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.
It’s a rainy Sunday and my house is filled with the smell of melting plastic.
The melting plastic is from one of those homemade sun catchers where you dump the little beads into the different sections and bake it in the oven so the beads melt and look like glass. It was created by my 6-year-old after she won a kit at a mommy-daughter tea.
It’s one of those suncatchers that will hang in her window for the next 15 years, occasionally falling thanks to a cheap and yellowing suction cup that you will lick the back of and reapply. It will be there when she’s in junior high and high school, in the corner, forgotten and covered by the drapes. It will be there when she comes home from college and looks up at her childhood window from the driveway. It will maybe even make it into a box that we pack for her when she moves to New York and we are retiring to the beach. It will be a little dusty, just a touch sun-bleached, and we will have licked and reapplied the suction cup dozens, maybe hundreds of times by then.
And today I am making it, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, with my 6-year-old, amidst the smell of melting plastic, on the day after a mother-daughter tea.
Isn’t life the coolest?
An increasing number of my friends have been reading and posting about an article by Ada Calhoun, entitled “The New Midlife Crisis.” In a nutshell, it describes how Gen X women are overwhelmed, exhausted, and depressed, and it illuminates very specific and valid socio-economic reasons why we should be. It’s a solid read--well researched, thoughtful--and it hits close to home for a lot of reasons. In fact, it hits so close to home, it’s painful to get through it. It makes me a feel a distinct kind of hopeless. And that’s why I feel compelled to raise my hand and say this: If all of us are screwed, you guys, then none of us are. None of us.
Hear me out here.
Whenever I consume media about the folks in my generation (and I am technically a member of the Oregon Trail generation rather than a full-fledged, proper Gen Xer), the gist of it is that people my age are some sort of neglected, latch-key, sandwich group, never to enjoy the safety in cultural numbers that either generation before or after us enjoyed. According to some pundits, we’ve always had it bad. We’re neither Boom nor Millennial, and therefore we will never get to have what they have. According to “the reports,” we’ve been screwed since the day we arrived, and, by the way (as pundits sometimes love to remind us) don’t we know that? Aren’t we scared? Aren’t we worried?
Sure. But in that, I would argue, lies exactly the gift and the strength of our generation. Just like a mildly well-adjusted middle child, we get that there are plenty of reasons we could feel overwhelmed, stressed, and slightly cheated by our generational birth order. But the truth is, we’ve never really had it another way. We feel all those things, but not with the same perspective of any of the other generations. We’re used it to it, so it feels normal. I don’t say that in a hopeless, defeatist way—just the opposite. We have been bred to be resilient in a way that differs from the generations around us. Sure, it bothers us, but we’re used to being slightly uncomfortable. It’s kind of our superpower.
See, we are a generation that has been able to function before, during, and after some pretty profound cultural shifts. We grew up in a time when there was no such thing as the internet. We did our elementary school reports using encyclopedias, and then, when they invented Google, and we used that to do stuff instead. But we could still use the encyclopedias if we had to. We’re not afraid or confused by technology, and we’re also not totally dependent on it. We could still get the report done using either set of tools. We’re not wringing our hands over the changes. We’re cool either way.
We grew up in a generation where divorced parents were starting to be the norm. Where entertainment and news distinctly melded. Where gaming systems went from Commodore 64 to Xbox One. Where computers went from being Apple IIEs to freaking IPhone 10s. Think about that—and the level of flexibility and tolerance you have to have to be able to hang with that. Then think of how little fear we feel at enduring those kinds of changes.
I’d argue, in fact, that we’re the generation that doesn’t just hang with change, but is used to making the best of it. We are savvy to Waze, but who could also read a map if we had to. We store stuff in the cloud, but if our phones die, we still know our spouse’s phone number. We can joyfully post cat videos to the interwebz, but, mercifully, did not have every moment of our idiotic teenage years documented in painful detail thanks to social media.
Guys, we’re a generation who might all completely agree with all the stuff in this article. But we’re also a generation that has coped with that level of weirdness and uncertainty and change before, and guess what? WE WERE COOL. WE CAN HANDLE IT.
Our generation is like the kid who has spent their whole life riding on the hump in the middle of the backseat. We slide around a little more, but we’ve learned where to put our feet so we can brace ourselves for the curves. We don’t get carsick because we can see out the windshield. When we need to fall asleep, we can lean either way, and we’ll find a shoulder that will hold up our head. The window seat is awesome if you can get it, of course – but we rarely get it, so we’ve adapted all along. That is our strength. We’ve developed a tolerance for being uncomfortable. And that means we can hang with whatever life is bringing us.
So, trust me. That article we’re reading may be absolutely right. We might all be screwed in very distinct and specific ways. But the truth is, we’re used to that. In fact, we’re built for it. So, if we’re all screwed, guys, then none of us are. None of us are. And don’t you forget it.
Like many of my peers in Atlanta, I just dodged a little bit of a weather bullet. Our pal, Hurricane Irma – conveniently scheduled for September 11 in order to maximize my low-grade, lingering disaster anxiety – came to town, bringing heavy rain, winds, and lots and lots of power outages. I was very fortunate that I was not affected one iota as dramatically as many of the victims who bore the brunt of the storm, but hanging out in a house with two small children and listening to the news tell you how scary everything is outside your window does count as a certain level of “impacted.” After three days of no school, constant news monitoring, and carrying a flashlight with me to pee in case the power went out, I decided that the scary part was over, and we just needed to get out of the house. Out to lunch. Out to somewhere. Out. So, like any proper suburbanite, I got the in car and rolled out to the nearest fast food joint with a decent indoor playground.
We dodged a few downed limbs getting there, but when we rolled in to the much-revered house of chicken nugget purveyance, it actually looked a lot like the typical weekday lunch rush. Three polo-shirt-clad business men shared a booth, each on the phone with other people. A set of parents with small children cut up chicken nuggets with the side of plastic fork. Two women chatted with one another, keeping one eye on their kids in the glassed-in playground, and offered an occasional head shake either across the table or to their children when they were climbing something they shouldn’t be. As we sat down at our table with our food, I overhead a man obliviously talking at top volume on his phone. “LOT OF LIMBS DOWN!,” he said, “BETTER CALL THE INSURANCE COMPANY!” Then he ended with something that struck me: “If you just need to get out of the house, you should come down here.”
Although I was in what some people might think of as suburban hell, filled with screaming children, potentially obnoxious phone conversations, and artery-clogging fast foods, this man was suggesting that this was a good place to be. He was inviting people to join him.
And I agreed.
Sitting there, I personally felt more relieved than I had in the three days since the news reports started. What I really needed to comfort me after the bustle and jostle of the storm was the bustle and jostle of other people. I didn’t just need to get out of the house, I needed to go sit and be part of a community. Kids seem to inherently understand this. You “need” to get them out of the house because they not only want new surroundings, they need the stimulus of other people. Adults sometimes don’t acknowledge it as readily, but we need it, too. I needed to be out, elbow deep in ketchup smears with screaming babies in my ears. I needed the village.
Clean up from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma is going to be long, painful, and expensive, and I encourage you to support those efforts however you can. (I personally sent money to a charity exclusively devoted to buying people clean underpants. True story.) However, there is one special wish I am sending out to the humans who need it most after these storms: May you find yourself smack dab in the middle of a community. May it make you feel much, much better during everything you’re going through. And, may it be filled with crying babies and ketchup smears and everything else you need for it to feel like home.
LITERALLY. Not figuratively. LITERALLY.
On the floor of my bedroom, for the last month or so, there has been a pink unicorn neck pillow with its stuffing coming out. I kick it out of the way every once in a while when I need to get in a drawer, or I pick it up and then put it back on the floor when I can’t find a better surface to pile it on. I’ve been meaning to fix it, but, you know … I move it around ceremonially instead. It sheds little blobs of white polyester stuffing that I occasionally find stuck to my pajamas or wedged in my shoe. It is there so I remember to sew it up, and it’s there to remind me I haven’t sewn it up yet.
Ever have one of those? That niggling little thing that sits there and bugs you when you notice it, but mostly you just move it around and make a mental note to put it on the long, long “one of these freaking days” to-do list?
MAN, those suck.
I was having a day yesterday when almost every single thing in my mental load was of the cement-truck-sized variety. The kids went back to school. They went to an after-school-care program for the first time since the big one was a toddler. I met with one of our financial helpers to talk about the money I am making … and not making. The fridge isn’t working right. I needed to spend time on the book I am writing and send out an invoice for something else, but I needed to be there for my hubby and myself and my friends and also worry about the kiddos and their mental health, and diet, and success in school, and friend group, and screen time. I needed to get groceries. I needed to do my taxes.
Every single damn thing was overwhelming and ridiculous and fraught with emotional and financial peril. And I took care of a whole lot of them (maybe not the taxes), but at the end of the day, all I could think about was all the shit that still hadn’t gotten done. The boulder that hadn’t been moved yet. The clothes that didn’t get folded.
At 11pm, I sat down in bed and stared into space for sec, and I noticed the little pink shedding unicorn. The head was ripped off in a way that made it look like its throat had been cut. It was dying—bleeding out right there on the floor. I sighed, then got up, dug out my makeshift sewing kit (that I bought at the grocery store, and, thank god, had pink thread), and started to sew the thing back together. It was a Frankenstein job to be sure—almost literally in this case, since I was sewing its flopping head to its neck—but I pulled the stiches tight, and it looked reasonably reassembled. And I relaxed for a minute. And I felt a little wiggly moment of joy.
I am not a seamstress, to be sure. I am not an expert at piecing together the pretty little edges and knowing what stitch is the best. But, I reached in the drawer, fished out the tools I had, and I fixed that mother f’er. It wasn’t perfect, but it was DONE.
I am a creative human, trying to balance my sweetie, my family, my work, and myself, and, like most people, I often deal with cement-truck sized things to worry about. And, like most people, I feel confident that if I only had the time, I could sew up everything just perfectly. I wouldn’t be leaving my little blobs of stuffing around to stick to someone’s pajamas or shoes. I wouldn’t look like I was bleeding out on the bedroom floor. I’d have my head much more firmly secured.
But sometimes, just putting a thing together with sloppy stitches and pink thread from the grocery store is okay. In fact, it’s great. Sew that thing up using whatever you got, and then take a minute to appreciate your handiwork. Breathe, relax, and feel the joy.
I am here to tell you, at 11pm, I fixed the hell outta that unicorn.
And I feel better … in more ways than one.
I was hanging out with a buddy of mine via Skype recently, solving the world’s problems (and our own) and talking about commas.
I was telling her how I was feeling a little conflicted about work and really, about my professional persona. Do I want to reign in my fun and silliness and exuberance and swearing and go after more of a corporate job or corporate clients? Or do I want the freedom of being much more myself, when it seems not to pay as well (or sometimes not at all)?
She said something along the lines of "You know, some CEOs would love to work with a person who was fun and silly and exuberant. That would be really valuable to them." And I totally stopped. And I start laughing. It never occurred to me that all the stuff I thought was kind of a liability in the work world was actually an upgrade. AN UPGRADE. That what I have is what they WANT. Not something to temper, but the reason I am awesome. That felt pretty frickin’ revolutionary.
So, as a fellow human who sometimes doubts her sh*t, I wanted to pay it forward. You? You aren't something that needs to be tempered. Someone would love to work with you because you are you. You are awesome. You are an UPGRADE. And so am I.
I was sitting at a light, on the way to some suburban endeavor this morning, when I noticed a tow-truck idling next to me in traffic. Normally, I wouldn’t look twice, but I happened to notice that on the long, thin, metal edge of the bed, there was a pattern. The truck itself was red, but the pattern consisted of festive little yellow asterisks and triple swipes of powder blue, over and over again on the red metal. I studied it, and decided it was definitely hand-painted.
A thought occurred to me at that moment: Who the hell hand-paints a tow truck? Isn’t that the most utilitarian thing there is? It’s not cute and fun, like a taxi cab. In fact, it evokes times of great pain in the ass – rumbling up to take you away from the scene of your accident or yanking you from the parking space you thought was perfectly legal. So help me, though, this tow truck had the equivalent of a filigreed edge along its side. Hand painted. With happy little colors like a nursery.
Did the driver do it? Did it come that way? Is that a factory setting, or some happy wife proud of the first truck her husband owned? I picture some delightful codger, touching up the hand-painting his equally codgerly truck. She’s named Marlene, and she takes a minute to get going in the morning, but so does he. She will be parked proudly in his driveway, and eventually, in a happier, more Shire-like world, if her axle gives out, her motor will power some alternate contraption of his own making, like a pulley clothesline that automatically rotates his laundry so he can stand in one place and hang it. There she’ll be, with headlight eyes and a rusty, happy smile, puttering and sputtering, but still being useful well beyond her years. Sure, the kids’ll sell her when the codger passes away, but she smile just as much she become the belle of the junkyard, housing a raccoon that has babies in her vinyl front seat.
For a minute, I wondered if all tow trucks were painted that way and I never bothered to notice. Then, I decided I didn’t want to know. This tow truck brought me a big smile in Saturday morning traffic, and that was all that she needed to do, she and whoever decided to paint her. So, thanks, Marlene, and it nice to meet you. Please give the raccoons all my best.
Hi. I'm Amanda Dobbs.