Welcome to Liminal Space



“In the universe, there are things that are known and things that are unknown, and in between them, there are doors.” — William Blake

Every once in a while, I come across a new-to-me idea that helps me better understand the world or consider it from a different angle. Such is the case this week when the universe handed me the concept of liminal space, which must also be a new concept to the autocorrect magicians who insist that the word I mean to type is “luminal.”

A liminal space is a threshold, an in-between place characterized by openness and vulnerability. Architecturally, they are literal, physical entities that lead us to somewhere else. Elevators are liminal spaces. So are hallways, foyers, and parking garages.

Liminal spaces can be figurative, emotional spaces as well, experienced when we are suddenly thrust into a new situation and find we’re not quite sure how to respond. They occur when we lose a job or a loved one … or are diagnosed with an illness … or when we live through a pandemic.

They can be uncomfortable, even painful. One day we’re just living our life along some predictable path and then – Poof! – our script is gone. We find we’re not sure how to act or what to say and therefore experiment with different narratives. Some days we do it well, like when we remind each other to be kind to strangers or to extend grace to ourselves. And some days we do it poorly, like when we rail against the world for our “individual rights” or argue with our family members about what day it is.

Although we are eager to escape this waiting place and return to a sense of “normal,” people who study liminal spaces and consider them sacred would say, “Wait a minute. Listen. What is this season saying?”

It begs us to reconsider the ways we function in the world, how we live and think and love. Individually, it echoes the words of the late poet, Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Collectively, it might sound a little more like John Lennon: “Imagine all the people / sharing all the world.”

This season asks us to notice and evaluate what we’re doing to the Earth and all its inhabitants. It begs us to examine how we collect and distribute our wealth. It demands that we not only notice the vulnerabilities of our neighbors, but to work to change the systems that keep them oppressed. And it pleads with us not only to thank those whom we have labeled “essential,” but to ensure that equitable adjustments will be made so that our resources are placed where our gratitude is.

In short, this liminal space is illuminating. It’s shining a light on us, which is sometimes unflattering as it shows us harder truths about ourselves and the society in which we live.

Perhaps the worst thing we could do is pass through this season unchanged and simply be handed our old lives back. I’m hopeful that we can emerge with a stronger sense of community, connection and appreciation. And I’m clinging to the notion that we will also muster the courage to change.

Eileen Button teaches Communication at Mott Community College. She can be reached at button.eileen@gmail.com.