Four hours – eternity for a child – north of Milwaukee, my grandparents’ cottage was a place out of sync with ‘real’ life: a refuge of lazy afternoons catching crawfish and picking wild raspberries that dotted the lakeshore. Arms streaked Koolaid-red were made clean not by showering, but by a jump in the lake.
The cottage was a place without chores, telephones, or swim lessons. Magical afternoons under the sun bled into twilight dinners on the porch, loons cooing from the far side of Sawyer Lake. After cribbage, we kids would pile into creaky beds with sandy feet, smelling of sunscreen baked in by bonfires. And sleep came quickly.
That’s when I’d have them: cottage dreams. Vivid re-presentations of cobbled memories and half-forgotten people, all in Technicolor. Maybe I had gulped too much lake water, but I suspect cottage dreams bubbled up from a different font. City living was grand, but only the cottage gave us perfect sleeping weather: inky black nights with no sounds but the cool breeze floating in off the lake.
As my adolescent mind uncoiled, faint memories and fears floated to the surface of my consciousness. In uncluttered silence, my brain would unpack the wrinkly raw material of life, dumping it all out in the strangest of dreams. Dreams of our house getting torn apart by a tornado while I cling to the burnt red fire hydrant just a stone’s throw from the front porch. I’d wake up the next morning staring at the ceiling, breathing as slowly as I could so as to dispel the lingering wisps of my dreams. Then I’d jump up to have a bowl of Apple Jacks.
The family cottage has grown smaller as I have grown bigger. The scale and magic have diminished; so it goes. But I still have cottage dreams.
Not long ago, I made my annual eight-day silent retreat, at a retreat house in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Quiet days stumbled into one another, with no sounds but birds and a tingling wind that would swell to cut the sun’s heat every now and again. Each day was wonderful.
On silent retreats, away from iPhones and friends, there is an unhurried question that rises after the sun sets: what to do until morning? Nights on retreat are country-mouse silent; dark and unusual. They can be scary to those of us accustomed to busyness and technology, those two slayers of typical evenings. But thankfully, even buzz-fed city minds like mine can fall quiet – if given the space.
And cottage dreams still bubble up and surprise. During my retreat I’d wake up in the mornings feeling (a) well-rested, and (b) alarmed by the movies my mind had just played. Was I gulping lake water again?
I know no psychology of sleep, but I do trust my experience. I’m a busy fellow, and I’ve grown accustomed to rushing through days long enough that I rarely let all the stuff that comes my way sink in. It’s no surprise that my mind, stunned by a day’s battery of the senses, needs to untangle – and sometimes jettison – the persons, places, and things that assault it. So when it finally gets peace and quiet – at the cottage, or on retreat – it results in some pretty strange brain-dumps. It stages a no-mercy replay of all the stitched-together impressions that the conscious brain couldn’t handle by daylight.
Here’s the rub: Living day-to-day in the “real” world, I rarely think about what really matters most. I find things to pass the time, but I leave little time for what sustains the deepest Self: quality time with God, friends, myself. In the day-to-day I attend to whatever fire is most proximate and soothe myself with the lie that a city mouse like myself can only live in the buzz-fed world.
When I step away from the noise of the “real” world life gets deeper. Its realities arise like an unexpected cottage dream, unearthing old fears, hurts, memories of loved ones who have died. Or they may appear in the rarified silence of retreat, which taps its gentle finger on the habits and attitudes that lead me to run from God – and self – in favor of a cultivated busyness.
No amount of text messages, activities, or work can bring us to the reality of ourselves; for that we need quiet. We need that cool inky silence where what dreams may come, come. Somewhere between having those dreams and making peace with not fully grasping them, we learn that our mind, body, and spirit need rest. We need to be alone with the Alone, who shows us that peace comes from the hushed depths within.
Whenever I come home from the cottage or retreat, a curious thing happens. For a while at least, even the “real” world feels charged and alive with the Real.