Reviewed by Elizabeth Greene
Waiting is one of the unsung experiences of the contemporary world—“like breathing” say Rona Altrows and Julie Sedivy, the editors of this splendid collection of essays, in their introduction. Each of these thirty-two essays is powerful, distinctive, authentic. The editors have divided their book into six sections—Burgeoning, Scope, Moment, Soul, Irretrievable and Guts—roughly from childhood waiting left behind and transcended to more difficult, ongoing, unresolved waiting.
To wait is travel through unfilled time. The writers of these essays fill the time with exploring the moment, with memory, with understanding patterns of their lives. Reading through these essays is a time trip. The writers lead us through significant moments, often through decades. Glen Sorestad’s “Waiting for Alexandria” zips back fifty years to his memory of teaching her in high school, in Yorkton, when she was a new, displaced student. Memory fills the time waiting for her in the Saskatoon train station. The actual meeting is short—just a ten-minute stop on Alexandria’s train trip East—but the ten minutes are enough to renew the bond between teacher and student, to fill in some of Alexandria’s fifty years, to celebrate Alexandria’s success as a writer—she has written more than forty romance novels—and more self-effacingly, Glen Sorestad’s own success as a poet and essayist. Sometimes moments mean as much as years.
Sometimes they are worth waiting decades for or outweigh the waiting. In Sharon Butala’s “Storage,” the writer looks back on her long marriage, on her move to Calgary and her years of emptying her storage locker in Swift Current, the end of a chapter in her life. She thinks about ageing (here too, memory and reflection leap through and condense years), but turns back to life: “Death will come, but not today. Today I am alive.”
There are some acute perceptions on waiting. Leslie Greentree begins “Tom Petty Just Isn’t There for You: Riffs on Waiting” with “As a writer, you know how to wait. For acceptance. For rejection.” But the essay turns toward a much more difficult waiting: waiting through her father’s last illness and death: “The hardest part of death-waiting is afterward, when you’ve returned home to wander your house, unable to focus, waiting for the confusion and rootlessness to pass.” Richard Harrison’s riff on waiting is far more upbeat: “Waiting is the chance to consider life while it has slowed, or stopped, around you. It’s a chance to think the way the dead think without the power to reach into events and change them.”
The waiting is the hardest, and open-ended, in the final section, Guts. Samantha Albert begins her essay “Wait Training” with “I’m a professional waiter.” As a woman with a bone marrow disease, she sometimes spends three hundred hours a year waiting for appointments, sometimes waiting hours for a few minutes of necessary chemo. And there are also specialists. Tuesdays were worst. She’d bring a backpack filled with books, snacks, brought her phone. Then she saw pictures of long lines of waiters: people in a refugee camp in Pakistan, waiting for water in the Central African Republic, waiting to vote in rural India. They all looked calm, at peace with themselves. Albert resolved to leave her backpack home and to achieve that calm, making me think that if waiting is like breathing, one answer to waiting is breath, though Albert doesn’t say that. She does say she resolves to “look for opportunities to make meaning of any given moment.” The last essay in the book, Kelly S. Thompson’s “We Come and We Go” writes about waiting for her husband posted overseas, this time in Egypt, having to trust that he will come home, that they will have more time together before the next posting. The waiting is difficult and uncertain, but Thompson chooses the path of strength and resolve.
I closed this book feeling that I’d been on thirty-two life journeys, had explored moments with more significance than their clock time might have suggested, feeling that I’d done flips in time, but also with admiration for the writers. Waiting is not just filling blank time. It is also about courage and love.
Waiting: An Anthology of Essays is published by University of Alberta Press.