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In the Waiting Room
In the last year and a half, thanks to various potential threats to my health, I’ve had ample time to consider the particular space of the waiting room. I always set out for a doctor’s appointment with noble resolutions about how I’ll use my time—I plan to read, and grade papers, and start working on a new poem. But as soon as I step through the door of the doctor’s office, sign my name on the check-in sheet and sit down, I freeze. Or, more accurately: I meander. My mind wanders. If there’s a TV, I stare at it. If there’s a tattered Us Weekly, I flip through it. I sit there waiting for my name to be called—for the consultation, or the follow-up, or the diagnostic test, or the “procedure,” or whatever nerve-wracking thing has brought me in that day. I text my friends (despite the “No Cell Phones” signs) and try not to stare at my compatriots in limbo. It doesn’t take long (20 minutes?) before I’m just sitting there, fuming at the lost time and staring into space.
When I’m done, and free of the stagnant atmosphere of the waiting room, or the heightened stillness of the exam room, I find that looking back on that supposedly “lost time” transforms it. With my restless emotions drained away, I’m able to see my time there as a period of singular emptiness, a productive suspension of everyday life. A suspension that, in retrospect, is conducive to poetry. I wrote “Bank Twenty-Five,” for instance, quite a few years ago, after getting an MRI:
It’s something--- Your body, my car Laid down in the tunnel of noise For a reason The white Half- Hour
The speaker (I won’t say “I,” because it’s not exactly right), stripped of all the “stuff” that individuates and distracts her, confronts the floating nature of life, and the whiff of mortality that accompanies it, and has to live with it, at least for that “white/ half-/ hour.” She’s facing the reality of being human, but only because she can’t escape from it in those surroundings, namely the vacuum in which medical intervention occurs. When she’s done, she’ll put on her clothes and reclaim her belongings. Then she’ll walk outside and rejoin the oblivious living.
The speaker of Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” has a famously crucial moment in a doctor’s office, too. When Aunt Consuelo’s voice comes burping up out of her, the young girl tells herself, “you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them.” She looks around at all the adults, all the human beings surrounding her, and sees only body parts, or items of clothing: knees, boots, and “pairs of hands / lying under the lamps.” It’s like a scene from a horror movie. The waiting room was “bright / and too hot. It was sliding / beneath a big black wave, / another, and another.” She’s being carried out to sea on this realization of her oneness with them, those humans. Even as she’s awakening to her self, her I-ness, she’s also awakening to her them-ness, and it is terrible, necessary, and awesome.
But ultimately unsustainable. The parted veil must fall back into place.
Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachussetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.
She’s back in the waiting room, returned to the ordinary world of place names, events, weather and dates. You could read it as a letdown after the exhilarating revelation she’s just had, but I read only relief in those clipped, monotone final lines. The war is on? Great. Get me out of here. Get me “back in it.” I feel nearly euphoric when I let a doctor’s office door close behind me and find the bustling New York City street right where I left it. It’s only later that I return, in writing, to that special isolation I’ve just left; that’s when I realize how deeply it’s stirred me.