“What would you say it is? What’s the most valuable thing to possess?”
He opened his mouth as if to answer; then he turned his face away in contemplation.
Most people knew him as The Inventor. The man in his thirties who lived down the road on 47th Street. He had a name, but by the time the people of western Michigan found his records, it hardly mattered anymore.
Just a short drive from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, there was a small house on 47th Street, near where the interstate turned to head south, blocking off intersecting roads, causing them to run parallel instead. It was here that The Inventor often worked in his shop, located in a small, weather-worn barn on the side of his property nearest to the highway.
Often, the banging of a hammer or the whirring of a lathe could be heard from within the barn. Passersby marveled at the way this man always had a project in the works, both day and night. Didn’t he have a job to go to? Didn’t he ever sleep? These questions made the neighbors ponder, but no one really bothered to find out the answers.
The truth was that he did have a job, working as an engineer for a local large engine parts manufacturer. But that work rarely ever meant anything to him. It was far from where his true passion lay.
Although, as he often considered, he could never quite put his finger on what his true passion was. Not, at least, until the night when he woke up from the dream.
It came to him more vividly than any dream had before. As he awoke, he considered writing it down, but then realized there was no need. He wouldn’t forget it. In fact, he felt sure he couldn’t, even if he tried. In that moment, the only question that remained was which reality was more real—the physical world around him or the tremendous experience from which he had just awoken. The answer to this question no longer seemed as clear or as obvious as it always had. It would require, he realized, some serious and meticulous contemplation to discover the truth.
Because what he had seen made perfect sense.
And in the next moment, he realized that what he had to do was obvious. He knew that once he began, there would never be any way to turn back. Indeed, there would never be any reason to stop.
So the next morning, he set aside every other project—including his job—and started to build a new machine in the small, weather-worn barn. A machine that would change everything.
He thought for a long time as he stared at that blank wall. We asked him a single, straightforward question, and in response he just sat there quietly. This traveler seemed determined to remain an enigma, even as we interviewed him.
The sounds of increased activity in the Inventor’s barn piqued the interest of the people of 47th Street. Several mothers banded together and agreed to meet in the kitchen of the one house next door to the barn, just close enough to hear the continual roar of machinery and pounding of a hammer that resounded from the neighboring property. After much deliberation, the concerned women decided that they ought to have their husbands do something about this ruckus. It was, they concluded, a nuisance to the area.
So over the next few weeks, the problem of the noisy barn on the bend in 47th Street slowly came to the attention of the local men. Through a series of conversations over mugs of beer, they managed to speculate on a few appropriate rumors.
“He’s building a car,” one man suggested.
“Or maybe it’s a new piece of industrial-strength machinery,” said others.
“It could even be a bomb,” someone pointed out on a particular Wednesday.
With that, everyone decided that something needed to be done. The truth uncovered. And so Peter, a timid man from down the block, was elected to go knock on the old barn door.
It took about seven seconds after Peter’s knuckles rapped against the wooden boards that the whirring machines stopped inside. A latch was undone inside and the door opened.
“Yes?” said the Inventor, appearing weary, and yet too excited to be near exhaustion.
“We…” began Peter, suddenly aware that he was standing alone on this mission. He swallowed. “We would like to know what you’re building in there.”
The Inventor grinned. “I’m building a rocket ship.”
“Oh,” said Peter. He nodded and backed away with a nervous laugh. “I see.”
“Freedom,” he said at last. “You can’t become much without freedom.”
“And that’s it? You’ve come so far and seen so much, and all you desire is freedom?”
“Or perhaps love. Sometimes I have trouble deciding which is more precious.”
This surprised us. His thoughts were inconsistent with most of his kind. He was careful, calculating, and impressively open to new beauty.
It really was a rocket ship. At least, that’s how the Inventor thought of it in his own mind. It was a vessel of sorts, a transportation device, a vehicle designed to bring him to the far reaches of reality, out there somewhere beyond the stars, past where most people in history had ever been before.
And yet, even as he built it, he found himself admitting that he didn’t even quite understand how the machine worked. Its design had come to him complete in the dream—the dream that showed him something wonderful, far out beyond the edge of the sky. This bothered him. It sat uneasily, deep within his heart.
Because of this, he decided to take a walk one night to seek out prayerful solitude under the heavy weight of nature’s sublime presence.
All along the eastern coastline of Lake Michigan, one could find sand dunes that rose up a short distance from the water, and were often covered in sharp strands of grass that rustled in a soft breeze from the lake. It was atop a particular one of these dunes called Mt. Pisgah that the man strolled and stood one night, carefully examining all of the beauty surrounding him.
To the west, Lake Michigan lapped at the beach far below, its dark waves peaceful in their crashing. South of the dune, a smaller body of water, Lake Macatawa, sat placid in the moonlight, surrounded by tranquil docks and homes. Soft pools of illumination showed the elegance of human settlement in this place, having come so far since the beginning of time.
Even so, it seemed nothing compared with the beauty of the sheer expanse above.
He stared up at the stars, those pinprick lights shining down, forming mysterious patterns that every now and then seemed to make sense. It encouraged him, brought a form of comfort, and convinced him that the thing of reality that he sought, the one task that the machine was truly meant for, was a gift worth finding. Surely, he prayed, there’s something beyond.
And I want to find it, he concluded.
In this moment, it seemed so certain that he would find a place where he could witness it all. Everything from the dream. The stars dancing with the moon in a fantastic ballet. A place where trees like these nearby waved along with the grass is a perfect symphony. A land of light where the full spectrum of the rainbow grew up from the horizon in the golden dawn.
As he stood looking up, he became convinced that it was all real, and even more real than he could imagine. His prayer became a praise, a song to which his heart beat out the rhythm.
“I come from a nation,” he said, “where freedom is a point of pride. But now I’ve come so far and experienced so much that I realize that I was only an infant back then in the ways of the free.”
“So you’ve learned more.”
“And yet you appear so wistful and melancholy.”
Day 257 of building the machine was one of frustration for the man in the ramshackle barn. As he pulled out a fried circuit board—a part that had taken him over a month to assemble—from the depths of the computer system, he let out a yell of anger.
The plans for the rocket ship were clear in his head. He could have written a book describing them. But to take this knowledge and turn it into a physical, working machine was a test of his skill and ability. It wasn’t impossible. He was certain of that. In theory, the machine would work perfectly, not requiring too much energy or parts made from unobtainable materials. And yet, to actually build it with his own hands….
He tossed the burnt circuit board onto his workbench and grabbed his jacket. Storming out of the barn, he marched to the edge of his property, where he could see cars whizzing by on the highway, just beyond 47th street and a shallow ditch full of weeds.
Seeing people traveling to and fro reminded him of friends and family he had all but abandoned during his crusade to build his machine. Thankfully, he had no one too close who would have been harmed by his absence. And yet, he couldn’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t do him good to catch up with those who might be wondering about him. In fact, it seemed like just the right cure for what ailed him. Maybe a vacation was all he really needed to refresh himself enough to complete his project.
After all, the machine could wait.
So he headed over to the house of a longtime friend—someone he used to work with at the factory—and found himself invited in with eager anticipation. His friend wanted to know everything. Where had he been? What was he up to now? Were the rumors true that he was obsessed with something in his barn?
“To be honest,” he said, “I’d rather not talk about that right now. I feel I’m due a break.”
With that, his friend inquired no more. Instead, he called other friends, those who had frequently asked after the Inventor’s whereabouts, and invited them all over for an evening of fun and celebration. A celebration for what? For the fact that life was great, and a few drinks in a social atmosphere did a soul good.
That was the theory.
This night, the Inventor ascribed to the idea. It was the stress, he realized, at being unable to complete the machine that was bringing him down. So for one night, he decided, he would relax and celebrate life with his friends. Tomorrow he could begin anew.
“I do carry a sadness,” he said, pensive. “It’s not because of anything I lack. It’s not because I haven’t seen beauty or truth or love with my own eyes. I think maybe it’s because I know there are so many who never will.”
“But if you’ve seen all of this for yourself, surely you could share it with us. Or at least describe it.”
“It’s beyond description. And so, sadly, I can’t share it all. But there are pieces. Little things. Directions.”
“And that’s why you’re here?”
“Yes, that’s why I came to your world—to share with anyone who will listen.”
When morning came, the man found he still had no motivation to work on the machine. The problems, though they were only due to his own lack of skill and persistence, seemed insurmountable at the moment. A full day of recovery and rest seemed like the best medicine.
So he didn’t go to work in the barn. He didn’t even bother to take a look at the machine in order to recall where he had left off. That would be for another day.
This day, a Saturday, he went to find his friends again. And then his family. And all he had loved to spend time with, but had forgotten how much.
As night came once again, a pressure in the back of his mind reminded him that the problems with the machine—those that caused him most angst—could be fixed, given enough time and effort. But he pushed the thought away. It could wait.
And the next day, he decided once again that there was no pressing need to work on the machine. What was so urgent about that beauty he longed to see, when he had plenty of good people to keep him company here?
So the machine waited on his return for another day. And then a week. A month.