In the early months of 2020, we waited to see if coronavirus would get to Britain. Surely not, we thought. Then lockdown came, and we waited for it to end, a few weeks, maybe, and then everything would go back to normal. We made plans, accordingly: we moved in with loved ones, or they with us; we travelled hundreds of miles to places we thought we would be safe; we deferred decisions. This is what you do, when you wait: you hunker down, you suspend, you watch. And wait.
As spring veered towards summer, we waited for the numbers to change. We waited for doctors to call us back, we waited for Teams to develop breakout rooms, we waited for money, for the post, for the day we could walk with a friend at a distance and not be picked up for waiting for them on a park bench. We waited because we still thought we would go back to normal. That’s what the waiting was about. In a way, that’s what made it possible.
We waited for decisions from our governments, our institutions, because these would let us figure out how to wait, and what we were waiting for. We filled the time that we were waiting, as best we could. We watched Netflix. We sent each other GIFs. We took long walks. Some of it was so hard that we went on autopilot, because it was the only way to get through another day of home-schooling, or another week of Zoom calls. We drank more coffee or more wine. We read all of Twitter. We watched Normal People, and thought thoughts about ‘normality’, and it was a bit uncomfortable on a number of levels, so we went back to Twitter.
At some point, waiting began to become unbearable, and we shook with anxiety, or curled up and zoned out, or exploded with rage and grief. At some point, even that passed, and it turned into something else. Perhaps it got worse, for a time, but then, better. Perhaps you’re back in it now.
And maybe a few months ago, or yesterday, or even this morning, we realised that we couldn’t wait any more, and that that was nothing to do with the decisions not yet taken, or the rules not yet lifted. It was about realising that waiting had become stale, old, grey. It was no longer the ‘watchfulness’ of its etymology, the ‘looking-out’, the ‘attending’. We were no longer watching for anything but threat, for the confirmation of our disappointed hopes. We were no longer attending to anything but the buzz and clutter of our screens, our boundary-blurred home-workspaces, our pains and fears and frustrations.
If this is waiting, we need a new kind. We need forms of watchfulness that are neither about Netflix, nor hypervigilance, and we need forms of attention that are not about imperfection, or fragmentation. We can do those ones already. We’ve been doing them brilliantly.
Here are some different ways to wait.
1. Watch, with interest
Pause on Blackford Hill, and watch the sun dip down behind the Pentlands, and wonder about the snow up there, and whether it’s lingering in crevices still. Watch the students playing tennis on the courts by the Meadows, and remember that wonderful essay in the New York Times. Watch the tennis games in your own mind – the ace, the double fault, the volley – and pause in-between rallies to take stock. Watch your parlour palm putting out new leaves, and think about re-potting. Watch the daffodil spikes, coming up centimetres day by day in Bruntsfield, and wonder which they are of the tens of thousands of varieties. Watch popcorn popping in a pan, and remember dinners past, and watch the friends sitting at opposite ends of a bench eating burritos, and think, what a good idea. Watch the flickers of anxiety as they bubble up in your stomach, even as you’re just sitting quietly in your room, and think about how amazing it is that your nervous system is showing up to protect you; how many millennia ago, you fled from and survived a lion, and that’s whispering in you still.
Watch, and notice, and maybe try this grounding mindfulness practice; and then draw what you find, or tell someone, or write about it, even if it’s just for yourself.
2. Attend, with your senses
Feel the ground beneath your feet when you walk outside; the springiness of earth, the tread of tarmac. Feel your body sitting on the chair while you work, the sit-bones, the support behind the back, the place of the body in its space. Taste your lunch, and smell your tea before you put the milk in. Sense what happens inside you when you get to the top of Calton Hill, or Arthur’s Seat, and look out over the city, and feel the wind on your face: the poignant lurch, the dizzy soar, as if you could spread wings and fly. Bend to touch the cold silk of the crocus, gently, and the soft chin of the shy dog. Nurse the tiredness, when it comes, and feel how your body wants to fold up, and rest on soft things.
Sense, wonder, and tend. Here is the world.
3. Play, daftly
Make a den from the wood tossed down in the gales. If the snow returns, make an igloo. Play Scrabble over the internet with your friends, with double points for rude words and foreign languages. When you feel terrible, write a poem; it can be as short and as bad as you like. Make playdough, even if you are twenty, and squidge it into shapes, and maybe smash it up a bit and pretend it’s your least favourite politician. Dig out the fifty-year-old board game you inherited from your grandmother, and look it up on the internet. Buy a colouring book (yes, really). Sit on the floor, pour out beads and buttons from that random drawer, and put them on strings. Sit on the floor and make things out of the cardboard Amazon boxes, with sellotape and scissors. Sit on the floor and open your backlog of Christmas body lotions, one by one, and try them all.
Play, daftly. It will wake up a part of you that the waiting shut down.
When we wait in different ways, interesting things come through. A puzzle falls into place, an insight arises, an action seems clear. And then suddenly, somehow, we are no longer waiting; we are living, and life is right here.
I wish you interesting things to watch, and sense, and play, this week.