The bell

I’m not practiced at remembering my dreams. I know that for those who pay attention, the skill of remembering dreams can increase. Throughout the history of modern psychology, researchers have learned to interpret many meanings from dreams and there is much that can be learned from them. Long before such notions were a part of the practice of medicine, long before modern scientific medicine existed, dreams were important in the lives of people. The Bible tells of Joseph’s capacity to interpret dreams and how it saved his life and later the lives of his brothers when they went to Egypt to escape starvation during a drought and famine. For millennia, we have believed that the voice of God can be heard in dreams.

Somehow, however, I haven’t been very interested in dreams. The dreams that I do remember are occasionally mildly entertaining, with silly bits of story. My dreams are nearly always incomplete, due, I suspect to my lack of practice at remembering them. Somehow, the notion of developing a discipline of remembering dreams, such as keeping a dream journal, seems to me to risk interrupting the free flow of dream ideas that allows my brain to relax and process memories. I don’t need to remember my dreams in order for my brain to do its work of processing memory.

Occasionally, however, a dream comes to my mind with a kind of freshness that makes me notice.

I’ve been dreaming of the church bell for a couple of nights in a row. I awoke a little while ago practically convinced that I had been hearing the bell from the tower of 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, South Dakota. I know that is impossible. And I don’t think that any of the churches in our neighborhood have a bell. If they do, they certainly don’t ring them regularly as was the case back in our church in South Dakota. In my dream, however, the bell was ringing as clearly as it does from that steeple. The sound in my dream, however, wasn’t the clear ringing that echoes off of the black hills and is heard by the neighbors. It included the thumping of the clapper mechanism that you could hear from inside the building. For a quarter of a century, I mostly heard the bell from inside the building.

The bell was a treasure that was obtained through a lot of hard work and effort. I can’t remember the whole history of the bell, but obtaining it was part of the process of building the current church building in 1959. The bell was imported and it was heavy. Getting it into the tower was quite a process in a time before modern truck-mounted cranes were readily available. Installed along with the bell was a mechanism that provided two ways of ringing the bell. A ringing clapper hangs inside of the bell and strikes the side of the bell when the bell is rocked back and forth by an electric motor. A tolling clapper strikes the bell in a static position and is also driven by a separate electric motor. The clappers are controlled by a clock that is installed in the sacristy of the church. The clock, also dating back to 1959 is an electric-mechanical device that has multiple settings for automatic ringing of the bell. It is a seven day, 24 hour clock that can be set only by moving the hands forward. That means that in the spring, when Daylight Savings Time comes, you move the hand exactly one hour forward. When setting the clock was my responsibility, I used an external clock to make sure that I set it accurately. In the fall, however, it would take a long time to rotate those hands around the clock for 24 hours for six days and 23 hours for the seventh to get it set “back.” The hands cannot be moved backwards. Instead, the practice is to turn off the breaker for the clock at the main distribution panel in the church basement, wait a little more than an hour, turn back on the power and set the clock. If you forget, the bell is going to ring at the wrong time.

During my time at the church, the clock was set to ring the bell at 6 pm on Saturday and at 9:00 am and 9:30 am on Sunday. We also rang it at midnight on Christmas Eve to greet the Christmas morn. It was occasionally tolled at funerals as well. It usually worked, but sometimes there would be a glitch. Sometimes the bell would fail to ring. Other times it would ring for a longer than usual time. Several times, when the representative of the bell company would be in town, I asked them to evaluate the problem. Because the problem was inconsistent, I believed that it probably had to do with a lack of lubrication and regular maintenance of the mechanism in the steeple that actually rang the bell. The company representatives, however, usually thought the clock was to blame. They offered a new digital clock that was easy to set, had a battery back-up for power failures, and gave more precise control of the bell. Unconvinced that this would solve the problem, and seeing no issues with the existing clock, I never felt it was a good investment of the church’s funds to replace the clock. I know, from conversations with church members that some problems with the bell clock remain.

As problematic as it was, I miss the bell. After so many years of working in an office beneath that steeple, there is no bell in my life these days. But I don’t know why it is ringing in my dreams. Maybe it is part of my brain processing the grief of the end of a career that I loved and enjoyed. Maybe it is connected to my missing the people of that church, whose lives inspired and challenged my faith. Maybe it is just missing a routine.

I don’t think I need to figure it out. I like the bell. Having it appear in my dreams is pleasant. I’m just going to sleep on this one.

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