Monday, September 2, 2013

Limbo Master



Full disclosure: I have never limboed. But I do know a thing or two about being in limbo.

I have often found myself trapped in transition, not knowing what the future holds, desperate for resolution, stuck on a tritone that simply will not resolve. It's the waiting place, the most useless place a human can be, rendered all the more uncomfortable by a hefty dose of anxiety over what's on the other side. Waiting for the test results, waiting for the judge's verdict, waiting for the excrement to hit the ventilator, the other shoe to drop, the phone to ring--it's never pleasant, even when good news may be in the pipeline. When there's a strong chance of bad news, it's far worse.

It doesn't even have to be anticipated news that amps up the angst. When I was nine, I broke my right arm in a ridiculous accident involving a badminton bird, a slide, and a garden hose. My parents put my arm in a makeshift sling (which might have been made from my Cub Scout neckerchief) and rushed me to the emergency room--and then I sat on an examining table for what seemed like forever, while my pediatrician and some other guy talked football just outside the door. I didn't know what they'd tell me or do to me when they came through that door, and I didn't really care. I just wanted this to be over. Armchair psychologists take note: this may be why I've never taken the slightest interest in football prognostication.

That was my earliest memorable brush with limbo, but there were to be many more. The time I got caught cheating on my seventh grade biology test, and Mr. Riggs ripped the page from my desk, then left me to stew for several minutes before finally walking down the hall and coming back with another teacher to witness my paddling; the interval between casting ballots and receiving results when I ran for Master Councilor of my DeMolay chapter; the days I took off from my first semester of college so I could drive my mother and brothers to the hospital, where my father was undergoing a battery of tests to determine whether he'd had a stroke; sitting in the school board meeting room with my lawyer while the board met in closed session to decide whether to ratify the principal's decision to abruptly dismiss me from my first teaching job; sitting numbly at the dining room table after not bringing a newborn baby home, expecting the phone to ring to tell me he was gone; pacing the halls of the retreat center while the Board of Ordained Ministry decided whether to approve my application for elder's orders; trying not to dwell on the growing collapse of each of my marriages; waiting for decisions on custody studies--yes, I know this drill all too well.

There's a queasiness to this kind of waiting, an intuitive sense of impending doom, a growing inability to concentrate on anything but the direst conclusion to the crisis, the brainstorm of figuring out what life will look like in the aftermath, the appeals by others to just have something to eat, something to drink, "Are you all right?" Expressions of concern fall on deaf or, even worse, hyper-sensitive ears, triggering frustrated, even angry rejections. I don't want to eat or drink or watch TV or read the paper or do anything but just please God finally hear the news, because dwelling in limbo I'm in more agony than I could ever be from any result, however disappointing it might be.

That's the irony of this kind of anxiety: I know, profoundly, that I will survive the news. I will be initially shattered by it, and it will feel for a time like my world is coming to an end, but quickly, sometimes even instantly, I will begin picking up the shards of hope, reassembling them, figuring out how to move on, rebuild, or head off in a completely new direction. It is not, after all, the end of the world for me, though it may be the end of a stage of my life. I can survive any news. I am, after all, still here, despite the mountains of bad news I've had in the past.

So why the anxiety? Clearly it's something cognitive, something I do to myself, some inner choice I make not to be at peace with limbo, even though I know I will ultimately be at peace with the news I await so anxiously. I expect some of it comes from the mountain of bad results I've had, next to the molehill of good news. Even as I write that, I know it's not enough of an explanation, because it leaves out the phenomenon at the center of the experience: desire.

Whenever I am in limbo, I am wanting a particular result, wanting it intensely, with every fiber of my being. (True, there are times when I'm dreading something, but at those times there's still an alternative outcome I would much rather have.) I want it so much that not having it is eating me up, consuming my appetite for anything but that outcome. I want to win this election, want to get this job, want to hear that my parent or partner or child is going to be all right, want to know that my spouse and I are turning a corner and will overcome this conflict, want more than anything else for the waiting to be over so I can get to work on my new equilibrium. I want it so much that the not having is physically painful, a hole in my gut that only gets bigger when I try to feed it with food and drink.

In Buddhist philosophy, this wanting is called attachment, and it is the source of all human suffering. This is tricky, because in Western thought, we associate attachment with romance, eros, and while we're aware of its pitfalls, we generally consider it a positive thing. But attachment can also be defined as coveting, wanting someone or something to the point of acting abominably to get it, not caring after a time how many people are hurt or even killed in our quest to satisfy that hunger. This is, I believe, the root of human anxiety, the cause of the waiting sickness, the limbo-induced insanity that is so hard to overcome. If only we could take a positivist approach to the events in our lives, treat them in isolation from our desires, as simple happenings that will lead us to take actions, rather than investing so much of our souls in outcomes, we could avert suffering on a global scale.

That's the ideal I aspire to, cleansing attachment from my nature, and I am occasionally successful at it. The tattoo on my shoulder of the Chinese character An says it all: peace, tranquility, tao, just being utterly present in the moment, living it fully and completely and without any contamination by the undecipherable future. Once I've done all I can to achieve the outcome I desire, it's in everyone's best interests for me to step back and just be.

I'm in a temporary limbo now that could be extremely frustrating, even though I know what the eventual outcome will be. A week ago, I reported to Banks for the first day of inservice, still unsure what the result was going to be from my last-minute interviews in the Reynolds School District. One thing holding this up was a reference by one of the two principals I'd been working under, and I was able, just before school, to get her to make the phone call. And then I waited. For four hours. I knew the principal making the decision in Reynolds was, herself, leading an inservice that morning (one I'd hoped to report to), and had to consult with another principal prior to making the final call. I also knew that two other candidates had been interviews the day before, along with me. And I'd had four years of disappointing results from interviews, of never quite making the final cut. So I sat through presentations about the future of the district, healthcare plans, and other things that have already slipped away from my memory as no longer relevant. And then it was lunchtime.

I'd kept my phone in my hand all morning (ringer off, of course), hoping to have cause to quietly rush out of the cafeteria where we were meeting and take the call; but now, as I finally decided I'd better eat something, put together a sandwich, chips, potato salad, and cookies, then ate everything on my plate while telling whoever was sitting at the table with me how anxious I was and why, I began to finally let go of the attachment to that phone call--and was startled by the vibration as it finally came. I leapt from the table, hurrying across the room and answering the phone, breathless, to receive the result I'd hope for, but had talked myself out of ever getting: fulltime elementary music education.

I was over the moon. Rarely have I experienced the degree of joy I was feeling in that moment. After four years of getting by, making day, cobbling together an income from part-time and free-lance work, I was finally being hired to do the work I believe I am called to and have, in good faith of someday being again employed to do, earned full certification in. I went around the room delivering my good news to anyone I'd told about my anxiety, including the superintendent whose good reference may have sealed the deal.

And then he told me about sixty days.

I knew there was going to be some inconvenience for Banks. I'd had some worries that the timeline of such a late hire might cause me some contract issues, but had set them aside knowing I was being encouraged to find this work by the very superintendent who was now reminding me of the sixty day notice rule: for sixty days after my resignation, or until Banks finds a replacement, whichever comes first, I am still under contract, and must report to teach at the high school every other day.

A different anxiety flooded me now, that I would not be able to take this new job after all, but talking with my new principal allayed that fear: Reynolds knew it was creating a mess, hiring so late in the cycle, and was prepared to have me whenever it could. If that just means every other day until Banks finds a new band director, so be it.

So that's where I am now. I want very much to be fully in my new position, to say my goodbyes once and for all and move on. I want not to be dividing my attention, figuring out what to teach students who will ultimately have a different teacher with different priorities. And those goodbyes--oh, those goodbyes...

One of the hardest limbos for me to be in is the interval before someone drives away or gets on a plane. When my kids are here for a visit, or when I'm in Idaho Falls visiting them, the last day of the visit chews me up inside. I find the anticipation of goodbye slowly breaking my heart, and I have all the usual limbo symptoms: loss of appetite, inability to focus on anything but the impending departure. It's anticipatory grief. It's attachment. I know when I finally turn away from the departing loved one that I'll have a few moments of mistiness, and then I'll say, "Right! On on!" and move back into life without them.

The same thing happens to me as I'm nearing the end of my time at a school. I do get attached to students, and no matter what Buddha says, I think it's a good thing. My empathy and compassion are enhanced by it, as is my motivation to build human relationships with these children, to model for them what it's like to have an adult care for them in appropriate ways. Getting involved means that, when it's over, I will feel some heartbreak. Being in this interim means both my students and I will be aware of the impending change to a new teacher, but will not know when to expect it. I could be teaching on a Wednesday, planning for Friday, then find out after school that I won't need to do that, and there will go my final goodbye to students I've known for six years.

It's not exactly being caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, and it's certainly not that place between heaven and hell from which limbo gets its name. Banks has, for the most part, been a good place for me to teach; Reynolds, for all the good things I anticipate happening there, is a great unknown. I don't know what to expect of either situation. But I do know this: as with every other limbo I have found myself in, this will pass, and I will emerge to face my new life, no longer stuck in the middle.

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