There is a December season of waiting every year – waiting for Christmas, waiting through eight days of Hanukah to commemorate the oil that lasted, waiting for the New Year. My Viking ancestors, along with most northern European tribes, waited for Yuletide and the return of light, as I am sure that Romans anticipated Saturnalia’s (December 17-23rd) gifting and respite. The waiting season reminds us to slow down, reflect and be grateful.
But this year is different: We are waiting for the end of drawn-out ordeals — COVID isolation, closed schools, the U.S. election farce, and Brexit. We are not waiting with delighted anticipation, but for a concrete end to crazy-making uncertainty. Oh, what fools we mortals be….
Personally, I am reacting with impatience and a persistent stream of random desires…Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, I am waiting, made me laugh by capturing the preposterous and trivial hopes that populate my mind during this year’s waiting period:
I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone to really discover America
and I am waiting for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead…
and I am awaiting perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder.
That’s where Ferlinghetti got me – a rebirth and a renaissance of wonder! I cannot change the world or make people discover the real America. I can (returning to themes in earlier blogs) make an effort to calm my “monkey mind” and reflect on the underlying message of hope that infuses both the pagan and modern December days.
Waiting implies that something is coming. In my least reflective periods, that means waiting for the bus to arrive or a planned vacation. But what are we all waiting for post-COVID? After the current political turmoil runs its course? Neither I nor anyone else really knows – and all of the predictions offered in the newspapers seem like misplaced flailing against a brick wall of existential uncertainty. So what can waiting mean now, when my only conviction is that the future won’t be the same?
Waiting without impatience, to prepare for the unknown — that’s hard. It means slowing down. Really slowing down. Not taking time in the big chunks of weeks or days, but focusing on each hour’s potential. Dan Albergotti’s evocative poem about waiting points to the same lesson: enforced waiting requires attention to life’s details and distractions, but also to moments of quiet grace and awakening, in preparation for the time that will come.
Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale
Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.
But I still find myself bound to an electronic datebook that defines the somewhat arbitrary landscape of my week — ignoring this, as Albergotti urges, is a tough call. John O’Donahue, asks me to think about what it would mean if I abandoned futile hopes of domesticating everything I touch. Both remind me that the gift of uncertainty (that we encounter in the belly of the COVID whale) is that a disorientation invites becoming more awake – if I allow it. And, O’Donahue assures me that “Once you start to awaken, no one can ever claim you again for the old patterns.” Not sure that I buy that as a certainty either, but it is a starting place…..
One thing that I know is that it is hard to relinquish my efforts to domesticate everything – make it manageable on my terms – without relying on others. I am astonished at the degree to which acknowledging mutual vulnerability has become part of my routines: Call someone who is floundering. Reach out to grasp the certainty that I care for someone and that they care for me. Be honest about how hard the little things are, and get my friends to laugh with me at my human imperfections. And I am reminded, when I berate myself at night for all of the unaccomplished things on my list, that I wake up every morning feeling disoriented, but that disorientation slowly shifts to a sense of awe when I face the immovable mountain outside my door, which then eases me into morning’s hope and curiosity (along with two cups of coffee).
I have a friend whose name is Patience, who has spent a great deal of effort over her more than 70 years to live up to her name. She lives alone and has had the same year of cumulative perplexing loss that we are all experiencing. However, her patience is not inert but is sustained by daily attention to well-honed practices that induce attentiveness and keep her awake to hope and joy. I learn from her practices, the most accessible of which are PAUSE. LISTEN. FREQUENTLY. Patience, along with all the poets, urge me to just pay attention during and after this season of anxious waiting.