Recently my youngest daughter had to study some of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Her poems tend to be short, and one that I found particularly appropriate to my current state of mind was If you were coming in the Fall:

If you were coming in the Fall,
I’d brush the Summer by
With half a smile and half a spurn,
As Housewives do a Fly.

If I could see you in a year,
I’d wind the months in balls—
And put them each in separate Drawers,
For fear the numbers fuse—

If only Centuries, delayed,
I’d count them on my Hand,
Subtracting, till my fingers dropped
Into Van Diemen’s Land.

If certain, when this life was out—
That yours and mine, should be
I’d toss it yonder, like a Rind,
And take Eternity—

But, now, all ignorant of the length
Of this, that is between,
It goads me, like the Goblin Bee—
That will not state—it’s sting.

At the moment, I feel as if all I’m doing is waiting. My wife is a public school teacher. After years of suffering pay cuts amounting to more than fifteen percent—not factoring in inflation—along with significant increases in the cost of our health insurance (it doubled, jumping by five hundred dollars per month in the past four years) she is finally getting a three and a half percent raise, retroactive to June, 2013. Her so-called union negotiated the pay raise in November. We have yet to see any change in her monthly pay. Likewise, no retroactive check has arrived, either. It’s all “in the mail.” Of course, the local school board did not approve the pay hike until January 20th of this year—and then they have to inform the county, which is who actually provides the funds the local district uses for paying its teachers. So we’ll be waiting a bit more.

February is the month I do our family’s taxes—and so once I’m done with those later this week, then I’ll get to…wait for our tax refund. Given the state of our finances, that cannot come too soon.

In August, the publisher to which I’d sent a science fiction novel I’d written snagged it from their slush pile and sent it on to the editor for “further examination.” Since less than one percent of submissions make it out of the slush pile (the other 99 plus percent are simply rejected), that was certainly good news. I’d been waiting since the beginning of February 2013 to hear from them. Of course now I’ve been waiting additional five months to find out if that “further examination” will result in a contract or a rejection.

Waiting is hard. Dickenson’s point in her poem was that waiting might not be so bad if one knew when the waiting would end. With a tax refund, the IRS and the tax preparation software I use give me a fair idea of when to expect the refund—and I find waiting for something I know is good isn’t as difficult, anyhow. It’s kind of like waiting for Christmas morning. Waiting still isn’t fun, but you know the outcome will be good and you know when to expect the resolution. So, as Dickenson suggests, you can endure that kind of waiting.

But if you’re waiting for something where you don’t know the when—and you don’t know if it will be good news or bad? Well, Dickenson didn’t much care for that sort of experience—and I don’t know anyone else who does.

I could go on about how interminable delay is an ordinary occupational hazard of being an author and how one simply has to get used to it. But being “all ignorant of the length” is not unique to authors. Every human being has to wait unknowingly: the high school senior who has applied to college wondering if she’s been accepted. The job applicant fretting about how his interview went. The politician awaiting election returns.

If you get sued, you wonder when it will end. You wonder whether the outcome will be favorable or unfavorable. When our children were still only with us in foster care, we wondered if we’d be able to adopt them or not. We waited for years—until things finally resolved as we hoped.

If you become ill, you await the outcome of your tests: is it malignant or benign? Can it be treated? How long will that treatment take? It’s all uncertainty on top of uncertainty.

The poet Dickenson merely describes the human condition. She does not provide a solution. Knowing that everyone suffers the “between” just the same is somewhat comforting, I suppose. No one likes to be alone. But waiting, like any kind of suffering, still goads “like the Goblin Bee.”

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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