I learned an amazing word last night: liminal.
As in “liminal space.”
You can get the full Wikipedia definition of “liminality” here, and you can get a sense of it in this website, or this Instagram post, which is where I stumbled on it, but here it is in a nutshell: a liminal state or liminal space is when you are on a threshold in between two things. You’ve left an old normal, and you are moving toward some future normal... but, you ain’t there yet. You’re hanging out in uncertainty and ambiguity. You are in between.
Turns out they have a name for that shit, because it has happened to human animals throughout history, and it happens to each of us throughout our lives at many different times and in many different ways.
We sometimes experience the liminal en masse, I learned, as we do with our peers or friends during puberty or graduation. Sometimes we get thrown into the liminal by a sudden big change, such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. But the reality of liminal space is that you aren’t the thing you were any more, and the playing field hasn’t just shifted: it has disappeared. You can’t go back, but damn if you know what you should do to move forward. You aren’t really ready for motion yet, necessarily. You are in between.
A general example of liminal space is that distinct kind of loneliness and out-of-sorts feeling that comes with being in airport or airplane. You aren’t home, and you aren’t where you’re going. You’re transitioning, wandering around without your people and without your place. You’re a little bit more at the mercy of the universe than usual. You are subject to change without notice, and you will need to deal with whatever comes equipped only with what’s in your suitcase. Your job is to hang out, wait at the gate, and be ready.
Nope. It’s not. I suspect that’s why they have bars and stores in airports -- to help people tolerate that space. I have tolerated it myself many times, from figuring out what Christmas would look like after my mom died, to the unbearable ambiguousness of being nine months pregnant. It ISN’T fun. You literally have no way of knowing when the next phase of your life will hit, or what it will look like. Or if you will survive it, literally and figuratively. You do what you can to get ready, but meanwhile, you just have to tolerate the anxiety and hope it’ll be fine.
While it ain’t fun, the truth of this space is that it is utterly unavoidable -- and that's good news. We are ALL going to be there, and we are all going to be there more than once. It’s such a common thing that societies have created rituals around it, whether it’s transitioning to adulthood through a bar mitzvah or having an extended ceremony around weddings or deaths. As a species, we get that these are weird times, and we see that there’s a sort of magic in them. In fact, this article from Psychology Today says that creativity and liminal space are friends. Sometimes that ambiguity and self-reflection are necessary. Sometimes you can’t get where you’re supposed to be going without going through it.
That’s great news once you’re past it, but if you’re hanging out in the liminal, it takes energy. Energy not to freak out. Energy to look for the path. Energy to be a new thing. So for those in the liminal space, I salute you. I am right there, too. Come sit next to me in the airport bar, and let’s share an overpriced Toblerone. You tell me where you come from, and I’ll help keep an eye on the departure board to see where we both get to go next.
Hi. I'm Amanda Dobbs.