Waiting: a Source of Anxiety or Opportunity for Discovery?

Waiting by Degas for Waiting blog post


Waiting is ubiquitous in human experience right from our very start. For nine months we gestate in our mother’s womb, waiting to be born. Likewise, at the end of our lives, we wait for death. Every day in a variety of situations, we wait. We wait for the sun to replace the moon, for buds to blossom, for our house to sell, for our carrots to grow. We wait for a lover to call, for the mail to be delivered; we wait for the taxi to arrive and the plane to be on time. We wait in traffic jams and doctors’ offices. We wait for the signs of puberty, the first rattlings of death.

Waiting is colored by the emotion we attach to the experience. We say we feel stuck or pissed, bored or angry. The supermarket line seems to take forever. “Take forever” is one of our favorite descriptors of waiting.

The Emigrants for Waiting blog postWe wait in public and we wait in private. Waiting is a mental space unlike any other: in waiting we find ourselves in uncertainty, between the anticipated and the hoped for, between stasis and action, and our response to waiting often registers as cranky restlessness.

Journalist Andrea Köhler has written a book called Passing Time: An Essay on Waiting, in which she reflects on aspects of waiting. “What I am interested in is the kind of waiting that falls squarely within the realm of individual experience, which in today’s world, faces the paradox of overabundance of too little time.” The paradox here is something most of us know: that while we pack more and more into our busy lives, we feel more dogged than ever by the pressure to keep up. Under such conditions, waiting becomes maddening, a personal affront.

Köhler reminds us that waiting anticipates loss and the fear of separation. Waiting, she observes, is anxiety’s sister. Using Freud as a guide, she refers us back to childhood, to our first experience of our mother’s absence. We are in a crib. We cry out. Mother does not hear our distress. Waiting for our mother induces terror. Of this primal terror, Köhler writes: “Only a brief instant presumably separates the moment when the child believes his mother to be merely absent from the moment when it thinks she is dead. Whenever we have to wait for someone we love, we are subcutaneously thrown back upon this experience. Thus, waiting evokes the curse of a threat going back to childhood.”

But do we have to think of waiting as passive and anxiety-provoking? Financial writer Frank Partnoy would have us consider the benefits of delay. His book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, suggests that rashness is not our friend. Deep reflection requires time. Decision-making requires time and a space in which we can observe, contemplate and process information. Partnoy writes:

“Thinking about the role of delay is a profound and fundamental part of being human. Questions about delay are existential: the amount of time we take to reflect on decisions will define who we are. Is our mission simply to be another animal, responding to whatever stimulations we encounter? Or are we here for something more? Our ability to think about delay is a central part of the human condition. It is a gift, a tool we can use to examine our lives. Life might be a race against time, but it is enriched when we rise above our instincts and stop the clock to process and understand what we are doing and why.”

Waiting for Dad by Homer for Waiting blog postWhat’s our rush? The answer has to do with our relationship to time. Time fleets, races, gallops or drags. We spend time or grieve its absence. Sometimes, time stands still. Technology and modernization have changed how we experience time. As novelist and historian Eva Hoffman writes in Time: “As we move through time with more speed and freedom, temporality becomes increasingly severed from natural cycles of years, days and seasons. In jet travel we conflate night and day without regard to the twenty-four-hour cycle. . . . But our cognition of time is no longer even linked to the time through which we physically move. Rather, our experience of temporality is becoming increasingly deterritorialised and virtual.”

Waiting can be empty and meaningless or full of richness and meaning. Engagement with the present moment, to what’s right here in front of us—the tree next to the bench at the bus stop where we sit waiting, the child’s quizzical face in the waiting room—offer opportunities to acknowledge and feel the life pulsing within and around us. Buddhist monk and teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches us that when we see a flower, if we pause, wait, and cultivate a meditative moment to look deeply into that flower, we will see not only its shape and color, but we see the sunshine, rain and soil that are also part of the flower and part of us as well. This “looking deeply into” can become a practice while we wait, wherever we are. We can bring our awareness to the quality of clouds while we are in crawling traffic; we can sit with our morning coffee and savor its aroma, feel the weight of the mug in our hands. In these moments when we abide with ourselves, the urge to do, to be somewhere else, subsides. Our breath, our heartbeats slow down. We are not waiting for time to pass; waiting is our friend.

Slaves Waiting for Sale for Waiting blog postFrench philosopher Gaston Bachelard takes us a step further in considering the necessity and profundity of time suspended. Tempo giusto, the unrushed time of childhood, or what Bachelard calls reverie, a time-outness in which the preoccupations of everyday life and worries are swept aside and “time no longer has any yesterday and no longer any tomorrow.”(The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos).

Beloved poet Mary Oliver is our spirit guide in reminding us to remain open to the world’s dazzlement; that is, to pause, wait and wonder. To allow the mundane to show us its enchantment. Here is her famous poem “Wild Geese” from her book Dream Work. Poetry opens us to a lyric moment, into the timeless realm beyond waiting where image, music, and revelation meet. Next time you think you might be in for a wait, take a book of poetry with you. You may find that your mind will be happy you did.

Wild Geese 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

On Writing Blogs

Dear Esteemed Friends and Curious Visitors:
Sorry to be so long away! My apologies if you’ve visited this site and found nothing new. I’d been hoping to write a new blog piece at least twice a month, but look what’s happened! Nothing new here since October and the list of things I WANT to write about grows longer and longer.

Mali4a-Believe me, it’s not for lack of subject material that I’ve been quiet. Quite the opposite. I care so much about so many subjects that I find it difficult to sit down and write a simple piece about, let’s say, coming-of-age novels or the inspiration of fairy tales. Both of these topics are hot on my list to be explored as are Lessons on Limitations: An Education By A Re-homed Golden Retriever; Becoming A Public Author; The Wisdom of Book Groups; Mothers and Daughters: Old Myths, New Realities. Sound good? Stay tuned!

cabininwinter2Just writing out the titles makes me want to drive up to our cabin nestled in the serenity of the Northwoods and dig in. I’m the sort of writer who doesn’t know what something means to her until she thinks about it for a while, or as the great 19th C poet Rilke suggests, until I live with the questions. “… have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/295Rilkea (Letters To a Young Poet, Marie Rainer Rilke 1903)

Sometimes I wish I could simply dash off a few short paragraphs without much effort but very rarely does this happen. I take to heart that other writers have a similar, laborious process. To paraphrase the British writer E. M. Forster in his wonderful book about the craft of writing Aspects of A Novel: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”EM-Forster2

Exactly! Some of us have to figure out what it is we want to say, and then go about the task of creating sentences to convey our thoughts. After that comes the editing and refining, something I do meticulously (obsessively?) well as a poet. I am a vigilant refiner! (It strikes me now that for some people, writing a blog may be more similar to having a conversation than to writing an essay. I’m a good conversationalist, snappy even, but that quickness doesn’t translate to my writing style.)

ClocksThe biggest problem is Time and not the kind measured by a clock. I’m talking about Time as Space, dream-time or walk-in-the-woods time in which an interlude of fifteen minutes can feel like an hour. It’s the kind of time this writer needs to enter into her thoughts, the kind that has depth and recesses, the kind of time that encourages stillness and contemplation. Couldn’t we all use a little more of it?

At a holiday party last week I was seated across the table from a poised and eloquent thirteen-year-old who was already quite accomplished in the theater arts. She had just written her first novel and was working on something new. We got to talking. “I never know what I’m going to write about until I start writing,” she said. I nodded. “I like to discover what I have to say,” she said. ”Yup, it’s all about discovery,” I said, secretly chanting me, too!

GishJenI love this from Gish Jen’s book, Tiger Writing: The novel knows more than the person writing it.(http://www.gishjen.com/)

I don’t know how my teenage friend came to understand so early in her life that trusting one’s instincts is a necessary foundation for pursuing a creative life, but I imagine the enthusiastic support of her parents have something to do with it. An optimistic temperament doesn’t hurt either.

I’m writing this from my studio. Outside, the sun is hidden behind a sky the color of milk. The falling snow is hypnotic and unrelenting. I can feel myself slipping into reverie. It’s a familiar feeling, difficult to describe because the sensations in my body are subtle and linked to an anticipatory sense that something mysterious is about to happen. (You’re eight years old, in a park, watching a squirrel disappear into a hole in a tree. Where has it gone? You imagine a labyrinth of tunnels, the squirrel’s bedroom complete with a canopy bed and candlestick on the night-table. You stand there blinking and waiting.)

And now I have an idea. I want to stay in touch with you, dear visitors, but until I’m able to write longer, thoughtful pieces, I’ll put up short posts—excerpts from a book I’m reading or something of my own—writing I hope will interest and inspire.

Memory takes up a lot of room in a writer’s toolbox. Here’s an elegiac poem I wrote awhile ago in honor of my father. He died in 1978 in a car crash. Over the years I’ve caught glimpses of him out of the corner of my eye—the same gray overcoat, the same slope of the shoulders, the same easy stride—the only thing missing his fedora.FredCropped3
What is it about the holiday season that brings back ghosts? And not just the ghosts of others. Our own past taps us on the shoulder and says, Remember who you were!
Here’s my poem.


I’m sitting on my bed with Father, thirty years dead.
He’s wiping his wire-rims
linen hanky plucked from a back pocket
like chiffon from a magician’s sleeve—
he’s wearing his lopsided grin.

Outside the wind is March’s anthem,
but inside we’ve broken and entered
memory’s mind. “Are you lonely?” I ask.
He shrugs and puts his glasses on.
Whatever he’s come for tonight he won’t say.

Which was always his way: Mr. Clown, Chaplin’s
Kick-Up-Your-Heels son,
jokes to ward off the cinderblock silence
building inside him,
his eyes so grave I’d have to look away.

I always did. To the blotched galaxy
framed in the bedroom window, one or two orphaned stars
you had to climb on the sill to see.
But the stars weren’t bright enough
to outshine my father’s sorrow.

How old was I then? Five? Six?

Once, snuggling in beside me,
I waited for him to reveal
The Something so sad and terrible
it dragged down the corners of his eyelids,
and made his voice catch like a gate latching shut.

But there never was a story
for the primal sorrow, his heart attack
still years away. Perhaps

he was about to warn me
how he’d come from a long line
of broken-hearted men. Perhaps he saw
that loving him had already shaped the woman
I would become,

and he wanted to call me back
from my future.
But he never said anything
more than it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.
Barbarians in the streets.