Those In-Between Places

The weather has been wet and cool, more like late April. This morning the sun shines brightly although off to the west lies cloud and fog. Showers later.

The theme of the week seems to be liminality: the experience of being in-between things. The term “liminal” refers to the space encompassed by a door frame, a place in which one is neither in one room nor another, neither outside nor truly inside. We usually pay little attention to those places of transition until we find ourselves marooned there. We tend to ask for aid when we feel stuck in our lives, when our old selves no longer work but who we will be next is not yet knowable, when things are liminal.

In late adulthood I have become more curious about the places in our lives where we find ourselves between things., and find metaphors about being between things useful to know and good to think. A few metaphors that come immediately to mind are: between a rock and a hard place; neither here nor there; neither awake nor asleep; and the Bardo.  There are also the profoundly liminal experiences of illness and death, and any number of metaphors drawn from place: beaches, swamps, and borders coming immediately to mind. As we are reminded too often, terrorism calls forth its own form of liminality. Each of these experiences and places speaks to the difficulty and mystery we humans so often experience when we find ourselves undergoing dramatic change.

Liminal experiences and spaces invite us to ask many questions. What are we to do when we find ourselves wandering in the wilderness of change? How are we to make do when we are neither who we were nor who we shall be? Can we find a way to be open to the creativity that comes with not knowing, welcoming the ghosts and spirits of change with somewhat open arms a la Ebeneezer Scrooge? Might we use the time in the Bardo to look at our lives with a whit of compassion and a dollop of playfulness? Might we try on possible new versions of self, knowing who we will be when we finally walk, run, or fall into that next room is ultimately unpredictable?

Liminality is an ancient concept brimming with possibility, inherent in much of our thought, and deeply embedded in our understanding of the universe. Nature seems filled with possibility and a hunger for transformation, and expresses these traits in self organizing complex systems evolving themselves through time, space, and interaction. It seems we humans, and the discomfort we experience in the in-between places, are expressions of the riotous creativity of Nature.

21 thoughts on “Those In-Between Places

  1. This is such an amazing post. It got me thinking that we as humans are constantly in the liminal state. I say that because change is the law of life. Even in our daily thought processes, we are constantly having to choose between what to do and what not to do. As you pointed out, there is some beauty in not knowing what will be. It gives us a chance at hope and an opportunity to assume that our aspirations will come true. Where nothing is certain, everything is possible. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Oh, yes! in some ways all is liminal. At the same time, it is useful to have some definition for those moments when we are in the midst of dramatic change. And yes, so much is possible. Still, we need compassion when we are in those wild moments of transformation.

  2. A nice, honest post, Michael. I am finding the liminal of my 70s to be much different than in past decades. I think I shall mark this e-mail notice and write a response post when I get some free time. Will link back to you, of course.

    1. Lorrie, there is an immense literature, both academic and experiential, about liminal places. So very human, eh? I like to think that developmental sequencing is all about moving from one liminal place to another, a sort of mystical nesting that helps us make meaning form our ever changing lives.

  3. The mandate of science to “control and predict” seems to fly in the face of liminal experience. The more we revere science, the more we seem to be averse to the dynamism of the thresholds of change. Nature, on the other hand, rushes into those spaces with joy! It is in the fringes between wetland and woodland, prairie and treeline, that life teems with abundance.

    1. Yes. I’m not sure this is a necessary conflict though. Perhaps the conflict is really between technological simplification and liminality. Of course, often technologies open vast liminal spaces……

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