Reflections on moving and being in the liminal spaces of life

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Between the Stone and the Star

Reflections on moving and being in the liminal spaces of life | May 2022

Introduction

Change is the new,

improved

word for god,

lovely enough

to raise a song

or implicate

a sea of wrongs,

mighty enough,

like other gods,

to shelter,

bring together,

and estrange us.

Please, god,

we seem to say,

change us.

— “Change” by Wendy Videlock

Everything is moving: seasons through the trees, time on our skin, water in the earth, and air. No one can escape it. Tax season and the grand finale pass over us all without consent, and everything, everywhere, all at once, goes.

What is moving now? It is May—winter, spring, and summer play chicken, holding hands, teasing each other as to who will balk first. It is 2022—windows unshutter trepidatiously, shy and excited as the age of 13. We are mortals on a finite planet, hurling through space and time—nothing, nothing stays still. Grass, babies, and spider webs grow. What is moving now?

On purpose or by accident, we change. Many of us have softened. Many of us have cried. We have decluttered, we have thrown lots out. We have misplaced and lost loved things. Over and over, we bend, break, and build, either with focus, force, and fire or with no other choice.

There is inherent grief in transition. To move from one state of being to another is to lose whatever was before. Even when we progress into beauty, fullness, health, happiness, and abundance, other things, some of which we may have clasped tightly, fall behind. Still, the flowers fade to gray and spring back in purple. The belly swells and the child is born. The spiders toil and toil again, tossed and caught by the same gust of wind, starting over from somewhere new.

This month, dear reader, you are invited into undulation. Explore our lives, days, and minutes through the lens of shifting. Consider what is challenged between projects, professions, and spiritual spaces, and wonder, on the journey from one to another, what we might choose to keep or leave behind.

Weekly Bread

5 N5 A3978
Dave Schmidgall

3 cups (1 1/2 pounds) of lukewarm water (never hot)

1 tablespoon granulated yeast (you can use any kind of yeast)

1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons Morton Kosher Salt (adjust to suit your taste or eliminate it altogether)

6 1/2 cups (2 pounds) of all-purpose flour

---

The mixing of four ingredients marks the end of my week and the beginning of Sabbath rest. Every Friday at sundown I dump 800g of flour into a mixing bowl already containing 3c of warm water, 1 T of dry yeast, and 1.5 T of kosher salt. I mix until it’s thoroughly moistened, cover with a clean dish towel, and ignore it for 40 minutes. This is a great opportunity to pour a glass of wine and reflect on the soulful, life-giving moments of the week and conversely the draining, stressful moments. With slightly more clarity and generally more gratitude than I started, I move the dough to the fridge and savor the anticipation of a beautiful, fresh, golden round in the morning – always enjoyed alongside black coffee and the birdsongs I find harder to hear on other days.

I like to begin a day of rest with a simple creationary act. Also, bread is so basic and makes for good sharing. I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t appreciate a warm loaf wrapped in parchment paper and tied with kitchen twine. The Sabbath day is like a sanctuary of time and space. The aroma of bread baking is like incense. This practice serves all the senses in a kind and gentle way. It’s a joy – even more so because this particular recipe is nearly impossible to mess up.

5 N5 A3967
Dave Schmidgall

Because the rest of waking life is so extremely scheduled, I’m very intentional not to schedule anything on Saturdays. This openness is energizing for me. It allows for the spontaneity and adventure that adultness sometimes makes difficult. I am also careful to not buy anything – one day a week I boycott needing more. It sounds trite when I write it like that. Perhaps it seems silly or insignificant to you, yet you might be amazed to know how many times this commitment is tested on Saturdays - offering me an opportunity to discipline my otherwise consumeristic tendencies.

What’s your practice of enough?

Recipe Credit: Artisan BreadIn5

Dave Schmidgall

Liminal Space

"Everything seems to be harder and withdraws more energy than it used to."

My wife and I were reflecting the other day on the daily grit and grind of post-pandemic life. I’ve heard hundreds of people describe something similar - my line of work has been to listen to deeper currents in the lives of others. I've found a phrase that has been helpful. I call it being in “liminal space”.

The word liminal comes from the latin "limen" which means threshold. It can feel like being on the precipice of something new but not quite there yet; a suspension between the world of what was and is next. It's standing in the doorway of waiting and not knowing.

Liminality is an inner posture and sometimes outer circumstance where a "grace" lifts and we are invited to think and act in new ways. The ego resists the need to change. The will avoids the need to surrender. It is the ultimate tug-of-war.

We usually enter this space when our former way of being is challenged or changed - losing a job or shifting vocations, illness or birth of a child or major geographic relocation. The added layer for us is the pandemic created a rare cultural phenomenon where nearly everyone entered this world without a choice. My wife recently described it as a spool wound really tight and at once, the tension was released and the entire thread unspooled into a knotty mess. Most of us have been attempting to disentangle the emotional, mental and spiritual knots ever since - seeking to make sense of things once again.

This season has been a treasure trove of insight but rarely feels treasured in the moment.

A year ago I began to sense a quiet invitation to transition out of a vocation I've come to know for the past 13 years - it was time to end a chapter in life and begin a new one. "How did you know a chapter was concluding" I've been asked. The only description I’ve come up with is the grace lifts and all the ways the work was energizing no longer does - not just physically - but emotionally and spiritually as well.

As I've entered this new world of liminality - between the ending of before and the beginning of what is new - I've sought to cultivate a slow, patient waiting and listening. This occupied territory is the home of conflicting absolutes; I'm blue sky possibility one day, lying in bed paralyzed by fear in the middle of the night the next. Because in this world, we're no longer clinging to certainties. Between the world of ending and beginning is not for the faint of heart; it's inspiring and uncomfortable. All of this can feel alarmingly disorienting (I'm getting dis'd a lot these days) and liberating at the same time.

I've found the vulnerability and openness allows room for something new to happen. This is where we're most teachable and often most humbled.

It shouldn't shock you that most spend their lives avoiding such spaces. But much of the work of authentic spirituality and real transformation is to get people INTO liminal space and then the hard work of staying long enough to discover something essential and new. Many of the humble saints like Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, and Thomas Merton sought to live their entire lives in sustained liminality, on the edge of the dominant culture, in that continual place of openness to change. This place helps us to reveal what truly is with much deeper seeing.

My wife and I were in Iceland a few years ago and weary of every tourist hot spot overwhelming every hot spring, we detoured the well-worn paths and headed into the wilderness, not knowing where we were going.

The entire trip included constant freezing rain - except for this moment as the sun was setting. We pulled over and saw a barren, untamed landscape with the sun finally revealing the glorious light. Kate began walking towards the horizon line and captured her in the distance.

I sat and caught my breath as I had seemingly lost it in the beauty.

IMG 9534
Dave Schmidgall

This is how liminality can feel. Whatever threshold that may be - you've entered that more fragile, beautiful, healing, energizing, terrifying glorious light that is calling forth something new to emerge. Be patient. The new discovery can take time. Sometimes a very long time. There's nothing wrong with you - that's how this space works.

And who knows where it may lead you next.

Numb to Transition

Nature's transition from one season to the next has been the primary marker of time for the entirety of human existence. The rhythms it brings have instructed us when to seed, and harvest, when to introspect, and when to retrospect. So I can't help but wonder what we lose in our constant pursuit to control and contain nature - forcing it for innovation and desire's sake to do more than it was intended and bypassing transitions meant to keep us sensitive, connected, and human. How long can we really maintain control at all costs?

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An untamed thicket of trees.

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A single sprawling birch sculpturally serving the landscape and framing a building in the distance.

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A human "landscape" employing a wild veneer.

Obiewke "Obi" Okolo

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Control to serve our American dream.

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From control to containment.

Obiewke "Obi" Okolo

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Reclamation.

Obiewke "Obi" Okolo

Rest on Shifting Ground

The in-between casts a long shadow. Or at least it feels that way. Transitions, the vehicle that takes us from then to there, come with their own sense of joy. But more often than not they also bear a looming presence. It is easy to fumble through moments of transition, trying to steady our feet within change that has not yet settled. It rarely ever settles. Still, we brace in anticipation—wanting to be prepared for any outcome, knowing that is impossible without foresight. The bracing comes as a rapid loop of eagerness for what could be, longing for the comfort of what used to be, and uncertainty about what is present. Unsurprisingly, I don’t realize I have held my breath through periods of transition until I exhale on the other side.

I am learning that approach cannot be sustained forever. Transitioning into new phases is a given and if we wait to breathe until we are comfortable, we may very well never take a breath. Our challenge is to exist in the in-between with resignation. The space within what we leave behind and what lies ahead may not seem like the ideal area to rest, especially if our first instinct is to simply get through. But what if rest is exactly what we are to do with it? Sit in the discomfort or pleasure or questioning or passing moment as long as it takes. Desiring nothing more than a wonder-full unfolding and settling for nothing less than surrender.

Our transition rest is a teacher of being anchored on shifting ground. It is not a rest from weariness, but a rest into yielding. We take a break from thinking ourselves out of that period—actually laying down our heads. Whatever the transition itself, here is the chance to give ourselves over to more than passivity and force. There is no need to rush through or linger in it longer than we have to. Because like most things in life, transitions are not something to conquer but to experience.

This practice embraces transitions with the mindset that they are a way through our lives. No matter the circumstances, whether we happily take on a new creative project, or are forced to embark on a new internal season, we can understand transitions for what they are: our becoming. Our time in this space acknowledges that we are growing and moving forward. Without them, we are doomed to make an idol of certainty and never experience what exists beyond our own imagination or making.

Transitions, and the uncertainty they bring, tend to require more than we are willing to give. The desire for convenience and immediacy makes it hard to let go of expectation and assurance. But however ambiguous, transitions have the capacity for beauty. They carry the fullness of our stories, acting as the connective tissue of every high and every low. It is understandable to want to behold the totality of the story before we get to the end; transitions graciously bring us ever closer to that ending without giving anything away.

Move with Grace

The human attention span, on average, sits at a paltry 8 seconds. By that estimation, dear reader, you are halfway to switching tabs or apps. But, I believe in your ability to buck that trend, so stick with me. Among the many alarm bells rung by the mention of such short spans, I am presently concerned by how we transition that attention from one screen to another and how that reflects a larger struggle to move between spaces and moments meaningfully and gracefully.

Several years ago, I was sprinting down the steps of my home in a hurry to get out of the door for work, startling the pets as I often startled my wife with the heavy-footed tumbling from one activity to the next. I was late as ever to go to work, where I would be late to leave. Indeed, I would make up for that stolen time by entertaining myself late into the night with movies and beer, finally passing out and persisting the cycle inevitably and sloppily.

But this time, I stopped myself halfway down the steps, having jostled my own internal pace in manic energy such that I was forced to take a breath and reset. In my life, I am both the rider and horse, driven and driving, galloping and reigning.

They say, as an actor, simply waking in front of the camera is one of the hardest things to master. With the trained eye of a lens and crew upon you, suddenly every mechanical process suffers because of scrutiny, making the most mundane action an impossible task. But there is value in gazing back at yourself occasionally and, in my case, arresting the casual, subconscious actions of my flesh and bone. Were I in front of a camera, I might slap myself and say, “Snap out of it”

Instead, I thought, standing on the carpeted steps of my small rowhouse, of a grander staircase and its grand entrances. And between those thoughts of reigning my own actions and dignifying them in the frame of an elegant period piece, I heard the phrase, “Move with grace, from place to place.”

It was a perfect mantra: dummy simple. I remember so few of the mantras I’ve developed to cope with my way of thinking and acting. For whatever reason, this one was immediately locked into my long-term memory. It was elementary, something you might say to a tame a destructive child or in preparation for cotillion. But I felt it was something I could remember and it was meant for me.

“Move with grace”

Of course, there is the mechanical thing and the governing processes. Slowing one’s body down is a process dictated by the mind. I must stop, unclench my jaw, breath, close my eyes, open my eyes, and reboot the internal program that pushes me chaotically from one room to the next, from one space to another. I gently withdraw from my limbs and my chest. I sit in the stacks of my brain and my brain shifts my body to neutral.

To bring order and calm to my body was the first step toward bringing focus and presence to my mind. Act your way to better thinking goes the adage, muscle memory is another way to categorize the phenomenon of slowing and forcing tedium on constant forward progress. For me, that is the key to presence. And presence is the key to owning the movement between spaces.

Be here now, walk quietly from the past and deliberately into the future.

Clarity and, especially, presence give the moment its due. They allow for the work or play at hand to be fully engaged with. Without a full presence, the needs and desires that brought you to the previous space may remain unfulfilled and leech onto each subsequent activity. If I am constantly dragging the emotions and tasks between worlds, I am rarely free to truly succeed, to move from place to place.

In that deliberate motion, I see agency, and by that agency I see grace. Mannered, receptive, and purposeful. That is not to say that order is the essence of a meaningful life. There is joy in chaos. A love of death metal and hardcore has taught me that the painful, violent, and loud (on record or at a show, that is) often soothe the soul and body simultaneously. But the agency that dictates presence--and the presence that allows you to move on and move in--are essential.

Departing a time or space gives you a chance to be reborn into the next. You may shed your skin, your habits, the traumas big and small. But to move, to transition meaningfully, involves both the leaving and the entering. In leaving, you cannot hang on. In entering, you may seize upon the newness and the blankness. Both frames involve your presence and the conscious step through the doorway from one to the next--with grace.


Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors

which it passes to a row of ancient trees.


You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you

one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.


leaving you, not really belonging to either,

not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,

not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing

that turns to a star each night and climbs--


leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)

your own life, timid and standing high and growing,

so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,

one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.


-"Sunset" by Ranier Maria Rilke

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Editor's Note

Thank you for engaging with this experiment--a break from our traditional expressions of story.


Thank you to Kate, Dave, Obi, and Britnie for giving of themselves so candidly and openly.

Winship 2022 lr

Robert Winship

Guest Editor

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