The other day, I ran into the word “liminality,” from the Latin, limens, meaning “standing at the threshold.” Basically, it means betwixt and between—professionally, socially, spiritually, whatever. You’ve moved out of one house but haven’t yet moved into a new one, or you’ve left one stage in your life, and haven’t yet entered into the next one.
As I thought about the word, I immediately saw pilgrimage as a kind of liminality. When I’m on pilgrimage, I’m on a threshold between cultures, sometimes between identities. I’m on the sand flats between the English mainland and the island of Lindisfarne. I’ve left the United States and haven’t yet arrived in Israel. I’m suspended between worlds, a stranger (which, as long as I’m talking about words, is what the word peregrini—the root of “pilgrim”—means) to both the past and the future.
Then I got to thinking about places that are in and of themselves liminal, actually spaces where I’ve literally been betwixt and between: airports, bus terminals, train stations; hotels and motels; retreat houses; hospitals. Each has a unique energy that rubs off on me. Airports and their like I find exotic—people dressed in various costumes scurrying like mad under weird lighting or zonked out in dark corners. I become a character in a suspense novel, about to board the Orient Express. Retreat houses, especially those connected with monasteries are, of course, silent and contemplative, and I automatically lower my voice and move more slowly, become more aware. Hospitals are for me a surrealistic mosaic of pain and relief, selfishness and kindness, sorrow and happiness, where I’m conscious of my ignorance, my fragility, my mortality.
When I think of liminal times in my life, I also recall having had mixed emotions. Twenty years ago, I had bi-lateral hip surgery and was laid up for eight weeks. That throbbing hip pain I’d suffered for ten years was gone, but I hadn’t yet learned how to walk again. Moreover, as I spent my days reading and watching exercise programs on TV, I realized how much I was enjoying not being in a classroom, and that it was time to close the door to a thirty-year public school teaching career, even though I had no idea what door was going to open afterwards. I recall being apprehensive (okay, I was scared stiff), not only about how my wife and I could survive economically, but about whom I would be if I wasn’t MR. WILE, my identity for thirty years. At the same time, however, a feeling of absolute determination took hold. By the end of those eight weeks, I knew, knew as thoroughly as I knew the date of my birth, that I could no longer remain a high school English teacher.
Thinking of places that have been both physically and psychologically liminal, I recall that when I was between marriages, I lived for six months in a one-room apartment. This was a strange, inebriating time of tearing down one relationship (with my ex-wife), remodeling another relationship (with my daughter), and building a completely new relationship (with the woman I was going to marry). I was sad, angry, frustrated, hopeful, joyous—sometimes within two hours (and three phone calls). I don’t believe I’ve ever felt so alive in my life.
On the other hand, one of the most painful periods of my life was the two-months I lived in a Ronald McDonald House 120 miles from home. My daughter’s cancer had confined her to a hospital bed. I’d taken a leave of absence from my job and left my wife and her son to be by her side. It was clear by then that Laurie’s condition was terminal, but she hadn’t died. My image of God had died, but I hadn’t yet come up with a new one. Every day, when I wasn’t at the hospital, I went back to the Ronald McDonald House, and ate and slept and occasionally talked with fellow pilgrims on this journey none of us wanted to be on, wishing the whole damn thing would just be over.
But although I didn’t know it at the time, I can see now that a big part of who I am today was forged during those two months. I was never so close to my daughter as I was then. In the hospital cafeteria, at the Ronald McDonald House, even while Laurie slept, I read Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Camus, the Bible, and the mystics. I wrote continually in journals, in the margins of the books I was reading, sometimes on napkins in the hospital cafeteria. I’ve been rebuilding my life from that foundation ever since.
Pilgrimages and retreats grow out of spiritual traditions, which recognize that although liminality can be painful, it’s essential for growth. According to Richard Rohr, one of my spiritual gurus, liminal spaces are realms of “pure possibility… when …we can begin to think and act in genuinely new ways.” The temporary liminality of pilgrimages and retreats help prepare us for those betwixt and between times in our lives, those times when one door has closed and another door hasn’t yet opened. They offer practice in being receptive and living in the moment.
I need this practice. More and more these days I can feel doors closing behind me. After twenty years, I no longer have a novel to be working on. Almost every week, it seems, I find something else I used to be able to do, but no longer can: put a basketball through a hoop, touch the ceiling or the floor, open jars, stay awake after 10:00 p.m., remember where I put my car keys. The doors ahead of me that I can see—retirement communities, assisted living, nursing homes, and of course the Great Door of Death—haven’t yet opened. I’m not comfortable in this space in between. I want to fill it with memories of the past—often a past that never was: I was stronger, the food tasted better, life was simpler, I was happier—or planning for a future that I will later find doesn’t exist, at least not in the way I imagined it, especially since I tend to “awfulize,” as we say in Al-Anon, creating scary scenarios about cancerous tumors or debilitating strokes or dementia, or of slowly starving because of not having enough money to go into a decent nursing home.
I need to focus on today, on what I can do now that I never did before—watch birds and grandchildren, take on new writing projects, travel, read more books on interspirituality, work to bring sanity to our government, lend a hand to others.
Or find new words like “liminality,” which help me understand the importance of seeing myself as pilgrim, as “stranger,” betwixt and between, standing on that threshold, open to possibility.