when you can’t go back to sleep

I’ve been waking up every morning at 3am, then again at 5, and then, finally, at 6:20 when I’m supposed to roll out of bed and open the day.

But some mornings, I can’t go back to sleep. I lie and look at the grey sky – the sun must be rising somewhere, I know, but I can’t see it yet – and I stare up at the ceiling. I like to imagine that if I could read it right, my story would be written in neat and beautiful cursive above my head. I want to believe that if I looked for the clues to the mystery of who I am and what I am supposed to do, I could solve it.

Solve the not-going-back-to-sleep, I mean, which is solving the I-don’t-understand-God, which is solving the what-is-this-life, solving the find-your-place-in-the-world.

When I can’t go back to sleep I do math equations in my head, add and subtract and subdivide by unknown quantity “n” looking for a way out of the grey. I wrote them on a piece of paper once:

Fear and hope about job – (trust in God / WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE) + a boy who must exist in the universe somewhere / messy relationships (people hurt! + people are wonderful!) ^ the power of deep friendship – how do any of us even know what friendship means! + N, unknown = the meaning of life. 

This problem, I think, should go on the secret mathematician’s list of “the world’s greatest unsolved problems.” They call them the Millenium Prize Problems: P v. NP, Riemann hypothesis, Navier-Stokes existence and smoothness… and then me, with “The Life Problem.”

On Sunday a girl in our Sunday school asked about the word “mystery” as the teacher presented on the Eucharist. “You mean like Sherlock Holmes?” She asked. The teacher, moving the clay figure of Jesus to the middle of the table, his arms frozen in outstretched blessing over his clay disciples, paused. “Do we solve it?” The little girl asked. I nodded with her, me and my life.

“Actually, this isn’t a mystery that we solve.” The girl wasn’t buying it, shot the teacher a knowing, I-bet-you-say-this-to-everyone look. I mimicked her. “This is a mystery we wonder about.”

We wonder about how Jesus in his outstretched embrace loves the world and moves in it. We wonder about our lives and the people we cherish and the people we hurt and the love that moves  freely. We wonder. And perhaps it is better unsolved.

Mysteries, Yes
by Mary Oliver from Evidence (Beacon Press)

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.



4 thoughts on “when you can’t go back to sleep

  1. If I’m going to read some Oliver, which collection should I start with?

    And wonder, I’ve come to believe, is one of the most important things.

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