I was an impatient child. I wanted everything, all the time, right now. Each year before Christmas, my impatience flared into full-blown anxiety, complete with stomach cramps, shallow breathing, and sleepless nights. Once I overheard my mother telling my father, “Christmas is too hard for Erica.” The anticipation was overwhelming for me, to the point of panic.
Waiting is hard. In our hyped-up, stressed-out world, waiting is not something we look forward to. Waiting in line, waiting at the doctor’s office, waiting for a response or a phone call or the right opportunity or the right person – these are associated with frustration, delay, and wasted time.
On Saturday, I had the wonderful experience of co-leading a group of women in an Advent retreat. Held at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Eugene and titled “Waiting With Mary,” we focused on Mary’s last month of pregnancy. We read poetry, listened to sacred music, sat in silent contemplation, wrote, and shared our reflections. We savored the gift of slowing down, of letting ourselves relax, of preparing for the future. We thought about what it must have been like for Mary, alone before the unknown. Many of the women at the retreat expressed deep sympathy for her, a pregnant girl in her early teens riding a donkey across an unfamiliar, dangerous land. Was Mary frightened? Did she have doubts? Did she long for her own mother?
The poems we shared came from For This Day II, a chapbook of Christmas poems written by Nils Peterson, poet, professor emeritus, and Santa Clara County’s first Poet Laureate. One of my favorites is “The Girl Child:”
The Girl Child
In the old pictures,
when the angel comes,
Mary is reading a book.
One sees the turn
of her body towards
that shining presence
and one sees her fingers
linger in the pages
as if to keep
her place among
the sweet longings
of a girl child.
I love how the poem captures the moment when Mary changes from an innocent, ordinary girl to someone an angel has addressed.
The story of Mary barely appears in contemporary poetry. As I scanned the Christmas poems at The Poetry Foundation and The Academy of American Poets websites, I found only a few that mentioned Mary or the Mother of God. Two I particularly enjoyed are “Advent” by Mary Jo Salter and “Advent” by Rae Armantrout.
As my co-leader, the Reverend Christine Marie, stated at the beginning of the retreat, we are in difficult, dangerous times. As women, we are called on to stand up for ourselves and others, here and around the world, who suffer injustices. At the end of the retreat, many of us remarked that we’d had a spiritual experience and felt a strong connection to each other as women.
“Good things come to those who wait,” my mother would say, trying to comfort me in those frantic pre-Christmas days. As a writer, and especially as a poet, I spend a lot of time waiting for just the right word, or the exact phrase. I know these things cannot be rushed. I know that waiting, like boredom, is a necessary part of the creative experience. Knowing this does not make waiting any easier, nor does it completely eliminate the knots of panic I still experience from time to time. But I learned something at the retreat: waiting has its own power and wisdom.
May Advent be such a time for you.
“The Girl Child” used with permission from the author.