“Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during the month of February wild iris grow in ribbons of purple across the desert in an area called Tumair. They open between 1:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon. Not before. You can light a flame near them, shine bright lights near them, but they don’t open before it’s their time. There are things you can control, and things you can’t. It’s good to know the difference. From nature we learn that all things have a natural timing. Seasons are cyclical. Most of us find it difficult to wait for things we long for. We don’t like waiting for a web site to load up on the computer, we don’t like waiting in lines or in traffic. We eat on the run. Making things go fast is important to so many so much of the time but learning to wait is also both important and undervalued.
Before Christmas this year, I woke early, the room still full of darkness, and I remember how when I was a child I would wake several times in the night, wondering if it was Christmas morning yet. Though we don’t have a Christmas tree in our house, as a child, I loved lying under the tree in the evenings when the colored lights were on. I would peer up through the branches with the tensile and decorations and imagining the thoughts of the tree when it lived in the forest, and then the thoughts it had as it stood in our living room. One of the best parts of Christmas, though, was waiting for Christmas day to arrive. At our house, we put the packages under the tree ahead of time. As we sat around the Christmas tree in the evenings, we could see all the packages, but we knew we couldn’t open them. We had to wait. When I think of it now, perhaps one of the things that made Christmas was so special was the waiting for it to arrive.
This year, a friend gave us a wreath. I didn’t know much about the tradition of a wreath earlier, but have been reading and learning more about them and how they are connected to the season of advent in the Christian church, as well as that of pre-Christian traditions to represent the cycle of seasons and of life’s presence in the midst of winter. This wisdom is a helpful one to nurture and practice, as it provides a structure in which to consciously practice how to wait. Waiting is an important part of understanding something’s value. In his essay, “The End of Advent” that I recently read in The Best American Spiritual Writing, Joseph Bottum, described Christmas as a season of “anticipation run amuck, like children so sick with expectation that the reality, when at last it arrives, can never be satisfying.” Most of us want to live a life that is satisfying. Our life situations are constantly changing. We have to be flexible and be able to stick with difficult situations, how to wait them out, in order to better understand how to live happily and well. You may have heard of the marshmallow experiment at Stanford where researchers gave children a marshmallow with a choice to either have one immediately or wait longer and be able to get two. The researchers followed up with the children latter, and those who were able to resist had SAT scores that were “on average, 210 points higher than those of those who waited only 30 seconds.” That’s astonishing, and it suggests that those who can think about the choices, and those who practice learning how to wait have nurtured an important character trait that can help them in life.
Connecting the idea of impulsive behavior and the inability to wait to the world at large, we are all aware of the way our modern life has used natural resources without restraint causing widespread environmental problems such as deforestation and desertification. Perhaps our desire and systematic use of these resources without restraint or adequate consideration of the long term effect on the world or our lives are our metaphorical marshmallow. With the ecological problems we are facing today, restraint could be a very good quality to practice that over time could create a shift in consciousness that would create a healthier environment for both us and for the planet.
Genesis tells us the earth was formed in darkness. The Celts told stories in the dark half of the year. Darkness, an organic pace of growth, waiting—these are all qualities associated with creativity. Currently, I’ve been working on a series of related narrative poems about immigrants from Calabria, in southern Italy, to San Francisco during the early 1900’s. The writing has required research about the time period, culture, and the locations of both Calabria and San Francisco. It’s a challenging, engaging and new kind of writing for me, and many times I have written into a situation where I’m not sure where to go next. Many of the poems in the series are told through the point of view of a particular person, and I’ve had to push deeply into the imagination to try and grasp the meaning that might emerge from a life dealing with the particular historical problems or relationship issues a particular poem explores. Finding what will work best for the poem means being open to a variety of possibilities and trying them out. There is a spectrum of possible ways to develop an idea, and to dig into the inner core of what situations or events suggest so that they reveal a deeper meaning in the writing that is honest and true takes time. Sometimes a piece needs to sit for days, weeks, or even months before the way through to completion appears. Other times the whole form needs to be altered, or entire sections cut out. When you are creating something you care about, what matters is not the speed at which the task is accomplished, but the quality of the work. Forcing the creativity to come out usually results in ruining or breaking the work. Perseverance is essential to the creative act. You have to put in the time but the path towards the end product isn’t typically a direct line. You also need to nurture the environment that will enable the idea to emerge, and then let it surface. Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, “The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.” Essentially, the creative act requires a kind of waiting for a gift from the sea. You do your work, practice your skill, you prepare, but you also need to hold a receptive mind, and this involves active observation, purposeful noticing, listening deeply and staying attune to what’s coming up from the questions you hold, play as well as time away from the work itself. I recall Naomi Shihab Nye’s quote on the Bill Moyer’s Language of Life series where she is talking to a group of young writers and says something about how you may be writing your poem thinking you are going to church and it takes you to the dog races instead. You have to listen to the writing, the work and tune your ear so you can learn to understand what it is telling you it needs. Even with years of practice and study, this takes time to learn.
When making a speech or delivering a monologue or a joke, we are aware of the value of the pregnant pause. Timing, waiting is important and can make the delivery of the message more powerful. Restraint, learning to wait is a practice that in time, brings fruit we benefit from both individually and collectively. Its a new year. It seems a good season for planting the seeds for that fruit.