Waiting & Longing

By J.S. Porter

(for B.W. Powe, a man who knows how to wait)

the face of one
waiting & waiting

waiting & waiting

waiting for a
good he knows
he cannot

—Robert Lax, from A Greek Journal, November 5/68

In Scar Tissue, Michael Ignatieff speaks of his mother standing by a door waiting. He isn’t sure— neither is she— what she is waiting for. She’s just waiting.

Ignatieff’s mother does what we all do. We wait. We wait for summer, we wait for the right one to marry, we wait for an illness to pass, we wait for reconciliation between us and a friend, we wait for a chance to be the best we can be at something, we wait for understanding, we wait for forgiveness. We wait.

One of the things that struck me powerfully in my time in Zambia was the capacity of people to wait. They waited for bread to come into stores, they waited to be treated at the clinic, they waited to be seen at the office. In conversation, they waited for you to say what you needed to say—without interruption, without challenge, without comeback. They listened. They were silent. They waited for you to finish. Then, if they felt the need or felt that you wanted them to say something, they would speak. Many Zambians with whom I had contact had mastered the art of waiting; they were masters of waiting. In a poor country, perhaps one is compelled to learn this art.

Some of the great works of literature in the last century centered on the theme of waiting. One thinks immediately of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot and Franz Kafka’s novels in which the protagonist K waits for a trial and then waits to get into a castle. In the novel The Castle, a letter (K), not a name, never does get into the inner sanctum. He goes on waiting, and since Kafka left the novel unfinished, he goes on waiting for eternity. Waiting and longing. He longs to reach the Holy for an explanation of why certain things have happened to him. He longs and he waits. His hunger and thirst for meaning, for explanation, are very real, but they are not satisfied in the novel.

Another great work of art on waiting is by the Latin American novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Love in the Time of Cholera. A man who hasn’t quite grown up sufficiently, who isn’t quite ready, waits for forty years and forty days for a woman to accept him as her lover. Unlike Beckett and Kafka, Marquez doesn’t thwart the reader’s expectation; he fulfills it. They meet, they fall in love. He suspends them on a boat between the harbour they cannot return to and the safe port they cannot enter. But in Marquez’s magic realism, the reader feels, despite the odds, that they will fall into each other’s arms eternally. The waiting and the longing are fulfilled and consummated.

It seems to me that between these two states—waiting and longing— the lives of human beings twist and turn. Between these two states, we find what is most human within us and what most fundamentally connects us to the divine. Paul Tillich in his sermon “Waiting” in The Shaking of the Foundations says we wait for what we most long for, what we most need.

We always have to wait for a human being. Even in the most intimate communion among human beings, there is an element of not having and not knowing, and of waiting.

With the poet and mystic, Robert Lax, the waiting is less defined. The reader is uncertain whether the speaker of the prose poem 21 Pages is waiting for God, waiting for a friend, waiting for a lover, or waiting for someone or something indefinable. Or, is he waiting for all and none of these things? Lax writes:

And back to nights of looking, outward and in; not knowing which way I’m looking, but waiting and looking. Back to the night-watch. Day-watch and night-watch. Dusk to dawn, dawn to dusk. Mid-day to midnight…I didn’t give up because I couldn’t. I didn’t, because I was made to go on waiting. Made, put together, invented, born, for that single, singular purpose: to watch, to wait. There is no giving up on the thing you were made to do. There’s no giving up on being who you are.

William Maxwell, the famous American editor and novelist, says this about Lax and his 21 Pages: “I don’t know any religious writing that moves me as much or is as persuasive as the prose communication with the unseen, unknown, unanswering but felt fountain-source of his belief, which begins: ‘Searching for you, but if there’s no one, what am I searching for? Still you…’”

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