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Layers of Liminality

Can you remember a time of transition in your life—graduating, moving far from home, the beginning of a new career? Reach back and feel what an involved time that was, both emotionally and logistically. Excitement, loss, and anxiety all potentially cycled through your daily experience. You weren’t part of what you were joining yet, but your former identity didn’t fit any longer either.

I am a person who is drawn to liminality. I’ve always felt called by things and people that are no longer what they were and not yet what they will be. While the word may be unfamiliar, the experience itself is one that we all have lived. Liminality is transition. Uncertainty. Transformation. When we are liminal, we are living within a pause.

Abandoned buildings offer me their stories. I am obsessed with budding trees each spring. My life’s work as a doula is centered upon a primary liminal state—being born, both as a new human and as a parent. I am a person who is comfortable with being uncomfortable. I can face a lack of certainty and lean into it.

You may relate to or be repelled by these descriptions. Either way, you live with liminality. We were liminal while we were engaging in rituals of adulthood, working through a major illness or injury, dating, divorcing, and more. Liminality is an experience that is both plump with potential and fraught with danger. It is the precipice. The edge.

Often, when we are liminal, the world around us seems other, because we are changing by the moment, while everything around us continues as usual. Our minds are challenged—how can everything be the same when we know to our core that everything has, in fact, changed?

You’ve known this sensation. So have I. While my firstborn teetered between life and death in the NICU, there was a moment when smiling nurses were passing around little cups. I stared blankly, searching, then realizing: it was midnight. New Year’s. My mind struggled with adjacent truths that stood before me. My son’s survival was determined moment by moment; I could barely take a step or even breathe. Also, the people around me were toasting. Reconciling within this liminal moment felt impossible and isolating.

Perhaps you’ve experienced a loss or life altering event and soon after needed to step into the greater world to shop or grab a meal. Life was happening all around. Everything had changed for you, and yet—nothing had changed. Your world had altered. The greater world had not.

These are the moments when our people, those who love us, traditionally help us transition to our new truth. The process requires trust, time, and patience. An experienced guide can make all the difference. We emerge on the other side changed, sometimes repeatedly. We find our place in a world that has never stopped, but dips for a moment and allows us to step back on.

In contrast, today’s entire world is liminal. Regardless of health, politics, geography, or even how you feel about the validity of the world’s response—we are all here. Every one of us is that person watching strangers toast. The world feels foreign, and that’s because it genuinely is. Collectively, we are the abandoned building, the long hallway, the edge. Liminality always includes an other side, and so will this, but today we are all equally liminal. There are no obvious guides. They will emerge, but they will simply be managing the transition in a way that appeals. Because in this unprecedented time no one is ahead; no one is the doula, experienced in this transition.

In this moment, many of us are faced with layers of change. Common transitions such as graduations, budding relationships, and career changes—experiences always accompanied by uncertainty—are now glazed over by a world in transition. We wonder which to address first, then realize that it is impossible to tease them apart. Ours is now a life of liminal layers. Frozen, we wait for our altered world to dip, so we can step back on. Only this time, the world has been still. This time, we will all step back on together.

Written by Jackie Kelleher, artwork by Patrick Kelleher

Jackie is assistant editor at Pathways magazine, as well as the Pathways group coordinator. Her life has been a tapestry of family support–doula, lactation professional, group facilitator, and doula trainer. Her book, Nurturing the Family: A Doula’s Guide to Supporting New Families, is now available.