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Presented February 26, 2017, by Susan Morrison Hebble
Listen to a recording of "Waiting . . .
19:16 minutes - 17.6 MB - Waiting . . . .mp3 file.
"Going nowhere . . . isn't about turning your back on the world; it's about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply."
Pico Iyer-The Art of Stillness (12-13).
We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams,"
Emerson (Self Reliance)
We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within us is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.
Emerson-The Oversoul 1841
A few weeks ago, at the end of a particularly dark and dreary January, a woman in line at the Walgreens said to me with some relief, "Well, February is almost here . . . . It'll be nice to get that month over with, won't it . . . . get us closer to spring." That statement pretty much sums up the way most of us feel about the month. For midwesterners, February is mostly a month of waiting, isn't it? If we're really lucky, we might enjoy a meteorological reprieve, as we have this past week. But mostly though, for the month, we hunker down, try to muster up some enthusiasm for Valentine's Day, then hunker down again, trying perhaps, to keep that New Year's resolution to hit the gym or clean out the attic.
So here we are, the end of February, a thankfully short month, on the brink of March, that mercurial time that can bring blizzards and tornadoes and something called thundersnow. But at least March promises change, heralds Spring. February, on the other hand, simply waits for March. And we wait along with it, tucked in our snuggies, bowl of popcorn on our laps, irritably flipping channels, avoiding the frightening news of the world and settling, maybe, on a House Hunters International marathon. Killing time.
Most of us don't like waiting; we get cranky or antsy, feel we're unproductive, or, worse, perhaps irrelevant. We want to get on with things, to DO something, anything, or at least to look like we're doing something, anything. As Canadian spiritualist Philip Shepherd writes, "Waiting is a peculiar state in which doing doesn't cease; it is just restrained, like an impatient horse. We wait in lines, . . . we wait at red lights, we wait for elevators, we wait in elevators -- we wait for the show to begin. Such waiting," he writes, "puts us in a kind of limbo in which we can't stop doing even though there is nothing to do: . . . our hearts grow tense as we strain towards . . . [a point] when we will finally be able to start doing again, as if . . . we could hurry time along" (200). Americans, in particular, have a sort of disdain for unproductivity. Indeed, many of us value a flurry of activity, or even feigned productivity (checking and re-checking our newsfeeds or email) over stillness. In our culture, "What are you waiting for?!" is not a question, it's a judgment.
But wait a sec, just wait . . . . I think we can find some value in willingly hitting the pause button instead of wishing that time away; in appreciating a kind of unanticipated stillness, in consciously stopping, looking around, taking stock; in looking up and out and beyond the sleeves of our Snuggie and past the glow of the screen.
I realized this a few years ago, in an unlikely spot, a bit north of here, as the river goes. . . .
I was in a parking lot in Le Claire, Iowa, a tiny town on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. Nowhere, really, one would think. Just a place on the way to another place.
Jeff and I were going to visit our daughter, Anna, at the University of Iowa, and we'd stopped at a small grocery store in Le Claire-I don't even remember why. But we'd stopped, and Jeff was still inside, for some reason, and I was outside, leaning against our mini van. Waiting. Just waiting.
The air was fresh, I remember; I was in jeans and a t-shirt, holding my sweater close around me, so there must have been a bit of chill, a bit of breeze. And I waited.
I looked past the other cars, maybe a dozen or so, parked in between me and the main road, and looked over the river, watching the current pull south, under the I-80 bridge. South toward Quincy, and Hannibal, and Memphis, and New Orleans.
As you probably know, I grew up here in Quincy. It's easy to forget that this really is a lovely, old, resilient river town with a rich history. Of course, one of Quincy's defining claims to fame is that it hosted one of the Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858, an occasion which drew as many as 12,000 sometimes rowdy spectators to Washington Square, just a couple of blocks from the Mississippi, where, I'm sure steamer ships and barges chugged along, focusing only on moving up or down the river with little concern for what either man had to say at that moment.
When you grow up looking at and crossing over the Mississippi, you come to take it for granted, regarding it in practical terms as another geographical fact to which we must adapt; but you may also develop a deep appreciation, even awe for its magnificent power, for its indifferent beauty, for its longevity. "Ol' man river," as the song goes. Oh, the stories it could tell.
So as I waited, I looked toward the Mississippi and the modest homes sprinkled on either side of it, recognizing it as the river I'd known all my life and yet as a river completely different from the one about 150 miles south and thousands of years in the making. Panta Rhea-Greek philosopher Heraclitus subscribed to this idea that "everything flows", that "no one steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and [I'm] not the same person."
So I waited. I looked up at a crisp blue sky, the kind of blue I think of when I think of sky. Some clouds puffed up, white with the reflection of sunshine, but also hinting at grey. Cumulus clouds, I recalled from fourth grade science class. They were moving, almost imperceptibly, but as I watched, I could see that they were moving along, like an affable armada, I decided, navigating a "river of crystal light/Into a sea of dew" (Field). Wynken, Blinken, and Nod, perhaps along for the ride.
I realized I hadn't looked at clouds-really looked at them, other than to wonder if they were bringing inconvenient weather-in years. And I found myself both energized and serene gazing up at these clouds.
Did you know that there's a Cloud Appreciation Society? It was begun in 2005 by Brit Gavin Pretor-Pinney and boasts over 42,000 members worldwide. In a 2013 TED talk, Pretor-Pinney convincingly argues that clouds "are, in fact, the most diverse, evocative, poetic aspect of nature." And he celebrates "the aimlessness" of what he calls cloudspotting. Pretor-Pinney argues that the fact that "you're not going to change the world by . . . gazing up at the sky. . . . is precisely why it's so important [to do so]. . . . " He insists that "Sometimes we . . . . need to be reminded by these patron goddesses of idle fellows that slowing down and being in the present [that looking up to 'marvel at the ephemeral beauty' of clouds. . . [is] . . . good for the way you feel. It's good for your ideas. It's good for your creativity. It's good for your soul."
My mind and focus came back down to earth, back to the parking lot: concrete, stained by oil and goodness knows what else, littered with stray grocery carts, defined by cars and trucks and minivans and motorcycles. A father and son were heading toward a red pick-up, a Ford I think, with a fine layer of dirt road dust on it, the red-cheeked son bouncing with a gleeful energy only 5-year-olds seem to muster on such an errand. The father weary-looking, but with a slight, indulgent smile, tried only half-heartedly to restrain his child, tried to keep him safe while letting him enjoy the moment.
Our eyes met. And I smiled, and I waited.
It's an opportunity, I realized, standing in that parking lot of Slagle's Food Pride on Eagle Ridge Road in that lovely old Iowa river town. Waiting. It occupies that space between what was, where we were, what we had and what will be, where we're going, what we want. We often fill that space by looking down-usually at our phones-or by stewing in anticipation or frustration. But occasionally, if we are of a mind to do so, we might be satisfied to let that space be . . . . to acknowledge that that space, that waiting in time. . . in place. . . in space is, after all, what is.
This is not a new idea-indeed, all of the faith traditions build in a spirituality of waiting. But in a religious context, waiting is deliberate and purposeful, whether one waits in prayer or fasting or meditation, in recognition of lent or Ramadan or the Sabbath. Such waiting actualizes the hopeful, anticipatory, disciplined practice and proof of one's faith. As French mystic Simone Weil famously wrote, "Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life."
I think we all consciously or unconsciously seek out such moments in our secular lives as well. Any fisherpersons here? Of all activities, fishing is probably the most intentionally full of waiting, isn't it? We drop anchor, we bait the hook, we cast, and we wait . . . You may remember that I play a lot of tennis, and I recently learned that in an average tennis match, only about 18% of the time is spent actually playing the game-the other 82% of the time, the players are mostly waiting . . . waiting to serve, waiting to return a serve, waiting between games, and so on ("How Much Tennis"). And that waiting is an essential part of the sport.
Pico Iyer, an accomplished writer and world traveler, wrote about this idea in his book The Art of Stillness: "The need for an empty space, a pause, is something we have felt in our bones; it's the rest in a piece of music that gives it resonance and shape. That's the reason American football players prefer to go into a huddle rather than just race toward the line of scrimmage, the reason a certain kind of writer will include a lot of blank space on a page, so his sentences have room to breathe (and his readers, too)." So appreciating literature, art, music or sport requires an appreciation for waiting: for the next phrase, the next major chord, the illumination of some idea, the next big play; perhaps that is why we often turn to the arts or sports when life is the most confusing, for a perspective and clarity those spaces provide.
While I understand the need for such ritualized periods of waiting, I am intrigued here by the more unexpected opportunities that waiting might offer. As with my experience in Le Claire, some of our most illuminating moments catch us by surprise. And when we pause in that stillness, when we take it in, we recharge our connection to the world. From that point, our awareness is heightened, our energy is replenished, our sense of purpose perhaps more clear.
Some of you may have attended a rally or march in recent months. My daughter and I were proud to be among the 250,000 people at the Chicago Women's March on January 21st. Anna connected with a band of millennial pals, and I met up with my friends along Michigan Avenue to march toward Grant Park. Because the crowd was ten times that expected, we heard none of the speakers, couldn't get close enough to see any of the planned program.
We got as far as Congress Parkway, halfway across a bridge over the train tracks. And there we waited, with hundreds of other people who reflected the beautiful spectra of age, color, and gender in America. We were all frightened/angry/ unsettled by the results of the November elections but emboldened, jubilant in our defiance, hopeful in the face of despair, but mostly, as we all waited on that unseasonably warm and unusually sunny day, we were unified, "a gentle, angry people," as the hymn goes . . . who were happy to wait with one another, "singing for our lives" (Near).
My little tribe of middle-aged suburban women enjoyed our waiting with men in high heels ("walking a mile in her shoes"), with young women unhesitant to celebrate female anatomy in voice and art, with children in pink hats knit by their grandmothers, with a trio of immigrant twenty-somethings, the quintessence of "Obama's Dreamers," . . . well, you get the idea. We complimented one another's signs and buttons, sang and chanted and chatted, and one young woman handed out Hershey's kisses at just the right moment. It was an extraordinary day, one I will carry with me forever, not because of what was supposed to happen but because of what happened when we waited for what was supposed to happen.
Perhaps in waiting, in settling into that space between what was and what will be, we might see the blessings in the world as it is. Wasn't that time on that bridge in downtown Chicago serendipitous? I cannot imagine a better representation of what we needed and what we needed to say than that. And weren't those moments in that Iowa parking lot, moments I recall like a slide show, weren't those unwitting blessings unto me? So I must imagine, too, what blessing might I bestow on the world? What blessings more does the world have for me? For you? For us?
To paraphrase Canadian priest Henri Nouwen, "what [we] are waiting for is growing from the ground on which [we] are standing. That's the secret. The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun" (qtd. in Gould).
And when we embrace that opportunity and consciously observe, we may take in the beauty, and, well, the horror of the world around us; we may see the scope of magnificence in our world; we may grasp not only what is in one moment but the potential for what could be in the next. Such awareness, if we're open to it, may allow us to gather ourselves with valuable perspective and, perhaps, inspire us to move forward with conviction, to act with purpose. For our actions and our inactions, the space we take in this world and the space we make in this world, become part of that interdependent web of existence.
We are here, in this space, 26 days into the year's shortest month. So we've nearly made it, folks! And as you can see, I am no longer standing in that parking lot in Iowa, chilled but peacefully observant. Jeff emerged from the store, and we continued west on I-80 to visit our daughter. But that moment, you and I both now realize, meant enough for me to want to share it with you years later. I am glad that I remember it in such detail and with a distinct glimmer of gratitude, for its unexpected gift was that it gave me perspective; it reminded me that ours is a world of beauty, of humanity, of change, of power, and that I am of that world, and that I impact that world. That waiting, you see, it served me well.
"We are all inventors, each sailing out on a voyage of discovery, guided each by a private chart, of which there is no duplicate. The world is all gates, all opportunities, strings of tension waiting to be struck." Ralph Waldo Emerson
Field, Eugene. "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod." 1889. Poets.org. 15 Feb. 2017. Web. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/wynken-blynken-and-nod
Gould, Sarah. "A Spirituality of Waiting." Serviam Ministries. 16 Nov 2015. Web. https://www.serviamministries.com/blog/a-spirituality-of-waiting/
"How Much Tennis Is Played During a Match?" Wall Street Journal. www.wsj.com. 4 Sept. 2013. Web. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB1000142412788732393260457905 3172340374060
Near, Holly. "We are a gentle, angry people." Singing the Living Tradition. Boston: Beacon Press. 1993. Print.
Pretor-Pinney, Gavin. "Cloudy with a chance of joy." TEDGlobal2013. www.ted.com. June 2013. Web. http://www.ted.com/talks/gavin_pretor_pinney_cloudy_with_a_chance_of _joy
Shepherd, Philip. New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty- first Century. Berkely, CA: North Atlantic Books. 2010. Print.
Babcock, Harold E. "Waiting Patiently in Expectation." Harold Babcock's Sermons, newbabcock.wordpress.com. 30 Nov. 2008. 10 February 2017. Web. https://newbabcock.wordpress.com/2008/11/30/november-30- 2008-waiting-patiently-in-expectation/
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self-Reliance." Essays: First Series. Ralph Waldo Emerson-Texts. 1841. Web. http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm
-----. "The Oversoul." Essays: First Series. Ralph WaldoEmerson-Texts. 1841. Web. http://www.emersoncentral.com/oversoul.htm
Kidd, Sue Monk. When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life's Sacred Questions. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco/HarperCollins. 2006. Print.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.