Waiting Considered: Dickinson and Thoughts

I am patient. In some respects I enjoy waiting, for anticipation just heightens life [1].

I’d be shocked if you aren’t waiting on something or someone right now. Waiting has many forms, however, and some of them are less pleasant to deal with than others. Waiting. It might be  a late meal, the results of a biopsy, stopped traffic, slow-moving paperwork, or an indecisive person. It could be academic, professional, or personal.

Since life involves so much waiting I want to learn how to do it well. And so I think about waiting. I’ve decided that the primary stress in waiting is the uncertainty. Will the wait end? Will I get what I desire? Should I be more proactive? Should I be less proactive? Should I stop thinking so much?  

I like to hear what other people think about waiting. Recently I was reading Emily Dickinson’s poems [2], and I was struck by two things relating to waiting. A disclaimer: Poetry may be interpreted many ways, so you might disagree with my interpretations of Dickinson’s writing. During my studies at Temple I took a class with a professor who managed to associate every novel and poem we read with sexual frustration (which I believe said more about the professor than the literature we studied). That class almost ruined poetry for me forever.

The first thought is: Waiting is difficult when the end is in doubt. Since Dickinson did not title her poems it is difficult to refer to them, so I’m just going to include it here:

If you were coming in the fall,
I’d brush the summer by
With half a smile and half a spurn,
As housewives do a fly.

If I could see you in a year,
I ’d wind the months in balls,
And put them each in separate drawers,
Until their time befalls.

If only centuries delayed,
I’d count them on my hand,
Subtracting till my fingers dropped
Into Van Diemen’s land.

If certain, when this life was out,
That yours and mine should be,
I’d toss it yonder like a rind,
And taste eternity.

But now, all ignorant of the length
Of time’s uncertain wing,
It goads me, like the goblin bee,
That will not state its sting.

When the outcome is known the waiting is bearable. I love uncertainty being represented by a bee, not stinging or leaving, just creating unease by being present. The target of desire in this poem is open for interpretation [3]. I prefer to think of it as a lover, but even if you grant that there are still questions. Is the separation literal miles or is it unrequited love? Is the target a known person or is it the hope of someone to come? No matter how you answer these questions–which I think are secondary–the main point remains. Waiting can be torturous.

Emily has another take on that which is unfulfilled. Even in dark times there is comfort in the unknown.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

In uncertainty there is a comfort that does not demand anything of the holder and no trial or tempest can extinguish it. It’s interesting that a bird is used to refer to hope. A bird can fly away. A bird is frail. Yet no chill or gale can abash it.

So waiting can be torturous and comforting?

That has been my life experience. I think Emily is right.

[1] When I order a pizza I like to bring it home, open the box, and let it sit for half an hour.

[2] While waiting, appropriately enough. When I get stuck in a slow checkout line or delayed somewhere I read poetry, it is good for the soul. (I love having iBooks on my phone.)

[3] I know how my Temple prof would interpret it. He would have a field day with the first line.



Filed under Thoughts

2 responses to “Waiting Considered: Dickinson and Thoughts

  1. Anonymous

    First of all, I love the 2 Dickinson poems chosen…
    I have an S.D. Gordon quote that I have carried around with me through life for the past 30+ years. It has given me a perspective on waiting that is more nuanced and active.
    “Waiting is:
    Steadfastness, that is holding on;
    Patience, that is holding back;
    Expectancy, that is holding the face up;
    Obedience, that is holding one’s self in readiness to go or do;
    Listening, that is holding quiet and still so as to hear.”
    Happy New Year Ben!

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