My brother loves the phrase “liminal time.” It is a good word, liminal. If words aren’t your thing, feel free to skip ahead, but those who’ve been playing along for awhile know that I am a self-confessed word nerd, and there are some words that are just plain better than others. Liminal is one of those words.
It means transitional, or a stage in the process. It is neither the beginning nor the end. It is neither the old thing or the new thing. It is between. It is ongoing. It is often ill-defined and formless. Liminal time. It can be the time after giving notice at work and before starting the new gig. It can be the time after setting up the PA equipment and before the band begins. It can be the time when a child is no longer a little kid, but isn’t a teenager. Liminal time can be after a project begins but before it really takes hold. It can be a clean but unfolded basket of laundry. Liminal time can be a lot of things, and most of that has to do with definition and perception.
Our culture really likes to present progress as a very linear thing. You move from start to finish and pass through stages along the way. If we observe enough people doing the same kinds of things, we can even predict those stages and measure time or markers or outcomes. The thing about liminal time, or being in transition, or being in one stage of a process, is that it isn’t always linear. Things don’t always move in a clear direction. The stages aren’t always obvious. Our paths of “progress” are pretty much never the same as someone else’s.
The beauty of remembering that simple fact of human variation is that it gives us the freedom to decide what the start, the finish, and all of the steps along the way are. We get to decide if we are between. We get to decide that we have made progress. We get to decide that we have completed something. We get to decide if we will continue or if the steps we planned to take are no longer necessary. We get to decide if forward motion is necessary and would be helpful. We get to decide to think of where we are as being temporary or the goal, fleeting or permanent, necessary or bonus. We get to decide and define all of that.
And that flexibility in our thinking is part of what makes liminal time such a good teacher. That sense that we are between phases or stages or steps calls out to us to examine what’s driving us, to touch base with our inner knowing to see if that next step moves in the direction we’d imagined or if it goes somewhere else entirely.
Being in between requires us to take a look at how attached we are to that thing, that place, that goal that we haven’t reached yet and question whether or not we’ve got our cart attached to the right horse. It may be that what we thought we wanted isn’t right for us at all. It may be that what we want is exactly right but the path, oh that path to get there looks nothing like what we imagined. We miss all of these opportunities if we don’t give liminal time its due, if we don’t learn to see the gifts of the between time, if we maintain a rigid and unyielding grasp on our ideas about what should happen and when.
I have children who, if we follow along with accepted developmental phases, are in a between time. They are 11. It is such a between time that we’ve dubbed it the “‘tween” years. They most certainly are not little kids anymore in so many ways. They are also definitely not interested in or ready for experiences and interactions they will have as teens. They are between. They long to be older because they see freedom there. They long to be younger because the notion of romantic relationships is appalling. They miss greater simplicity in play and friendships and they yearn for independence. Their moods, as they experience their own duality, are all over the place.
I see how they have to stretch and grow in this liminal time. I see them struggle with it and I see them carry on. I see them release things from the past: friendships that haven’t stood the test of time, hobbies that don’t suit anymore, habits and desires that no longer serve them. I see them sensing that their understanding of the outcomes might have been inaccurate as they notice that increased independence and freedom often comes with greater responsibility. I see them wanting to be older but not being sure why. I see them doing a sort of dance with one leg in the past and one in the future. It is an uncomfortable position to be in.
And really, the only way to respond when one is stuck in that kind of straddle, is to bring your legs together, squarely underneath you, and to recognize the space you are in as the one that matters the most. Keeping our toes too far in the past and too far in the future strains the system and creates regret and disappointment. Drilling down to observations that are a little more granular lets us see all of the micro developments that take place exactly where we are. This moment that we think of as a between stage actually has hundreds of tiny steps that make it up. Our progress is continual. Our growth is unstoppable (even if it is painful and awkward at times). We feel that we are between when we don’t see all that is here, now: the incremental learning, the opportunities to be present and connected, and the sheer power of giving our attention to what is real, what is happening NOW.
We can inhabit the space of not being quite where we want to be, of having goals and aspirations AND at the same time acknowledge, see, and feel every bit of what is good and amazing about the place where we are. Each step along the way is its own destination and every pause is liminal. We are always changing and always complete. We are between and we are starting and we are finishing all in the same breath. To believe that and feel the comfort and peace it can bring, all we have to do is choose to see it.
From Liminal Time,