Waiting is not generally recognized as an art. It is more often viewed as an inconvenience, an undersirable restraint, a void to be filled as quickly as possible. Waiting is the red light at the intersection of the highway and the shopping mall. It is the line at the supermarket at 5:30 p.m., the lay-over between flights, the time devoted to the telephone installer who arrives a day late. Waiting, we think, is all that life should not be.
And so we sacrifice opportunities in the name of efficiency. Waiting interrupts the schedule of our day; therefore we blame the telephone installer, the airlines or the supermarket clerk. We should stop to see what we have been given. The interrupted schedule brings us face to face, not with inefficiency, but with ourselves -- our un-machinelike lives, our musings and feelings that go dormant in the hubbub of the day.
Whole days pass when I pride myself on the smooth flow of events -- gasoline and groceries purchased, classes taught, questions answered, letters written. Suddenly something will happen -- an important visitor arriving "sometime on the 26th," a painter scheduled for my apartment, an interviewer who arrives half an hour late. I'm left . . . waiting. I begin to feel slightly anxious. What will I do?
And I have to laugh. The question, after all, is a very big one. I'm faced with my own being. Not the half-contrived circumstances of daily life, but the little-known substance surging silently beneath all that, the self that emerges in quiet moments. What will it -- I -- do? It has all of life before it.
Waiting time is vulnerable time -- moments when nothing interposes between one's self and one's soul. Perhaps it would be clearer to say that the self, which leads one so successfully through everyday business, comes face to face with the source of memory, reflection, invention, prayer. It is as if one entered a dark and quiet room after delivering a stirring speech to a large, enthusiastic audience. No glowing cheers support one as he waits, watches, looks into the dark. One is private with his cares, imaginings -- or inspirations.
For brilliance is everywhere in that dark and quiet room -- that infinitely discoverable source of consciousness. Art makes its home there. A gifted high school teacher of mine, Warren Wilde, once exhorted his students to seek out that home -- "the black crows of Van Gogh, the poetry of Shakespeare" -- for the sake of finding that it was indeed "a house of many mansions." What Wilde directed us towards, as I learned, were the deeper and deeper connections between human life and life's source -- something too fine directly to say or see. Wilde urged us never to think "that we had done it all," never to imagine that there wasn't another insight that we should wait for -- look deeply for.
So we wait. I, in fact, am sitting in a dark and quiet room at this moment. Just enough light for writing falls on my lap from the window above my head.The walls are undecorated; there are packed and unpacked boxes everywhere. This new apartment, the third in a year, is thousands of miles from my previous home, which itself was thousands of miles from my home before that. I've done a lot of waiting.
Far from being forays into a world of private fantasy, that waiting has provide tangible rewards. On one occasion I scribbled down notes to a poem while standing in a supermarket parking lot, after having mused through some ideas in the check-out line.
On another occasion, I finally stopped wondering when my bus was going to arrive and began looking at the people around me -- really looking,m trying to appreciate their moods, their successes and burdens. Suddenly I was among them rather than withdrawn from them. Something in my consciousness clicked from self-centeredness to kinship -- the invitation of humanity.
In her "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," Annie Dillard quotes poet Michael Goldman: "When the Muse comes she doesn't tell you to write; She says get up for a minute , I've something to show you, stand here." Waiting and the Muse -- the keen insight, the vivid music of the mind -- are not inseparable, but they are close friends. Perhaps this is why waiting is worth its discipline, worth the skirmishes with tension and frustration. Waiting portends the sudden discovery, the sudden reassurance. The fruit of waiting is the unexpected.