wouldn't it be fun to take a boat down the Mississippi River? From Lock & Dam No. 1 to the Gulf of Mexico. It'd be like a Mark Twain adventure."
Dan and I were sitting at the edge of the Mississippi at its narrow starting point, and when I looked in his eyes, I could see a vision forming. He dreamed about a simpler life every bit as much as I did.
But how could we make a dream like this come true? Should we take the summer off and rent a boat? Would we sell our sandwich shops and leave this life behind? We conspired by the campfire that night about how to make this crazy dream a reality, and it was becoming more and more vivid in our minds as the night went on.
After we returned from our camping trip at Lake Itasca, Dan started looking at boats and researching a river trip. As he talked with more seasoned boaters, he learned that the Americana trip we had envisioned down the Mississippi wasn't as ideal as we had imagined. While there would be stretches of quaint scenery, we would also be competing with commercial barge traffic. Factories would dot the river banks instead of community gazebos where swing bands play on Friday nights.
We revised our plans, abandoning the Mississippi River cruise for an East Coast adventure that would take us down the Intercoastal Waterway. We'd trade clapboard cottages and tire swings for stucco homes.
It was two years from the time I suggested we travel on a boat to the day we actually threw off the bowlines at the dock in Duluth. We had sold our business, home, and car, and given away most of our furniture and possessions. I learned everything I could about how to homeschool our kids, and Dan and I took courses on seamanship and navigation.
My dream may have been born on a river, but it grew and changed shape as we prayed about whether it was a dream worth pursuing. That's how it is with dreams. We catch a vision, and then we ask God, "Is this from you?" As we wait, he shapes and molds it until the dream—and we—are ready to set sail.
Jen Pollock Michel writes about this refining process in her beautiful essay, "Necessary Heat." "Suffer for the right dreams," she says. Our live-aboard boat dream didn't involve suffering (except for the time our three-year-old fell overboard in a river in Canada and we nearly lost him). But it was a dream that required refining. And we were people in need of refinement in order to receive the dream. He used the heat of extremely tight living quarters to teach us about patience and grace and letting go of all that was familiar to us. We abandoned all of our assumptions about what the future might hold and allowed God to lead us.
Sometimes abandoning assumptions about the future involves grieving what never will be. "I grieve that I won't share life with a partner who's shared my life," Margot Starbuck writes in "Mourning the End of My Marriage." Whether it's a marriage that ends, a child who doesn't live up to our hopes and dreams, or a terminal illness that may keep us from experiencing life's milestones, the death of our hopes and expectations deserve a proper burial.
The Bible is full of examples of how God uses dreams to guide and inform us. In "Sweet Dreams, Sweet Health," Maria Cowell shows how sleep is a key component for dreams to take hold. Even when we're not conscious of them, the process of dreaming is critical to our mental, emotional, physical, and even spiritual health. Dreams are the way our brain sorts information, processes experiences and fears, and makes sense of life. Dreams give us fuel to move forward, reach further, and push harder. Dreams are food for the soul.
Marian V. Liautaud