Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Anne Townsend

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Limbo Central

I live in Limbo Central. Relationships, apartments, jobs, cities, purchases – my mind often swirls alarmingly around the decision. Stay/Go – this is who I am. It’s who I’ve become.

Stuckness can be all-encompassing. Sometimes one needs fewer options. People start their own businesses, they acquire dogs and children, they build houses. These can be ways to root oneself, or they can feel like entrapments. A friend recently suggested that I start a business in Cape Town but I baulk at the thought. Maybe it’s the answer. Or maybe all I can manage at this stage is an online TEFL consultancy that I can take with me on a plane.

Limboland can look like this:

In 1999 I went through a similar period of indecision. I was living on an outlying island in Hong Kong, considering moving home to South Africa. There I was on Lamma Island with my swirling thoughts. Stay/Go. This became particularly pertinent when I went grocery shopping. It was always the toilet paper that alerted me to my predicament. Should I buy one roll, ten, or twenty? Would I be on Lamma for days, weeks, or months?

My fantasies at these times are remarkably predictable: go home, grab toothbrush and passport. Head home. And in that line, I realise, lies my predicament. I often have two homes at any given time: my apartment abroad and what I consider my ‘real’ home in Cape Town. Right now I have only one home and I feel a sense of loss.

India is not happening. The school no longer needs an ESL teacher for the next academic year. I see the mail from Kodaikanal in my inbox, and feel a flutter of alarm. I read the news and watch myself register irritation (that I did so much admin for a job that no longer exists), rejection (surely if they wanted me badly enough they could have reshuffled the staff allocation) and then relief. Unmistakeable relief.

A friend suggests two ways to guage where I’m at. Flip a coin, she says. Check your gut reaction. I laugh out loud at the advice. Hours later I find myself in the lounge flipping a coin. Cape Town heads.  Hong Kong tails. Cape Town wins and my heart soars.

She also suggests that I imagine for a whole day that I’m staying and for another day that I’m leaving. One of my sisters suggested this years ago and I tried it but lacked the focus to stick with one place for an entire day. Did I sabotage the exercise? Again I scoff at the advice. ‘You’re keeping yourself stuck,’ my friend reckons. ‘Everything I suggest, you dismiss. Maybe you’re meant to move around. It’s your colour. It’s who you are.’

This morning I find myself at the Gardens Centre, flicking through the Cape Times. Fifty percent of black youths in the country are unemployed. I want to leave. Maybe I should be teaching at an NGO for unemployed black youths. Then I can stay. The front page is full of crime: cyclists, joggers, hikers, and drivers are all at risk on Table Mountain. Bricks through windows, knives at throats, it never ends. How I long to walk past the Trappist Monastery on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, late at night, alone. Jostling for attention with the local crime is Cairo, my almost home. There it is, chaos and mayhem in Egypt, where I could well be living if I’d followed my usual pattern of act now, think later, and just see what happens. I turned down a very tempting job offer in Cairo less than two months ago.

I ponder the notion of imagining for the whole of today that I’m leaving. Just the thought gives me stomach ache. How can I do this exercise in the place that I might be leaving? Surely it would work better in a neutral space. Even during my two months’ holiday in Cape Town, I was always devestated for the last few days before I returned to Asia. Then back in HK I felt safe, occupied, in the centre of the world, settled. Yet when I left HK in September last year after a ten day holiday, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay on. Just glancing at the travel agent opposite the health shop fills me with trepidation.

How does one tell the difference between fear that is often a healthy, inevitable part of change, and a warning sign that something is wrong, or dangerous, and that one is perhaps overlooking the obvious?

I walk to the stationery shop to buy stamps for a letter to my HK bank. The shop assistant doesn’t return my greeting; he reluctantly serves me, in slow motion. I feel a rush of longing for the slick efficiency of HK. I walk past the the pet shop. Mui Mui, always at the heart of my life. Will she soon be staying with my neighbour Cheryl? Will I miss her? Will she miss me? Cheryl is carless and retired, and has frequent barbeques, far more visitors than I do, and a large ground floor apartment with a huge balcony and a back garden. MM adores her; she dotes on MM. Regularly my dog visits her at night to sit on the sofa and watch Isidingo. When Cheryl has a barbeque, MM cries when she smells the smoke, until I open the door at which she flies down the steps to gatecrash Cheryl’s party. She runs home at midnight reeking of smoke and lamb chops.

I am reminded of the drawn out saga when I shipped MM back to South Africa from HK.  Three months in advance I booked her flight and that gave me ample time to obsess. Would she pass the medical tests she had to undergo before being allowed on the plane? Would she panic in her crate? Would they look after her well during the flight? Would she reach South Africa alive? Would she survive quarantine? Would she pass the medical tests in South Africa? Would she even like Africa? Would people laugh at her in the streets? (As it turned out, yes). Would she be happy in my City Bowl home? For three weeks her crate stood mournfully in the corner of my HK bedroom, and every time I looked at it, my stomach twisted in anguish at the thought of my dog in that small prison in the air. It reminded me of the imminent upheaval and change in my life (and hers) and I wanted to weep.

One day over lunch, a colleague said, ‘You have way too much time to worry about this. If you’d had only one week to get her sorted and on the plane, you wouldn’t have time for all this panic.’

He was spot on, Maybe departures should be sudden. No goodbyes, no lingering.

Sarah Britten wrote a compelling chapter in Should I stay or should I go? To live in or leave South Africa. It was raw, honest and revealing. She wrote what presumably for her, at that time, was the truth. (And I am eternally grateful to writers who have the courage to share with strangers what to them, at any given time, is the truth.)

Her chapter was called ‘How Not to Emigrate’ and the opening line always sends shivers down my spine:

‘We were always going to leave. There was never any question about it. Even before we got married, we agreed that neither of us saw any future for ourselves in South Africa. We’d been optimistic, we’d waved the flag and believed in Madiba Magic, but we could see the writing on the wall – AA appointments only, life behind electric fencing, a gentle but steady spiralling into decay – and we were going to get on that plane as soon as we could. Where it was headed didn’t really matter, so long as we got out.  Emigration became our project.’

They considered Canada, the UK, New Zealand, and eventually, by default, they settled on Australia.

‘Australia, an entire country like Kempton Park, as Denis Beckett once described it.’

You’ll have to read Sarah’s riveting story to get the full drama, but after a trying time in Oz, Sarah is back in Johannesburg and judging by a recent blog entry, still lives in Limboland. I am haunted by the following lines describing her time in Sydney:

‘The first few months were good. When everything is new, it is easy to ignore the loneliness as the sheer momentum of curiosity keeps you going.’

I suspect many global nomads are snagged by exactly that: the addiction to the thrill of the newness of it all, they cunningly plan a life that resembles an emotional rollercoaster of change, movement, weighing up their options and investing all their energy into keeping the momentum going. Just as things get cosy, they start planning how to shift it all to start the whole process again.

Making a decision can be hugely uplifting. Resignation can unleash as much euphoria as accepting a job. Moving into a new apartment can be as energising as saying goodbye to one.

It’s when doubt sets in that Limboland takes over.


images by a townsend ~



Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    March 9th, 2011 @23:56 #

    This rang many bells, given that I wrestled with similar questions on and off through my 30s (for me, it was about career as well: I could be a feminist academic specialising in the Preraphaelites in North America, but not here). There comes a moment, though, when it's too late (too late to uproot elderly parents, too late to make the necessary money, unthinkable to part with cats) that gives a sense of settling tranquility. I hadn't realised to extent to which Limbo robbed me of the capacity for contentment, something I often remember when reading Sarah's honest writing about Limboland. Have you read Joanne Fedler's When Hungry Eat, about her painful translation to Oz? Thought-provoking.

  • Anne Townsend
    Anne Townsend
    October 4th, 2011 @11:25 #

    Helen, I have just finished reading 'When Hungry, eat' and I came on here to quote her views on limbo, not realizing that you had in fact recommended the book!

    She writes: 'Hell is not the worst place. For starters, hell is a location. It has an address. No, the worst place to be is neither here nor there. A limbo. Always looking back. Never fully present in the moment. Frozen between your past and your present.'

    I'm reaching the conclusion that it matters less where we live, than that we unpack and commit and form connections with other people. This global nomad drama, always keeping one's options open, is sapping.


Please register or log in to comment

» View comments as a forum thread and add tags in BOOK Chat