Throughout “Waiting,” the narrator frames nature as a destructive force that stirs chaos throughout her life. Nature is responsible for her miscarriages, for her husband’s crops failing, and—in general—for “whipping the rug out from under [them]” so many times in their lives. Amidst all this destructive chaos, the narrator and her husband wait eagerly, though powerlessly, for some kind of order to emerge or for something to go their way. In the end, though, it seems that all they can do is wait. In this way, Cate Kennedy suggests that people are generally powerless over their fates. Tragedy and chaos are always close at hand, and the only way forward is to accept this and try to pick up the pieces.
Cate Kennedy first shows nature’s destructive power in the failure of Pete’s wheat crop. Pete—and many other local farmers—planted wheat earlier in the spring, hoping for good weather. But hoping isn’t enough to make nature cooperate. The spring has been too warm for wheat to thrive, and most neighboring farmers have already given up and fed their failed wheat to their cows. The narrator implies that Pete, too, will give up soon. This is a major loss—the weather is destroying not just the wheat, but also Pete’s livelihood, showing how far-reaching and personal the cruelty of nature can be.
As nature takes its toll on Pete’s wheat, the narrator also sees herself as a victim of nature. She shows this through the metaphors she uses for her miscarriages. For instance, when describing an ultrasound, she compares her body to a “human map” (likening herself to a landmass) and compares her imminent miscarriage to a “cyclone gathering its bleary force offshore.” In this sense, the narrator explicitly sees miscarriage as a destructive natural event that she’s powerless to prevent. She also frequently uses tidal imagery to describe her miscarriages (“an estuarine feeling ebbing away” or “that tide ebbing again”), which implies that she sees them as cyclical and inevitable, like the tides. All of this suggests the narrator’s feeling of powerlessness over nature, which extends to her own body. No matter what she does, she cannot stop nature from destroying her pregnancies, just like it ruins the crops.
While the narrator has no control over chaos and destruction, she can control how she reacts to it. This is the basis of her pragmatism; instead of dwelling on her suffering (or being a “martyr,” as she says), she simply does her best to carry on with her life. In the face of tragedy, she is “just someone who can see what needs doing, and does it.” But pragmatism takes a toll on the narrator. She admits this subtly through her repeated description of feeling like she’s carrying a “shallow bowl of water” in her chest while trying desperately to keep it from tipping. As water is associated with nature, the notion that she’s struggling to keep it from spilling suggests that nature is always on the brink of overwhelming her. She says of the bowl of water that she “ache[s] with holding it steady,” showing how her practical attempts to hold herself together in the face of tragedy are painful and perhaps impossible to sustain.
Pragmatism is how the narrator acts in the face of chaos, but she also carefully describes how she thinks about everything terrible that has happened to her. She articulates this most clearly near the end of the story when she’s describing the “natural course” of her pregnancy (miscarriage) and lamenting that she’s had enough of nature. “I’m waiting for something comprehensible,” she says, “to jump out of this garbled mess and make sense to me.” This moment frames the conflict between herself and nature as a conflict of order and chaos—and importantly, she seems to understand that she cannot create the order she desires, but must instead simply wait to see if it comes.
The “waiting” of the story’s title, then, has two meanings: the narrator is waiting for her ultrasound appointment, but she’s also waiting for something in her life to finally go her way. This insight helps to make sense of the magazine horoscope in the story’s opening line, which tells the narrator that “everything will align” for her at a time when she least expects it. The language of alignment suggests order appearing from chaos—a line emerging from scattered points. But it’s not clear whether this is truly an optimistic message: a horoscope ostensibly predicts the future, but this one insists that the future is impossible to predict. It’s possible to see the horoscope as evidence that things might improve for the narrator—after all, she is currently in a moment where she doesn’t expect things to get better, which the horoscope suggests might mean that alignment is near. However, the overall message of the horoscope is that nobody can force nature to cooperate, and that the narrator has no control over her fate. Order may emerge out of chaos—but all she can do is wait.
Nature, Chaos, and Powerlessness ThemeTracker
Nature, Chaos, and Powerlessness Quotes in Waiting
The horoscope page lying limp in my hands tells me everything will align for me at a time I least expect it, so I flip over to the page that’s about cakes and slices ideal for school lunches, then back again [...]
What is surprising is that people have taken the time to painstakingly fill out the Find-a-Words and grade-four level Celebrity Crosswords, people sitting right here, maybe with a lot preying on their minds, their eyes searching over a grid of letters, forwards, backwards, diagonally, hunting those letters, waiting for a sequence to jump out at them and make sense and turn into a recognisable word.
This careful professional detachment while they’re gazing at the human map of you, the intimate, failed, faltering misstep, in ghostly black and white. White cloud coursing grainily over a black landmass, some cyclone gathering its bleary force offshore.
No nausea. Dull anguish like a bitter taste in my mouth, heart like a shallow dish of water I was desperate not to tip, filling my chest. That estuarine feeling of something ebbing away; those symptoms that had kept me so stupidly hopeful. Evaporating like a rainless cloud.
I’ve watched him out there some mornings, stooping down, looking at the stalks, wondering where the point of non-recovery is, where it comes and what you do once you’ve decided. So this time I spared him. Kept the news of those two blue lines on the test to myself. I look at the calendar and think of him out there on the tractor sowing that wheat, ten weeks ago to the day.
My husband is an undemonstrative man and that gesture, as he fitted his warm arms and legs around me in the narrow bed, made me see how much he understood. I woke up in the night and felt his thumb, as he slept, absently rubbing the skin on my own arm. Oh, it wears us thin, marriage. It knocks the edges off us.
The natural course. Nature’s way. I’m baffled by it, I don’t mind telling you. I’ve had a gutful of it. Carving its erosion gullies through us, whipping the rug out from under us, making us eat its dust. I’m waiting for something comprehensible to jump out of this garbled mess and make sense to me.
He’s making the decision to open the gate into the pasture with its desiccated, knee-high wheat. Can’t stand its hopeful greenness struggling in that parched ground, knowing what three more days of this heat are going to do.
Let it go. Let the cows eat it.
[...] oh, Pete, I know what you need and I can’t give it to you; I can see it in the way you scratch the dog’s tilting head just where he loves it, the thwarted tenderness of that gesture so familiar to me that I feel the heavy dish of water in my chest teeter and almost overbalance, and I ache with holding it steady.