I’m waiting. Every morning I wake, sometimes ridiculously early, with a sense of anticipation tinged with anxiety. I’m waiting – but I don’t know what for.
I was waiting last year too. But that was different. In January this year I was to retire from my university lecturing role and begin a new life chapter. Travel, downsizing, different work. New adventures. Now, with so much on ice, there are specific waits: with dread for Victoria’s COVID-19 case numbers, for vaccine progress, the next episode of the Norwegian crime series I’m glued to. Friends make tentative plans for when this is “over”.
Of course, I’m not alone in this. New York journalist Katherine Miller, reading “quarantine” novels during lockdown, trawled to discover what they said about living through a pandemic, including the waiting. Albert Camus, in The Plague, wrote: “The whole town seemed like a railway waiting room.” In Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, Miller notes a sense of time getting lost.
She wrote of specific waits: for the peak, reopening, a vaccine, for “things to go back to normal, or for things to never be normal again”. I’m waiting for those too, of course. But not only. This feels about more than the pandemic.
Researchers at the University of Bergen, Norway, come closer to explaining it with a study underway since 2017. The WAIT project uses “the concept of waitinghood” to focus on waiting and uncertainty accompanying migration. In a recent blog post, they reflect on what it could say about these uncertain times.
They distinguish between “situational” and “existential” waiting. Situational means waiting for things to happen: daily updates, new rules. “But the pandemic also propagates more prolonged and open-ended forms of waiting for an uncertain future … People simultaneously carry on, feel trapped and relate to alternative notions of the future through their daily activities,” they wrote.
They note our increased feelings of temporariness and unpredictability about the future. Like Miller, they look to writers such as Samuel Beckett and his Waiting for Godot for help: “The pandemic illuminates how feelings such as anxiety, fear, resignation, hope and love, entangle in situations of waiting – an emotional dimension of waiting that is powerfully present in literature.”
As I ponder this “on hold” feeling, unfamiliar to one used to an organised life governed by lists, Melbourne psychologist Meredith Fuller offers insights. I’m in “a liminal space”, she says, drawing an analogy with a Leunig cartoon showing a man holding a rope, afraid to let go and afraid to hold on.
She compares my situation with standing under a doorway, waiting to move into the world. For me it’s a literal analogy; in my former home in Wellington, New Zealand, we stood in doorways during earthquakes, waiting. Would we and our homes emerge unscathed? “The world we were living in before has gone,” Fuller reminds me. My challenge is to move out of the doorway into the future.
Those needing structure and clear goals, who don’t handle ambiguity well, will find the uncertainty of waiting a greater challenge than those who can go with the flow, she explains.
“Some say, ‘I am having an inner journey, recognising what is important in life, appreciating these little moments, more curious about what it means to be human’, so they are having more of the existential waiting, whereas the people who really appreciate more of a structured life are caught up in the not-knowing more.”
This pit-of-the-stomach feeling when I wake is about more than COVID-19, Fuller confirms: “The world or our sense of what is going on is not just about the pandemic; that is like a little signpost or trigger that picks up particular issues.”
It has brought closer big questions about death and life’s meaning for those like me, usually too busy to ponder them. There is fear about discussing our deeper emotional world. Fuller reminds me we are capable of change; it’s important to ask myself what I’m waiting for, but that doesn’t mean I have to fix it. Or that I can. “Sitting with the waiting, that’s important. There is no point in pretending we’re not waiting and it’s all going to be fine. Waiting is part of the human condition.”
I hear her, but I’m still making lists, although now they say “put out bins, buy masks”. I never liked it under those doorways, but I never liked stepping out either. What if there was another quake? But there’s always another quake and somehow I need to live comfortably with that.
Sue Green is a Melbourne writer and journalist.