Being Liminal

Sometimes, I annoy myself.

Tonight, for example. It’s cold outside, and my calves still hurt from a dance class I took on Monday, and I don’t want to go to another. But guess what I’m going to do? Go to a dance class, because it’s cold, and my calves hurt, and the class is going to be hard. I’m going because it would be easy to stay home and stream something on the computer, lying in my warm bed. But that’s not what I do, is it? No, I do the hard thing, because I’m me, and that’s what I always do. Annoying.

But I feel as though I have to do something, or anything, or perhaps everything, because at the moment I’m in a liminal state and it’s driving me mildly crazy. You know what a liminal state is, right? Arnold Van Gennep wrote about them in The Rites of Passage. According to Van Gennep, all rituals have three states: the pre-liminal, the liminal, and the post-liminal. The pre- and post-liminal are both stable social states. The liminal state is the state in between, the threshold over which you need to step to assume a new position. Except sometimes you get stuck in the threshold. Or sometimes the threshold just takes a lot longer to get through than you thought it would.

Well, I’m in that liminal state, between things: and I have no idea where I’m going. In a sense, I’m waiting for the universe to tell me, because I simply don’t know myself. The liminal state is the state of transformations, the state in which you change. In a ritual, it’s the state in which a young man goes out and becomes an animal for a period of time, living in the wilderness. It’s the state in which a young woman is socially out, but not yet engaged. It’s carnival. In life, it can often be a period of indecision, a period during which you feel as though there’s no ground under your feet. At the moment, I can’t feel the ground. I don’t know where I belong.

The problem with the liminal state is that it’s dangerous: Van Gennep tells us this. He says that the person on the threshold is at risk, particularly vulnerable. I can feel that — the vulnerability, the reaching out to something that might be more stable but not knowing where to find it. Liminal states last as long as appropriate: you don’t know when they’re going to end. They weaken you, and there are days on which I feel weaker than I would like, more tired.

I think that’s why I find comfort in things that are ordered. The ritual of teaching, the rigor of learning Hungarian (since I will probably go to Hungary next summer — unexpectedly, since I did not think I would be able to go), the language of ballet. When the teacher says tombé, pas de bourrée, glissade, pas de chat, I know the combination of steps to take. It’s nice knowing what steps to take, even if it’s only the next six.

My image for today is me after Monday’s ballet class:

Ballet Dora

I’ve had way too much uncertainty in my life to be comfortable with being liminal for long. I think I will end up with some sort of stability — I just don’t know when.

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8 thoughts on “Being Liminal

  1. Sometimes I feel that way about yoga class. I live up in the mountains, so it’s a 45 minute drive each way. And I can think of a thousand things I’d rather do…until I get there. I breathe. I center my body around my core. I flow and stretch…a mountain, a cat, a dog, a tree, a cobra, an eagle. Ahhh….

  2. First you look beautiful in your picture. And secondly, this piece really spoke to me. It expressed exactly the uncomfortable fragile feeling I have had for most of this year and as is usual, one always feels better to know that you aren’t alone. Thank you and Happy Xmas.

  3. It’s interesting the varying degrees of control we experience in the writing life. We have almost total control over what we create. We assemble worlds brick by brick, and if we wish to, choosing every piece of furniture, every facial expression and every piece of clothing someone wears. We are, in this sense, omnipotent, however temporarily we are. And then the piece goes out to the editor or the magazine and its life or death is at somebody else’s mercy. The business leaves us so consistently between things, whether waiting for the work to become or waiting for the product or the book to become. Not to mention the changing tides of the business and the opportunities that come and go. The liminal state is indeed a dangerous one and we lead quite frankly dangerous lives. It’s kind of wonderful. So yeah, I know what you mean about knowing the steps. I sorely miss tango.

  4. Ah, liminal – nice to have a word for it. I’m just through to stability again. Learned so much in the liminal stage this time – great leaping hunks of stuff had to be left behind: new skin, new lots of other stuff.

  5. Liminality has long fascinated me (I came on the concept through Victor Turner). I’ve always felt myself to be on the threshold, in transition in some way or another, and I agree with you that it’s an exhausting state. But for all its personal precariousness, it’s also perceived as dangerous to society, which is appealing when the social order seems so corrupt. And I love the experience of communitas when others are crossing the same threshold.

  6. For me there seems to be a balance point I want to be at, between being in a state of complete fragility and the uncomfortable “stability” that other people seem to find comfort in. Growing up with a great degree of instability in my life, a “stable” environment will probably never seem normal – but I think that’s all to the good, in that truthfully there is not non-liminal states, everything is constantly changing. To be any sort of artist, I think, is to deal with the liminal, perhaps even to seek it out. The artist is in the doorway because the art is the door. Fortunately I think there’s also a curious form of stability involved in being liminal, if one understands that the world is waving and we can ride those waves.

  7. It is a long journey, and often I’ve resisted the next step. You know how that goes. You fall down the stairs. Along the way, little hints, like the messages from small animals and mysterious crones in the woods, I begin again. Have just fallen through another rabbit hole and have come up, again! Presto. Like a cat, yet another life. Prediction. It gets easier. I don’t know why or how, but it is like being in the dungeon and then back up dancing in the palace garden.

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