The Waiting Room
The Waiting Room
“It’s strange how some rooms are like cages…” Paul Simon in The Obvious Child.
Not always just cages but almost like holding pens. You enter them and things stand still while you wait for the designated outcome. Waiting rooms: we’ve all spent far too much time in them. Whether they’re called Waiting rooms or whether they have a fancier title….the wings, the sidelines, the vestry, dressing room, bus stop… they’re all still just waiting areas. When you enter them you become committed to staying till the waiting is over. No one forces you to stay, there are no locks and no bars, but how often do you ever see someone walk out before their appointed time? Not very often. There’s an unspoken contract that once you enter, you stay.
Hospital waiting areas are the one people seem to spend most time in; due to the usual policy of doubling up the number of people assigned to each appointment, while you might be expecting to see the doctor at 10.0am, so is another person. They count on people not turning up to keep the place busy and it usually works, because even if you have to wait two hours, almost everyone will wait. It’s the same with trains as well. You have a fixed object in mind and unless you change your plans radically, that object usually remains the same. So no matter how late your train is, you sit and wait.
What a waste of valuable time I can almost hear you saying! This is certainly true if you regard waiting as a passive activity, one empty of meaning and purpose. While there isn’t much to prepare for when waiting for a train, many other events we wait for actually need the waiting time for the event to work well.
I spent a fair amount of time in the past backstage, waiting for a show to start. Of course, some of that time was spent in practical matters, checking props, sound checks and learning lines, but there’s always a moment that dawns when all the things you have to do are done and there is nothing to do but wait. And that is crucial to the performance. That funny little jumping of your heart as you hear the distant murmur of the audience arriving and settling down is the burst of adrenaline you need to be able to step out on stage. The hugs and kisses from fellow performers and backstage crew placate the nerves and bind you together in a fellowship as old as theatre; it tells you that you are OK, that things are going to go fine and that people are behind you. I’m not involved in that world any more and I have few friends that are, but I gather that there are very few performers who can walk cold from the car and onto a stage and give their best. I’d never be one of them, to be sure.
The relatives’ room at hospital is another kind of waiting room; the place you are relegated to when dressings are being changed and when the consultant deigns to visit your relative. It’s also where you wait after the worst has happened. Have you ever noticed the boxes of tissues? They’re there for good reason. Last year, we had to rush north when a close relative was taken seriously ill. We arrived in time to visit him in the ICU and he was lucid enough to communicate with us. But overnight things deteriorated and we were called at 5am to say come now. He’d been moved to another waiting area, a single room off the main ICU ward. He was not conscious really and after spending some hours with him, I went with my sister-in-law to get some coffee and we were directed to the relatives’ room. I’d been up since 5am and Zoe had driven down from Scotland at 6am when she got the call, so we were tired and upset. I knew this stage could easily last days and I was shocked when less than an hour later when my husband came in to say his stepfather had gone. He’d never been one for waiting around in life and in dying, he had waited till we’d all got there, and had gone, just like that. Even the staff were shocked. So we all sat together in that waiting room, crying and drinking coffee and talking and even laughing, waiting for the next stage to come. In those waiting hours, we’d been preparing ourselves, in such ways that I can hardly begin to describe, for what we knew to be inevitable. I didn’t pray for miracles; we’d had our miracle when he’d been conscious and lucid when we arrived and the things that needed saying had been said. I’d been getting my head around what was happening, so I could deal with it.
That’s what a lot of our waiting is about, or should be: becoming ready for what is next. It’s an active process in many ways, but performed often in a passive fashion. When I wait for a hospital appointment, I am not killing time; I am preparing my mind and my spirit to deal with what is coming. When I am waiting for a class to arrive, I am marshalling my thoughts and my materials and working out what best to start with. When I am sitting waiting at an airport, I may be watching and listening and observing and above all, thinking. Even when I am waiting for a bus or a train I am preparing, thinking about the journey and the day ahead and using the time to ponder ideas and enjoy the pause in my busy day.
Right now I am in a waiting room of another sort; it has no special physical location and is more a metaphysical place. I’m waiting for plans and hopes and dreams to start to move forward. It’s a bit like when you sow seeds in the spring. You look at the pictures on the seed packet and you dream of those flowers or vegetables or herbs as you sow them, and after it’s done, you have a little moment where you stare at the bare ground and for a few seconds, you imagine the riot of colour that will ensue in months to come. No gardener hangs around much after that; you might come back a week later to check; to ensure the seeds are undisturbed by hungry birds, or to remove the rampant growth of new weeds, or maybe to peek and see if the tiny earthquakes have started that signal the sprouting of a seed here and there. Another week and you see the tender tip of the first shoots and you sigh with pleasure and anticipation and then go on with your other chores.
That’s the thing about waiting; there are so many things you can do while you’re doing it. And when you do it like that, it’s never a waste of time, but rather a gift of time that you didn’t know you had.