I’ve gotten better at waiting. This year presented me many opportunities to perfect my skills, to learn to inhabit the different kinds of waiting, to become One with the open curve of the bowl of Time.
There is the anxious waiting, fraught with concern for someone’s comfort or safety. I first encountered it when sitting in a crowded ER for eight hours with my mother who was on a gurney in terrible discomfort, psychic and physical. My efforts to comfort her were ineffectual. I couldn’t get the attention of the Hieronymus Bosch characters in the chaotic ER, and could only hold her hand and speak to her sotto voce. Every single minute of the eight hours seemed like a week. My heart raced. I cycled through frustration, anger, deep sorrow, and back to frustration. I wondered whether there was life beyond my panicked anxious waiting, beyond the drawn curtain of the ER cubicle. Maybe I’d be trapped there forever, holding my mother’s hand, making no difference for her—or anyone–forgotten in the night of cries, sirens and alarm bells.
And then there is the Zen kind of waiting. A waiting where you don’t even know what you’re waiting for, but you are open to whatever comes next. You surrender to that kind of waiting. Have no expectations as to how long anything will take, or how long you think you might endure, or even whether or not there will be an end to the waiting. You just sit, not looking at a clock or a watch or a phone, and you feel around the edges of your consciousness, noting the feel of this moment, the temperature, sounds, how your body is making contact with the chair. I moved to this kind of waiting sometime in the Fall, after my mother was in hospice care and mostly uncommunicative. I didn’t know if she knew I was with her, didn’t know if she heard my voice or felt my hand—but it didn’t matter. I felt her. I believed she could understand the energy from my heart, if not the words from my lips. I was waiting inside Time, beyond words, and completely with my mom.
The last time I saw her, I told her I was going to visit my sister in Salt Lake City, and then go up to Yellowstone to see my nephew who lives and works there. Mom loved Yellowstone and I knew she would remember the many family vacations we had had there. She would have loved to come with me. I hugged her skinny, birdlike torso and kissed her forehead and cheeks. There was no returned hug or indication she heard me. But it didn’t matter; I knew she heard me. “I’ll come back in a week and tell you all about it. About what I saw. About Marty and Katie and Owen. About the fish we catch and what I’ll see.”
A caregiver was sitting at the table with my mother’s slumped body, waiting to feed her some of the pureed food she had eaten for the last 9 months of her life. Spoon poised in mid-gesture, the caregiver smiled and said, “That gonna have to do for now. Mamma gonna wait for you to come back.”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “But I’ll know where to find her.” Then I squeezed mom’s hand and left before anyone saw me cry.
Yellowstone was spectacular. Awesome—in the old-fashioned meaning of the word: inspiring awe. Timeless. And yet, as I had recently learned, existing in its present form on a much shorter-term lease. Beneath Yellowstone lies an active volcano that measures 34 miles by 45 miles. The volcano has the ability to change the global climate for years and trigger an extinction event. If it were to erupt, it would kill an estimated 87,000 people immediately and quickly make two-thirds of the USA uninhabitable. The large spew of ash into the atmosphere would block out sunlight and directly affect life beneath it creating a “nuclear winter.” A 2013 study showed that the magma reservoir that feeds the volcano is about two and a half times larger than previous estimates, and a recent University of Arizona study revealed previous critical changes in temperature and composition built up in just a matter of decades. Until now, geologists had thought it would take centuries for the Yellowstone volcano to make that transition.
Taking in the new research about Yellowstone being more temporary–while under its spell–moved me to yet another phase of waiting, “live waiting.” Live waiting is a way of living fully with the understanding that a cataclysmic event looms, simmering beneath every step I’m taking. It’s waiting while taking into my brain, heart and soul that everything is temporary: These herds of prehistoric-looking bison are going to die; Old Faithful will stop her regular, clockwork-like displays; Grand Prismatic will boil over and spill its brilliant colors into the ash. This park, my harmonic vortex, the place I always want to return to, is living on borrowed time.
And of course, it’s not just the park living within a shortened fragment of time. Everyone I know and love will disappear from my life, sooner, now that I’m old. Just as every beloved animal, no matter how much I loved it, has, in time, died. And, I, too am temporary, facing my own sooner-than-before extinction.
So this phase of waiting is “there-is-no-time-to-lose waiting.” There is no time to surrender, to give into waiting, no matter how Zen-like or how honed my skills have become. I should live like there is no tomorrow. Write the book. Take the photos. Paint the pictures. Do that thing I want to do. Leave things better than I found them. Give back. Make a difference today, every day. Watch every sunrise. Tell people how much they mean to me. Go back to Yellowstone, walk across the moonscape of boiling water and steam, and feel the awesomeness of this time-constrained, rich and surprising life.
Here’s to a no-holding back 2018. A year when we feel the air move beneath our feet and realize we can fly.