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Posts Tagged ‘transition’

I was poking around on Twitter, looking for blog post ideas, and I ran across Christopher Barzak talking about graduation season and the ridiculous “welcome to real life” rhetoric that goes on at this time of year. He had this to say:

“Your life is real no matter what you choose to do with it. Don’t let others impose their definitions of what’s real and what isn’t on you.”

I grew up with a very narrow presentation of what reality could be, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Our worlds tend to start out small. We model reality after what we have witnessed and experienced. Part of gaining wisdom, then, is being able to move out of the shadow of the Way Things Were during childhood to see the many realities that people are living.

Happily for me, I was always full of questions and an insatiable curiosity. I wanted to understand the people around me and the systems in which they participated. I wanted to know what else might be possible. And I read a lot, which meant I knew that in fiction, a lot was possible. The open question became, how much was possible outside of fiction?

And I was aware of this ever-present tension, this pervasive idea that when we grow up, the responsible thing–the realistic thing–is to settle.

I don’t care what people do in their lives: if they do it with the attitude of settling, it’s going to be unfortunate. Settling makes us dissatisfied, bitter, and resentful. It leaves us thinking about hypothetical what-ifs from the past instead of doing something with our present.

Believing that there are only certain versions of life that are “real” encourages us to settle. It also blinds us to the realities of people who are different from us: people who face different struggles, people with different life experiences, people who have made different decisions. It puts a value judgment on what gets to count and what doesn’t.

These goats are real. Photo Credit: stereotyp-0815 via Compfight cc

These goats are real. Photo Credit: stereotyp-0815 via Compfight cc

Who gets to define what is real? For me, real meant getting a reliable, steady job and holding onto it for as long as possible. It meant mirroring certain aspects of the lives of my parents before me. In my real life as an adult, I would get to drive my decisions even while their narrowness meant most of them were already partially decided for me by this shared view of reality. Real meant settling for what other people had decided was best.

Which is all patently absurd. My life didn’t become real when I was graduating at age twenty-two. It was real when I was a child and didn’t have as much power over my own life. It was still real when I went to live abroad after graduation. It was real when I started my own business. It was real when I was bored to tears, and it was real when I was taking a risk. It was real whether or not I chose to follow the standard blueprint, whether or not I was financially independent, whether or not things worked out the way anyone, including myself, expected them to, and regardless of my own personal range of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.

We welcome people to the “real” world during periods of transition, often with the perceived judgment that they haven’t had to deal with any serious problems until this point. Newsflash: we all have problems. Some of them are more invisible than others, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

We’ve all been in the real world this entire time.

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I’m back in novel immersion at this point, as I push to finish revisions, and my head is full of my characters and their plot arcs and a plot hole that’s going to be annoying to fix. It is hard to pull myself out of that world and back into this one.

So I’m going to talk about liminal spaces because when I’m having trouble leaving my fictional universe, that’s what I think is going on. I’m existing in a liminal space, partly in the world of the novel that my imagination has forced into being, and partly in the world in which I have blog post deadlines and dinner to make and errands to run.

Let’s talk about the word liminal. It wasn’t strongly in my radar until I read Farah Mendlesohn’s interesting Rhetorics of Fantasy a few years ago. She divides the fantastic into four categories, and one of those is the liminal. In liminal fantasy, she posits, “the magic hovers in the corner of our eye.” An example of this category is Joan Aiken’s Armitage family stories, which I enjoyed reading quite a lot.

But liminal means a lot more than a category in fantastic literature. Liminal is about being in between, about being in transition, about being both and neither at the same time. In anthropology, Wikipedia helpfully tells us, liminality refers to “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.”

Being in a liminal space is uneasy, uncomfortable, possibly awkward. Standing at the threshold is not without its dangers.

Audience or specter?

I went to see Sleep No More while I was in New York, and one of the things this performance art piece does quite well is create a sense of liminality for its participants. Are we an audience, or are we spectres? Are we invisible, or are we obstructions? There is nowhere I am supposed to go, and yet am I where I am supposed to be? There is a narrative being created, and yet there is no narrative visible.

Traveling can also create a liminal experience. I can be both in a place and not of a place. If I travel to several countries in quick succession, I can wake up in the morning uncertain about where I am, what language is used here, what currency. There is a clash between what I know from my world and what I experience in this new place.

Schrodinger’s cat is both alive and dead, and literature about dying talks about it as a liminal state between life and death. In fact, liminal states exist in most major transitions in life. Coming of age stories often rely heavily on the uncertainty and turmoil of the liminal state between childhood and adulthood. Waiting can be involved in liminal states, too: waiting for the results of the pregnancy test, waiting to hear what colleges have accepted you, waiting for the answer to your question, waiting for the hurricane to hit. And what about that strange state between waking and sleeping?

Liminal spaces are challenging, and yet they can also offer freedom. The spaces in between offer us opportunities to recreate ourselves, to see the world with fresh eyes, and to drill deeper into the experience of being human. When we’re no longer sure who we are or what labels we’re claiming, we have room to explore who we want to be.

And critically, when we are standing in the shifting sands of liminal space, we are sometimes able to see more clearly what is important to us and what we want our priorities to be.

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