“Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We usually enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed—perhaps when we lose a job or a loved one, during illness, at the birth of a child, or a major relocation. It is a graced time, but often does not feel ‘graced’ in any way. In such space, we are not certain or in control.” – Richard Rohr
The first time I came across the concept of liminal space (I believe it was in the book Falling Upward, by Richard Rohr), I felt an instant connection to the concept. Liminality helped to explain so much of my life at the time. I’d let go of some of the stories of my past and was stepping into the unknown, not yet knowing what lay on the other side. I was leaving things that felt relatively firm and familiar – marriage, career, church, etc. – assuming I’d find something that felt similarly firm and familiar on the other side once I’d gotten through the wobbliness of the liminal space in between.
Readers of my book, The Art of Holding Space, will know that I use the metaphor of the chrysalis to explain the concept of liminal space. A caterpillar leaves the life she has known, surrenders to the gooey mess of the chrysalis, and waits to become something new, not really knowing that the butterfly life is in her future but trusting the process nonetheless.
That metaphor made a lot of sense to me then, when I was releasing old stories and trusting that there would be an “other side”. But now… well, my understanding of liminality continues to evolve and I’m no longer as attached to that metaphor as I once was. I think it tells only part of the story of liminality and it’s time for the next iteration.
Last summer, after my children had moved away, I sold my house and intentionally thrust myself into liminal space, becoming a digital nomad in Europe and Central America, not knowing for certain what would be the “butterfly” version of the “end” of my journey. I thought at some point, I’d have an epiphany about where I wanted to live for the next part of my life and what my life would be like. Just like in the past, when I left my marriage, church, and career, I assumed I’d find something that felt firm and familiar on the other side. In the meantime, I spent time exploring different places and paying attention to what the “soft animal of my body” loves.
What I didn’t anticipate, when I set out on my liminal quest, is that the greatest value in the experience would have nothing to do with the butterfly life on the other side, but everything to do with liminality itself.
In other words, liminality is THE WHOLE POINT. Liminality isn’t just the process, it’s the new destination. I wasn’t preparing myself for an end point, I was becoming more liminal.
What I’m beginning to understand, on a deeper level, is that ALL OF LIFE is liminal and the best we can do is learn to accept the liminality and become more adapted to it. Instead of telling ourselves “this wobbliness is temporary and there will be something stable, familiar, and predictable on the other side”, we are better off finding stability within ourselves so that the instability of liminality does not cause as much disruption and struggle in our lives.
This has probably always been true, on some level, but it is especially true in this moment in history when things like climate change, a pandemic, and increasing political unrest are causing almost daily disruptions in our lives and will likely do more and more so in the future. Our lives are wobbly and unpredictable. We can’t find solid ground on which to land. So, what’s the alternative? Learning to adapt to liminality.
When I started to examine the metaphor I’ve been using for liminality, I realized that even while embracing the concept wholeheartedly, I was still attached to a linear, binary view, where there is a “here” and a “there”, an “old story” and a “new story”. That doesn’t feel sufficient anymore. Perhaps a better metaphor, one that I’ve explored in the last few months as I’ve spent a lot of time by the ocean, is the shoreline, where you can be standing on dry land in one moment, and up to your knees in water the next. It is neither land nor sea, but both/and. Liminality is a place of flux, where you are always becoming and releasing, evolving and adapting.
Not only does an expanded understanding of liminality help us make sense of a world that feels unstable and unpredictable, it can also help us evolve our thinking in areas where we tend to get stuck in binary thinking. Take gender, for example. If we learn to become liminal thinkers, we no longer need to see all people divided into two clear genders, male and female. We can accept that there is, in fact, a broad spectrum of genders and to try to fit people into boxes is to deny them of their full humanity.
Alok, one of the wisest teachers on this topic that I know of, said in this short video clip, “It’s not just that the binary reduces the complexity of the world, but that it forces us into oppositional thinking. We’re taught that there is one side and another side, but I think non-binary thinking allows us to hold harmony where other people see dissonance, to be able to say we can be both/and. We can experience incredible grief and sorrow and joy inside of that. We can feel so certain about something and still incorporate doubt. And that’s, I think, what we need now in this world more than ever – to reject parsing the world into dichotomies, like here or there or like us or them. They hold us back from a more intimate and honest encounter with how the world is already both/and.”
How, then, do we become more liminal? How do we adapt to the shoreline, accepting that we will live in that place indefinitely rather than assuming eventually the land will be stable again? I’ve given that a lot of thought, and instead of attempting to answer that question in this blog post, I’ve created a new course and a community where we can have conversations to explore it together. We are very near to launching that program (it should be available next week) and I look forward to exploring these questions with you
“Can the liminal space also be joyful?” Someone asked me that recently, at the end of a talk I gave to facilitators of Deep Democracy in Belgium.
“Yes, definitely!” I said. “I’m in such a liminal space right now!”
If you’ve read my book or taken my courses, you know that when I talk about liminal space, I usually talk about emotions like confusion, fear, loneliness, and grief as part of the journey out of an old story and into a new one. As this person pointed out, though, the liminal space can also be a time of joy. In fact, it can be a time when we prioritize our joy as the guide that leads us into the new story.
As I write this, I’m in a cozy little apartment on the western coast of Italy. After I finish writing, I will likely walk down to the water for a while and, if it’s warm enough, I may sit at an outdoor café with a cappuccino for a few moments before I join a Zoom call this afternoon. It’s a good life I’m living, in the middle of this liminal season.
At the end of August, I stepped into the liminal when I walked away from the house I’d lived in for twenty-two years, gave away all of my furniture, packed my personal items into a storage unit, and started living out of a small suitcase. I’m calling it my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. I could also call it my Prioritizing my Own Joy Tour.
When I ask myself why I did this – why I gave away so much and walked away from a home I’d poured a lot of love and care into – I come up with a few answers. For one thing, I no longer felt a strong pull to live in Winnipeg, especially since none of my daughters live there anymore and neither of my parents are alive, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to live next. For another thing, I crave adventure and I love to travel, so when a few invitations to teach in Europe lined up, it seemed a good time to have a longer visit here. And for a third thing… I wanted a lighter and more agile life, with less attachment to things and less need to worry about the maintenance of a house.
But there’s something else too – something deeper. I think I knew, intuitively – like the caterpillar knows when she crawls up into a tree and surrenders to the process of metamorphosis – that it was time for change. There was a growing restlessness – a sense of something new wanting to be born in me.
Like a vision quest, or even like a gap year where students go away for a while to figure out who they are, I felt the need to re-explore my own identity and discover the ways in which I am being reshaped. For one thing, my relationship with my daughters is being reconfigured, now that they are all adults living away from me, and I need to explore who I am when less of me is shaped by motherhood. For another thing, my relationship with my work has been reconfigured, now that I am in a business partnership and we have a teaching team running our online programs. And for a third thing, I’ve completed my next book which will take my work in a slightly new direction and which is an even more deep dive into my personal stories than I’ve shared in the past.
Where does joy enter into all of this? Well… it became more and more clear to me in recent years (especially as I was writing my new book), that, in whatever ways I was going to reconfigure my life at this pivotal moment, I wanted to be more intentional about placing joy at the centre. As I talk about in the book (which will come out next year), there is a deep vein of martyrdom and unworthiness living in my body, inherited through my lineage and the systems I’m part of, and I wanted to be intentional about disrupting that narrative and living into a new story. Like the girl in the Velcro dress, I wanted to strip away the things I was carrying that weren’t mine to carry.
That’s why, on this season of liminality, I am leaning into joy to help guide me into the new story. I am being intentional about noticing what gives me joy each day and what steals my joy. Each day is different – sometimes I find joy in solitude, sometimes I find joy in companionship, sometimes I need hours of walking, and sometimes I need a day spent in bed. I’m trying not to judge those needs or desires – I’m being mindful of them and responding in the best way I can.
(It should be mentioned here that prioritizing joy does not mean that it is ALL joy. I haven’t banished any of the other emotions that pop up – especially when my dear friend Randy died in October. I let myself feel the complexity of emotions and do my best to turn my face back toward joy.)
Back in the Spring, when I was in the process of selling my house, I got the following line from a Mary Oliver poem tattooed on my arm: “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”. I’m paying attention to what the soft animal of my body loves and I’m trying to give her more of that.
In the past, I might have read a post like this and dismissed it as the empty pursuit of hedonism (especially since I was raised with a great deal of consciousness around sin), but that’s not what I’m talking about. This isn’t the blind pursuit of pleasure that obscures the needs of others and the injustices around me. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
What I’ve been learning, as I explore the themes of liberation and tenderness on this trip, is that an honest pursuit of joy that includes a disruption of the narratives around martyrdom and unworthiness, can be the most radical act of defiance against the oppressive systems that cause the injustices we’re all surrounded by. To love ourselves, to free ourselves, to live joyfully, and to treat ourselves and each other with tenderness is to dare to create alternatives to those systems that seek to bind us in their trauma and oppression.
We have been raised in systems that teach us to measure our own bodies against other bodies in order to prove our own worth. We’ve been taught by our schools how to measure our intellect and our athletic ability. We’ve been told by the media and by our institutions which bodies have more merit and which ones deserve punishment. We’ve been taught by capitalism how to determine our worth based on our productivity, wealth and status.
Performance measurement, perfectionism, and punishment… those are the themes that run deeply in these systems of hierarchy and oppression. All three are rooted in trauma and we pass that trauma from generation to generation, upholding the systems as we do so. We learned these patterns in our infancy and they’ve been so present all of our lives that we don’t even notice the ways we’ve internalized them. We are largely blind to the ways that they inform our own relationships with our bodies.
Diet culture is one of the ways we punish our own bodies and measure our performance. (For more on this, read Reclaiming Body Trust, by Hilary Kinavey & Dana Sturtevant.) Grind culture is one of the ways we sacrifice our bodies on the altar of capitalism and we internalize the perfectionism of that system. (For more on this, read Rest is Resistance, by Tricia Hersey.)
I’m no longer going to willingly participate in things like diet culture or grind culture. I’m intentionally choosing to liberate myself from those patterns of harm and I’m seeking a new path. I’m treating my body with tenderness and challenging myself every time I hear a voice in my head telling me I’m not worthy of that tenderness. I’m being tender with my fat belly, my crooked teeth, and my fussy feet that can only wear the most functional of footwear. I’m prioritizing rest and play. I’m letting my inner child speak the things that she wasn’t allowed to say. I’m honouring the longings that I’ve so studiously silenced in the past. I’m pulling away from social media whenever it sparks feelings of “not-enoughness”. I’m being especially kind to myself whenever I fumble.
I let go of a lot of physical baggage in August when I moved out of my house, and, in the months since, I’ve been working to let go of a lot of psychic baggage. I am carrying less martyrdom, less unworthiness, less self-criticism, less anxiety, and less trauma. Just as I hoped, I am living with more lightness and agility, in more ways than one.
I’ve been inspired by the writings of many wise teachers on this journey toward more liberation and tenderness. Here’s a list of some of the books that have especially inspired me:
If you, too, have a growing awareness that it’s time to liberate yourself from some of the patterns you’ve learned from your lineage and the systems you’re part of, and it’s time to treat yourself with more tenderness, perhaps you’d like to join me in Costa Rica in January for Liberation & Tenderness: A Gathering for Seekers, Lovers, and Dreamers? It will be a special time in a beautiful setting when we’ll collectively explore the burdens we no longer need to carry so that we can ALL live with more lightness and agility. We’ll do our best to put joy at the centre of our circle, while also honouring all of the feelings that might surface in the process.
I am leaping into liminal space. I have sold my house and this month I’ll be selling my furniture, packing my personal belongings into storage and heading off to Europe for a few months. After that, I plan to spend some time in Costa Rica, and then… I don’t know. I haven’t yet decided how long I will live a nomadic lifestyle and how (or where) I will eventually come to define “home”.
When people ask about my future plans, some are incredulous, some are baffled, and some express their longing to do something similar. It’s hard to explain a choice like this – to completely uproot myself at the age of 56 – because I’m not sure I entirely understand it myself. I just know that the house I have lived in for twenty-four years, where I raised my three daughters, doesn’t feel like my forever home, nor does the city I live in.
If you ask me on a bad day, when I’m a little terrified of not having a place to call home or a little overwhelmed with all of the work I still have to do this month, I might look at you with a blank look on my face and say that I have absolutely no idea why past-me thought this was a good idea.
If you ask me on a good day, though, I will tell you about how I have always wanted to live an adventurous life, how I want to be playful with the future now that I am no longer responsible for giving my children a home, how I feel like this northern prairie city has given me all that it can, how I now feel pulled toward the ocean, and how I want to test the limits of my capacity to be liminal, alone and still grounded (while also seeking out the people who will hold me in this liminal space). I will tell you about the ways in which I have crafted my life for just such a moment, building work that is not tied to a place and growing an international circle of friends and clients.
Last year, I wrote about how I was helping my daughters launch from my home into homes and lives of their own, and, in many ways, it now feels like I’m doing the same for myself. We are at different stages of our launching, each seeking what’s next in our lives. In archetypal language, they are moving to the next step beyond their Maiden phase, and I am moving from Mother to Crone. (Some say that there is a Queen phase before Crone, and that is likely more accurate for me. I also think my daughters need a name for the phase between Maiden and Mother – or an alternative to “Mother”. Admittedly, these archetypes are a little limited and rooted in an older view of womanhood, but the overall concept still has some relevance.)
When these transitions happen, whether in youth or in later adulthood, there is always some time spent in liminal space where the old story can be released and the new story can be born. That’s where I am now, feeling wobbly and unsettled. I wish that I could say that, after all of the experience I’ve had in liminal space (plus writing a book about it), I am surrendering to the process and walking through it with grace and acceptance. But that is only true in those moments when my higher self manages to soothe the reactivity of the scared little girl in me who believes she is only safe when the world feels familiar and predictable.
What I know to be true in these times of liminality is that there is value in ritual and ceremony – exercises that help us mark the transition, process the emotions, release our attachments, soothe the reactivity, and honour the growth. To that end, I have begun to think of the next six months as a form of pilgrimage or quest. It’s not clear what I am looking for yet, but isn’t that the nature of a quest? That we don’t find the answers until we learn what the right questions are? I’m still looking for the right questions.
To surrender to the quest, when all feels liminal and the outcome is hidden behind a shroud, takes a special kind of trust, and in many of my wobbly moments, I’m not sure I’ve found that kind of trust yet. My higher self tells me I have, but my scared inner child keeps insisting she’s delusional and not to be trusted.
Sometimes one has to leap in order to discover they have the courage for flight. Before I leap, at the end of this month when I hand the keys to this house to the next owner, I’ll keep working on soothing the inner child so that the courage doesn’t get lost in all of the noise.
As I prepare for what next month will bring me, I am finding that mini-pilgrimages help prepare me for the big one. To that end, I am doing things like visiting places that feel sacred and have meaning to me and listening, one more time, for the wisdom that the prairies have to offer. I am also setting off nearly every morning on my bicycle, to find a place near the river where I can sit with my journal to process all of the big feelings coming my way. (You can read about one of those morning journal sessions over at the Centre’s blog.)
There is something especially meaningful about my morning pilgrimages. Although I write in my journal in many other places, the wisdom that comes to me after I have cycled to my location, while I sit and watch the river flow by feels uniquely poignant. It helps to sustain me during these disruptive times. The movement of my pedaling feet helps to soothe my activated nervous system, the trees and the river speak to me when I’m still, and the return cycle helps me integrate what’s been spoken into my journal before I return home. This is the way of a pilgrimage – first there is the going out, then there is the pause for listening, and then there is the return journey.
A pilgrimage – even one as minor as a bicycle ride to the park – holds within it the capacity to give us back our imagination. That’s the nature of the “pause for listening” at the mid-point of a pilgrimage. After releasing whatever keeps us attached to the past, we are able to see through more clear and creative eyes, imagining that which was not accessible to us in the midst of the clutter of our old stories and patterns.
This pattern of Release, Receive, and Return also shows up in a labyrinth walk, and that’s another place I’m visiting regularly this month. When I visit, just as I do at the park with my journal, I sit at the centre, in solitude and silence, and I am able to hear the wisdom that my scared inner child was masking with all of her anxious noise. The journey to the centre is not unlike the soothing walks I used to take my daughters on when they needed emotional regulation.
I would love it, dear readers (especially those of you who are also in the midst of liminal space), if you could all join me at the labyrinth, but I know that it will only be possible for a few of you. If you can’t be there, perhaps you can find your own form of pilgrimage? Perhaps you can set out for the park with your journal? Or find a labyrinth in your neighbourhood? Or visit a place that feels sacred for you, to see what wisdom the land wants to impart on you? I believe that there is something especially powerful about people collectively seeking wisdom for what comes next, and I believe that’s especially needed in the world right now. What might happen if we all do it simultaneously in our own parts of the world?
Wherever we are in our lives, one thing is certain – we will continue to face transitions up until the day our bodies reach the final transition, from life into death. We can meet those transitions with fear, anger, and resistance as our guides and companions, or we can seek the wisdom of our higher selves and invite acceptance, courage and peace to accompany us. If you choose the second, as I do, perhaps a ritual like a labyrinth walk (or other form of pilgrimage) might help.
(Note: There is a free resource at the bottom of this post.)
“Not only did she survive, but she kept rewriting her stories until she found enough space in them for all of the wounded to be held.”
I’ve embarked on a new project recently. I’m writing a collection of personal essays that will eventually become my next book.
This year, I’m spending time in an intentional liminal space, taking time to imagine the next part of my life. With no more dependents, no partner, and no parents still alive, I have no need to live in the house or city where I currently live and can make choices solely for myself. I’m asking myself what I value, what I no longer need, and what matters most to me. As I look around my house, I’m imagining what kind of space I want next, which of my furniture suited the old part of my life but isn’t needed in the next, and which things I love too much to ever part with.
This seems like a good time to also consider the non-tangible things I want to bring with me into the next part of my life. One by one, I’m excavating the stories that shaped me into who I am – the heartaches, the triumphs, the traumas, and the failures – and I’m holding them up to the light to see what new things they have to reveal, and which parts are no longer relevant. It’s a little like digging through the attic for the family’s antiques to see if they should be polished, repurposed, given away, or discarded.
This isn’t an entirely new process for me – I did something similar when I got divorced and was intentional about turning my home from the sometimes-unsafe place it had been into a sanctuary of healing for my daughters and myself. This time, though, I’m doing it largely for myself (with only a little consideration for what support my daughters still need) and feel more free to share pieces of that journey with you, my readers (if I choose to).
Already, only a short way into the process, the stories are shape-shifting and becoming things I didn’t expect them to be. Some are taking on more nuance, depth, and meaning, and some are revealing to me that I’ve been stubbornly hanging onto tired old versions of them that should have landed on the rubbish heap.
One thing that’s surprising me is that this process is not only changing my view of myself, but also my view of the other people in some of the stories. In some cases, I see them more clearly for who they have always been instead of the way I so badly wanted them to be, and that’s allowing me to be clearer about my boundaries. In other cases, I’m better able to see the whole picture instead of just my part of it, and that allows me to extend a little more mercy.
The first story I took on was in some ways the hardest and in some ways the easiest. It’s the story of how I was raped as a twenty-two-year-old by a stranger who climbed through my window. It’s the hardest because it was pivotal in my life and it’s heartbreaking to more clearly see the many layers of trauma that came from carrying that story forward into my life and marriage. But it’s easiest because the only other player in the story is a stranger and I don’t have to worry about hurting anyone else in my life by telling my version of the story.
The line at the top of this post is from that piece. I wrote it after wrestling for several days with the story, when I realized that the process of writing had allowed me to hold my rapist differently. In the end, as I witnessed my own triumph, courage, and resilience in that narrative, I was also able to more gently witness the brokenness and pain that my rapist must have been tormented with (and is likely still tormented with, if he is still alive). How much hatred and shame must one be carrying to climb through a stranger’s window to fulfill their own sexual desires? That’s a burden I would never want to carry.
I am reminded, as I work with this story, that “my liberation is tied up with his” (in the words of Lilla Watson). If I want to be truly liberated, no longer carrying the shame and pain of that narrative, than I have to release my rapist from the story so that he has the potential to be free of it too. (That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be justice or accountability for such a crime – simply that the justice should be restorative, and healing should be the goal.)
As I said in the above quote, the rewriting process is allowing me to find enough spaciousness in those stories and in my attachment to them for all of the wounded to be held. Whether or not they choose to heal is none of my business – I simply release them to their own choices and find my own healing that requires nothing of them.
I am now working on other stories – the ones in which there are people who played longer and more complicated roles in my narrative. I don’t know yet how those stories will shape-shift, but I will hold myself tenderly so that I have the strength to make space in the stories for their healing too. I will not gloss over the hard things or try to justify other people’s actions – I will simply try to tell the truth in a liberated way that isn’t weighed down with bitterness or a need for revenge.
Though this post focuses primarily on the writing and rewriting of these stories, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the words on a page only represent part of the process. While writing is my first love, it’s best when it doesn’t stand alone, especially as a path toward healing. I also have regular therapy sessions with a therapist who incorporates somatic healing practices. And, as I’ve learned from modalities such as Narrative Therapy and Family Systems Constellations, I sometimes practice rearranging the story with physical objects that represent the players in those stories. I am also fond of rituals that help me mark and energetically move through important moments and shifts, like when I burn something that represents an old version of a story I’m releasing. (Perhaps I’ll share more about those practices in another post.)
A year from now, when I have (hopefully) a clearer picture of what this next part of my journey will be, I want to be on the journey with more lightness and liberation. This is not a perfect process (stories have a way of popping back up long after I think I’ve let them go) but I’m okay with the imperfection of it. Whatever emerges from my imperfect process, I hope to share it with you.
Are you currently in your own liminal space and want a tool that will help you? I’ve created a free resource that you can download (in PDF): Journal Prompts for the Liminal Space. (After you click on it, you can save it for future use.) And if you want even more, check out my online self-study program, Write for Love and Liberation.
I want to write something for you today, dear readers. I want it to be wise or gentle or provocative or joyful or challenging or peaceful. Or maybe it can be all of that at once – whatever you need it to be.
I want it to stir something in you, to touch a tender part of you, to make you feel less alone, to awaken your passion. I want it to sparkle with originality, to shine with inspiration, to bubble with truth.
I want my words to create a warm cave for you to crawl into, where you will feel cozy and safe. Or maybe they can be a torch that you will carry with you when you step into dark places. Or perhaps a buffet table overflowing with goodness that will nourish and delight you.
What do you need today, dear reader? I want my words to offer you a little of that.
I am sitting by my window, watching yellow leaves flutter in the breeze, hoping inspiration will land in my heart and make its way to my fingertips. I want this because I want to send you a gift, with your name embossed on it, to remind you that we are connected and there is a thread that stretches from my heart to yours. To remind you that whatever you are going through, there is another person, perhaps on the other side of the world, who’s thinking of you and wanting goodness for you.
But today the words aren’t coming. Today there is only the dappled sunlight through the leaves. Today there is a mother on the sidewalk tugging her small son behind her in a blue wagon. Today there is this cozy blanket keeping my bare feet warm. Today there is the silence of a home without daughters. Today there are geese flying over my house to their winter homes in the south. Today there are feathery clouds in a blue sky and squirrels gathering provisions for the winter.
So, today, I will sit here in this gentle moment and send you kindness that doesn’t need to be wrapped in words. I will send you hope and peace and a little of the magic I see outside my window. I will send you the courage and fortitude of the geese who have so far to travel. I will send you the joy of the little boy in the blue wagon. I will send you the resilience and resourcefulness of the squirrels gathering what they need for darker times. I will send you the peacefulness of the tree releasing its leaves to settle into the long rest of winter.
I will sit here in this sunlight and hope that some of the light will bounce off me and be reflected in your direction.
And I will hope that you, like the squirrels, can gather some of the goodness buried under my meagre words and store it up to feed you in the lean months.