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THE WAITING PLACELearning to Appreciate Life's Little Delays
By EILEEN BUTTON
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Eileen Button
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Waiting Place
I am waiting for the day to end. Just end.
I am sitting on the left side of my red couch, flip ping through the most recent edition of Newsweek. Since I am a newspaper columnist, I am hoping-praying, actually—that an idea for my next column will jump out of the magazine's pages and smack me in the head.
Come on. There must be something in here worth writing about, I think as I scan the boring stories.
Most of the time I have a lot to say. In fact, I have an opinion on just about everything, which is a very good trait to have if you're a columnist. But today, I'm in a slump. And I know from Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go! that "when you're in a Slump, / you're not in for much fun. / Un-slumping yourself / is not easily done."
The fact is, I'm stuck in "a most useless place. The Waiting Place." It's a wobbly place to be.
It's March. I live in mid-Michigan, where I am surrounded by thousands of disillusioned auto workers, many of whom have lost their jobs in recent years. The weather is a horrible mixture of ice, rain, and snow. Although I am a runner (who runs mostly in her mind), I haven't run in several months. My diet consists mostly of cookies. My pants are tight (go figure), and my gluteus maximus is maximizing itself. It has an obvious agenda to take over the entire back side of my body. After it accomplishes that there is no doubt in my mind it is going for world domination.
If someone asked me, "If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?" I would answer, "In bed." The fact that I would choose flannel sheets over, say, Italy is more than a little concerning to this Tigger-like, energetic woman.
My eleven-year-old daughter, Kristina, is home from school, sick. She's curled up on the couch next to me, engrossed in her latest book. A bowl of green grapes sits between us, and we take turns reaching into it and popping fruit into our mouths. I might not know where my next column will come from, but it's nice to be here with my little girl.
Kristina is sick but not too sick. Together we're bored but not too bored. I reason that our boredom is even a little healthy. That it's a good thing to just sit and read and think and wonder every once in a while.
Kristina breaks the silence as she peeks up over her book at me. "Can I ask you a question, Mom?"
"Sure," I answer. She's reading My Little Red Book, which is a wonderful collection of personal essays all written about first-menstruation experiences. I know that a book comprised solely of first-period stories sounds odd, but it is truly terrific, funny, and poignant. Kristina has my full attention as I put down the Newsweek and look into her beautiful face. I am ready to spend the entire day talking about what it means to become a woman while her brothers, Stephen and Jordan, are at school. In my daughter's eyes, I soon will be Mother of the Year.
"Well," she says. "Uh ... is this what you do all day?"
I'm taken aback by her question and laugh nervously. "What? You mean, like, sit here? Oh, no, no. Gosh, no," I say.
"Good. Because if this is what you do all day, it would drive me crazy!" she says. "So, what do you do all day?"
Suddenly I glimpse myself through her eyes and see a middle-aged woman who appears to be a little lost while her husband works and her kids go to school. My stomach turns, and I have to push down the defenses that rise up within me. I am tempted to harangue long and hard about the fact that I am a newspaper columnist and an adjunct professor and a mom of three who makes dinner every single stinkin' night! Plus, I'm a pastor's wife who loves her husband but often dislikes his job that overshadows our life together.
I am also a neighbor, a sister, a daughter, and a friend. I volunteer at the local library, church, and school. I do the laundry, clean the toilets, sweep the floors, weed the garden, and wash the dog. I drive kids around in my proverbial minivan (a vehicle so unremarkable we call her the Stealth Bomber) to school, lessons, practices, and doctors' appointments. In short, I'm freaking amazing!
But I don't say any of that. Instead, I calmly say, "Oh, I work. You know, I write. I grade papers. I plan lessons for class. I don't just hang around here and sit on the couch."
"Well, you can work now if you want to," she says.
"I know. But I just ... I want to be here with you."
"Okay," she says as she turns back to her book. "It's just that, I'm fine. So you don't have to stop whatever it is you normally do."
"Uh-huh," I say, and I look blankly at the pages before me. So this is what my life has come to. I am utterly defeated.
* * *
When my three children were old enough to watch Spy Kids but young enough to still be gullible, they became convinced that my husband, Brad, and I were spies for the US government. They believed we did our spy work while they slept cozily in their beds. When they asked us if we were members of the CIA, we sometimes said yes, and they accused us of lying. But when we said no, they thought we were lying, too. Either way, they were convinced that whatever it was that we did while they were sleeping was much more exotic than simply snoozing. We were their heroes.
My children are no longer gullible. More often than not they call our bluff. It is hard to admit that the person I am at this very moment—the woman who sits soberly on the left side of her couch holding Newsweek in one hand and a bitter cup of lukewarm coffee in the other—is not the person I meant to become. Certainly I'm not acting like the mom I want my daughter to believe she has. I want her to think that I am adventurous, creative, inspired, and important. Instead, I feel cautious, vulnerable, a little lazy, and just plain stuck.
I never dreamed of becoming the mother who kisses her children good-bye as she sends them off to school in the morning, presses the Pause button on her life, and resumes living once her offspring return home. After all, I am the mother who unashamedly allowed—even encouraged—her children to believe she was the cunning, cool-headed CIA agent who flew to Moscow and back as they slept or went to school. Certainly I never just stay home.
Kristina looks at me nonjudgmentally, but her eyes plead for me to do something with my sorry life. Isn't there something on this random Tuesday in March that I need to do? Isn't there someplace (Cuba, perhaps) that I need to go?
Instead, I am trapped in the waiting place. And so it is here, on the left side of my very comfortable couch, that this book is born.
* * *
The Waiting Place is for people like me who get stuck in their precious, mundane, gorgeous, absurd lives. It is for those who work hard at the "business of living" only to find that they seem to be caught in one long, boring meeting. (The kind held around a long, laminated dark table in a windowless room where the boss, who forgot to bring donuts, is giving a PowerPoint presentation that includes about fifteen thousand pie charts.)
It's for those who wake up one day and find themselves repeatedly sighing and thinking, This is so not the life I dreamed of living. It's also for those who wonder what is worse: to remain in the day-in, day-out lives they have created or to risk it all and make a change, even if that change results in falling on their faces.
The waiting place is never cozy. In fact, when we find ourselves there, most of us try like heck to escape. While stuck in traffic, we take the nearest off-ramp and find an alternate route. While waiting at the deli, we gather a few more groceries from adjacent aisles so as not to waste time. While waiting at the mind-sucking Department of Motor Vehicles, we take a number and watch the numbers click, click, click until we are called to the desk. (Effects of the torturous wait at the DMV can be seen in virtually everyone's pitiful driver's license picture.)
Sometimes our inability to wait has more tragic implications:
While waiting to grow up, we forget to embrace our childhoods.
While waiting to lose weight, we fail to enjoy the youthfulness of our bodies.
While waiting for true love, we forget to relish our freedom. (Or worse, we settle for second best.)
While waiting to have children, we forget to nurture and enjoy the love and freedom of a childless marriage.
While waiting for our children to grow, we forget to notice their beauty as infants, toddlers, children, and teens. We fail to burn the memory of them into our souls.
While waiting for a loved one to get well (or to die), we fail to appreciate the days—even those filled with sickness and medications—we have with one another.
The following essays breathe life into common (and not so common) waiting places. I hope you find yourself in these pages and conclude, as I have, that some of the most priceless gifts can be discovered while waiting for something else.
I am absolutely convinced that some of the most beautiful things happen if we are willing to quiet our hearts, lean into the waiting place, and listen to what it tells us. When we do, we will often be astonished by what it has to say.
Chapter TwoWhispering Walls
I am waiting for a place called home.
I've driven by this house a thousand times over the last thirty years. When my kids are in the car with me, I slow down, point, and say, "There it is, kids. That's the house I grew up in."
They glance and say, "Oh, yeah ...," and quickly go back to their own thoughts.
I'm never too disappointed by their response. After all, my childhood house in East Rochester, New York, (population sixty-six hundred) is not much to look at. The corner lot is tiny and comprised mostly of dirt. The once-white siding on the small two-story house is brownish gray from decades of harsh western New York winters. In this part of town, no one ever power-washes his home or contracts with ChemLawn to spray her grass. Here, residents are much more concerned about basic survival—a roof overhead, food on the table, a working car in the driveway, and a source of steady income.
I am the only one in my family who has moved out of state. My mom, dad, and two sisters all live within a few miles of each other. This fact often makes me terribly jealous and more than a little sad. I travel back to the east side of Rochester for most of the important stuff: weddings, major holidays, funerals.
But it's the ordinary, everyday stuff I miss the most: Sunday dinners ... the Buffalo Bills versus Miami Dolphins football game ... taking my sisters to lunch for their birthdays ... hanging out just because we can ... running out of things to say ... stopping by a sister's home without her thinking she should pick up her house and clean her toilets first. My heart longs for these simple things.
The unspoken rule for just about every family I know is this: the one who moves away must also be the one who visits. I don't mind being the one who hauls my family to Rochester because I want my kids to know this place. I'm happy to trek back several times a year to be in the presence of the people who have known me the longest and love me the most. Sure, I wish they'd come to visit me more often and take the time to understand my life as I do theirs. In spite of that, whenever anyone asks me about my home, this is the place I think of first.
It's hard to believe that this is the same small town my high school classmates and I could hardly wait to leave. How ironic it is to no longer feel that way. Instead, I feel like I've been missing something beautiful all along: the knowledge of which deli in town sells the best homemade kielbasa or pepperoni bread ... the awkwardness of banging into an old boyfriend at the grocery store ... the weirdness of watching former classmates' kids walk across the stage at graduation. Every town is unique, and heartstrings are pulled tightly around it, even if it's hard to explain exactly why.
My childhood house is located halfway between my dad's trailer and my sister's home. As I drive past it en route to Susie's, my heart leaps when I see the For Sale sign from Canal Walk Realtors sitting crookedly in the yard. I memorize the phone number and the Realtor's name.
"Hey, Susie," I say, walking through her front door, down the hallway, and into her aroma-filled kitchen. "Do you want to go see a house with me?"
"What house?" she asks, stirring the pasta for tonight's dinner.
"Our house. The Apple Street house. You wanna see it? It's for sale."
"You want to buy the Apple Street house?" she asks, incredulous.
"No, of course I don't want to buy it. I just want to see it. Will you go with me?"
Over the years, Susie and I have dreamed together about the possibility of seeing the house again. "Are you serious?" she says.
"Yeah. But only if the Realtor will show it to us."
"I'll go. Absolutely."
I grab her phone and head into the quiet of her upstairs, rehearsing what I will say to the Realtor when he answers the phone. If he answers the phone.
"Frank DeCiantis," a man's voice says.
"Uh, yes. Hi. My name is Eileen, and ... well, I'm interested in seeing one of the houses you have listed, the one on Apple Street. But I don't want to buy it."
"O-kaay," he says hesitantly.
"I know it sounds crazy, but ... I grew up there, and my sister and I have always wondered what it would be like to see it again. Since it's on the market ... ," I say as my confidence tanks. "Gosh, I'm so sorry to ask you this. I don't want to waste your time. I'm sure you're busy and ..."
"Well, the house has sold, but it's no problem. I'd be happy to show it to you. When do you want to see it?"
I swallow and hold my breath. "Now?"
I hear him shuffling papers. Then he says, "Meet me there in twenty minutes."
* * *
It's hard to believe it's been thirty years since Susie and I stood on the cement stoop of our eight-hundred-square-foot childhood home. She and I have both bought and renovated a few houses as adults, but no one has given similar attention to this place. We grip the black wrought-iron railing with its chipped paint, and I can almost hear my mother banging her clapperless brass bell against it, calling us to dinner. Frank unlocks the familiar side door, and Susie shoots me a look in anticipation. Although we've talked about doing this, we never thought we'd get the chance to walk through these doors again.
I can hardly wait to see the inside, but I'm a little nervous about what we will find. What if memories slam back at me and knock me off my feet? But I'm equally nervous about standing here on the steps, exposed for all the neighbors to see. There is very little space between houses, so every car pulling into a driveway, every person standing at the door, is noticed. I can't help the feeling that Fran Kokinda is watching me from her kitchen window across the street, even though she died seven months ago. She watched our family from the shadows of that window for thirteen years. It's hard to imagine she's gone.
Susie and I follow Frank into the kitchen and into the wrinkle in time. The worn-out egg-salad-patterned kitchen floor has been covered with different linoleum, but the pine cupboards, worn red countertop, 1970s refrigerator, and mustard-colored telephone (complete with an extra-long, stretched-out cord) are, remarkably, unchanged.
I'm shocked to find the same brown, nubby carpeting covering the living room floor. That carpet was wicked-ugly in the seventies, and it hasn't improved in the last three decades. I look around the tiny ten-by-twelve room and shake my head at the memory of one of my mother's enormous Christmas trees stuffed into the northwest corner. We had good Christmases here. Mom was the Christmas queen who loved shopping for and wrapping her Santa-sized load. Dad didn't share her enthusiasm for the holidays but was content to watch his girls tear open presents on Christmas morning.
Frank opens the door to the enclosed front porch, and I become dizzy with nostalgia. The damp-wood smell is exactly the same after all these years. This is the place where I wrote my very first story, where I read and loved Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and where I spent hours perfecting my ability to raise one eyebrow.
Excerpted from THE WAITING PLACE by EILEEN BUTTON Copyright © 2011 by Eileen Button. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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