Confession: my seven-year-old routinely outplays me in games of chess, and not just because I can’t remember the identity of any piece other than a pawn or the horsey-thing. She trumps me when it comes to strategy, considering the relative merits of each choice, planning several moves in advance. I opt for the first move I see. If I happen to win, it’s either through dumb luck or the kindness-pity-generosity of Rainbow Girl’s tutelage.
When I sit with her over a chess board, I actually think it’s a miracle that I’ve managed to write a novel — or, for that matter — a coherent sentence.
Patience is a virtue. It just doesn’t happen to be mine.
It’s not just chess that drags me down. I take slow computer connections personally, as if the universe were fulfilling a particular grudge against me. I doubt anyone would be surprised to find that I bite my nails. I move with a speed and manic compulsion that makes onlookers bite their nails in contagious anxiety.
I’m the consummate multi-tasker, able to eat breakfast, wash the dishes, and guide both kids through (different) math lessons, all at once. I’m rarely, if ever, doing just one thing, which is an advantage when I’m plotting out a story while driving to homeschool group and answering backseat questions on plate tectonics, but a disadvantage in anything that requires methodical, linear thinking.
While I’m faster than most anyone I know at mindless tasks (eating, showering, folding laundry), I can’t cook worth a damn. Recipes demand a steady pacing of predetermined steps that drives me bonkers. I’m much more likely to grab a handful of spices and fling. Once in awhile, I strike gold. Usually, my culinary improvisations are a disaster.
And that’s all on my “normal” speed. God help the people around me if I’ve had any caffeine.
My husband knows too well the look that says I’m-doing-ten-things-at-once-here-so-please-don’t-break-my-train-of-thought. ‘Cause if that train derails, the whole track comes undone. I imagine the look as a bit like Clint-Eastwood-meets-Lady-Gaga for its monomaniacal determined bravado. It’s not pretty.
My kids know that a raised palm means don’t-interrupt-mom-or-she’ll-blow-a-gasket-and-we’re-out-of-gaskets-and-toilet-paper-too. Grocery lists — actually taking the time to look through the cabinets and see what we’re missing — is my husband’s domain. If it were up to me, I’d come home with peanut butter, apples, milk, and chocolate-covered whatevers. I’m a sucker for anything chocolate-covered.
My lack of patience doesn’t help me as a mother or a writer. I’m too likely to yell at spilled milk or curl up in a ball at yet another rejection.
I am particularly stumped by impatience when it comes to the half-light zones of a story: the beginning of a new draft or mid-way through a major revision. Those are the places where I can’t see the whole, where I have to muddle through the inevitable mess, the unresolved disaster named Chapter 23. It’s a bit like staring down the chessboard after the first two moves and flipping out because I can’t yet see the checkmate.
And that’s really the crux of my problem with patience and all its tick-tock preambulations. At the root, I have, at best, a wobbly version of faith. I’m never quite certain that anything — from soup, to childhood, to stories — will come out right.
For years now, I’ve kept Kay Ryan’s poem “Patience” pinned to my desk. It starts with this line: “Patience is wider than one once envisioned”, a call to rethink the parameters, the shape of waiting. Patience demands waiting — a truism — but more than that, it demands faith within the gap, in the spaces where our feet don’t always touch the ground.
I’ve never run a marathon — that shouldn’t be a surprise — but I imagine it’s the middle where patience and faith would count the most, those long, interminable half-way miles. It’s the middle miles that resonate with grey February days, the awkward tantrums of a three-year old, the tangled skeins of Chapter 23.
“Patience is found in strange places. A hospital room, a writer’s den. You can’t rush the words any more than you can rush life. You can’t skip ahead. You live, day by day; you type, word by word. The dream I once had, the dream of easy progression, of writerdom, is gone. What is left is the writing.”
“You can’t skip ahead.” Half-way is hard. Half-way is where I lose my grip — and reach for the chocolate. Half-way is a place of murky vision, at best. Sometimes it’s total blindness. Still, eventually the tension gets to me and I realize that, like it or not, it’s either move or be squashed by my own inertia. Throw the Hail Mary. Bite my lip and clean up the milk. Sit down at the keyboard and stay there, spitting out words.
I’d love to hear how you deal with waiting and uncertainty. Are you naturally patient or do you have to work at it? What helps you through the murky spots, those halfway miles?