Joy in waiting Seasonal thinkers wanted to save an endangered species

Three seemingly random events have happened to me in the past couple of months:

  1. I had to write a letter to my 88 year old uncle who doesn’t use computers.
  2. I’ve started doing watercolour again for the first time since high-school.
  3. My garden cried out to be freed from weeds before the winter set in.

While these 3 events seem completely unrelated, they’ve brought to my attention how impatient I’ve become and I’m forced to reflect, as any designer would, on why this is happening – is it just me or is it a more common issue permeating our culture and values?

I see it on the commute to work every day; trains run 2-3 minutes apart during peak hour and yet there’s always at least 2 people who make a dive for the closing carriage doors in the hope that they don’t have to wait another 120 seconds for the next one. Those that are lucky enough to make it aboard are huffing and puffing; one lady has broken her high heel, another needs to take a shot of her asthma medication and a sip of water. A gentleman has saturated his business attire with sweat. He needs to pull a handkerchief from his pocket to try and mop up the saturation so that his colleagues don’t talk about him behind his back at work; the fear of being known as “the sweaty guy” instead of the “the punctual one” when he gets to work at 8:59am instead of 9:02am is just too much to bear.

Out of context this sort of behaviour seems ridiculous but I’m sure that most of us have done it. If not the dash for the train, then the exasperated sigh when an email takes more than 10 seconds to send, or the zig and zag down a footpath to try to get passed the old lady whose trudging her way forward, step by excruciatingly slow step behind her own walking frame. It leads me to think – were we always like this or is our society the first to think that waiting 30 seconds for anything was this inconvenient?

It’s generally agreed that technology can’t keep up with our expectations. Our expectations of when things should happen are… well, right now. We often use phrases like, “We can put man on the moon but we can’t get WiFi to work 1-hour away from the CBD,” and whilst technology isn’t meeting our expectations, it’s doing a pretty good job of setting them. I often receive calls from clients who, 2 minutes after pressing the ‘send’ button on their emails, decide to call me on the phone to make sure I got their email and to tell me how beneficial it would be if I could respond to it ASAP. We seem to be suffering from a kind of anxiety associated with silence – if there’s no immediate feedback from our actions then something must clearly be wrong.

It’s easy to talk about impatience in the context of work because, like it or not, time is money. What’s ironic is that time must’ve been far less valuable just 20 years ago when email, nay fax, was not yet being used widely and regular post was the best we could manage. What on earth did people do while they were ‘waiting for confirmation’ of a design concept or better yet, waiting for a designer to put together a mock-up that probably took about 4 weeks. Over recent months my 3 separate experiences that are not related to work have taught me some very valuable lessons in what I now like to call it – “Veruca Salt syndrome”.

For members of my generation who grew up with Roal Dahl’s wonderful story, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, they’ll know the young Veruca Salt character well. Veruca was a spoiled child whose father was a factory owner and gave her everything she desired for fear of a tantrum. Today, her catch phrase, “But I want it nooow!” rings in my ears more often than it ever has as digital technology continues to set our expectations of how quickly things should happen and how completely inconvenient it is when we have to wait for anything. The three recent examples of my own impatience have, without question, emphasised this phenomenon to me more dramatically that I could ever have imagined.

My wife and I recently booked a holiday to Scotland. My grandma often told me of her many years she spent in Orkney, off the north coast of the Scottish mainland, and how magical the time was there for her. She spoke of the war, Scapa Flow and the Pentland Firth and how she was almost shot by passing planes whilst carrying milk home from the village centre. My Grandma passed away a few years ago and so in order to find out more about her family’s life there I decided to contact my oldest direct relative, my 88-year old ‘grand-uncle,’ her brother.

The most obvious place to start was to ask my parents how I could contact Uncle Terry. They laughed and responded, “Email? You’ll have to write to him, we only have his home address but he loves receiving letters.”

A letter? I don’t think I had ever written a personal letter to a family member before. A postcard, yes, that was easy, “Having a great time… wish you were here… we chose this card because it has a photo of a walrus that we saw yesterday on it. See ya soon. Hugs and Kisses”. But a letter? What do I say? I hardly know him. How long should it be? Is it rude to type it? I don’t want to start writing it and then make a mistake and then have to cross whole sentences and paragraphs out. Even if I did write it how long would it take for him to reply? Maybe I won’t even hear back from him at all? How will I know they got it?  The anxiety loop I found myself in was enough for me to put it off for 6 months.

When I finally got around to writing it, I asked my mum for help on where to start. The guiding word from her was, “Just tell them how the family is.” My immediate reaction was, “Isn’t that boring to most people?” Apparently not. I wrote a 3-page letter to my Uncle telling him about my wedding, my parents, my brother, my sister and what they’ve all been doing. I went through the arduous process of selecting photos to send to him. I went to the photo store to have them printed. I wrote a little description of each one and listed the names of the people who were photographed on the back of them so they knew who was who – the whole process took about a week. What’s this got to do with impatience? Well, despite all of the running around I had to do, when I popped it in the post the sense of anticipation was astounding! What will happen? Will he get it? Will he write back? Will I get photos I’ve never seen before of my family in Orkney? Will I be introduced to some old friends of theirs? It feels a bit like Christmas – and it’s a feeling I no longer get with email or digital communication… ever. If it were email, my feelings would be of growing frustration for every day I didn’t receive a reply. I have no way of controlling or knowing what the outcome will be and quite frankly, it’s overwhelmingly exciting.

My second experience was my recent reintroduction in to watercolour – the first time I’ve picked up a brush since high school. The medium is such a joy to work with. The physical relationship between brush, pigment, water and paper and the varying degrees of wet and dry, light and dark, activates a part of my brain that designing for digital interfaces doesn’t come close to. As beautiful as my first night with brush-in-hand was, I didn’t realise it until a few days afterwards. It took  3 seconds (about 4 quick strokes) to lay down my first wash since 2001, a strong mix of French ultramarine on the saturated 320gsm paper. As the physical nature of watercolour dictates I could no longer touch it until it was completely dry and this takes anywhere between 20-60 minutes. What was I supposed to do now? I had all my art supplies out, I had set up the work area, pigment and water were all over the place and it was 10pm – I had to work tomorrow. I paced back and forth anxiously. I considered turning on the house heating to speed up the process. I found it very difficult to concentrate on any other activity like cooking or ironing, I just wanted the wash to dry so I could see how it turned out and so I could continue painting.

About 5 minutes later I found myself with a brush in one hand and a hair dryer in the other using the gift of electricity to speed up the process. I also found a moment of clarity where I recognised in myself a complete absence of patience. What was the rush? Could I not just rinse the brush, have a good night’s sleep and continue with a dry canvas in the morning or after work the next day? Did I really need to see it now? With watercolour, the feedback you get from it is in the drying process. Some artists say, “watercolour will always a better painter than you are” because the subtleties of the brush strokes only emerge as the pigment dries and fastens to the paper. While this may be true, my problem was that I’m used to having Photoshop “dry” instantly. I can work in layers and save, re-save, undo mistakes and continue. Watercolour is a much harsher critic and has obviously uncovered a personality trai in me (or is it a habit of expectation?) that I wasn’t aware existed.

Lastly, like watercolour, gardening also provides feedback over (what is now considered to be) a long period of time. My dad has a green thumb. He grows his own vegetables and has raised his own chickens. Every season his garden looks picture-perfect and so it’s no surprise that I enjoy the process in my own home too. Well, at least I do now. The first few years after I moved out felt like a constant battle; if in 2 months the basil plant wasn’t double the size then I’d just rip it out and try something else because it obviously wasn’t going to grow. The lesson I learned from my Dad is that with the garden, you need to think in seasons. He plants a plant not for this winter and not the next winter but for a winter 3 years in to the future. Once planted, the process becomes one of nurturing through water and fertiliser and sun – there is no ‘rapid’ iteration. If there is too much sun (or vice versa) a plant tells you in 3-4 days and you need to correct it. It is the same with water, mulch and soil-health. The time-scale of the natural world is what it is. To be happy with it, you have to walk at the pace it chooses rather than pulling it kicking and screaming at a pace that it’s not comfortable with.

Letter-writing, water colour and gardening all have one thing in common – to have the appropriate feedback, to gain a sense of achievement, to reach the goal, it takes much longer than digital technology has trained us to wait. The physicality of communicating by printed word or of using the process of drying water to create art is such that we have to let it lead for once. If you want a beautifully crafted painting, you must wait for the water colour to dry; only then can you make an informed decision about your next choice of colour, level of saturation and brush type. If you want a blossoming garden next spring, the reality is you can’t have it… maybe you can try for the following spring instead. If you want to communicate with a relative overseas without the use of digital technology, well, your words need to travel 1200kms by boat or by air and back again. All this juxtaposes our day-to-day interactions with each other through digital technology. I can transfer bank funds from one account to another in the 5 minutes before I leave the house and have those funds available at the swipe of a card at almost any point of sale – except, of course, for those really inconvenient and despicable shopfronts who don’t yet have EFTPOS facilities, right?

What I’ve been finding as I continue to observe our behaviour in public space is that we’re simply becoming far less patient and, as a result, more irate when the world doesn’t behave according to our expectations. We’re becoming a nation of angry people who can’t get ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is) fast enough. The question I’d love to have the answer for is when will it be fast enough? Technology is 100 times faster than it was 10 years ago and it’s still not fast enough. In 10 years’ time, it’ll probably be 1000 times faster than it was today but our expectation is, no doubt, that it should be 1500 times faster. It’s inevitable that it will never match our expectations and as such, leads me to ask – what can we do about it? The most obvious answer, as I’ve realised in these past months, is to find joy in the waiting, to give yourself permission to be patient.

It sounds like a novel concept – joy in waiting. When I said this to my wife and a couple of colleagues it was scoffed at like I was joking or I was reading too many Jane Austen novels and my perception of modern-day reality was severely skewed. But, as is often the case with solving a difficult problem, the solution sometimes lies in the opposite, the unexpected. Either find joy in waiting or continue chasing a goal-post that’s always going to be just out of reach. Before writing that letter to my uncle my barriers to writing had a strong negative-bias. However, after putting the letter in the post those exact same barriers turned to hopeful expectation and childish giddiness; from thinking about the possibility of not receiving a response to an expectation of receiving a surprising or delightful one. It’s the same with watercolour. Watching the subtle variations of line and colour form in front of my eyes was (and is) a joyous experience – even if it turns out to be completely different to what I set out to achieve. I get a joy from waiting for the garden to respond to the new layer of fertiliser or organic matter I’ve laid down for it – sure the results don’t manifest themselves immediately but when I notice that first bud or see that first sprout of a leaf it’s a feeling that I just don’t get from any other experience – especially the digital world.

Waiting promotes the feeling of anticipation like nothing else. It’s a feeling that is so strongly linked with moments in my childhood also. My mum used lay-by religiously for our Christmas presents and we’d know that just over the other side of the lay-by counter lay a wealth of goodies that were put away in July. Come Christmas time, we’ll be the happiest kids on earth. When Christmas finally did roll around, the joy of unwrapping and playing with those presents after waiting so long was second-to-none. As adults we seem to lose that feeling of pleasure. Waiting becomes inconvenient, inconvenience leads to frustration, frustration to anger and all of a sudden the blood pressure is through the roof and we’re taking multiple pills a day to try and curb it. No one says, “Have you tried finding joy in waiting” or “I give you permission to be patient.”

I’ll be the first to admit that these thoughts sound somewhat idealistic. That joy in waiting doesn’t always apply in the context of work when there are deadlines and nagging clients. There’s no time to be patient when you need to be in the office at 6am for a conference call with a colleague in England and then you want to rush home for dinner to be with your 3-year-old child for 10 minutes before he’s put to bed by the nanny at 7:30pm on the dot. But, while it may seem impractical in some instances, what I’ve found is that there are moments in the day where you’re actually allowed to wait and I’ve begun to relish the opportunity – not to mention, have started to find more of them. The morning turnstile crush at South Yarra train station is a perfect example.

I used to jam my way in to the hordes of people because I was trying to get to work like everyone else – just like most people do at 8:45am on a weekday inner-city train station. The reality is that we will all get through those turnstiles eventually, and often within 30 seconds. I’ve had to actively train myself to switch to a mode of patience and ‘acceptance’ and it wasn’t easy – it too takes time. Standing patiently in the throng has given me the opportunity to notice things like the young school boy who helped the old lady through the crowd, or the pregnant woman frantically trying to access her train ticket from a backpack pocket that she couldn’t quite reach only to be helped by a young guy in a suit as he swiped her through the barriers using his own ticket.

When you accept waiting, you notice things that make life that little bit more special, interesting and inspirational. The more often you do it, you don’t just notice those things, you actively look for them. It has the potential to heighten the feeling of anticipation you feel and breed an expectation of positivity. It melts away the cynicism that we get bombarded with through mainstream news and media channels. We live in a fascinating time with never-before-seen speed. It’s easy to get caught up with the goal of ‘getting somewhere’ but the reality is we all end up in the same place eventually so why not take a step back and enjoy the wait.

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