Paolo Belcastro in his newsletter Morfternight posted recently about waiting, asking “How much of our life do we spend waiting for something?”
This is his lovely photograph.
Where to begin. So much time spent waiting — though so much less than many people in impoverished places, in big cities, in other countries, climbing the highest mountains in the world 🙂 — and I have ambivalent feelings about it.
One reason we moved to New England was really to wait less. Traffic is soooo slooooow in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. So many traffic lights, so many cars, all the time, everywhere. I love living now in a town with no traffic lights, and there are very few within 30 miles. There are stop signs, of course, and sometimes people driving slowly, but almost never do I encounter a significant wait while driving.
I admit I use the cashier-less registers to check out at the local grocery store most of the time, unless my favourite cashier is working and not busy. Partly it’s the waiting in line I want to avoid, but mostly it’s the interaction with someone who doesn’t seem to like their job. I’m sorry they don’t — I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t either, especially after a few hours of standing (waiting, a lot of the time), greeting, and being ignored, treated unpleasantly, or told to smile by customers — but my sympathy isn’t really welcome if it’s even noticed. Even though I’m not alone in thanking cashiers, baggers, and stockers, it still seems like it’s often a thank-less job. There’s another smaller grocery store I visit about once a month, without self-check-out, and it’s not unusual to encounter 20-minute waits there. I don’t actually mind it. I enjoy watching and eavesdropping on other people who are waiting. I also check my phone, like almost everyone else in line, and think about what I forgot to get but can’t possibly leave the line to go track down now. The time passes without undue frustration. (It helps that I walking in expecting to wait to check out, thus giving me more of a sense of control over my experience. I’ve made a choice to wait; I haven’t been forced into waiting.)
Waiting on the phone to talk with customer service is painful, because I’m almost always calling with something that seems like a crisis to me — why does their website show that I’m no longer covered by my health insurance? there’s an unrecognised charge on my credit card! this important computer function isn’t working! I’m anxious with the uncertainty and the possible consequences of how things seem, and I can’t concentrate on other things until this situation is resolved. I recognise my father in me at these times.
In fact I recognise my father whenever I’m impatient; it was one of his key traits. He tried in his later 20 or 30 years to mitigate his reaction to situations and people that tested his patience — slow hikers, inexperienced hikers, arrogant hikers, the author Bill Bryson; slow and erratic drivers (how often did I hear the cry “Meathead!” when I was a child in the car with him); people who didn’t listen to him the first time and made the same mistake again (yes, he was a Virgo; one of his life mottos was “If you want something done right, do it yourself”); restaurant and store staff who couldn’t understand what he said to them, particularly if English wasn’t their first language; waiting for almost anything, no matter why, when, or where. He tried to practice patience, but he never really learned it (that I noticed) until perhaps the last few months of his life, when he was probably too weak or tired to struggle anymore, or perhaps he was fine with the slow march of death, which he’d seen coming his way for three years by then.
Though slow hikers sometimes annoyed him, because he was human and contained multitudes he was also fond of telling me to “Slow down! We’re not going to a fire!” when he thought I was walking too quickly on the trail. He was impatient with my impatience. I miss him.
I like to travel by train. Waiting for a train can be fun, or frustrating (when it’s late, then later, then later), and even nerve-wracking (when it’s late and you have to connect with another train or pick up a rental car). Some people think that travelling by train is also waiting, in a tedious way. They’re bored after a few hours and impatient to get there.
For me, train travel is a suspension of time, and in that way, it’s a bit like waiting, with none of the accompanying impatience. The train is a liminal space between two places, a moving waiting room. It’s not that it’s exactly a place of inactivity — many people are working or studying, making calls, getting things done — but for me, it’s a space that requires nothing. I have nothing to do and nothing of import that I can do. I’m fully occupied with a timeless kind of waiting, until time restarts when I disembark. I like to travel alone across the country, taking weeks, just to savor the spacious absence of doing things, the absence of feeling that things need doing. As they say in some Buddhist traditions about meditation, “nothing to do and nothing to undo.” That’s train travel for me. I look out the window a lot. I eavesdrop (can’t help it). I sleep when I’m sleepy. Sometimes I chat with my seatmate, but often they have headphones on or are working, and that’s OK by me. I’m just enjoying the waiting room, the room that allows me to pause, to linger.
It’s hard to imagine being happier. I feel completely present. Years ago, when I listened to favourite music while train-travelling, I’d have this feeling that my life was a kaleidoscope that I was shaking, all the years and seconds rushing into one point, one brimming full moment.
I follow a number of young people (ages 20s-40s) on Instagram, mostly in the UK, who have metastatic cancer (following one led to following another, then another, in the way social media often works), their cancers often found late because medical folks dismissed their symptoms due to their age. I witness them spending hours of their already likely foreshortened lives waiting in bland and anonymous — or disquieting, distressing, scary — hospital rooms for scans, infusions, terrifying conversations. Some find and create ways to endure it (some days), and compassionate medical staff can help, but on the whole it seeems cruel that serious illness routinely lands us in such soulless places, walls covered with ugly diagrams of just what can go wrong in a body, and the hours, days, and months slipping away in isolation, discomfort, anxiety, loneliness. Waiting.
Some are able make plans for trips between chemo series, scans, appointments. Through Instagram just in the last few years I’ve been virtually whisked away to Jamaica, Barbados, South Africa, Iceland, Lapland/Finland, various parts of France including Disneyland Paris, Crete, Wales, Morocco, Cornwall, Tampa FL, the Himalayas and Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Maldives, and Ibiza by people with cancer who are seeking normalcy, seeking a normal, ordinary life that includes travel (and normal travel waiting), adventure, and novelty as well as health care and restrictions. They tick adventures and fun activities off their “living lists,” bittersweet tokens of another kind of “journey” they haven’t chosen. Because you can’t wait to do things later when you’re aware that later may come sooner than you had ever expected.
Just after I read Belcastro’s words about waiting, I stumbled onto Craig Mod’s post “Walk for the Boredom of It All.” Boredom and waiting overlap a good bit in psychic space. And boredom, waiting, and the opportunity to pay attention, as I’ve been writing about recently, also intersect.
Mod, who walks for hours and days on long jaunts in Japan, says that about half the value of the walks for him is the boredom he experiences while walking all day:
“Boredom is everything, man. I think our loss of boredom in contemporary society is one of the greatest, weirdest, ambient losses. It is one of these things that’s hard to quantify the value of. And we’ve lost it so completely and totally that we very rarely have moments to even re-experience it, unless you do so intentionally.”
But also, because he knows he’ll be writing a post every night, he’s
“in this mindset of just paying attention: what are interesting details that I can pull forward and write about at the end of the day. And if you’re just alive and looking, there are so many stories every day to be found and to be delighted by and you can pop into barber shops and kissaten and little yoshokuya. You can go in anywhere and say hello to anyone and there’s a story there to be pulled out and to be written about and to be delighted by. That is really the main focus. It’s being present, it’s connecting with the folks along the way. It’s trying to cast really a gentle eye on everything.”
When I’m waiting, when I’m feeling bored and maybe sometimes even when I’m anxiously waiting, it’s good to remember that I can also be “alive and looking,” alive and paying attention, alive and present. (Paying attention, for me, is actually an unfocused focus that is incompatible with boredom, no matter how long the walk or how bland the scenery. Even putting one foot in front of the other is a rhythm that keeps me interested.) Mod’s last sentence above is really a good life mantra in times of waiting as well as in times of doing: “Be present. Connect with the folks along the way. Cast a gentle eye on everything.”
One of my favourite poems is Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise”:
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
The poem speaks to me of an ordinary day — maybe it feels boring, irritating, frustrating, unendurable; maybe it’s spent waiting when I’d rather not; perhaps it’s slowly paced with one routine activity following another, or blurringly paced so that nothing stands out or is even really experienced unless I take a moment to look up and look around — the ordinary day in which many small and vital elements might be tucked, waiting for me to notice, waiting for me to have some unoccupied time to see them for what they are: beauty; magic; momentary pleasures and comforts; a sense of belonging to ourselves, to others; fleeting feelings of curiosity, compassion, calm; the ways in which our bodies support us; the architecture and artfulness of our built and natural environments; the beloved people and other beings with whom we share time and space; the recognition of our sheer luck to be here planning for one more day.
Kenyon died at age 47, from leukemia. I’m glad she didn’t take this life for granted. Whether we’re stuck impatiently waiting, or lolling about bored and weary, or living very day-to-day with a dire diagnosis, we are alive — and it could always be otherwise. What are we waiting for?
Featured photo — traffic jam on Mt. Everest — was taken by Mark Fisher and shown by Baker Perry, Ph.D. during a webinar titled “Reaching New Heights on Mt. Everest: Insights from the Highest Weather Stations in the World” hosted by Mt Washington Observatory on 18 Jan. 2022.