Guest post by Waverly Fitzgerald
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought for you are not ready for thought.
So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.
T S Eliot, "East Coker," Four Quartets
I've been thinking a lot about waiting, since that is the activity of Advent, a time of waiting for the Sun to be reborn at Winter Solstice, or the Son to be born in the manger at Bethlehem.
The Advent ceremony is one of many Christmas customs which represent in a physical form the mingled excitement and impatience of waiting. You open the doors and windows of an Advent calendar one day at a time until on Christmas Day, depending on whether or not your calendar is a religious one or a secular one, you open the door on the manger scene or on a star at the top of a Christmas tree. The setting out of the creche in Christmas households also marks time. In my childhood, we set up the stable first, then slowly peopled it with figures and animals, shepherds and sheep, Joseph and Mary and finally, at midnight on Christmas Eve, the baby Jesus was placed in the manger. The lighting of the Hanukkah candles, an additional candle at sunset each night for eight nights, is another visible marking of the passing of time at the darkest time of the year.
Midwinter. The darkest and coldest time of the year is also the time of the most miraculous birth, whether you celebrate the birth of the Sun or the Son of God. And the time leading up to it is charged with anticipation, like the last weeks of pregnancy.
There is a certain point in late pregnancy when the waiting seems oppressive. Every morning you wake up thinking, "This is probably the day!" and when nothing happens, you can't believe that you could possibly endure another day, of waiting, of pressure, of physical discomfort. I've always believed this is Nature's way of changing a woman's attitude towards childbirth so that what once seemed terrifying now seems like a blessed relief.
Once labor begins, the pregnant woman is swept away by a natural process which utterly transforms her life, and wipes out all memory of the tedious days of waiting. So it is with the dark days of winter, whether their end is signaled by the excitement of presents under the Christmas tree or marked by the green shoots of spring. But until then, how to get through the darkness?
The other day while waiting in line to order at my neighborhood bagel shop, the woman in front of me was impatient. She shifted back and forth as she waited for her bagel to be prepared. Then her Americano didn't have enough water in it. She tapped the counter with her fingers while more water was added. While I was ordering my breakfast, she showed up again and slammed the creamer down on the counter. "Wouldn't you know?" she wailed, "that this would happen on the morning I'm running late? The creamer is empty!"
Meanwhile I heard an interchange between the two women behind me who were unsure who had gotten in line first. "It doesn't matter to me," said one woman. "I don't mind waiting. Anticipation makes the food taste better."
I thought about this throughout the day as I reflected on the theme of waiting. The angry woman did not get her meal faster than the patient one and she probably had a harder time digesting it. When you see only the goal as worthwhile, then waiting is a hideous state that must be endured to achieve the goal. If you can make waiting an enjoyable process, then you get two benefits. The pleasure of the goal and the pleasure of that liminal period which precedes it.
The beauty of the Eliot poem at the start is the way it shows us how to embrace waiting. Waiting is really not waiting for something, or, if we are waiting for something, what we get is often not what we thought we were going to get. No, waiting is a mysterious place between the letting go of desire and the birth of a new desire. If we think we know where we're going, we lose the opportunity to dwell in the mystery, to allow new impulses to emerge from the darkness, to allow new desires to enter our hearts.
So practice waiting, with heart, with art, this year as you endure the long, dark days before the Winter Solstice. When you must wait--when you are stuck in traffic, at the doctor's office, for the bus--adopt an attitude of curiosity about waiting. Can you enjoy the experience? Filling that empty time with another activity, like listening to books-on-tape in the car, is not necessarily the only way to enjoy it. I have a friend who loves his commute across the floating bridge every morning, often in bumper-to-bumper traffic, because he simply enjoys looking at the sky and the water.
The next time you experience an ending in your life (like the end of a relationship, the end of a friendship, the end of a job, the end of a project), consciously set aside some waiting time, time when you will not go out seeking a replacement but give yourself time to experience the emptiness that follows loss and precedes desire.
Waverly Fitzgerald writes about seasonal time at Living in Season.