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Tag: Reflections

The pros and cons of a life in limbo

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.

So this is the new year….

It is almost 11pm as I have sat down to write this, on 1 Jan 2022, or, one of the times on the turn of the sun that we call the new year. I felt the urge for a late-night workout about an hour and an half ago, Tom has been fiddling on his guitars through the evening, and we spent the day relaxing, walking, and decorating gingerbread Moomin with a friend after a pretty tame evening watching trivia shows and reading. And I don’t feel any different.

Of course, everything is Different. The Gregorian calendar that dominates global day-to-day life and keeps us all on the same page across cultures, religions, and time zones says it is now 2022, but in all honesty, a part of me keeps writing 2020 or 2019 when I need to manually write the date. January 2021 feels like it was only one month ago. In some ways, I don’t really feel like time has moved at all over the last few years, although I logically know it must have, as too much has happened. More importantly, I know how much I have grown and changed over the last little while, as have those I am close with.

I’ve only realized how much I’ve grown more into myself over the last year or two over the last day. Our New Year’s Eve was a comedy of errors. It started with relaxing and a beautiful walk, deciding to ignore our phones and other people, and really leaning in (blergh) to our last day of both technically being on vacation before work begins again on Monday. We had decided to just spend the evening together, cook something new for a romantic breakfast/brunch the next day, and watch a movie with some takeout. Despite best planning, we had a massive bake-fail for our next-morning showstopper, and three dinner plan fails: the first choice closed early, the second never showed up with the order, the grocery store closed early (which was fair enough) so plan three fell apart, and the Domino’s finally arrived around 10pm. None of this is earth-shattering or a terrible problem, or even necessarily an event worth noting in itself. But what truly hit home last night is that two plan-centric, over-organized, usually-very-stressed-about-logistics people watched things fall apart over and over again, and just laughed and shrugged. Truly, if we are together and we can find something to smile at, it is enough and everything else can float away. After so much uncertainty over the past two years on all fronts, to be so malleable, to let change small and large roll off us, is a gift. And that has somehow minimized the New Year, or at least, made me look at it in a very different way.

I’ve never been a resolution person. Nor dry January, nor Veganuary, nor anything that requires change on someone else’s timetable. While I can understand why some might participate, for me, change has to come when you’re ready for it, not because one of the many overlapping calendars in existence has told you it is time for it. And really, this is only one time of year that I find myself wishing people a happy new year, just within my own cultural sphere. The turn of the year on paper might come now, but it just as easily comes with the rise of spring, or with the harvest seasons of different parts of the world. Each time we acknowledge it, we have the same chance to renew ourselves, renew our sense of self, look forward to what might come with a new outlook. The turning of the year, to me, invites a moment of acknowledging of the unity of the past, present, and future: who we were, who we are, and who we might yet be. Sure, it can be this moment to party, but I think I prefer looking at it as an opportunity to pause, and to breathe.

In many ways, January is simply the middle of the year; I am currently somehow a working academic after all. And beyond that, the Zoroastrian year is far from over, no matter which calendar one might follow. Never mind all the different reckonings of what entails a financial year when your bureaucratic life is currently split across three countries. But nevertheless it is nice to be able to look at change in a positive way; I’m more sure, I’m more confident, I’m ready to know when I need to draw limits around certain behavior and treatment and more importantly I’m willing to enforce those boundaries. I’m less afraid of being on my own; after about a year of learning to be a wife while bored and just waiting for anything to change in life while also being locked in the house with my new husband, I suddenly had to learn to be on my own again. I had to learn who I was, and who I was going to be in my thirties without all the other noise and pressure and expectation and distraction. I took a job and a chance on a new place, but, what I really did was meet myself all over again. And I think I really, really like her. And I think I really like who she might yet become.

I think about becoming a lot for my current work, and about aging, about how it can be viewed as a decline, or a period of loss, or equally, a period to regain things that perhaps were lost with so-called maturity and socialization. I’ve realized that I actually welcome it because I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling just like myself, no matter who I continue to grow into. I also realize I have been lucky in my role models; formidable women who just, continue, just keep living through the passage of years. Because what is a year, anyways, or even several? Just a moment to catch one’s breath before continuing onwards, in the knowledge that we might do this again in just a few months, as another way to mark a new year arrives with the next season.

Beginnings and Endings (and beginnings again)

I remember when I used to be a lot more active, I would go open water or lake swimming or running early in the morning with friends, and I would be so hungry afterwards that I would eat a four egg omelette, pancakes or waffles, bacon, a fruit smoothie, and either orange juice or tea or coffee afterwards. There was this feeling of joyous depletion afterwards, of having worked hard and pushed my limits, and an awe of what a body took to function after that kind of expenditure. That part of my life is over for now, but I felt that hunger again this week – after the successful defense of my dissertation with minor corrections, the culmination of either three years or a lifetime of mental preparation come to fruition.

As an ending, this was a beautiful moment. I had one of the best conversations of my life with two people I greatly respect, while marveling at the amount of interest that people like them might take in the things I find most interesting. I cannot express how grateful I am to my examiners for this, or how much I am still buzzing from it, even as it all blurs together in the following days. It was also a complete turn around from how I felt when I arrived in Cambridge three years ago, very lost and overwhelmed and unsure of what I was going to do. It has been a long road, but in that online meeting room, I could understand how much growth I have experienced, and how much I have found myself on the journey.

My dissertation finished in such a different space than it began, in terms of its topic, the angles, and what I wanted to do with it. I feel very accomplished with what I produced, what I learned that I wanted to say with my experience and my time. And at the same time, my viva showed me how much more there still was to say on these topics, how many more articles I still might write while considering further future directions. But what I am most grateful for is how at the end of almost two hours of talking about it, I realized how much I love what I do – the work of academia in terms of the research, the writing, the deep thinking about everything and tracing all the different little threads as they weave themselves together. It was both exhausting and energizing.

I was expecting to feel like I was walking off the edge of a cliff – a sense of, well, what next? And to be honest, I’m not feeling that way at all. It could be, in part, that the viva is not really the end – just the beginning of the end. There are still the corrections, the approval of those corrections, getting the hardbound copies, and graduating (most likely in absentia for me given the state of the world). And yet, it is also a profound new beginning. In ten days, I’ve got a slightly altered name and I’ve changed titles twice: from Ms. to Mrs. and now, Dr. I’m no longer in that half-existence of apprenticeship; I can hold my own and join these conversations that are much bigger than my own ideas, and continue to learn, but also, help others learn and think about things in new ways. All the open space ahead, all the possibility to come, is exciting.

There is another layer of new beginnings; the hunger to do more, to learn more, and then the hunger of the day after the viva, of realizing the depths to which I had to reach to do this thing, and achieve this goal. And I know this is not sustainable. That feeling of hunger and depletion was a welcome marker of what had been done, and that this has been a long process of hard work, which I have trouble acknowledging. And it was good work, which I also have trouble acknowledging. So the hardest thing as I am resting and starting to feel more relaxed, has been to not let myself jump straight back in, not keep acting like I’m fighting to prove that I am enough on some undefined measure to do what I do with my life and my time. Rest is a hard habit to learn; to let my mind recover so that my body can recover, until I am ready to start again, and this time, learn to work at a different pace. A friend recommended a book called Rest to be read in the time between hand in, and the wedding and the viva, and a few weeks ago I would have thought it was just good advice. Rest in order to work better. But now, it is realizing that rest is about living, having space to live around the work. And if I can use the next few months to learn that around a small handful of already existing projects and deadlines, without adding any (realistically speaking, too many) more, I am going to be set up better for longer in whatever adventure comes next. That’s the other beginning at play here: not finding the next thing, but beginning the next phase of my life the way I mean to go on. There is no cliff edge, no uncertainty, just many potential ways forward. The viva process as a beginning is, for me, truly a beautiful one, even as it means I am on some level saying goodbye to something, or even, someone I used to be.

I am going to hold on to October 2020 as a bunch of beautiful moments. Success and joy, endings and beginnings coming together in ways I could not have imagined even a year ago. Trust me, as I am now a doctor of things fantastic and Disney fairy tale, there is so much more potential to be claimed from life, from things that bring joy and are fulfilling, that deplete us in a good way so we learn how we are strong and might be built back up. We gain from the things that make us hungry, for knowledge, or food, or community, or anything else, because when that hunger is sated again, we will grow from that experience, and most importantly, we learn what it is we crave and what will satiate us. And from there, we can always begin again.