“Waiting for a Train” in Régua, Portugal (photo: Rosino/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
I nearly stood up my very first client on the first day of my first job in social work. Graduate school had not prepared me for the intricacies of the scheduling system at the community health center where I was working. By the time I figured things out, I was nearly half an hour late for the appointment.
Mortified, I found my client, a sixty-year-old woman recently arrived from Puerto Rico, sitting placidly in a folding chair. She didn’t say a word when I greeted her; she just followed me back to my office. She sat down opposite me with her coat on, holding her purse firmly in her lap. When I apologized for the wait, she looked at me steadily and said: “La vida es esperar.” Don’t worry about it. Life is waiting.
Then she told me about all the waiting she’d already done that day: waiting for the bus, waiting for the connecting bus, waiting at the social services office, waiting for a dental appointment, now waiting for me. After this she’d go wait for the bus some more. The upshot was: Did I really think I was so important? I was just another stop in between waits.
Oh, her manner was grim. She had steeled herself to endure the kind of waiting that comes with poverty and it had made her fierce and passive at the same time, if that’s possible. She was pissed, she was resigned. I have never forgotten her, because she was right about la vida. But there are other ways to wait.
These days I spend less time social working and more time taking care of my kids, who are five and two years old. Waiting for small children can be maddening. And interminable. I wait for my daughter to tie her shoes with great effort and focus, for my son to walk ever so slowly up the stairs at the store, for the nap to end (or begin!). But the greatest moments of intimacy and love with my kids find me when I can accept the waiting and become present within it. There is no such thing as killing time for little kids, and when I am able to enter into that kind of time with them, I open up to all the possibilities of right now. Waiting with intention helps me to feel the present moment, and all the unexpected gifts it brings.
Advent waiting is like that. It is the opposite of the sort of dehumanizing waiting that my first client described. It is active waiting, a waiting I choose with my whole heart, which makes the world around me new and strange. Intentional anticipation clears a space for the present moment. There is nothing burdensome about it, though it is hard to do.
During Advent, we are waiting for God. But when you start to pay attention, you realize, When aren’t we waiting for God? The paradox is that within that yearning, that focused waiting that catapaults you across the open expanse of not yet, you feel God to be always already here. How beautiful. How impossible! I am waiting for God, and while I do, God is waiting with me.
I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist-Jewish family. We observed a whole lot of things, but Advent wasn’t one of them. As an adult, I became an Episcopalian. My husband was raised Catholic. We were both religion majors in college. In short: we have a lot of material to work with. Yet when it came to Advent, we weren’t sure what our new family traditions would be. I know from experience that waiting for Christmas can feel like the worst kind of torture to a child. I wanted to find ways to wait together as a family that would help us to clear that space, to open ourselves up, and not be afraid of what we are yearning for.
We began with an Advent calendar. After Thanksgiving last year, the four of us made one from squares of felt that we decorated using all the crafting materials I could find in the house. We painted, glued, stickered, and markered the 24 squares, which are covered in lentils, sequins, ribbons, and googly eyes. Once they were decorated, I affixed them to a large rectangle of white felt and set about embroidering a number beneath each square.
I had very little experience with embroidery. I didn’t realize how ambitious the project was when I began it; last year I only made it to 7. After Thanksgiving this year, I unrolled the calendar. I sat down in my mother’s living room, listening to the sounds of my kids playing and my husband unloading the dishwasher. In that rare quiet stretch, I made it up to 12. That might be it for this year, but I hope not. In letting go of my urgency to get the thing done, I was able to experience the painstakingly slow work of embroidery as a fruitful Advent practice. Each stitch matters.
Plus, you know, waiting for God isn’t easy. It’s nice to have something for my hands to do. Our developing Advent rituals slow me down and make me a little more peaceful.
It is a gentle time, after all. I feel a new openness as we move into winter, like the birds’ nests that are newly exposed now that the leaves have all fallen. There is a stillness in the season, a hush in the air that whispers: don’t be scared. Don’t be discouraged. Just wait.
Meagan Howell is a freelance writer with a background in social work and public radio. She blogs about family life at Home Made Time.
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