Looking back, it feels as though I spent the whole of my twenties in limbo. First a PhD, and then a series of postdoctoral research positions, life was measured out in three-year terms. This was job insecurity of a peculiar kind: I had the certainty of each contract’s end date, but no guarantee of further employment after that. And so all of us who were in this postdoc predicament found ourselves continuously applying for fellowships, and later permanent positions, building up longer and longer publication lists at ever increasing personal cost. The barriers that loomed at the end of our short term contracts prevented our thoughts flowing into the far future. Instead, we went round and round in circles, uncertain about our next move, unable to settle down.
As I moved from one Californian university to the next, I was lucky to find groups of fellow Europeans who recognized my uprooted state, and welcomed me into their communities. But it got me thinking, what would I do if I needed to move to a less cosmopolitan place, how would I make friends then? And so I started thinking about churches. During a fellowship in Oxford I was surrounded by them, these marvellous medieval stone buildings, and it started to bother me that while they had been built by the local people to be the focal point of their communities, nowadays they were places reserved for a minority of believers, whose creeds and customs were putting off to most of the present-day locals. A church, it seemed to me, ought to be the natural place to head for when you’ve just moved to a new place. Religion offers, almost by definition, instant community! Perfect for the new arrival - as long as you can say the words.
I didn’t stay long enough in Oxford to find a church where the words made sense, but I knew there was one here in San Francisco, and so when I moved here, I decided to do the experiment and join it. In my first week in town it became clear that the happy and stable relationship I thought I was in was anything but that, and that giving ourselves time to work things out (without letting on to friends or family) was going to leave me sitting in an even more uncertain limbo than the one I had just left. What I found in this church was a Sunday morning sanctuary, attended by a group of people committed to doing things well - which helped restore my faith in humanity just when it was needed most.
These days I spend less time in limbo: my job is now permanent, and I can think long-term thoughts at last - like, which kind of tree to plant, and where. Periodically, though, my to-do list at work grows so long as to be overwhelming: unable to do any one thing, I do no thing, and I am stuck in limbo. I typically don’t spend too long in this state though: instead, I’ll remember the appreciation my first professor had for researchers who are “nicely irresponsible,” and so head “off-list” to do something completely different. This seems to serve as a way to get myself unstuck, to give me space to think before returning to my to-do list later. Of course, in my twenties I was doing the same thing: the to-do list was all about getting the next job, but I spent plenty of time “off-list”, living. I just didn’t realize that that was the main event.