Living Between Our Lives: Thriving in Liminal Times

The beginning of November is a “liminal time.” It is a time when the veil between the worlds is thin and it can be easy to feel we are in some mystical realm when we get up early and see the mist rising off the fields or the crimson light of an early sunset when we are used to daylight. It is the new year in some cultures. It is a time when change is in the air and we are putting away our summer routines and remembering our winter ones.  No matter what the month, we all have especially “liminal” times in our lives, when we choose, or have forced upon us, great change and we are no longer fully living in our old lives yet not quite in our new ones.

As I look back over my life, I see that I am someone who has enjoyed “regenerating” myself, each time creating a liminal time as one phase faded and another came into being. I grew up in a university town in the Midwest in the 1960s and 70s and left that comfortable life for the punky, noisy, and art-infested East Village of the 1980s when I was in my 20s.  Then, at 30, I left again to be a spouse and parent in a small town in New England, complete with a Victorian fixer-upper house, herb garden, and professional job.  Each time, I felt both the stress and thrill of, in a way, starting my life over.

I’ve found that these liminal times offer two unique opportunities and November provides a special perspective on each of them. The first is the chance to learn who we really are without the trappings that come with living in a particular place and time so long that we surrender our uniqueness to the convenience of routine. In November in my garden, some plants that only live a season are already on the compost pile waiting to become nutrients for next year. Others are perennials that are withered and need to be cut back. A few are still in flower and as fresh and green as they were in the spring. Yet, they are all on the cusp of change in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. They teach us that, even as we let one life pass away and another take over our days, we still remain essentially ourselves. Next spring new flowers will emerge from the seeds cast this fall and fresh stalks and blooms will appear out of the ground from the roots of perennials, but there is some essence that will remain the same. Jerusalem artichokes will not arise from the seeds of geraniums and bee balm blooms will not grow out of raspberry canes or grapevines. Just as the plants will be different next spring as they adapt to next year’s environment – some will flourish with abundant rain while others may struggle without adequate sun — there will still be something about them that makes them immediately identifiable, so do we have the chance to see what remains the same in us when our environment changes. Liminal times reintroduce us to our most essential selves, both those aspects we love about ourselves and nurture and those that we may wish not to face and so use the busyness of everyday life to ignore.

Liminal times can also make us aware of the magnificence of everyday life as we explore new routines, places, and people that may soon become so commonplace to us that we forget to appreciate them. For a short time, we have the wonder of living in a world that is fresh and exciting, demanding more of our attention but in return giving us the joy of being engaged in its details and possibilities. Think of the first snowfall, an event that frequently happens here in New England in November. I have seen a first snow for every one of the past 55 winters, and I know that within a month or so I’ll be ready for spring, but I never fail to run outside to experience the beauty of the flakes as they waft down to the ground, or the refreshing taste of their chill on my tongue, or their gentleness as they fall on my hand. After the first heavy snowfall when the ground is covered, I always feel as if I am walking out into a new world, one that has never known the step of humanity before. And so it is with our new circumstance or environment. This new corner of the world has never known us before and we can make of it completely what we choose here and now.

While these liminal times can be a time to revitalize our world, not all of them lead to better life situations than we had before. A health crisis, the loss of a loved one, and other similar changes can be more catastrophes than opportunities. And even preparing for a new phase of life we are looking forward to can be exhausting as we do our usual chores each day while needing to fit in all those extra logistical tasks that come with closing out one part of our lives to move into the next. These liminal times can still be our means to gain strength, wisdom, and power. Consider Inanna, a goddess who chose to visit the Underworld to learn the lessons she could not find anywhere in her bright world above. Before she could enter she had to give up all her symbols of position and wealth, even her clothes, which she did willingly. While in the Underworld she lost even her life until she was rescued. While there she found she was deeper, richer, fiercer, and a better goddess than she ever knew she could be and through the agreement to send her husband down to the Underworld to take her place for six months each year, she set into motion the seasons that make life on Earth possible*. She found who she truly was in her essence and remade the world into one of abundance and vitality.

While we may mark the phases of our lives with great changes, in reality most of the time we are more like the moon that gradually moves through being new, waxing, being full, and then waning, progressing slowly in small incremental steps instead of revolutions.  In fact, every day brings changes, though we may not recognize them. Perhaps by remembering the positive, life-giving ways we have felt during these liminal times, we may find ourselves more alive and joyful every day.  May we bring the blessings of these liminal times to each moment we live.

*To learn more about Inanna and Her descent, see Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer’s Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer.

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