It would be so much easier if I were thinking “I need to go THERE” and knew where “there” was. Instead, I just know that I don’t belong here.
There is nothing wrong. I remind myself of that every day. There is nothing wrong. I am having strange dreams. I feel at odds. I feel disaffected. The only thing pulling me through each day is routine and ritual.
I’m dismantling my current living situation. I was going to say “my life,” but it’s not my life. First off, it’s too late to dismantle my life. I am what I am, for better or worse, by this point and I’m fine with that. No regrets. With hindsight there are a few things I might have done differently, but then I wouldn't be where I am now. And where am I now?
I wrote a piece once about what “home” means to me. I then wrote two more pieces about “where do I want to live” or maybe it was “where do I want to live when I grow up?”, being a bit too cute about it. It’s something that has been on my mind for a while. The roots might be too deep for me to figure out. Sometimes the over-examined life is not worth living.
But I think it started with the west. When I first saw the American west, I was smitten, and all I could think about was moving out there. That has not happened, for whatever reasons - stasis, circumstance, fear, my love of the east. You name it, I’ve got it. I have ended up traveling all over the west, driving its roads, backroads and cities for decades. Loving its places, soaking up the desert, mountain and ocean breezes, sleeping on its ground, in its weird motels, meeting the people who have settled out there. I love the west.
But it seems as though I can ramble around and fall in love with many different places. I have written about this before (you can buy my book) so I won’t go into it now. What I’m doing now is dismantling my apartment, which feels like I’m taking apart my life. (Mental note: does “apartment” derive from “apart?”).
“I have been here too long.” What an odd statement. Or is it? I find myself thinking that phrase and saying it to myself. It pops into my head. It would be so much easier if I were thinking “I need to go THERE” and knew where “there” was. Instead, I just know that I don’t belong here.
I have felt like an alien in my own neighborhood for a while. It was an abrupt realization a few years back. I watched the new demographic of young, rich people swarming in like an invasive species. I moaned about how they did not belong. Finally, I realized that *I* was the one who did not belong. Such is nature. Every existing order gets usurped eventually.
I’m packing stuff up slowly in preparation for a move, but I don’t know where I’m going. So I’m basically getting ready for *something*. Something, of course, can be anything, which is a scary feeling. I’m taking the “act as if” approach, the “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” approach. Is that a reach? I go about each day with my routine - but I don’t know where it will lead.
You could argue that everyone does this all the time, that we delude ourselves into thinking we know what we’re doing, that we’re in control, somehow. Even those people who are locked into full-time jobs or careers, who have so many stipulations and commitments that they can map out the next 40 years, even THEY don’t really know how they’ll end up. They may think they know. They may be fully engaged with their lives, but they don’t know the future. Still, they can make a cozy nest in the present and coast along until they drop dead. I’m back to mortality, a topic I can’t avoid.
I opened my eyes this morning after another voyage to another universe, with dreams so intense that I was relieved simply to wake up. I was grateful to be in my bedroom and then I remembered the ongoing task of slow-motion packing that has consumed me for weeks. I’m not going anywhere at the moment. I’m just getting ready to go somewhere nebulous at some as-yet-to-be determined time down the road. I woke up and realized that I’m in limbo.
I immediately thought of an old wooden cattle loading platform south of Empire, Nevada, on the road to the lonely Black Rock Desert. It was somewhere on that road from the town of Nixon to Gerlach, and there was actually a sign that said “Limbo,” but it was gone by my next trip up there. It never reappeared. I would look for it each time I drove by. There is a Mount Limbo in Nevada and it tops off at 7238 feet. It’s south of Purgatory Peak, which reaches 7356 feet. I have not been to either one. In person, at least. I have lived in psychic shacks on both summits, of course. I saw that cattle loading platform once. It disappeared, but I have never forgotten it. “Limbo.”
There are many definitions of “Limbo,” but I’ll go to Merriam-Webster’s website because I trust them and have fond memories of the red, hard-bound Webster dictionaries of my youth.
According to them, “Limbo” is:
“An abode of souls that are according to Roman Catholic theology barred from heaven because of not having received Christian baptism.” Phew! That’s a lot of souls. So THAT Limbo, which is capitalized, by the way, is going to be a lively place. Nobody will lack for company in THAT Limbo.
After that, the first definition of Limbo is:
“A place or state of restraint or confinement.”
I could go all metaphoric with this, but I’ll try not to. I have been in a paddy wagon and in a holding cell. I know what it’s like to have a door slam on me and to not have any choice about when it opens. I have also experienced the restraint of my own mind - preconceptions, self-doubt, lassitude and procrastination that I can blame on no one else. That is closer to “limbo” than the jail cell, but it’s not what I think of when I hear the word.
The second definition is:
“A place or state of neglect or oblivion”
NOW we’re talking. It does not apply to my situation now, but there is something evocative about those words. They sing to me. They suggest something grand and final. Neglect! Oblivion! The majesty of complete self-destruction, to paraphrase a playwright I once knew, my friend Harry. He was romanticizing drug addiction, but only as a way to laugh at himself. He was talking about the liberation of saying the grand “fuck it” to life by giving up on everything. I don’t know if I would call that “limbo,” though.
Total self-destruction can lead to limbo, but it’s not a limbo state in itself. When I was engaged in my own form of self-destruction as a young man, you could say I was taking a vacation from life. I almost didn’t come back. Somehow I got lucky. I had already died on the table at the age of 14 and did come back. How many chances do we get in this life? Maybe you only get so many round-trip tickets to limbo.
The third definition is:
“An intermediate or transitional place or state.”
This is closer to what I’m feeling now. After I got divorced, a lifetime ago, I decided to go to a therapist for a while. It seemed like a good idea. After a long silence one session, early on, she gently asked me how I was feeling. I thought for a while and said, “I don’t know.” It surprised me. So it’s a relief to know how I’m feeling now. I have put myself in an intermediate place, a transitional place. I have initiated this, so I should sit with the feelings.
Someone else once told me, during another time of upheaval in my life, “Sometimes, all you can do is sit with the feelings.” That was useful. I can do that. And yet another revelation I had in the 1990s, my decade of awakenings, was that feelings alone would not kill me, no matter how strong they were. They might bend me, but they would not break me.
So I wake up each day and I pack boxes and look at maps and think about stuff. The thinking, of course, is what destroys me the most. I know that I can act as if and I can keep showing up. (I’ll try not to turn this into a laundry list of self-affirmations.) I can trust that the answers will come to me. It’s something like, “Leap and the net will appear.” Or, more to the point, “Pack it up and you’ll figure it out.” I’m getting ready for *something* without knowing what the something is. It’s confusing. For a long time, I felt as though I were stuck. I know what stuck feels like. This is not that. This is rootlessness. This is the opposite of stuck. And it's perfectly appropriate to be anxious right now.
Can the center hold? Where is the center, anyway? Am I falling apart? I don’t think so. And what am I looking for? The search for home never ends. What is behind my itinerant nature? Does it all go back to fear? I don’t know.
I have always liked lonely places. Desolate places. Strange places. Some more than others. Some lonely places are awful and dark, spiritless. Some are sublime, places where humans surely invented the concepts of paradise and transcendence. Some lonely places are filled with people. E.B. White talks about that in “This Is New York,” which opens with, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”
I like people, although you might think otherwise if you hung out with me for a while. I’m always cursing out my fellow travelers on this planet. I seem to focus too much on the cruelty and selfishness that humans can possess. At the same time, I try to hold onto the decent people. This helps me day to day. Still, we all die alone.
We begin life with families, acquire friends along the way, gain and shed people, and lose those we love. We eat, we work, we play, we exist. But we’re all just visitors. We make nests, we dig ruts, we run around screaming. Usually, we settle down. Often, in fact. We become like a brick building, covered in ivy, rooted to the ground. We go about our daily business and then one day we drop dead. We are connected to something as much as one can be connected. If we’re lucky, we get a plaque on a park bench or, even better, people remember us for something good that we did. This may be the only true immortality, and it’s based on human memory, so it’s also fleeting.
Some of us are less rooted. We float around from place to place, for whatever reason. We blow down the road like tumbleweed, also known as “Russian thistle,” I am told. To quote the great Hank Williams, “I can settle down and be doing just fine ’til I hear an old train rolling down the line.”
Wanderlust found me. I didn’t know it was dormant in me until I went on an early trip. Meandering made me feel alive, vital. That being said, I have always meandered from and back to a fixed home base. That’s not the case now. I’m looking to relocate. What a terrible word.
Which brings us to the fourth definition of “limbo” in the venerable Webster’s:
“A state of uncertainty”
My god, is it that simple? Am I this fucked up from a state of uncertainty? I have been in limbo states before, in a couple of particularly toxic relationships that were never clear, but also in jobs that seemed tedious and endless. Trapped in a bad job or a bad relationship or a bad situation of some sort. No way to get out. Unable to escape. In hindsight, it was all self-imposed, but at the time I felt imprisoned.
I want to try out other places. I’m fed up with Greenwich Village. It's not the leaving that makes me anxious. It’s the blindness to what comes next, not knowing the next stop on the train. And some of that is not wanting to commit to a place until I try it out. When I think it through, there's actually no problem. So why are the mental shackles rattling?
I can’t figure it out. I just have to keep packing stuff up. I am certain that there is nothing so important in life as love and art. And if you love your work, that can also give your life meaning, but for me it’s love and art. Why does poetry exist? Why do people follow a religion - aside from superstition - or any other spiritual practice?
Why do some of us fall into the grip of sex, drugs or shopping? Or eating - my god, what’s left after that? Some people find meaning in the pursuit of money. Or in creating families. My only escapes, as always in life, have been reading, bicycling, and talking to friends. Others may travel or become slaves to Instagram. It’s all to avoid that ultimate uncertainty, the big Limbo. I keep packing.
I like my stuff, but where does it get me? Am I on the way to shedding all worldly crap? Hardly. And why would I? It’s hard to toss out your possessions. Half the people I know are tied to a mountain of stuff. Some of them have given up and just let it pile up. When you move, you have to haul it all with you. I see them all over the place, especially at gas stations - next pump over, two pickup trucks and maybe a trailer, a carful of kids, and everybody looks miserable.
We accumulate stuff. It’s hard to let it go, to cut the rope. I'm not throwing everything out now. I’m just packing it away, like dropping ballast from a balloon so I can float around for a while. And maybe that is the freedom I feel when I’m out on the road. All my needs are in the car with me.
I just read what I wrote. I meant to say, “All my stuff is in the car with me,” but I wrote “all my needs.” Maybe the great weight I’m carrying is my needs. Shit. That’s a lot to get rid of.
Not for nothing, as we say in New York City, but I need some stuff in order to survive. Maybe my stuff needs me? Now I sound nuts. And what’s “insanity,” anyway, but a break from the paradigm? Sometimes it’s a permanent break. Psychological limbo. Or the loss of memory, that cruelest of fates. I’m not talking about some liminal state or some temporary crisis. I’m talking about the extinction of what a person once was. And why am I talking about this?
I told my editor I was going to write a piece on limbo and she said, “Limbo is where the unbaptized babies who die go in the Catholic Church. It’s like heaven-lite.” To which I responded, “It’s like hell over-easy.”
I don’t see limbo as a destination, but another state to be endured between different hells, heavens or psychic operating system updates. Another lonely rail siding while the train hurtles to the end of the line. A pause in the endless pursuit of happiness and the illusion of forever. Another gauzy curtain on the window of nothingness. “One door closes and another opens.” People sometimes add “but the hallway is a bitch.” Limbo is the hallway.
I am partly descended from an old, nomadic mountain tribe in Greece, the Vlachs, who spread out over the Balkans, from the Danube to the Pindus Mountains, from Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains down to the Mediterranean Sea. They were shepherds and would tend to their flocks in remote mountain locations for months at a time before coming down to civilization for the winter. The Vlachs had a term for death. They called it “the long road.” Which brings up the question - is the road itself a destination? Or is it some kind of limbo, a transitory place and a temporary state of mind? I like the road.
I ran into an old Japanese guy a long time ago at Miracle Hot Springs, on the Kern River. Miracle was a series of natural pools - now closed by the California Department of Health or some such entity - and the last pool, the one closest to the source, was the hottest. I wanted to slide in, but it was insanely hot. He was lying in there, serene, the only person there. He looked at me. I said something vapid like, “It’s hot,” and he just said, “It’s all in the mind.” And with that I slid in.
There is nothing wrong. I’m just putting some stuff in storage so that I can move around for a bit. I may need to let go of more than just stuff. I may need to let go of some assumptions, ideas and dreams. And maybe it will be in the service of picking up something more interesting. I like being on the road and this is just another kind of road.
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Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and the just-released “Exit Culture.”
oh my Paul, I loved everything about this wonderful piece. I find myself in limbo right now. I know I am in a transition but to what I have no idea. I always seem to shake up my life every ten years or so. it's been at least 30 years since the last big change. but, a change is coming. a decision needs to be made. its the decision part that has me troubled. "time will tell" - another one of those sayings. yes, time will tell. for now, I am going to go back and read your essay one more time.
My mother's greatest wish for me was "to find roots." Hers was a hard childhood of moving before the wolves knocked on the door. Thus, her wish for me. But all I wanted to do was get away. While I can put my finger on some of the issues, your essay here helps me explore others. I love my home and family right now. It's paradise ... for now. But for years, like you, I've had "road trip" or nomadic" on my brain, needling me to get in the Subaru and RUNTHEFUCKAWAY. Yesterday, I read Fran Warner's "Road Trip," and connected again with a nomadic spirit. Writing is now her release while her Subaru awaits in the garage. Am I needing to find a tribe? I think that's what's really in my heart at the moment. For 73 years, I've been trying to find a tribe. Thank you, Paul, for this splendid peek into our psyches.