Between Times

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

Mark fills a huge coffee mug with kitty kibble, and he pours filtered water into a big glass, and, just as dusk sets in, he walks across the street for the feeding of the cats. These are the cats we’d thought were taken care of; but, after the dust settled, and after their people finally, irrevocably, moved away, it became clear that the cats were living under the front slab at the empty house.

Mark, who would tell you he’s not a cat person,–who might even tell you he hates the damned things,–feeds the cats every night. There are three of them: a big gray-striped cat, a small gray-striped cat, and a black cat with a Roman collar. When they see Mark they gather on the cement block stoop, and they sing to him. The little one runs across the street to meet him, dances between his legs.

The clerical cat has bulging sides; we think it may be a mommy-to-be.

A ‘For Sale’ sign went up in front of the house after the former neighbors were well and truly gone. There was a brisk flow of people in, looking; we got to know the realtor’s car. But early this week, the realtor met some people in front of the house. There was a great flurry of hand shaking, and the realtor took the ‘For Sale’ sign with her when she left.

Now the same two cars have been at the house each day. There is a lean and grizzled-looking older man who drives the smaller car; there are two woman, both plump and blonde and pretty, maybe a mom and daughter, who arrive in the other.

“What about the cats?” Mark and I ask each other, worried. I take the dog for a walk, and the women pull up. I hear one of them saying, “Come here! Come here, buddy!” and making clicking noises, inviting noises, with her tongue. Maybe they’ll adopt those critters.

But when they leave at the end of the day, the cats are there and hungry. Mark slips across the street under cover of darkness and fills the bowls that still sit on the slab.

Will the new owners take the cats on as pets? Will they appreciate the fact that we—the whole neighborhood ‘we’–have nurtured those cats through a difficult winter, making sure they are fed and warm, or will they wish we’d found a different solution?

What will happen to the cats?

There is no way, right now, to know. When the people are well and truly in, we can wander across, make their acquaintance, find out their feelings about those feline residents. Right now, we simmer, and surreptitiously ferry cat food across the street.

It’s a between-time; there is nothing we can do but wait and see.

***********

In the mornings, there is bird song, bright and sharp and clear; single notes break the silence as the ebony sky grays, and, swiftly, more join in. There’s a cacophony, a full-throated chorus.

Spring is here, we think, and it’s a joyous thought after a rugged winter.

The weather warms, and Mark and Jim break out the cargo shorts. Shy crocuses shiver up between clumps of grass. The daffodils push up in the front yard; buds appear, nodding like sleepy heads.

And then the temperature plunges and robins hop through snowy yards. We huddle by the fireplace with our books at night, reconciled to the return of the frigid air. It’s not really winter, but it’s not yet spring either. It’s a between time. Anything can happen, weather-wise, and we can’t move forward with spring things until this interim is over.

**********

After Christmas, Jim takes a deep breath and makes a decision. He is going back to school, pursuing his bachelor’s degree, designing a program that will help him work at a library. He emails his college of choice, makes an appointment, meets with an advisor. The advisor sends him home with a list of things to do, and Jim sets to work, requesting transcripts, filling in forms. He gets everything done and he waits.

Then, last week, good news arrives: he is accepted into a specialized studies program. He can begin taking courses this summer. We cheer; we high-five. Jim starts planning.

Then he realizes he has three months to wait.

It’s a between time. Jim has lots to look forward to, but he can’t start for a while yet. Right now, it’s a waiting game.

***************

I’m with Goethe—whatever it is, I think, begin it. I am blunt and direct, and I don’t like waiting.

So when a problem sprouts, I want to take a sledge hammer and pound it into oblivion. What is the point of letting it sit there; why on earth should we tippy-toe around it? Slam that thing back down to earth.

But sometimes God or nature or the universe, or whatever power one invokes, puts the brakes on. Right now, she whispers, right now, you need to wait.

Wait! Wait! I don’t want to wait. I want to get it out in the open, survey it under the bright sun, figure it out.

I do not like between times.

And so maybe I need to embrace them, relax into them, figure out the wisdom of this time that sits like an airlock between one decisive period and another. Maybe I can stock up on the oxygen I’ll need for the next challenge. Maybe I need to look around and make sure my resources are gathered, that I have the tools I need to do the work ahead.

Maybe I need to take a deep breath and just relax and accept the interlude.

Maybe I need to realize I am not always in control of what happens next.

*****************

This morning, James and I took a road trip to a favorite library, 50 miles away. The snow had mostly melted—just ragged little tufts left in the onion grass sprouting on the lawn. They looked like scraps of cotton. The sun was out; a few clouds (they looked like ragged cotton wisps, too) scudded across a blue, blue sky.

We drove down Route 146. The lake was full on one side; we could see it through the bare-branched trees. It will be hidden in a month or two when the trees are fully leafed. I drove and looked at the trees, thinking it felt as though they were holding their collective breath. There’s a haze of buds on all the branches, a shimmer of almost-there green or redness. But the branches are like knobby fingers, tightly extended. Not yet, not yet, they’re saying.

We drove past meadows that are sere and brown and seemingly lifeless. Not winter, not spring; almost, I thought, a time devoid.

“Look at the vultures,” I said to Jim,–conjuring images of lifeless prey–and we both peered up through the windshield. The big birds swooped and soared, black wings arced.

“Wait,” said Jim. “Look at that one. It’s got a white head.”

There was nothing behind us. I pulled the car over, and we craned our necks, tracking the white head, close enough to see the cruel curved beak, watching the eagle curve and loop on the wind.  Maybe, I think, a sight we wouldn’t have seen when the trees were green and little wildlife were running through hidden fields, enticed by the feeling of invisibility among the tall grasses, seduced by the warmth of a springtime sun.

Strong and sure and joyful, the eagle soared away. I pulled the car back out onto the highway, and we resumed our road trip.

But—an eagle, I thought. An eagle in the between time. There’s a message there, for sure.

Like finding the wisdom of between times, I just have to figure out what the message is.

 

 

 

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The Hardest Part

…I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth   
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
        –from “I am Waiting,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42869

“I am waiting,” writes poet Ferlinghetti, and years ago, I, an awkward, impatient college student, read those words and realized something: everyone is waiting. Waiting for payday, waiting for the diagnosis, waiting for the message or the phone call; waiting to hear about the job; waiting to settle into the job; waiting for real life to commence.

They’re waiting for baby to arrive, for the results of the election, for the next joyful day. They’re waiting for the next bruising thing.

Waiting, my 19-year-old self realized, though dimly, through distorting smoky lenses, is the human condition.

And, oh. How I hated waiting.

***********

As a child, it seemed that every good thing involved a protracted wait, a rigorous preparation time,—and I was not, I quickly learned, a graceful wait-er. Before we put the Christmas tree up [on the day before Christmas Eve, and why did we have to wait so long? Everyone else’s tree had been up for a week or more. I had a friend whose family put their tree up on THANKSGIVING WEEKEND] the house had to be painstakingly cleaned. This involved scouring all surfaces and, sometimes, even painting them. It involved crawling on the floor with a bucket that contained water sudged up with a glomp of Murphy’s Oil Soap, a viscous substance which needed much flailing of hand in the bucket to become one with the water.

“God forbid,” I would mutter, “we should march into Christmas with unwashed woodwork.”

That sentiment earned me a rap on the head, but it did not get me out of cleaning. Christmas was coming; Advent was its season of waiting. Of preparation. We washed woodwork. And I could feel the coming of joy, of that moment on Christmas morning when it was finally time! When everyone piled in and tore off the wrappings and wonderful, unthought-of things were mine, mine without asking, mine without sharing, mine, because someone had considered what I might like. Thank you, Jesus, for your birthday treasure, thought the child.

I did not sleep the night before Christmas; I thrashed and whined and lay, eyes wide open, feeling all the angst and wonder of major joy imminent.

It didn’t help that my father worked for the power company and that he always had to work on Christmas. If he was scheduled for later arrival– 8 a.m., perhaps, we’d all get up at 6 and pile in. But if he had to go in early–say, from 6 until 2–we would have to wait. Those hours, after a sleepless night, and with the presents stacked enticingly below the tree, were murderous.

“Take a NAP,” my mother would snarl, when I whined about how long it was taking.

A NAP? Was she kidding?

The hours ticked away, moment by sluggish moment.

Good things are worth waiting for, my mother opined.

Waiting, I thought (but did not say), is highly over-rated.

****************

It was hard enough waiting for good things. Waiting for bad, awful things was even worse. When I committed some childhood crime and was told we would talk about it later, I thrashed and moaned. Oh, let’s just get it over with! I thought; let’s be on the other side of the spanking and the yelling.

But timing wasn’t MY choice; if they said wait, then wait I must.

We had an egg-shaped dentist, bald of head, round of belly, garbed in white, who had powdery clean hands and lashless eyes behind rimless glasses. He did not believe in Novocaine–Novocaine was for SISSIES! he said,–and he would crook my head firmly in the pit of his elbow and drill for gold.

No matter how I brushed, it seemed there was always gold for which to drill. In those memory-tinted days, we did not go to the dentist every six months; we went every toothache instead. So there was never a, “No cavities this time!” visit; every visit involved the whirring, smelly, smoky dental drill. And there was always a wait of at least a week before we could go.

So I waited with an aching tooth, and I waited with the knowledge of pain to come, and the waiting seeped in and flavored–tainted–every single day.

I tried to tell myself that I was letting one anticipated moment ruin hundreds of others.

I tried to tell myself that the time before and after the dreaded moment was GOOD time, happy time, time to draw pictures and play kickball and read wonderful books. But that one looming moment soaked into everything I enjoyed, spoiling the fun.

I would leave the dental office with the memory of that ache ground into my teeth, knowing a next time was coming.

*******************

When I grow up, I thought, contemplating waiting, things are gonna change.

And so I waited to grow up.

*******************

And I discovered, having at least nominally completed that growing, that I finally had some control.

So our Christmas tree went up the second or third week of December, and quite often, the woodwork had not been scrubbed on hands and knees. We enjoyed the glow and the greenery and the warmth through the depth of that darkest month. The wait for Christmas morn, and the tearing into presents, became an enjoyable anticipation. If I still couldn’t sleep the night before, as a grown-up, there was plenty to keep me busy–presents to assemble and wrap, coffee cakes to shape and bake and frost, thank you notes from Santa to write for plates of home-made cookies.

And then living with an autistic child taught me something about waiting, too–taught me that if waiting for the good thing is exquisite and challenging for US, it can be true agony for THEM. And so we had to change the shape of much-anticipated holidays, doling out delights along the paths, lessening the pressure-cooker of stressful anticipation.

It wasn’t just being a grown-up. The people who are dear to me changed the way I wait.

********

But. I controlled what I could.

********

I found a better dentist, of course; I went for regular checkups. The need for the drill lessened dramatically…and when it did come ’round, I forcefully advocated for Novocaine.

I found that planning made the waiting times flow; that tasks to be done and milestones along the way created a pace and a paving to the anticipated event.

Time taught me that there are some waits I cannot control, as we navigated such things as closings for houses and celebrated the nine month preparation for a baby.

And I learned that, sometimes, waiting involves vigil.  I learned that at the bedsides of my parents; they taught me deep-planted lessons about the grace of dying well.

**********************

Lent is a waiting season, a vigil itself–waiting for the tragedy to happen, trusting in the miracle to follow. And this Lent, the theme of waiting is especially present.

This year, I can count on one hand the months left in my academic life: I am waiting to retire.

This year, I walk by my little dog, melded into the couch cushions, snoring deeply, and I think about her milky eyes and at least twelve years, and I ratchet down my annoyance at her pleadings and ratchet up my love of her silky head.

This year, my bold friend Kim, who was told seven years ago to get her affairs in order–told then that her hour was at hand,–is well and truly entered into that last days tunnel.

And I’m realizing that waiting times are sometimes grace times–times of doing the necessary work, ordering the papers; times of being mindful and joyful of what we know we’re losing; times of celebrating connection before the necessity of letting go: preparing the house for the event I know is coming.

I have learned this: that life, no matter what, brings pain. I can insulate myself to minimize that, to keep the pain at its very minimum–but the isolation itself is painful consequence. So…with every dog we’ve ever had, when the parting time comes, we have wept and we have muttered, “Never again. Never again. I cannot say goodbye like this one more time.”

And the car stops, it seems, of its own volition, at the Humane Society, and the wet-eyed pup pokes its nose through the chain links, and we know: we will adopt this dog, and we will love each age and stage.

And we will say goodbye.

And if I throw myself out into the torrent–if I take chances and forge connections and braid myself into others’ lives, and weave those others into mine–then loss becomes an inevitable part of joy. But on the way–what wonders. What growth and sharing and learning accrue, the gifts of deep friendships and family relationships and community commitments,–accomplishments forged together; fun, unimagined beforehand; perfect, complete, and nurturing times–what things I would have missed.

********************

I am waiting, writes Ferlinghetti, and oh, he’s right: I am waiting.

I am waiting for the flowers to bud, for the paperwork for the pension to arrive, for the four-legged step to falter, for the days of a wonderful friend to ebb and wane. I am waiting for that end to come, and I am waiting to learn how that end is also a beginning.

I am waiting because I must; I am waiting without grace; but I am waiting. And I am discovering the value that lurks within.