'I'm convinced now that waiting is full of untapped potential. It's a source of unclaimed time'
Special to CBC Radio
I like to think of myself as a calm, even-tempered person. I'm not entirely unflappable, but it usually takes a lot to get me riled up. Recently, however, I've noticed that I'm not as patient as I once was, particularly when it comes to waiting in line.
A couple of months ago, I went to the grocery store to pick up bananas. The self-serve kiosks were out of order, and the shortest checkout line had six people in it. I hesitated for about three seconds, then trudged back to the produce section, returned the bananas to the shelf, and went home.
I learned two things from this. Apparently, I didn't want or need the bananas as much as I had originally thought. And, even more important, I have a very low tolerance for waiting.
I'm convinced now that waiting is full of untapped potential. It's a source of unclaimed time, free for the taking.- Renée Bondy
I console myself with the thought that even the most patient person becomes a bit tense standing in a long line. Let's face it — no one likes to wait. I suppose most of us feel we have much better things to do.
And yet, I wasn't always so disinclined to wait in line.
A few years back, I assigned a reading to my first-year class, a personal essay in which a young woman described the experience of standing in line to register for her university classes in the 1980s. The writer reflected on how she re-considered her choices while waiting, and how other students in the line offered both positive and negative opinions on her course selection.
As discussion of the reading ensued, a student raised her hand and asked, "Why didn't she just register online?"
This question was met with a few snickers, but also with furrowed brows and nods. Why, indeed?
Feeling like a relic from the Natural History Museum, I reminded the students that the article was written in the early 1980s, before people had access to the internet. "There was no 'online'," I explained. "There was just a human line. Before the internet, we waited in line for hours during frosh week — for registration, student cards, financial aid, health insurance … for everything. Sometimes there were barbeques, bands playing, t-shirt giveaways. It was fun!"
The class looked at me with pity.
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And I understood. Though I stood in line to register for my courses in the late 1980s, I can't imagine doing so today. My tolerance for that particular kind of waiting has lessened … and with it my sense of possibility for what can happen in line.
And so, for the past several weeks, I've been trying a little experiment. Though I can eliminate or shorten my wait time by ordering items on-line, opting for curbside delivery of my groceries, buying theatre tickets in advance, or purchasing fast-pass tickets at the amusement park … I am choosing to wait in line.
I've discovered that the supermarket checkout, for instance, offers several off-line pleasures. I scan the magazine display, survey other peoples' purchases as they move along the conveyor belt, and marvel at new chewing gum flavours. Grapefruit-melon — who knew?
Most people are absorbed with their phones, but the old and the very young are eager to make eye contact and exchange a few words. I talk to elderly shoppers and make faces at babies. The other day, a happy toddler chatted me up. "BAH!" she said, and proffered a few sticky raisins from a tiny red box.
I watch the clerks as they interact with customers. The majority are helpful and kind with the elderly; a few are impatient and abrupt. I wonder what it will be like to be eighty, or ninety. Will I remember my PIN? Will I be able to lift my grocery bags? Will anyone respond when I comment on the weather?
Until I started paying more attention to the act of waiting, I'd always thought of the line as a great democratizer. First come, first served, as they say, as though this is the only way to ensure civility. But my recent time in line has made me wonder: in a world where the convenience of being online reduces the need for the human line, who waits?
Let's put it this way. There is still a long and growing line at the local food bank that I pass on my morning walk.
So I have to consider: is my waiting game just another indication of privilege, another self-help strategy devised by someone with too much time on her hands? I hope that's not the case.
Take a moment to wait with purpose ... and appreciate the little details of their surroundings anew – both the mundane and the beautiful.- Renée Bondy
I like to think that my humble experiment could somehow go viral — in an offline sort of way. Perhaps people in waiting rooms and bus shelters will join me and take a moment to wait with purpose, make eye contact with their fellow detainees, and appreciate the little details of their surroundings anew — both the mundane and the beautiful. Perhaps when stuck in rush hour traffic, nods of acknowledgement will be exchanged between drivers, small gestures of solidarity in our shared plight. Perhaps customers will shun the drive-through and walk into Tim Hortons for the sheer pleasure of waiting in line. Perhaps the line will be embraced, rather than shunned, chosen, rather than avoided.
Okay, maybe that's a bit of a stretch. But I'm convinced now that waiting is full of untapped potential. It's a source of unclaimed time, free for the taking. And I can't help but think that, in a very small way, choosing the line, choosing to wait, is one small way not only to become more patient, but also to see and connect with other people and the world around me in fascinating new ways.
Click 'listen' above to hear Renée Bondy's essay.