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Trying Patience

“They also serve who stand and wait.”

—John Milton

I was waiting nervously outside the professor’s door for my turn to have a conference with him.

Across from me was this absolutely beautiful woman completely unruffled by the sweltering Virginia heat. She wore an exotic linen dress in colors right out of one of Monet’s more gorgeous haystacks. Her hair was in an upsweep and her face really did have a bone-china glow.

Right then a gray-haired professor with a proprietary air came lumbering down the corridor, certain of his place in the English department, if not the world. Apparently unable to resist the twin charms of a beautiful woman and a frightened woman, he stopped in front of us.

“ ‘They also serve who stand and wait’,” he said. Then he looked at both of us and said gruffly, “Who’s that? Do you know?”

I hadn’t actually realized he was quoting someone so when the woman said in (I’m not kidding) dulcet tones, “John Milton?” I looked around thinking somebody else must be there.

But once I figured out what had happened, I was truly terrified. What was I doing here? I didn’t belong here. I hadn’t read John Milton, wouldn’t recognize him in a crowd, wasn’t wearing layers of gorgeous linen and couldn’t make my voice brim with quiet confidence.

What did it mean to say “They also serve who stand and wait”?

Instinctively I didn’t believe it.

Then, when I finally got in to see my professor, he threw a hissy fit. He was the head-honcho poet and I was trying to transfer out of the master’s program in poetry into the one in fiction. He seemed to think this was most déclassé of me. Didn’t I recognize the superiority of poetry? Was I truly opting out of the celestial realm for the more vulgar forms of fiction? He told me to wait a while before deciding if I wanted to switch.

So I waited. Then I switched.

It turns out I became good friends with the beautiful woman. She was even more talented than she was beautiful—a good poet and a fine artist; a watercolor she painted as a response to Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” hangs in my dining room. And I got through the master’s program without a hitch, apparently existentially undiminished by having written a fiction thesis rather than a poetry thesis.

But I never read “On His Blindness” (from which “They also serve…” comes) without thinking of those awkward moments of waiting.

Waiting seems to me to serve no apparent purpose, no apparent master and no apparent ends. I hate waiting.

I hate being put on hold and having to hear smarmy Muzak versions of “All By Myself” and “I Want To Know What Love Is,” which were bad enough in their originals.

I hate sitting in restaurants waiting for tardy friends—which may explain my own tendency toward tardiness.

I hate waiting for all those momentous bits of information that directly determine your future. Will you find out that you’re still healthy, that your mortgage has been approved?

I hate waiting for the oil change reading sticky copies of Newsweek in those drafty cubicles at Jiffy Lube that smell of burned coffee.

I hate waiting for the good stuff to begin and I hate waiting for the bad stuff to end.

But even more than I hate waiting, I hate people who tell you of the necessity to be patient while you wait.

All my life I’ve been told to be patient. Or I’ve been told I’m impatient. All my life I’ve tried to count to 10. Or to a thousand. All my life I’ve measured out the hours to make sure that I’ve waited long enough to have actually earned what I desire.

All my life I have waited because even though those pithy little maxims abound—‘Life is not a dress rehearsal’, ‘Be here, now’, ‘Carpe diem’—there is always some authority figure lumbering down the corridor of your soul, saying in a less-than-tender voice, “They also serve who stand and wait.”

And so you stand. And wait. As if that is doing some good.

A few years ago my I spent a week in a house in Versailles owned by friends of friends off on vacation for the summer.

You’d think it would be exotic to stay in Versailles—and it was, of course. At night there were fireworks over the palace and we could watch them from the third-floor bedrooms. During the day I shopped at a wonderful market that seemed to sell almost all of the 300-odd kinds of French cheeses.

But what I loved most was staying in the house itself. Though they were all away on vacation, the house breathed with the presence of Arjen, Caroline and their daughters. These were not waiting rooms between the press and crush of chores. Instead there was the sense that life got lived here, not waited out, as mine has so often felt.

The good olive oil was half-gone, the silver was in the drawer for daily use, the bed linens held the faint scent of perfume and skin, everything was a bit soft around the edges, worn to smoothness like the inside of a nest.

On our last day there I sat sun-dappled in the garden dense with begonias and the deep green shine of rhododendron leaves. I decided then I didn’t want to wait anymore. I wasn’t sure what I meant by that, but I knew then that finally, the time had come.

I know there is still time—

time for the hands

to open, for the bones of them

to be filled . . .

And all the old voices,

which once made broken-off, choked, parrot-incoherences,

speak again, all of them

saying there is time, still time

for those who can groan

to sing,

for those who can sing to heal themselves.

—Galway Kinnell, “The Still Time”

—Jo Page

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