Matt Dickerson: A meditation on waiting
Even fly fishing, which always has been an active sport for me — I can traverse a couple miles of river in a morning of fishing, and even when I’m not migrating along a riverbank I’m constantly on my feet moving my arms — still involves a fair bit of waiting. Sure, there are rare days when my arm gets sore fighting one fish after another, but most often are the days when for every minute I spend landing a fish, I spend 15 or 20 or 30 minutes waiting for one to strike. When I nymph fish, I’m drifting my fly across the bottom of the stream with as little drag as possible waiting for something to take it. Dry fly fishing often involves dropping a little mayfly imitation atop the water and letting it sit perfectly still.
Ice fishing especially — at least the type I practice — is an exercise in waiting. About an hour before dawn, I head out onto the ice and drill my five to 10 holes. Thirty minutes before dawn, when the legal fishing day begins, I rush to get all my rigs in the water: baiting each hook with a live shiner minnow, dropping them down to varying depths, placing my tip-up down in the hole I just drilled, and then setting the spring-loaded flags to alert me if a fish takes the bait. Yet after that busy flurry of activity, it’s just waiting.
Some years I don’t have to wait long. One year, I hadn’t even gotten my third tip-up baited before a four-and-a-half-pound landlocked salmon had sprung the flag on the first one. There are years when I’ve caught my limit by mid-morning. Most years, though, my flags are out all day just to bring in two or three fish. Some years, I don’t even see a flag up until three hours after dawn. One year I didn’t catch a fish until the third day of the season.
As our climate has warmed over the past 50 years, the season for ice has noticeably shortened. On the lake in Maine where my family has spent lots of time, we wait longer each winter for the ice to form. Several years ago, we did two previously unheard-of things: we all dove into the lake on Christmas morning for a quick “swim,” and a year later we took the canoe out on (unfrozen) water on New Year’s Day. This year, however, we are getting a throwback to old days. More than a week before Christmas, the report from the lake is of six inches of hard ice. People are already skating. And this had me thinking not only of getting out on my skates when our family gets together, but of ice fishing (and definitely wanting to use a power auger rather than trying to hand drill a hole.)
It also had me thinking of Advent: in the Christian tradition, an important season that starts four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas morning. The word Advent comes to us from Latin, from a word meaning “arrival” or “coming,” but the season is not so much about arrival as it is about waiting. Christmas is the morning of arrival. Advent is the time of waiting for that arrival — perhaps patiently, or perhaps not so.
On the first Christmas roughly two millennia ago, the long-awaited arrival was a big deal. It was none other than the eternal God himself, the one who created the world, entering into his own creation in order to save it, taking on the form of a helpless infant baby born to a poor refugee family living in a captive nation. The time of waiting was a time of great suffering for many. And it went on for centuries from when the prophets first foretold of a coming savior to the time that — in Christian belief — the waiting ended with the arrival of a baby in a manger.
On a really cold morning, I sometimes experience a small bit of suffering when ice fishing. Some preparation I can do in my gloves, but at some point I need to take the gloves off, grab live bait out of a bucket of ice water, fumble around with cold fingers long enough to hook it, all with an icy wind blowing across me. The reality, though, is that I choose this little “suffering” myself. And here is the real guilty confession: on most mornings, once all my tip-ups are set, I head back into the house for a cup of hot coffee, and I sit in a warm room by a wood stove watching the tip-ups through the window and waiting for a flag to pop up.
Those waiting 2,000 years ago for the long-promised savior of the world had no choice about their suffering, and for many it was far worse than anything I’ve had to endure. I think especially of the suffering of Mary and Joseph, the chosen parents of the savior who had been driven out of their homes by an oppressive government and forced to live as a refugee family who couldn’t find a home to take them in. After living for a time in another city in their own nation of Israel, they eventually fled all the way to Egypt to escape political persecution. I’ve never had to endure anything like that, not even on the coldest ice fishing mornings.
There is, however, one way that the Advent waiting for a special arrival is a bit like my experience fishing. Though waiting may require patience and even stillness, it is not a passive act. Rather — like many modern-day celebrations of Christmas — it is supposed to entail preparation. The Savior entered into the world to bring peace, and also justice for the oppressed, the poor, the stranger, the refugee (which may be why he chose a family living in oppression to be born into). If we want to welcome that arrival, a good place to start our preparation is by practicing the same sort of peace, hospitality and compassion.
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