Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The lost art of waiting

As I will be away for the first week of Advent, I thought I would dig out a post I wrote a couple of years ago. Not much has changed: my friend, D and I still brave the perils of the Link road to visit each other and we are all still too busy for our own good! I will be taking the Paula Gooder book with me and hope to havea little time to spend in contemplating its wisdom. 

So, here's one I wrote earlier, in 2009

Tomorrow I'm going to visit my dear friend D of 60 going on 16. I live in North Devon, which is connected to the Rest of the World by the notorious North Devon Link Road. D lives just across the border, in the Rest of the World so, dear reader, I will be taking my life in my hands for the sake of friendship, just as D does when she comes to visit me.

The Link Road was built in the late 1980s to divert the ever-increasing holiday traffic from the villages along the old A398 route to the coast. The planners did not take into account the fact that a faster road would attract even more traffic and they built a wide single carriage road instead of a decent dual carriageway. In consequence, instead of a pleasurable drive through some stunning farm and moorland scenery, one risks life and limb amid the boy racers and impatient business men and women who aim to get from Barnstaple to Tiverton in record time.

I used to drive this route several times a week and frequently had to pull onto the hard shoulder to avoid a head-on collision with someone doing a reckless overtake in the other direction. Road blocks, diversions and piles of floral tributes are frequent reminders of lives lost and families devastated by moments of careless impatience. One traffic policeman told me that the maximum time that can be gained by driving faster than the 60mph speed limit on that road is 10 minutes. J Alfred Prufrock  measured out his life with coffee spoons, that seems to me a less trivial epitaph than 'I traded 50 years of my life to save 10 minutes.'

This sombre and rambling preamble is leading to an explanation for my recent absence from the blogging scene! My internet connection was intermittent during the recent stormy weather but that, I hope, is now passing. What has really kept me away from the keyboard is this book:
The Meaning is in the Waiting
The Spirit of Advent
by Paula Gooder

It is one of the books that I took to Spain and I used it for my daily reflection. In it, Paula Gooder sets out to "stimulate you to think a little more about waiting: why we do it, what it feels like to be someone who waits, what happens when we don't wait and why God might want us to get better at it." She doesn't offer answers but opens up questions and suggests new ways of looking at things.

I was so inspired by the book that I used it as the basis for an Advent preparation day that I was organising for my parish. While the religious context is obvious, everyone who attended on Saturday agreed that the ideas were relevant to all areas of life and that our impatient society would benefit from rediscovering the art of waiting. (If anyone would like a copy of the study notes that I prepared, I would be happy to send them as a Word document email attachment or to mail them.)

The title, The meaning is in the waiting, is taken from the poem Kneeling by the poet-priest R. S. Thomas. When the group I led began to think about major events in their lives, they were able to see how true this was: the preparation and anticipation of a wedding, a birth or a visit can hold more meaning for us than the actual event, which can seem like an anti-climax, lost in a frenzy of activity. This can be especially true of Christmas Day when getting the house ready, shopping and cooking can leave us too exhausted to appreciate the day itself. The whole of December can be lost in frantic, bustling preparation or it can be a time of active, productive waiting.

Advent is a paradox: we wait for an event that has already happened. I fear that we are losing our sense of awe and wonder and our ability to accept and appreciate mystery. I can live very happily with paradox, I don't want the whole of life to be rationalised but I do appreciate the way that Paula Gooder presents us with a way of seeing the  waiting that connects the past, the end times and the present. This is one of those rare books that I have encountered in my life that leaves me feeling that I may not understand something but I somehow know it.

She uses another piece of poetry, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes -
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
She has convinced me that I want to spend Advent without my shoes, appreciating the opportunity to wait in hope and thoughtful anticipation so that, come Christmas, those blackberries or, more likely cranberries, will taste the sweeter.

Here is a gift I had from the longest-serving friend of my youth. It is a rare image of the pregnant Mary, from a 14th century wall painting; a true picture of waiting in joyful hope:
I will be using this, alongside the Advent wreath, to aid my Advent reflections.


  1. Maureen, welcome back, and with a lovely thoughtful post. I completely agree that today's instant-gratification society has much to re-learn about the particular joys of a good period of anticipation.
    Do we need that new sofa or carpet 'in time for Christmas'? I hope in our home the welcome will outshine a bit of shabbiness; the homemade cakes and gifts show that we've spent our time with others in mind and not just ourselves.
    The painting of Mary is beautiful. Waiting for my girls to arrive were some of the best times, and I've never been disappointed by them since.

  2. RO, I knew you would 'get it', that's why I love your blog!

  3. Dear Maureen,

    I absolutely loved this post. The celebration of Advent is cherished in our family. If it wouldn't be too much trouble, I would love to have your study notes, as I am going to order a copy of this book from amazon. The excerpt of Elizabeth Barrett Browning has long been a favorite of mine. My thoughts will be with you for a safe "there and back again" to visit your friend.

  4. I am glad to see you are back, and be careful on that mad road please!
    The image of celebrating Advent without your shoes is very meaningful, as is the book you describe and the lovely painting of the pregnant Mary.
    I have been seeing footage on tv about flooding in the Lake Country, and hope all my English friends are warm and dry.

  5. Jodi
    The notes are on their way. I am sure you will love the book and get a great deal from it.

    Thank you for your kind thoughts for the journey.

  6. Terra
    I am sure you share my feelings about the importance of celebrating Advent.

    Although we have some pretty grim weather just now, it is nothing like that in the Lake District. My niece is very much involved in the drama there as she works for the Environment Agency. I don't think she has had much sleep for the last few days.

  7. The book sounds lovely. Sometimes things like that are just what we need, especially at this time of year. Safe travels to you, Maureen. I hope you and D have a great time together!!

  8. Karin
    Yes, it is good to look at familar things in a new way. Each time, we see some part more clearly.

  9. What a lovely line and one I had forgotten. I am always moved by RST. Despite not having your faith I do find as life goes on that 'waiting' to know what's right is much better than making a hasty and probably bad decision. I suppose some might call it prayer!

  10. Ali
    I think RST's poetry touches something deep in most people, whether they have faith or not. I'm glad to have reminded you of him and I agree with you about the wisdom of waiting that comes with maturity.

  11. Hope the link road and the weather were less perilous on the return journey M - and thank you for the caramel flapjacks. Yum. That road is a nightmare but, as you know, my car and I are more ljkely to come to grief driving through the entrance passageway to your house . . .

  12. Got home without incident, D. Don't worry about our wall, we have another one! (Just joking)

    Thanks for such a nice day and delicious lunch.

  13. Lovely thought provoking post, love the medieval painting- Thankyou

  14. What a thought provoking post. I will be thinking about this in the coming week, Waiting for the lights to change, waiting for news from a poorly friend, waiting (daily) for a bit more wisdom.

  15. Colleen
    I've become very conscious of all those moments when I might be drumming my fingers, sighing or maybe even shouting with impatience and I'm trying to use them for more productive thought.
    Happy waiting!

  16. Sorry I haven't visited for such a long time. Am glad all goes well, and that the family is increasing. All best for Christmas (sorry to be so ahead)


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