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Take me home, country roads
Q: How do you get comfortable being in a liminal space?
This week we are both at “home” on different continents. Last year, it was after having spent time apart over the summer, dialoguing with each other over email, that we came up with the idea of Disco Dialogues. Now we are apart again with weeks of summer stretching before us. Today you find us in a liminal space as we pass through what we know (our homes) and what we hope to create over the next several weeks away from home.
Def. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning threshold. To be in a liminal space means to be on the precipice of something new but not quite there yet. It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing.
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I landed in Kolkata this week. I have lots of fond memories of this city having spent many a summer vacation here growing up - time spent with cousins swimming at Saturday Club, having club sandwiches at Tollygunge club, going saree shopping with my mom on Park St. But Kolkata is not “home” because I never lived here growing up. My mom calls this city home now - having retired here 10 years ago after a long career working outside of India.
I am always a bit unsettled when I come here. It is such a change in pace from my life in California or even from my husband’s house in Mumbai. Things are just so much slower in this city. Time moves at its own pace. The first day here I woke up and wondered - what am I supposed to do here? Should I be a tourist and take my son to explore parts of the city? Or should I just relax at home and enjoy all the scrumptious home cooked meals that I never get in California? Should I read the many books I brought with me on vacation or do some mindful mandala coloring? I would have loved to connect with old school friends or cousins but no one lives here anymore.
“Leisure has become a dirty word. Any time we scrounge away from work is to be filled with efficient blasts of high-intensity exercise, or other improving activities, such as meditation or prepping nutritionally balanced meals. Our hobbies are monetised side hustles; our homes informal hotels; our cars are repurposed for ride-sharing apps. We holiday with the solemn purpose of returning recharged, ready for ever-more punishing overwork. Doing nothing – simply savouring the miracle of our existence in this world – is a luxury afforded only to the respectably retired, or children.”
It took me two days to start to accept the pace of this city. To not put pressure on myself to do stuff. As I found myself endlessly scrolling through Instagram and Facebook (that’s how bored I was or perhaps afraid of not having anything to do), I had to pause and recognize what I was doing. I was distracting myself. I was uncomfortable with just being and was using my phone as a way to escape from the solitude.
This was surprising. I am an introvert and I enjoy being alone. But I seem to have lost the practice of being alone - constantly surrounded by family, kids, friends in my busy life in California. I was anxious about not having a plan. But the moment I realized this and put a label on it, it started to subside. I opened my journal and started to write what I was feeling.
And I noticed myself going through a mindset shift. Instead of trying to be busy, this was my time to just not be doing. I didn't have to be doing stuff to be productive. In fact I didn't even want to be productive. I didn't want to measure up to anyone’s definitions of how to spend a vacation.
This was my time to rest, to relax and to reconnect with myself. I deserved this downtime with no agenda. I deserved to nourish myself with delicious food and to take long afternoon naps to escape the humid heat of Kolkata. I was accountable to no one but myself.
“...we are doing something important when we are doing nothing at all important. It's not just nice to park your peach 🍑 on a beach; it's necessary. That's true whether you grow wheatgrass or watercress or white papers. We need to slow down sometimes so we can speed up at other times.”
- Ann Handley, Total Annarchy
So the next morning I walked over to the Birla Mandir (a temple near my mom’s house). It was 100 degrees outside with 100% humidity. As I sat in the cavernous hall in front of the white intricate marble statues of the deities Radha Krishna, I felt the sweat drip down my back. The temple was empty and clean - an anomaly for India. So instead of focusing on the discomfort of the heat, I focused on what I was grateful for - easy access to a serene temple for my morning meditation surrounded by the calm energy of various Hindu gods.
And I was reminded of this reading on Buddhism - “Just this is it. You are not it. It actually is you.”
“In short: we can't ever get free from the limited and vulnerable and uncertain situation in which we find ourselves. But when you grasp that you'll never get free from it, that's when you're finally free in it – free to focus on the hard things, instead of the impossible ones, and to give this somewhat preposterous business of being a human everything you've got.”
- Oliver Burkeman, The Imperfectionist: It's worse than you think
I write this in the sweltering afternoon heat of Bizerte, the northernmost city in Africa. It is a small city by the sea, population ~600,000, 65km north of the capital city Tunis. This is where my husband grew up, the place he calls home. We have been here only a week, but time feels very different here.
In Mumbai (population ~18M), a vibrant city brimming with chaos and energy and the place I call home, there's never enough time. Never enough time to see all the friends and family I want to, to savor all the meals at new, hip and happening spots or to fulfill the obligations of visiting extended family. Never enough. It's what New York City feels like, and Mexico City and probably all the other big buzzing cities around the world.
Here in Bizerte it is the exact opposite. Time slows down. There's one, maybe two nice restaurants to eat at in the entire town. A couple of cousins and friends to see - most others have moved to Tunis or to France, Germany, Switzerland to avail of opportunities the bigger cities offer. Here there are no expectations on my time from the in-laws. It is mine to do what I want with, except for tending to the preschooler of course. I’ve been coming here for the past seven years but on every trip, I miss Mumbai in my first week. Being in my husband's home makes me yearn for mine. The language barrier and the lack of friends makes me lonely. I know it’s temporary and I will feel different after a week but it takes time to get comfortable with this feeling.
There will always be times when you feel empty and alienated. Such moments are highly desirable because they indicate that the spirit has thrown its moorings and is sailing to unknown shores. When the old has passed and the new has not yet arrived, this is detachment. The situation may be uncomfortable if you are afraid, but there is nothing to be afraid of. Remember the rule: whatever you come across, go above and above.
- Nisargdatta Maharaj
After a week here my body and my mind adapt. I grow accustomed to the heat, or at least know not to step out of the house between 12 and 4. My mind slows down enough to tune into the dramatic playfulness between the sea and the sky. "Shiva" that place of nothingness that we come from and aspire to unite with seems easier to access here. The Vedas talk about Shiva being absolute consciousness, the vast nothingness, the observer that is non-dual and present everywhere. It is a place of deep silence within you where all the activities of the mind dissolve. Floating in the Mediterranean Sea, staring up at the vast sky stretching above me, I am sometimes able to experience fleeting moments of that space.
Morning Poem - Mary Oliver
Under the orange
sticks of the sun
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands
of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
And if your spirit
carries within it
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.
Here are some of the articles referenced in our post today -