Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Shitting Here in Limbo

Ever since I started applying to graduate schools last December, I’ve been unable to write. That would probably be okay if I weren’t going to graduate school in August for writing. It’s a bad case of shit-or-get-off-the-pot—otherwise known as limbo—and I’m scared.

Maybe I don’t really want to write.
Maybe I’m already starting to buckle from performance anxiety, and school will trigger permanent stage fright. (Pagefright?)
Or when I do write, it’ll just be an endless loop of typing a few words and watching the cursor moonwalk over them, as I try again, over and over, until all I’m doing is typing gibberish, like those monkeys randomly pounding away on typewriters. And when I finally come up with a Shakespearean sonnet, I’ll delete that, too.

So that’s my take on Limbo, version 1—a place of restraint and confinement, where I’m the one confining myself with this boringass selective writer’s block, plugging up the spout that lets the words come out. And guess what? It’s just a drop in the bigger bucket of Limbo, v. 2, an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution, or an intermediate state or condition. As August nears, I’m in this interim space between the person I am now and the person I’ll be when this thing I think I fear finally gets going. A second you looking at the first you, imagining a third you. And I imagine this: My fellow classmates, too legit to quit, typing away and working on stuff to bring to the first class, and then me, this hack who somehow squirmed her way in, polishing up her Lifetyme-y histrionics and Hallmark one-liners.

Limbo lower now.

I probably first encountered limbo via Chubby Checker and “Limbo Rock,” with its simple, limpy melody and kid-friendly lyrics about the mildly uncomfortable party game in which dancers move under a pole, held by two people, that starts at chest level and is gradually lowered. I remember doing the limbo in grade school, but no one ever tells you how to do it, that you need to bend your knees, take wide steps and gradually bend your back, or you’ll lose your balance. So we all winged it, most of us outright cheating by ducking under instead of chest-up, making for an unsatisfying game that lasted just a few rounds. As such we had no idea how low we could go, especially considering the world’s record for the lowest limbo dance is 8.5 inches.

Could the Hoff pull out a win with 8 inches?

It took me several views to see that he’s shortchanging us here, and to fully unpack why the heck this stupid video infuriates me so much. It may look like he’s totally chill and has all the answers, with all that hammock-hanging going on, but dive deeper—isn’t this whole thing just a classic case of the denials? Like, hey, shit just got real, and suddenly he needs a nap. In fact, he tries to avoid limbo so much that by the end of the video, when you figure, finally he’s gonna get up offa that hammock and spread those legs, he opts instead to plunge slo-mo, feet-first into the deep end. He assures us that everybody gets the chance—but what about you, Hoff?! I was watching, waiting. You never did the limbo dance.

And just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, here comes a fly-sized Hoff in that white suit, buzzing around my ear and whispering, “I know you… go ahead, just watch that third episode of Beat Bobby Flay, because, hey, your brain is pretty much like Cheez Whiz by now, may as well just get up early and try to write tomorrow… “

Clap your hands, it's party time
Do the limbo dance

And that’s the irony, isn’t it? Because we think of limbo as this place we don’t want to be, or a state we will be, but aren’t yet, moving out of or into. While in actuality we’re in it all the time.

Think about it: When are you not in between two states, two waits? There are teeny-tiny limbos, like standing on line at the supermarket. Riding the subway to work. And bigger, serious ones, like waiting to hear if you got the job, or if someone you love has cancer. And ones we move through every day, like waking up, taking a shower. A scrubadub space between the silent you of your subconscious world—what can you wash away today?—and the you in-the-world.

Sitting in limbo is our natural and normal state of being. A meta person-puddle between earth and sky into which is forever falling more drippy, slippy blips of limbo-ness. And we had better get used to it.

“Sitting here in limbo
Waiting for the tide to flow
Sitting here in limbo
Knowing that I have to go”

Jimmy Cliff wrote this song after the death of his mentor and producer, Leslie Kong. Kong had been with Cliff at the start of his career at 14, and was always pushing Cliff to experiment and try new things—a mother bird nudging her baby to that sacred take-off. He got the idea for the song way before Kong’s death. In Cliff’s own words, on page 136 of Reggae Roots: The Story of Jamaican Music: “The feeling of limbo was from Jamaica. It was 1970 before ‘Harder They Come.’ It was at that time I felt that feeling. I’d been in England four years and come back to Jamaica, not making it in England. Like I leave to make it and come back to Jamaica and find I’d lost the popularity I had. People even start thinking I’m a foreigner. It’s a crying out song. You are in an environment you can hardly…”

Are you shitting me, Google Books? Page 137 is not part of the preview.

Doesn’t matter, my feet will have to tell me the rest of the story. So here I go, Hoff—I dance it, I dance it, this song born of a limbo within a limbo. At first, I barely move—there is not enough air to go anywhere. Cliff’s voice, dawn-tender, lets me know this is an at-risk place, but not a frozen one.  A sway, a shoulder roll, side-to-side because there’s no way up with all that hanging over me. And the ears in my feet start to notice the drums, the kind of drums with flat, round beats like stones thrown in hopes they’ll skip along the surface of a lake dark and deep. They pulse like an erratic heartbeat and I take tentative steps. Lift a heel, put it down.

And YES, the kicker at 40 seconds in. I’m pretty sure it’s some kind of drum but not your average one, and every time I hear it, I’m no longer in one place, allasudden moving through space, step-step-tap-brush-whoa, off the ground. Air enough for a tiny flight, travel ban off. And the horns, every once in awhile doing a “ha ha, made ya look!,” because hey, this is more like it. It may not be a party quite yet, but things are looking up here in limbo.

I know what it feels to be a baby
bird, wings sunward,
little head tingling
where feathers will grow,

Oh yeah, I think we all want to get to that place where we’re flying. But there’s that little matter of the elephant in the room…The good ol’ Catholic concept of limbo, from the Latin limbus, or edge—a place right next door to hell for those who died in original sin. And it’s not just one limbo, but two. One for infants who have not been baptized but are too young to have sinned, and one for the “patriarchs of the old Testament,” destined to wait in perpetuity. That is, until Jesus came to spring them.

I smell a limbo rat.

Do you really think God would leave a bunch of little babies unattended? That’s some seriously effed-up crime in real life as it is. I’m not sure if the patriarchs could go over and visit the infants and vice versa, but by title alone it sounds like women weren’t allowed admittance into the Limbo of the Patriarchs, so those babies had no chance of maternal nurturing.

Turns out the word limbo was never mentioned in the Bible, and the whole idea of a ginormous baby-man waiting room was actually developed by Catholic theologians in medieval Europe. Maybe something to keep people from ditching the ranks and forking over those indulgences? It took until 2007 for the Church to give, when Pope John Paul II commissioned a document stating that “there are strong grounds for hope” that God will save the babies in limbo. So yeah, even limbo is in limbo.

But what if it’s bigger and wilder and wackier than that, with a better address than a few doors down the road from hell? What if we turn the definition on its head and make it, like, do the windmill? What if Catholicism is actually hosting the Grand Prix of limbo-ing, and only a few elite even make it to the starting gate?

That would include Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian-American religious sister who was canonized on July 7, 1946. I first visited the Cabrini Shrine in Washington Heights this past Christmas Eve, to hear my friends sing carols. I walk in to the chapel, and my eyes go straight up to the ceiling. The walls are tiled white and gold, with mosaics featuring events in Mother Cabrini’s life, everything gleaming, upstreaming. I think that’s how churches are designed, with all the energy pushing skyward. Like if a building could be shaped like a sound, this would be the highest note, played by the shiniest horn. Sort of the feeling you have at an airport terminal, when you’re waiting for your flight and looking at the sky. Which I guess, is kinda what you’re doing in your spiritual life, too. So finally I touch down gently, and I look at the altar, and I see my friends.

I also see the body of a nun encased in a big glass coffin at the front of the church. I was freaked out for all of one second, then I thought maybe one of the sisters who taught at the adjacent high school had just died, and they had to multi-task during Christmas Eve mass to get the casket ready for a funeral service. But why isn’t anyone else staring at it? And why do I have this tingly wish to jump up and float around the mosaics, like we’re in some bounce house at Chuck E. Cheese's?

Oh riiigghhhhttt. Because this is the Mother Cabrini Shrine, and so that has to be Mother Cabrini. And she definitely didn’t pass away on Wednesday. I’m not the sharpest tack in the Catholic box, but I eventually work the major stuff out.

“It’s the body of the first American saint!” my singing friend told me as he took my arm and escorted me out of the church when the program was over. “It’s so powerful! You see this in churches in Europe all the time, but in America, not so much.”

That night I went home and Googled Mother Cabrini. She died in Chicago on December 22, 1917. When I told my sisters about it the next day as we went through our Christmas stockings, they knew exactly what was up. 

“Incorruptible,” Barbara said. It’s the Roman Catholic belief that the bodies of some saints, because they’re so holy, undergo little or no decomposition. (And P.S. I love you, Mother Cabrini, but you’re just a baby compared to say, Saint Zita, who died in 1272 and was found to be incorrupt when her body was exhumed in 1580.)

So here’s the party trick: We know that Mother Cabrini landed smack dab in the middle of Heaven, no layovers in either limbos, her soul/spirit body/whatever word works for you born to eternal life. Yet something else of her, her vibration, her presence, still remains in her physical body in Washington Heights. (And please don’t freak out, just go with me here, but it’s not just in Washington Heights—her head has been preserved in a chapel in Rome, while an arm is at her national shrine in Chicago.)

And this physical body, it’s not just lying there. It’s active. It’s at work, it’s punched in and on the clock. You can totally get a hit off it. And that to me is truly Olympic-level limbo, the art of being in two or more sets of limbos-within-limbos spontaneously, and fully-freaking-functioning and focused in all of them. Not suspended in the wait or the fear or the doubt, but making limbo an in-spot in its own right.

Because you
don’t rest in peace you
dance in it.

And now—I can’t believe how neat and tidy this is!—all we need to tie a bow around our elephant: the Catholic Church could consider adding the option of the limbo dance, or something that ritualizes it, at funeral masses. (Did the Hoff fool you, too? Did you think the Limbo Rock was just something Jamaicans did so tourists would get drunk on Red Stripe and act like idiots?!) The limbo dance dates back to the mid-1800s in Trinidad, and is often performed as a funeral dance because it is said to reflect the cycle of life. When the dancer successfully clears the pole and looks up unscathed, it is considered the triumph of life over death. Don’t even get me started on what might have happened if Mother Cabrini tried it.

“But I know we won’t be long now
I know we won’t belong”

I’ve listened to Cliff sing those two lines at the end of the song multiple times, and I’m not certain if he’s singing, “But I know we won’t be long now”—meaning, we’ll soon be moving out of limbo, like he sings way back in the second line of the song—or, “But I know we won’t belong now,” meaning, and this definitely is in keeping with his experience feeling like a foreigner in his own country—we are moving from one uncertain place to another where we don’t quite belong.

Sometimes I feel like
an otherless child

Either way, both ways, it doesn’t matter; both work. Because life is full of places where we don’t feel we belong…yet. I mean, I love you so much for reading this far, but let’s face it—I’ve got a lot to spit and polish before I earn that degree. And even “Sitting in Limbo” was a long time in the making, developed in Jamaica in 1970 and finally recorded at the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama in 1971, with Cliff also in an artistic transition from reggae to soul. I wonder if he started working on the song and then just put it away for safekeeping—until it emerged from the box already knowing how to fly—or did he stumble, climbing to the highest branch to find the sweetest fruit?

Doubt of sorts: Did Mother Cabrini ever make-believe?
If you’re always at home in the world, how do you know when someone else isn’t
where they belong?
What would Ira do?

If you have pets, you know what I mean when I say: they have answers. Like Ira, who shows me how fluid and light life in limbo can be with every move. What he does is beyond a leap or a jump--I call it a bloop—and it has just 3 steps.1. He’s on the ground; 2. He’s suspended in mid-air; 3. He’s where he wanted to go. It’s the sustaining of step 2 where the juice is, and he likes to stretch it out as long as possible. Imagine that—seeking the space between your home base.

And if you’re not the type to jump right in, you simply plunk yourself in the middle and fake it until you make it. Ira’s brothers, Derrick and Lorenzo, are always wanting to go out in the hallway, where they roll around on the carpet and get scritches from the UPS guys. Ira, no way. But when he’s feeling brave, he’ll sit right in the doorway, head and shoulders and front paws in the hallway, tail and back legs in the apartment. He won’t readily move either, so I have to stand there holding the door until he’s finished, a kitty Istanbul calling 2 worlds home.

Bend back like a limbo tree

In one of the most awkward interviews I’ve ever seen, the host of the Australian version of American Bandstand asks Chubby Checker if the limbo originally signified “the passing from death to the twilight zone into heaven.”

“Wha?!” laughs Chubby. “Maybe.” Kinda like, whatever, dude, that’s cool, and goes on to share how kids are so much better at limbo than adults.

Because Chubby’s still singing it, either way. And it’s perfectly okay to stay in the twilight zone, but be like Mother Cabrini and Chubby and Jimmy Cliff and Ira and yes, even me sometimes—and get off the pot.