I’m sitting on a beach chair in the summer of 2021, watching my 18-year-old son play in the waves with his younger brother, and I find myself in a liminal space.
We’ve come to this beach every one of his eighteen summers, but this week has felt different, because it’s likely his last one with us. He’s been yearning for adventure since the cradle, and freshman chemistry doesn’t exactly sound thrilling to him, so he’s heading to Chicago after graduation to explore life beyond the confines of college. All of that to say, he’s about to become a working man—no summer breaks for him, no nineteenth consecutive trip to the beach next summer.
All week, I’ve had the feeling that a big, beloved chapter in our lives came to an end while I was doing other things, and that the next chapter has yet to begin. All week, I’ve felt like we’re sitting on the blank page that sometimes exists between the chapters of a book. And I’ve waited for all the ordinary experiences of this kind of passage to arise.
But they haven’t.
No regret. No fear. No clinging to the past, nor clinging to my old vision of the future, which included him in college. After all, if your vision for the future isn’t constantly changing, you haven’t envisioned the future, you’ve attached to it.
Sitting there, instead of all that resistance and attachment, I feel only a deep, deep peacefulness. It is not a feeling in and of itself. Rather, it is the freedom from every other tumultuous and transient feeling. I’m tempted to understand it, but somehow I know that trying to understand it will end it. So I don’t. Instead, I simply sit for a week, on the beach—on a blank page—and I watch peacefully what was, while not knowing what will become.
I came to understand this experience much later, when I came across the following definition of liminal space:
“The word liminal comes from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning threshold – any point or place of entering or beginning. A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.”
Franciscan friar Richard Rohr describes liminal space as that space where we are “betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.”
For whatever reason, while we sat on that beach last summer, my old ego habits of attachment and resistance quieted down for a while and, consequently, I found myself in liminal space. It showed me that the peacefulness I’m usually scheming for is already present right here and now, if I can quit trying to leave the space I’m in and love it instead. Even if it’s a blank page.
Especially if it’s a blank page.
Now, it’s autumn in the Midwest, and I’m aware for the first time that autumn too is a liminal space. It is the space “betwixt and between” the oft beloved, vibrant months of summer and the oft dreaded, harsh months of winter. It’s a season of death and dying. It is the season between seasons, if you will, and if you can simply be in it, without clinging to the past or resisting the future, it is the most colorful, beautiful season of the year.
A friend told me recently she was out for an autumn run on an old, familiar path, when suddenly it felt very unfamiliar. The underbrush of summer was dying off, so for the first time she could see more than the path she’d been running all summer. She could see many paths. And it was disorienting at first. She felt lost. But the truth is, she wasn’t lost; she was free, because she could see new possibilities, new options, new ways to move forward.
That’s what happens in a liminal space: what was begins to die off, and at first it might feel like we’ve lost our way, but if we can abide with the experience, we gradually begin to see other ways forward which we didn’t know existed before.
What are the things in your life that are dying off right now? What would it look like if you let them go, instead of clinging to them, or resisting the unknown of what comes next? What might happen if you simply allowed yourself to be “betwixt and between” what was and what is yet to come? I think I know…
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.