Days grow shorter, light diminishes. Winter is on its way. Typically, people don’t like to live in sparse times, waiting in uncertainty for the light of clarity to surface. Winter is a yearly, returning reminder that clarity and the full embodiment of things we hope for takes time. We wait for love, wait for fulfilling work, for the results of a medical test, or acceptance of a visa, wait to learn if we are admitted into a school or workshop we applied for. Along with waiting comes uncertainty and questions about what the results of our waiting will be. Though it might feel difficult or even unnecessary to wait as long as we sometimes do for what we long for, things of value frequently take considerable time before they surface into our lived experience. Bread baking in the oven, the creation of an art piece, coordinating movements in a dance, the birth of new understandings, the growth of a tree and friendships, or the formation of a human life–all these take time. Their development is slow, and requires waiting.
Waiting also implies a period of uncertainty. It’s not a given when planting a seed that life will grow, that an employment position you applied for will be given you, or that a relationship with a person you love will endure through time. Things can get complicated. Accidents can happen. Waiting can carry you into liminal space between worlds and ways of being where one life is actively fading away or has died, and the arrival of a different life is still on its way. The between state of change requires us to leave behind the way things once were and to learn whole new ways of being in the world. When standing in this doorway between worlds for extended periods of time, the experience of uncertainty can be difficult to cope with as it requires us to recognize the ground we stand on isn’t firm.
Ellen June Wright in her poem, “Salt,” exemplifies this idea of uncertainty.
Did we judge her too harshly, Lot’s wife,
walking away from everything she knew?
We become attached to places and possessions
in ways we never imagined. Our feet drag
when we think of leaving the familiar
as though they pull against a magnetic force.
No matter how dismal, the unknown
is more terrifying than the known.
Wright’s observation seems accurate. It’s true that the unknown is typically more terrifying than the known. Most of us would respond as Lot’s wife did when living a place we once called home. After all, she’d raised her children there. We feel attached to the places we’ve lived and look back at the worlds we’ve left behind, longing for them still, even though we might have escaped from a place, relationship, or experience in order to save or improve our lives. We build memories and relationships in places we’ve lived, and these give life meaning. We can picture what our own very human reaction in the story of Lot’s wife would be, and identify with her.
The trajectory of creation itself is toward continuous change and transformation. From rock slowly being worn into sand, to trees waiting for rain during drought, enduring the wait while change makes its way through the subterranean world of existence, is an integral part of physical reality, and is certainly a central part of human experience. From the heartbreaking opening poem, “New Dress,” in Linda Hillringhouse’s book, The Things I Didn’t Know to Wish For, where a young girl waits with anticipation for her parents to return home so they can see her adorned in a gloriously stunning dress she’s wearing, only to have her mother walk directly past her with no comment, and without noticing her whatsoever, to the book’s final poem, Hillringhouse’s book is filled with poems vividly expressing the longing inside our waiting for attentive human connection and care in a world that is often disheartening, and stings with disappointment. As Hillringhouse writes, in “Nieves Penitentes,”
The snow is falling
as if it’s forgotten to stop:
Maybe the mind
that keeps mountains
upright and oceans
in their bed
is setting up some new venture
and I wish I could begin again,
born in a bird’s mouth
in the drunken forest,
into full being,
not some stick figure
stilting around an empty lot
scratching messages in ice.
How accurately Hillringhouse names the longing experienced while waiting to become more than what we see our lives are at a given moment. We want to express something meaningful with our presence, but instead we imagine ourselves unnoticed or isolated while trying to scrape out meaning in a frigid environment where we feel whatever we say will eventually melt away without significance to anyone. We yearn to be a person able to feed that essence in us that allows us to sing and soar above the earth, that something that when it arrives will enable us to be a rich, deep-rooted presence rocking and swaying with verdant life, the tops of our tens of thousands of leaf-tipped branches of creative effort reaching into the heavens, inscribing their wonder. But we’re not there yet, and as the word penitentes in Hillringhouse’s title suggests, waiting for those hardened blades of snow to melt and become something other than what they are can feel like torture.
Living with uncertainty implies a longing for completion. But when does the completion of a canyon or a forest occur? Rivers carve canyons over millions of years and continue carving. A forest can take a thousand years to come into being and continues to regenerate if not disturbed. These are ongoing natural forces. Like the shifting formation of fluid shapes a murmuration of starlings create, since the start of the universe, everything that exists has been slowly evolving. When things arrive at a stage of completion, another cycle of beginnings starts and the evolution, transformation, resurrection or reincarnation (there are so many ways to name it) continues. From a certain perspective, nothing is ever completed as everything, both material reality, and the subtler forms of energy, thought and emotion, are connected to a longer process of transformation. The death or completion of anything is merely the birth of another life that depended on what came before in order to give it new form.
Storyteller and mythologist, Michael Meade, writes, “There are old stories that show that if the world was ever completed, was ever made perfect, that would be the end of [things]…this world and each person in it remains an unfinished project, and remains because of being incomplete….The impossible tasks, the broken hearts, the utter failures actually sustain the world.” What an astonishing thought! Incompleteness is necessary to life! If being alive requires everything to be in a process of change, and therefore by definition incomplete, then finding a way to befriend and honor our incompleteness, our longing for growth and wholeness, of which uncertainty is a natural partner, seems like a worthy thing to pursue.
Lot’s wife, fleeing her home in uncertain, traumatic circumstances, looked back to her disappearing world. As the story goes, she was turned to salt as a result. It’s a disturbing story. If we look at the story with a different lens, however, it’s worth remembering salt is a beneficial element. It seasons food, functions as a preservative, and can help heal wounds. Preserving the memory of our journey toward the self we are reaching to become is important. As she’s not even given a name in the version of the story we’ve received, we don’t know that Lot’s wife wanted to leave her home or if she was forced to do so without understanding the necessary circumstances. Perhaps the salt pillar she became is the solidified tears she shed in memory of the trauma endured in leaving a home she knew and loved, a monument to the effort it takes to leave a place you once belonged. When leaving something or someone we loved, we die to the life we once lived and enter a new life.
As Ursula LeGuin wrote, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” However we arrive at the place in life we now stand, finding a way to honor our journey as we scratch our way through the icy experiences and what we’ve left behind in order to enter our new life seems valuable. I invite you to celebrate with me winter’s darknesses and, evoking Hillringhouse’s book title, all the many as yet unnamed things we don’t know to wish for. Perhaps it will be a salt that helps to heal wounds while waiting, that preserves and sustains us through uncertain times as we are birthed and rebirthed into the fullness of our being.