Meditation on Limbo

Limbo is a dance, one I have never been good at. Limbo the dance requires one to be limber–supple and agile, able to bend and balance in ways that life does not, for most of us, often require. Even as a child, when I was at my most flexible, I never liked doing the Limbo, with its awkward backward bending in front of an audience, its requirement to pass beneath a pole without touching it. Now that I am a thickening adult with a constantly stiff back, I am sure that if I were to attempt the dance I’d be eliminated in the first round.

Limbo is also a part of Hell. Although raised Catholic (for the most part), I never gave it much thought until I read Dante’s Inferno. Home to unbaptized infants and virtuous pagans, it seemed the best place I might hope to land, if Dante’s vision of the after life has any basis in reality. I rather liked his architecture of sin and, apart from the bits about unbaptized babies and those who died from suicide, generally agreed with his hierarchy of evil.

Of course, we more commonly use “limbo” to mean a place of transition or uncertainty here on earth, often one in which we feel trapped. (If a person has been in this kind of limbo during the past week, they might have spent more time than is probably healthy wondering if a certain person who departed life has landed in Bolgia 9 or 10 of Hell’s eighth circle.) It can feel like a kind of hell to be in this kind of limbo, and it can require the agility and flexibility a person needs to successfully pass under the limbo stick. I think of the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal, in which his main character is trapped in airport limbo, neither permitted to enter the United States nor return home to his country no longer recognized as a country, and how he adapted to a way of being that feels impossible to most of us.

It’s been a long time since I saw that movie (and I think I slept through a good portion of it) or danced the limbo or read Dante–so these thoughts might be all kinds of gibberish–but I’m claiming “limbo” as my word of the week. It’s been six days since I’ve lived at home, and while I am grateful to have a place with heat and light and water and food, it feels as if I’ve slipped into a deeper circle of pandemic hell, where life is simultaneously both on hold and moving forward, and I don’t know how long it will remain this way. When I packed my little suitcase last Monday, I thought, surely, I would only be gone a few days. I told myself to think of it as a little vacation, a lark, a treat: permission to relax that it is so hard to give myself at home. It was not unlike my initial stance toward Covid shutdown; I optimistically threw a box of brownie mix and supplies for an embroidery project into a bag before closing the door to my dark, frigid house.

Now, after 6 days and four phone conversations with the power company and daily trips back and forth just to make sure that the power is, indeed, still not on, I find myself re-enacting the stages of acceptance I first lived last March. I long to go home at the same time I’m almost feeling as if the life I lived there is slipping away from me. I’m moving from disbelief to acceptance, and my new not-normal is beginning to feel some kind of normal, a transformation I am both resisting and welcoming. We are perverse and adaptable creatures, we humans, whether we want to be or not.

Like the Tom Hanks character, sure I will get to return at some point but with no idea of when, I find myself needing to think (and be) differently today than I did a week ago. The power company has a map that suggests power could be restored today, but yesterday the kind (and understandably weary-sounding) PGE lady I talked to told me that it is an estimate, not a guarantee. Something in her voice and words told me I shouldn’t count on that map. She was sorry, but she really couldn’t tell me when I might be able to return. The estimate map, she told me, was so that I could plan, but she couldn’t promise anything.

“How can I make a plan if I can’t actually know when the power will come back?” I asked.

She said she was sorry she couldn’t help me more. I was, too.

This morning, however, I realize that she has, in fact, helped me develop a new plan, which is only this: To live in the day I am in, and let go of plans with agendas and timelines and notions of home that aren’t serving me well in the place I’ve found myself. As I let this plan settle over me, it occurs to me that maybe I’m not traveling deeper into hell, but into some place that is its opposite. Maybe we all are, those of us who have weathered one event after another that has upset the apple cart of our lives and found ourselves scrambling to gather spilled fruit, grateful to reclaim even those that got bruised in the tumble.

Time will tell.

Who better to teach me how to live in the moment?

7 thoughts on “Meditation on Limbo

  1. Laura Millsaps says:

    The Derecho in Iowa left me with this feeling last August, though at the other end of the weather extreme: the heat and humidity was energy sapping. I was grateful that we had no property damage, but the lack of power left us camping in the four walls of our own house, trying to figure out how to keep on keeping on, when in fact, no one knew when we’d get power back. It was a brutal reminder how much our homes are dependent on the basics (power, water, sewer) to be the comfortable, welcoming places we love. My limbo took the form of incessant fans, sweating, and reading by LED candlelight during sticky, sleepless nights. The return to normal also feels strange, as if you’re reliving a memory. And if I’m being totally honest, there was a strong twinge of regret for the wheels of the world to start spinning again. Yes, I missed the air-conditioning and safely refrigerated food. But in a way I also miss those candlelight book nights. Why do I have to have a power outage to really appreciate them?

    • Rita says:

      Since the pandemic started, I’ve been keenly aware of appreciating the ways in which it has made me slow down and appreciate the slowness. I have thought a lot about how to retain both the slower life and the appreciation as things return to fuller functioning. I want to build a life that looks a lot more like the one I’ve been living the past year.

      That said, I’m over natural disasters. Right after your Derecho, we had the wildfires that trapped us in our homes, which couldn’t fully protect us from the smoke. Now this. I went over to the house today to take care of some things, and it was so bone-deep cold. Much colder inside the walls than out. I used to kind of like power outages for the same reasons you name, but there is no romance in this for me, at all. Just a determination to figure out how to make my home a more secure shelter, knowing in a new way after this year that it’s only a matter of when (not if) until the next time we’re pushed to our limits.

  2. Ani says:

    I had this same feeling last year when my dog needed surgery. I had just balanced out the demands of the pandemic and then boom I got hit with a total life altering circumstance. You’re right, we are adaptable, but when we’ve already adapted, the next adaptation feels harder. I hope your power is back on soon and you can get back to a level of normalcy; pandemic-normalcy.

    It sounds like you’ve come to a very healthy place with everything happening right now. And that is so important. Stay strong!
    Ani recently posted…Fear vs Fear, The Choice is YoursMy Profile

  3. Ally Bean says:

    I don’t remember the movie The Terminal. I’m not much for movies but usually I know of the ones with Tom Hanks. I am slipping, but that’s ok. As for your conclusion “To live in the day I am in” I think that’s brilliant and timely and something we all need to adopt as our default mantra. I’m sorry for your mess, but I am glad you’re hanging in there. Soon, all will be right again
    Ally Bean recently posted…A Thursday In February: Seeing The Sunshine Whilst Not Doing Something I Should Be DoingMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I am not a big Tom Hanks fan. (Really appreciate the human. The movies he makes, generally not so much. Though I will always like Sleepless in Seattle.)

      My degree of hang is in flux. My son is leaving the military and supposed to be home on Thursday. I understand the power company’s inability to give me an estimate that has any correspondence to reality and I also understand why I am low on the priority list, but my equanimity is thinning.

  4. Kate says:

    Sometimes I view this whole pandemic as a bit of a teeter totter and within that realm, I think you might be might teeter totter partner. At least that’s how it seems. At times when I’ve been at my very wits end, you seem to be dealing rather well with all that is flying at you and I appreciate it so much. Because I know you have days where you are the bottom half of that equation too and it reminds me that we’re all just teeter-tottering our way through this mess.

    I hope your power has returned. And if it hasn’t, that it will soon.

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