I packed a suitcase of thin fabrics, suitable for three weeks of tropical humidity and meetings in air-conditioned rooms. I hugged my husband goodbye, then texted him from the airport. It was early March 2020, and after a few months of restrictions in Beijing, I was looking forward to being somewhere other than our small apartment for a few weeks. The plane took off, and unbeknownst to me, I left my home in China for the last time.
18 months later I am living with my parents in my native Australia, and my husband is in our new home in his native U.S. I was able to visit him there for three months over Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rest of the time we have been living apart with no idea how long this situation will last. Last year we were waiting for things to change, and when it became clear nothing was changing, we began planning a move to the U.S. without me there in China to help. This year we’ve been working through the green card immigration process that will allow me to join him in the U.S.
That’s a lot of loss, a lot of limbo, a lot of uncertainty.
The Covid-19 pandemic, with the accompanying lockdowns, border restrictions, flight cancellations, school closures, work changes, and health crises, has created a lot of loss and limbo and uncertainty for many people – especially those of us with international lives.
Drowning in limbo
Last year I had no idea how long I would be in Australia, when I would go home to my home and husband in China, and later whether I would go home at all. I had arrived in Canberra, the coldest part of Australia, with three weeks’ worth of tropical weather clothes – right as we went into winter. I lived in hand-me-downs from thrift stores, the local buy-nothing group, a friend, and a few things I’d left at my parents’ house because they were holey or otherwise less than optimal. It took me months to decide to buy adequate shoes and socks and underwear – because those purchases were acknowledgements that I really wasn’t going home to Beijing where I already had everything I needed.
And that is a perfect description of living in limbo.
When you’re living in limbo, you’re in an intermediate state, and you don’t know how long it will last. You’re stuck. You can’t make decisions – you can’t even buy socks. You might have all the transition skills in the world, but it’s hard to use them when you don’t have a new place to settle into, when you’re waiting to arrive – or leave. This can be particularly hard for seasoned expats and other globally mobile individuals. We have strategies and skills, and we know how to use them. Then we end up in limbo, and our strategies and skills don’t work the way we’re used to.
Last year, I wasn’t so much living in limbo as I was drowning in it.
This year, I’m living differently. My life is still full of uncertainty. I’m still living with my parents and unsure when I’ll see my husband again. But I’ve also found ways to keep afloat, to keep moving – to truly live in the midst of limbo.
How to keep living in limbo
Uncertainty is a difficult state to live in. It’s hard to plan for the future when you don’t know what’s coming. It’s hard to enjoy the moment when you know it could change. Impermanence isn’t a place where you can be at ease.
Over the past 18 months I’ve learned a lot about coping with all the unknowns and creating peace and joy in the middle of uncertainty. Here are my four best pieces of advice – things that have helped me stay afloat through a life of uncertainty while I’m stuck in limbo:
1) Invest in small comforts
Sure, you don’t know how long you’ll be where you are. But as long as you’re there, make sure you have what you need to relax and be at peace, whatever that means for you. Living in limbo is hard enough without having anything that you find soothing and comforting. Any money you invest in those small comforts is an investment in your mental health, your peace of mind, and your ability to cope in a difficult situation. If that situation resolves quickly and you find yourself with two of your favourite comfort items, that’s okay! You can save one for a rainy day, leave it at a place you visit often, or bless someone else with it.
2) Plan small anticipations
One of the hardest things about living in limbo is not knowing when your situation will end. It’s so hard to plan ahead, to have things to look forward to in a concrete way. There’s a vague sense of, “When this is over I’ll do __________,” but it’s difficult to be more specific. Anticipation is a source of joy, and losing the ability to anticipate near future events is problematic. We need markers of time and things to look forward to. My solution: create small anticipations for yourself. Create little routines, and luxuriate in the smallest of joys.
One way I’ve done this is by throwing myself into my favourite reality TV shows. I watch them as they air (which is several nights a week for several months here in Australia) so that I can follow along on Twitter with everyone else watching live. It was a tiny anticipation in the grand scheme of things, but watching Masterchef with hundreds of strangers on the internet became a huge part of my days and weeks! It was something I looked forward to during the day.
3) Be present in the moment
Find activities that keep you grounded, that allow you to experience joy in the moment. Joy and pleasure that is not dependent on your situation or your circumstances, but simply is. Notice small things. Perhaps it is natural beauty – sunsets, flowers, mountains, bird calls. Perhaps it is playing with small children, immersing yourself in the wonder they see, getting caught up in the magic they make with simple things like boxes and blocks and crayons. Perhaps it is a time of rest, with a good book, a cozy blanket, and a cup of tea. For me it has been all of these and more.
4) Lean into the experiences you couldn’t have otherwise
What do you have access to because of your time in limbo that you wouldn’t otherwise? Usually the negatives of our situations shout very loudly. Those difficulties are real, and the pain they cause is real. The grief that comes from plans laid waste is valid and needs to be acknowledged and expressed. But it’s not the whole story. What can I access in my limbo life that I couldn’t access elsewhere?
In my case, two particularly significant experiences opened to me in limbo. Choosing to lean into them has brought me incredible benefits that have helped to redeem my limbo time. First, I’ve been able to access beneficial healthcare with a doctor I’d previously only seen for annual checkups, and the positive changes to my health have been dramatic.
My second open door has been time with my young niece and nephews. The oldest is five; the youngest is nearly 17 months – he was born about 6 weeks after I arrived. I’ve been 15 minutes down the road from him and his older brother his entire life, and usually see them several days a week. My other niece and nephew live halfway across the country. Twice I’ve been able to live with them in their house for a full month, being a part of their everyday lives in almost every way. As a long-distance family member, these are joys I never dreamed I would get to experience.
So yes, living in limbo is awful. Uncertainty is so hard to live with. There is so much about my situation I don’t like and wouldn’t choose. And yet, there are ways to make it easier to bear. There are ways to cultivate joy in the midst of heartache. If you find yourself stuck in limbo like me, I hope you will find these ideas helpful.