Liminal Space. It’s a term I had never heard before. It means being betwixt and between. No longer what you were and not yet something new. For the caterpillar it is the time in the cocoon, for the human it is the moment when old certainties dissolve. It is the time of transmutation: the cells of the caterpillar morph into a completely different creature – the butterfly. Sharing the same genes, surely, but in unrecognizable form.
Something in the challenge of Madagascar changed me. Dissolved away assumptions and identity, but it has not yet formed anything in its place.
The dissolution started happening while I was in Andavadoaka: each day I was faced with the unfamiliar, surrounded by nothing that reflected back to me the Sally that I had known.
Believing myself fit and strong, I was weakened by the heat and humidity, humbled by the weight of the scuba tanks and the height of the stairs to be climbed from the beach.
Seeing myself at youthful middle age, I was instead the oldest person in the village. There may have been a few villagers older than I am, but they were mummified, huddled in the back corners of huts – glimpsed in the barred light glaring through the stick walls. The nahooda – the elders – were 15 years my junior. Our Malagasy language instructor, who looked to be a ridden-hard-and-put-away-wet 60 was 32.
Assuming that the lack of running water, electricity, and wood floors defined poverty, I was faced with the example that the villagers lived without any of those things, vibrantly. The fierce, frantic poverty resides in the cities, where the influence of western colonialism has created want and desperation. In the cities, if the people do not beg or steal, they starve. The villagers may not have sidewalks and supermarkets, but they are food secure – they can fish and feed their families.
Attending an all-night funeral vigil, sitting in the greasy dirt among the mourners, with Jupiter shining overhead, a charcoal fire glowing under a huge cast iron pot, exotic harmonies wrapping around the ceremony like smoke, the tragedy of a life-expectancy of 45 came into question. The grief that surrounded me was the heartfelt pain of losing a loved one, not the resentful grief of someone dying too young.
As more and more of my assumptions were challenged, I became less and less willing to write about what I was witnessing. Every Sunday I would set up a writing desk at one of the tables on the shaded veranda of the hotel and attempt to describe what I was experiencing. Wrap my arms around it. Fit it into a blogpost-sized package. But I discovered that by the simple act of putting on my “Greenhorn lens,” I would distort it. I would become a westerner seeing things through western eyes, with first-world expectations and judgments. I would become distanced, insulated from the questions and discomforts that were arising. And by doing so, diminish Madagascar’s potential to move me, teach me, change me, stretch me beyond previous emotional and intellectual limits.
There would be time enough when I got home to write, I told myself. At home I would find perspective enough to allow conclusions to be drawn.
So one Sunday, I closed my laptop and acquiesced to the front desk clerk, hovering, as always, in hope of an English lesson. From that moment, I left any thoughts of “this will make a good story” behind, and tried to be as open to each encounter as I could, without judgment, or knee-jerk reaction. Allowed myself to feel however each discomfort or challenge or unlikely moment of connection made me feel. Instead of thinking “how am I going to describe this?” I allowed myself simply to live it.
And now I am back in California. Have been for weeks. But still I find myself silent. No. Not silent. Stuttering, stumbling for words.
It is not that the experience refuses definition. It is that I find myself unwilling to define it. The bald truth is that I want Madagascar to continue to dissolve my previous way of looking at the world, and I am afraid that coming to premature conclusions will stop the process. I am afraid that I might come out of the chrysalis not fully-formed but as a mutant – no longer of one world but not completely of the next.
I want Madagascar to morph me into being big enough to hold the conundrums, the complexities, the ambiguities, the contradictions.
I want to sit with the sickness in my stomach at the deadly warmth of the water, the bleaching coral and the disappearing sea life.
I want to taste the tears I shed as I was forced to question my familiar, comfortable identity.
I want to face the fear of becoming physically unable.
I want to wrestle with the realization that even in the rainforest, in the sea, in the oases of river canyons, the spirit of nature, that sense of something bigger than myself, was absent. I can only hope that healthy nature still breathes, somewhere, on the island. But it must be good and well hidden, cowering in the face of accelerating destruction.
I want to remember, forever, how I stood in the kitchen my first morning back, overwhelmed by the opportunity to decide what to have for breakfast. After months of eating whatever was served, however distasteful or suspect, I was literally frozen in place. Synapses exploded like fireworks against the inside of my skull as I tried to comprehend that I could actually choose between eggs and fruit.
I want to live every day with the one conclusion that I am willing to make from Madagascar: I know nothing.
Nothing of the lives of billions of people. Or of the suffering of our planet. Or of who will emerge when this dissolution is complete.