A few days ago, my daughter pulled Oh The Places You’ll Go down off the bookshelf and asked me to read it to her. I did, and when I got to the pages about “the waiting place,” I had one of those “a-ha!” kind of moments.
Waiting till construction’s done
Or waiting for some weekend fun
Waiting for fire to catch a log
Or for inspiration to write a blog
For dogs to come in, for the sun to stay
For a tax refund, and for each payday
Waiting for what tomorrow will bring
For the dirt and bugs and smell of spring….
About this time of year, for us gardeners especially, waiting is becoming a greater and greater part of our days. Ordering seeds, taking advantage of an unseasonably sunny day to straighten things up outside, examining the fuzzy buds on the pear trees, stooping down to discover that some kind of flower is pushing its way up through the dead grass, are all moments which – while they are complete in themselves – also serve to remind us that there is more waiting yet to do.
The warmth is unseasonable. That spring is immanent – really immanent – is an illusion.
I’ve had my share of impatient moments this year – though not with winter itself. How could I lose patience with a winter that has delivered so many bright, warmish days and so little inconvenient precipitation? No…it’s not winter that’s sent me into a frenzy from time to time this year – it’s the construction.
Anyone who has done any house remodeling knows that these things do tend to drag on; and sometimes it doesn’t seem like construction will ever end – a feeling that only intensifies the closer you get to the finish line – like, for instance, on a Sunday a few weeks back when I woke with a psychological – almost spiritual – need to make pudding from scratch. But alas – unless I wanted it to be seasoned with drywall dust, homemade pudding was not to be.
It’s been a long time, perhaps over twenty years, since I’ve made pudding. It’s been nearly that long since I’ve made any kind of pudding pies too – chocolate, custard, lemon meringue. I remember one particular lemon meringue, a slice of which my one-time boyfriend served to a female friend of his who showed up unannounced late one night at our sliding glass door. She was strange, and wary, some intellectual who at the time attended the same literary college that I would later attend myself in search of….
I don’t know what, really. I only know I didn’t find it.
What I remember about that particular lemon meringue pie is how she sat at our kitchen table and picked at the flecks of lemon zest with the tines of her fork, until finally my then-boyfriend told her, “It’s lemon zest. It’s supposed to be there”. I remember how uncomfortable and embarrassing the whole half hour or so was; mostly I remember how infuriatingly slowly she ate that piece of pie.
I – who have always been a brisk dispatcher of tasks, a fast walker, a fast talker, reader, and writer – find myself these days in a world gone slow.
An old, medicated dog with congestive heart failure retards the night with his hacking, his frequent wakings, his thirst and his need to urinate. At two-thirty in the morning I stand before an open door that spills in eleven or eighteen or twenty degrees of cold because he comes so slowly into the house. In a household that is bursting with youthful energy, restlessness and strength, my one-time speeding bullet of a dog does things slowly – as he must do them now. He is old. He is infirm. He is slow. Again and again, through the course of a day, I must adjust my pace to his. I adjust myself to the thought that returns more and more frequently, that the dog is dying. The vet told me when we were at “the beginning of the end”. But some days it seems that surely we must be at the middle of the end; or near the end of the end; by now.
I play games with a four-year-old whose capacity for slowness – by which I mean a delight in lingering over each and every moment – is unlimited. While I want to whisk us all through the prompt taking of turns, the snapping of cards, the tapping of pieces along the game board with precision in counting, I am faced instead with slow. Are the pawns boys or girls? It is decided that the reds are boys. The yellows are girls. Bounce. Sprawl. Giggle. Sing. Lift two cards instead of one. Gibberish numbers just for fun, not because she doesn’t know any better. Every moment with relish. It is not the slowness of the interminable but of eternity, of timelessness. Perhaps there are other things to do, and a great many things to be done, but this is what we are doing now.
Pudding is like this. It is not for the multi-tasker. With pudding you can’t walk away from the stove. Pudding made from scratch, like a growing child – like a dog whose illness must be monitored – requires your constant awareness and patience.
I’m up hours before I want to be – because of the dog. It’s become a morning ritual. An old man that simply can’t lie down for another single minute because of all the fluid pooling in parts of his body where fluid shouldn’t be. It’s much like the middle of the night ritual in that I drag myself out of bed and all three young dogs thunder out into the icy air, and one old dog meanders – to the water bowl, to the trashcan, to the pooling of curtain in shadows behind which – he seems to be acting from dim memory and his sense of smell – he seems to suspect that there is a door.
The only difference between what happens in the middle of the night and what happens at morning is that in the morning, I resign myself to being awake. Instead of sitting on the arm of the sofa, waiting in the dark, shivering a little as I do at night, in the morning once they’re all outside I make coffee and stoke the fire. Turn on lights. They all come back more or less together. I get my morning chill holding the door open a few extra moments for the old guy. I pick up a book – Fahrenheit 451.
I read something about a garden – having a garden or missing a garden. To me, a garden is a place to work; to do things. It is a place of quiet. A place to connect with the larger, natural world. My mind flits immediately to a memory from last summer – the insult of coming home to work in my garden late one afternoon only to have its peace shattered by a teenage neighbor’s music blasting from his deck across the silence of my garden.
Then the sudden understanding that the character means a garden to sit in, a garden to see, not a garden to work in like I first imagined – and the momentary connection is lost.
The irony is that when I hear the morning call, Mom! Mama! I have to pull my long, slow thinking out of the book to do things slowly; which is what it means to give my daughter my undivided attention.
Do lions eat flowers?
Do they scratch themselves?
Every question is earnest. Every one must be taken seriously. Every one deserves – and gets – my full consideration.
Last winter I fought daily against slow. The slow of construction delayed by weather. The slow of winter delaying spring. It’s a foolish and hubristic thing to do to fight against time, to launch a battle against the very pace of life. It’s a battle that is always lost. I write this down now so that it can remind me later of that to which I can’t seem to sustain a grasp, and because Ray Bradbury assures me that writing down my discoveries matter; that it makes a difference somehow.
“Books are to remind us what asses and fools we are.”
But this winter I do not fight. I begin an indoor, contemplative project instead. I keep my home warm and clean. I push my daughter on the swing, through the crisp chill air and her own happy breath. We watch as the sun, a bright indistinct blur in the white sky in front of us slips slowly, imperceptibly, down behind the bare-branched trees across the street. Pushing her on the swing is like meditation. It is slow. It is rhythmic. It is bounded, and the very boundaries of the physical motion push me inside myself.
My daughter sings.
I find it difficult to write when I don’t have anything to say. Words come only slowly. They are built up out of the tension between observation and activity. Words require the balance of disparate energies – the physical and the mental – in order to come into existence. Words – like the young child slowly growing; like the old dog slowly dying; like the alchemy that is pudding – have their own pace. They spring into existence only when they are ready, only when the conditions are right for life. They are heedless of my schedule or my anxieties.
I am a human being and therefore full of contradictions. I found something endlessly fascinating recently – a list of human universals – and the funny thing about them is that if you study them and think about them long enough you start to realize that many of these universals said to all exist simultaneously in all persons across geographical, religious or cultural boundaries, are in fact largely a collection of contradictions; or potential contradictions; which perhaps explains why we are all always so close to being crazy. It is because our very natures are precariously balanced conglomerations of opposites constantly pulling us in different directions.
Of my own contradictions, today it is fast in tension with slow. I write in a notebook with a pen, which necessitates slowing down, even though my hand cannot keep up with the pace of my thoughts and I long to tap tap tap furiously at a computer keyboard to keep up with it all – except to change what I’m doing right now necessitates slowing down even more – stopping, in fact – to turn on the computer, to wait for it to boot up, to open a document, to orient myself to the technology once again – so far so good.
The problem is that faced with the blank computer page I am overwhelmed with a desire to order things, to clarify what has been random thoughts, the disorder of inspiration, so that when finally equipped with the technology to go fast, I am compelled by the formality of typing a manuscript, to go slow.
I am compelled to reconsider, to revisit, to puzzlingly try to read what I have written, to make it cohesive and coherent. Whereas before I was furiously cracking eggs, now I am forced to stand and stir the pudding, back and forth, back and forth, scraping the bottom at each pass across the pot so that nothing solidifies too quickly and loses its connection to the rest of the soup. Pudding – like good writing – must as some point become a cohesive whole. It must cease being a multitude of things and become one thing, so much so that it should seem like a pudding has always been a pudding. One never thinks that a pudding is the slow transformation of eggs and milk and sugar and the knowledge and patience of the cook just as a novel is the slow accumulation of words out of a life, countless distinct and individual moments lost, dissolved into the overall texture of the thing.
A novel, like a pudding, comes together only slowly.
And this is what life is, the seemingly interminable slow which goes by fast, a fact that we recognize only in retrospect, when we stand staring down at the pudding in bewilderment. Where did it come from? How did it get here? How is it that we can eat a spoonful of pudding without even a dim memory of the milk, the sugar, the eggs?
It seems that to think of any one thing completely you must think of many things. It’s as if I must think like my daughter plays – bringing pieces of many different play sets into a single game that she makes up as she goes along. Thomas the Tank Engine. Farm animals. Buzz Lightyear. Mr. Ed. Wilbur the pig and Wilbur who owns Mr. Ed and Charlotte the spider. The zoo. The farm buildings. Magnatiles. Every dinosaur she owns – large and small, plastic and plush – standing together in a group. Every multi-sized toy tree from any toy set that has a tree comprise a forest on the living room floor. Two fat quarters – one blue to be the sea, one yellow to be the sand – form the beach. There are milk and sugar and eggs and patience and time. Words spilling across like music. And Thomas – puffing and singing “we’ll be chugging on Boulder Mountain when we come” and rolling through it – somehow brings all the activity of a multi-faceted imagination together into a single, momentarily coherent world.
And no one – in this particular moment – is waiting for anything.