I remember when limbo was a party game that involved music and passing under a stick. I miss those days.
Now limbo is a state of existence. It is the constant presence of the weight of waiting for opportunities or information to make decisions about where life will take us. It is the ever-present itch in one’s feet to just meet the road at the door and start walking, to move on, hopefully forward, but even just laterally into a new way of being for a little while in order to see what might yet come. I hate limbo. I hate waiting instead of doing. I hate feeling like I’ve relived the same year three times, and like I’m just waiting for my life to begin.
Famously, Einstein is meant to have commented on how it is illogical to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. But at the same time, when you have worked for years towards a certain goal, it is hard to stop trying and hoping that, well, maybe this time, this application cycle, this attempt at a grant, something might turn out differently. I think it is human nature to keep trying, for better or for worse. And I am no better than my human nature.
Trying is exhausting. Trying and applying over and over again, receiving rejections over and over again can become a heavy weight. I feel it constantly, even as I feel slightly numbed to it. How many times can one repeat the apologetic requests to referees, or let go of the feeling that when it takes so many other people’s efforts for you to try to pursue something, every time it doesn’t work out you’re not just wasting your own time and energy, but that of the people who support you? Academia is, to some people very solitary work, but in the application cycles, we can become acutely aware of how we are dependent on communities large and small, and how we are part of systems and networks though we may often work alone. When I am most tired of limbo, I think it is because I am most aware that the longer I choose this, the longer I hold people with me in this space, the longer I make other people repeat the same years over and over again.
And yet, as I come through this application season again, I have realized that I am not the same person I was when I first started trying, when I first entered this particular limbo. The longer I’ve been in this space, the more able I have become at separating the things I wanted (and still do want), from the things I need. I have had the time to step back and dream new dreams, consider myself as a whole self, instead of just focusing on pursuing the path I imagined. I’ve been able to honor parts of myself that like to make things without feeling like they need to necessarily be “good.” I’ve made concrete things, reclaimed old hobbies I’d neglected. I learned to write for me again, instead of chasing bylines. I’ve learned to help things grow, and learned that when I fail in that endeavor, it is not the end of the world. I’ve let go of the heavy bits, the things that weigh me down. We have five get-out-of-limbo plans, and when we can take action on one of them, well, I’m going to enter that new step in life a different person than I was when I thought I knew exactly what path I was meant to walk. Limbo has been a place and a state of being where I’ve learned a bit of stillness, contentment, and peace in the middle of discomfort and the unknown. I’ve learned that there is a part of me that doesn’t want a life where I am constantly evaluated, constantly weighed and measured: I have plans that take that into account. I’ve learned that there are parts of me that don’t want to charge forward into the great wide world; I have plans for that too. I’ve found boundaries. And in doing this, the past six months especially have let me truly internalize that the things I don’t want matter just as much as the things that I do want.
Is this a touch vague? Perhaps. But does it really matter? There is both a power and a happiness in giving to the world, to other people, only what you want to give, and not what it thinks or they think might be owed. Being in limbo has accidentally been a method of stepping out of what I thought I should be doing, and into what is actually the best for me and my life and my health, and my ability to build fulfilling community. I don’t know what is next, again, for the third autumn of my life (the last fellowship was a welcome change from that), but all the experiences of the last few years, both good and bad, have been their own gift. There was part of me that always felt like if I wasn’t doing everything all the time, if I wasn’t constantly moving forward, I was going to lose momentum. It has been such a wonderful thing to pause and finally really ask myself, momentum towards what, exactly?
There is an American children’s book from the early 1900s by Eliza Orne White whose title I can never quite recall, and in what feels like typical New England story-telling, it is an instructive tale meant to teach its readers three lessons about how to live well. The crux of these lessons are to eat what one is given, to work diligently, and to rest when it is time to rest without complaint. The last six months of repeating the waiting process, the application process, the hurry-up-an-be-patient of it all have felt very much like my own version of that third lesson: to take rest, especially when there is no real choice but to do so. I can’t stop the stress of this situation, or its effects on my body in terms of pain and tension and other effects, but, I can at least learn to recognize these things and their causes and step back when needed. I can either face this moment as my own personal hellish Groundhog Day set up, or I can do things that work for me, and see myself as a whole person even when facing institutions on all sides that never will. And I think, on some level, finally learning that in a way that I apply the lessons of rest and care to myself instead of as things that other people deserve but not me, is going to be one of the most significant things about my 20s and early 30s, even more than the doctorate or anything I might do with it.
Limbo may never be only a game again, but it doesn’t have to be a wasteland either. It can be a period of rest and transformation and ongoing growth. And when it does end (and it does, eventually, end), hopefully, much as been learned about who we want to become on the other side of that leg of the journey.
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